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Law School Case Brief

Sierra Club v. Costle - 211 U.S. App. D.C. 336, 657 F.2d 298 (1981)


In reviewing the merits of the Environmental Protection Agency's ("EPA") variable standard, a reviewing court's function is to ensure that the agency, given an essentially legislative task to perform, has carried it out in a manner calculated to negate the dangers of arbitrariness and irrationality in the formulation of rules for the future. If a reviewing court finds the EPA's choice of variable control to be arbitrary and capricious then it will set the standard aside. The reviewing court does not consider policy issues de novo, substituting its judgment for that of the agency, but evaluates whether the agency has exercised reasoned discretion, considering all of the relevant factors and demonstrating a reasonable connection between the facts on the record and the resulting policy choice. If the agency's decision is not based on substantial evidence then it will be held to be arbitrary and capricious.


In June 1979, respondent Environmental Protection Agency ("EPA") revised the performance standards governing emissions control of new coal-burning power plants under the Clean Air Act ("CAA"). The new standards increased pollution controls for new coal-fired electric power plants by tightening restrictions on emissions of sulfur dioxide and particulate matter. Petitioner Sierra Club filed an action in federal district court seeking judicial review of the new performance standards claiming that the EPA exceeded its scope of authority under the CAA and that the variable controls were too lax. On the other hand, petitioner electric utilities claimed that the controls were too rigorous and that the procedure did not provide sufficient notice for an adversarial hearing.


Did the EPA exceed its authority under the CAA when it revised the performance standards governing emissions control of new coal-burning power plants?




The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit held that the CAA did not prohibit a sliding scale for the reduction of sulfur dioxide emissions, and that the EPA carefully analyzed the kinds of technology that could be used in reducing emissions, considered public comments, identified critical parameters, and revised its mode. The court further noted that the EPA had authority to encourage technological innovation, and as such, its decision to impose a revised variable standard for emissions control of new coal-fired electric power plants was reasonable. The court further ruled that there were no due process violations because the variable standard was known to be a serious possibility from the start, and the public had actual notice and an adequate explanation of the changes in the basis of the final rule.

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