The Administration Restrains Itself

The Trump administration has recently signaled a retrenchment in agency actions. These voluntary actions curtail the administrative agency from exercising powers or authority beyond what may be provided to it under applicable statutes and regulations.

The attorney general issued a memorandum to all Department of Justice components in November stating that the department will no longer engage in the practice of issuing guidance documents that effectively create rights or obligations binding on persons or entities outside the executive branch without undergoing the rulemaking process. The memorandum barred any guidance documents of general applicability and future effect that are designed to advise parties outside the executive branch about legal rights and obligations falling within the department’s regulatory or enforcement authority.

When issuing guidance documents, the department was instructed, among other things, to identify the document as guidance and clearly state that they have no legally binding effect on persons or entities outside the federal government. Also, guidance documents should not be used for the purpose of coercing persons or entities outside the federal government into taking any action or refraining from taking any action beyond what is required by the terms of the applicable statute or regulation.

As to the Department of Justice, this will end the practice of issuing guidance documents that have the effect of binding anyone outside of the government, unless the proper rulemaking procedures are followed. It is unclear whether the memorandum applies outside of the Department of Justice. Regardless, in addition to its public efforts, EPA has quietly taken two actions that voluntarily restrict its ability to inject itself into state permitting issues.

First, in a memorandum posted on EPA’s website in December relating to the pre-construction analysis of New Source Review applicability, Administrator Scott Pruitt announced that EPA will no longer delve into, or “second-guess,” the pre-construction applicability analysis submitted or performed by an applicant. Thus, when an applicant performs the applicability analysis in accordance with the calculation procedures in the regulations and follows the applicable recordkeeping and notification requirements, that owner or operator has met the regulations. In such cases, EPA will not substitute its judgment for that of the applicant’s emissions projections. Essentially, this action reverses a prior policy in which EPA asserted the right to require additional analysis despite the applicant’s projections or compliance with calculation protocols.

Secondly, Administrator Pruitt issued two orders in October denying petitions for objections to Title V air permits issued by state agencies. Under the Clean Air Act, any person may petition the EPA to object to the terms and conditions within a state-issued Title V permit. Title V permits usually contain requirements from the pre-construction Prevention of Significant Deterioration (PSD) Program. Over the last several years, citizen groups have successfully petitioned EPA to issue objections to PSD permit conditions included in Title V permits. These two decisions state that the petition for objection process is not the proper forum or method to object to PSD requirements. Instead, the state’s administrative and judicial review process should be utilized.

These actions are seen by many as a departure from the recent past, in which agencies wielded authority without appropriate limitations. Certainly, they suggest that agencies will now act in a more restrictive manner.

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