The uncertain and often lengthy time to get permitting decisions is always near the top of the list of industry complaints. Section 165 of the Clean Air Act provides some relief by requiring certain permit decisions to be made within one year. Last week, in Avenal Power Center v. EPA, District Judge Richard Leon, in what may comfortably be described as a strongly-worded opinion, held that EPA may not circumvent the one-year limit on permit decisions by carving out from the one-year period the time spent by the Environmental Appeals Board reviewing EPA’s permit decision. 

In March 2008, Avenal Power filed an application for a PSD permit necessary to construct a new gas-fired power plant in the San Joaquin Valley in California. When EPA had not issued a decision within two years, Avenal sued. In February 2011, Gina McCarthy, head of EPA’s air office, announced that EPA would issue a permit decision by May 27, 2011. However, Judge Leon found EPA’s commitment to be “disingenuous,” because EPA's permit decision would be subject to EAB review, and EPA acknowledged that EAB review could take 6-18 months.

Judge Leon’s analysis was, in keeping with the statutory language, quite simple. Section 165 requires permit decisions within one year. EPA’s decision to provide appeals of permits to the EAB is a creature of regulation, not statute. The notion that EPA’s regulatory process could trump the statutory requirements is, to Judge Leon, “absurd.”

It is axiomatic that an act of Congress that is patently clear and unambiguous - such as this requirement in the CAA - cannot be overridden by a regulatory process created for the convenience of an Administrator, no matter how much notice and comment preceded its creation. "The rulemaking power granted to an administrative agency charged with the administration of a federal statute is not the power to make law. Rather it is the power to adopt regulations to carry into effect the will of Congress as expressed by the statute."

EPA apparently tried to persuade the court that section 165 is sufficiently ambiguous to give EPA discretion regarding whether it must squeeze the EAB process into the one-year time frame. Judge Leon’s response to what he called EPA’s “self-serving misinterpretation of Congress’s mandate”?

"Horsefeathers!"

One parochial note for my Massachusetts readers: Massachusetts DEP has recently announced that its permits – although labeled as “Final” – are not final until DEP's own internal adjudicatory hearing process has been completed. Massachusetts law has nothing comparable to Section 165 of the CAA, so MassDEP’s interpretation adds the insult of delay inherent in adjudicatory proceedings to the injury caused by the length of the normal permit process..