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On July 3, 2017, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia issued an opinion which vacated U.S. EPA’s stay of certain provisions of new source performance standards (“NSPS”) relating to fugitive emissions of methane and other pollutants by the oil and natural gas industries. After U.S. EPA originally published these NSPS rules in 2016, several industry groups sought reconsideration of these rules pursuant to Section 307(d)(7)(B) of the Clean Air Act (“CAA”). On April 18, 2017, U.S. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt found that the petitions raised at least one objection to the rule that warranted reconsideration and on June 5, 2017, just two days prior to the deadline requiring regulated entities to conduct initial methane monitoring in order to identify potential equipment leaks, U.S. EPA agreed to stay the rule for 90 days while the rule was being reconsidered. Then, on June 16, 2017, U.S. EPA published a notice of proposed rulemaking seeking to extend the stay for an additional two years. Several environmental groups filed an emergency motion challenging U.S. EPA’s decision to stay the rules for 90 days.
In a split decision, the D.C. Circuit agreed that a stay pursuant to Section 307(d)(7)(B) of the CAA was only allowed if the following specific requirements of the rule are met: (1) it was impracticable to raise the objections now being raised during the notice and comment period and (2) the objection is of central relevance to the outcome of the rule. The Court found that both requirements were not met, noting that the “administrative record thus makes clear that the industry groups had ample opportunity to comment on all four issues for which EPA granted reconsideration, and indeed, that in several instances the agency incorporated those comments directly into the final rule.” The Court also addressed industries’ argument that U.S. EPA’s decision to reconsider the rule was not a final agency action. The Court agreed, over Judge Brown’s dissent, that although U.S. EPA’s decision to reconsider the rule was not a final agency action, U.S. EPA’s decision to stay the rule was tantamount to amending or revoking the rule and was in fact reviewable. It is important to note that notwithstanding the Court’s decision that U.S. EPA improperly stayed the NSPS rules pursuant to Section 307(d)(B)(7) of the CAA, the Court specifically stated that “nothing in this opinion in any way limits EPA’s authority to reconsider the final rule and to proceed with its June 16 [notice of proposed rulemaking]," which seeks to stay the effective date of the NSPS for two years.
This decision may provide some insight as to how the Court intends to deal with a separate pending lawsuit filed by environmental groups which seeks to challenge U.S. EPA’s decision to stay revisions to the CAA’s risk management program; U.S. EPA relied on Section 307(B)(7) to justify its decision to stay those rules as well.