Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation v. Environmental Protection Agency
Supreme Court rejects state environmental agency’s argument that EPA exceeded the scope of its supervisory authority under the Clean Air Act by overruling the state’s permitting decision
Discussion & Analysis: Alaska’s largest zinc mining company applied to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (ADEC) for a permit under the Clean Air Act (the Act) to increase the amount of electricity generated (and, as a result, air emissions) at the Red Dog mine. Under the Act, ADEC must determine what the “best available control technology” is for construction of a new air-pollution source. After ADEC’s initial technology selection, ADEC subsequently changed course and accepted the mining company’s proposed alternative technology on the basis of unsubstantiated assertions that ADEC’s initial approach was not economically feasible. Over EPA’s objections, ADEC issued a permit using the second technology standard. EPA responded by issuing a stop construction order against the company and an order prohibiting the permit. ADEC and the company brought suit in the Ninth Circuit to challenge EPA’s authority to reject the state’s determination. The Ninth Circuit found for EPA, and ADEC appealed.
Against the backdrop of the Clean Air Act’s cooperative federalism scheme, Justice Ginsburg, writing for a five-justice majority, upheld EPA’s decision. The majority determined that although state agencies are “best positioned” to adjust for local environmental differences, the Clean Air Act grants to EPA a broad role in overseeing the reasonableness of state agencies’ technology determinations. The majority was careful to acknowledge the delicate balance of power between federal and state governments within the Act’s regulatory framework, holding that “only when a State agency’s [technology] determination is not based on reasoned analysis may EPA step in to ensure that the Act’s statutory requirements are honored.”
Justice Kennedy’s dissent, joined by Justices Rehnquist, Scalia, and Thomas, focused on perceived federalism concerns. The dissent stridently argued that EPA had exceeded its power in overruling ADEC’s determination, and that the majority’s approval had in effect relegated “states to the role of mere provinces or political corporations instead of coequal sovereigns.” The dissent insisted that the states’ “governing processes must be respected” and that “federal agencies cannot consign States to the ministerial tasks of information gathering and making initial recommendations, while reserving to themselves authority to make final judgments under the guise of surveillance and oversight.”
The Court’s decision in ADEC v. EPA upholds the long-standing balance of power between the federal government and the states that Congress envisioned under the Clean Air Act. Like many federal environmental laws, the Act offers states the opportunity to administer regulatory programs that take into account local interests while also meeting federal standards. While the job of maintaining meaningful federal oversight in the face of state discretion is vested in the U.S. EPA, balancing the authority of the two is often, as was the case here, a task left to the federal courts.
Key Opinion: Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation v. Environmental Protection Agency, 540 U.S. 461 (2004).