A split has formed between the United States Courts of Appeals for the Fifth and Tenth Circuits over requirements applicable to obtaining Title V permits pursuant to the Clean Air Act, 42 U.S.C. § 7401 et seq. (“the Act”). See Environmental Integrity Project v. EPA, —F.3d—, 2020 WL 4686995 (5th Cir. Aug. 13, 2020); Sierra Club v. EPA, 964 F.3d 882 (10th Cir. 2020).
The foundation for the disputes in both cases was the propriety of the past issuance of preconstruction permits, i.e., New Source Review (“NSR”) permits, which are issued pursuant to Title 1 of the Act. NSR permits must be obtained before building a new facility or modifying an old one, and they are issued by states through vehicles called “state implementation plans” (“SIPs”). A state must provide notice and an opportunity to comment before a preconstruction permit is granted. See 40 C.F.R. § 51.161(a).
The requirements of a NSR permit differ substantially depending upon whether the new source is deemed a “major source” or “minor source.” If “major,” then the review for a NSR permit and the requirements that must be met are detailed and difficult. If “minor,” then the bar is considerably lower. As a result, this designation is important to interested parties.
This is where Title V becomes important. Title V permits were added to the Act in 1990, well after the introduction of NSR permits in 1977. The purpose of Title V permits is to provide each source with a single permit that contains and consolidates all information needed to comply with the Act without imposing new substantive requirements, and they must be renewed every five years.
The permit must contain:
“enforceable emission limitations and standards, a schedule of compliance, a requirement that the permittee submit to the permitting authority, no less often than every 6 months, the results of any required monitoring, and such other conditions as are necessary to assure compliance with applicable requirements of this chapter, including the requirements of the applicable implementation plan.”
§ 7661c(a) (emphasis added).
The split concerns the meaning of “applicable requirements” when a Title V permit or renewal is sought after, sometimes even years after, having obtained a Title 1 permit. How are the Title 1 requirements incorporated into the Title V permit?
One interpretation is that “applicable requirements” means a Title V permit must incorporate all of the requirements in the previously granted Title 1 permit, but nothing more. Another is that it must include all of the requirements of the SIP, and not simply the requirements contained in the permit, and this means it includes the requirements for major NSR. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 7410(a)(2)(c), 7471, 7502(c)(5).
The difference in this interpretation is enormous. Under the former, a court only determines whether the Title V permit incorporates the requirements contained in the Title I permit as issued. Under the latter, a court can second-guess the issuance of the type of preconstruction permit, i.e., major or minor, at a later point in time.
The difficulty faced by the Fifth and Tenth Circuits is that § 7661c(a) does not define “applicable requirements.” The Tenth Circuit resolved this issue by looking to the definition of this term in 40 C.F.R. § 70.2, the regulation that implements § 7661c(a). Section 70.2 provides, in relevant part:
“Applicable requirement means all of the following as they apply to emissions units in a part 70 source…
(1) Any standard or other requirement provided for in the applicable implementation plan approved or promulgated by EPA through rulemaking under title I of the Act that implements the relevant requirements of the Act, including any revisions to that plan promulgated in part 52 of this chapter”
The Tenth Circuit reasoned “the applicable implementation plan” includes SIPs, and SIPs require major NSR.
The Fifth Circuit, by contrast, discussed (among other factors) the lack of a definition provided in the statute, legal authority indicating Title V does not impose new substantive requirements, and the EPA’s view before enacting § 70.2 that “the intent of [T]itle V is not to second-guess the results of any State’s NSR program.” Environmental Integrity Project, 2020 WL 4686995 at *3. It recognized that preconstruction permits are already subject to a notice and comment period and approval by the EPA, and adopting the petitioner’s view (the view adopted by the Tenth Circuit) could “make Title V a vehicle for the public to (again) challenge preconstruction permits” because it makes possible re-examining the substantive validity of underlying Title I preconstruction permits. Id. at 10. To private and other interested parties, this injects uncertainty in the permitting process because there is, resultantly, no finality to a permitting decision. A preconstruction permit issued in Year 1 could be re-litigated in Year 15 upon renewal of a Title V permit.
The Fifth Circuit decision is binding in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas, while the Tenth Circuit’s is binding in Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah, and Wyoming. It is possible the split will not be resolved until the United States Supreme Court addresses the issue. However, because the Fifth Circuit rested its decision on the EPA’s interpretation of a statute, i.e., § 7661c(a), and the Tenth Circuit rested its decision on the EPA’s interpretation of a regulation, i.e., § 70.2, it is also possible the Fifth Circuit could revisit the issue and reframe its approach if future arguments raised before the court focus more closely on the EPA’s interpretation of § 70.2. Foundation for this suggestion can be seen in footnote 6 of the Fifth Circuit’s opinion.