On June 29, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit (“the Fourth Circuit”) ruled that a West Virginia federal district court had erred in concluding that it had jurisdiction to consider a lawsuit filed by Murray Energy Corporation and its affiliates that sought to compel the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) to conduct evaluations of the Clean Air Act’s effects on employment. The case is styled Murray Energy Corp. v. EPA Administrator, Nos. 16-2432 et al. (4th Cir. June 29, 2017).

The federal district court for the Northern District of West Virginia ruled in October 2016 that the EPA had failed to fulfill its non-discretionary obligation under Section 321(a) of the Clean Air Act to conduct evaluations of loss or shifts in employment that might result from implementation of the Clean Air Act. (Section 321(a) provides that EPA Administrator “shall conduct continuing evaluations of potential loss or shifts of employment which may result from the administration or enforcement of the [Clean Air Act] including where appropriate, investigating threatened plant closures or reductions in employment allegedly resulting from such administration or enforcement.”)

The district court rejected EPA’s argument that the obligation was discretionary and its argument that the coal companies did not have standing to sue. The court also was not persuaded by EPA’s “new interpretation” of Section 321(a): EPA claimed it had complied with its requirements by preparing regulatory impact analyses and economic impact analyses as part of rulemaking processes, even though they were not prepared for the explicit purpose of complying with Section 321(a). The court said that EPA’s previous “consistent acknowledgement” that it had no employment evaluations “coupled with testimony from various experts that EPA’s claimed attempts do not comply” demonstrated that EPA had not fulfilled its duty. The court ordered EPA to file a plan specifically addressing how EPA would consider the effects of Clean Air Act regulation on the coal industry and a schedule for compliance within 14 days.

The Fourth Circuit, however, ruled that Section 321(a) of the Clean Air Act—did not “impose on the EPA a specific and discrete duty amenable to” judicial review under Section 304(a)(2) of the Clean Air Act. Rather, the Fourth Circuit said Section 321(a) imposed “a broad, open-ended statutory mandate” and that EPA was left with “considerable discretion” in managing this mandate, including the authority to decide “how to collect a broad set of employment impact data, how to judge and examine this extensive data, and how to manage these tasks on an ongoing basis”—a process that the Fourth Circuit said courts are “ill-equipped to supervise.”

The Fourth Circuit also distinguished Section 321(a)’s mandate from other Clean Air Act provisions that offered “discrete directives accompanied by specific guidance on matters of content, procedure, and timing.” Finally, the Fourth Circuit dismissed as moot an environmental group’s appeal of the district court’s denial of its motion to intervene.