One Step Forward: The Supremes Add Some Bite to Environmental Cost-Benefit Analysis

Alden Abbott —  29 June 2015

Today, in Michigan v. EPA, a five-Justice Supreme Court majority (Antonin Scalia, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts, and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito, with Thomas issuing a separate concurrence) held that the Clean Air Act requires the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to consider costs, including the cost of compliance, when deciding whether to regulate hazardous air pollutants emitted by power plants.  The Clean Air Act, 42 U. S. C. §7412, authorizes the EPA to regulate emissions of hazardous air pollutants from certain stationary sources, such as refineries and factories.  The EPA may, however, regulate power plants under this program only if it concludes that such regulation is “appropriate and necessary” after studying hazards to public health posed by power-plant emissions, 42 U.S.C. §7412(n)(1)(A).  EPA determined that it was “appropriate and necessary” to regulate oil- and coal-fired power plants, because the plants’ emissions pose risks to public health and the environment and because controls capable of reducing these emissions were available.  (The EPA contended that its regulations would have ancillary benefits (including cutting power plants’ emissions of  particulate matter and sulfur dioxide) not covered by the hazardous air pollutants program, but conceded that its estimate of benefits “played no role” in its finding that regulation was “appropriate and necessary.”)  The EPA refused to consider costs when deciding to regulate, even though it estimated that the cost of its regulations to power plants would be $9.6 billion a year, but the quantifiable benefits from the resulting reduction in hazardous-air-pollutant emissions would be $4 to $6 million a year.  Twenty-three states challenged the EPA’s refusal to consider cost, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit upheld the agency’s decision not to consider costs at the outset.  In reversing the D.C. Circuit, the Court stressed that EPA strayed well beyond the bounds of reasonable interpretation in concluding that cost is not a factor relevant to the appropriateness of regulating power plants.  Read naturally against the backdrop of established administrative law, the phrase “appropriate and necessary” plainly encompasses cost, according to the Court.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Thomas opined that this case “raises serious questions about the constitutionality of our broader practice of deferring to agency interpretations of federal statutes.”  Justice Elena Kagan, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Sonya Sotomayor, dissented, reasoning that EPA “acted well within its authority in declining to consider costs at the [beginning] . . . of the regulatory process given that it would do so in every round thereafter.”

Although the Supreme Court’s holding merits praise, it is inherently limited in scope, and should not be expected to significantly constrain regulatory overreach, whether by the EPA or by other agencies.  First, in remanding the case, the Court did not opine on the precise manner in which costs and benefits should be evaluated, potentially leaving EPA broad latitude to try to reach its desired regulatory result with a bit of “cost-benefit” wordsmithing.  Such a result would not be surprising, given that “[t]he U.S. Government has a strong tendency to overregulate.  More specifically, administrative agencies such as EPA, whose staffs are dominated by regulatorily-minded permanent bureaucrats, will have every incentive to skew judicially-required “cost assessments” to justify their actions – based on, for example, “false assumptions and linkages, black-box computer models, secretive collusion with activist groups, outright deception, and supposedly ‘scientific’ reports whose shady data and methodologies the agency refuses to share with industries, citizens or even Congress.”  Since, as a practical matter, appellate courts have neither the resources nor the capacity to sort out legitimate from illegitimate agency claims that regulatory programs truly meet cost-benefit standards, it would be naïve to believe that the Court’s majority opinion will be able to do much to rein in the federal regulatory behemoth.

What, then, is the solution?  The concern that federal administrative agencies are being allowed to arrogate to themselves inherently executive and judicial functions, a theme previously stressed by Justice Thomas, has not led other justices to call for wide-scale judicial nullification or limitation of expansive agency regulatory findings.  Absent an unexpected Executive Branch epiphany, then, the best bet for reform lies primarily in congressional action.

What sort of congressional action?  The Heritage Foundation has described actions needed to help stem the tide of overregulation:  (1) require congressional approval of new major regulations promulgated by agencies; (2) establish a sunset date for federal regulations; (3) subject “independent” agencies to executive branch regulatory review; and (4) develop a congressional regulatory analysis capability.  Legislative proposals such as the REINS Act (Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny Act of 2015), would meet the first objective, while other discrete measures could advance the other three goals.  Public choice considerations suggest that these reforms will not be easily achieved (beneficiaries of the intrusive regulatory status quo may be expected to vigorously oppose reform), but they nevertheless should be pursued posthaste.

Alden Abbott

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I am a Senior Legal Fellow at the Heritage Foundation. I write on antitrust, domestic and international regulatory policy, and law and economics. I am an Adjunct Faculty Member at George Mason Law School.

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