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Obama’s hidden climate leverage – Section 115 of the Clean Air Act.

February 26, 2016

Over the past six months, President Barack Obama has cemented his climate legacy with the release of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan and the execution of the Paris climate agreement. But, as even he admits, neither of those policies will be enough to avert the worst effects of climate change.epa logo

The U.S. — and the rest of the world — must do much more according to this February 1, 2016 Politico article by Brian H. Potts, a partner at the international law firm, Foley & Lardner.

Fortunately for the president, there’s a new way for him to right the U.S.’ greenhouse gas trajectory before leaving office: Buried in the Clean Air Act is an extremely powerful mechanism that effectively gives EPA carte blanche to tell states to make drastic cuts to their emissions

This provision, which can now be used thanks to the completion of the Paris climate deal, raises important questions about national sovereignty and states’ rights — questions that Republicans would undoubtedly use to try and kill such a proposal.

A few weeks ago, a group of 13 prominent environmental law professors and attorneys released a 91-page report outlining this new approach, which would allow EPA to use existing laws to quickly and efficiently regulate all pollution sources, in all states — not just power plants and cars. The experts concluded, “It could provide one of the most effective and efficient means to address climate change pollution in the United States.”

Here’s how it works: A rarely used provision of the Clean Air Act — Section 115 — gives EPA the authority to mandate that every U.S. state cut its emissions by whatever amount the agency determines is necessary to protect public health and welfare if two things happen.

First, EPA must receive a report or studies from an “international agency” showing that U.S. air pollution is anticipated to endanger public health or welfare in a foreign country. The many reports put out by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change over the past few decades meet this requirement. The U.S. is one of the top greenhouse gas emitters in the world, and its pollution undoubtedly endangers public health and welfare in many other countries.

Second, EPA must determine that the foreign country harmed by U.S. pollution has given the U.S. “essentially the same rights with respect to the prevention … of air pollution occurring in that country.” In other words, there needs to be reciprocity. That’s where the newly signed Paris agreement becomes important. The Paris agreement satisfies this reciprocity requirement because there are now nearly 190 countries planning to reduce their emissions, at least in part, to protect one another’s health and welfare.

Critics of this proposal will undoubtedly argue that the Paris agreement does not fulfill this reciprocity requirement because the deal is not legally binding. But nothing in Section 115 requires such enforceability, and in any event, even if just one of the 190 countries enacts laws implementing the agreement, that should be enough to satisfy the requirement.

With both boxes in Section 115 checked, EPA now has free rein to use the section to require blanket greenhouse gas reductions from the states. The agency could leave all of its prior greenhouse gas rules — for cars, power plants, landfills, transportation fuels, and oil and gas wells — in place, for example, and issue a new rule ordering every state to cut its pollution by 28 percent from 2005 levels by 2025, which is what the U.S. has promised to do under the Paris agreement.

What this means to you
Section 115 of the Clean Air Act is a very powerful mechanism that effectively gives EPA carte blanche to tell states to make drastic cuts to their emissions.

MIRATECH can help
Contact MIRATECH to learn about emission control options for your engines.