Home » Case Summaries » 2017 » Sierra Club v. North Dakota, 868 F.3d 1062 (9th Cir. 2017).


Sierra Club v. North Dakota, 868 F.3d 1062 (9th Cir. 2017).


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North Dakota, along with several other states (the States), appealed a Consent Decree[1] between the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and both the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council (Sierra Club). In 2013, EPA failed to meet its statutory deadline under the Clean Air Act (CAA)[2] to issue a national ambient air quality standard (NAAQS) for sulfur dioxide. The Sierra Club and the States sued to compel agency action. Subsequently EPA and the Sierra Club resolved their claims via the Consent Decree at issue. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, reviewing under the Supreme Court standard established by Local No. 93, International Association of Firefighters, AFL-CIO C.L.C. v. City of Cleveland,[3] concluded that the Consent Decree was a proper and valid resolution to the suit.

EPA and the Sierra Club reached a settlement, the Consent Decree, in 2014, that set out a promulgation designation schedule regarding NAAQS for EPA to follow. This agreement stated that the Sierra Club agreed to refrain from moving forward with its suit as long as EPA followed the given designation schedule. The States claimed that the Consent Decree 1) improperly disposed of their claims, 2) imposed duties and obligations on the States without their consent, and 3) was not “fair, adequate and reasonable” because the deadlines far exceed the Act’s three-year period for promulgating designations.

First, the court determined that the Consent Decree did not impact the ongoing claims by the States because their claims were not referenced in the Consent Decree, the Decree did not limit EPA’s rights in lawsuits against third parties, and the States were free to pursue earlier deadlines in their own actions. Further, the States had acknowledged in oral argument that they could pursue their pending claims in the North Dakota litigation; the court noted that the States could not attempt to block the Consent Decree by arguing that it improperly disposed of their claims while simultaneously arguing that they can continue to assert those claims in another forum such as the district court in North Dakota.

Second, the court found that the Consent Decree did not subject the States to any explicit obligations or state action, nor did it force indirect duties or obligations upon them. The States acknowledged that the Decree did not mandate explicit action but asserted that duties and obligations were being imposed. The court took this as an objection to the requirements imposed by the Data Requirements Rule,[4] rather than the Consent Decree. The Ninth Circuit noted that the Consent Decree does reference the Data Requirements Rule, but that it falls short of imposing the rule’s obligations on the States. Because the Consent Decree does not place any burden on the States, and operates distinctly from the Data Requirements Rule, that component of the appeal was dismissed.

Finally, the Ninth Circuit found that the Consent Decree follows the appropriate remedy in a case involving EPA deadlines because it adheres to previous precedent on promulgation deadlines, and that the district court did not abuse its authority in concluding that the Consent Decree is fair and reasonable and in compliance with the CAA and other law.

In conclusion, the Ninth Circuit held that because the Consent Decree did not impede, impact, or resolve the ongoing claims by States, did not subject the States to any burden or obligation, and followed the proper remedy in an EPA deadlines case, the Consent Decree could not be blocked by the States.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Proposed Consent Decree, Clean Air Act Citizen Suit, 79 Fed. Reg. 31,325 (June 2, 2014).
  2. 42 U.S.C. §§ 7401–7671q (2012).
  3. 478 U.S. 501 (1986).
  4. Data Requirements Rule for the 2010 for the 1-Hour Sulfur Dioxide (SO2) Primary National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS), 80 Fed. Reg. 51,052, 51,064 (Aug. 21, 2015) (to be codified at 40 C.F.R. pt. 51).
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