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Case of Exxon Mobil vs EPA

by Expert Prof Leigh | 18 Jan 2018

Facts: In 1988, Clark County, Nevada started an oxygenated fuel program to reduce the level of Carbon Monoxide emissions during wintertime. The said program was undertaken since it was classified as a serious non-attainment area for Carbon Monoxide. It initially required that all fuel sold should consist of 2.5% oxygen. In 1991, it increased the requirement to 2.7% oxygen. Despite this program, Clark Country remained a non-attainment area for Carbon Monoxide emissions. In 1997, the Clark Country amended its plan to require 3.5% minimum oxygen content. This was submitted by the state of Nevada to the EPA for its approval. At this stage, the EPA only received one comment on the proposed rule from the Western States Petroleum Association.

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The EPA adopted its final rule approving the 3.5% oxygen content proposed by the Clark County. According to the EPA, the gasoline in states in non-attainment areas must contain a minimum oxygen level of 2.7% but they are allowed to choose higher minimum oxygen content. It argued that there is nothing in the text of the Clear Air Act itself nor in its legislative history that indicates that the Congress intended to prevent the states from adopting higher requirements and that such a prohibition would conflict with the general structure of the Clean Air Act. On the other hand, the petitioners raise the argument that the states cannot adopt a minimum standard for oxygen level higher than 2.7%.

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Issue: whether the approval by EPA of Clark County’s program requiring that gasoline sold in the months of October and March should contain at least 3.5% oxygen does not conflict with the provisions of the Clean Air Act.

Ruling: The Court of Appeals concluded that the EPA's approval of the Clark County's requirement that gasoline sold in Clark County in the months October to March must contain at least 3.5 percent oxygen content by weight, does not conflict with, and is not preempted by any provision of the Clean Air Act.

Analysis: The Court of Appeals arrived at the conclusion that the Clark County’s requirement that the gasoline sold in the months of October through March should contain at least 3.5% oxygen is in accord with the legislative history and does not conflict with the provisions of the Clean Air Act.

The first basis for such a conclusion is its examination of the legislative history of the adoption of the oxygenated fuel standard. An examination of the history of the enactment of the Clean Air Act reveals that it was not the Legislatures intention to limit the authority of the states to regulate the oxygen level of gasoline.

It can be gleaned from the statements of Senator Wirth that the states had the authority to go beyond the 2.7% minimum, to wit: “As I understand it, the amendment offered by the Senator from New Jersey would not set this issue in concrete. It would require that oxygenated fuels sold in these non-attainment areas contain 2.7 percent oxygen. If a few years down the road it makes sense for a State or a city like Denver, to set a higher minimum oxygen content, that possibility always exists. All we are saying with this amendment is that we don't want to set a national minimum oxygen content of 3.1 percent.”

Also, this conclusion is supported by the fact that at the time of the adoption of this Act, Denver, Albuquerque and Phoenix already had a minimum oxygen content requirement of 3.1% which means that it was not the purpose of the Clear Air Act to limit the oxygen level to 2.7%

Secondly, the argument that the Clark County’s oxygen standard is in conflict with and is preempted by the provision of the Clean Air Act is erroneous. The purpose of the Clean Air Act is to force the states to discharge its duty in regulating air pollution so as to ensure that they will achieve the minimum air quality standards. Since it is possible that it may be necessary for the states to set a higher standard for oxygen level in order to reduce Carbon Monoxide emission, it would be contrary to the spirit and intent of the Clean Air Act if we will interpret it as prohibiting the state from exceeding the national minimum oxygenate standards.

Also, the pre-emption argument does not hold any ground considering that under the broad concept of the police power of the state, each state is allowed to pass laws and regulations aimed at protecting the environment as well as protecting the health and safety of its citizens. In this case, raising the oxygenate level in gasoline to 3.5% will help reduce the Carbon Monoxide emissions and protect the environment.

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