COAL

Posted on October 8, 2019 by Donald Stever

My blog posts have, in the past, largely focused on this or that regulation or some legal development or other dealing with chemical regulation or environmental statutes or rules in general. This one is different.

I grew up in Pennsylvania coal country. Well, actually on the border between the coal mines on the Piedmont Plateau (CO2 precursors) and the big dairy farm (methane emitters) region in the wide valleys that stretched along the Allegheny Mountains. My father was a veterinarian. As a kid I was his unpaid assistant. One vivid childhood memory I have is of going down into a deep shaft coal mine with my father; I lay on my back in an electric rail car, traveling nearly a mile into the earth where my father was called to treat an injured mule. You see, mules pulled the coal cars from the active extraction shafts to the main mine shaft. Oh, and the mules were blind. They were blinded intentionally because (a) there was no light anyway and (b) they learned to know the labyrinth by senses other than sight. Then there was the coughing. The mules coughed. The miners coughed. All were covered with coal dust. My father returned to the mine from time to time. I demurred.

Which brings me to my point. When I retired from my full-time litigation-heavy law practice I started to read books, a pastime that I had largely been denied for lack of time during the fifty-odd years of environmental law practice. Not pulp novels. Mostly not “best sellers.” Nope. I read science-based books, many of which address the environment. Two of these dealt in part with the subject of coal.  Peter Brannen, in The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and Our Quest to Understand Earth's Past Mass Extinctions, neatly explains the primary cause of the last five extinctions of nearly all life on Earth, discernable from analyses of geologic strata. The culprit? Carbon dioxide emitted by the combustion of coal (fossil vegetable matter accumulated over eons of time) caused by massive flows of volcanic magma which ignited enormous coal deposits, which in turn heated up the atmosphere, which in turn heated up and acidified the oceans. So, burning coal pushes carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which traps solar heat, heats up the earth and oceans and every complex living thing (or almost every living thing) dies.

Sound familiar? In his most recent book, Falter, Bill McKibben points to irrefutable scientific analyses concluding that human combustion of coal and its cousin oil, abetted by human agricultural emissions of methane, is on track to raise carbon dioxide levels in the  atmosphere to a concentration that is higher than the carbon dioxide levels that triggered all of the prior mass extinctions.

I have to ask: are the Trumps and the Wheelers and the McConnells and their counterparts in Asia and South America who simply deny the obvious consequences of their refusal to deal with the issue of runaway combustion of fossil carbon unable to read? Obviously, they can read, but I dare say that inability to read would at least give them an excuse for denying my three-year-old granddaughter a habitable planet on which to live.

Singer-songwriter and distinguished member of the New Hampshire Bar John Perrault perhaps says it best in his song, Carbon the Garden:

There is the Capitol floatin’ away

Congressmen wailing “it’s a mighty fine day”

Tell me, how long does it take to investigate

Oh, the oceans in the kitchen and the desert’s at the garden gate.

Song lyrics by John Perrault © 2013 John Perrault

Calling Off the NEPA Hounds – The CEQ’s 2019 Draft Guidance on GHG Emissions

Posted on September 12, 2019 by JB Ruhl

On June 26, 2019, the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) published a Draft National Environmental Policy Act Guidance on Consideration of Greenhouse Gas Emissions (84 Fed. Reg. 30097). This new guidance would replace the guidance on that theme CEQ published in August 2016 (2016 Guidance) and which President Trump extinguished by executive order, and CEQ immediately withdrew, early in April 2017 (E.O. 13783 and 82 Fed. Reg. 16576). The much shorter 2019 Draft Guidance bears some similarities to the 2016 Guidance:

  • Both advise agencies to use GHG emissions as a proxy for climate effects.    
  • Both emphasize that agencies should follow the NEPA “rule of reason” for identifying direct and indirect effects and for keeping the depth of analysis proportionate to the scale of the effects.
  • Both allow agencies to use available emission quantification tools, but also to refrain from quantification if the available information is of poor quality or if the analysis would be too complicated, provided they explain why.
  • Both advise agencies not to engage in overly speculative analysis.
  • Both emphasize that NEPA does not require cost-benefit monetization analysis.

From there, however, the two guidances look nothing alike. To begin with, the 2016 Guidance declared that “climate change is a fundamental environmental issue, and its effects fall squarely within NEPA’s purview,” and that “it is now well established that rising global atmospheric GHG emission concentrations are significantly affecting the Earth’s environment.” In short, climate change was the core focus throughout the 2016 Guidance. By contrast, the 2019 Draft Guidance refers only to “potential climate effects” of GHG emissions, and does so only twice in the document. It is perhaps remarkable that any Trump administration guidance actually recognizes that GHG emissions could have “potential climate effects,” but the CEQ skirts the issue so much that one might easily miss the point of why agencies are being asked to conduct GHG emissions analyses in the first place.

More substantively, the 2019 Draft Guidance omits three key features (among others) of the 2016 Guidance. First, there is no mention of mitigation in the 2019 Draft Guidance, whereas that was a focus of the 2016 Guidance. Under the 2019 Draft Guidance, in other words, agencies would estimate GHG emissions of the proposed action but not need to consider action alternatives that generate lower emissions or higher sequestration.

Second, the 2016 Guidance included a section on scope of the action that advised agencies to consider predicate and consequential effects of the action. For example, proposed resource extraction actions should consider GHG emissions from reasonably foreseeable predicates such as clearing land and building access roads, and from reasonably foreseeable consequences such as transportation, refining, and use of the resource. The 2019 Draft Guidance makes no mention of such analyses.

Most glaringly of all, the 2019 Draft Guidance completely ignores the need to assess the impacts of climate change on the proposed action. Recognizing that “GHGs already in the atmosphere will continue altering the climate system into the future” and that “NEPA review should consider an action in the context of the future state of the environment,” the 2016 Guidance included an extensive section advising agencies on how to evaluate the effects of climate change on a proposed action and to consider how adaptation and resilience measures might be integrated into the action. No doubt because it would require acknowledging that climate change is occurring, the 2019 Draft Guidance contains no such guidance.

The bottom line is that, if the 2019 Draft Guidance were adopted as is, agencies will conduct GHG emissions analyses but not need to consider reasonably foreseeable upstream and downstream emissions or how the action could incorporate climate change mitigation, adaptation, and resilience. Of course, that would just be CEQ guidance. The courts may have a different idea for how NEPA engages climate change.

Climate Whack-a-Mole; or How the Trump Administration Institutionalizes Ignorance in the Endangered Species Act

Posted on August 27, 2019 by Peter Van Tuyn

Given the severity and finality of the extinction of species on this planet, and the myriad adverse impacts on human society and natural ecosystems of such extinction, Congress passed the hallmark Endangered Species Act in 1973.  Since then it has helped save myriad species from extinction and recover many species to healthy population levels.  The success of the ESA in meeting its goals, and strong public support for the law, did not stop the Trump administration from targeting the ESA to ease what it perceives as its negative impact on economic growth. 

As those familiar with the ESA know, a central duty under the law is for federal agencies to consult with the experts within the federal government before undertaking any activity that might jeopardize a species listed under the ESA or adversely modify such a species’ critical habitat.  This consultation helps both to prevent jeopardy and adverse modification and to identify ways in which the activity could proceed without having such effects. 

Among the Trump administration’s controversial proposals was to change the ESA regulations to create a climate change exemption to the ESA’s expert consultation process.  This proposal would have exempted from such consultation any proposed federal action with “effects that are manifested through global processes,” a phrase that is a clear reference to climate change. 

Not surprisingly, this proposal was met with substantial criticism from ESA supporters, who asserted that there was no legal authority to excise climate change from the ESA’s consultation requirements and that to deliberately do so was extremely foolhardy.  These people undoubtedly breathed a sigh of relief when the final rule came out without this proposal, which the Trump administration abandoned “in the interest of efficiency” in the face of that stinging criticism.  

That sigh, however, was certainly followed by a gasp, as those same people found that the final regulations included a wholly new regulatory approach designed to achieve the same effect.  The Trump administration did this by controlling what the expert agencies can consider as they seek to understand the effects of proposed federal action. 

Here is how it works.  First, the final rule defines “effects of the action” as

all consequences to listed species or critical habitat that are caused by the proposed action, including the consequences of other activities that are caused by the proposed action. A consequence is caused by the proposed action if it would not occur but for the proposed action and it is reasonably certain to occur. Effects of the action may occur later in time and may include consequences occurring outside the immediate area involved in the action.

(emphasis here and elsewhere added).  One layer deeper, the final rule defines the newly-added term “consequence,” in relevant part, as follows: 

Considerations for determining that a consequence to the species or critical habitat is not caused by the proposed action include, but are not limited to:  (1) The consequence is so remote in time from the action under consultation that it is not reasonably certain to occur; or (2) The consequence is so geographically remote from the immediate area involved in the action that it is not reasonably certain to occur; or (3) The consequence is only reached through a lengthy causal chain that involves so many steps as to make the consequence not reasonably certain to occur.

The final rule also defines the term “reasonably certain to occur,” which was not defined in the prior rule, to read, in relevant part, as follows:

Factors to consider when evaluating whether activities caused by the proposed action (but not part of the proposed action) or activities reviewed under cumulative effects are reasonably certain to occur include, but are not limited to:  (1) Past experiences with activities that have resulted from actions that are similar in scope, nature, and magnitude to the proposed action; (2) Existing plans for the activity; and (3) Any remaining economic, administrative, and legal requirements necessary for the activity to go forward. 

Finally, the new rule mandates that the criteria set forth in these new definitions of “consequences” and “reasonably certain to occur” “must be considered by the action agency and the [expert agencies].” 

Although the term “climate change” is not used in the text, the intention to preclude the Services from considering climate change is evident.  To begin with, the definition of “consequences” sets forth three criteria and provides that any one of these would support a non-causation finding.  These three factors – remoteness in time, geographic remoteness, and lengthy causal chain – are classic attributes of climate change.  Indeed, climate change is a global phenomenon that has taken decades to develop from multiple sources, through what may be (or perhaps in some cases may not be) complex causal chains.  Furthermore, the definition of “reasonably certain to occur” takes a retrospective stance, emphasizing “past experiences” and “existing plans,” and thus discounts the possibility of new and novel activities resulting from a proposed action in a climate-altered world. 

By providing that the criteria in these two definitions “must be considered,” the new rule makes it clear that it is creating a mandatory duty for the expert agencies to ignore climate-related impacts in their consultations under the ESA.  Indeed, the preamble to the new rule explains that, in situations where the consequences of activities resulting from a proposed action are “remote in time or location, or are only reached following a lengthy causal chain of events,” the consequences of such activities “would not be considered reasonably certain to occur,” thus removing discretion from the experts to determine the likelihood of occurrence. 

So, the Trump administration reacted to the hammering of its proposed attempt to institutionalize the ignorance of climate change impacts on listed species and their habitat with an approach that appears for the first time in the final rule and is effectively the same. This may not be the end of the matter, however, as I suspect the gasps of ESA supporters will turn to anger, and then to action, as they likely head to the courtroom to challenge the final rule.

The Bureau of Land Management’s NEPA Review of Land Plans: Is Net Zero A Reasonable Alternative?

Posted on August 20, 2019 by Robert Uram

The Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) requires the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to review and revise its land use plans periodically. In the current round of reviews, the BLM is seeking to roll back protections for areas of critical environmental concern, to reduce lands managed for wilderness, and to greatly expand lands available for oil and gas and coal leasing. Since production and consumption of oil, gas, and coal result in the release of vast amounts of carbon, these changes threaten to worsen the outlook for global warming.

Before it can adopt these land use changes, the BLM must, of course, comply with the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA). Now nearing its 50th anniversary, NEPA is one of the most important federal environmental laws. While NEPA does not mandate that a federal agency take actions that are most protective of the environment, it does require decision makers to fully disclose the environmental impacts of any major federal action in an Environmental Impact Statement. Additionally, an EIS must present and consider reasonable alternatives to a proposed federal action that might mitigate environmental impacts. Consideration of alternatives is at the heart of an EIS. An EIS that does not cover a full range of reasonable alternatives is deficient.

Increased future fossil fuel development on public lands will lead to enormous increases in climate change gases. The fact that fossil fuel development affects global temperatures has long been clear to federal decision makers. Indeed, as long ago as 1979, the Programmatic EIS for the Federal Coal Leasing program warned that coal use was a contributor to greenhouse gases and could result in increased temperatures of 2-3° Celsius. The BLM will certainly make some attempt to disclose these impacts, but mere disclosure is not enough. The BLM needs to present meaningful alternatives that would address climate change concerns.

To date, the BLM has been considering a short list of alternatives in its land use planning EISs,  a no-action alternative that would keep the current land use plan in place, and several alternatives that vary the amount of protection for sensitive lands and the extent of lands open to fossil fuel development. If Judge Skelly Wright (the author of the seminal NEPA case, Calvert Cliffs v. Atomic Energy Commission) were alive today, he would undoubtedly call the BLM’s approach “crabbed.”

In particular, the BLM’s alternatives fail to present the decision maker with an alternative that would directly address the increase of carbon emissions. Many authoritative analyses, including the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, have concluded that the world needs to achieve net zero carbon emissions economy-wide by 2050 to limit the temperature rise to 1.5˚C above pre-industrial levels. Net zero carbon dioxide can be achieved by balancing carbon emissions with carbon removal or offsets or simply eliminating carbon emissions altogether.

To comply with NEPA, the BLM needs to add a “net zero” land-use planning alternative that would reduce or mitigate net carbon impacts from activities in the planning area to zero by 2050 or another date certain. This alternative would, by necessity, constrain fossil fuel development and provide for offsetting carbon reductions. A net zero alternative can be fully consistent with FLPMA.

Net zero land use planning is not unrealistic. Many countries, states, local governments, and private businesses have or will adopt net zero policies, and many development projects are being planned to achieve net zero now. Even very large carbon producing projects can achieve net zero emissions. For example, a master planned community in southern California that will build 21,000 homes and 11.5 million square feet of commercial and office space associated with 60,000 jobs was originally planned with little consideration of climate effects. Years of litigation, environmental analysis, and private initiative transformed the project into a net zero project by incorporating a combination of onsite and offsite measures.

To achieve net zero, the project will design homes and business to be energy efficient and use solar power, will install an electric vehicle charging station in every home and build 4,000 other electric vehicle charging stations, half in the community and half offsite. In addition, the project will provide subsidies for converting public transit buses to electric buses and creating an electric school bus program within the community. Offsite, the project will invest in carbon reducing measures in the surrounding area as well as elsewhere in California and other locations.

In these critical times for the planet, NEPA can play an important role in showing a path to net zero. Net zero alternatives for the BLM’s land-use plans and other activities would illuminate the role public lands plays in contributing to (and potentially avoiding) the adverse effects of global warming and identify changes needed to reach net zero for the proposed federal action. It might be too much to hope for that this administration will seize the opportunity to adopt a net zero alternative, but the analysis of what is needed will be informative and can be a blueprint for future administrations.

Some Labor Principles for Climate Change Legislation

Posted on May 20, 2019 by Eugene Trisko

The Democratic takeover of the House has rekindled hopes for climate change legislation, notwithstanding major hurdles in the Senate and the White House. While little but incremental progress is likely over the foreseeable future, the legislative concepts now being developed may gain greater traction after the 2020 general election.

Labor unions have participated in all major climate legislative developments since the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, and were involved in the drafting of the carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology and other provisions of the 2009 Waxman-Markey climate bill. Labor has consistently advocated for a comprehensive, economy-wide legislative solution to climate change. However, it is essential that any such legislation also be crafted to provide for worker adjustment assistance programs to address job displacement impacting families and communities.

Unions in the energy space are concerned about the adverse job implications of potential carbon tax legislation. Carbon taxes create uncertainties about market responses and lack assurance that advanced emission mitigation technologies such as CCS could be deployed in time to avert massive dislocation of workers in the petroleum, coal, rail, and mining sectors.

Any carbon tax legislation necessarily must include significant revenue set-asides for worker adjustment and community redevelopment assistance. Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that more than two million workers are directly employed in 14 vulnerable fossil fuel-related industries, with annual wages and benefits of some $180 billion. An additional seven million indirect jobs are in support industries and communities.

Major energy unions also are concerned about unrealistic solutions such as those advocated in the “Green New Deal” and by proponents of “Keep It in the Ground.” Legislation addressing the complex issues of carbon emission reduction must address: a) the tremendous impact such legislation will have on millions of fossil fuel-reliant jobs across America; and b) the costs and full recompense required to mitigate the effects of the loss of those jobs on workers, families and communities.

Speaker Pelosi has indicated that an emission allowance trading program such as that developed in the 2009 Waxman-Markey bill is a good starting point for discussions about future climate legislation. Updating and improving that bill could offer strong technology incentives while delivering significant longer-term emission reductions. A revamped allowance-based program could reflect the following principles:

1) All major emitting sectors (utilities, industrial, transportation) should be covered by a national trading program based on an upstream allocation of allowances  - i.e., to utility generating units, gas pipelines, oil refineries, etc.;

2) The rate of decline for any cap (sectoral or national) should to be assessed in light of the cost and availability of technologies for reducing CO2. In the case of electric utilities, a longer time frame for reductions can be justified based on lengthy engineering and construction lead-times - the transportation sector similarly requires long lead-times due to the gradual rollover of vehicle fleets;

3) A bonus allowance program for technology retrofits at utility and industrial units, similar to that employed in Waxman-Markey and the 1990 acid rain program, would complement the CCS incentives that Congress recently enacted in 45Q tax credit legislation;

4) Allowance auctions should be avoided as they constitute a form of double taxation on emitting sectors: first, compliance must be achieved through investments in control measures, and second, allowances must be purchased through an auction system;

5) Any economy-wide legislation should seek to maintain fuel diversity among "clean" fossil, nuclear, and renewable resources, with adequate 24/7 baseload generating capabilities. Reliance on large-scale battery storage to back up renewable power sources cannot provide assurance of grid stability over prolonged episodes of severe weather; and

6) Minimal limitations should be placed on emission allowance banking and borrowing to reduce overall compliance costs. Similarly, a broad variety of domestic and international offsets should be available, including initiatives to help reduce deforestation.

Legislation reflecting these principles may face fewer political hurdles than some of the more extreme proposals being advocated today. While current science informs a commitment to large-scale global reductions to meet aggressive climate targets, the U.S. should act in a manner consistent with the preservation and expansion of highly-paid skilled jobs in the energy and transport sectors. A technology-oriented path for achieving significant long-term reductions appears more politically and economically feasible than calls to eliminate all fossil fuel use within the next decade or two.

____________

NOTE: The writer is an adviser to several energy-related labor unions concerned about climate change legislation and regulation.

The 2018 Farm Bill is surprisingly climate-conscious.

Posted on January 31, 2019 by Peter Lehner

Roughly every five years, Congress revises and renews the Farm Bill to fund our nation’s food security, nutrition, and farm conservation programs. The 2018 Farm Bill, which passed with large bipartisan majorities in both chambers, is surprisingly climate-conscious. Its successes will serve as a foundation upon which future more aggressive climate-smart farm policy can be built.

The Farm Bill’s climate change benefits stem from a number of provisions that incentivize more climate-friendly practices. For example, the Farm Bill’s federal crop insurance program will now allow — rather than discourage — greater use of cover crops, a practice that has well-proven climate and water quality benefits. This program, which is now the primary federal subsidy to industrial farming, has often inhibited the use of climate-friendly practices such as cover crops and longer crop rotations, while at the same time encouraging planting on marginal lands, which are better suited as habitat for wildlife, buffers for streams, and carbon sinks. The 2018 law takes steps to end these perverse incentives.

The Conservation title of the bill contains a number of programs that will help curb climate change. This title continues to provide about $6 billion annually to the Conservation Reserve Program, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, and the Conservation Stewardship Program, all of which saw modest improvements in the 2018 Farm Bill. The changes to EQIP, which generally provides a 75 percent cost-share for installation of approved conservation measures, best illustrate how these traditional programs can pay climate and environmental dividends, with the added twist of garnering the support of fiscal conservatives.

EQIP data from USDA indicated that only 14 percent of EQIP funding went to conservation practices identified as producing the most environmental benefits. To turn the tide, the new law allows states to identify 10 highly effective conservation practices to be eligible for a greater financial incentive. Since climate change induced farm losses harm both the farmer and the taxpayer -- for example, climate-driven natural disasters in 2012 incurred $17.3 billion in crop insurance payments – shifting to more efficient practices is a sound fiscal move as well. 

The Bill also increases funding for organic farming and for a range of practices that help store carbon in the soil and emit fewer greenhouse gases. It also lowers the set-aside for EQIP funds for livestock operators from 60% to 50%, which is critical since livestock operations are responsible for about 80 percent of agriculture's climate change impact.   

CRP pays farmers to take environmentally sensitive land out of production for 10 to 15 years.  Because producers often bring their CRP acres back into production when the contract expires, releasing any carbon stored in the soil during the off years, the benefits are often only temporary.  The bill supports climate-friendly practices like riparian buffer and prairie strips and authorizes 30-year contracts on a pilot basis.  The law also provides a minimum number of acres to be enrolled in the program that targets the most environmentally sensitive lands and pays producers to establish tree and grass buffers along streams.  These water quality provisions both have a climate impact and create a precedent for more climate-change-focused amendments in the future.

Finally, the 2018 Farm Bill increases Conservation Stewardship Program payment levels for cover crops, resource-conserving crop rotations, and management-intensive rotational grazing – all of which reduce water pollution, help slow climate change, and help producers weather climate change.  It also establishes a soil health demonstration program, funded at $15 million, setting a good precedent for larger future action by the federal government and states.

The same provisions that fight climate change, will also encourage practices that protect the drinking water of millions. Industrial-scale agriculture — the large chemical-dependent monocultures where the same crop is planted year after year and the production of grain-fed animals in enormous enclosed facilities — is one of the largest sources of water pollution in the country, such as the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico or the eutrophication of the Chesapeake Bay. This agricultural water pollution can render water unfit for further human use and impose significant drinking water treatment costs on thousands or millions of communities and homeowners, such as when Toledo had to shut its water supply due to algal toxins, or the nitrate contamination in thousands of drinking water wells that could cause “blue baby syndrome.”  As a result of the clear and present threat, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), a lead negotiator of the final bill, was able to build bipartisan agreement to support practices that could reduce this pollution.

As a climate bonus, the 2018 Farm Bill also takes some steps to help reduce food waste, most of which now rots in landfills, releasing large amounts of methane.  The bill funds pilot projects in ten states to develop local composting and food waste reduction efforts and promotes the donation of agricultural commodities.  It also creates a Food Loss and Waste Reduction Liaison in the USDA to coordinate federal programs and clarifies liability protections for food donations, among other measures. 

This legislation comes at a critical moment, when our country must decide whether and how to deal with the dramatic warming of the planet. Two recent climate reports confirm that we must act on climate change quickly, and that the extreme weather climate scientists have been warning us about are here and will worsen in the years ahead.

Our agricultural activities are both contributors to and victims of the changing climate. At the same time that industrial agriculture releases tremendous amounts of greenhouse gases from excess fertilization, tillage, manure, and animal emissions, our farms and ranches are also particularly vulnerable to the floods, droughts, heat waves, pests, and other problems that climate change exacerbates. For example, the 2016 California drought resulted in over $600 million in economic loss; Hurricane Maria in 2017 devastated 80% of Puerto Rico’s agriculture and caused $780 million in losses; heat waves threaten both crops and farmworkers.  It’s to everyone’s benefit to help those who produce our food be ready for the changing weather. 

Moreover, farmers and ranchers are uniquely situated to help slow climate change simply by preparing for it. Sustainable farmers and ranchers around the country have repeatedly demonstrated that many farming practices can help both slow and withstand climate change. There are many practices that increase carbon stored in soil or that use natural systems to reduce chemical needs and thus lower greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, they increase the amount of water the soil can absorb and enrich the fertility of the soil, thereby helping farmers endure worsening conditions. These same practices also reduce water pollution and save farmers money.

Given the scale and scope of the climate problem we face, more needs to be done in the next Farm Bill — indeed, much sooner — to accomplish the change needed in the agricultural sector so that it can produce sufficient nutritious food in more extreme weather without making climate change and other pollution worse. This won’t be easy given that the Farm Bureau, one of strongest voices shaping US agriculture policy, repeatedly and fiercely opposes any efforts to curb climate change, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as part of Donald Trump's administration, never mentions climate change. Yet, it’s necessary.

The 2018 Farm Bill, by lifting up practices known to have multiple environmental benefits, is a promising place to start.

Carrying Coals to Newcastle … and Katowice

Posted on January 3, 2019 by Zach C. Miller

When Newcastle was the largest British exporter of coal, talk of “carrying coals to Newcastle” meant engaging in something senseless, superfluous, or foolish.  The Trump administration’s recent actions on coal use and climate change have taken the expression to new heights – or depths.

In June 2017, the Trump administration isolated the U.S. by making it the only country in the world to announce plans to withdraw from the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change.  Last month the administration made things worse by its actions at the U.N. climate conference in Katowice, Poland – an historic, heavily polluted coal mining area.  Instead of joining the signatories to the Paris Agreement in negotiating the “rule book” for implementing that Agreement, the U.S. delegation presented a “side-event” (some say “side-show”) promoting the use of coal and fossil fuels.  Use of innovative, cleaner technologies to burn coal and fossil fuels would be laudable if combined with sound strategies to transition to cleaner, sustainable energy sources, but that was not the thrust of the side-show.  The coal “pep rally” in Katowice thus highlighted that the U.S., as represented by the current administration, is tone-deaf and no longer a leader in international climate discussions. 

The Trump administration staged a similar coal-booster event at the 2017 U.N. climate conference in Bonn, but with important differences.  In Bonn, U.S. representatives worked extensively with other countries on the Paris Agreement’s rule book, with an eye towards the U.S. possibly not withdrawing from the Agreement.  But most of the key Trump administration insiders who then favored staying in the Paris Agreement are now gone, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, national security advisor H.R. McMaster, energy adviser George Banks, and economic advisor Gary Cohn.  They’ve been replaced by Paris Agreement opponents:  Mike Pompeo, John Bolton, Wells Griffith, and Larry Kudlow.  As a result, the participation and influence of the U.S. in international climate discussions has become increasingly leaner, weaker and less relevant.

Meanwhile, at the G-20 Summit last month in Buenos Aires, countries led by France and China further isolated the U.S. when the Summit’s final communique stated that all 19 other countries “reaffirm that the Paris Agreement is irreversible and commit to its full implementation.”  The U.S. stuck out like a sore thumb by reiterating there its decision to be the sole nation to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, and instead touting “its strong commitment to economic growth and energy access . . . .”

These U.S. actions come directly on the heels of three significant studies, two from the Trump administration itself, that directly refute the administration’s positions.  The October 2018 Report of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that the world’s use of coal for generating electricity will need to be reduced dramatically by mid-century – from 40% down to 1-7% – to prevent catastrophic droughts, fires, floods, and storms resulting from climate change.  Then the recent report of DOE’s Energy Information Administration concluded that regardless of the climate debate, over 500 plants and 75 gigawatts of coal-fired power have been or soon will be retired and U.S. coal use is expected to continue to decrease (44% less than 2007 use), due mainly to market forces such as cheaper natural gas and renewable energy.  Finally, the November 26, 2018 Fourth National Climate Assessment – issued by 13 federal agencies and the Trump administration’s own White House – unequivocally states that climate change is already occurring, is partly caused by human activity, and must be urgently addressed to prevent catastrophic impacts.  President Trump’s only response to that overwhelming evidence from his own office: “I don’t believe it.” 

Why does this matter?  Two reasons.  First, if climate change is the severe and urgent problem virtually all climate scientists (and the White House’s own report) conclude it is, the failure of the U.S. to respond to it is an enormous and possibly irreversible blunder.  Second, taking such a position has caused the U.S. to cede its leadership role in the international debate on climate change and the design of creative and appropriate responses to it.  Because others – including China and Russia – are stepping into the resulting void and steering the direction of future actions in this and related environmental and economic fields, the U.S. may never recover that leadership role. 

The Trump administration’s Katowice side-show and similar superfluous actions may pander to the administration’s base.  But these senseless acts are merely “carrying coals to Newcastle” and accomplish nothing, while our most critical environmental problem goes unaddressed by the federal government.

“Let No Man Put Asunder:” The Act of God Defense and Climate Change

Posted on November 2, 2017 by Peter Hsiao

Following the punishing hurricanes in the gulf coast and island regions of the United States, concern immediately turned to the environmental impacts of toxic releases from damaged chemical facilities.  EPA reports that 13 of the 41 Superfund sites in the area were flooded by Hurricane Harvey.  High winds and rain damaged the protective cap at the San Jacinto River Waste Pits, risking the escape of dioxin contaminated sediments, and EPA ordered the responsible companies to take immediate action.  Even without an order, facility owners will often act as quickly as possible to contain any spills and mitigate their impacts. 

But as a matter of law, would there be a basis to defend against the EPA order or claims for response costs by asserting the Act of God defense?  CERCLA and the Oil Pollution Act both provide a complete defense to liability if the party can show that the release of hazardous substances (or petroleum under the OPA) was caused solely by an act of God.  The defense is severely limited by the requirement that a natural disaster must be “unanticipated” and an “exceptional” event.  For example, CERCLA’s legislative history says a major hurricane may be an act of God, but may not qualify as unanticipated or exceptional in an area where hurricanes are common.  Reportedly there are no cases where the defense has been successfully raised.

A superstorm such as Hurricane Harvey may present a more compelling case for this defense.  While hurricanes are expected in the area, an event that unleashed an estimated 19 trillion gallons of water can be considered exceptional and arguably unforeseeable, even with the recent history of other superstorms (e.g., Sandy, Katrina).  Successfully asserting the defense will likely depend upon expert testimony showing the facility implemented enhanced protective measures before the storm, probably true for most major industrial facilities in the affected area, and that exceptional circumstances overwhelmed those measures, which circumstances could not have been anticipated or prevented even by the exercise of due care or foresight.  

Comparing the precautions taken by other similarly situated facilities will also be important to establish the standard of care.  For example, the Texas environmental agencies worked with chemical facilities before the storm to protect hazardous waste containers from damage and flooding, and any facility asserting the defense will likely need to have undertaken similar precautions to have any chance of success.  For a toxic tort case, there is no statutory Act of God defense, but the same types of arguments will be used to show the facility exercised due care and reasonable foresight in taking protective measures. These issues will also be presented in insurance claims and litigation regarding coverage disputes. 

The defense however has an additional requirement, that the Act of God not be the result of human action, such as from greenhouse gas emissions.  While the relationship between climate change and these superstorms may not be known until years of further study, there is preliminary evidence that global warming made the storms worse by increasing ocean temperatures and raising the sea level, intensifying the impacts of its wind speed, rainfall and storm surges. 

So the Act of God defense may become impossible to win for a superstorm if man-made contributions were a factor – but is this meaningful?  The defense has never been successfully asserted in any event.  But if an alternative causation for a superstorm can be proven by a preponderance of the evidence, there is a potential basis for the responsible party under CERCLA or a tort theory to seek contribution or otherwise allocate a proportionate share of liability to others.  And the large number of “other” potential defendants who contributed to global warming will raise difficult issues of justiciablity.  The recent superstorms may produce a test case with the right combination of circumstances to squarely present these issues to a court. 

That is, while not a complete defense, climate change may provide new theories for defendants.  When a door closes, a window may blow open.

Does Trump Election Boost Children’s Climate Crusade?

Posted on November 14, 2016 by Rick Glick

As reported here, Oregon is among a group of states in which groups of school age plaintiffs are suing to force the government to do more about climate change.  On November 10, U. S. District Judge Ann Aiken adopted the magistrate judge’s April Findings and Recommendations in Juliana et al. v. United States to deny the government’s motion to dismiss. 

Plaintiffs seek a declaration that U. S. policies and actions have substantially contributed to climate change—even though the government was aware of the climate consequences—and an injunction to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  Plaintiffs allege that the government’s failures violate plaintiffs’ substantive due process rights and violate the government’s public trust obligations.  

The judge found that plaintiffs have presented facts sufficient to state a cause of action, stressing that the context of her ruling is a motion to dismiss in which she must assume the truth of the pleadings.  In her 54-page opinion, Judge Aiken recognizes and embraces that this case breaks new ground, concluding:  “Federal courts too often have been cautious and overly deferential in the arena of environmental law, and the world has suffered for it.”

In my earlier post, I suggested that the case is not likely to succeed, as climate change is so complex, diffuse and political a problem as to render the case nonjusticiable.  Although Judge Aiken was undeterred by these considerations, I still believe that to be true.  Still, did the election of Donald Trump give new impetus to the case?

The president-elect believes human-induced climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese, has pledged to walk from the Paris Accords and to undo the Obama Administration’s executive orders and rulemakings to curtail greenhouse gas emissions, and has chosen climate change skeptic Myron Ebell to head his EPA transition team.  This, combined with a solidly Republican Congress with no inclination to address climate change, makes it pretty clear that the only action we can expect by the federal government is to roll back any forward progress made over the past eight years.

It seems the case to force action is more difficult where the government is appearing to grapple with climate change, as Obama attempted to do despite congressional hostility.  Could it make a difference in this case that the government not only takes no action, but denies the overwhelming scientific evidence of rising global temperatures resulting from GHG emissions?  Could the election create a sense of urgency that a court may feel the need to address?  Maybe, but this still strikes me as tough case to sustain.

A more likely result of the election is to see some states pushing harder for some kind of carbon pricing, like a cap and trade program or a carbon tax.  Washington State voters just rejected a carbon tax initiative, but the issue is far from dead there.  California has a cap and trade system, and Oregon is expected to take up the issue in next year’s legislative session.  Local environmentalists think the chances of a successful local climate initiative are high.  The election results very likely improve those chances, at least on the West Coast, and perhaps in other regions convinced of the need to act.

Climate Change Displacement and Dislocation-Coming to a City or Town Near You!

Posted on November 3, 2016 by Wendy B. Jacobs

It is time not only to plan and prepare, but also to bring human rights and land use policies together into the discussion and much-needed governance reforms. When one thinks of population migrations, one often thinks of international movements. The issues of human rights are front and center in that context, but we don’t yet have a developed language or set of principles to apply when thinking it through here in the U.S. Hence, last week, I co-hosted a 2 and ½ day workshop on the subject with my colleagues in the International Human Rights and Immigration Clinics. We brought together experts on human rights from all over the world to focus on 4 case studies. One was the Horn of Africa where pastoralists are on the move to escape drought conditions; one was Central America/Mexico from which people are fleeing not only gang violence and poverty but increasingly severe climate conditions; a third case study focused on Native Alaskan communities; and, a fourth on coastal cities in the U.S.  In addition to international experts, also participating were government representatives of several coastal cities, an expert on the Hurricane Sandy property buy-outs, several climate justice activists (including the NAACP), and people working to relocate Native Alaskans. 

Together we brainstormed how to build on the Nansen Initiative and other internationally-developed principles for creating governance structures and funding mechanisms to implement plans to protect displaced persons. (Brief mention was made of imposing a carbon tax and then applying the funds to adaptation measures.) A key point of consensus was the need to use “bottom up” approaches (including local referendums) to ensure that policy makers and decision makers understand the needs of affected communities when pursuing much needed legal reforms and to begin planning now for ultimate displacement instead of waiting for disaster to strike. Many barriers exist, however. A major barrier to effective and cost-efficient planning for and management of dislocations in the U.S. (and elsewhere) is the “siloing” of jurisdiction and expertise between the many tiers of government (domestic and international). Another is the dependency of municipalities on a strong tax base which leads many to resist the notion of “retreat” or “relocation” of at-risk populations. Furthermore, land-use planning is managed separately from disaster relief planning in the U.S. More resources are (inefficiently) disbursed for responding to disasters than avoiding them. Indeed, the sinking of communities into the sea is not even considered a “disaster” under current U.S. law. Many legal reforms are needed, ranging from zoning policies to building codes to jurisdictional issues to preemption. One example: the National Flood Insurance Program not only creates perverse incentives to continue building and re-building along the coast, but it does not require that municipalities adopt zoning codes that take sea level rise or storm surges into account. We discussed legal and policy mechanisms for managing infrastructure in communities that will need to be abandoned and creating infrastructure elsewhere to support people forced to relocate. Alaskan communities are caught in a terrible Catch 22: some still lack fundamentals, such as running water, but the government does not want to invest in infrastructure in communities that will have to relocate and yet the government has been tied up in knots and unable to build the necessary infrastructure in the areas to which these peoples will relocate. And, we discussed climate change gentrification and the need to ensure affordable, sustainable, safe and healthy housing for the dislocated poor.

There is much work to be done. If any member of the College is interested in working on any of these issues with us, please let me know!

HOW ACOEL AND THE WHITE HOUSE MAKE (SOME) HISTORY

Posted on August 3, 2016 by Jeff Thaler

Back in the early days of the College, then-incoming President Brad Martin had asked interested Members to work with Lexis Nexis in developing some treatises on a range of topics. Indeed, years later you can go to this link to see how you too can join the very few who purchase some of these treatises, see a photo of Brad, and the list of ACOEL authors. New Council of Environmental Quality guidance on treatment of climate change in federal environmental impact analysis suggests these treatises may have some impact.

I agreed to and with the aid of one of Brad’s former associates, in 2010 authored a treatise entitled “Treatment of Greenhouse Gases Under the National Environmental Policy Act”  . We addressed the then-recently released (February 2010) White House Council on Environmental Quality’s Draft Guidance on consideration of climate change and greenhouse gases in NEPA environmental reviews. In the conclusion I said:

With the prospects for comprehensive, economy-wide regulations on greenhouse gas emissions uncertain, climate change will continue to be addressed under existing environmental laws, including NEPA and its state-level counterparts. It has become increasingly clear that project proponents and lead agencies will be hard-pressed to avoid evaluating greenhouse gas emissions and other climate-related impacts attributable to public and private development projects. But disparate treatment across federal and state jurisdictions has left agencies and developers struggling with when and how to evaluate such impacts in their environmental review documents. Despite a growing body of regulations, case law, and guidance, substantial uncertainty remains regarding the scope, type, and depth of analyses required of climate change effects under NEPA and state analogues.

Little did I know or even suspect that the “disparate treatment” would continue unabated for another 5-plus years.  The Draft Guidance was intended to be finalized in 2011, but the final version would not be released until the waning days of the Obama Administration On August 2, 2016, the CEQ has now issued its 34-page Final Guidance, which expressly requires all Federal agencies to include climate change in their analysis of environmental impacts.

 In sum, the Final Guidance (at 4-6):

“[r]ecommends that agencies quantify a proposed agency action’s projected direct and indirect GHG emissions, taking into account available data and GHG quantification tools that are suitable for the proposed agency action;  Recommends that agencies use projected GHG emissions (to include, where applicable, carbon sequestration implications associated with the proposed agency action) as a proxy for assessing potential climate change effects when preparing a NEPA analysis for a proposed agency action; Recommends that where agencies do not quantify a proposed agency action’s projected GHG emissions because tools, methodologies, or data inputs are not reasonably available to support calculations for a quantitative analysis, agencies include a qualitative analysis in the NEPA document and explain the basis for determining that quantification is not reasonably available; Discusses methods to appropriately analyze reasonably foreseeable direct, indirect, and cumulative GHG emissions and climate effects; Guides the consideration of reasonable alternatives and recommends agencies consider the short- and long-term effects and benefits in the alternatives and mitigation analysis; Advises agencies to use available information when assessing the potential future state of the affected environment in a NEPA analysis, instead of undertaking new research that is, and provides examples of existing sources of scientific information; Counsels agencies to use the information developed during the NEPA review to consider alternatives that would make the actions and affected communities more resilient to the effects of a changing climate; …and Counsels agencies that the “rule of reason” inherent in NEPA and the CEQ Regulations allows agencies to determine, based on their expertise and  experience, how to consider an environmental effect and prepare an analysis based on the available information.”

How many of our LexisNexis recommendations were reflected in the Final Guidance I cannot yet say. But one moral of this tale is that College members may be able to direct a spotlight on needed changes in environmental regulating, even when those wheels of justice grind exceeding slow.

FINDING LEGAL PATHWAYS TO DEEP DECARBONIZATION IN THE UNITED STATES

Posted on July 21, 2016 by John Dernbach

On December 12, 2015, in Paris, France, the parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change—a total of 196 countries—unanimously agreed to a goal of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by the second half of this century.  For the United States, the technical and logistical challenge of achieving the goal of the Paris Agreement (as it is called) is enormous, but so is the legal challenge.

The U.S. short-term emissions reduction objective, stated in a submission made in the run-up to the Paris conference, is “to achieve an economy-wide target of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 26%–28% below its 2005 level in 2025.”  This objective, the U.S. says, “is consistent with a straight line emission reduction pathway from 2020 to deep, economy-wide emission reductions of 80% or more by 2050.”   Achieving the short-term goal depends on the outcome of the presidential election as well as litigation involving the Clean Power Plan.  And there was, until recently, no roadmap for deep U.S. reductions by 2050. 

The absence of long-term analysis, in the U.S. and other countries, is being filled by the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project, which is led by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network and the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations.  It is based on the work of research teams in 16 countries that are responsible for 74 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions--Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Russia, South Africa, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and the United States.  DDPP says in a report synthesizing the findings of the project to date that most of these countries “had never developed pathways consistent with a global 2°C limit, nor were they actively considering this question.”   (The purpose of the Climate Change Convention is to keep the increase in global temperatures from human-caused greenhouse gas emissions below a “dangerous” level.  That level is widely regarded as 2°C, or 3.6 °F, above pre-industrial levels, although the Paris Agreement seeks to keep the increase “well below” that level.  The temperature increase to date is already about 0.9 °C above 1880 levels, when temperatures were first recorded.)

DDPP has conducted a technical analysis and policy analysis of pathways to deep decarbonization for the United States.  These reports, prepared by E3 (an energy consulting firm), the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, appear to be the most detailed studies of how to achieve deep reductions in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.  

Perhaps the DDPP’s most important finding “is that it is technically feasible for the U.S. to reduce [carbon dioxide] emissions from fossil fuel combustion” by 85% from 1990 levels by 2050, which is “an order of magnitude decrease in per capita emissions compared to 2010.”  If the U.S. did that, it could reduce its overall greenhouse gas emissions by 80% below 1990 levels by 2050.  

Enormous changes would be required in the U.S. energy system to make those reductions happen.  Because it is difficult to decarbonize gasoline and liquid fuels, the researchers said, meeting the 2050 objective would require almost complete decarbonization of electricity and, among other things, switching a “large share” of end uses that require gasoline and liquid fuels over to electricity (such as electric cars).  It would also be necessary to produce fuel from electricity itself, they said, citing the production of hydrogen from hydrolysis as an example. 

Decarbonizing electricity and producing fuel from electricity itself would double electricity generation but reduce its carbon intensity to 3% to 10% of current levels, requiring a vast increase in either renewable energy (as much as “2,500 gigawatts (GW) of wind and solar generation (30 times present capacity))” or carbon capture and sequestration.  The average fuel economy for light duty vehicles such as cars would need to be over 100 miles per gallon, and these vehicles would need to be fueled almost entirely by electricity and hydrogen.  

The challenge of translating these technical and policy pathways into a workable legal framework is considerable.  Assuming, for example, that the U.S. can achieve 54.5 miles per gallon as a fleet-wide average for new vehicles by 2025, as the current Corporate Average Fuel Economy standard requires, how does the U.S. achieve a fleet-wide average of more than 100 miles per gallon for all vehicles by 2050? As DDPP explains, “[t]his would require the deployment of roughly 300 million alternative fuel vehicles by 2050.”  A similar conundrum exists in reliance on renewable energy sources: what legal changes are needed to guide the development of the grid so that it can continue to be reliable while it accommodates a vast increase in intermittent electricity sources such as solar and wind energy?

Michael Gerrard, who directs the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School, and I have begun work on an edited volume that will identify and analyze a wide variety of legal pathways to decarbonization in the United States, based on these reports.  We have assembled an excellent team of legal scholars and practitioners and are aiming for publication in 2017.  We hope to inspire similar efforts in other countries.  

An essential part of the decarbonization challenge is proposing, analyzing, and comparing various legal decarbonization pathways in each individual country, including the U.S.  In the face of a daunting challenge, there exists a real possibility that lawyers can help improve human quality of life throughout the world by facilitating the creation of a legal framework that accommodates zero-carbon development.

The Arctic: A Region of Future Conflict or Cooperation

Posted on July 20, 2016 by William M. Eichbaum

Among the most dramatic impacts of global warming is Arctic change.  On the one hand, we are witnessing the unprecedented melting of ice and snow, loss of habitat for globally unique species, and threats to centuries-old patterns of human livelihood.   On the other, as the Arctic becomes more accessible, there is a rush to satisfy the global thirst for natural resources creating yet greater environmental jeopardy for the region.

The popular press has raised the specter of possible conflict among nations as this newest wave of resource exploitation accelerates.  These concerns have been exacerbated as tensions have increased between NATO countries and Russia over Ukraine, among other geo-political issues.  In fact, there are several examples of Arctic countries increasing military presence in their Arctic territories.

However, from my vantage point, the Arctic is unlikely to erupt into a new zone of conflict as nations pursue resource development.  That’s because, there have been few instances of dispute over actual territory, with the most significant ones involving only Canada, the United States, and Denmark.  While Russian claims regarding the Arctic Ocean seabed are much discussed in the media, other “Arctic nations” are making similar claims.  These claims are all subject to resolution pursuant to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.  (To some there is irony in the fact that United States’ failure to accede to this Convention means that the United States may be unable to perfect its Arctic seabed claims.

Despite increased accessibility, exploiting natural resources in the Arctic region will continue to be dangerous and difficult.   Governmental cooperation in governance of the Arctic region will be essential to provide the platform for Arctic economic activity to advance in an environmental, social, and economically sustainable manner

Since 1996, The Arctic Council, consisting of the eight Arctic countries, permanent participants representing indigenous people, and observers, has been the focal point for developing the science necessary to meet this challenge.  Under the leadership of the US Government, currently the Chair of the Council, a Task Force is considering stronger measures to assure that the recommendations of the Council are implemented.  In a recent paper published by The Polar Record I addressed issues key to strengthening Arctic governance, especially in the marine environment. http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=10379682&fulltextType=RC&fileId=S0032247416000462 At this juncture, Arctic countries, including Russia, are positively exploring options for achieving such cooperation.

This summer a tourist vessel with over a thousand passengers is crossing the Canadian Arctic, through seas where a ship one-tenth that size recently ran aground, requiring evacuation of all passengers and crew.   While Shell aborted future hydrocarbon exploration in the Bering and Chukchi Seas following numerous accidents and missteps in the summer of 2012, robust development continues elsewhere in the Arctic.  And distant water fleets are moving ever northward in pursuit of fish.  Without strong mechanisms for cooperation on governance of the region by the Arctic countries, these and other activities pose meaningful environmental threats to the Arctic beyond the climate change narrative.    With strong cooperation, however, they can be made to be sustainable not just for the natural resources of the region but also for the people of the Arctic. 

Is America Already Faltering in its Implementation of the 2015 Paris Climate Change Agreement?

Posted on July 19, 2016 by Dan Esty

Twenty-five years ago, as a young EPA official, I was part of the US government team that negotiated the Framework Convention on Climate Change.  In the final weeks running up to the 1992 Rio Earth Summit at which the new climate change treaty was to be presented for signature, I remember being taken aside by the famous Canadian environmental leader, Maurice Strong, who was the Secretary General of that 1992 Earth Summit.  He warned about the limits of international agreements.  Specifically, he urged me to be aware that when hundreds of Presidents, Prime Ministers, and other world leaders gather – as was to be the case at Rio – only two outcomes are possible: success and real success.  For nearly two decades after the 1992 treaty came into effect, we had claims of “success” but little real progress on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

In Paris last December, the world community came together with great fanfare to conclude a new climate change agreement. With its focus on “solutions,” commitment to broader public engagement (going beyond national governments to focus on actions by cities, states, companies, and community groups), creative climate change finance, and metrics to track progress, the 2015 Paris Accord offers a foundation for real success. 

But it is not clear that the requisite follow-through will occur.  In the United States, President Obama’s Clean Power Plan – the central mechanism to drive progress toward a clean energy future – is on hold pending court review.  And there already seems to be some loss of momentum in developing the action plans needed to deliver the on-the-ground changes in behavior in many sectors that will be required to change our nation’s energy trajectory. 

At the core of the limitations in environmental law in the 20th Century was a failure to move from the intentions expressed in statutes, regulations, and international agreements to action.  Words – even ones cast as law – do not alone make change happen.  A concerted focus on implementation is required for real success. 

But significant investments required to deliver a clean energy future will not be forthcoming – particularly in the critical corporate arena -- as long as America’s commitment to decarbonization is clouded by legal and political uncertainties.  While some business sectors, notably the investment world, are moving ahead with actions to address climate change, broader momentum toward a clean energy future will not be fully restored until after the DC Circuit Court’s decision on the Clean Power Plan this Fall and the November election results.

Doin’ The Dunes – Signing Off

Posted on June 23, 2016 by Joseph Manko

In April, I reported on Supreme Court Judge Julio Mendez’ 65-page Opinion upholding the authority of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (“NJDEP”) to construct dunes along the shoreline in Margate City, New Jersey – “absent an appeal.”

Well, after three years of legal challenges, the fat lady has finally sung and Margate’s  Commissioners have unanimously thrown in the proverbial beach towel by deciding not to appeal Judge Mendez’ opinion.  The US Army Corps of Engineers has announced its plan to award a contract in July and commence construction in the fall.  Once completed, the “missing link” will complete Absecon Island’s 8.1 mile dune project and finally respond to Hurricane Sandy’s damage to New Jersey’s beachfront. 

ACOEL “Lawyers Without Borders” Group in Port-au-Prince Pati De (Part 2)

Posted on June 14, 2016 by Jeff Thaler

About 10 years ago, when Steve Herrmann began calling 22 other environmental lawyers around the country about starting a new College, I don’t think he or any of us envisioned the College’s reach extending overseas. Yet, thanks to the vision and efforts of Jim Bruen, Bob Percival, and now Jimmy May, in recent years the College has explored possible connections with China, Kenya, and just weeks ago—Haiti.

Six College members, dubbed by one as “Lawyers Without Borders,” spent four whirlwind days in Port-au-Prince Memorial Day and early June. Our key liaison was Widener Law Professor and former Dean Erin Daly, Jimmy’s colleague, who has spent some of her sabbatical year working at the Université de la Fondation Dr. Aristede (UNIFA) begun just a few years ago by former President Jean-Bertrand Aristede and his wife Mildred Aristede, an American-trained attorney. UNIFA was our wonderful host sponsor for the trip. Specifics on the ACOEL delegation and with whom we met can be found in the separate blog post of Jimmy May.

In brief, I arrived a day early with Erin Daly, and our guide, Junior St. Vil, took us to Sakala, a community center in one of the poorest sections of the city. It was Mother’s Day in Haiti, so there was a celebration going on that we witnessed, as well as touring a community garden used to teach children how to grow food—with recycled tires as planters.

On Memorial Day I briefly met Mme. Aristede at UNIFA, then went with Junior to “tour” the city. Port-au-Prince was hit hard by the major 2010 earthquake, and most roads are still in poor shape, clogged with motor vehicles and pedestrians. I saw very few traffic lights or cross walks; everyone shares the road. It thus takes a long time to get from one part of the city (3.5 million people) to another, so most of my morning was spent getting a feel for the street scene, and talking with Junior.

Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. While one College member (who will remain nameless) said that Haiti ranks higher than the U.S. in the Happiness Index, my back-home research found Haitians much less happy than Americans. However, I suspect that may be explained in part by facts such as 1) 70% of the 10 million Haitians have no electricity and are illiterate, 2) most water and sewer infrastructure is in disrepair or worse, 3) only 2% of Haiti’s forest is left, with families reluctantly forced to cut remaining trees for charcoal to cook with, and 4) there are significant “rule of law” challenges from lack of enforcement or viable legal remedies.

Haiti presents lots of opportunities as well as challenges. Our visit focused in large part on the desire of UNIFA and local lawyers to develop a 1-year environmental law LLM program. Currently, “law school” in Haiti is a prescribed, 4-year college curriculum with little focus on environmental, energy or land use issues. During our visit, we met with large groups of students and of lawyers, as well as in smaller sessions with leading environmental, energy and sustainability practitioners. For me, it was clear that everyone wanted to develop, with assistance, initiatives to improve the quality of life for Haitian people. They were well aware of the many damaging pollution and climate change forces hurting the populace and economy; but a key question is how best to create home-designed programs similar to what we began to do in the U.S. in the early 1970s. 

The challenge for us as College members, and for me personally, is how best to assist and collaborate with UNIFA and others in Haiti, to make a difference. Now that personal connections have been made, hopefully our Haitian hosts will be better able to propose to us possible measure to develop a sustained (not one-time) menu of actions that we can work on together with them. I hope to be able, someday soon, to work on environmental or renewable energy education or project-specific initiatives with the great people with whom we met.

District Court Sharpens ESA’s Teeth in Wolverine Decision

Posted on May 31, 2016 by Gregory Bibler

In an 85-page decision filled with rebuke, Defenders of Wildlife v. Sally Jewell, the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana found in April that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to withdraw its proposeda listing of the wolverine as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act was arbitrary, capricious, and contrary to the ESA’s requirement that decisions be based on the “best available science.”

The court criticized the Service for mischaracterizing scientific consensus as “substantial disagreement,” and for employing an inappropriately high standard of absolute certainty.   The court suspected the Service’s sudden loss of confidence in its listing decision resulted not from scientific diligence but, instead, from “immense political pressure” exerted by a handful of western states. 

Although the decision is replete with references to wolverine denning statistics, sophisticated snow cover assessments based on satellite imagery, and emerging climate models, the court made clear that the Service changed its decision based on policy considerations, not science. That the wolverine depends on persistent snow cover to reproduce, and “relies on snow for its existence at the most fundamental level,” the court said, was not disputed.  That climate change is occurring, and will in the future result in reduced snowpack and loss of denning habitat, within the wolverine’s U.S. range also was not disputed.  The western states, however, questioned how reliably the Service could predict either the pace or the foreseeable impacts of climate effects far into the future.  The states, and many senior staff within the Service, also questioned whether the ESA is an appropriate or workable tool to address the large-scale effects of climate change on North American ecosystems. 

Alaska, for example, linked the wolverine listing decision to what it claimed were equally flawed decisions to list the polar bear and various species of ice seals, based on what it said were dubious models and speculative future climate effects.  Idaho questioned whether the Service’s use of models and projections would eventually lead it to list every species in the U.S., based on predictions of widespread and pervasive climate impacts throughout the country.  Two of the Service’s own Regional Directors echoed the refrain, saying that demands for listing particular species based on predicted effects of climate change “will become a common source of petitioned actions and threaten the Service’s resources to address priority issues.”

The court dismissed these concerns without hesitation:  “It is the undersigned’s view that if there is one thing required of the Service under the ESA, it is to take action at the earliest possible, defensible point in time to protect against the loss of biodiversity within our reach as a nation.” 

If the Service reinstates its prior listing decision, the wolverine will join the polar bear, ringed and bearded seals, and other species listed because they rely on snow and ice “for existence at the most fundamental level.”  The policy challenges at the core of the Service’s listing decision, however, remain unresolved.  Species affected by climate change are not limited to those dependent on snow and ice.  If climate trends continue, the list of species affected will grow and grow.  The ESA can do nothing to reverse or decelerate those impacts.  The Service cannot build an ark to save every species ultimately displaced or threatened.  Any realistic hope for slowing the loss of biodiversity in the U.S. must depend, therefore, on comprehensive and lasting reforms to address the underlying causes of climate change, and not the predicted effects of climate change at the species level.

Doin’ the Dunes – Final Installment

Posted on April 20, 2016 by Joseph Manko

Last month when the Ocean County, NJ challenge to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s (“NJDEP”) authority to implement dunes for shore protection was dismissed, I wrote that the decision could very well be precedential for similar challenges in other New Jersey counties. 

And so it was. In a 65-page opinion, Superior Court Judge Julio Mendez also upheld the DEP’s authority to construct dunes in the City of Margate (Atlantic County) as being neither “arbitrary or capricious” nor an “abuse of power.” The opinion recognized the US Army Corps of Engineers’ (“Corps”) 6-year study and the need to be better prepared for coastal storms such as Hurricane Sandy in 2012.  With this ruling – absent an appeal – the DEP will proceed to obtain the necessary easements through the eminent domain process (a prior attempt to do so via an administrative order having failed) with the appropriate compensation paid to the affected beachfront owners.

Judge Mendez acknowledged that the dunes on the oceanfront would not resolve flooding concerns to the bayfront properties nor obviate some protection afforded by seawalls and bulkheads.  Interestingly, he found that the dunes in the adjacent City of Ventnor had not only protected Ventnor’s beaches but also expanded the beaches in Margate, and that the dunes in Margate would be protective of its coastal properties and was therefore not arbitrary or capricious.  

Doin’ the Dunes – Part IX

Posted on April 19, 2016 by Joseph Manko

Last month, while New Jersey Superior Court Judge Julio Mendez was considering Margate’s challenge to the authority of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (“DEP”) to condemn City-owned lots on which to build dunes, New Jersey Superior Court Judge Marlene Lynch Ford dismissed a similar challenge by 28 oceanfront property owners in Ocean County, NJ.

In her decision, she ruled that (1) DEP’s condemnation activities were authorized to “protect the state’s fragile coastal system and [afford] public access” and (2) the taking of the requisite coastal acreage to do so was as a lawful use of that authority, provided that the eminent domain process of compensating affected property owner was followed, which she found to be the case in this instance. 

Although it would appear likely that this decision should have significant precedential effect on the other pending challenges, it should be pointed out that the theory in other cases includes not only a challenge to DEP’s authority, but the reasonableness of constructing dunes on the beachfront as opposed to other “shore protection projects.”  In fact, although she dismissed the challenge to DEP’s authority to condemn, Judge Ford granted a hearing to other homeowners who claim that DEP acted arbitrarily because their sea walls eliminated the need for dunes. 

And so, although the authority of DEP to use eminent domain for shore protection would appear to be judicially blessed, the manner in which it is does so remains subject to challenge. 

So, as always, stay tuned.  

Doin’ the Dunes – Part VIII

Posted on February 3, 2016 by Joseph Manko

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). 

Doin the Dunes – Part VII

Posted on December 11, 2015 by Joseph Manko

In my latest blog, I related that New Jersey Superior Court Judge Julio Mendez had taken under advisement the City of Margate’s request for an evidentiary hearing on the reasonableness of the state’s condemnation of easements on 87 City-owned lots.  The request had stressed the public’s express opposition to dunes (2 referenda) and the alleged superiority of bulkheads and seawalls for both bay and ocean front properties. 

Well, the Judge ruled on Tuesday, December 8, to grant Margate’s Motion to hear its argument in a February hearing on alleged abuse of the state’s eminent domain power.  Margate also challenged the Corps of Engineers’ reliance on a 20-year old study, claiming that the study was outdated and its beach protections were as good as, if not better than, dunes. 

If Margate’s arguments are successful, Governor Christie’s 127 mile Sandy Relief Act program would have an approximate 1½ mile gap in continuity (its neighbors Ventnor and Longport have agreed to give the state easements to build dunes). 

Next month look for the lowdown on Judge Mendez’ decision in Part 8 of my series, “Doin the Dunes.”  

DOIN’ THE DUNES – PART VI

Posted on November 30, 2015 by Joseph Manko

As we left off, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that in obtaining easements to build dunes, the amount of compensation for the partial loss of ocean view would have to take into account a credit for the benefit afforded by the dunes’ protection. 

When the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, in carrying out Governor Christie’s program to construct a $3.5 billion dune system to protect its 127 mile coastline, decided to acquire the necessary easements by administrative actions, the City of Margate in Atlantic County challenged the failure to proceed by eminent domain:  U.S. District Judge Bumb agreed with Margate and invalidated this mechanism, ordering the Department to proceed with eminent domain in state court. 

Ten months later, New Jersey Superior Court Judge Mendez took under consideration two issues:  (1) the reasonableness of the use of eminent domain to acquire easements from 10 private lot owners and 87 city-owned lots, and (2) instead of his making a summary ruling, the need to allow Margate to have an evidentiary hearing, citing the two referenda in which Margate’s voters voted to oppose the dunes. 

Once Judge Mendez rules, I will update this matter, keeping in mind that the author owns a 10th floor condominium in Margate, the Municipality Governor Christie calls the most “selfish” municipality in New Jersey.  

Do Climate Change and Same-Sex Marriage Have Anything in Common?

Posted on June 29, 2015 by Seth Jaffe

Recent events have me pondering this question.

Most notably, in two court decisions last week, courts ordered the State of Washington and the government of the Netherlands to take more aggressive action against climate change.  In the Washington case, in response to a complaint from eight teenagers, a trial court judge has ordered the Washington Department of Ecology to reconsider a petition filed by the teenagers requesting reductions in GHG emissions.  Similarly, in the Netherlands, a court ordered the government to reduce GHG emissions by 25% within five years.  The Dutch case was brought under human rights and tort law, not under existing Dutch environmental laws.

I have been very skeptical of the use of nuisance-type litigation to require more aggressive government regulatory efforts.  I still think comprehensive market-based regulation is the best approach.  However, in the absence of aggressive action in the United States and world-wide, these suits are going to increase in number.

So, how are they similar to the same-sex marriage issue?  First, as noted in Obergefell, courts were initially – and for some time – not just unfriendly to litigation efforts in support of same-sex marriage, they were positively dismissive.  Second, there is the gradual increase over time in the litigation.

Next, there is also the change over time in the scientific understanding of the issues.  While same-sex marriage has always been, on both sides, primarily a moral issue, it would be wrong to ignore the role that an increasing understanding of the genetics of sexual preference has played in the debate.  Similarly, the move towards an overwhelming weight of evidence, not just that climate change is occurring, but that it is anthropogenic, has obviously been important to the climate change debate.

Finally, while the moral issues in same sex marriage may seem to distinguish it from the climate issue, the recent papal encyclical makes clear that there are moral aspects to the climate change debate as well.

I have no crystal ball.  I do not know whether we are going to see a groundswell, and then, perhaps, a tidal wave that will somehow overcome the gridlock in United States and world politics on climate change.  There are differences in the two issues, most obviously in the short-run economic costs of addressing climate change.  Nonetheless, I do know that it wouldn’t surprise me if the tidal wave comes, and relatively soon.

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Lawyers, Climate Change and Coal

Posted on December 4, 2014 by Stephen L. Kass

In December 1952, John W. Davis, the senior name partner in one of the nation’s most prominent law firms and the Democratic candidate for President in 1924, appeared before the Supreme Court.  He was defending the long-established Constitutional doctrine of “separate but equal” in public education and urged “judicial restraint” in any effort to overturn the Court’s 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson which had blessed that practice as a socially and legally acceptable way of reconciling the competing claims of human equality and social stability in the United States. 

In May 1954, in Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court unanimously reversed Plessy, finding that segregated schools were ‘inherently unequal”.  The decision made possible a new America that, while still staggeringly unequal, is no longer premised on officially-sanctioned segregation of people by race.

Suppose John W. Davis had won his argument?  What if the legions of respected and highly competent lawyers who represented southern states, towns and school districts had succeeded in their efforts to undermine the Brown decision by dragging out the Court’s injunction to dismantle segregation “with all deliberate speed” not simply for 20 years but for 50? 

What kind of society would we be living in today if those efforts, supported by many years of precedent, deeply-held social beliefs and substantial economic interests, had succeeded?  What role could the United States play in today’s world if we still sanctioned “separate but equal” treatment of our own citizens?  How proud would those lawyers now be of their efforts to preserve a status quo that, as many of them must have known, had to fall for our nation to free itself of the legacy of slavery?

Climate change is not slavery or de jure racial segregation, though in truth it will affect the lives of hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, of people throughout the world for decades and quite likely centuries.  But the failure of the United States to address its GHG emissions since the 1992 U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change and the prospects for continuing litigation over even the modest EPA efforts now under way to restrict coal plant emissions can be viewed as a similar refusal to recognize the need for fundamental changes. 

I believe that lawyers must at least consider whether they wish to be part of a scorched-earth litigation strategy to defer, for as long as possible, our nation’s efforts (and the efforts of other nations) to break free of reliance on coal, which has represented the single greatest source of the Earth’s increased GHG emissions since 2000.

John W. Davis surely believed he was behaving as lawyers should in defending his clients’ actions under then-prevailing law.  However, I wonder whether, in retrospect, he would have preferred to be part of the solution instead of the continuing problem that still challenges our society. 

If our nation today fails to confront climate change and the other nations of the world follow our dubious lead, how will future generations look at our profession’s role in that tragedy?  How will we look at ourselves?

DAYS OF FUTURE PASSED…OR PAST

Posted on November 17, 2014 by Jeff Thaler

November 1967: The Moody Blues release their second album, Days of Future Passed, said to be an influential work of the countercultural, psychedelic era. May 2014: Wolverine goes back in time to rally the X-Men against the Sentinels in Days of Future Past. In between: Ed Muskie and Leon Billings roamed the Earth, particularly the U.S. Senate, and modern-day environmental law was born and thrives.

2014 also is the centennial of the birth of Muskie in the old mill town of Rumford, Maine. On November 15, almost exactly 47 years after release of Future Passed, Harvard Law Professor Richard Lazarus and Leon Billings, Senator Muskie’s former chief of staff, spoke on a panel looking back and to the future of laws like the Clean Air and Water Acts that were unanimously passed by the Senate through the guidance of Muskie and Billings.

Billings spoke of how what Muskie was able to shepherd through Congress and into law involved concepts still pervasive and taken for granted today—such as private attorneys general, nondegradation, open decision-making, the public’s right to breathe healthy air and removal of the right to pollute. He described Muskie’s insistence of and ability to achieve bipartisanship, with allies for the CAA and CWA efforts including such Senators as Baker, Eagleton, Cooper, Bayh, Boggs and Dole, as well as the exhaustive efforts to fully vet and document the need for legislation. For example, for the CWA the Senate Committee held 33 days of hearings with 1721 witnesses, 470 statements and 6,400 pages of testimony, followed by 45 sub-or-full-Committee markup sessions and 39 Conference meetings. 

Billings then focused on two concepts that he said demonstrate Muskie’s ability over 40 years ago to look to the future. The first, “waters of the Unites States” grew out of the Senator’s knowledge of the 1899 Refuse Act; he successfully convinced his colleagues that the Act supported a broad view of “waters of the US” to include, for example, wetlands. Since then, the Supreme Court has gone “at least as far as we had expected, and more broadly than we could have hoped”, said Billings.

The second concept is that of climate change and the Clean Air Act. Billings was very clear: Section 111(d) was no accident, is not being misinterpreted, and Muskie intended there to be a legislative basis for then-unknown or undefined pollution problems like CO2, what Billings now calls the “epitome of the precautionary principle”.  The phrase “selected air pollution agents” almost never made it out of the House-Senate Conference in December 1970, but a compromise was struck so late at night it never made it into the Conference reports. And while no one then envisioned CO2 and climate change, Billings said that if Muskie were alive when the Supreme Court ruled in Massachusetts v EPA that CO2 is a pollutant, he would have said, “Why do you think I put that provision in there in the first place?”

Richard Lazarus then spoke of Senator Muskie’s enduring legacy in the courts as the font of legislative intent underlying many environmental laws, including frequent references to Muskie in court opinions and during oral arguments at the Supreme Court. He also demonstrated that while President Nixon did sign the bills authored by Muskie and had the label of being an environmental President, in fact he was largely using the issue for a short time as a defensive measure to cut off Muskie’s prospects as a potential 1972 Presidential candidate. Richard then showed slides of handwritten notes made by Nixon’s Chief of Staff, H.R. Haldeman of three discussions with the President: in February 1971, even when they thought environmental protection “has to be done”, at the same time they thought it “is not worth a damn”; in June “should take on environment—it’s not a sacred cow”;  and by July 1971 they wanted to put the “brakes on pollution bills…when we can without getting caught”, and to “reexamine all pollution bills in terms of current economic impact”.

Richard also discussed the current EPA rulemaking under 111, especially referencing the term “best system of emission reduction”; EPA’s June 2014 legal memorandum in support of its rulemaking proposal used Senator Muskie’s own words concerning “system” as encompassing the potential for emission reductions to occur outside the fence, and to include more than just controls. He said that for EPA, Muskie is its “Mr. Clean”.

During Q&A, both panelists discussed the partisanship of the past 10-20 years contrasted with during Muskie’s era. Billings mentioned how during Muskie’s opening presentation of the Clean Air Act on the Senate floor, the presiding officer was Senator Barry Goldwater, who sent down a note (now lost to history) saying, “Ed, that is the finest speech I think I have ever heard on the floor of the U.S. Senate.” Turning to NEPA, the concept of an” environmental impact statement” developed through a personal compromise Muskie struck with Senator Jackson.

Afterwards I asked Billings, “If Ed Muskie and you were in the Senate now, what would you be doing?” He said, “If we were the majority party, holding a lot of oversight hearings to bring in all the scientists and evidence; if the minority party, writing speeches.”

And that is how the Past (or Days Passed) in Environmental Law still have major force in today’s many controversies. Oh, by the way: The Moody Blues recently released a new box set, “Timeless Flight”, and are still touring. Long live rock and environmental laws!