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Indiana joins other states challenging EPA regulatory authority

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Indiana has joined 11 other states in filing a lawsuit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, taking the unusual tactic of challenging the federal government’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases rather than challenging the rule itself.

The complaint, filed Aug. 1 in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, asserts the federal agency overstepped its authority by attempting to regulate greenhouse gases from existing power plants. At the center of the dispute is a section of the federal code which was passed by Congress and signed by the president without two separate amendments being reconciled between the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate.

iplcoalplant-1-15col.jpg Indianapolis Power & Light’s Harding Street plant will stop burning coal in 2016. (IL Photo/Eric Learned)

That Indiana is among the states bringing this lawsuit is not surprising. The Hoosier State is heavily dependent on coal-fired power plants and is one of the highest consumers of coal among its neighbors.

Any EPA regulation tightening greenhouse gas emissions would mean higher electric bills for both industry and households in Indiana.

The states challenging the EPA’s authority have significant hurdles to clear. By arguing the agency is exceeding its authority, they

are trying to convince the court to take the uncommon step of stopping a proposed rule rather than a final rule. In addition, they are trying to persuade the court to hear their suit even though it was filed well after the deadline.

Still, Jeff Stemerick, associate at Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP, was not quick to dismiss the states’ chances. Should they prevail, there would be serious consequences for the federal government.

“I think if (the states) win,” Stemerick said, “I don’t think the EPA could do much to curb emission from existing power plants.”

Source of the dispute

The lawsuit stems from a settlement agreement the EPA reached in 2010 with a collection of states, mostly from the Northeast, and environmental groups including the Sierra Club.

Under the agreement, the EPA proposed rules under Section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act for regulating carbon dioxide emissions from new and modified power plants. The agency also proposed rules under the same section for existing power plants.

coal-bars.gifIndiana and its co-petitioners contend regulating power plants already in operation was a step too far.

Specifically, the states argue the EPA is prohibited from regulating emissions from existing sources under CAA Section 111(d) because it has already placed limits on those sources under CAA Section 112.

“It’s a Hail Mary,” said Joanne Spalding, senior managing attorney at the Sierra Club, referring to the lawsuit.

Spalding expects the D.C. Circuit will dismiss the lawsuit “in the blink of an eye” because the court typically does not consider challenges to proposed agency actions. It is unlikely the court will stop the EPA from making the rule.

In addition, Spalding said, the states are attacking the settlement but, regardless of the settlement agreement, the federal agency has an independent legal obligation to follow the law. And the law requires the EPA to regulate new as well as existing sources of carbon dioxide.

Amy Romig, partner at Plews Shadley Racher & Braun LLP, said the states have made a solid legal argument in their lawsuit. The petition is asking the court to provide guidance to clear up confusion surrounding the Clean Air Act.

“I really do think that this will result in an important decision saying how the various sections of the Clean Air Act interact with each other,” Romig said.

The states argue for a plain reading of Section 111(d). They bolster their claim by citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2011 decision in American Electric Power Co. Inc., v. Connecticut. In a footnote, the court held the EPA cannot use Section 111(d) if the “existing stationary sources of the pollutant” are regulated under the “hazardous air pollutants’ program” of Section 112.

The conflicting interpretation of the Clean Air Act arises from 1990 amendments. Both chambers of Congress passed separate amendments to Section 111(d) but they were never reconciled during the conference committee. Both were enacted into law.

The Senate amendment excludes the regulation of any pollutant “included on a list published under Section 112(b).” Conversely, the House amendment excludes the regulation of any pollutant which is “emitted from a source category which is regulated under Section 112.”

The EPA maintains that since the two versions create an ambiguity, it may “reasonably construe” it has the authority to regulate greenhouse gases under Section 111(d).

Coal country

Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller said the state’s lawsuits against the federal government, including this one over greenhouse gases, are a way of preserving the balance between Washington, D.C., and state governments. In a letter sent to Indiana newspapers, Zoeller said the lawsuits are not policy debates but rather are testing whether the federal government’s actions are permissible under law.

The state’s residents might see the lawsuit as more of a pocketbook issue.

Although the economy and the increased use of natural gas have eaten into Indiana’s coal consumption, the state depends primarily on coal to generate electricity. According to statistics from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Indiana gets more than 80 percent of its electricity from coal.

“To comply with carbon limits, no question that will cost money,” said Douglas Gotham, director of the State Utility Forecasting Group at Purdue University. “That will be reflected in higher electric rates than we would have otherwise.”

While consumers do not like paying more for utilities, many do not like the pollution that often pours from coal plants’ smoke stacks.

Recently, Indianapolis Power & Light responded to such criticism when announcing it plans to stop burning coal at its complex on Harding Street in 2016. The decision came after numerous complaints from residents and environmental groups over the pollutants which accounted for about 88 percent of Marion County’s toxic industrial emissions, according to The Associated Press.

Other plants around the state have been retired as they have outlived their usefulness, Gotham said. Also, retrofitting them to meet the current environmental regulations is too expensive.

Even with the closures, Indiana will still be a coal state. The amount of investment and money needed to significantly reduce Indiana’s dependence on coal “would be kind of astounding,” Gotham said.

Too late?

Before getting to its arguments over the EPA’s authority, the states have a significant procedural hurdle to clear. The petitioners filed their lawsuit well beyond the 60-day limit to comment on the 2010 settlement agreement.

Stemerick said the states made a “pretty good argument” in explaining their reason for filing beyond the deadline. They contend the issue ripened only when EPA announced its “flawed view of its Section 111(d) authority.”

Whether the lawsuit is too late to challenge the 2010 settlement is a close call, Romig said. Especially since the American Electric Power decision was not handed down until 2011.

Even if the lawsuit is dismissed, Romig said the fight against greenhouse gas regulation will not die. The final rule will likely be challenged, although the effort might be more limited because the rule will have been finalized.•

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  1. Where may I find an attorney working Pro Bono? Many issues with divorce, my Disability, distribution of IRA's, property, money's and pressured into agreement by my attorney. Leaving me far less than 5% of all after 15 years of marriage. No money to appeal, disabled living on disability income. Attorney's decision brought forward to judge, no evidence ever to finalize divorce. Just 2 weeks ago. Please help.

  2. For the record no one could answer the equal protection / substantive due process challenge I issued in the first post below. The lawless and accountable only to power bureaucrats never did either. All who interface with the Indiana law examiners or JLAP be warned.

  3. Hi there I really need help with getting my old divorce case back into court - I am still paying support on a 24 year old who has not been in school since age 16 - now living independent. My visitation with my 14 year old has never been modified; however, when convenient for her I can have him... I am paying past balance from over due support, yet earn several thousand dollars less. I would contact my original attorney but he basically molest me multiple times in Indy when I would visit.. Todd Woodmansee - I had just came out and had know idea what to do... I have heard he no longer practices. Please help1

  4. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  5. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

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