The Elephant in the Room or the Elephant in the Mousehole? The Legal Risks (and Promise) of Climate Policy Under §115 of the Clean Air Act
Resources for the Future Discussion Paper 16-41-REV
54 Pages Posted: 14 Oct 2016 Last revised: 27 Dec 2016
Date Written: October 31, 2016
Climate policy in the United States is near an inflection point. With Congress uninterested in new legislation, focus at the federal level for most of the last decade has been on the Clean Air Act, but whether regulation under that old statute can successfully address carbon emissions remains unclear. Under President Obama, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has focused on two core programs — vehicle emissions standards and the Clean Power Plan, aimed at fossil fuel power plants. But with the latter of these programs under legal challenge, and both falling short of the flexible, economy-wide policy many believe is necessary, academic and policy attention is turning to an additional Clean Air Act provision. §115 of the Clean Air Act is aimed at international air pollution, and its advocates suggest it could be a vehicle to achieve deeper emissions reductions, perhaps including nationwide cap and trade or a carbon tax. This paper critically examines §115 and its supporters’ claims, concluding that it holds great promise but also comes with legal risks. A court considering the inevitable legal challenge to §115 regulation might deem it a legal “mousehole” that Congress could not have intended to carry the weight of the climate policy “elephant,” or it might rule that §115 is limited to “conventional” pollutants rather than extending to carbon. There are strong counterarguments to both of these, but each remains a real legal risk and has likely been underappreciated by supporters of §115. Even if §115 survives such facial challenges, other legal challenges (if successful) could prevent it from being able to match its advocates’ ambitions. Most of these narrower challenges appear relatively weak, however. §115’s promise makes it worth pursuing, but with caution.
Keywords: climate, climate change, Clean Air Act, Clean Power Plan, §115, EPA
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