North to the Future: Alaska and the Risks of Pursuing a Trump Legacy

Posted on April 5, 2019 by Peter Van Tuyn

On the last Friday in March, Judge Sharon Gleason of the Federal District Court for the District of Alaska issued two opinions in closely-watched cases* concerning federal public lands and waters in and offshore of Alaska.  In both cases, the Trump administration’s actions were overturned by the court, having immediate impact on two State of Alaska priorities and potential impact on a number of other State and private development efforts. 

The first case concerns a land trade approved by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke in which the United States agreed to transfer formal Wilderness in the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge to an Alaska Native Corporation.  Izembek Refuge is internationally significant and of critical importance to many species of wildlife, including migratory waterfowl.  For example, virtually the entire global populations of Pacific Brant and Emperor Geese migrate through Izembek.  The land trade was intended to enable the construction of a road between the Alaska communities of Cold Bay and King Cove.  In multiple analyses since the 1980s the Interior Department had found that such a road would harm wildlife in the Refuge.  In 2013 Interior Secretary Sally Jewell formally rejected a land trade due to harm it would cause to “irreplaceable ecological resources,” and because “reasonable and viable transportation alternatives” exist between the communities.  In 2018, Secretary Zinke reversed course and approved the land trade.  A coalition of conservation groups then sued.

In rejecting the land trade, Judge Gleason found that Secretary Zinke had not addressed anywhere in the record his reasons for reversing course; indeed, he had not even acknowledged the change in agency position. Relying on the seminal U.S. Supreme Court administrative law cases of Motor Vehicle Manufacturers v. State Farm and FCC v. Fox, which require an acknowledgement and reasoned explanation for such a change of course, Judge Gleason invalidated the land trade, writing that while a court should “‘uphold a decision of less than ideal clarity if the agency’s path may reasonably be discerned,’ a court may not ‘supply a reasoned basis for the agency’s action that the agency itself has not given.’”

Later that same day Judge Gleason issued an opinion in a challenge to a 2017 President Trump executive order concerning areas where offshore oil and gas leasing can take place.  In that case, conservation organizations and an Alaska Native-focused NGO challenged Trump’s  revocation of President Obama’s earlier withdrawals from oil and gas leasing of most of the United States’ Arctic Ocean and a number of canyons within the Atlantic Ocean. 

This lawsuit turned on an interpretation of presidential withdrawal authority under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act. Section 12(a) of OCSLA provides the president with the clear authority to withdraw certain areas of the Outer Continental Shelf from oil and gas leasing, and the central question in the lawsuit was whether it also provides authority for a president to undo existing  withdrawals that were intended, like Obama’s Arctic and Atlantic actions, to be of unlimited duration.  Judge Gleason found that section 12(a) authority works only in the direction of presidential withdrawals, and not the undoing (or “revocation”) of such withdrawals.

Looking to the future, should Acting (and likely soon-to-be-confirmed) Secretary David Bernhardt revisit the Izembek land trade, he will need to either win on appeal during his tenure (should he take one) or directly confront the agency’s previous rejection of a land trade and the reasons for that rejection.  Furthermore, Trump’s “energy dominance” effort to expand offshore oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean is dealt a blow.  Notably, the OCSLA issue is similar to one raised in litigation over Trump’s revocation of National Monument designations under the Antiquities Act and Judge Gleason’s treatment of the issue thus may influence other courts. 

More broadly than even these implications, the two Gleason decisions may portend the result of other Alaska-related federal policy and decision-making.  For example, the Corps of Engineers is fast-tracking Clean Water Act section 404 permitting for the proposed Pebble mine in Southwest Alaska.  And the proposed mine’s developers are trying to get EPA to reverse course on its intended use of its Clean Water Act section 404(c) authority to restrict or prevent any Corps’ permit for the mining of the Pebble ore deposit.  EPA’s proposed restrictions were based on a Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment, which the developer had waived challenging in settling a previous lawsuit with EPA.  Given the clarity of Judge Gleason’s Izembek opinion on what it would take for the agency to reverse course, and the settled science of EPA’s watershed assessment, securing a 404 permit won’t be as simple for proponents as winning a policy argument, which appeared to be the case with the Izembek land trade. 

Looking back to the Interior Department, the Bureau of Land Management is moving forward with oil and gas lease sales on the Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge.  Critics of that effort, including a former Interior official, say the legal process is being illegally shortcut, which is an attribute it may thus share with the Izembek land trade.  Interior is also speedily-redoing a 2013 management plan for the 23 million acre National Petroleum Reserve with a goal of expanding oil and gas leasing in the Reserve starting in 2020.    

Ironically, on Thursday, March 28, the day before Judge Gleason issued her decisions, Interior Secretary-nominee David Bernhardt had his confirmation hearing before the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.  This committee is chaired by Alaska’s Senator Lisa Murkowski, who is a supporter of expanded oil and gas development on federal lands in and offshore of Alaska.  The judicial smackdown the next day, however, is sure to complicate Bernhardt’s efforts to implement such an agenda before the next presidential term, which is the timeframe which appears to underly Interior’s and other agencies’ efforts on Alaska issues.  And if the rush to secure more decisions in this presidential term leads to more losses in court, Alaska development interests could face complicated bureaucratic and legal landscapes, and strong political backlash, well into the future.

* Izembek case:  Friends of Alaska Wildlife Refuges, et al, v. Bernhardt, 3:18-cv-00029-SLG (March 29, 2019, D. Ak).

* Arctic OCS case:  League of Conservation Voters, et al, v. Trump, 3:17-cv-00101-SLG (March 29, 2019, D. Ak)

 

States Challenge Trump Administration’s Approach to Climate Change Through Energy Efficiency Rules

Posted on May 26, 2017 by Chester Babst

When President Trump issued his energy-related Executive Order in March directing further review by the EPA Administrator of, among other things, the Clean Power Plan, it signaled the death knell for what was arguably President Obama's centerpiece domestic action on climate change. But while the Order's likely intent to neutralize this and other rules would have appeared to pave the way for a flurry of lawsuits filed by environmental groups and States particularly concerned about global warming, the federal dockets have thus far been somewhat quiet with respect to the Trump Administration's handling of prior climate change-related rulemaking.

A group of 10 states have begun to push back, though, by filing a petition in the Second Circuit. The rule that is requested to be reviewed? It doesn't involve coal-fired power plants. Nor wellpads or compressors. Rather, the petition involves rulemaking aimed at the ominous ... ceiling fan. The rule, enacted by the Department of Energy in January, establishes minimum energy efficiency standards for fans manufactured after January 2020 pursuant to the Energy Policy and Conservation Act.  According to the DOE, the rule is projected to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by over 200 million tons and methane emissions by 17 million tons through 2049.  Some 12 days after the rule was finalized, DOE delayed the effective date by 60 days with the stated intent of conducting further review and consideration of new regulations, consistent with the Freeze Memo. In March, DOE subsequently pushed back the effective date even further until September, with the basis being that DOE Secretary Rick Perry was, perhaps unsurprisingly, unable to accomplish the review and consideration of the rule within the 60-day timeframe.  Additional energy efficiency rulemakings finalized but not published under the Obama Administration currently remain unpublished.

The significance of the lawsuit is not so much about its substantive impact on climate change. After all, the projected GHG reductions under the ceiling fan rule are only a small fraction of those projected as part of the Clean Power Plan, which itself left some wondering whether it could meaningfully affect climate change on a global level.  Further, the Clean Power Plan’s vitality was already in question following the Supreme Court’s stay.  Rather, the petition carries broader implications for the Trump Administration's apparent strategy of stalling, as opposed to directly revising or withdrawing, environmental rulemaking that it fundamentally opposes. The strategy is not a wholly illogical one, especially considering the possible legal and practical limitations that some commentators have expressed the Administration might initially face if it were forced to provide, on-the-record, a definitive basis for full-fledged withdrawal of notable climate change regulations.

One of the key figures for the petitioners, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, has contended that the DOE's delays violate the Administrative Procedure Act in that they constitute a substantive revision to a final rule without going through proper notice and comment. He is joined by nine other states (California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and Washington) as well as New York City. If the petitioners prevail, it will likely force EPA and other agencies to confront existing rulemaking head-on, and would otherwise challenge the viability of President Trump's energy-related Executive Order, including associated OMB guidance for implementation of the rule review procedures.  Further pressure could also come as a result of a challenge to the so-called “2-for-1” Executive Order, which environmental groups have claimed also directs arbitrary repeal of rulemakings.  But until then, neither industry nor environmentalists should be surprised if climate change or other significant environmental regulations carried over from the Obama Administration remain in an infinite loop of administrative review.

Rolling Thunder?

Posted on August 18, 2016 by Steve McKinney

Today, the U.S. EPA and Department of Justice announced that Harley Davidson has accepted defeat on defeat devices.   The icon of rebellion lost its black luster years ago when bankers, professors, and, of all things, lawyers, became the most noticeable owners and riders of their iron horses.   The Gucci sunglasses betrayed the weekend gangsters to mere citizens who at first trembled at the rumble of Harley motors. 

But now, the historic purveyor of the rawest available form of horsepower has agreed to stop selling popular “super tuners” for “Super Glides”, “Fat Boys”, “Road Kings”, “Electra Glides” and other iconic rides.   The engine tuner kits are guaranteed to raise the rumble another notch or two.   The problem?   Emissions.   What?!  Yes, emissions. 

Well, actually cheating about emissions.  EPA says Harley’s “super tuned” engine emissions are higher than the emissions certified for stock engines.   I’m shocked.  The aftermarket nature of these horsepower enhancers does not matter.   Harley is not supposed to help rabble rousing bikers exceed their emissions allowances, says EPA.

Wow.  Is blaming Harley for breaking the rules within the rules?  Has the last hope of rebellion been reduced from “rolling thunder” to a Vespa’s whine?  I would take my stack of Harley t-shirts out in the backyard tonight for a ceremonial bonfire, but Birmingham has banned open burning until November.

Has the Standard for Performing a Phase I Environmental Site Assessment Changed? Yes and No

Posted on December 17, 2013 by Jeff Civins

Purchasers and lessees of commercial or industrial properties know to obtain Phase I environmental site assessments to identify the presence of contamination - so-called recognized environmental conditions (RECs) - because of the very substantial liabilities these conditions may create. And their lenders generally require them. The industry standard for Phase I’s is based on EPA regulations that flesh out Superfund’s “all appropriate inquiry (AAI)” standard. In those regulations, EPA expressly approved use of a standard developed by ASTM, i.e., E1527-05. ASTM recently issued a new standard, E1527-13, that EPA initially approved in a final rule in August, but, as a result of unfavorable comment, withdrew in October. Pending the agency’s promulgation of that rule’s companion proposal, expected by the end of this year, the question is which standard purchasers and lessees should use - and which standard should their lenders require - in the meantime.

In addition to providing information pertinent to managing environmental risks associated with contamination, the performance of a Phase I that satisfies AAI also may help establish a defense for the purchaser/lessee under Superfund should contamination be found. Superfund provides three transaction-related defenses that each require AAI, the most pertinent of which is the so-called bona fide prospective purchaser defense. Congress required that EPA promulgate standards establishing AAI and it is those regulations - and the approved ASTM standard - that have become the industry standard for Phase I’s.

As EPA notes, the new ASTM standard includes a number of differences from the prior version, which arguably only makes the standard more rigorous. Among other things, the new standard distinguishes between historical RECS that have been regulatorily resolved or that allow for unrestricted residential use, which are no longer RECs, and those that though regulatorily resolved, require either institutional or engineering controls because contaminants remain in place and that are now referred to as “controlled” RECs. It also clarifies that vapor intrusion - the potential for vapors from contaminants in soils and groundwater to migrate into buildings where they may concentrate at levels that pose threats to human health - is to be considered a REC, like groundwater migration, and not excluded from consideration because it may affect indoor air quality, which itself is generally not within the scope of AAI. The fact the two standards are different creates some regulatory uncertainty.

The response to this temporary dilemma is that purchasers, lessees and lenders should be able to have their cake and eat it too by having environmental professionals indicate that they have satisfied both standards. Environmental professionals that perform Phase I’s and satisfy ASTM E1527-13 presumably will be satisfying ASTM E1527-05 as well. EPA informally has suggested that environmental professionals use the new standard and, in their reports, conclude that they have satisfied both. Presumably, the environmental professional’s certification should reference both as well.

Don’t Mess With Texas – EPA Loses Battle With TCEQ

Posted on April 2, 2012 by Eva O'Brien

If you live in Texas or have driven through the state, you know that our popular anti-litter campaign slogan is “Don’t Mess With Texas.”  This slogan may have also been appropriate for the 5th Circuit’s recent decision in Luminant Generation Company, et al. v. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, No. 10-60891, slip op. (5th Cir. Mar. 26, 2012), where the court came down hard on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) for its very late disapproval of revisions to Texas’s State Implementation Plan (“SIP”) pertaining to standard permits for  pollution control projects (“PCPs”).   

In Luminant, the 5th Circuit noted that the federal Clean Air Act (“CAA”) “prescribes only the barest of requirements” for New Source Review (“NSR”) of minor new sources of air pollutant emissions.  It found that EPA had not identified a single violation of the CAA or EPA’s regulations and thus had no legal basis for its disapproval of the PCP Standard Permit provisions, striking down as arbitrary and capricious the “three extra-statutory standards that the EPA created out of whole cloth.”  Id. at 21.  Two of those standards referenced Texas law and a third was based on too much agency discretion in permit issuance.

Noting that EPA failed to act until three years after the 18 month statutory deadline for EPA action had passed, the court ordered EPA to expeditiously reconsider the SIP revision submission made by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (“TCEQ”), and compared the “sweeping discretion” given to the states in developing their SIPS to EPA’s “narrow task” of “ensuring” that the Texas regulations “meet the minimal CAA requirements that govern SIP revisions to minor NSR, as set forth in 42 U.S.C. § 7410 (a)(2)(C) and § 7310(l).”  Id.  The court then stated that this limited review “is the full extent of EPA’s authority in the SIP-approval process because that is all the authority that the CAA confers.”  Id. at 21-22.

For the past several years, the TCEQ and EPA have butted heads over various aspects of Texas’s SIP.  This was the third of three cases heard by the 5th Circuit on SIP reviews, albeit the first in which a decision has been rendered.  Oral arguments were held in the other two pending cases last fall – the first relating to Texas’ Qualified Facilities program, Texas Oil & Gas Association, et al. v. U.S. EPA, No. 10-60459 (5th Cir. filed Jun. 11, 2010), and the second relating to Texas’s Flexible Permit Program, Texas v. U.S. EPA, No. 10-10614 (5th Cir. filed Jul. 26, 2010). 

Of these three cases, the EPA’s disapproval of Texas’s Flexible Permit Program has caused the most tension between the agencies.  That program provides facilities with flexibility to reduce emissions by the most cost-effective means through allocation of emissions on a facility-wide basis rather than by source point, and has been a basic tenet of permitting in Texas since 1994.  The end result of the Flexible Permit Program—which Texas considers akin to the federal Plantwide Applicability Limit (“PAL”) under the New Source Review program—not only gave facilities greater flexibility and control, but actually reduced emissions and provided for compliance with all state health standards, as well as all applicable federal Clean Air Act requirements. 

Given that EPA’s delay in disapproving these last two aspects of the Texas SIP was even more egregious (effectively up to sixteen years), it is likely that the 5th Circuit will view the EPA’s actions in those cases with a similarly critical eye.  We in Texas hope that the court continues to call EPA to task for its past unpopular and unwarranted decisions with respect to Texas’s SIP.