California Supreme Court Upholds Air Quality Regulations Defended by SMW

The South Coast Air Basin infamously experiences some of the worst air pollution in the nation, particularly ozone pollution, commonly known as smog.  Federal and California law require the District to enact regulations that will bring the Basin into compliance with maximum ozone levels designed to protect public health.  To advance this goal, the District enacted Rule 1113, which regulates emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), a precursor of ozone, from certain paints and other coatings.  Coatings are the single largest stationary source of VOCs in the South Coast Air Basin. 

When the District amended its Rule in 2002, the American Coatings Association sued to invalidate the amendments, claiming that the District did not show that the Rule was “achievable” as required by the governing state air quality statute.  After the trial court upheld the Rule, the court of appeal reversed in part.  It held that the District may not adopt a rule requiring existing pollution sources to comply with emissions standards unless those standards are achievable using pollution control technology existing at the time the rule is enacted.  The fact that standards for existing sources are usually effective years after adopted to allow time for compliance made no difference.  Under this unprecedented standard, the court of appeal invalidated portions of the Rule that it found were not immediately achievable. 

The Supreme Court accepted the District’s petition for review and reversed the court of appeal. In a unanimous opinion authored by Justice Goodwin Liu, the court agreed with the District’s statutory interpretation.  It held that regulations will be achievable when based on technologies that do not currently exist but are reasonably anticipated to exist by the compliance deadline.  In other words, the District may adopt technology-forcing regulations to achieve air quality standards. The Court also found that there was sufficient evidence in the record to support the District’s conclusion that the Rule was achievable by the compliance deadline. 

The decision is significant not only because it upheld an important rule designed to improve air quality in the South Coast Basin, but also because it provided further guidance on the deference that courts should show to public agencies acting in a quasi-legislative capacity.