December 12, 2017

Archives for September 25, 2017

Tenth Circuit: EPA Exceeded Statutory Authority in Denying Small Refinery Exemption

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals published its opinion in Sinclair Wyoming Refining Co. v. United States Environmental Protection Agnecy on Tuesday, August 15, 2017.

In 2005, in an amendment to the Clean Air Act (CAA), Congress directed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to operate a Renewable Fuel Standards Program (the RFS Program) to increase oil refineries’ use of renewable fuels. However, if smaller refineries would suffer a disproportionate economic hardship in compliance with the RFS Program, the statute allows the EPA to grant exemptions on a case-by-case basis.

The program induces refineries to produce renewable fuel products (e.g., ethanol), and if they cannot, to purchase biofuel-generated credits from refineries that can. However, Congress was aware that the RFS Program might disproportionately impact small refineries because of the inherent scale advantages of larger refineries and, therefore, Congress created three classes of exemptions to protect these smaller refineries.

First, the statute exempted all small refineries from the RFS Program until 2011.

Second, Congress directed a study to be done to determine whether compliance with the RFS Program would impose disproportionate economic hardship on small refineries after the program’s implementation. After this study was conducted, it was found that Sinclair’s two refineries, among others, would suffer disproportionate economic hardship. The EPA then extended the blanket exemption for two more years.

Third, Congress provided a process for small refineries to petition the EPA at any time for an extension of the initial exemption for reason of disproportionate economic hardship. In evaluating the petitions, the EPA must consult with the Department of Energy (DOE) and consider other economic factors. It is this third exemption that is at issue in this case.

After successfully receiving a blanket exemption to the RFS Program until 2013, Sinclair then petitioned the EPA to extend their exemption. The EPA denied the petitions, finding that both refineries appeared to be profitable enough to pay the costs of the RFS Program. Sinclair filed a petition for review with the Tenth Circuit, which was granted.

The Tenth Circuit reviewed Sinclair’s petitions under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). The APA finds agency action unlawful if it is in excess of statutory jurisdiction, authority, or limitations, in short of statutory right.

In order to decide if the EPA’s interpretation of the statute constitutes the force of law, the Circuit followed an analysis set forth in Skidmore v. Swift & Co., 323 U.S. 134 (1994). In the Skidmore case, the Court explained that the weight courts provide an administrative judgment will depend upon the thoroughness evident in the agency’s consideration, the validity of its reasoning, its consistency with earlier and later pronouncements, and all those factors which give it power to persuade, if lacking power to control.

The Circuit found that Congress did not authorize the EPA to promulgate regulations for the small refinery exemptions, the EPA conducted its interpretation via informal adjudication, the decisions were not made by the head of the EPA, but by a mid-level agency official, the decisions hold no precedential value for third parties, nor have any precedential value for even a refiner, and the EPA’s analysis is not a longstanding practice, but is only a few years old.

Thus, the Circuit concluded that Congress did not intend the EPA’s interpretation of “disproportionate economic hardship” to have the force of law. The Circuit then analyzed Congress’s grant of power to the EPA to administer the RFS Program, beginning with the statutory text.

Although Congress did not define the term “disproportionate economic hardship” in the statute, the provision makes clear that Congress provided the EPA with a comprehensive directive in analyzing and evaluating RFS Program exemptions. The Circuit then turned to whether the EPA’s decisions comport with Congress’s directive to grant exemptions when a small refinery demonstrates that complying with the RFS Program would cause it to suffer a disproportionate economic hardship.

Prior to considering a refinery’s petition for a hardship exemption, the EPA receives a recommendation on the petition from DOE. DOE created a scoring matrix for determining its recommendations for granting exemptions. The relevant part of DOE’s matrix assigns scores for three “viability” metrics: (1) whether the cost of compliance would reduce the profitability of the firm enough to impair future efficiency improvements; (2) whether individual special events have had a temporary negative impact on the ability of the refinery to comply; and (3) whether compliance costs are likely to lead to shutdown of the refinery.

Here, DOE applied its matrix and recommended the EPA provide a 50 percent waiver of the RFS Program’s requirements for both of Sinclair’s refineries. The EPA rejected DOE’s recommendations and denied both petitions.

The EPA concluded that “viability” meant only that program costs threatened the long-term survival of the refinery, not a short-term comparison to other industry actors. The Circuit held that the EPA’s long-term threat of closure requirement is inconsistent with the plain meaning of disproportionate economic hardship. The EPA takes the holistic evaluation required by Congress and morphs it into a single question: a threat of closure inquiry. This narrow viability evaluation is also not supported by contextual clues in the statutory scheme.

The Circuit concluded that by reading a necessary viability requirement into its statutory directive to evaluate a refinery’s petition for exemption from the RFS program based on disproportionate economic hardship, the EPA exceeded its statutory authority.

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals GRANTED Sinclair’s petition for review, VACATED the EPA’s decisions for Sinclair’s refineries, and REMANDED for further proceedings consistent with its opinion.

Tenth Circuit: Unpublished Opinions, 9/22/2017

On Friday, September 22, 2017, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued no published opinion and six unpublished opinions.

Suarez v. Anthem, Inc.

Muhtorov v. Choate

Duran-Quintanilla v. Sessions

United States v. Devries

Allen v. People

United States v. Freeman

Case summaries are not provided for unpublished opinions. However, some published opinions are summarized and provided by Legal Connection.