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Court Grants EPA’s Motion to Vacate and Remand Final Rule on “Strengthening Transparency in Pivotal Science Underlying Significant Regulatory Actions and Influential Scientific Information”
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By Lynn L. Bergeson and Carla N. Hutton

On February 1, 2021, the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana granted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) January 31, 2021, unopposed motion to vacate and remand its January 6, 2021, final rule on “Strengthening Transparency in Pivotal Science Underlying Significant Regulatory Actions and Influential Scientific Information” (86 Fed. Reg. 469).  EDF v. EPA, No. 4:21-cv-03-BMM.  On January 11, 2021, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), Montana Environmental Information Center (MEIC), and Citizens for Clean Energy (CCE) filed suit against EPA, claiming that the January 6, 2021, final rule was unlawful and that EPA’s decision to make the final rule effective on publication was unlawful.  On January 27, 2021, the court granted summary judgment to the plaintiffs, finding that EPA did not provide good cause to exempt the final rule from the Administrative Procedure Act’s (APA) 30-day notice requirement.  The court stated that “EPA’s decision to make the Final Rule immediately effective on publication was ‘arbitrary, capricious’ and ‘otherwise not in accordance with law.’”  In its January 31, 2021, motion, EPA states based on the court’s conclusion that the final rule constitutes a substantive rule and that EPA “lacked authorization to promulgate the rule pursuant to its housekeeping authority.”  According to EPA, where EPA lacked the authority to promulgate the final rule, “remand without vacatur would serve no useful purpose because EPA would not be able to cure that defect on remand.”  EPA notes that because the final rule was in effect for less than a month, and it had not applied the rule in any circumstance while the rule was in effect, “there would be no disruptive consequences in remanding and vacating the rule.”

Prior to EPA’s motion to vacate and remand the final rule, on January 20, 2021, President Joe Biden signed an Executive Order (EO) on Protecting Public Health and the Environment and Restoring Science to Tackle the Climate Crisis.  According to the EO, it is the policy of the Biden Administration “to listen to the science; to improve public health and protect our environment; to ensure access to clean air and water; to limit exposure to dangerous chemicals and pesticides; to hold polluters accountable, including those who disproportionately harm communities of color and low-income communities; to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; to bolster resilience to the impacts of climate change; to restore and expand our national treasures and monuments; and to prioritize both environmental justice and the creation of the well-paying union jobs necessary to deliver on these goals.”  The EO directs all executive departments and agencies to review immediately and, as appropriate and consistent with applicable law, take action to address the promulgation of federal regulations and other actions during the Trump Administration that conflict with the Biden Administration’s national objectives, and to commence work immediately to confront the climate crisis.  The EO calls for the heads of all agencies to review immediately “all existing regulations, orders, guidance documents, policies, and any other similar agency actions (agency actions) promulgated, issued, or adopted between January 20, 2017, and January 20, 2021, that are or may be inconsistent with, or present obstacles to,” the Biden Administration’s policy.  For any identified actions, the EO directs the heads of agencies to “consider suspending, revising, or rescinding the agency actions.”  In addition, for certain specified agency actions, the EO states that the head of the relevant agency “shall consider publishing for notice and comment a proposed rule suspending, revising, or rescinding the agency action within the time frame specified.”  The specified agency actions include EPA’s January 6, 2021, final rule on “Strengthening Transparency in Pivotal Science Underlying Significant Regulatory Actions and Influential Scientific Information.”

As reported in our January 11, 2021, memorandum, the origin of EPA’s January 6, 2021, final rule is rooted in legislative proposals more clearly intended to challenge important regulatory requirements, particularly related to EPA’s air program.  We predicted that the final rule would likely be among the first items subject to reversal or “clarifying” guidance making it consistent with previously established science policies (see Bergeson & Campbell, P.C.’s (B&C®) Forecast 2021 memo).  With Democratic control of both houses of Congress, there might also be attempts to repeal the rule via action under the Congressional Review Act (CRA) of recently promulgated regulations.