(EDF Attorney Ben Levitan co-authored this post)
Two weeks from today, on September 27th, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit will hear oral argument on the Clean Power Plan — our nation’s first-ever limits on dangerous, climate-destabilizing carbon pollution from power plants. Fossil fuel power plants are the country’s single largest source of this pollution, and among the world’s largest contributors to climate change.
As we’ve noted before, the Clean Power Plan has a solid legal foundation and is supported by many of the nation’s leading legal experts. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has issued similarly flexible, cost-effective pollution limits for decades under Republican and Democratic administrations alike, resulting in generations of healthier Americans and enormous economic benefits. Nevertheless, opponents of the Clean Power Plan — the coal industry, coal-intensive power companies and allied states — will almost certainly claim on September 27 that EPA has overstepped its bounds.
One particular claim you can expect to hear is that EPA does not have the authority to regulate carbon pollution from existing power plants under section 111 of the Clean Air Act because EPA has already regulated those same power plants — for entirely separate toxic substances like mercury, arsenic, acid gases and other hazardous air pollutants — under section 112 of the Clean Air Act. This bizarre theory is akin to arguing that a restaurant that has complied with health standards can’t be subject to the fire code.
This “pick your poison” legal theory is antithetical to the public health foundations of the Clean Air Act and utterly self-serving to the interests of polluters. Under this reading of the Clean Air Act, some dangerous pollution could be emitted in unlimited quantities no matter how much harm it inflicts upon our health and environment.
But opponents of the Clean Power Plan haven’t always sung this same tune. There are several prominent examples of Clean Power Plan opponents conceding EPA’s authority to regulate carbon pollution from existing power plants — sometimes even citing section 111 of the Clean Air Act, the very statutory provision that is the basis for the Clean Power Plan.
Here are some instances in which the Clean Power Plan opponents and their legal counsel have manifestly conceded EPA’s authority to limit the carbon pollution from existing power plants:
- Concession #1: Attorney Peter Keisler, Representing Coal-Based Power Companies Before the U.S. Supreme Court, Concedes EPA’s Authority to Regulate Carbon Pollution from Existing Power Plants under Section 111 of the Clean Air Act
In American Electric Power v. Connecticut (2011), several states and land trusts sought to limit climate pollution from several power companies under federal common law. In the Supreme Court, the power companies successfully argued that action under common law was unwarranted because Congress had already given EPA the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under section 111.
During oral argument in the case, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg asked Peter Keisler — an attorney who represented the power companies in American Electric Power v. Connecticut and who is slated to present oral argument in the Clean Power Plan case — whether EPA had the authority to regulate climate pollution from existing power plants. Keisler responded that EPA did have authority — under the very same section that opponents of the Clean Power Plan now claim prohibits EPA from regulating those emissions.
We believe that the EPA can consider, as it’s undertaking to do, regulating existing nonmodified sources under section 111 of the Clean Air Act, and that’s the process that’s engaged in now. It’s announced that it will propose standards in the summer and complete a rulemaking by May. Obviously, at the close of that process there could be [Administrative Procedure Act] challenges on a variety of grounds, but we do believe that they have the authority to consider standards under section 111. (Attorney Peter Keisler, from transcript of oral argument in American Electric Power v. Connecticut, 564 U.S. 410 (2011) (No. 10-174), page 15, emphasis added)
Three years later, Keisler again appeared before the Supreme Court representing coal companies and coal-based power companies. This time he was challenging EPA’s authority to require limits on the climate pollution under a separate Clean Air Act program. During oral argument in this case, Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA, Justice Ginsburg asked Keisler to identify which sections of the Clean Air Act provide EPA with authority to regulate climate pollution. Keisler responded by citing the Court’s discussion of section 111 in American Electric Power v. Connecticut, where the central question was the regulation of climate pollution from existing power plants.
I think most critically, Your Honor, it includes the new source performance standards program of Section 111 that this Court discussed in Connecticut v. AEP. And this is a very important point, because [Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA] is not about whether EPA can regulate greenhouse gases from stationary sources. This Court held that it could under this program in Section 11. (Attorney Peter Keisler, from transcript of oral argument in Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA, 134 S. Ct. 2427 (2014) (No. 12-1146), page 18, emphasis added)
Crucially, this exchange occurred in February 2014 — more than two years after EPA issued the emission standards for mercury and air toxics that opponents now claim deprive EPA of the authority to issue the Clean Power Plan.
- Concession #2: American Public Power Association and National Rural Electric Cooperative Association
The American Public Power Association and the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association — current petitioners against the Clean Power Plan — expressly supported Keisler’s position in American Electric Power v. Connecticut. Their amicus brief in that case specifically cited section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act — the same section under which EPA issued the Clean Power Plan — as a source of EPA’s authority to regulate the carbon pollution from existing power plants.
[The Clean Air Act] authorizes EPA to list categories of ‘stationary sources’ — i.e., non-mobile emissions sources, such as power plants — that ‘cause[ ], or contribute[ ] significantly to, air pollution which may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare,’ and to establish federal performance standards for new or modified sources that fall within the listed category. [Clean Air Act] § 11(b)(1)(A), (B). It requires states to issue performance standards for existing stationary sources in some circumstances, subject to EPA-promulgated guidelines. Id. § 11(d). (Brief of Amici Curiae Edison Electric Institute, American Public Power Association, and National Rural Electric Cooperative Association in American Electric Power v. Connecticut, 564 U.S. 410 (2011), pages 6 and 7, emphasis added)
The brief goes on to note that section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act requires the establishment of emission standards for:
air pollutants that are not regulated under other provisions of the Clean Air Act, such as [greenhouse gases] (Brief of Amici Curiae Edison Electric Institute, American Public Power Association, and National Rural Electric Cooperative Association in American Electric Power v. Connecticut, 564 U.S. 410 (2011), page 9)
This is directly contrary to the position these same opponents have taken in the Clean Power Plan litigation, in which they have written that EPA lacks authority to regulate carbon pollution even though that pollution is not regulated under other Clean Air Act programs.
- Concession #3: Hunton & Williams’s “Clean Air Handbook”
The law firm Hunton & Williams has long represented coal-related interests that are currently challenging the Clean Power Plan. In recent legal filings, Hunton & Williams attorneys have made the same argument — that EPA lacks the authority to regulate carbon pollution from power plants because it already regulated those power plants for mercury and other hazardous air pollutants under section 112.
But in late 2014 — almost three years after EPA had issued its section 112 regulations, and two years before the recent legal filings — Hunton & Williams released a new edition of its “Clean Air Handbook” which correctly explained that EPA could regulate the same pollution source under both sections 111 and 112.
Section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act governs the regulation of emissions from existing sources of air pollutants that are not listed as criteria air pollutants pursuant to section 108 of the Act or listed as hazardous air pollutants under section 112. (Hunton & Williams, Clean Air Handbook 4th ed., page 211, (2014) emphasis added)
Hunton & Williams’s explanation in its 2014 Handbook is entirely consistent with EPA’s approach — their explanation indisputably permits the Clean Power Plan’s limits on carbon emissions from power plants, which aren’t listed under sections 108 or 112. Yet an attorney from Hunton & Williams is expected to present the exact opposite position at the Clean Power Plan oral argument, claiming that EPA can’t regulate the same source under sections 111 and 112.
In Hunton & Williams’ 2014 Handbook, this notion was relegated only to an endnote and described as an alternative “legal argument [that] exists.” (page 222, endnote 230 of the handbook)
- Concession #4: Clean Power Plan Opponent Peabody and Its Attorney Laurence Tribe Endorsed EPA’s Expertise in Regulating Carbon Pollution from Existing Power Plants
Despite EPA’s long, successful history of regulating pollution from power plants, Clean Power Plan opponents argue in their briefs that EPA lacks the expertise to make the policy decisions that went into the Clean Power Plan. Yet previously, in American Electric Power v. Connecticut, the same industry litigants urged the courts themselves not to set climate pollution limits for power plants under the federal common law, arguing vigorously that EPA was more qualified to do so.
Peabody Energy Corporation’s brief in American Electric Power v. Connecticut, written by Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe, explained that the Supreme Court had recognized EPA’s regulatory expertise:
This Court has opined, in recognizing EPA’s regulatory jurisdiction, that the judiciary has ‘neither the expertise nor the authority to evaluate [climate change] policy judgments …’ Massachusetts v. EPA, 549 U.S. 497, 533 (2007). (Brief of Amici Curiae Peabody Energy Corporation, Consumer Energy Alliance, and others in American Electric Power v. Connecticut, 564 U.S. 410 (2011), page 11, emphasis added, brackets in brief.)
Tribe ultimately removed his name from that brief, but he continues to represent Peabody in litigation against the Clean Power Plan.
- Concession #5: Peter Keisler Again
Peter Keisler, the attorney for the coal-based power companies, stated at oral argument for American Electric Power v. Connecticut that Congress created an orderly statutory framework under the Clean Air Act for EPA to regulate carbon pollution from power plants.
[T]here’s a reason that this issue is so fraught and difficult in international negotiations and at the EPA and in the halls of Congress, and that’s because it requires policymakers to allocate burdens among critical social goods in favor of important environmental considerations … [I]n a big intractable issue like this, Congress can often create an orderly framework for consideration within a statutory context, which it has done in part by enacting the Clean Air Act. [The Clean Air Act is implemented by EPA.] (Attorney Peter Keisler, from transcript of oral argument in American Electric Power v. Connecticut, 564 U.S. 410 (2011) (No. 10-174), page 64 and 65, bracketed sentence added)
What do all these contradictory statements reveal? Opponents of climate progress will tie themselves in knots coming up with legal arguments to oppose any limit on carbon pollution. Their opposition isn’t just to the Clean Power Plan, but to any required reductions in climate-harming pollution from existing fossil fuel power plants.
As communities across America confront tragic flooding, heat waves, rising sea levels, and other grim impacts of climate change, we need to overcome this obstructionism and work together to forge solutions. We need the Clean Power Plan to help protect our families and communities from the clear and present danger of climate change — we do not need a legalistic shell game to evade accountability and avoid common-sense solutions.