Statutory Interpretation and the Chevron Test in Citizens Coal Council v. Norton: A Problem of Administrative Law in the Context of Environmental Policy

Article By: Erin G. McKenzie; JNREL Vol. 18, No. 2

Abstract By: Bryan Henley, Staff Member

Passed in 1977, the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) set forth a new federal regulation system on coal mining. As evidenced by its name, the SMCRA is designed to regulate surface mining, which it does by creating a federal agency, the Office of Surface Mining (OSM). This agency's role is to oversee state regulation of mining by assuring compliance with federal standards. These federal standards, also laid out in the SMCRA, proscribe "surface coal mining operations" in national parks and other similar areas. However, what happens if underground mining affects the surface? Subsistence is a term that describes some of the effects that underground mining can have of the surface land above the mine; but is it regulated by this statute? The answer is not as forthcoming as one might hope.

The SMRCA, through its original text and amendments, was possibly subject to two alternative interpretations. In Citizen's Coal Council v. Norton, the federal courts were forced to confront this conflict and determine if the language of the statute generally prohibited subsistence. Citizen's Coal Council v. Norton, 330 F.3d 478 (D.C. Cir. 2003). The Secretary of the Interior (and National Mining Assoc., an intervening defendant) interpreted the statute to indicate that the subsistence was not within the scope of the SMRCA , and thus underground mining was permissible in the protected areas where surface mining was not. Citizen's Coal Council, argued that this interpretation was arbitrary and capricious, therefore an inappropriate administrative action under the Administrative Procedures Act. Resolution depended upon the court's application of the Chevron test.

The Chevron test provides a framework for a court to analyze an administrative agency's interpretation of a statute. The test first requires the court to analyze if the statute is clear. If the statute is clear, then it is followed. If the statute is not clear, then the agency's interpretation is afforded deference and the court upholds that interpretation as long as it is reasonable. The district court granted summary judgment, finding that the statue was clear and denied underground mining in protected areas. The appellate court reversed, holding that the statute was unclear but that the agency's interpretation was reasonable. What should be a conceptually simple test was applied to directly opposite results by these courts. This highlights the difficultly of applying the Chevron test. In her article, Erin G. McKenzie analyzes the problems in applying this test and its possible effects such an inconsistency may have on the coal industry.