Don’t Blame EPA for What the Clean Air Act Requires

At a recent press conference touting House GOP plans to reduce regulatory burdens on business, members of Congress expressed dismay that the Environmental Protection Agency may tighten the National Ambient Air Quality Standard for ozone (aka urban smog) without considering the economic costs. Rep. Vicki Hartzler (R-Mo) remarked:

I received this week a letter from the EPA regarding a letter I’ve written them about some of their rules and they wrote here, quote, “Thus, the agency is prohibited from considering costs in setting these standards.” Now in business we do a cost benefit analysis before we make policy changes. Washington should as well.

Rep. Hartzler is right to be concerned about the consequences of tightening the ozone NAAQS any further, but the EPA can’t be faulted for not considering costs. As EPA Assistant Administrator Gina McCarthy explained in a letter to Rep. Hartzler:

Under the Clean Air Act, decisions regarding the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) must be based solely on an evaluation of the scientific evidence as it pertains to health and environmental effects. Thus, the agency is prohibited from considering costs in setting the NAAQS. But cost can be – and is – considered in developing the control strategies to meet the standards (i.e. during the implementation phase).

McCarthy is correct. The EPA has been prohibited from considering costs when establishing NAAQS for the past three decades. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit first interpreted the Clean Air Act to preclude such cost consideration in Lead Industries Association v. EPA in 1980, and the Supreme Court reaffirmed this interpretation of the Act in Whitman v. American Trucking Associations in 2001. As noted regulatory zealot Justice Scalia explained for a nearly unanimous court:

Section 109(b)(1) instructs the EPA to set primary ambient air quality standards “the attainment and maintenance of which … are requisite to protect the public health” with “an adequate margin of safety.” 42 U.S.C. § 7409(b)(1). Were it not for the hundreds of pages of briefing respondents have submitted on the issue, one would have thought it fairly clear that this text does not permit the EPA to consider costs in setting the standards. The language, as one scholar has noted, “is absolute.” D. Currie, Air Pollution: Federal Law and Analysis 4—15 (1981). The EPA, “based on” the information about health effects contained in the technical “criteria” documents compiled under §108(a)(2), 42 U.S.C. § 7408(a)(2), is to identify the maximum airborne concentration of a pollutant that the public health can tolerate, decrease the concentration to provide an “adequate” margin of safety, and set the standard at that level. Nowhere are the costs of achieving such a standard made part of that initial calculation.

One may quarrel with Justice Scalia’s interpretation of the Clean Air Act — I, for one, did some work for parties advocating a different interpretation in this litigation — but it is the law of the land, and the EPA is not to be faulted for following the law. If members of Congress do not like this, they have but one solution: Amending the Act.

This is not an isolated example. The EPA is frequently attacked for doing what they are required to do by existing federal statutes or judicial interpretations thereof. Numerous members of Congress and outside groups have accused the EPA of a “power grab” for proposing to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act. The EPA’s GHG regulations will be quite costly and extensive, while producing minimal environmental benefits (as I detail here). Yet such regulation is clearly authorized, if not required, by the Supreme Court’s decision in Massachusetts v. EPA.

Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) wrote the EPA in February urging it to “reconsider” the regulation of GHG emissions from utilities and other large stationary sources under the Clean Air Act. Senator Brown may have avoided the inflammatory rhetoric of his Republican colleagues, but his error was the same. Given the EPA’s conclusion that GHG emissions contribute to global warming that may be reasonably anticipated to threaten health or welfare, it has no choice but to impose the regulatory measures to which Senator Brown objects. Here again, there are plenty of reasons to oppose the EPA’s initiatives, but the EPA is not to blame. Rather, the Agency is doing what the Clean Air Act (as interpreted by the courts) requires.

If members of Congress disapprove of the EPA’s emission-control initiatives, they need to take responsibility for the laws on the books, and not scapegoat the EPA. However overzealous the EPA may be sometimes, most of its recent Clean Air Act initiatives are plainly authorized, if not required, under federal law. Indeed if the agency is to be faulted, it is for rewriting the Act to allow for less expansive regulation than the statutory text clearly requires. It was Congress that delegated expansive regulatory authority to the EPA, and Congress that enacted provisions making some regulatory initiatives obligatory. If members of Congress don’t like that, it is up to Congress to fix it.