Posted on February 22, 2016
In my last blog entry, I advocated for the amendment of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) to eliminate the bar on pre-enforcement review as one step toward improving the investigation and cleanup of sediment sites. In this entry, I propose that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and potentially responsible parties (PRPs) significantly revise the dispute resolution process for EPA Administrative Settlement Agreements and Orders on Consent (“ASAOCs”) to require the resolution of disputes by neutral third parties unaffiliated with EPA or an affected PRP.
The goal of sediment remediation is to protect public health and the environment through prompt and cost-effective remedial action. Unfortunately, this goal has not been met at many sediment sites. At some sites, neither the public nor the PRPs have been served by investigations that have unnecessarily taken decades and wastefed hundreds of millions of dollars to undertake. EPA’s selection of remedies at many sites has been delayed and has not resulted in the selection of protective and cost-effective remedies.
Most sediment cleanups are performed in accordance with consent decrees, which appropriately vest dispute resolution authority in federal district court judges. In contrast, most sediment investigations are conducted under ASAOCs, which vest dispute resolution authority in EPA personnel. While many at EPA with responsibility for dispute resolution have the best of intentions and seek to be objective, the fact that they work for EPA, often supervise the EPA staff who made the decision leading to the dispute, and are often steeped in EPA practices renders most of them unable to serve in a truly independent role. To ensure fairer dispute resolution, ASAOCs should instead vest dispute resolution authority in neutral third parties with no affiliation with either EPA or the PRPs subject to the ASAOC. This would require the amendment of existing ASAOCs and the insertion of new dispute resolution language, which differs from EPA’s model language, in ASAOCs that have not yet been signed.
Additionally, while the dispute resolution official should be deferential to EPA, he or she should not rubber-stamp agency decisions, as currently is often the case. Where investigations have been mired in years of inaction, an independent dispute resolver with a fresh perspective may determine that EPA has sufficient data to make informed cleanup decisions and could compel agency action. At other sites where EPA is requiring PRPs to prepare feasibility studies advocating for remedies that almost certainly will fail, it is essential that a neutral decision-maker act independently to ensure that feasible remedies are selected.
EPA will resist any effort to revise its approach to dispute resolution, and it may require the intervention of elected officials or others to compel such a change. The public, EPA, and affected PRPs would all benefit from it.
Posted on February 22, 2016
As a private practitioner and former trial attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice, I have advocated for timely and cost-effective cleanups that protect public health and the environment. Unfortunately, only a minority of cleanups under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) have met these criteria. Of the many impediments to the thorough, prompt and cost-effective remediation of contaminated sites, and sediment sites in particular, one of the most significant is CERCLA’s bar on pre-enforcement review of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) remedial decisions. To promote more effective and timely cleanups of sediment sites, I suggest that CERCLA be amended to eliminate the current bar on pre-enforcement review. By allowing potentially responsible parties (PRPs) to seek and obtain judicial review of EPA decisions or failures to make decisions, more progress would likely be made on more sites.
CERCLA Section 113(h) states that, with limited exceptions, “No Federal court shall have jurisdiction … to review any challenges to removal or remedial action selected under section 9604 of this title, or to review any order issued under section 9606(a) of this title ….” 42 U.S.C. § 9613(h). Despite many challenges, courts have generally upheld the validity of this provision. As a result, PRPs typically cannot challenge EPA's decisions unless EPA has sought to compel performance under an enforcement order or if EPA is acting under a consent decree. As the “opportunity” for challenge may not come until years after EPA has made its cleanup decision, most PRPs are not willing to face the risk of losing a remedy challenge and the potential imposition of treble damages.
CERCLA should be amended to allow parties to challenge agency action or inaction at other times in the process, such as during the preparation of remedial investigations and feasibility studies. At many sediment sites, EPA has delayed remediation and required parties to incur hundreds of millions of dollars during investigations. If PRPs had the opportunity to obtain judicial review of agency action and inaction earlier in the process, they could seek to compel the agency to act in a way that is consistent with CERCLA’s requirements.
Having worked at the Department of Justice when CERCLA Section 113(h) was drafted, I recall my colleagues stating at the time that a bar on pre-enforcement review was necessary to avoid the challenges of having a non-expert federal judge address complex scientific questions and to prevent PRPs from tying up EPA in litigation. I offer three suggestions in response to these concerns. First, if a federal judge were confronted with a particularly complex issue, the court could appoint a special master to handle the proceedings. Second, to encourage PRPs to seek prompt resolutions, a CERCLA amendment could require PRPs to fully comply with an agency’s directives pending resolution of the judicial dispute and impose a penalty on those parties whose challenge of agency action was unsuccessful. Third, agencies could seek an expedited hearing of disputed issues.
While it is very unlikely that Congress would consider a CERCLA amendment to address only this issue, PRPs should raise this issue the next time amendments are being considered. It will succeed only through the concerted efforts of advocates who seek more and better cleanups and those who seek prompt and reasonable government decision-making.
Posted on February 19, 2016
Amid the finger-pointing, forced resignations, and mea culpas, a question has hovered over the Flint water crisis. What did staff at the Flint water plant say before the switch to Flint River water?
For months, Michigan’s governor Rick Snyder and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality have admitted mistakes but never quite explained why Flint switched from Lake Huron water to Flint River water without prior pilot studies. Critics assailed the saving-costs-at-the-expense-of-the-public-health attitude. Apologists apologized and promised remedial measures. But until last weekend, we did not know what the engineers and technicians who operate the Flint water plant thought of the switch.
On February 13, the Detroit Free Press reported that the Flint water lab supervisor questioned the switch. One week before the grandiose public ceremony celebrating the new era for Flint, the lab supervisor told DEQ he needed time to train staff and update monitoring to be ready to use Flint River water. He complained that higher-ups seemed to have their own agenda.
Like many members of this College, I have spent my career fighting the regulator attitude that “we’re the government experts—trust us” and being dismayed when courts blindly defer to an agency. But when faced with a choice, should we believe agency staff, or politicians and their flappers (see Gulliver’s Travels)? We should start by considering the views of the technical folks who take seriously their jobs to protect publichealth. We might get better policy.
From the Detroit Free Press, February 18, 2016
Posted on February 18, 2016
Citizen suits under federal environmental laws have been under fire through criticism of “sue and settle” where agencies, in particular the U.S. EPA, have been accused of intentionally relinquishing statutory discretion for the sake of settling lawsuits without participation by affected third parties. From this perspective, the scope of citizen suits has broadened. However, two recent federal circuit court opinions curb this growth.
On January 6, 2016, the Third Circuit and Sixth Circuit Courts of Appeals issued opinions that underscore certain limitations in the citizen suit provisions. The Third Circuit examined a Clean Air Act citizen suit in Group Against Smog and Pollution, Inc. v. Shenango Inc. (No. 15-2041) (GASP). The Sixth Circuit examined a Clean Water Act citizen suit in Askins v. Ohio Dept. of Agriculture, Ohio Envtl. Prot. Agency, U.S. EPA (No. 15-3147). Both courts affirmed dismissal of the citizen suits by the district courts based on statutory limitations Congress placed in each statute.
These two cases highlight a couple of important components of citizen suits. First, citizen suits are to serve as a backup to the non-discretionary functions and enforcement responsibilities of the States and the EPA. As the U.S. Supreme Court has said, “the citizen suit is meant to supplement rather than to supplant governmental action.” The Sixth Circuit stated, “Paradoxically, [Plaintiffs’] expansive reading of the citizen-suit provision would grant citizen greater enforcement authority than the U.S. EPA. . . . Congress did not intend to give citizens greater and faster enforcement authority against a state than the U.S. EPA.”
The other important component highlighted is the role of the “diligent prosecution bar” against citizen suits. Citizen suits are prohibited if the EPA or State agency “has commenced and is diligently prosecuting” the matter. While most courts seem willing to restrict citizen suits when there is clear prosecution (civil or criminal) in a state or federal court, the answer is less clear when there is no active or concluded matter at the courthouse or the enforcement action is only administrative. In GASP, the Third Circuit slightly tilted the bar in favor of the agency and regulated entity by concluding that if the agency has diligently prosecuted a suit, the presence of a final judgment, consent decree, or consent order and agreement would likely prevent a citizen suit challenge. This is logical given that environmental enforcement proceedings that are filed in court often, if not always, result in a judicially enforceable consent decree or consent order and agreement in which the regulated entity must fulfill specified obligations or be subject to stipulated penalties. It also provides certainty to the agreement reached between the agency and the regulated entity, which benefits all involved.
While these recent decisions were not momentous court opinions, the Third and Sixth Circuits did provide a bit more clarity to the role citizen and how our environmental laws are enforced. In this arena, I think we all would agree that a little clarity can go a long way.
Posted on February 17, 2016
For us gray hairs, the phrase used to be “Dateline”, now it’s “Tweetline” . . . Flash!. . . President Obama @POTUS “. . . Addressing climate change takes all of us, especially the private sector going all-in on clean energy worldwide."
Apparently “all of us” didn’t include five Supreme Court Justices, led by its Chief Justice, John Roberts. Indeed, it was SCOTUS going “all out” for climate change. As in, going “all out” to frustrate one of the EPA’s and President Obama’s signature efforts to respond to and act upon climate change challenges to the global environment. What EPA and the President got (by a split decision) instead was a stay that some have characterized as the quashing of the biggest environmental regulatory change in United States history.
That body blow to regulatory appropriation of the climate change debate was instigated by the challenge of virtually every major coal power company to the EPA’s issuance of binding emission reduction requirements for existing domestic power plants. The coal, fired power industry argued that EPA’s action was “draconian” and would cause the “shutting down or curtailing generation from existing plants and shifting that generation to new sources”. That, of course, was the precise intent of POTUS and other signatories of the Paris climate change accord last year.
SCOTUS’s stay was unprecedented and terse. Not a word of explanation about why the stay was issued. The proponents of the stay were modestly baffled. In the words of Basin Power’s legislative rep, Dale Niezwaag, the decision came as a surprise . . . "The supreme court has never issued a stay on a rule that hasn't been ruled on by a lower court. So this is precedent, setting from our point. When we put it in, we figured it was going to be a long shot, so we were very surprised that the Supreme Court ruled in our favor”.
There are takeaways galore. However, two are most intriguing to me. Was this unprecedented stay an unwarranted and thinly disguised, reach into the realm of executive branch constitutional authority? Second, did the Supreme Court simply muscle its way into a social and scientific debate that begs any legal or factual question of “irreparable harm” to either the power industry or the citizenry of the republic. In short, was the stay an expression of SCOTUS climate change denial?
The stay makes EPA’s rules unenforceable and will undoubtedly limit their intended goal of achieving emissions cuts to (ostensibly) slow global warming. More importantly, the ruling, in effect, invalidated POTUS’s pledge on climate agreement made in Paris last spring. How should one construe the interjection of the Supreme Court into a case that would have, under normal circumstances, been taken up by the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit as soon as early 2017? Was a signal being sent to that court to heed the antipathy some believe certain SCOTUS justices have towards the global warming debate altogether?
In keeping with my “newsflash” metaphor, since I started writing this post, the country mourns the unexpected passing of Justice Antonin Scalia. The lack of a tie breaker justice for the foreseeable future could throw the question of the right of the EPA to forge ahead on the POTUS’s climate change agenda into months or years of limbo. Will the D.C. Circuit’s decision answer the question next spring? Will certain senators relent and vote in a replacement for Justice Scalia this year? Will the eight remaining justices do something other than call things a tie until they have a full complement on the bench?
Stay tuned to this blogspot for more breaking news.
Posted on February 12, 2016
The Supreme Court's unexplained stay of the clean power plan was "one of the most environmentally harmful judicial actions of all time," writes Michael Gerrard of Columbia Law School in a recent, excellent blog. Rather than venting outrage, Gerrard quickly moves on to explain that the Clean Power Plan isn’t the only way to cut carbon pollution.
Ramping up efforts like fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks, and building efficiency standards, he notes, will also help reduce carbon pollution. Gerrard mentions a couple of points about agriculture, but often, this sector is overlooked when it comes to climate solutions. It’s worth taking a closer look at some of the opportunities to reduce climate pollution from our food system.
Food waste is the second largest component of most landfills. As it rots, it releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas. A recent report by the UN Conference on Trade and Development estimates that 2 percent to 4 percent of all manmade climate pollution arises simply from food rotting in landfills.
Keeping food waste out of landfills can help reduce methane pollution. Massachusetts, California, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, and some cities have enacted laws to manage organic waste disposal in landfills. The idea is to create incentives to reduce food waste and divert it to other purposes, such as animal feed or composting. Instead of being thrown away and becoming a source of pollution, this “waste” can be put to good use. Landfill gas collection systems can be further incentivized. And the nascent effort to reduce food waste from businesses and households can be significantly ramped up.
Another major source of greenhouse gases is the over application of fertilizer. Excess nitrogen fertilizer causes two big problems. The first is water pollution. Nitrogen that isn’t taken up by crops runs off farms and enters larger waterways, where it stimulates the growth of algae and creates “dead zones” deprived of oxygen. The second, and less frequently discussed issue, is the volatilization of nitrogen into nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas about 300 times more potent than CO2. The IPCC estimates that 12 percent of all non-CO2 greenhouse gas emissions come from synthetic fertilizer application.
A number of techniques can reduce these emissions while also providing a cost benefit to farmers. Farm policies could encourage practices like cover cropping, which reduces the need for fertilizer by making soils more rich and fertile. Crop rotations can do the same, yet current crop insurance programs actually discourage the use of these practices. Precision application technologies for fertilizers are getting ever better, but their uptake on farms is slow.
Manure from animals, and the "enteric emissions" from cattle (more commonly thought of as belching) are two more significant sources of climate pollution. Enteric fermentation alone may account for as much as 40 percent of all non-CO2 greenhouse gas emissions, according to the IPCC. Changes in diet might help with these emissions, but this is an area that needs more research.
Some of the emissions from manure can be captured if manure lagoons were covered and better managed. As it stands, these pits are only slightly regulated and are major sources of water pollution sources as well as odor nuisances. An even better practice is to raise cows on rotating pastures, where their waste can enhance soils and help store carbon. And, of course, if Americans did shift to a diet lower in red meat, as per the recommendation of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, we could further reduce climate pollution from cattle.
Agriculture is one of our nation's most important economic sectors, and is especially vulnerable to the extreme weather impacts of climate change. Its product -- food -- is critical not only for our economy, but is an integral and uniquely personal part of our everyday lives. When we think about how to address climate change, it makes sense to think about food and agriculture. The food we choose to produce, and how we produce it, use it, and dispose of it, all have an impact on climate pollution—and therefore have the potential to become climate solutions.
Posted on February 11, 2016
There is no safe blood lead level in children.
In following the inexplicable regulatory missteps in the Flint public water supply debacle, I could not help but think of the progress that has been made in removing lead from the environment and out of our children’s blood. In spending my professional career addressing environmental issues and problems from a state, federal and private practice perspective, I often have wondered what difference does it make. In the case of lead, we can actually measure our progress and success.
As a teenager, I filled my ‘54 Ford with regular leaded gasoline. Lead was not only in gasoline, it was everywhere. Recognizing the significant and often irreversible health effects of lead, regulatory programs were initiated at the federal, state, and local levels to “get the lead out.” The implementation of these programs reduced or eliminated lead from gasoline, foods and food packaging, house paint, water pipes, plumbing fixtures, and solder used in plumbing and drink cans.
Did these programs work? In 1978, approximately 13.5 million children aged 1-5 had blood lead levels (BLLs) greater than or equal to 10 micrograms per deciliter (ug/dL) of blood, which was until recently the level of concern recommended by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The recommended level is now 5 ug/dL. Also, back in the 70s, the average BLL was approximately 15 ug/dL. Black children and children living in low-income families were at greater risk.
We have come a long way from the 70s. The average BLL in children dropped to 1.4 ug/dL by 2008. Below is a table graphically demonstrating this dramatic decrease in BLLs. The table is based on data from National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, United States, 1971 – 2008, taken from a CDC report, Lead in Drinking Water and Human Blood Lead Levels in the United States, August 10, 2012.
As we beat ourselves up over the mistakes in Flint, we should take a moment to reflect on and be re-energized by the demonstrable success of these regulatory programs. What we have done has made a difference! Flint reminds us that more must still be done.
Timeline of lead poisoning prevention policies and blood lead levels in children aged 1–5 years, by year — National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, United States, 1971–2008
Posted on February 11, 2016
I am a terrible predictor of what cases the Supreme Court will hear and what the Court will decide on those matters it chooses to hear. For example, I wrongly predicted that the Supreme Court would never consider reviewing the D.C. Circuit’s decisions in cases involving other recent EPA regulations, but the Supreme Court chose to hear those cases, which led to its decisions in Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA and Michigan v. EPA. And if asked to guess whether the Court would issue a stay of EPA’s Clean Power Plan under section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act, I might well have said that the odds were greatly against that happening – despite the merits of the arguments being raised by those seeking the stay.
Perhaps, though, my poor predictive abilities are the result of my looking at each case in isolation instead of looking at them in combination and considering whether the Supreme Court’s February 9, 2016 stay decision is an outgrowth of the combined knowledge gained by the Court in its recent reviews of those other Clean Air Act cases. Specifically, as pointed out by State Petitioners in their briefs in support of a stay of the Clean Power Plan (see here and here,) EPA has touted its Plan as being one that will completely transform the way energy is created and delivered in this country even though – argued State Petitioners – the plain statutory language (of Clean Air Act section 111(d)) does not authorize such Agency action, and the approach of the Clean Power Plan is at odds with EPA’s 45-year history of implementing section 111(d). Maybe such claims struck a chord with the Court, which – in UARG – told EPA that the Agency cannot make “decisions of vast ‘economic and political significance’” under a long-extant statute, like the Clean Air Act, without “clear congressional authorization.”
And then there was Michigan, where the Court determined that EPA had proceeded unlawfully in adopting another extensive and expensive Clean Air Act regulatory program. State Petitioners in the Clean Power Plan litigation made sure that the Court was aware that by the time the Court issued its decision in Michigan – a case where the underlying rule was not stayed during the pendency of litigation – the affected parties had spent billions of dollars to meet the terms of the underlying, un-stayed rule. In other words, justice delayed in Michigan was justice denied.
None of this is to say what the Court will or will not do if and when it reviews arguments on the lawfulness of the Clean Power Plan. I make no predictions on that. But I believe the Court acted appropriately in calling for the completion of litigation before requiring affected parties to make the massive, unprecedented, costly, and transformative changes to the energy industry that the Clean Power Plan demands.
Posted on February 10, 2016
The Supreme Court’s unprecedented, unexpected and unexplained action yesterday staying implementation of the Clean Power Plan is one of the most environmentally harmful judicial actions of all time. However, the damage it does to the United States’ ability to meet its Paris pledge is less than it might seem. But that is not because the Clean Power Plan wasn’t important; it is because the Plan didn’t do nearly enough.
The Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) that the U.S. submitted in advance of COP21 reiterated the prior goal of achieving a 17% reduction below 2005 levels in 2020, and conveyed a new pledge of a 26% to 28% reduction by 2025. The INDC cited the Clean Power Plan as one of the actions being taken to meet those pledges, but did not present any numbers on what actions would lead to what reductions.
More detail was presented in the Second Biennial Report of the United States under the Framework Convention on Climate Change, submitted by the Department of State in January 2016. As the report makes clear, the Clean Power Plan’s actual emissions reductions do not begin until 2022, and thus have no bearing on achievement of the 2020 goal. From 2020 to 2025, the Report expects carbon dioxide emissions to fall from 5,409 to 5,305 MtCO2e (Table 4) with implementation of the Clean Power Plan, energy efficiency standards, fuel economy standards, and numerous other measures that are already on the books, and down to 5,094 in 2030. (The report does not separately specify how much of this is due to the Clean Power Plan alone; the numbers result from a complex modeling exercise that included numerous interrelated actions.)
That is not nearly enough of a reduction to meet the 26% target (much less the 28% aspiration) for 2025. Instead, a host of additional measures are also needed. The Biennial Report lists these as possibilities to reduce carbon dioxide emissions:
- Full implementation of Phase II heavy-duty vehicle fuel economy standards.
- Finalization of proposed, new, or updated appliance and equipment efficiency standards.
- Increased efficiency of new and existing residential and commercial buildings.
- Reduction in industrial energy demand in several subsectors.
- Additional state actions in the electricity sector.
- Enhanced federal programs that lead to greater efficiencies in industry and transportation, including greater biofuel deployment and commercial aviation efficiency.
To address other greenhouse gases, the Biennial Report lists these possible added measures:
- An amendment (already in the works) to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer to phase down production and consumption of hydrofluorocarbons.
- Measures to reduce methane emissions from landfills, coalmining, agriculture, and oil and gas systems.
- More efficient nutrient application techniques that reduce nitrous oxide emissions
Even all of the above is not enough to meet the 2025 goals. The Biennial Report puts heavy reliance on the land-use sink – on the ability of forests and other vegetated areas to absorb a considerable amount of the greenhouse gases that are emitted. And even with an “optimistic sink” scenario and a number of other favorable assumptions, the key summary graph in the Biennial Report (Figure 6) shows a reduction of about 27% in 2025.
In sum, while the Clean Power Plan is the biggest game in town in terms of achieving the Paris goals, it is by no means the only game in town. While we express our justifiable fury over the Supreme Court’s action, we need to bear in mind that there are many other things that the U.S. must do in the next several years to control greenhouse gas emissions.
Posted on February 10, 2016
Yesterday, the Supreme Court stayed EPA’s Clean Power Plan rule. No matter how much EPA and DOJ proclaim that this says nothing about the ultimate results on the merits, the CPP is on very shaky ground at this point.
Everyone, supporters and opponents alike (and yours truly), thought that there was no possibility that the Court would grant a stay. And it is precisely because a Supreme Court stay of a rule pending judicial review is such an “extraordinary” – to use DOJ’s own word – form of relief that one has to conclude that five justices have decided that the rule must go.
This isn’t just a preliminary injunction; it’s a preliminary injunction on steroids. First, everyone seems to acknowledge that it’s unprecedented for the Supreme Court to stay a rule pending judicial review. Second, the standards in DOJ’s own brief make pretty clear that a stay will only issue if the Court is pretty convinced on the merits. Finally, it’s worth noting that the Court implied that it does not even trust the Court of Appeals, because the stay will remain in force, even if the D.C. Circuit affirms the rule. The stay will only terminate either: (1) if the Court of Appeals upholds the CPP and the Supreme Court denies certiorari or (2) if the order is upheld and the Supreme Court also upholds it.
Back to the drawing board for EPA. Perhaps § 115 of the Clean Air provides a way out!
Posted on February 8, 2016
The ecosystem services framework focuses on the economic values humans derive from functioning ecosystems in the form of services—such as water filtration, pollination, flood control, and groundwater recharge—rather than commodities—such as crops, timber, and mineral resources. Because many of these services exhibit qualities similar to public goods, ecologists and economists began forging the concept of ecosystem services valuation in the 1990s as a way of improving land use and resource development decision making by ensuring that all relevant economic values were being taken into account when making decisions about the conservation or development of “natural capital” resources. Research on ecosystem services exploded onto the scene in ecology, economics, and other disciplines bearing on environmental and natural resources management.
The policy world quickly picked up on the ecosystem services idea as well. In 1998 the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) issued a report emphasizing the importance of the nation’s natural capital. The United Nations embraced the concept at the global scale with its Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, in which it explicitly tied ecosystem services to human prosperity.
By contrast, uptake in law has been slow to come. Almost two decades after the PCAST report, it is fair to say that the ecosystem services concept has made few inroads into achieving “law to apply” status in the form of legislative and regulatory text. In one prominent example, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency issued a joint regulation in 2008 overhauling their policies on compensatory mitigation under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, the agencies adopted a watershed-scale focus and declared that compensatory mitigation decisions would take losses to ecosystem services into account. See 33 C.F.R. 332.3(d)(1). This and the few other federal initiatives to use ecosystem services in decision making, while on the rise, have been ad hoc and uncoordinated. But a more coherent federal ecosystem services policy appears on the horizon.
On October 7, 2015, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), and Office of Science and Technology (OST) issued their Memorandum for Executive Departments and Agencies on Incorporating Ecosystem Services into Federal Decision Making (the Memorandum). The Memorandum “directs agencies to develop and institutionalize policies to promote consideration of ecosystem services, where appropriate and practicable, in planning, investments, and regulatory contexts.” The goal of doing so is “to better integrate in Federal decision making due consideration of the full range of benefits and tradeoffs among ecosystem services associated with potential Federal Actions.” The scope of the policy goal is broadly stated to include all federal programmatic and planning activities including “natural-resource management and land-use planning, climate-adaptation planning and risk-reduction efforts, and, where appropriate, environmental reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and other analyses of Federally-assisted programs, policies, projects, and regulatory proposals.” To facilitate agencies in achieving its policy goals, CEQ will prepare a guidance document outlining best practices for: (1) describing the action; (2) identifying and classifying key ecosystem services in the location of interest; (3) assessing the impact of the action on ecosystem services relative to baseline; (4) assessing the effect of the changes in ecosystem services associated with the action; and (5) integrating ecosystem services analyses into decision making. In the interim, agencies have until March 30, 2016 to submit documentation describing their current incorporation of ecosystem services in decision making and establishing a work plan for moving toward the goals of the policy directive. Id. at 4. Meanwhile, CEQ has assembled a task force of experts from relevant agencies to craft a best practices implementation guidance, which will be subject to interagency review, public comment, and, by November 2016, to external peer review consistent with OMB’s information quality procedures and standards. Once the guidance is released, agencies will adjust their work plans as needed. The Memorandum also acknowledges that “ultimately, successful implementation of the concepts in this directive may require Federal agencies to modify certain practices, policies, or existing regulations to address evolving understanding of the value of ecosystem services.”
ACOEL Fellows should watch the Memorandum’s implementation over the next year closely. In particular, incorporation of best practices for ecosystem services impact assessments under NEPA would project the ecosystem services framework into state, local, and private actions receiving federal agency funding or approval. To be sure, there is plenty of work to be done before one can evaluate the Memorandum’s impact on the mainstreaming of the ecosystem services framework into environmental law. Significantly, the timeline of the Memorandum directives will deliver the best practices implementation guidance in the final months of the Obama Administration, leaving it to the incoming administration to determine where to take it. Nevertheless, simply by declaring the incorporation of ecosystem services into federal agency decision making as an Executive policy and laying out the tasks and timelines for doing so, the issuance of the Memorandum has done more to advance the ecosystem services framework as a legal concept than has any previous initiative.
Posted on February 5, 2016
Back when I initially started this blogging exercise for a 1/11 posting, I had a clever title in mind: WIS 2016? (aka What’s in Store 2016?) But now it’s February. And I even missed the filing deadline for a Groundhog’s Day-related theme. BTW, for those who may NOT have heard, Punxsutawney Phil and Staten Island Chuck failed to see their shadows. Early spring. Ah, perhaps I should go with a thawing theme as in when will there be any definitive outcomes for some of our favorite environmental issues? And I commit to use as many abbreviations and acronyms as possible.
1) CPP – No foreseeable thaw.
If I could use a symbol, kind of like the artist formerly known as Prince, I would. What’s that? Surely you jest. CPP is THE Clean Power Plan. At any rate, way back in January 2016, the D.C. Circuit denied the various Motions to Stay this controversial rule. And then there was the Stay Application filed by the 26-state coalition, led by West Virginia, and industry types in the SCOTUS. DOJ/EPA has until 2/4 to respond; the States are expected to file a reply 2/5. What’s at stake? Regulating emissions from existing power plants under FCAA 111(d) in a, well, unprecedented manner. Yes, Texas is one of the states challenging the rule. Let’s momentarily set aside the fact that the rule deals with power plants and focus solely on the structure of the regulation – hence my use of the term unprecedented.
2) NAAQS (pronounced naks), more specifically ozone – No foreseeable thaw.
Yes, the October 2015 EPA regulation was also challenged by multiple groups and states, including Texas/TCEQ which filed its Petition for Review on 12/23/2015. The rule proposal ranged from 65 ppb to 70 ppb; 70 ppb was the final number which lowers the standard 5 ppb from the last revision in 2008. Statements of Issues for the case are due 2/4/2016. State designations for attainment/NA are due October 2016. The attainment deadlines are from 2020 to 2037, depending on the classification. What will you be doing on Groundhog’s Day 2037??
3) WOTUS (pronounced wo-tus) – Some thaw, mostly muddying the water. (Sorry)
EPA’s final “Clean Water Rule: Definition of Waters of the United States” was published on 6/29/2015. Fast forward to 12/8/2015 on which date oral argument was held in the 6th C. COA. I am stepping over the N. Dakota litigation as well as litigation pending in Galveston, Texas. At the moment, there is a nationwide stay against the rule courtesy of the 6th C. This is in effect while the court sorts out the jurisdictional issue as to whether the rule should be challenged at the federal district court level or appellate level. BTW, I don’t really like to refer to this rule as WOTUS. I know, it rhymes with SCOTUS and POTUS. How ‘bout U.S. waters or federal waters? Most people would still look at us, like, what the heck are they discussing? That’s a nice segue to note that this federal rule clarifies (ahem) what waters are subject to regulation under federal law, i.e. the CWA. I’m not sure bright (shore)lines are on the horizon.
4) EPA SSM SIP Call – Thaw
I had to say thaw for some variety. And compared to above matters, this case is actually further along. This rule deals with the use of an affirmative defense in emission event cases and applies to 36 states, including Texas. (I should mention that Texas’ rules are SIP approved and withstood challenge in the 5th C. COA. Yes, Texas is challenging.) Briefing is due between 3/6/2016 and 9/4/16; oral argument is anticipated in late November or early December 2016. I’m refusing to spell out SSM SIP because it makes me feel like I am a knowledgeable insider.
Posted on February 4, 2016
With busloads of concerned citizens from Flint and nearby cities gathered around the Rayburn House Office Building on February 3, environmental regulators and science experts appeared before the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform (Committee) to give testimony regarding lead contamination in Flint, Michigan’s public drinking water. As detailed in this recent NPR podcast, well worth the 40 minute listen, between 6,000 and 12,000 children are estimated to have elevated blood lead levels following the City’s drinking water source change from Detroit water to water from the Flint River in 2014.
How could a crisis like this have happened? While at first water policy groups were quick to highlight the nation’s aging water infrastructure and investment gap – EPA’s most recent estimate is that $384 billion is needed to assure safe drinking water from 2013 to 2030 – and certainly lead pipes to homes in older communities is a costly replacement problem – at the root of Flint was classic government dysfunction combined with assessments of safety that make sense to regulators but perhaps not to everyday people. At the hearing Joel Beauvais, acting Assistant Administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Water faced questions from Committee members about the Agency’s delayed response to the situation, while the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s acting Director Keith Creagh was to explain why state officials did not act to address contamination immediately. Both officials attributed the crisis to breakdown in communication between the agencies that inhibited officials’ swift action. What happened in Flint “was avoidable and should have never happened,” according to Beauvais; while Creagh’s testimony stated that “[w]e all share responsibility in the Flint water crisis, whether it’s the city, the state, or the federal government… We all let the citizens of Flint down.”
The hearing ultimately took on a forward look, noting a reaffirmed commitment to protecting public health. “We do have clear standards. We do have clear accountability, so we have a clear path forward, said Creagh. “We are working in conjunction with the city, the state and federal government to ensure it doesn’t happen again.” Beauvais noted “it is imperative that Michigan, other states, EPA and drinking water system owners and operators nationwide work together and take steps to ensure that this never happens again.”
EPA and Michigan state and local officials are now in non-stop mode to ensure that prompt, concerted efforts are taken to address public health hazards. Members of Congress are introducing bills to fund Flint’s systems and to aid the affected citizens. Even philanthropic groups are stepping in. EPA’s Inspector General is doing a deep dive into the Agency’s response, Michigan Governor Snyder is seeking answers, and even the Federal Bureau of Investigation is looking into criminal aspects of the matter. Flint’s drinking water will get better – and yet the affected population may never fully recover from their excessive lead exposures.
The #FlintWaterCrisis is a sober reminder of the need to keep the nexus between environmental quality regulation and public health protection very tight. As professionals in the environmental field, we cannot fear having frank conversations in the open about risks – and the importance of taking precautionary steps – when human health is at issue.
Posted on February 3, 2016
In my last blog, I summarized the substantive arguments made by the City of Margate’s attorneys in their countersuit against the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s eminent domain proceedings, which were filed in state court—the federal court overturned DEP’s attempts to proceed via administrative orders. The court will have to consider: (a) is dune construction a reasonable use of the state’s “taking” powers; or (b) were alternative storm protections – e.g., sea walls and wooden bulkheads – more reasonable?
While awaiting a ruling by the court after the upcoming February 4th hearing, there have been two new developments:
1. Seventeen residents of Point Pleasant Beach in Ocean County have filed a suit against DEP, claiming the agency’s taking of their beaches was a “land grab” of the residents’ private property destined to require future maintenance expenses and possible development of boardwalks, public restrooms, etc. These cases are scheduled for hearings next month.
2. The super storm/blizzard over the January 22-24th weekend again left Margate’s streets flooded. Governor Christie took a “serves you right” position, whereas Margate officials blamed the flooding on the bay, not the ocean.
As I “go to press,” we’ll soon see whether the plaintiffs’ “we don’t need dunes” position “holds water” (pardon the pun).
Posted on February 2, 2016
Tensions ran high in eastern Oregon in early January 2016 as an armed group seized the headquarters of a national wildlife refuge. The occupation began as a protest of the sentencing of ranchers who were convicted of arson on federal lands in Oregon. The occupation subsequently became a rally for opening federal public lands to all. Entering the fray, albeit indirectly, the Ninth Circuit in its January 15, 2016 decision in United States v. Hage, held that defendants’ unauthorized grazing of cattle on federal lands in Nevada was unlawful. Contrary to the views of the Oregon occupiers that they are defending the Constitution, the Ninth Circuit held that grazing cattle without a grazing permit violated federal statutes as well as the state law of trespass, noting that a grazing permit is “a revocable privilege” and is not a “property right.” The Ninth Circuit rejected the district court’s ruling that the government cannot claim trespass if the cattle stayed within a reasonable distance of a source to which defendants had water rights. Concluding that the district judge “harbored animus toward the federal agencies,” the Ninth Circuit requested the Chief Judge of the Northern District of Nevada to assign the case to a different judge on remand. Meanwhile, back in Oregon, several of the protesters have been arrested. One was killed.
Posted on February 1, 2016
New York participates in the cap-and-trade system operated by 9 northeastern and mid-atlantic states known as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative that limits carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from fossil-fuel burning power plants. These plants must purchase allowances at auction for each ton of CO2 they emit. An efficient gas-fired plant that produces 225 MWs of electricity emits approximately 1.2 million tons of CO2 a year.
During the adoption process for New York’s final RGGI rule in 2008, power generators predicted serious adverse consequences. These included increased electricity costs for consumers, added operating costs for generators who would never recoup all CO2 allowance costs from the sale of electricity, and concerns about longer term energy transactions due to the uncertainty of allowance prices.
In comments on a draft RGGI rule, generators requested the State to establish a price cap of $0.75 on the cost of a CO2 allowance to protect consumers from significant price increases and a sunset provision in the event a federal cap-and-trade program were established. The generators also expressed concern about the lack of available control technology for CO2 emissions.
Fast forward: at the last allowance auction in December 2015, the cost of a CO2 allowance was $7.50. New York generators purchased almost 6 million allowances reaping revenue of more than $44 million for the New York RGGI fund. At the previous auction in September, almost 10 million allowances were purchased at a cost of $59 million. Despite these high allowance costs, the lights are still on in New York. According to data published by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, updated as of January 16, the monthly average retail prices of electricity in the residential, commercial and industrial sectors have decreased between 2008 and 2015, attributable to the success of energy conservation and efficiency programs, the availability of more renewable energy, and the low price of natural gas and oil.
CO2 emissions from the power sector have decreased by more than 40% in the RGGI states since 2009 due to reductions in the regional CO2 cap. New York has been a significant contributor to those reductions. Revenue from the program of over $1 billion has been invested by the RGGI states in energy conservation and efficiency efforts, clean and renewable energy, direct bill assistance to households and greenhouse gas abatement. Importantly, RGGI also has the potential to assist states in meeting the CO2 reduction goals in EPA’s Climate Action Plan.
However, a report issued on January 20, 2016 by Synapse Energy Economics and the Sierra Club, entitled The RGGI Opportunity, states that RGGI's current requirements are not enough to get the RGGI states to their climate goals in 2030 and beyond (40% reduction in carbon pollution from 1990 levels) and it encourages more energy efficiency programs, increased levels of wind and solar projects, and adding 10 million battery electric vehicles, all of which will result in job creation.
The RGGI program has been a clear revenue and greenhouse gas reduction success, but there is potential in New York for RGGI funds to be diverted to the general fund. This last occurred in 2015 when the legislature approved a budget that moved $41 million of RGGI revenue to the general fund to be used for other environmental programs. Environmentalists considered this action a threat to the program. Since RGGI was adopted by executive action, not by statute as was the case in the other RGGI states, the environmentalists’ view is that RGGI funds can only be used for program purposes. The 2015 transfer of RGGI funds to the general fund could subject the program to challenge as a tax on electricity levied without the legislature’s approval. In contrast, the State’s 2016 budget does not include a raid on RGGI funds.
Would similar cap-and-trade programs work as well in other regions of the country? Yes, but the political will to establish such programs will depend in part on a region’s fuel mix. Since coal-fired power plants emit almost twice as much CO2 as gas-fired plants, the allowance costs for coal plants will be higher, thereby increasing the cost of the electricity they produce and making such facilities less competitive in regions that also have more efficient facilities. That said, if the programs’ revenues are pumped into energy conservation and efficiency programs, consumers could use and pay for less electricity.
Posted on January 29, 2016
By upholding FERC’s regulatory authority over demand response transactions, the Supreme Court finds FERC is properly regulating wholesale electricity market sales operating in interstate commerce (Federal Energy Regulation Commission vs. Electric Power Supply Association). Associate Justice Scalia’s dissent criticizes the framing of the question. While acknowledging FERC’s regulatory authority over wholesale sales, he notes the statutory framework proscribes regulating other sales or those “not at wholesale,” suggesting a proper focus on whether there is a true sale at wholesale includes reviewing whether the prospective participant is in the business of reselling energy.
Besides the regulatory impact and effect on the markets, Justice Kagan’s majority opinion sends waves by its impact on energy use or non-use. As in peak periods it may be more efficient and easier to pay consumers for non-use versus paying generators to increase production, wholesale market operators developed demand response programs that pay consumers not to use available power. Non-use has the complementary benefits of being less taxing on a grid and results in fewer emissions. Thus, the reviewed and supported programs were viewed as resulting from market forces balancing supply and demand of wholesale electricity, which programs serve to improve competitiveness (may “drive down” generator bids), provide more efficient grid use, result in greater grid reliability, and, produce fewer emissions.
Additional parts of the opinion discuss: (i) the method and formula for compensating demand response payments similarly to those to suppliers, with an added review of whether resulting payment for the demand response is indeed cost beneficial; and (ii) whether the technical order was properly supported by “reasoned judgment” and “intelligibly explained,” and thus, not subject to being set aside as arbitrary and capricious.
In short, the Court found that FERC did not go too far in affecting retail markets and regulated on the wholesale side. Acknowledging the breadth of regulatory authority over affecting wholesale rates and charges must be read with “common sense” and care so as not to extend the same beyond its intended reach, the Court concluded that because wholesale demand responses result in reduced wholesale rates, the rules and regulations that govern same are a direct effect on the wholesale markets.
In a footnote the Court notes even if states could achieve the same result by giving rebates to customers for non-use, the process would be less efficient. The dissent uses this same example to support its view that the overall program in practice is the equivalent to offering credits to retail customers in excess of FERC’s authority.
FERC Commissioner Tony Clark’s post decision comments predict further judicial involvement as participants test jurisdictional limits. He invites the Commission to re-evaluate its approved pricing mechanism, referred to by the commissioner as a “compensation regime that continues to be widely panned by market experts.
For another review of the case and its common sense outcome, see college member Seth Jaffe’s post.
Posted on January 28, 2016
Our friend Seth Jaffe wrote a very interesting blog on January 20, “Does the Paris Agreement Provide EPA With Authority Under the CAA to Impose Economy-Wide GHG Controls? Count Me Skeptical.” It took issue with a paper that I co-authored with several other colleagues in academia in which we argue that Section 115 of the Clean Air Act provides the EPA with broad authority to implement a multi-state, multi-source, multi-gas regulatory system to reduce greenhouse gases.
The blog post agreed with our paper that it would be great if Section 115 provided this authority because it means EPA could implement an efficient, flexible, cross-sectoral approach to reducing greenhouse gases (GHGs).
However, Seth questioned our conclusion that Section 115 provides such authority because, in his view, courts are likely to conclude the “reciprocity” requirement in Section 115 could not be satisfied by the nonbinding emissions reduction commitments countries made in the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) they submitted for the Paris agreement concluded at the United Nations climate conference in December. In the words of blog post, “I think most judges would interpret the word ‘reciprocity’ in a statute to mean something that is legally-binding; otherwise, it doesn’t mean anything.” For several reasons, we disagree.
First, a reviewing court does not need to interpret what the word “reciprocity” means in Section 115, because Congress has explicitly defined it. Reciprocity is the title of Section 115(c), which provides:
"This section shall apply only to a foreign country which the Administrator determines has given the United States essentially the same rights with respect to the prevention or control of air pollution occurring in that country as is given that country by this section."
The only right given to a foreign country by Section 115 is a provision in Section 115(b) that states a foreign country affected by air pollution originating in the U.S. “shall be invited to appear at any public hearing” associated with the revision of a relevant portion of the state implementation plan to address the pollutant. In short, Section 115 specifies that reciprocity means the foreign countries in question need to have given the U.S. “essentially the same rights” as are given by Section 115, and the only right provided in Section 115 is the procedural right to appear at a hearing.
Understanding the legislative history helps explain why the focus of the reciprocity requirement is on a procedural right. As we explain in detail in the paper, Section 115 was a procedural provision when it was first enacted in 1965: if pollution from the U.S. was endangering other countries, the other countries had a right to participate in abatement conferences where potential responses would be discussed, not a right to insist on actual emission reductions. Although Congress amended the provision in the 1977 Clean Air Amendments to replace the abatement conference with federal and state action through the Section 110 state implementation plan process, the reciprocity language in Section 115(c) was not changed, leaving it with its procedural test.
Second, we note in our paper that the Paris agreement contains a new set of procedures through which countries that join the agreement will be able to review and provide input on each other’s respective emissions reductions plans. To the extent a court might conclude that such procedural rights must be "legally binding," then the Paris agreement satisfies that test because although the emission reduction targets themselves that were submitted in the INDCs will not be legally enforceable by other countries, the procedural elements of the Paris agreement will be binding international law.
We note in the paper that although Paris provides a strong basis to satisfy Section 115 reciprocity, that reciprocity could also be satisfied by other international arrangements that the United States has with a variety of countries, particularly Mexico and Canada, the EU, and China.
Third, the blog post does not engage the issue of procedural reciprocity; rather it focuses on a substantive view of reciprocity (i.e. that reciprocity requires that other countries are actually reducing emissions of GHGs) and asserts that substantive reciprocity requirement could not be met by the internationally non-binding commitments made in the INDCs. Although we believe that the correct reading of Section 115 is that it only requires procedural reciprocity, we recognize that a court could conclude that Section 115 also implicitly includes a substantive reciprocity requirement. In the first instance, we noted that this requirement might be met by the international law principle sic utere tuo ut alienum non laedus, which directs nations to avoid causing significant injuries to the environment of other nations, most recently explained in the International Court of Justice’s Pulp Mills case.
The author skips over this element to focus his skepticism that the reciprocity requirement could be satisfied by non-binding commitments in the INDCs. But actually the U.S. and other countries have made reciprocally non-binding commitments in their INDCs. That is, the U.S. has made an international political commitment to reduce emissions a certain amount, and has received essentially the same rights in the non-binding international commitments from other countries to reduce emissions.
Someone could argue that the U.S. INDC may be non-binding, but Section 115 is domestic law in the U.S. and substantive reciprocity cannot exist unless other countries also have domestic laws requiring emission reductions. If this is the test, however, it can also be met. In fact, the INDCs submitted by other countries identified the binding domestic laws through which the INDCs would be implemented. We did not focus on this aspect in our paper, but some examples are: (1) the United States identified the Clean Air Act and other laws and regulations “relevant to implementation” of the U.S. commitment; (2) China identified the measures that had been incorporated into domestic law and regulation through previous five-year plans, and outlined a variety of policies and strategies that would be incorporated into subsequent five-year plans to implement their emissions commitment; and (3) the EU noted that the necessary legislation to implement its target was being introduced to the EU parliament in 2015 and 2016. Therefore, if “legally binding” domestic laws are required to find reciprocity under Section 115, EPA could reasonably examine the legally binding provisions in other countries’ domestic systems to find that reciprocity.
To summarize, our view is that Section 115 likely requires only procedural reciprocity. If a court concluded Section 115 required substantive reciprocity, then EPA could reasonably find that requirement met through the reciprocal political commitments that the U.S. and other countries made in Paris as well as through the binding domestic laws and regulations in the U.S. and other countries that will implement the commitments.
We look forward to further dialog on this topic, which we think is an important part of unlocking this powerful, untapped tool that the EPA possesses to design an efficient and flexible system to reduce GHGs.
Posted on January 27, 2016
In an excellent December 21st blog post (“Are Obama’s Climate Pledges Really that ‘Legally Durable’?”) Richard Stoll questions two of the premises behind my assessment of the legal durability of U.S pledges at the recent Paris climate conference. In particular he challenges my conclusions that EPA’s Clean Power Plan is likely to survive judicial review and that its repeal by a new president would require a lengthy rulemaking process that could be rejected on judicial review.
First, he correctly notes that “EPA’s authority to regulate GHG emissions is not at issue in the challenges now pending in the D.C. Circuit.” But my belief that the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan ultimately will be upheld in the Supreme Court is not founded principally on the Court’s repeated affirmation of Massachusetts v. EPA. My reasons for believing the Clean Power Plan ultimately will be upheld are discussed in detail here. I agree that it will be close, probably 5-4, with Justice Kennedy likely casting the deciding vote.
Second, Stoll argues that a new administration is free to reverse course and that there is no heightened scrutiny from reviewing courts when it seeks to do so. I agree entirely. In fact, that is precisely what the Supreme Court held in Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Ass’n v. State Farm, the case cited in my initial posting. In fact, State Farm is the very case the D.C. Circuit relied on when it applied those long-settled principles in National Association of Home Builders v. EPA, the case Stoll cites.
But the State Farm case also provides a powerful lesson that a new administration must have a good reason for changing course beyond knee-jerk opposition to federal regulation. In State Farm the new Reagan administration sought to rescind a regulation by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) that required passive restraints in new automobiles. Like the Clean Power Plan, the regulation had been the subject of considerable political controversy and it was bitterly opposed by the auto industry. Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca had famously endorsed the notion that air bags were more suited to serve as a method of capital punishment than as safety devices. The Supreme Court later observed that “the automobile industry waged the regulatory equivalent of war against the airbag and lost.”
Less than one month after taking office, the Reagan administration reopened the passive restraint rulemaking. Two months later it postponed the effective date of the passive restraint regulation and proposed its rescission. The White House Press Office announced the decision, describing it as part of a package of “economic recovery” measures. After a six-month rulemaking, NHTSA rescinded the passive restrain regulation, despite the agency’s previous estimate that it would save 12,000 lives per year and prevent more than 100,000 serious injuries annually.
When NHTSA’s decision was challenged in the D.C. Circuit, the prevailing assumption was that “arbitrary and capricious” review was so toothless that it rarely could be used to overturn an agency’s decision. Instead, the D.C. Circuit panel struck down the rescission decision by announcing a new standard of judicial review – that sudden reversals of course by an agency required heightened judicial scrutiny. [State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. v. Department of Transportation, 680 F.2d 206 (D.C. Cir. 1982), affirmed on other grounds 463 U.S. 29 (1983)].
The Supreme Court then granted review. The Justices unanimously rejected the D.C. Circuit’s conclusion that a new administration’s sudden change of course required heightened judiciary scrutiny. But the Court surprised most observers by declaring NHTSA’s rescission of the rule to be arbitrary and capricious. In an opinion by Justice White, the Court held that NHTSA had “failed to present an adequate basis and explanation for rescinding the passive restraint requirement . . .”
What State Farm powerfully illustrates is that a new administration cannot simply impose its ideological preference for less regulation to quickly rescind a rule as the Reagan administration tried to do to eliminate passive restraint requirements. The auto industry then was as vehement in its opposition to air bags as states opposing EPA’s Clean Power Plan are now. But because the record supported the extraordinary life-saving potential of airbags, the Court held that the regulation could not be repealed without the agency coming up with a new record or a better explanation for doing so. Due to this surprising Supreme Court decision hundreds of thousands of lives have been saved and millions of serious injuries prevented.
To be sure, the Supreme Court did not order that air bags be required. Rather it required the agency to offer more than ideological opposition to regulation as a justification for repealing the rule. Archival research I conducted in the papers of the late Justice Thurgood Marshall revealed a memorandum from Justice White stating that for at least one aspect of its decision he doubted that NHTSA on remand “would find it too difficult to cover its tracks based on the present record.” I agree with Stoll that a new administration could repeal the Clean Power Plan. But State Farm cautions that it should not act too hastily if it wishes such a decision to withstand judicial review.
In the wake of the State Farm decision both President Reagan and Lee Iacocca eventually changed their minds about the merits of air bags. The fascinating story of how Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole helped persuade President Reagan that air bags should be required is told in Michael R. Lemov, Car Safety Wars: One Hundred Years of Technology, Politics and Death (2015). Perhaps today’s fierce opponents of EPA’s Clean Power Plan ultimately will have a similar epiphany concerning the merits of the Clean Power Plan and the transition to a greener energy infrastructure.
Posted on January 26, 2016
In 2010 the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission issued interpretive guidance titled Commission Guidance Regarding Disclosure Related to Climate Change on how to apply existing SEC disclosure requirements concerning the risks of climate change to public companies, material climate-related trends, legal proceedings, legislation and other climate associated matters that could affect those companies. Specifically, the SEC's interpretative guidance highlighted the following areas as examples of when climate change may trigger SEC disclosure requirements:
- Impact of Legislation and Regulation: When assessing potential disclosure obligations, a company should consider whether the impact of certain existing laws and regulations regarding climate change is material. In certain circumstances, a company should also evaluate the potential impact of pending legislation and regulation related to this topic.
- Impact of International Accords: A company should consider, and disclose when material, the risks or effects on its business of international accords and treaties relating to climate change.
- Indirect Consequences of Regulation or Business Trends: Legal, technological, political and scientific developments regarding climate change may create new opportunities or risks for companies. For instance, a company may face decreased demand for goods that produce significant greenhouse gas emissions or increased demand for goods that result in lower emissions than competing products. As such, a company should consider, for disclosure purposes, the actual or potential indirect consequences it may face due to climate change related regulatory or business trends.
- Physical Impacts of Climate Change: Companies should also evaluate for disclosure purposes the actual and potential material impacts of environmental matters on their business.
Although the SEC advised it would “monitor” the impact of its interpretive guidance on company filings, the SEC has yet to engage in any significant enforcement actions regarding climate change disclosures in light of its 2010 guidance. However, the New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman has taken up the charge. On November 8, 2015, Peabody Energy Corporation, the world’s largest private-sector coal company, entered into a settlement agreement with the Attorney General with respect to Peabody’s statements regarding climate change in its SEC filings and other public statements. This settlement may well mark the first chapter in greater scrutiny of the substance of the climate change disclosures by companies.
Using the Martin Act (a New York state securities law that grants the Attorney General broad authority to investigate financial fraud and misleading disclosures) the Attorney General, in 2013, commenced an investigation into Peabody’s climate change disclosures. The November 8th settlement found that Peabody made two misleading public statements. First, Peabody’s statement in its annual reports filed with the SEC that it could not “reasonably predict the future impact of any climate change regulation on its business” was found to be misleading to investors. Peabody, in conjunction with its consultants, had prepared market projections of the potential impact of certain proposed climate change regulations and failed to disclose such projections. The market projections forecasted that “certain potential regulatory scenarios could materially and adversely impact Peabody’s future business and financial condition.”
Second, in several of Peabody’s SEC filings, Peabody’s disclosure regarding the International Energy Agency’s (“IEA”) projections of future coal demand failed to note the IEA’s less-favorable projections. Peabody’s discussion of the IEA’s projections misled investors by cherry picking the high case for coal usage, which “assumes that governments do not implement any recent commitments that have yet to be backed-up by legislation and will not introduce other new policies bearing on the energy sector in the future, even those that are likely to be implemented by various nations.” The IEA’s projections also include a low case for coal usage and a central position and, while the IEA does not endorse any particular scenario, Peabody omitted both the low case and central position in several of its SEC filings.
Pursuant to the settlement agreement, Peabody agreed (i) to include specific disclosures in its next quarterly report with the SEC and (ii) that in future SEC filings or communications with shareholders, the financial industry, investors, the general public and others (a) it will not represent that it cannot reasonably project or predict the range of impacts that any future laws, regulations and policies relating to climate change would have on Peabody’s markets, operations, financial condition or cash flow or (b) any citation to the IEA’s projections will include an explanation of the IEA’s various scenarios.
The NY Attorney General is also reported to be investigating ExxonMobil, under the Martin Act, over its climate change statements. While the Peabody settlement agreement reflects the Attorney General’s increased attention to climate change disclosures by energy companies, the effect may well ripple into other industries. In addition, members of the House and Senate have requested an update on the SEC’s efforts to implement the SEC’s 2010 guidance. Nonetheless, questions remain as to whether the obligation to disclosure climate change associated risks will, in fact, be action-forcing so as to result in a change in the behavior of public companies. Will those companies and the public take substantive steps to address the root causes and impacts of climate change or just continue to write detailed disclosures of the potential risks that pass muster with the regulators? Will those enhanced disclosures result in increased investor pressures sufficient to cause those companies to undertake serious, significant, and potentially costly, measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and become low-carbon?
Posted on January 20, 2016
In a very interesting article, Michael Burger of the Sabin Center and his co-authors suggest that, following the Paris climate agreement, § 115 of the Clean Air Act provides authority for EPA to develop economy-wide GHG emissions reduction regulations that would be more comprehensive and efficient than EPA’s current industry-specific approach. And what, you may ask, is § 115? Even the most dedicated “airhead” has probably never worked with it.
Section 115 provides that, where EPA determines that emissions from the US are endangering public health or welfare in a foreign country, it may require SIP revisions sufficient to eliminate the endangerment – but only so long as there is “reciprocity”, i.e., the foreign country:
"has given the United States essentially the same rights with respect to the prevention or control of air pollution occurring in that country as is given that country by this section."
I love the idea. An economy-wide regime would be much more efficient. I wish that the argument made sense to me, but it does not.
The authors state that a global treaty could provide reciprocity, but then argue that “less binding commitments, including political commitments, should also suffice.” Thus, they conclude, the “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions”, or INDCs, which are the basis of the Paris Agreement, can provide reciprocity. Can you say “ipse dixit“?
They provide no precedent for this, because, as they acknowledge, § 115 has never been used. EPA started to use it once, and the authors provide two letters from then-Administrator Costle, suggesting that legally binding reciprocity is not required. However, EPA dropped the plan and the two letters were not finally agency action and were never subject to judicial review. Otherwise, the arguments simply seems to be that EPA can cloak itself in Chevron deference and that that is the end of the story.
Sorry, I don’t buy it. We’re talking about the law here. I think most judges would interpret the word “reciprocity” in a statute to mean something that is legally-binding; otherwise, it doesn’t mean anything. I don’t think it’s even a close enough question that Chevron deference will get EPA over the finish line.
The illogic of the authors’ argument seems to me to be demonstrated by their own words, when they argue reciprocity can’t mean a legally binding agreement, because that would mean that the foreign nations would be able to go to court to ensure that the US also meets its commitments under the Paris agreement, and the US would never allow that. But that’s precisely the point! Because there is no treaty, and the US would not let other nations try to enforce the US commitments under Paris, we cannot enforce theirs, and there is no reciprocity.
I wish it were otherwise.
Posted on January 11, 2016
Seth Jaffe’s recent post about the tension between Colorado’s governor and attorney general over who has the right to speak on behalf of Colorado in the Clean Power Plan litigation brought to mind the very first piece of environmental litigation I ever worked on, Village of Wilsonville v. SCA Services. In the late 1970s, SCA (which later became part of Chemical Waste Management) began operating a large hazardous waste landfill, fully permitted by Illinois EPA, in Wilsonville, Illinois, and the residents were predictably displeased. (Hint to those of you who operate similar NIMBY-ish facilities – don’t do as SCA did and disseminate marketing materials displaying the site as the “bullseye target” on a regional map showing concentric circles of distances to the facility.)
Not satisfied with some pretty effective self-help efforts (e.g. the Village dug a three-foot wide trench for “sewer repairs” across the only road into the site, thereby halting all truck traffic into and out of the facility), the Village sued SCA and Illinois EPA (the permitting agency) seeking permit revocation and a halt to operation of the facility. The case got off to an unusual start in the trial court (our firm was not retained until the unsuccessful appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court) when then-Attorney General William Scott, who had appeared in the case on behalf of Illinois EPA, stuck his finger in the air, felt which way the wind was blowing, and abandoned the defense of Illinois EPA to file his own complaint and join with the Village against the defendants, including the State agency. Perhaps unlike Colorado, Illinois law is pretty clear that the Attorney General has independent enforcement powers when it comes to environmental matters, so Scott’s volte-face didn’t cause much of a stir other than at Illinois EPA, which had never before been left hanging in the wind like this.
Bill Scott probably remains the Illinois Attorney General best known for environmental enforcement; the first line in his obituary correctly notes that he “achieved an international reputation for his battle on behalf of the environment during his four terms” as Attorney General. Scott tried but never made it to the Governor’s chair, though he clearly had what it takes. Like Otto Kerner, Dan Walker, George Ryan, and Rod Blagojevich - Illinois governors #33, 36, 39 and 40 respectively - Scott later served time in federal prison.
Over the years, notable cases of tension between disparate agencies of the same sovereign have spread from Wilsonville to Colorado to China. A recent news article notes, “Prosecutors in eastern China have filed a lawsuit against a county-level environmental protection department, accusing it of ‘failing to fulfil its regulatory duties’ in its supervision of a local sewage firm.” Apparently the United States is a successful exporter of something; I’m not sure what to call it, but it isn’t as desirable as the Fab Four or iPhones.
Posted on January 8, 2016
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) is finalizing guidance documents which will simplify how air permit applicants demonstrate that their emissions do not cause or contribute to exceedances of the PM2.5 National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS). This guidance is based upon a technical analysis showing that direct emissions of PM2.5 from most stationary sources do not meaningfully contribute to ambient concentrations of PM2.5. Building on this conclusion, WDNR will no longer require air dispersion modeling to be performed for PM2.5 when issuing most air permits. This novel state approach to PM2.5 regulation should adopted by other jurisdictions.
As EPA shifts its focus to regulating smaller forms of PM, the chemistry associated with these smaller pollutants has added to the complication of regulation. With respect to PM2.5, it is a pollutant emitted directly by certain emission sources (e.g., combustion processes) and is also formed secondarily in the atmosphere by the chemical interaction of precursor pollutants (NOx, SO2, ammonia). To date, states have generally implemented air permitting policies that simplify these complications. For example, states may assume that a percentage of a source’s PM10emissions consist of PM2.5 or that direct emissions of PM2.5 have the potential to significantly contribute to ambient concentrations of PM2.5. These generalities and assumptions have presented problems for stationary sources, especially when performing the air dispersion modeling attendant to receiving an air permit.
Recognizing these problems, WDNR undertook its own technical analysis which concludes that dispersion modeling of direct PM2.5emissions does not provide information useful for understanding the impact of those emissions on ambient air quality. WDNR found that direct, industrial stationary source PM2.5 emissions do not correlate with the ambient concentrations of PM2.5 in the atmosphere around a stationary source. Rather, PM2.5 exhibits characteristics more like a regional pollutant influenced by the emissions from numerous sources dispersed throughout a broad geographic region. Using this premise, WDNR will be restricting the circumstances when PM2.5 air dispersion modeling will be required when issuing air permits and the instance where sources will be subjected to PM2.5 emission limitations.
In this draft guidance, WDNR proposes to no longer require estimating PM2.5 emissions from fugitive dust sources, mechanical handling systems, grain handling operations or other low temperature PM sources. Rather, PM2.5 emission estimates will only be required for combustion and high temperature industrial processes that directly emit significant amounts of PM2.5. For these high temperature sources, WDNR will use a “weight of evidence” approach to conclude that direct emissions of PM2.5 do not cause or exacerbate a violation of the PM2.5 NAAQS or increments in ambient air. This will greatly simplify the manner in which air permit applicants must calculate PM2.5 emissions from a project, significantly limit the circumstances in which PM2.5 modeling must be performed as part of a permit application and restrict the instances in which PM2.5 emission limitations must be included in air permits.
Posted on January 7, 2016
The Paris Agreement on climate change reached on December 12, 2015 has a heavily negotiated sentence that, when closely read, seems to call for the virtual end of fossil fuel use in this century unless there are major advances in carbon sequestration or air capture technology. That, in turn, has important legal implications.
Article 4 Par. 1 says, “In order to achieve the long-term temperature goal … Parties aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible … and to achieve rapid reductions thereafter in accordance with best available science, so as to achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century.”
In other words, what goes up should be taken back down: for every ton of greenhouse gases (GHGs) emitted from a smokestack, tailpipe or chopped tree, a ton should be removed.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report (2014), fossil fuel use emits about 32 gigatons of carbon dioxide per year. Other sources, such as methane leakage, cement manufacture, and other industrial processes add another 5-7 gigatons carbon dioxide equivalent. Deforestation and other agriculture, forestry and other land use changes (but subtracting emissions sequestered by forest growth) add yet another 10-12 gigatons a year. This all adds up to about 49 gigatons. However, global carbon sinks remove only about 18 gigatons per year (8.8 to the oceans, 9.2 to land, not including land use changes).
Thus the sinks take up about the equivalent of the non-fossil sources. In order to achieve a “balance” between emissions and sinks, we need to just about end the release of GHGs from fossil fuels, though a radical increase in sinks or reduction on non-fossil fuel emissions would provide some slack.
Assuming that some kind of balance between emissions and sinks can be achieved, would we actually have until 2099 to decarbonize the economy, as these numbers imply is needed? Not really. Kelly Levin, Jennifer Morgan and Jiawei Song at the World Resources Institute provide here an illuminating overview of what is required to achieve the long-term temperature goal in Article 2 of the Paris Agreement (“holding the increase in global average temperature to well below 2° C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit temperature increase to 1.5° C”). As the WRI post notes, a recent paper in Nature Climate Change suggests that carbon dioxide from electricity would have to be brought close to zero by 2050, and by then around 25 per cent of energy required for transportation would also need to come from electricity (up from less than one per cent now).
There seem to be only three ways to continue to use fossil fuels for electricity in the second half of the century (and for transport by the end of the century) and still meet the temperature goal:
- Capture the carbon before it escapes into the air, and sequester it
- Devise, and deploy on a massive scale, technologies to remove the carbon from the air, and sequester it
- Create new sinks, such as through the immediate halt to deforestation and a worldwide program of tree planting
All three of these raise a question of how long the carbon will be stored; we do not know how long carbon will stay in reservoirs, and we do know that trees do not live forever, and when they burn or die they release their carbon. Moreover, the technologies of carbon capture and sequestration, and of removing carbon from the ambient air, are developing slowly and are nowhere near large scale deployment. (A price on carbon would create an economic incentive to develop and use these technologies, but politicians in most places are unwilling to impose such a price. A large-scale government-funded research effort, such as the ones that put human beings on the moon, could also produce the necessary innovation, but there has been little visible support for such an effort.) Most of the industrial carbon sequestration that now occurs goes toward “enhanced oil recovery” – squeezing oil out of depleted reservoirs – but extracting more oil is not compatible with stopping fossil fuel use.
Finding the land for large scale tree planting would face its own challenges in a world where sea level rise, persistent drought, and extreme heat will be rendering much land unsuitable for growing food.
So meeting the demands of society for energy means a combination of aggressive energy efficiency and conservation programs, the installation of renewable energy (and, perhaps, nuclear), and the substitution of electric or hydrogen vehicles for those using petroleum at an unprecedented pace. The Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project has set forth the colossal amount of new facility construction that would be required worldwide to achieve this.
The Paris Agreement calls on all countries to strengthen their pledges to reduce GHG emissions, and to monitor their progress and report it to the world. It also says that “all parties should strive to formulate and communicate long-term low greenhouse gas emission development strategies.” (Article 4 Par. 19) That looks like strategies under which every country must show how it is controlling its fossil fuel use.
These provisions are not legally enforceable. However, many domestic laws are, and they will become a powerful tool to force early planning, or at least disclosures. One key example is the securities disclosure requirements for publicly traded companies. On January 27, 2010, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission issued guidance for the disclosure of climate-related risks. It specifically calls on companies to “consider, and disclose when material, the impact on their business of treaties or international accords relating to climate change.” The Paris Agreement is clearly such an accord, and (if it is vigorously implemented) it will have material impact on many companies in the business of extracting, processing and using fossil fuels, or making things that rely on fossil fuels (such as motor vehicles, ships and airplanes). The SEC’s guidance makes clear that management’s discussion and analysis should explore known trends and uncertainties concerning climate regulation. This includes regulation outside the U.S. that can affect the operations abroad of U.S. companies. Therefore, disclosure can be expected of the effect of severe restrictions here or in other countries on fossil fuel use, including the possibility that most fossil fuel reserves will need to stay in the ground.
Climate disclosures have received increased attention since it was reported in November that New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is investigating ExxonMobil under the New York securities law, the Martin Act, over its statements about climate change, and had reached a settlement with Peabody Energy.
This is not necessarily limited to U.S.-registered companies. For example, in April 2015 the G20 finance ministers and central bank governors asked the U.K. Financial Stability Board for advice on the financial stability implications of climate change. In November 2015 this Board proposed the establishment of a disclosure task force to develop voluntary disclosures for several climate-related risks, including “the financial risks which could result from the process of adjustment towards a low-carbon economy.”
Going forward, impact review of energy projects under the National Environmental Policy Act and its counterparts in many states and most other developed countries should consider the phase-out of fossil fuels that is inherent in the Paris Agreement. For example, a proposal to build or finance a coal mine, a coal-fired power plant, or a coal port should consider whether the facility would need to be closed before the end of its otherwise useful life, and whether the project would be inconsistent with the Agreement.
Systematic analysis and disclosure of these risks will lead responsible boards of directors to undertake serious planning to effect an orderly transition to the low-carbon world that 188 countries agreed to in Paris. These disclosures will also help investors decide what companies will thrive in such a world (such as developers of technologies for renewable energy and efficiency), and what companies are failing to prepare for the transition and thus will themselves become fossils.
Posted on January 5, 2016
The Paris Agreement resulting from the COP21 Climate Conference was extraordinary, far better than any of the pundit “experts” expected (indeed most were predicting gloom and doom until the very last minute). That the conference organizers could get 190 countries that had been quarreling with each other through 20 prior unsuccessful conferences, and many of which have little mutual respect, to come together to unanimously support an agreement of substance on a subject as complex, huge, costly and politically difficult as tackling climate change, is nothing less than a miracle.
Christiana Figuerez and the French negotiating team were brilliant in asking only that countries submit voluntary Independently Nationally Determine Contributions (INDCs) rather than a repeat of conference mandated so-called “binding” carbon reductions as required in the unsuccessful Kyoto Protocol, binding only on developed countries that ratified (and even then signatory Canada simply withdrew). Their pre-conference preparatory work and skillful conference conduct was critical to its success.
The momentum that was built up as virtually all the countries, large and small, rich and poor, made meaningful submissions was such that it would have been very difficult for any of one nation to spoil the broth.
Indeed, the momentum was so great that even previously very reluctant China, India, S. Africa and Brazil agreed to mandatory verification provisions, extremely important to the effectiveness of the Agreement.
That the INDCs were not sufficient to meet the IPCC scientists’ assessment of need to reduce global temperature increases to no more than below a 2.5 Celsius degrees above pre-industrial revolution levels was to be expected. But that the parties agreed to meet every 5 years to make further contribution pledges, again despite powerful country reluctance, was a vital success.
One little touted success was a provision to have the Agreement recognize the climate mitigation contributions of non-national organizations, states, provinces, cities, businesses and NGOs, a provision on which I and a group from Yale dubbed The Yale Dialogue, worked very hard to get included. Their inclusion is very important since many of them have already achieved much more than their national governments have been able to pledge. Perhaps most importantly, it is they that ordinarily are the key actors in establishing energy efficiency standards and often renewable energy incentives. The Paris Agreement doesn’t call for ratification until 2020, and progress before then will fall largely on their shoulders.
While the task before all the countries of the world to achieve the goals sought through the Agreement is daunting, the Paris Agreement has gotten the world off to a wonderfully good start.