Statement on the U.S. Supreme Court's Ruling of June 25th on EPA's "Bubble" Policy to Control Air Pollution

[EPA press release - June 26, 1984]

The Supreme Court today affirmed the authority of EPA and state air pollution control agencies to let facilities use a "bubble concept" to meet Clean Air Act requirements more quickly and inexpensively where they add new industrial processes or modify existing ones.

The court reversed a lower court's decision, holding that such "modifications" need not be subject to the Act's most stringent, time-consuming requirements for new "emissions sources" anywhere in the country, if plant-wide emissions do not increase by significant amounts. Capping developments that began in 1979, the court went on to note that EPA and the 32 states that had adopted this 'bubble approach' properly balanced in the Act's twin goals of economic growth and environmental progress in ways which "serve...environmental objectives as well."

The "bubble concept" generally allows factories, refineries and other sources of air pollution to treat all their stacks and vents as though they are enclosed by a giant bubble, getting more pollution control on stacks that are easy to control in exchange for reduced controls on those that are expensive to control, so long as overall emissions are reduced by the same amount.

"The bubble doesn't change environmental requirements," said Joseph A. Cannon, EPA's Assistant Administrator for Air Programs. "It simply makes it easier for industry to meet those requirements by using cheap reductions instead of costly ones. That's what people do when they shop for a car or go to the supermarket. It can stretch our pollution control dollars, and get faster compliance than if we required every auto plant or steel mill or print shop to do exactly the same thing.

"Under our 1982 Emissions Trading Policy, EPA and states have approved or are reviewing over 200 bubbles for existing factories," Cannon added. "These bubbles average savings of $3 million each, and over 60 percent produce more reductions than traditional regulation. They speed environmental progress, with energy savings and less litigation."

Since August 1980 EPA has also allowed use of a bubble for new modifications in areas whose air quality is better than national standards. The rule affirmed today extends that approach to new modifications in areas that have not yet met national standards, where such modifications will not increase a plant's emissions or slow pollution control efforts.

"I want to stress that this decision represents an opportunity for better environmental progress," said Alvin L. Alm, EPA's Deputy Administrator. "New modifications still require effective pollution controls, and states that adopt this bubble approach must assure that rapid progress towards healthy air continues.

"But the decision encourages replacement of old, high-polluting facilities with new, clean, productive ones. It gives EPA and states more flexibility to focus their resources on factory changes that could produce large increases in pollution, instead of requiring detailed review of thousands of changes that make little or no environmental difference. It says there are many ways to improve air quality, and that EPA can change its mind if it finds a better way to skin that cat.

"We think the bubble is a sound approach, and we're gratified that the court has approved its use in this first judicial test of its many applications.

"The court seems to have given EPA more room to implement the Act creatively in ways that enhance air quality, instead of requiring us to squeeze every possible pound of pollution out of new facilities that often don't contribute to the problem," Alm concluded. "We intend to use that authority responsibly, and to make sure that environmental progress is accelerated through its use."