Air and Atmospheric Quality Policy (1/28/13)

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Current air and atmospheric quality policies are based on the Clean Air Act of 1990.  In recent years amendments have been added to the act, but there has been no major overhaul of the air quality legislation for almost three decades. The Clear Air Act defines emission standards for power plants, motor vehicles, aircrafts, and defines measures for pollution prevention and ozone protection as well. Air and atmospheric quality encompasses all range of policy relating to pollution, ozone protection, acid rain, and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. A Supreme Court decision in 2007 suggested that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) could regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act, and a 2009 positive endangerment finding of GHG by the EPA has given them justification to do so. However, there is much division in Congress about whether this should be allowed. In January 2011 EPA enacted controversial permit requirements for newly built and modified facilities that emit large amounts of GHG, such as power plants and refineries. There were numerous attempts through legislation, court rulings, and executive requests to delay and block EPA regulations on GHG emissions during the 112th Congress.

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Previous Action

Court Upholds EPA Emission Rules (06/12)
On June 26, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit upheld the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) greenhouse gas (GHG) emission regulations under the Clean Air Act (P.L.101-549). The case, Coalition for Responsible Regulation, Inc., Et Al. v. Environmental Protection Agency was argued in late February 2012 and decided on June 26, 2012.  

Petitions challenging the timing rule, which set standards for stationary emitters, and the tailoring rule, which requires major polluters to obtain permits for GHG emissions, were dismissed by the court. One petition challenged the finding that greenhouse gases are hazardous to human health, referred to as the “endangerment finding,” and another challenged the “tailpipe” rules, which set emissions standards for automobiles.

The endangerment finding resulted from the Supreme Court's 2007 Massachusetts v. EPA ruling which found that GHG could be regulated under the Clean Air Act. The court’s rulings on the other petitions were influenced by the precedent of this case as well.

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The Clean Air Act is the law that defines EPA's responsibilities for protecting and improving the nation's air quality, including stratospheric ozone layer. The Clean Air Act, which was last amended in 1990, requires the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to set National Ambient Air Quality Standards for six pollutants considered harmful to the environment and public health—nitrogen dioxide, ozone, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, and lead. According to the EPA, about 90 million Americans live in areas that contain pollutant levels higher than the standards. In order to improve air quality around the country, recent efforts have sought to amend the Clean Air Act by dramatically decreasing emissions for two of the six pollutants (sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides) and initiating the first mercury power plant emission restrictions. While not disagreeing with the need to reduce pollutant levels, opponents also want to include regulating emissions of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas (GHG).

In April 2007 the U.S. Supreme Court case Massachusetts vs. EPA (No. 05-1120) found that GHG are indeed pollutants under the Clean Air Act and deemed the EPA refusal to regulate vehicular GHG emissions unlawful. The Clean Air Act mandates that the head of the EPA monitor air pollutants "which in his judgment cause, or contribute to, air pollution which may reasonably be anticipated to endanger the public health or welfare".  Furthermore, the ruling stated that the EPA could regulate GHG under the Clean Air Act if it made an endangerment finding regarding GHG. In 2009, the EPA issued such a finding, saying that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are indeed threatening to public health and welfare.

On January 2, 2011 EPA enacted controversial new permitting requirements for the largest stationary sources for greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). The requirements are for new and modified facilities that emit more than 100,000 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year. The regulations have not been well received in Congress. Numerous bills were introduced in 112th Congress to delay EPA regulations including the Cement Sector Regulatory Relief Act of 2011 (H.R. 2681); EPA Regulatory Relief Act of 2011 (H.R. 2250) to reduce pollution from boilers and incinerators; and the Transparency in Regulation Analysis of Impacts on the Nation Act of 2011 (H.R. 2401) to block regulation on coal-fired power plants. EPA regulations faced challenges in the courts with the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruling against the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, but ruled in favor of the EPA’s regulations on GHG emissions under the Clean Air Act. The Supreme Court ruled that individual states cannot try to limit GHG emissions from power companies under federal common law of public nuisance as they prefer regulations stem from the EPA rather than the courts. President Obama requested a delay on implementing new ozone regulations.

In February 2012, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the U.S. will join the U.N. Environmental Program’s Climate and Clean Air Coalition to Reduce Short-Lived Climate Pollutants.  The coalition aims to reduce pollution from methane, black carbon, and hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) emissions.


Contributed by Wilson Bonner, Geoscience Policy Staff; Kimberley Corwin, 2013 AAPG/AGI Spring Intern.

Background section includes material from AGI's hearings for Clean Air in the 112th Congress and AGI's Monthly Review.

Please send any comments or requests for information to AGI Geoscience Policy.

Last updated on January 28, 2013