Last Friday, in NRDC v. EPA, the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit struck down parts of EPA’s Phase 2 rule for achieving compliance with the ozone NAAQS. The most important part of the ruling was the Court’s conclusion that EPA could not rely on compliance with the NOx SIP Call to satisfy the requirement that sources in an ozone nonattainment area demonstrate achievement of reasonably available control technology, or RACT. The basis for the decision was the Court’s conclusion that the plain language of the relevant portions of the CAA did not allow use of a cap-and-trade program to substitute for the source-specific compliance requirements imposed by the statute.

In this case, § 172(c)(1) of the CAA “requires that nonattainment areas achieve ‘such reductions in emissions from existing sources in the area’ as can be achieved by the adoption of RACT.” For the Court, this was simple and dispositive.

Thus, the RACT requirement calls for reductions in emissions from sources in the area; reductions from sources outside the nonattainment area do not satisfy the requirement.

In other words, a cap and trade program won’t do, if it allows sources to avoid explicit statutory requirements. There is nothing in the Act that precludes layering a cap-and-trade program on top of RACT requirements – but that would defeat the purpose of the cap-and-trade program, which is to allow emissions reductions to be made wherever they can be achieved most cost-effectively. To require minimum reductions at all facilities precludes such cost-effective decisions.

Frankly, while I’m a fan of cap-and-trade programs, the decision is neither unreasonable nor surprising, after the decision in North Carolina v. EPA striking down the parallel provision in the Clean Air Interstate Rule. As courts like to say (especially when Supreme Court confirmation hearings are under way), their job is not to make good policy; it is to interpret and enforce the law. If Congress wants to expand the role of cap-and-trade programs, it knows how to do so.

Of course, the elephant in the room is climate change legislation. If Congress does not enact a bill, North Carolina v. EPA and NRDC v. EPA circumscribe EPA’s discretion in implementing a cap-and-trade program for greenhouse gases under existing law. I take the point made by Administrator Jackson and environmentalists that, if no one wants to regulate churches and schools, then EPA can probably figure out a way to do so. However, exercise of such discretion is not the same as promulgating rules that will ensure that those facilities which are the subject of regulation have the flexibility to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the most cost-effective manner possible.

Is anyone in Congress listening?