The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a proposed rule on September 5, 2014 that would prevent states from including affirmative defenses in their Clean Air Act state implementation plans (SIPs) for emissions exceedances that occur during startup, shutdown and malfunction (SSM) periods. The proposal would also require several states to revise their existing SIPs so as to conform with EPA’s new approach to affirmative defenses.
EPA’s proposal modifies an earlier February 2013 proposal and arises from a Sierra Club petition asking EPA to revise roughly 40 different SIPs. Under the new proposal, EPA would largely grant Sierra Club’s petition rather than granting it only as to certain types of affirmative defenses, as EPA had previously proposed. A list of the states affected by the proposed rule can be found on EPA’s rulemaking website. If the rule is finalized as proposed, those states will have 18 months from the date of the final rule to submit revised SIPs.
EPA has long allowed the use of affirmative defenses in SIPs, with at least one court holding that it has the authority to do so. But in April of this year, the D.C. Circuit held that the plain language of the Clean Air Act prohibits EPA from including affirmative defenses in its own non-SIP regulations under Clean Air Act Section 112. EPA’s September 5 proposal extends the logic of that decision to the SIP context. But regulated parties should also be aware that the new proposal provides a good illustration of EPA’s “Next Generation Compliance” initiative in action. The proposal is consistent with the agency’s stated desire to simplify its regulations by reducing the number of exceptions contained in those regulations.
Regulated parties may fear that under EPA’s new proposal they will be unduly penalized for emissions exceedances caused by events beyond their control. They can take some comfort in understanding that even without affirmative defenses, the Clean Air Act’s penalty provisions do allow the agency and the courts some discretion in setting penalty amounts. Thus, going forward, facility owners that experience an emission exceedance because of events beyond their control can still argue, on a case-by-case fact-specific basis, that it would be inappropriate to impose any penalties.
Comments on EPA’s proposal are due by November 6, 2014, and, under the terms of a settlement agreement with Sierra Club and WildEarth Guardians, EPA is required to issue a final rule by May 22, 2015.