New UN Special Rapporteur Links the Right to a Healthy Environment to Air Pollution’s Deadly Impact Across the Globe

Posted on April 12, 2019 by Susan Kath

Professor John Knox, former UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights and the Environment, began in 2012 to study the obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment, as part of the United Nations Human Rights Council special procedures. When his two terms ended in 2018, he had mapped the statements of human rights bodies on human rights obligations relating to the environment, and produced thematic reports covering human rights obligations relating to climate change, biodiversity, and children’s rights. Knox also compiled more than 100 good practices in fulfilling those obligations and helped to establish a website for environmental defenders. His capstone contribution, the Framework Principles, identifies 16 principles relating to human rights and the environment and explains how existing human rights obligations should be applied in the environmental context.

The ultimate goal, UN recognition of the human right to a healthy environment, has now been put before the General Assembly by Knox’s successor, Professor David Boyd, who presented a comprehensive argument for the right to that body in the fall of 2018. Boyd, a champion of the right, will be vigorously campaigning for its recognition over the next three years, along with other projects for his mandate.

With the issuance of his most recent report in February, Boyd looks beyond the general right and focuses on the components of the right---in this case, the right to breathe clean air. Around the world, air quality is degraded by both ambient and household air pollution, with the adverse health effects highest in low- and middle-income countries. Notably, more than 90 percent of the world’s population lives in regions that exceed World Health Organization guidelines for healthy ambient air quality, specifically with respect to fine particulate matter (PM 2.5). What does this mean in real terms? It means that over 6 billion people, including 2 billion children, are breathing polluted air with adverse consequences: taken together, ambient and household air pollution contribute to 7 million premature deaths annually, including the deaths of approximately 600,000 children.  Unsurprisingly, most of those impacted are also the most vulnerable—women, children, the elderly, minorities, indigenous peoples and members of traditional communities, and people living in poverty.

So what does Boyd offer as the way forward? First, he observes that poor air quality has implications for an array of human rights: the rights to life, health, water, food, housing and an adequate standard of living. Second, he reaffirms the position advanced by Knox that States have obligations to protect the enjoyment of human rights from environmental harm. As embodied in Knox’s Framework Principles, that means States have procedural, substantive, and special obligations towards those in vulnerable situations. Third, he identifies the seven key steps that States must take in fulfilling the right to breathe clean air:

  • monitor air quality and impacts on human health
  • assess sources of air pollution
  • make information publicly available, including public health advisories
  • establish air quality legislation, regulations, standards and policies
  • develop air quality action plans at the local, national, and, if necessary, regional levels
  • implement an air quality action plan  and enforce the standard
  • evaluate progress and, if necessary, strengthen the plan to ensure that the standards are met

With each of these steps, States must fully inform the public and provide an opportunity to participate in the decision-making process. Businesses, a major source of air pollution, should comply with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the Children’s Rights and Business Principles. Boyd also notes that special attention must be paid to environmental defenders engaged in activities to protect the right to clean air.

Boyd also explains that not all the news is bad, sharing a number of good practices, such as laws, policies, programs and initiatives that are lessening the impact of human rights violations caused by air pollution. These include establishing or improving air quality monitoring networks in places like Morocco and Azerbaijan and decreasing the proportion of households using solid fuels for cooking and heating in Latin America.

Boyd closes the report with a list of 20 recommendations that States should consider as part of their national air quality action plans, and he also implores us to act:  

The failure to respect, protect and fulfill the right to breathe clean air is inflicting a terrible toll on people across the world. The statistics presented in the present report depict a public health catastrophe, yet the numbers fail to capture the magnitude of human suffering involved. Each premature death, every illness and every disability afflicts an individual with hopes, dreams and loved ones. Air pollution is a preventable problem. The solutions-laws, standards, policies, programmes, investments and technologies-are known. Implementing these solutions will of course entail large investments, but the benefits of fulfilling the right to breathe clean air for all of humanity are incalculable.

Incalculable, indeed. And worth our collective effort to pursue at every level.

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.

The Rubber Begins to Hit the Road on Adaptation

Posted on November 6, 2018 by Seth Jaffe

I gave up some time ago on the idea that focusing on adaption was just a means of weaseling out of necessary measures to mitigate climate change.  As the extraordinary becomes commonplace, it’s evident that we’ve ignored the externalities of carbon longer than was prudent.

It’s thus great to see Boston’s Mayor Walsh release Resilient Boston Harbor.  Even for those who follow these issues for a living (and I have a personal stake, since my wife and I are about to move to Fort Point Channel, ground zero for climate change flooding impacts in Boston), what’s really amazing is the granularity of both the analysis and the recommendations.

If you want to understand just how granular the analysis must be in order to develop specific recommendations, you might take a look at this figure from the full Climate Ready South Boston report.  Don’t just skim the Executive Summary on this one.

I find this work both inspiring and discouraging.  There is so much to do.  Among other tasks, environmental lawyers have to figure out how to make these recommendations feasible in light of existing environmental regulations that would actually prevent implementation of some of the recommended adaptation measures.

I had thought of closing with a nice climate-inspired haiku.  Instead, I think I’ll leave you with this:

It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either.

A Sliver of Hope for the Government’s Remaining NSR Enforcement Cases?

Posted on October 16, 2018 by Seth Jaffe

Earlier this month, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals granted something of a reprieve to EPA’s New Source Review enforcement initiative.  The Court first confirmed what everyone other than EPA and DOJ already knew – that failure to get a pre-construction permit is a one-time offense, so that penalty claims for alleged violations more than five years prior to filing are barred by the statute of limitations.

However, the Court then surprised most observers by holding that expiration of penalty claims did not doom the government’s claim for injunctive relief.  Specifically, the Court ruled that the “concurrent remedies doctrine,” which bars equitable remedies when no legal remedy is available, cannot be applied to a sovereign.

I’m not going to provide an exegesis of the doctrine, which carries more than a whiff of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce.  I’ll settle for three points.  First, it may not be a legal doctrine, but I’d apply the doctrine of common sense, rather than the doctrine of concurrent remedies.  Given that all courts agree that NSR does not impose ongoing operational requirements, it doesn’t even make sense to me to think of ongoing forward-looking injunctive relief with respect to a one-time violation that may have occurred twenty years or more ago.

I’ll add to that a related point.  As other NSR cases have noted, many of these facilities have changed hands since the projects at issue were constructed.  In those cases, the former owners aren’t subject to injunctive relief, because they don’t own the facilities and thus have no ability to install BACT.  The new owners aren’t subject to injunctive relief, because they did not violate the Clean Air Act.  In these circumstances, are we really going to make the availability of injunctive relief subject to the random circumstance of which facilities have been sold and which have not?  That just seems nuts.

Finally, I’ll emphasize that EPA and DOJ shouldn’t get too excited over this decision.  The Court was very clear that it was not deciding whether injunctive relief was appropriate, only that it wasn’t barred by the statute of limitations.  The Court’s language was unlike any I’ve ever seen before and is worth a read:

On remand, the district court must further consider whether any equitable relief is appropriate and proper under the legal and factual circumstances of this case in which the legal relief has been time barred. We recognize that we are not giving the district court much guidance in this task. … Perhaps the answer to this knotty question of injunctive relief will reveal itself after a full hearing and the presentations of the parties. And we hope that we are not being too cowardly when we sincerely wish the district court good luck.

And I’m sure that the District Court will appreciate the 5th Circuit’s good wishes.

CALIFORNIA, THE JUNGLE, AND CAP-AND-TRADE

Posted on September 21, 2018 by James Holtkamp

On September 14, 2018, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) issued for public comment the proposed California Tropical Forest Standard.  The proposed standard is not an attempt to address a future in which global warming has changed California’s redwood forests into tropical jungles; rather it is intended to allow reductions in carbon emissions from mitigation of rain forest deforestation in tropical countries to be linked with California’s cap-and-trade program. 

California is already well-known for its influence on culture, economics and politics outside its borders. Here in Utah we sometimes feel like we are really just a big county in eastern California.  Even outer space is not insulated from California.  As the Global Climate Action Summit wound down in San Francisco last week, Governor Brown announced that California would send its own satellite into orbit to track and monitor pollutants.  You can’t get more outside of California than that.

The proposed standard consists of detailed criteria for tropical forest credits and is accompanied by a 185-page draft environmental analysis prepared by CARB under the California Environmental Quality Act.  The proposal is issued under CARB’s cap-and-trade program rules, which authorize CARB to consider reductions originating in developing countries or “subnational jurisdictions” (e.g., provinces or states) within those countries.          

The proposed standard would require the jurisdiction seeking to link its emission reduction program with the California program to develop a “sector plan” demonstrating that the program was developed through a robust, transparent, and participatory process.  The sector plan would detail the legal, policy and program tools used to reduce emissions; procedures for monitoring, reporting and verification of reductions; and provisions to avoid double-counting of reductions with any other program.  The proposal also provides for establishing baseline emission levels, avoiding leakage, securing third-party verification, involving and protecting indigenous communities, and other elements designed to ensure that the reductions are robust and permanent.

The proposal does not include a mechanism for linking tropical forest credits to the California system; rather it is simply a proposal for standards for the credits which, after additional rulemaking by CARB, would be eligible for inclusion in the cap-and-trade program.  

Carbon emissions released from tropical forest deforestation and degradation account for about one-fifth of carbon emissions across the globe. The president and Congress have been unwilling to address the issue.  California has stepped into the breach.

Perhaps living in eastern California is not such a bad thing, after all.

We May Not Always Have Paris, But Perhaps We Can Do Better Than Paris

Posted on September 20, 2018 by Seth Jaffe

Last week, the Climate Leadership Council released an analysis demonstrating that the “Baker Shultz Carbon Dividends Plan” would result in greater reductions in greenhouse gas emissions than the US committed to attaining under the 2015 Paris agreement.  (And a shout out to ACOEL fellow Pam Giblin, who is a Senior Policy Advisor at the CLC.) 

I don’t doubt that the CLC analysis is right.  If I had to guess, I’d predict that they probably underestimate the reductions that would be reached with a robust carbon tax.

I understand the difficulty in convincing what passes for the GOP base at this point – and the GOP members of Congress – to endorse the carbon tax.  Oops, I meant dividend.  I’m hopeful that enough members will come around at some point.  My real worry is that the environmental movement will reject the plan because it calls for elimination of current regulations concerning carbon.

Years ago, Gina McCarthy used to say quite freely that the Obama administration would get most of its carbon reductions, not from direct regulation of GHG emissions, but instead from all of the other air regulations it was promulgating, such as the power plant MACT standards.

What environmentalists have to remember is that the reverse is also true – any robust program to reduce carbon emissions will also lower emissions of conventional pollutants.  Indeed, in defending the Clean Power Plan, environmentalists have made that very argument.  Why not acknowledge the same point in connection with a carbon tax and give up on a set of regulations that have always been clunky at best, are nowhere near as efficient a regulatory tool as a carbon tax, and which, as compared to a carbon tax, really benefit no one other than environmental lawyers and consultants?

God, wouldn’t it be a breath of fresh air to see Congress actually get something big done for the American people?  Let’s not screw this one up.

CAFO Odors and the Ghost of William Aldred

Posted on July 10, 2018 by Susan Cooke

The number and size of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) have increased in recent years.  These operations keep large numbers of animals in a confined space and provide them with feed from offsite sources prior to their slaughter.  While generally viewed as cost efficient, CAFOs raise concerns about animal welfare and about their environmental impacts and effect on the health and quality of life for those living or working nearby.  Such concerns include the foul odors associated with the substantial quantities of animal waste that are generated, especially where such waste is discharged into pits and then flushed into open air lagoons.  The sludge in those lagoons sinks to the bottom and is periodically removed for land application and the liquid waste remaining at the top is sprayed as fertilizer onto adjacent fields.

The anaerobic reaction that occurs during pit and lagoon storage of the waste over an extended time period is the primary generator of such odor, the primary constituents being ammonia and hydrogen sulfide.  Anaerobic digesters and other technologies can be employed to reduce odor generation, with some also producing gases for fuel.  However, the costs of installing and operating such equipment can be substantial, and there are no specific requirements at the federal level mandating odor control or limiting ammonia or hydrogen sulfide emissions from CAFO operations.  Indeed, even the reporting of animal waste air emissions under the federal Superfund law and under EPCRA (as interpreted by EPA) is precluded under the Fair Agricultural Reporting Method (FARM) Act signed into law by Congress in March 2018

While there is little regulation at the federal level, some states have imposed limits on hydrogen sulfide.  For example, California has a one hour average standard and Minnesota has a 30 minute standard for H2S.  In addition, a few states have instituted odor standards covering some CAFOs, including Colorado’s odor standard, which is based on an odor dilution factor, for swine CAFOs above a certain size (i.e., the odor must be eliminated by a specified amount of dilution).  While most local ordinances covering odors enjoin nuisances in general, some have adopted a dilution factor standard that is generally applicable, such as the ordinance adopted in Denver, Colorado and that adopted in South St. Paul, Minnesota.

Even where CAFOs are singled out for specific regulation by state, the dilution factor standard is not often used, probably because it is in essence subjective in nature and thus quite different from most environmental emission standards.  Instead, states have generally adopted a management plan approach coupled with registration and periodic inspections.  For example, the environmental regulations covering odor control at CAFOs in North Carolina, which has a number of swine CAFOs in the southeastern portion of the state, do not include a specific standard covering odor.  Instead, those regulations impose setback requirements and provide for state agency inspections, and they empower that agency to require preparation and modification of a best management plan if it determines that odor control is necessary.

Given the absence of a specific standard for judging CAFO emissions, some neighbors of CAFO operations have brought tort suits for nuisance to address odor concerns.  In one case decided this past April, a jury awarded $50 million in compensatory and punitive damages to 10 neighbors of a North Carolina hog farm.  The plaintiffs claimed that the truck noise associated with farm operations and the odor associated with lagoon storage of waste from its 4700 hogs and the spraying of lagoon liquid onto nearby fields created a nuisance.

Although the federal court reduced recovery to $3.25 million under punitive damage limits imposed under the North Carolina Right to Farm Law, agribusiness interests raised strong concerns about the damage award and within weeks the North Carolina legislature had passed amendments to the state Right to Farm Law to further restrict tort recovery for alleged nuisances from agricultural and forestry operations.  Although those amendments (in Senate Bill 711) were vetoed by Governor Roy Cooper on June 25, the veto was overridden by both houses before their month-end adjournment.

The amendments, which are similar to statutory language already enacted in Missouri for facilities engaged in crop and animal production, would limit compensation to property located within one half mile of the alleged source of a nuisance at an agricultural or forestry operation.  In addition, the suit would have to be filed within one year of the operation’s establishment or of a fundamental change (which wouldn’t include, among other things, a change in ownership or size) to that operation, with compensatory damages limited to a reduction in fair market value of the plaintiff’s property for a permanent nuisance and to diminution in fair rental value for a temporary nuisance.  While punitive damages are already capped at a specified multiple of compensatory damages, the amendments would limit them to instances where, during the previous three years, the operation had been the subject of a criminal conviction or civil enforcement action or of regulatory action taken by the state or federal government pursuant to a notice of violation.

Such limits on monetary recovery for nuisance may encourage plaintiffs to seek injunctive relief to abate odors from CAFO operations.  And tort suits for nuisance animal odors have a long history, as evidenced by William Aldred’s Case dating back to 1610 where the Court of King’s Bench held that Mr. Aldred, whose house was situated within 30 feet of a later constructed hog sty, had a right to obtain abatement of the foul odor emanating from that hog sty.

In recent years the injunction remedy in a nuisance action has sometimes been disfavored, as illustrated in the Boomer v. Atlantic Cement decision where monetary damages were awarded rather than injunctive relief for operation of a cement plant.  There the court weighed the (lower) cost of compensatory damages versus the (significantly higher) cost associated with installing abatement equipment or requiring plant shutdown.  However, it now appears that determining “entitlements” under an economic efficiency analysis, such as that described in the oft-cited Property Rules, Liability Rules, and Inalienability: One View of the Cathedral, is undergoing more critical academic scrutiny.

Moreover, animal welfare advocates, as well as those concerned about environmental justice or greenhouse gas emissions, and perhaps even property rights advocates, may add their own voices in support of the injunctive remedy option for stopping or curtailing CAFO operations.  If so, then the right of a landowner to quiet (and unscented) enjoyment of his or her property through an injunction, as enunciated by the King’s Bench more than 400 years ago, may prove to be the most effective remedy for those seeking to curtail CAFO odor emissions.

Still No Judicial Remedy For Climate Change — Don’t Expect Advocates To Stop Trying

Posted on July 3, 2018 by Seth Jaffe

On June 25th, Judge William Alsup dismissed the public nuisance case brought by the City of Oakland and the State of California against five major oil companies.  The suit sought payment of damages into a fund to be used for necessary adaptation expenditures to deal with sea level rise.  

Why did he dismiss the case?  Simple.  The courts are not the right forum in which to address the problems of climate change.  The more complicated answer?  Because AEP v. Connecticut held that the Clean Air Act displaces federal common law claims for greenhouse gas emissions in the United States and because claims with respect to sales by the defendants outside of the United States could not be addressed by a U.S. court without violating the presumption against giving extraterritorial effect to U.S. laws.

Here, plaintiffs seek to impose liability on five companies for their production and sale of fossil fuels worldwide. These claims — through which plaintiffs request billions of dollars to abate the localized effects of an inherently global phenomenon — undoubtedly implicate the interests of countless governments, both foreign and domestic. The challenged conduct is, as far as the complaints allege, lawful in every nation. And, as the United States aptly notes, many foreign governments actively support the very activities targeted by plaintiffs’ claims. Nevertheless, plaintiffs would have a single judge or jury in California impose an abatement fund as a result of such overseas behavior. Because this relief would effectively allow plaintiffs to govern conduct and control energy policy on foreign soil, we must exercise great caution.

This order fully accepts the vast scientific consensus that the combustion of fossil fuels has materially increased atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, which in turn has increased the median temperature of the planet and accelerated sea level rise. But questions of how to appropriately balance these worldwide negatives against the worldwide positives of the energy itself, and of how to allocate the pluses and minuses among the nations of the world, demand the expertise of our environmental agencies, our diplomats, our Executive, and at least the Senate.  Nuisance suits in various United States judicial districts regarding conduct worldwide are far less likely to solve the problem and, indeed, could interfere with reaching a worldwide consensus.

I couldn’t have said it better myself.  I’ve always thought that these types of suits are not the way to address climate change.  I’ve recently acknowledged that, if the current administration continues to rely on fake news to formulate its position on climate change, courts at some point might conclude that the exigencies of the situation require them to act.  For now, we haven’t reached that point, and I hope we never do.

The Dutch Government Also Doesn’t Like Citizen Climate Litigation

Posted on July 3, 2018 by Seth Jaffe

As a follow-up to my earlier post about the dismissal of public nuisance claims brought by the City of Oakland and the State of California against five oil majors concerning their contribution to climate change, I note that ClimateWire (subscription required) is reporting that the Dutch government is appealing a court order that would require it to cut carbon emissions by 25 percent by 2030. 

The Dutch case is more similar to the Oregon children’s suit than Oakland litigation, because the Oregon case, like the Dutch case, is against the government, seeking further regulation, rather than against private parties, seeking damages.  All of these cases, though, present some of the same concerns regarding whether courts are the right place to make climate policy, as noted by the Dutch government spokesman, quoted in ClimateWire:

We also believe that renewable energy should be increased and CO2 emissions should be reduced, so this is really about something else: It’s about how the judge has intervened in something that’s [called] democracy, and actually democracy has been sidelined.

It would be nice if democracy could show a greater capacity for addressing climate change, but I still agree that sidelining democracy is rarely a good thing.  Of course, there are good scientific reasons why democracies don’t do so well at dealing with climate change.  Appeals to the courts may be unavoidable.

EPA Must Produce Any Agency Records Supporting Administrator Pruitt’s Statement that Human Activity Is Not the Largest Contributor to Climate Change

Posted on June 8, 2018 by Seth Jaffe

Last Friday, EPA was ordered to produce documents, in response to a FOIA request, on which Administrator Pruitt relied in stating on CNBC that: “I would not agree that [carbon dioxide] is a primary contributor to the global warming that we see,” and “there’s a tremendous disagreement about of [sic] the impact” of “human activity on the climate.”

I’ve done a fair number of FOIA requests in my time.  The request here was about as plain and simple – and clear – as it is possible to be.  The extent to which the government contorted the request in order to make it seem impossible to answer did not sit well with the Court.  Here’s the request as modified by the plaintiffs.  They sought:

(1) agency records that Administrator Pruitt relied upon to support his statements in his CNBC interview,” and “(2) any EPA documents, studies, reports, or guidance material that support the conclusion that human activity is not the largest factor driving global climate change.

EPA objected to the request in part on the basis that it was an improper interrogatory that required the EPA to take a position on the climate change debate.  To which the Court stated that “this hyperbolic objection strays far afield from the actual text of both parts of the FOIA request.”

EPA also argued that the request was vague, asking “how is one to even know precisely what documents one relies on forming one’s beliefs.”  Yikes.  And what is the definition of “is,” Mr. Administrator?

I loved the Court’s response.

Particularly troubling is the apparent premise of this agency challenge to the FOIA request, namely: that the evidentiary basis for a policy or factual statement by an agency head, including about the scientific factors contributing to climate change, is inherently unknowable. Such a premise runs directly counter to “an axiom of administrative law that an agency’s explanation of the basis for its decision must include ‘a rational connection between the facts found and the choice made.  EPA’s strained attempt to raise an epistemological smokescreen will not work here to evade its obligations under the FOIA.”

Epistemological smokescreen.  Humph.

Nor was the Court done.  Responding to EPA’s objection to having to take a position on climate change, the Court trenchantly noted that:

EPA’s apparent concern about taking a position on climate change is puzzling since EPA has already taken a public position on the causes of climate change.

The bottom line?  EPA must complete a search for responsive documents by July 2, 2018, promptly disclose responsive documents, and explain any withholding by July 11, 2018.

This is not the first case under this Administration where I’ve thought how blessed I am that I’m not at DOJ and in the position of having to defend the indefensible from EPA.

How Much Deference Will EPA Get On Its CAFE Standards Decision?

Posted on April 30, 2018 by Seth Jaffe

There’s been a lot of discussion regarding EPA’s decision to withdraw EPA’s Mid-term Evaluation of Greenhouse Gas Emissions for Model Year 2022-2025 Light-duty Vehicles. After pondering for a while, my question is how much deference courts will give to EPA’s decision.

I’ve previously speculated about whether the typical deference to agency decisions might eventually lose its luster, not because conservative judges hate Chevron, but simply because courts might get tired of agencies under this Administration abusing their discretion.

Contrary to the statements in the withdrawal decision, the Obama Mid-term Evaluation was exhaustive.  The withdrawal decision itself, on the other hand, was, as far as I can tell, based largely just on what scientists might objectively describe in jargon as “bitching and moaning” by the auto industry. 

I’ve also previously noted that, in the history of major environmental rules going back to the 1970s, the evidence shows that every single rule has cost less than estimated prior to implementation.  And that’s less than EPA’s estimates of compliance, not just less than industry’s estimates, which have routinely been wildly high.  The reason is that compliance cost estimates never fully account for the ability of the market to respond efficiently to the new standards.

There is some question as to whether the recent withdrawal decision even constitutes final agency action, but the courts will get a crack at this at some point and I am waiting with bated breath to see how they respond.

Infrastructure, Deficits and Climate Change

Posted on March 28, 2018 by Mark R. Sussman

America’s infrastructure is deteriorating as the result of insufficient investment by federal, state and local governments.  In 2017, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave our Nation’s infrastructure a grade of D+, stating that “Deteriorating infrastructure is impeding our ability to compete in the thriving global economy, and improvements are necessary to ensure our country is built for the future.” The President and both the Republicans and Democrats in Congress seem to agree that we need to improve our Nation’s infrastructure.

The problem is “how do we pay for infrastructure improvements?”  In February, the President proposed a plan to invest $1.5 trillion in infrastructure improvements, but the plan relies mostly on privatization of government-owned infrastructure, and on state and local governments, whose resources are already stretched thin.  The federal government’s share of costs would be “only” $200 billion.  Congress is unlikely to agree to a significant investment in infrastructure given the massive deficits predicted to result from the recent Republican tax cuts and the bipartisan budget plan enacted in February.  The tax changes will reportedly increase the deficit by more than $1 trillion over the next ten years, and the bipartisan budget is expected to add at least $300 billion to the deficit.

Paying for the infrastructure improvements that almost everyone seems to agree upon will require either new sources of revenues, or enormous cuts in entitlements or other domestic programs.  Although Speaker Ryan and other proponents of smaller government might want to cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, how likely are they to do so, especially in light of the huge tax give-away to our wealthiest citizens in the recent tax legislation?  Moreover, if they are successful in cutting the country’s safety net, what will that do to the tremendous income inequality that the United States is already experiencing?

One solution to this dilemma may be found in legislation optimistically called “America Wins Act” (H. R. 4209) proposed by Connecticut Congressman John Larson and 20 co-sponsors in November 2017. The bill, like the Carbon Dividends Plan offered by the Climate Leadership Council in February 2017, relies on a gradually increasing carbon tax of over $40 per ton, with some amount paid back to lower income Americans.  Our colleague and frequent blogger, Seth Jaffe, described the Carbon Dividend Plan in a post last year.  The main difference between the Carbon Dividend Plan, proposed by mainstream conservative Republicans, and the plan embodied by the America Wins Act, co-sponsored by Congressional Democrats, is that the former is specifically designed to be revenue neutral, while the later proposes to invest $1.8 trillion over ten years to fund infrastructure improvements.  Of course, since the Climate Leadership Council proposed its Carbon Dividends Plan, Congress blew a huge hole in the federal budget, so a completely revenue neutral plan no longer seems practical if we are to find revenues to support the rebuilding of our infrastructure.

The key elements of the “America Wins Act” include: (i) the imposition of a gradually increasing carbon tax imposed at the first point where fossil fuels enter the economy; (ii) a border adjustment fee on imports to maintain a level playing field with US producers; (iii) establishment of an infrastructure investment fund to finance highways, transit, airports, waterway and flood protection facilities, water pollution facilities, and broadband development; (iv) an energy refund program to provide “carbon dividends” to lower income households; and (v) a fund dedicated to supporting workers and communities heavily reliant on carbon-intensive industries, such as coal, to ease the transition to a new energy future. 

Unlike the Climate Leadership Council’s Carbon Dividend Plan, Congressman Larson’s proposal does not specifically include steps to reduce energy and climate change regulation that should not be needed if a market-based carbon fee program is adopted.  Nor does the “America Wins Act” contemplate the use of carbon offsets, like those suggested by our colleague, Jeffrey Fort, in his post of August 21, 2017.  These good ideas and others can certainly be incorporated into any legislation proposing to reduce carbon emissions, while simultaneously improving our Nation’s infrastructure without further exploding the deficit.  Such legislation offers a genuine opportunity for a true bipartisan approach to these critical issues facing the Nation.  Wouldn’t it be great if the President and our representatives in Congress actually worked in a bipartisan way to enact legislation that does not look to the past, but instead addresses policies that will strengthen our Nation’s economy and protect the World’s environment in the 21st Century and beyond?   Is it too much to ask our leaders to focus on implementing innovative, market-based solutions that can be supported by both conservatives and liberals, instead of spending all of their time trying to make partisan political points to be re-elected?

Federal Common Law Controls California Climate Actions: Never a Dull Moment

Posted on March 12, 2018 by Seth Jaffe

Earlier this week, Judge William Alsup denied a motion by Oakland and San Francisco to remand their public nuisance claims against some of the world’s largest fossil fuel producers to state court.  However, I’m not sure that this is a victory for the oil companies.  This might be more of a “be careful what you wish for” scenario.

After the Supreme Court decision in AEP v. Connecticut and subsequent decisions, such as Native Village of Kivalina, it seemed pretty clear that the federal Clean Air Act had displaced federal common law, leaving only potential state law claims in its place.

Judge Alsup had a different idea.  The cities’ claims were only brought against fossil fuel producers, not electric generators.  The claims were based on the allegations concerning the companies’ conduct in selling fossil fuels into the stream of commerce, while at the same time allegedly making misrepresentations concerning the risks of climate change.

Judge Alsup concluded that this was a distinction with a difference.  The Clean Air Act displaces federal common law regulating operations that emit GHGs.  The Clean Air Act, however, does not regulate the sale of fossil fuels.  Thus, it does not displace the type of public nuisance action at issue in this case.  (Of course, this leads to the odd result that the companies’ sale of fossil fuels is subject to public nuisance claims, even though methane emissions from oil wells and refineries are not, because those are subject to regulation under the CAA!)

Having made this critical distinction, the rest of the decision was relatively easy.  As Judge Alsup noted:

If ever a problem cried out for a uniform and comprehensive solution, it is the geophysical problem described by the complaints, a problem centuries in the making. The range of consequences is likewise universal. Taking the complaints at face value, the scope of the worldwide predicament demands the most comprehensive view available, which in our American court system means our federal courts and our federal common law. A patchwork of fifty different answers to the same fundamental global issue would be unworkable. This is not to say that the ultimate answer under our federal common law will favor judicial relief. But it is to say that the extent of any judicial relief should be uniform across our nation.

I’m not sure that Judge Alsup is right, though I appreciate his creativity.  And if appellate courts decide he is right, the defendants may come to regret removing the action from state courts.

Statutory Deadlines Matter—EPA Gets Taken to the Woodshed

Posted on February 14, 2018 by Seth Jaffe

Last week, EPA was ordered to take final action on a Clean Air Act § 126(b) petition filed by the State of Connecticut, which asserted that emissions from the Brunner Island Steam Electric Station in Pennsylvania contribute to nonattainment in Connecticut.  

EPA did not dispute liability; it had clearly missed the original statutory deadline. The case was all about the remedy. EPA asked to be given until December 31, 2018 to respond. Plaintiffs said EPA could respond within 60 days.

Noting the “heavy burden” EPA bears in trying to demonstrate that it cannot comply with the congressionally mandated timeline, the Court ordered a response within 60 days, concluding that:

Defendants’ proposed schedule contravenes the congressional intent that EPA “act quickly on a Section 126(b) petition.”

I noted last spring that we are likely to see more of these cases. And I think we’re also going to see increasing judicial impatience with agency delay. I also wonder if this case might be the first bit of evidence that Scott Pruitt’s order precluding the notorious—if mythical—practice of “sue and settle” may have come back to bite EPA.

EPA had to know it was going to lose this case. In bygone days—meaning 2016—EPA would have negotiated for the best schedule it could have gotten. If EPA had told the plaintiffs it would respond to the petition within 90 or even 120 days, my guess is that the plaintiffs would have accepted such a proposal. Given the Pruitt memorandum, that was not possible. The outcome? The worst possible result for EPA.

Just wonderin’.

(Full disclosure: Foley Hoag has represented Talen Energy, owner of Brunner Island, on matters unrelated to Brunner Island. We take no position on the merits of the underlying § 126(b) petition.)

The North Slope Is Really, Really, Getting Warmer. Drill, Baby, Drill

Posted on December 20, 2017 by Seth Jaffe

The Washington Post reported last week that Utqiagvik, Alaska (formerly known as Barrow), has gotten so warm, so fast, that NOAA’s computers can’t even believe it.  The data for Utqiagvik (that’s hard to type!) were so high that the computers determined it must be anomalous and pulled all of the data from Utqiagvik from the NOAA monthly climate report.  Only when scientists realized that Utqiagvik was completely missing from the report did they notice what had happened.

How hot does it have to get to get bounced by the computer?  How about average October temperatures 7.8 degrees warmer than in 2000?  Average November temperatures 6.9 degrees warmer than in 2000?  Likely culprit?  Melting sea ice means that less sunlight is reflected.  That’s one nasty negative feedback loop.

In the meantime, as I noted in October, Alaska Governor Bill Walker has concluded that Alaska needs more oil drilling (can you say “Open ANWR” three times fast?) in order to pay for climate change mitigation.  It’s apparent that Governor Walker has not read Faust.

Governor Walker, this one’s for you.

PASSING LESS GAS

Posted on December 5, 2017 by Keith Hopson

While some still debate climate change, on 11/22/17, eight of the oil and gas industry’s biggest players signed on to a set of Guiding Principles for reducing methane emissions across the natural gas value chain.  BP, Eni, Exxon Mobil, Repsol, Shell, Statoil, Total and Wintershall, in collaboration with international institutions, NGOs and academics, drafted the Guiding Principles.

The five guiding principles are: continually reduce methane emissions; advance strong performance across value chains; improve accuracy of methane emissions data; advance sound policy and regulations on methane emissions; and increase transparency.  Click here for the entire Guiding Principles document.

It will be interesting to see if these “voluntary principles” eventually become enforceable regulations.  Likewise, it will be interesting to see if these guidelines become “industry standards” and, accordingly, whether by acquiescence, private litigation, or lender requirements, become de facto regulations.

Time will tell.

It is significant to see so many major oil and gas industry actors responsibly, firmly and publicly commit to both reduce methane emissions and advance monitoring.  Perhaps now others in the industry will be more inclined to join the responsible eight and commit to pass less gas.

What’s Happening with the Other Clean Air Act (CAA) §111(d) Rule?

Posted on November 24, 2017 by Steve Kohl

Long ago and in what seems like a faraway place, the D.C. Circuit vacated the NESHAP for boilers and the NSPS for Commercial and Industrial Solid Waste Incineration (CISWO) units. (See “EPA in the D.C. Circuit – Where Has All the Deference Gone”, ACOEL Blog, September 23, 2008). The demarcation between boilers and other process heaters and CISWI units is whether or not they burn waste. The D.C. Circuit held that EPA had improperly drawn that line. Since the source categories are mutually exclusive under the Clean Air Act, the improper line drawing resulted in the improper definition of each source category, resulting in the demise of the rules. Fast forwarding (sort of) to 2013, EPA finally promulgates a new and improved boiler NESHAP and new NSPS rules for new and existing CISWI units. These rulemakings were only made possible by the Non-Hazardous Secondary Materials (NHSM) rule which defines what is or is not a waste when burned. It takes the entirety of 40 C.F.R. Part 241 to provide this definition and the processes for determining if something is a waste or a fuel. 

Now comes the fun part. An existing boiler burning clean wood had to be in compliance with the NESHAP by early 2016, but the same existing boiler burning “dirty” wood categorized as a waste under the NHSM rule didn’t have to comply with the NESHAP since it is not a boiler but an incinerator. Well, it must have to comply with CISWI existing incinerator standards, right?  Well no. In fact, there really aren’t any applicable NESHAP requirements for existing boilers burning waste. 

The CISWI standards for existing units, 40 C.F.R Part 60, subpart DDDD, are §111(d) guidelines, which additionally must address the requirements enacted for incinerators in §129 of the CAA.  Those who have followed the Clean Power Plan (CPP) about which much has been written, including several ACOEL blogs (Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t Transformative?Unprecedented Program Leads To Unprecedented ResponsePulling the Plug on Greenhouse Gas Emissions), recognize that most states were in the process of developing state implementation plans (SIPs) to implement the CPP when the Supreme Court stayed the rule.  That’s because the CPP was also a §111(d) “guideline” for existing electric steam generation units. Actual application of the CPP was dependent upon SIPs approved by EPA which implement the guidelines or, if a state defaults, a federal implementation plan (FIP) implementing the CPP guidelines. Similarly, the CISWI standards for existing units must be implemented through approved SIPs or a FIP.  The SIPs or FIP required to implement the CISWI standards for existing units are required to be in place within five years, or February 7, 2018 and compliance is required by that same date.  However, no such SIP has been approved and no FIP finally promulgated.  Polite inquiries to EPA have provided no insight to the ultimate timing.

The delay in taking final agency action to implement CISWI standards for existing sources creates some interesting circumstances.  A state may recognize that through a renewal or a reopener of a facility’s Title V permit it should incorporate CISWI requirements, but it really can’t since there isn’t a federally enforceable requirement for CISWI. Subpart DDDD guidelines contain some provisions for determining whether certain sources qualify for an exemption from CISWI under §129. If they are exempt from CISWI, then they should be complying with the currently applicable boiler NESHAP, but there really isn’t any applicable rule for determining the validity of an asserted exemption. Subpart DDDD guidelines also provide that if a waste-burning source does not want to comply with CISWI and instead intends to comply with an applicable NESHAP, it must cease burning waste six months in advance of the date its chooses to switch from being a CISWI source to a NESHAP source. So if that dirty wood burning boiler doesn’t intend to comply with CISWI as of the ostensible compliance date of February 7, 2018, should it have switched to clean wood in July of 2017 even though there was no applicable rule requiring the six month period?

Final promulgation of the FIP or approval of the submitted SIPs would not appear to be a heavy lift since the proposed FIP and the submitted SIPs essentially mirror subpart DDDD.  So the delay to what is now four years and nine months out of the five years allowable under the CAA is somewhat incomprehensible. It begs the question, “What’s happening with this §111(d) rule?” 

Coming Soon to a Northeast or Mid-Atlantic State Near You: Regulations on Carbon Emissions From Transportation

Posted on November 16, 2017 by Seth Jaffe

Earlier this week, eight states in the Transportation Climate Initiative issued a joint statement pledging to pursue regional solutions to GHG emissions from transportation.  The statement does not identify any specific policy options; instead it simply announced that they are “initiating a public conversation about these opportunities and challenges.”

Even if the statement doesn’t say so, what everyone is hearing from this announcement is simply this:  RGGI for transportation.

To give one an idea of the momentum that is finally building in support of regulation of transportation sector GHG emissions, one need look no further than the recent letter sent jointly by the New England Power Generators Association (our client), the NRDC, the Sierra Club, the Union of Concerned Scientists (also our client!), and the Acadia Center to four New England governors, requesting that they

"develop and participate in a regional, market-based policy to address greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector."

If the letter seems at first blush to involve strange bedfellows, think again.  From NEPGA’s perspective, its members are reasonably sick and tired of being the only target of GHG emissions regulations – particularly given that electric generation now represents less than ½ the GHG emissions from transportation.  From the perspective of the environmental groups, they know that it will be literally impossible to meet targets of 80% reductions in GHG emissions by 2050 without very substantial reductions in emissions from transportation.

For too long, states focused on electric generation emissions to the exclusion of transportation for one reason only.  Transportation will be difficult.  Difficult is no longer an excuse.

It’s about time.

Court Rejects BLM’s Efforts to Unbalance the Scales of Justice

Posted on November 6, 2017 by Seth Jaffe

Last month, Magistrate Judge Elizabeth Laporte granted summary judgment to plaintiffs and vacated the Bureau of Land Management’s notice that it was postponing certain compliance dates contained in the Obama BLM rule governing methane emissions on federal lands.  If you’re a DOJ lawyer, it’s pretty clear your case is a dog when the Court enters summary judgment against you before you’ve even answered the complaint.

The case is pretty simple and the outcome should not be a surprise.  BLM based its postponement of the compliance deadlines on § 705 of the APA, which authorizes agencies to “postpone the effective date” of regulations “when justice so requires.”  However, every court that has looked at the issue has concluded that the plain words of the APA apply only to the “effective date” of a regulation and not to any “compliance date” contained within the regulation.

It seems clearly right to me.  For Chevron geeks out there, I’ll note that the Court stated that, because the APA is a procedural statute as to which BLM has no particular expertise, its interpretation of the APA is not entitled to Chevron deference – a conclusion which also seems right to me.

What particularly caught my eye about the decision was the Court’s discussion of the phrase, “when justice so requires.”  In a belt and suspenders bit of analysis, the Court also made findings that justice did not require postponement.  BLM’s argument was that justice required the postponement because otherwise the regulated community would have to incur compliance costs.  However, as the Court noted, “the Bureau entirely failed to consider the benefits of the Rule, such as decreased resource waste, air pollution, and enhanced public revenues.”  Indeed:  

If the words “justice so requires” are to mean anything, they must satisfy the fundamental understanding of justice: that it requires an impartial look at the balance struck between the two sides of the scale, as the iconic statue of the blindfolded goddess of justice holding the scales aloft depicts. Merely to look at only one side of the scales, whether solely the costs or solely the benefits, flunks this basic requirement. As the Supreme Court squarely held, an agency cannot ignore “an important aspect of the problem.” Without considering both the costs and the benefits of postponement of the compliance dates, the Bureau’s decision failed to take this “important aspect” of the problem into account and was therefore arbitrary.

I think I detect a theme here.  Some of you will remember that Foley Hoag filed an amicus brief on behalf of the Union of Concerned Scientists, supporting the challenge to President Trump’s “2-for-1” Executive Order.  We made pretty much the same arguments in that case that Magistrate Judge Laporte made here – minus the reference to the scales of justice.

Unless SCOTUS gets rid of all agency deference, the Trump Administration is going to get some deference as it tries to eliminate environmental regulations wherever it can find them.  However, if it continues to do so while looking solely at the costs of the regulations to the business community, while ignoring the benefits of the regulations, it’s still going to have an uphill battle on its hands.

PFAS – NOT JUST ANOTHER “EMERGING” CONTAMINANT

Posted on September 19, 2017 by Kenneth Gray

No longer emerging, Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFASs) have exploded on the environmental and toxic tort landscape in 2016 and in 2017.  Cognoscenti will recall U.S. EPA phase-out initiatives dating back to 2000, EPA Drinking Water Health Advisories set in 2009 and the TSCA action plan of the same year, the 2012 EPA drinking water monitoring rule, and even a blog in this very space “way back” in 2011.

Why have PFASs recently been compared to asbestos and PCBs for potential costs and impacts?  And why will they continue to be significant even if there is no further federal regulation in the near term?  Here’s why:

·        The compounds have many uses in many products and were therefore manufactured or used (and released) at a large number of facilities. Commercial products included, among others, cookware, food packaging, personal care products, and stain resistant chemicals for apparel and carpets.  Industrial and commercial uses included photo imaging, metal plating, semiconductor coatings, firefighting aqueous film-forming foam, car wash solutions, and rubber and plastics.  Sources include landfills.

·        PFASs are highly mobile and highly persistent in the environment, and so will be present for many decades.

·        The EPA Drinking Water Health Advisory level was reset (lower) in 2016 at 70 parts per trillion (ppt).

·        EPA estimates that 6.5 million people are affected by PFASs in public water systems, which does not include any impacts to smaller water systems or private wells.

·        More and more public water systems are voluntarily testing for PFASs – and more states are compelling testing.

·        Airborne releases of PFASs have contaminated groundwater and surface water.

·        They’re ubiquitous in the environment and present in human blood.  PFASs are also found in fish, and thus fish advisories are being set by states. 

·        California has proposed listing PFASs under Proposition 65 based on reproductive toxicity.

·        Many U.S. Department of Defense properties (and former properties) were the sites of PFAS releases in firefighting foam, and DOD is ramping up additional testing on its facilities.  

·        Toxic tort lawsuits have been filed over PFAS contamination in Parkersburg, WV; Decatur, AL; Merrimack, NH; and Hoosick Falls, NY. More lawsuits are likely.

·        Several Attorneys General are reportedly considering lawsuits on behalf of the citizens of their states.

It may only be the end of summer, but can you sense a snowball?

Turn On, Plug In, Peel Out

Posted on September 18, 2017 by Samuel I. Gutter

(With apologies to the late Timothy Leary [“Turn on, tune in, drop out”], who was referring to Electric Kool-Aid, not Electric Vehicles.)

Today, September 18th, is the second anniversary of the first public disclosure of the VW “Defeat Device” scandal.  It also marks the beginning of the end of sales of diesel-powered VW cars in the U.S.  And while other companies (Chevy, BMW, Jaguar and Land Rover, among them) still offer diesel cars and SUVs, the pickings are a lot slimmer. 

One unintended consequence of diesel’s fall from grace is the boost it has provided to electric vehicles.  Auto manufacturers must find ways to meet increasingly stringent fuel-economy standards, and for some the efficient diesel was a way to hike their “CAFE” (corporate average fuel economy) numbers.  Now, signs are that Tesla, even with the introduction of its less-expensive Model 3, will soon be sharing the EV market with a growing number of competitors.  GM and Nissan are expanding their pure EV offerings, and Volvo, Mercedes and Mini are planning to release their own “zero emission vehicles” (ZEVs) over the coming years.  Meantime, plug-in electric/gasoline hybrids are becoming common-place, with offerings from Toyota, Cadillac, Volvo, Ford, BMW, and others.  

While diesels dominate the line-haul truck market, Cummins and Tesla are both planning to introduce short-haul electric heavy trucks in the near future.  And what could be more telling than the announcement by the quintessential American company, Harley-Davidson, that it will start selling its “Livewire” electric motorcycle in five years?  Will “Rolling Thunder” become an anachronism?

International pressure to reduce GHGs and urban air pollution is also at play.  China, India, England, France and Norway are all considering an outright ban on the sale of fossil-fueled vehicles.  And back to VW, as part of its Defeat Device settlement, the company agreed to spend $2 billion over the next 10 years on U.S. infrastructure to support electric vehicles.

Battery prices are coming down and charge stations are going up.  And sure, diesels have great torque, but as anyone who has experienced the head-banging g-force of mashing the pedal in an EV will tell you, diesels are best viewed in the rear-view mirror. 

Still, many institutional and social barriers remain – proprietary charging technologies, reliance on government subsidies, high costs of electricity with (in some areas) no reduction in nighttime rates, and consumers who are wary of the emerging technology and fear being stranded on the highway with a depleted battery.  But while ZEVs and plug-in hybrids are still a fraction of total vehicles sales, they are increasing in numbers and market share.  As prices drop and driving range increases, electric vehicles will become more affordable and practical.

Fasten your seatbelt, there might be an EV in your future!

Using Offsets with a Carbon Tax? Use what works.

Posted on August 21, 2017 by Jeffrey C. Fort

Proposals to adopt a fee on emissions of greenhouse gases (also called "Carbon Taxes") have made headlines, with both "conservative Republicans" and "liberal Democrats" releasing ideas.   An elevated price on carbon -- the centerpiece of the suggestions for a federal program from both camps -- is not predicted to lower emissions, except by setting a very high price.  Such an approach is not practical, unless room is allowed for states to continue their innovations and for volunteers to also reduce emissions.   Getting the best result for the least cost - i.e. the most efficient emission reduction -- ought to be used.

EPA already has its Mandatory Reporting Rule.  It does not cover non-obvious sectors like farming who could be affected by the proposed fee.  The MRR reports provide a sound basis for any further federal program such as carbon fees.

Carbon taxes have yet to show direct evidence of any reductions in emissions of carbon equivalent greenhouse gases.  As another cost which can be passed on in many sectors, it is a clumsy way to achieve environmental benefits.

However, if a "fee" is imposed, it should recognize state programs such as the ARB and RGGI programs.  Those allowances ought to be counted and credited -- "a tonne is a tonne is a tonne" regardless of where emitted into the troposphere. 

Voluntary reductions from non-regulated sectors ought to count too.  Known as carbon offsets, they are issued by the several independent registries and have real environmental benefits and integrity. They are at least as real as monitored -- or more often estimated --emissions from AP-42 or other EPA-sanctioned sources.  Offsets can only be recognized: (1) for reductions which are not required by law and not business as usual; (2) if based on a scientific methodology to measure such which has been accepted after public comment and peer review, (3) from a project has been announced, undertaken and proven to have occurred.  Only after all such has been proven, is a credit awarded and available to be purchased and (4) then the offset credit must be chosen (i.e. purchased) for use by a regulated entity.  Thus, there are several steps at which such are scrutinized by independent parties.

The proposals for carbon taxes are well-intentioned.  But the most efficient and least disruptive approach would include not only recognizing state programs but also unlimited carbon offsets from economic sectors not under the tax.  All businesses should have a role; those who are more efficient in producing their products for lower climate impact ought to have a way to contribute.

NGOs 1, Trump EPA 0: The First Skirmish in the Great Environmental Rollback War Goes to the Greens

Posted on July 11, 2017 by Seth Jaffe

Last week, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals handed environmentalists at least a temporary win in what I think was the first case to reach judicial decision in Scott Pruitt’s great environmental roll-back tour of 2017.  The Court rejected EPA’s effort to stay the effective date of the New Source Performance Standards for fugitive emissions from oil and natural gas operations, pending EPA’s reconsideration of certain aspects of the Obama-era rule.

Notwithstanding Judge Brown’s dissent, EPA’s position on the merits seemed barely credible.  I understand the argument that the stay was not final agency action and thus not judiciable.  It just doesn’t seem compelling to me.  If EPA had amended to rule to extend the compliance deadlines, that clearly would have been subject to judicial review.  Why should the answer be different because EPA styles its action as a stay, rather than a revision to the regulations?  The impact is exactly the same.

As to EPA’s position that the four issues which it was reconsidering could not have been addressed during the original rulemaking by the industry groups now seeking reconsideration, EPA’s position was almost embarrassing.  As the Court repeatedly demonstrated, not only could the industry groups have addressed the issues during the original rulemaking, but they actually did so.  Moreover, EPA did consider those comments and, at least in parts, adopted them in the final rule.  My favorite example is the court’s discussion regarding the criteria for exemption for well-site pneumatic pumps.  As the Court noted:

[The American Petroleum Institute] … proposed precisely the technical infeasibility language EPA adopted in the final rule, suggested that an engineer certify technical infeasibility, and justified its proposed exemption based on a lengthy description of why existing sites were not designed to “handle” EPA’s proposal.

The record thus belies EPA’s claim that no industry group had an opportunity to comment on the “scope and parameters” of the pneumatic pump exemption.

The real question at this point is whether this decision is any kind of harbinger.  Practitioners know that the record of the Bush EPA in rolling back Clinton rules was shockingly poor, given Chevron deference.  Are we going to see the same again?  The Court threw EPA what could prove to be a rather large fig leaf by noting that the decision does not prevent EPA from reconsidering the methane rule.  The Court also quoted FCC v. Fox Television Stations – the same case on which EPA is relying in its rollback of the WOTUS rule:

[EPA] is free to [reconsider the rule] as long as “the new policy is permissible under the statute.., there are good reasons for it, and … the agency believes it to be better.”

This is where the battles are going to be fought over the next several years.

Is It a Dividend? Is It a Tax? Could President Trump Care Less?

Posted on June 26, 2017 by Seth Jaffe

In February, I posted about the formation of the Climate Leadership Council and its push for what it calls its “Carbon Dividend” plan.  In essence, it’s a gradually increasing carbon tax.  The plan would be revenue neutral, with the proceeds being returned to taxpayers.  Thus, the name.  I loved the idea and I still love it.  I particularly love that the tax starts at $40/ton – that’s a serious number.

However, as I noted in February, the founders of the CLC are a who’s who of the old-line GOP establishment – precisely those whom President Trump would generally refer to as “losers”, unless he could spare the time to come up with something more derogatory.

The CLC has now brought on a number of corporate heavyweights, including GM and four of the world’s largest oil and gas companies (BP, ExxonMobil, Shell, and Total), among others.  They published their support in a Wall Street Journal ad.  In a cheerful bit of optimism, the program is now called “The Consensus Climate Solution.”  The ad describes the plan as “Pro-Environment, Pro-Growth, Pro-Jobs, Pro-Competitiveness, Pro-Business and Pro-National Security.”  Who could be against it?  Here’s a hint.  I think that the tag line would work better if phrased as follows:

Pro-Environment, Pro-Trump, Pro-Growth, Pro-Trump, Pro-Jobs, Pro-Trump, Pro-Competitiveness, Pro-Trump, Pro-Business, Pro-Trump, and Pro-National Security (and Pro-Trump)

Seriously, this is no time for cynicism.  This is a great plan.  A tax starting at $40/ton would have real impact.  (The most recent RGGI auction price?  $2.53/ton.)  As I noted earlier this week, we need smart people of good will and of all political stripes advocating solutions if we’re going to get anywhere.

Trump may call you losers, but, men and woman of the CLC, I salute you!

Does Chevron Ever Permit EPA to Rewrite a Statute? EPA’s Release Reporting Exemptions Are Struck Down

Posted on April 13, 2017 by Seth Jaffe

On Tuesday, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia vacated EPA’s final rule governing reporting of air releases from animal feeding operations.  The Court found that EPA had no statutory authority to exempt AFOs from the reporting regulations.

The decision is also important because it is another in a recent line of cases regarding the extent of agency authority to interpret statutes.  The issue was whether EPA had authority to exempt smaller AFOs from reporting requirements, on the ground that it could not:

foresee a situation where [it] would take any future response action as a result of such notification[s].

Although EPA did not explicitly justify its rule on de minimis grounds, the Court understood EPA to be making a de minimis argument and analyzed the rule in that context.  The Court concluded that EPA had not justified a de minimis exception, because:

an agency can’t use it to create an exception where application of the literal terms would “provide benefits, in the sense of furthering the regulatory objectives, but the agency concludes that the acknowledged benefits are exceeded by the costs.”

Here, the Court found that there were benefits to requiring reporting without a de minimis exception.  That was enough to vacate the rule.

It is worth noting the concurrence from Judge Janice Rogers Brown, who agreed that EPA had overstepped, but was concerned about the panel opinion’s summary of Chevron as being focused on whether the agency’s interpretation is “reasonable.”  Stoking the anti-Chevron flames, Judge Brown wrote to make clear that the “reasonableness” inquiry does not apply at step one of Chevron.  Ever-vigilant, she wants to be certain that courts do not abdicate their duty to state what the unambiguous language of a statute means.

I don’t have any problem with that.  Phase I of Chevron is an important bedrock principle.  If there’s no ambiguity, there’s no deference.  However, it’s worth noting that Judge Brown also stated that:

an Article III renaissance is emerging against the judicial abdication performed in Chevron’s name.

Notwithstanding the congressional discussion of this issue, I remain skeptical that any such “Article III renaissance” is occurring.  One concurrence from one appellate judge who happens to be named Gorsuch does not a renaissance make.

Of course, the really important part of Judge Brown’s concurrence was her citation to Luck Be a Lady, from Guys and Dolls, the greatest musical of all time.