High court expands eligibility for Clean Air Act exemption

Jessica Gresko
Associated Press

Washington – The Supreme Court on Friday said an expanded number of small refineries can seek an exemption from certain renewable fuel requirements.

The high court ruled 6-3 that a small refinery that had previously received a hardship exemption from complying with Clean Air Act requirements may obtain an “extension” of that exemption. That’s even if the refinery let a previous exemption granted by the Environmental Protection Agency lapse.

“It is entirely natural–and consistent with ordinary usage–to seek an ‘extension’ of time even after some lapse. Think of the forgetful student who asks for an ‘extension’ for a term paper after the deadline has passed, the tenant who does the same after overstaying his lease, or parties who negotiate an ‘extension’ of a contract after its expiration,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote for the majority. He was joined by most of the court’s conservatives and liberal Justice Stephen Breyer.

HollyFrontier’s Cheyenne Refinery in Wyoming

The court’s other two liberals, justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, joined a dissent written by the court’s newest justice, conservative justice Amy Coney Barrett. It is the first time the court has divided along gender lines since Barrett became a justice.

“The question in this case is straightforward: Does this provision limit EPA to prolonging exemptions currently in place, or does it enable EPA to provide exemptions to refineries that lack them? The statute’s text and structure direct a clear answer: EPA cannot ‘extend’ an exemption that a refinery no longer has,” Barrett wrote.

The case involved amendments to the Clean Air Act made in 2005 and 2007 that require transportation fuel sold in the United States to contain specified amounts of certain renewable fuels. Small refineries were exempt from that requirement until 2011.

The law also allowed the EPA to extend the exemption for individual small refineries if complying would subject them to “disproportionate economic hardship.”

Another section of the law says that a small refinery can ask the EPA for an extension of the exemption “at any time.”

President Joe Biden’s administration had argued that to get an extension a refinery had to have maintained a continuous exemption since 2011. The administration said that followed from the word “extension.”

But three small refineries told the court that the phrase “at any time” meant they did not have to maintain a continuous hardship exemption to seek one.

A federal appeals court had said a continuous exemption was required for an extension. The Supreme Court disagreed.

The case involves HollyFrontier’s Cheyenne Refinery in Wyoming, HollyFrontier’s Woods Cross Refinery in Utah and Wynnewood Refining in Oklahoma. They argued that siding with the Biden administration would eliminate the exemption for most small refineries in the United States.

HollyFrontier said in a statement after the ruling that it was “pleased that our longstanding arguments were today validated by the Supreme Court.”