On July 30, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals handed down an opinion finding that EPA was within its authority to approve in part and to disapprove in part the most recent revisions to the state implementation plan (“SIP”) that Texas submitted to EPA in 2006 [Luminant Generation Co. LLC v. EPA, No. 10-60934 (5th Cir. July 20, 2012)]. EPA's action, effective on January 10, 2011, allowed an affirmative defense for unplanned startup, shutdown, and malfunction (“SSM”) events, but it disapproved the portion of the SIP revision providing an affirmative defense against civil penalties for planned SSM events.

Several groups of Environmental Petitioners (including the Environmental Integrity Project, Sierra Club, Environmental Texas Citizen Lobby, Citizens for Environmental Justice, Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, Air Alliance Houston, and Community In-Power and Development Association) challenged EPA’s partial approval of that part of the SIP which created an affirmative defense for unplanned SSM events. The State of Texas and several Industry Petitioners and Intervenors (Luminant Generation Company, Sandow Power Company, Big Brown Power Company, Oak Grove Management Company, Texas Oil & Gas Association, Texas Association of Business, Texas Association of Manufacturers, and Texas Chemical Council) challenged that part of EPA’s action which disapproved the creation of an affirmative defense against civil penalties for planned SSM events.

A three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit determined that EPA's decision was valid unless "arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law." Applying that standard of review and citing myriad cases upholding the premise that a state is afforded "broad authority to determine the methods and particular control strategies [it] will use to achieve the statutory requirements," including consistency with the Clean Air Act and the attainment and maintenance of NAAQS of the Act, (referenced throughout the opinion as Chevron deference), the court found the EPA's administrative decision-making process had been "consistently formal and deliberative prior to and during its promulgation of final rules under the Act." In particular, the court cited the reasoning EPA set forth in the final rule to explain its decision approving the portion of the state's SIP which "squarely adheres to its past policy guidance" and observed that EPA’s decision was "the result of a formal and deliberative decision-making process." The court also found that the EPA's interpretation of the Clean Air Act was based on a permissible construction of the statute because the agency found: (1) the affirmative defense for unplanned SSM activity was narrowly tailored; (2) the affirmative defense did not interfere with the Act's requirement that a SIP's emission limitations be continuous or with the state's ability to enforce emission limitations; and (3) the affirmative defense did not interfere with any other applicable requirement of the Act, including the attainment of national ambient air quality standards (NAAQS). The court was not persuaded by Environmental Petitioners' arguments, in part because the wording of the affirmative defense excludes all emissions that could "cause or contribute to an exceedance of the NAAQS, PSD increments, or a condition of air pollution" and thereby was not inconsistent with EPA's past policy and guidance, referencing a 1999 Memorandum of Steven A. Herman relating to excess emissions during SSM events.

In evaluating the state’s and Industry Petitioners' arguments, the court – after applying virtually the same analysis and criteria – found that EPA had not been arbitrary or capricious in disapproving an affirmative defense for planned SSM events. In reaching that conclusion, the court relied in large part on the premise that such events and excess emissions from such events were "avoidable." Further, in upholding the disapproval and denying Texas’s and Industry Petitioners’ request for relief, the court observed that EPA's reasons provided for the disapproval "conform to minimal standards of rationality."

First published on the website of the American College of Environmental Lawyers