Paving a Legal and Regulatory Path to America’s Clean Energy Economy

Posted on May 30, 2018 by Kenneth Berlin

A clean energy revolution is underway in this country, buoyed by market forces making renewable energy sources increasingly cost-competitive with fossil fuels. Wind and solar are now cheaper than coal and natural gas in much of the country, and their costs will continue to drop. This stunning decrease in the price of wind and solar generation has created a new paradigm in the energy industry.

Similarly, the cost of energy storage is falling fast, and batteries will soon eliminate – at fully competitive prices – the intermittency issues around wind and solar. Meanwhile, electric vehicles are projected to become both cheaper to purchase and cheaper to run than gasoline cars by 2025.

Despite these extremely favorable economic trends, legal and regulatory barriers that protect fossil fuels continue to slow the transition to a clean energy economy. Removing these obstacles is a critical step toward securing a clean, safe and prosperous future.

At the outset, new clean energy projects face potential challenges around siting and transmission, including permitting restrictions, utilities’ unwillingness to enter into the necessary contracts, and a lack of support from public officials.

Once a project has cleared those hurdles, additional legal, regulatory and policy barriers may remain. Some of the primary impediments include:

o   Non-existing, limited, or even preventative legal frameworks for independent power producers – like homeowners – to sell energy to utilities or third parties. These power purchase agreements are currently allowed in only 26 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.

o   Utility interconnection, or connection of home or commercial renewable energy systems to the regional grid, that may be limited or severely restricted by regulation or laws.

o   Lack of or insufficiently priced net metering policies that make renewable investments much less attractive. In 2016, for example, Nevada’s Public Utilities Commission (PUC) sought to triple fees for solar customers while at the same time reducing credit for net excess generation by approximately three-quarters. After pushback from solar manufacturers and installers, as well as the prospect of hundreds of solar jobs leaving the state, the PUC approved new rules, partially restoring the net metering rate.

o   Tariffs on components of renewable energy systems like those recently announced by the Trump Administration on solar panel imports.

These obstacles don’t even touch on the fact that fossil fuel companies are not held financially responsible for the global warming pollution they dump into our shared atmosphere, leaving everyday Americans to foot the bill for these extraordinary health and economic costs. They also don’t factor in the uneven playing field that well-funded lobbyists tilt in favor of the fossil fuel industry, including enormous government subsidies.

The good news is that many individuals and organizations are working to build the political support needed to remove these barriers, including my organization, The Climate Reality Project, and our Founder and Chairman, former US Vice President Al Gore.

With enough voices working together across many sectors, we can eliminate these challenges and allow market forces and popular support to usher in a new clean energy economy.

Common Sense Species Mitigation Policy Shouldn’t Be Reversed By Trump DOI

Posted on March 29, 2018 by Melinda E. Taylor

Depending on one’s political persuasion, the Endangered Species Act is either a glaring example of federal overreach or a critical safety net for scores of plants and animals that are at risk of extinction. Its impact is felt across the country in regulations that protect the spotted owl and salmon in the Pacific Northwest, the red-cockaded woodpecker in the Southeast, the Mojave Desert tortoise in the Southwest, and the whooping crane on the Gulf Coast. 

Thanks to the act, over 220 species have avoided extinction and remain in the wild, including the bald eagle, brown pelican, American alligator, peregrine falcon, and northern right whale.

When Richard Nixon signed the law in 1973, few expected it to be as controversial as it eventually became. It was passed by Congress with little opposition, but by the 1990s, the Wise Use movement and extractive industries like forestry, mining, and oil and gas were bristling at the land use restrictions that accompanied federal decisions to list endangered species, while at the same time, environmental groups were filing lawsuits to force the federal government to use the law even more aggressively.

To varying degrees, the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations each adopted policies designed to reduce the conflicts between the warring sides and make it more appealing for private landowners to protect rare species. Those efforts were important, because 75% of endangered species occur on private land. Without the cooperation of landowners, their chances of rebounding were slim.

Because of incentive-based policies, over 130 conservation “banks” have been established on private lands to protect 70+ species, including the Florida panther, golden-cheeked warbler, American burying beetle, and gopher tortoise. Private investors, as well as ranchers, farmers, and forest owners, have invested millions of dollars in land management practices that help rare species in return for the right to sell “credits” to companies that destroy the species’ habitat elsewhere. Regulated industries benefit from a streamlined permitting process.

The Obama Administration crafted policies to clarify and improve the incentives. It also worked with states, ranchers, industries, and conservation groups to formulate ambitious, large-scale conservation plans intended to preclude the need for federal protection altogether and give more flexibility to state governments. Unfortunately, the Trump Administration appears determined to undermine these efforts.   

On March 28, 2017 President Trump signed an Executive Order on Energy and Climate Change that reversed key parts of the Obama Administration’s agenda. The intent was to unleash fossil fuel development, especially on public lands, by relaxing environmental requirements applicable to oil, gas, and coal that were supposedly holding the industry back.

Among the several actions that the executive order rescinded was a relatively obscure Presidential Memorandum dated November 3, 2015 titled “Mitigating Impacts on Natural Resources from Development and Encouraging Related Private Investment.”  Unlike the other actions rescinded by the order (Power Sector Carbon Pollution Standards, Climate Change and National Security, and Preparing the United States for the Impacts of Climate Change), the 2015 Obama Memorandum did not address climate change or energy development.

Rather, it directed federal agencies to formulate policies that would encourage private investment in natural resource conservation, a goal that should be appealing to conservatives and liberals alike.

The 2015 Obama Presidential Memorandum had ordered agencies to refine their species mitigation programs, including conservation banking, to ensure they produced measurable outcomes. It required an increased level of transparency and consistency for the regulated industries and landowners. It was designed to level the playing field among conservation bankers and other providers of species mitigation. In short, it was intended to create conditions in which the free market could work efficiently for endangered species. It is hard to imagine a rational justification for abandoning this common sense policy; like a number of other environmental decisions by the Trump Administration, this one appears to be driven by the notion that, regardless of the merits, if the previous administration put the policy in place, it must be reversed.

The Endangered Species Act has become highly politicized, despite the fact that polls show a core of strong, unwavering public support for the law. Republicans in Congress have introduced dozens of bills in the last year that would undermine its protections. A far better approach, a win-win for private landowners and industry, would be to fine-tune the tools developed by previous administrations to harness the power of the marketplace and the willingness of private landowners to protect the nation’s natural heritage.

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.

If Jimmy Fallon Was an ACOEL Member, Here is What He’d Sing

Posted on March 1, 2018 by Jeff Thaler

While many in Philadelphia were in the streets after the end of Super Bowl LII, and New Englanders promptly went to bed after the last pass hit the Minneapolis turf, the Doppelgänger of a native-born Minnesotan made a national appearance in the middle of that long, cold night.

By now, many have seen the 2018 version of “The Times They Are a-Changin,’” performed by someone born 10 years after the original version was created—one Jimmy Fallon. According to my consultation with Dr. Google, the only time Mr. Fallon has talked about environmental issues was back in May 2016 when he did a segment on Sarah Palin, climate change and climate scientists.

Therefore I think it is time that ACOEL commissioned Mr. Fallon to perform an updated version of that and another Dylan song, ones many of us could probably sing by heart (with a refresher class) even though written in the early ‘60s—that pre-NRDC/CAA/CWA/ESA/et.seq. classic, “Blowin’ in the Wind.” The original lyrics for both songs need to be refreshed, as do all of us who were alive and kicking back then, so here they are:

The Times They Are A-Changin'

Come gather ’round people                                                       

Wherever you roam                                                                           

And admit that the waters                                                               

Around you have grown                                                               `                   

And accept it that soon                                                                     

Under water will be our coast and flood zones                       

If our kids’ future to you is worth savin’                                   

Then you better start swimmin’                                                  

or you’ll sink like a stone                                                              

For climate times they are a-changin’

 

Come federal and state legislators

Please heed the call

Don’t stand in the doorway

Don’t block up the hall

For those who should be ashamed

Will be those who have stalled

Weather extremes are outside and they’re raging

Floods, fires and storms will break down your walls

For climate times they are a-changin’

 

Come bloggers, reporters, and skeptics

Throughout the land

Please don't criticize

What you refuse to understand

Rising CO2 levels and temperatures

Are getting beyond our command

Your old fossil-fueled road is

Rapidly agin'.

Please embrace a clean energy new one and

Vote out of office resisting government hands

For climate times they are a-changin'.

 

Blowin’ in the Wind

How many droughts & fires must the world endure                                  

Before we know they are a warning?

Yes and how many seas must flood our shores                        

Before we seek a solution?                                                           

Yes and how many times must the fake news fly                     

That climatic disruption is not real?                                                

The answer my friend is blowin' in the wind                              

The answer is blowin' in the wind.                                                    

 

How many years will our beaches and airports exist

Before they are washed into the sea?

Yes and how many years can the glaciers survive

Before they are just memories?

How many heads must be buried in the sand

So that people can deny what should be seen?

The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind

The answer is blowin' in the wind

 

How many more years must we create greenhouse gases

Such that too many species can’t survive?

Yes and how many times will clean energy projects be held up

Before too many people have died?

How can we power our cars, lights and heat pumps

Without harming the world for our kids?

The answer my friend is blowin' in onshore winds

The answer is blowin' in offshore wind.

 

So break out your harmonicas and guitars, and we will sing the songs of climate changes while working to change our laws and policies for the benefit of all.

Prizes for Progress with a Caveat: DOE Offers $3 Million Incentive

Posted on February 15, 2018 by Irma S. Russell

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) recently announced a $3 million prize competition for solar energy manufacturing innovations.  The American Made Solar Prize, seeks to encourage innovation in solar manufacturing in the private sector.  Given the urgency of the threat of climate disruption, incentives for a green energy industry are definitely a good thing.  

In 2017 the U.S. Global Change Research Program Climate Science Special Report reported key findings, including stronger evidence of “rapid, human-caused warming of the global atmosphere and ocean,” and observable changes in the planet have made the scientific consensus about climate disruption clear as glaciers shrink, oceans and rivers warm, and coast lines recede.  A draft report by agencies such as NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released late last year states that the world “has warmed by about 1.6 degrees Fahrenheit over the past 150 years and that human activity is the primary cause for that warming.”   It seems clear that rewards for innovation to combat climate disruption are worth the effort and worth the money if they produce progress in sustainable energy.  Despite such promise, however, DOE and community oversight groups should use caution in this new prize enterprise. 

Entrepreneurs have a played a dramatic role in historic energy discoveries of the past.  For example, the discovery and development of fossil fuel was driven by the private energy sector.  A recent example is the rocket launch by Elon Musk in February or 2018.  Likewise, DOE’s laboratories, university researchers and other energy researchers have a proven track record of progress in energy research.  Moreover, private investment seems posed to spur renewable energy technologies.  Venture capital investments needed to take ideas and turn them into marketplace reality seem likely to support private innovations, particularly when those innovations have the endorsement of the DOE. These factors suggest optimism about the result of this prize and others like it. 

So what’s the caution and why?  In an article forthcoming in the UMKC Law Review Green Economy Symposium later this spring, I survey current-day green economy sector jobs and other efforts to build markets to help encourage sustainable practices.  The article describes natural incentives to promote an all-hands-on-deck approach to addressing climate disruption and argues for the use of ex post rewards for innovations, like the award now offered by DOE.  Caution: it won’t work toward environmentally positive outcomes if, rather than creating incentives for real innovation, it is an excuse for a give-away. 

However, Concerns that ex ante rewards may confer unfair benefits to inventors turns a blind eye to the risks accompanying the failure to attract innovations to solve the global climate problem and other environmental problems.  Government support should encourage the progress that a modern-day Edison, Tesla or Jonas Salk might make with true break-through advances.  In such cases, governments should mobilize to support inventions even when the government did not foresee such developments.

The possibility that the reward program will advance new and robust solar energy manufacturing innovations makes it worth pursuing.  The risk, however, that the program will fail to advance the science of solar energy is real. It is again that some wasted funding is likely.  And distinguishing between an incentive for innovation and a reward for being part of the energy structure can be difficult.   For example, last year Secretary of Energy Rick Perry announced payments to nuclear and coal companies for their status as sources of power based on the rationale that such payments serve as insurance against a compromise of the energy grid in the future.  The plan did not include payments to renewable energy companies, however, causing some to speculate that the payments had a political purpose rather than the stated purpose of insuring an uninterrupted energy supply. 

The answer to whether the DOE program is worth pursuing hinges not on the ultimate result but on the good faith nature of the incentive and the effectiveness of the efforts of those monitoring the implementation of the reward.    The use of government incentives, including prizes, presents a potentially fertile avenue for progress.  While risks exist, the possibility of progress is alluring.  So long as the rewards serve to stimulate new ideas rather than simply rewarding existing players to continue business as usual, the expenditures are justifiable and, ultimately, justified because of the possibility of new.   Discovering innovation that moves the country toward a carbon-neutral economy is a goal worth funding – even when the success of such research is not assured.  In fact, this is the nature of research itself.  

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.

AS IT TURNS OUT, NEW SOURCES OF ENERGY ARE BLOWING IN THE WIND

Posted on November 13, 2017 by Gregory H. Smith

There is growing recognition that New England’s energy costs are much higher than neighboring parts of the country.  To a large extent, these high costs are due to the combination of transmission congestion, an ever-increasing reliance on natural gas and a shortage of natural gas supply in the New England market.  As a result, new participants are seeking entry into the market, including several seeking to expand the diversity of generation sources.

Antrim Wind Energy, LLC is an example of new participants seeking entry into the market.  In 2015, Antrim filed an Application for Certificate of Site and Facility with the New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee (“SEC”) to develop a wind farm.  The Application was Antrim’s second attempt to gain SEC approval.  As noted in this space, an earlier Antrim project was denied in 2013 based primarily on its “aesthetic” effect on the region.    Several key factors led to a different outcome in the second proceeding.

Since 2013, the New Hampshire SEC has substantially revised its siting rules. Particularly pertinent to the Antrim Wind Project are new, more specific rules for aesthetic assessments.  Although review of aesthetic effects are, by their nature, somewhat subjective, the rules provide objective standards for visual impact assessments to provide greater predictability of outcomes.  The SEC rules require the Committee to consider seven different, specific criteria in making a determination as to whether a proposed project will have an unreasonable adverse effect on aesthetics. 

In reviewing the second Antrim proposal, the SEC placed particular emphasis on criterion six (6), whether the project would be a dominant or prominent feature in the landscape. 

In its second proposal, Antrim made several significant modifications to its earlier application case, that, coupled with the changes in the governing law, produced the favorable outcome.  Most important, the number of wind turbines, and their size and scale were reduced.  This modification doubtless affected the Committee’s analysis of whether the project “would be a dominant and prominent feature” in the landscape.

The SEC also adopted a public interest test as part of the new rules, which made a significant difference in review of the 2015 application.  No clear definition is provided in the rules as to how an applicant can demonstrate that a project is in the public interest.  A focus on project benefits seems to be a key factor.  In the Antrim case, beyond the obvious benefits of diversifying energy generation to include clean, renewable wind energy with the corresponding beneficial effect on climate change, there were recognized benefits to the community similar to those in the land use approval process.  These included stabilizing tax payments through a municipal agreement, investments in community infrastructure, and permanent preservation of 908 acres of land as a form of mitigation. 

The Antrim Wind project now stands alone in New Hampshire as the only sizable energy project to first have been rejected by the SEC, and subsequently reheard and approved.  The protracted Antrim case demonstrates that the somewhat complicated siting rules are capable of reasoned and predictable application.  It is also clear that this case provides useful instruction for what will likely be required for approval in the subsequent applications.

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.

Eight Things Environmental Lawyers Can Do in the Age of Trump

Posted on August 28, 2017 by Michael Gerrard

One of the great things about the ACOEL is that its members are very diverse in their views on politics and policy.  On the subject of reactions to President Trump's environmental policies, we have a spectrum ranging from outraged to jubilant. Count me at the outraged end. I would welcome counter-thoughts from the other end of the spectrum.

With that disclaimer, here are my personal views.

This is a time of unprecedented peril to U.S. environmental law.  What can those of us environmental lawyers who are outraged do about this?

Obviously, each individual’s flexibility depends in large part on where we work – we academics have almost complete flexibility, as do lawyers in their own small firms; lawyers in NGOs quite a bit; lawyers in big law firms have significant constraints; and lawyers in government are the most tightly constrained.

But to the extent people do have flexibility, these are eight things we can do.

1. Push back

Resist these efforts by Trump, Scott Pruitt, Ryan Zinke and the rest. That may involve speaking out; suing or intervening or joining as amici in others’ lawsuits; or filing comments when the opportunity arises. We need to try to preserve the gains that were made in prior administrations to the extent possible.  Some day – though not soon enough -- we’ll have a new President who actually believes in law and science and cares about current and future generations, and when that day comes we’ll want to get back on track as quickly as possible.

2. Think globally, act locally

Much of the most important action for the rest of the Trump era will be at the state and the city levels. I’m fortunate to be in a state and a city where there is overwhelming consensus on the importance of environmental protection, and we have leaders who want to move forward – maybe not always as far and fast as we would like, but generally in the right direction. So those who are in state or city government, or who work closely with those who do, have special opportunities to devise and deploy tools that can work where you are and can serve as a model for elsewhere.

3. Decarbonize

To avoid the worst impacts of climate change we need to move away from fossil fuels and toward a clean energy economy that is centered around renewables like wind, solar and hydro, and that operates with the greatest possible degree of energy efficiency. The plummeting costs of wind and solar, in particular, mean we are in the midst of a very positive energy revolution in which renewables push out fossil. Lawyers are needed to help acquire the permits, real estate, and financing for the many new clean energy facilities and devices.

4. Adapt

The outlook for future climate change is extremely serious and seems to be getting worse. Sea level rise, melting ice, episodes of extreme heat, drought and precipitation, and other projections are no less than scary.  We need to build resilience into construction projects, natural resource management, and all manner of other activities. This can happen through zoning actions, licensing and rate proceedings, environmental impact review, and many other settings where lawyers are central players. We should do this both because we need our projects and activities to be resilient, and because if the leaders of large enterprises are led to recognize the impact that climate change may have on their own organizations, ultimately this should have a political impact.

5. Do no harm

If you can, avoid representing the NIMBY side in litigation against renewable energy projects.

In law firms -- If you possibly can, stay away from matters where you’ll be litigating on the side of Trump’s environmental deregulation campaign.

And to our friends who work at EPA, Interior, DOJ and other federal agencies -- you are in our hopes and prayers, we’re thinking of you all the time, we admire your perseverance, and to the extent we possibly can, we have your backs.

6. Reduce personal environmental footprint

Each of us can do more to lower our own environmental impact. This can mean, for example, replacing incandescent light bulbs with LEDs; insulating our homes; driving less and walking, biking, or taking mass transit more; driving electric, hybrid, or small efficient cars; eating less meat (especially beef); diligently turning off lights and appliances and closing faucets; flying less; and recycling more.

7. Contribute

Even if we can’t litigate or campaign directly, we can contribute money to those who do.  NGOs that are on the front lines of litigation, lawful activism and needed research, political action groups that work for pro-environmental candidates, and such candidates themselves are all worthy of support.

8.  Vote

Finally, there is no excuse for U.S. citizens not to vote at every opportunity, and those who can should work hard to try to persuade others to vote, and to cast those votes for an environmentally positive future.

If you do as many of these things as you can, you’ll have done your part in helping the planet through this awful Trump era, and hopefully into an area where we can all smile a lot more.

Trumping Trump on Climate Change

Posted on July 25, 2017 by Dan Esty

President Donald Trump’s decision to back away from the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan and other policies to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in fulfillment of America’s commitment to the 2015 Paris Climate Change Agreement might be seen as bad news for the global environment.  And it is.  But the news is not quite as bad as many fear.  Even if the President’s actions slow progress toward the U.S. “nationally determined contribution” to the emissions reduction goals of the Paris Agreement – a cut of 26-28 percent by 2030 – that will not stop the overall downward trend in GHG emissions for several important reasons. 

First, American Presidents have limited executive authority, meaning that a number of the climate change policies put in place by President Obama cannot be reversed with a stroke of President Trump’s pen.  Second, the shift away from coal as America’s electricity generation fuel of choice will continue – driven by prior regulatory requirements and the economics of the energy marketplace.  Third, many critical decisions that shape the carbon footprint of a society are made not by presidents and prime ministers but by mayors, governors (or other sub-national elected officials), and corporate leaders.

President Trump’s March 28 Executive Order directs his EPA Administrator to “review” the prior administration’s Clean Power Plan and “as soon as practicable, suspend, revise, or rescind” it.  But this is not a simple process.  The Clean Power Plan represents a regulatory strategy for implementing a Clean Air Act obligation to control emissions from any air pollutant found to “endanger public health and public welfare.”  The Supreme Court confirmed in Massachusetts v. EPA (2007) that this obligation is not discretionary with regard to greenhouse gas emissions. 

Thus, the Trump EPA can change the strategy for responding to greenhouse gases but cannot walk away from its obligation to control them unless it reverses the “endangerment” finding issued by former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson in 2009.  To undo this prior conclusion, current EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt would need to establish a new scientific foundation that would justify a different policy conclusion.  Given the overwhelming scientific consensus that the build-up of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere threatens to produce various harmful effects – including sea level rise, increased frequency and intensity of hurricanes and other windstorms, changed rainfall patterns, as well as more frequent droughts, floods, and forest fires – such an effort would be quickly challenged in any number of courts and almost certainly overturned.  Indeed, in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence that the build-up of GHG emissions in the atmosphere is a problem, a “non-endangerment” conclusion would be an almost paradigmatic example of an “arbitrary and capricious” regulatory action.  EPA will, therefore, almost certainly choose to revise the Clean Power Plan rather than dump it altogether. 

In introducing his climate change executive order, President Trump promised that his actions would bring back American coal production and power generation.  No such thing will happen.  Hundreds of U.S. coal-fired power plants have been shut down in the past decade – most in response to the Obama Administration’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards.  These plants will not be reopening.

Not only have coal-burning power plants been the target of numerous regulatory restrictions, they also now face stiff competition from cleaner-burning and cheaper natural gas power generation as well as rapidly expanding renewable power production.  Nothing President Trump has done will reverse these trends.  Indeed, given the momentum toward a clean energy future and the prospects that a future president will redirect the Trump climate change policies and restore the U.S. commitment to lower greenhouse gas emissions, no utility is going to invest in new coal-fired power plants, and many power generators will proceed with planned retirements of existing coal units.  Simply put, the President’s shifting of gears on climate change policy does not over-ride the broader economic logic for movement toward cleaner and cheaper energy options.

In the face of the President’s disinterest in the Paris Agreement in particular and his hostility toward environmental regulation more broadly, leadership and political support for climate change action in the United States has shifted out of Washington.  Of particular note, more than 200 mayors, 10 governors, and nearly 1700 business leaders have formed a coalition called America’s Pledge that aims to ensure that the U.S. emissions reduction commitment is fulfilled.  Led by California Governor Jerry Brown and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the participants in America’s Pledge are pushing forward with climate action plans at the city, state, and corporate scales. 

Some of these leaders, moreover, have expressed interest in formally “signing” the 2015 Paris Agreement if the United States ends up withdrawing.  While there are constitutional limits to what sub-national jurisdictions can do in the international realm, legal work is underway to find a mechanism that would allow these mayors, governors, and CEOs to make a commitment to the goals of the Paris Agreement “to the full extent of their authority.”

The breadth and depth of these non-federal-government climate change initiatives means that American greenhouse gas emissions will continue to decrease regardless of what energy policies the Trump Administration puts forward.  In fact, one of the critical features of the climate change strategy that the world community agreed upon in Paris in 2015 was a shift from a top-down approach that relied upon national government actions to a bottom-up game plan for emissions reductions that called upon a much wider array of actors to join the effort to promote energy efficiency and a shift toward renewable power.

As it turns out, presidents and prime ministers don’t have that much say over the day-to-day decisions that determine the carbon footprints of their societies.  Mayors, governors, and CEOs are really the ones who make the critical choices about transportation options, housing and development patterns, product and production strategies, technology and infrastructure investments, and other decisions that determine the trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions.

Thus, while President Trump can take the United States out of a leadership role in the global effort to combat climate change, he will not be able to reverse the domestic momentum for action on climate change.  His policies may slow the pace of U.S. emissions reductions, but movement toward a decarbonized energy future will continue.

Comprehensive Study of Impacts of Shale Development Released

Posted on June 28, 2017 by Kinnan Golemon

A report, Environmental and Community Impacts of Shale Development in Texas was released by The Academy of Medicine, Engineering and Science of Texas (TAMEST) to the public on June 19, 2017 (1). TAMEST is a nonprofit and brain trust for Texas composed of Texas-based members of the National Academics of Sciences, Engineering and Medicines and the state’s Nobel Laureates.  This entity was the original idea of my law school classmate and friend, Honorable Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson, in 2004. The recently released report is the product of the TAMEST Board decision in 2015 to organize a task force charged with writing a report to “collect the best science available and summarize what we do and do not know” about environmental and community impacts that are posed by new technologies for the extraction of hydrocarbons from shale and other tight rock formations.

Texas, although oil had already been produced at various locations within its boundaries, became a dominant entity in oil and gas production on January 10, 1901, when the Lucas Gusher at the Spindletop salt dome in Jefferson County, roared to the surface: soon producing 100,000 barrels of oil per day, more than all U.S. wells combined (2). Oil and Gas production for the next 100 years was driven by “conventional” vertical well technology seeking resources from porous formations. However, commencing in the late 1980s and through the 1990s, a company founded by an affable, brilliant, tenacious and innovative son of immigrant Greek parents, George Mitchell, undertook an extended effort to access organic resources trapped in shale and very tight rock formations. After many years of limited or no success, Mitchell Energy, by century end, had demonstrated that certain hydraulic fracturing strategies [i.e. well completion techniques similar to those used since the late 1940s] (3) could be deployed in organic rich formations to produce natural gas economically.

Mitchell Energy’s acquisition by Devon Energy in 2002 resulted in another known technology, horizontal well drilling, being deployed along with hydraulic fracturing to produce the basic technological template that is utilized for shale development of oil and gas throughout the U.S., and currently being deployed elsewhere in the world today (4). The production from shale has also resulted in the largest transformation of the U.S. petrochemical industry in a generation, with $185 billion in new U.S. petrochemical projects either under construction or in planning (5).

Those interested in current and future energy policy, as well as the economic, social and environmental impacts associated with modern-day fossil fuel extraction and production, will find this authoritative, comprehensive and well-written report, see http://www.tamest.org, to be far more enlightening than one gains from other current information sources.

Interestingly, a portion of the funding for the report was provided by the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation, a mission-driven grantmaking foundation that seeks innovative sustainable solutions for human and environmental problems that was established prior to his death (6).

 

  1. The Academy of Medicine, Engineering and Science of Texas, 2017, Environmental and Community Impacts of Shale Development in Texas. Austin, TX: The Academy of Medicine, Engineering and Science of Texas. Doi: 10.25238/TAMEST stf.6.2017
  2. www.history.com/topics/spindletop
  3. Society of Professional Engineers (SPE) CD ROM https://www.store.com/spe.org/Legend of-Hydraulic Fracturing-P.433.aspx
  4. https://assets.kpmg.com/content/dam/kpmg/pdf/2014/03/shale-development-global-update-v2.pdf
  5. Christopher M. Mathews. “Shale Boom’s Impact in One Word: Plastics”. Wall Street Journal, June 26, 2017, A1.
  6. http://cgmf.org/p/founders.html

Energy Benchmarking, An Idea Whose Time May Have Come (And Just May be Politically Palatable)

Posted on June 5, 2017 by James B. Witkin

Given the current political climate in Washington, environmental programs most likely to survive unscathed are those that rely on market principles, especially if they are enacted at the state or local level. Sustainability advocates may want to take a closer look at energy benchmarking programs, which pass both of those tests.  

The jurisdictions closest to me, the District of Columbia and its close-in neighbor to the north, Montgomery County, Maryland, have adopted mandatory energy benchmarking programs for many commercial buildings. Other cities with similar programs include Seattle, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Kansas City and New York City. Many of those jurisdictions began requiring compliance for public buildings, then larger commercial buildings, and finally smaller buildings. In Montgomery County, buildings over 250,000 square feet had to start benchmarking last June; starting June 1, 2017, most buildings over 50,000 square feet must comply. In New York City, buildings larger than 25,000 square feet must benchmark by next May.

Although benchmarking programs vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, generally they require building owners to measure and report information on various types of energy and water usage. Some of that information may come from the owner’s own records; in tenanted buildings, landlords may need to obtain the information from tenants. Often the information is input into software such as the EPA’s Energy Star Portfolio Manager Program, which allows for uniform reporting and effective comparison of the data among buildings. That information is made available to the public.

There are several goals of benchmarking. First, it provides owners with information they may not have had, or understood—as one EPA benchmarking website states, you can’t manage what you don’t measure. By making owners focus on their energy costs, and see how those compare to their neighbors’, they should theoretically make efficient management and upgrade decisions.  Second, armed with this information, tenants looking to lease space (or buyers looking to purchase commercial properties) are better able to evaluate what their long term energy costs will be, and can make better leasing or purchasing decisions. Nothing like a lousy score to shame a landlord into making an upgrade decision that ideally is both cost effective and green.

While the programs are still young, some data indicate that they are working. (See the reports issued by the Institute for Market Transformation, and the studies cited by them.) Benchmarking seems like a concept that people on both sides of the isle should be able to support. 

Trump’s “Tortured” Maneuvering Can Be Legal Maneuvering

Posted on April 11, 2017 by Richard G. Stoll

Bob Sussman is a former high-ranking Obama and Clinton EPA official with a stellar academic and professional background.  He recently published in Inside EPA a thought-provoking piece entitled “Trump’s Tortured Maneuvering on Climate Change.”

No matter what your views on climate, Bob’s piece is worth reading.  I find much to agree with in Bob’s observations, but would respectfully disagree with one. 

Focusing on the president’s March 28 Executive Order (EO), Bob raises the valid question of why Mr. Trump touted it on job-saving, energy independence grounds.  Bob makes a strong case (as if he really needed to) that coal mining jobs are dwindling due to market forces and that the U.S. energy outlook is just fine. 

Bob posits that Trump’s job-energy independence focus reveals a divide and major discomfort within the Administration on whether and how much to deny that humans are involved with climate change.  He notes that the March 28 Order side-steps any position on both the “Endangerment Finding” and the Paris Accords.   

So far so good.  My respectful disagreement relates to Bob’s argument that the Trump EPA would have a difficult time sustaining major cutbacks to the Obama Clean Power Plan (CPP) on judicial review.  He speculates that a new Trump CPP might simply retain “building block 1” (plant efficiency improvements) from the 3-block “beyond-the-fenceline” Obama CPP.  He argues that “the courts may well balk at this approach as a contrived effort to duck the challenge of climate change by taking refuge in narrow legal arguments.”

Here is why I disagree:

a.  Following the 2007 Supreme Court Massachusetts ruling and EPA’s subsequent Endangerment Finding, EPA is not required by the Clean Air Act (CAA) to issue GHG rules with any particular degree of stringency – EPA must just issue rules.

b.  The “beyond-the-fenceline” features of the Obama CPP are based upon truly adventurous interpretations of the words of the CAA.  There is certainly nothing in the CAA that requires those interpretations.  (Recall the U.S. Supreme Court has taken the unprecedented step of staying the Obama CPP throughout the entire judicial review process.)  Even if the D.C. Circuit were to uphold these interpretations, it would only be upholding the Obama EPA’s discretion to adopt them; the Court could not rule that such interpretations were mandated by the CAA.

c.  The Supreme Court and D.C. Circuit case law are clear on the following points:

i.  A new administration is free to reverse rules issued by a prior administration based entirely upon policy preferences, even where there are no new facts or information, so long as the new administration adequately explains the basis for the reversal;

ii.  There is no heightened standard of judicial review when an agency reverses course; and an agency need not convince the court that the reasons for the new policy are better than the reasons for the rejected one.

See my recent ACOEL blog for the citations to the cases.

d.  Because the statutory interpretations supporting beyond-the-fenceline requirements are so adventurous (and stayed by the Supreme Court), it should be easy for the Trump EPA to defend a new CPP as a matter of policy based on CAA interpretations that are far less adventurous.

e.  If and when the new CPP reaches the Supreme Court, it is difficult to see the Court departing from the precedents of the cases cited in my ACOEL blog, particularly with Justice Gorsuch filling Justice Scalia’s seat.

Jordan Cove LNG Project Scores Legal Victory

Posted on April 10, 2017 by Rick Glick

The Jordan Cove LNG project in Coos Bay, Oregon, prevailed in a legal challenge to a key permit.  The permit, issued by the Oregon Department of State Lands, allows dredge and fill work for a deep water ship channel.  In Coos Waterkeeper v. Port of Coos Bay, the Court of Appeals rejected that challenge and upheld the permit.

Petitioners’ main argument on appeal was that DSL’s permitting decision should have applied statutory environmental standards not only to the dredge and fill work, but also terminal operations after construction.  The court found this argument to lack merit, finding that DSL’s authority is limited to the “project,” defined in the statute and its legislative history as the dredge and fill work only. 

Petitioners also argued that DSL should have asserted permitting jurisdiction over complementary uplands excavation.  This work would initially be separated from the bay by a 40-foot berm, and then the berm would be removed to create the channel.  The court concluded that DSL jurisdiction would not apply to uplands work (i.e. above the high tide line), and that removal of the berm and flooding the affected uplands are within scope of the permit.

The politics of LNG development in Oregon are highly charged.  The Oregon LNG project was abandoned following election of a new county board of commissioners made up of project opponents.  Local opposition slowed down state regulatory review and the project never was tested against objective legal standards.  It is heartening to see that for the Jordan Cove project, which also is controversial, both the state agency and the court assessed the project as they would any other.  The politics are still there, but the rule of law in this instance rose above.

The outcome of this case highlights an anomaly in green Oregon.  Unlike our neighbors to the north and south, we have no mini-NEPA law.  If we did, the environmental effects of the Jordan Cove project taken as a whole would certainly have been part of the state permitting calculus.  Many bills to create a comprehensive environmental impact review process have been proposed, but none have taken hold.  With a Democratic controlled legislature and state house, it seems only a matter of time.

The Latest Executive Order: Any Kind of Consistency Is the Hobgoblin of Little Minds

Posted on March 31, 2017 by Seth Jaffe

Make no mistake, the Executive Order signed by President Trump at EPA yesterday is a big deal.  Time will tell whether the Administration’s U-turn on the Obama rules currently in litigation, such as the Clean Power Plan and the rule on fracking on federal lands will make any difference to judicial review of those rules.  There are plenty of states and NGOs ready to step into EPA’s and BLM’s shoes to defend those rules.

Regardless, though, it’s important.  Social cost of carbon?  Poof.  Gone.  Climate Action Plan?  Gone.  Consideration of climate change in environmental impact reviews?  Gone.

We already know all this, though.  I’d like to focus on a few details concerning the EO that might have gone unnoticed.

  • The order states that development of domestic natural resources “is essential to ensuring the Nation’s geopolitical security.”  I found this statement interesting in light of the recent statements by Secretary of Defense Mattis, who very clearly stated that climate change is real and is itself an important security risk.
  • The order states that environmental regulations should provide “greater benefit than cost.”  I found this statement somewhat odd, given that the President’s prior EO known as the 2-for-1 order, essentially requires agencies to ignore the benefits of regulations and focus solely on the costs that they impose.
  • Similarly, the Order requires agencies, in “monetizing the value of changes in greenhouse gas emissions resulting from regulations,” ensure that their analyses are consistent with OMB Circular A-4, issued in 2003.  The Order states that Circular A-4 embodies “best practices for conducting regulatory cost-benefit analysis.”

I’d be interested in knowing if a single one of the authors or peer reviewers of Circular A-4 have anything nice to say about the 2-for-1 Order?

Earth Day Texas—People, Planet, and Profit—Key Legal Issues for a Protective and Productive Future

Posted on March 27, 2017 by Jeff Civins

On March 16th, Reuters reported that President Trump’s administration has proposed a 31 % cut to EPA’s budget, explaining: “Consistent with the President’s America’s First Energy Plan, the budget reorients the EPA’s air program to protect the air we breathe without unduly burdening the American economy.”  In this time of change and uncertainty, perhaps more than ever, there is a need for a measured dialog among diverse viewpoints. 

With over 130,000 participants attending last year’s  Earth Day Texas celebration in Dallas, its organizers decided a Legal Symposium of prominent representatives from environmental organizations, business, academia and the government might help policy makers grapple with fundamental environmental issues such as how best to balance economic development with environmental protection.  Several members of the College assisted the organizers in the development of that symposium.

On April 20-21, that Symposium will bring together those thought leaders to discuss: (1) how to integrate science into regulatory decision making; (2) how to reconcile energy and economic development with protection of public health and the environment; (3) how to facilitate environmental dispute resolution; and (4) how to integrate sustainability and ethical considerations into corporate decision-making. 

Consistent with the objective of having diverse viewpoints represented, the Thursday evening keynote speaker will be General Wesley K. Clark, discussing Climate Change as a Major Security Concern, and the Friday luncheon keynote speaker will be EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, discussing the new administration’s objectives and goals.  For further information and to register, go to http://earthdaytx.org/legal-symposium/.

Energy Storage and Transforming The Grid in New York

Posted on March 21, 2017 by Virginia C. Robbins

For those who support national and international climate change initiatives like the Clean Power Plan and the Paris Agreement, the news out of Washington is gut-wrenching.  Disengaging from these initiatives is harmful on geo-political, economic, and moral grounds.  Despite these expected actions by the current administration, there is good news in the renewables sector:  battery storage technology has the potential to be a strong contender in the fight against climate change. 

In October 2015, a leak at the Aliso Canyon gas storage facility outside Los Angeles caused it to shut down.  The leak reduced fuel supplies for area power plants.  In response, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) mandated mitigation measures, including the expedited procurement of about 100 megawatts (MW) of local energy storage resources in the Southern California Edison (SCE) and San Diego Gas & Electric (SDGE) service territories.  Renewable and other types of energy stored during the day would be available when electricity demand increased in the evening, thereby avoiding the need for increased fossil fuel generation to serve that peak need. 

The CPUC order directed utilities in Southern California to identify storage projects that could be sited, constructed, and put into operation providing electricity to the grid in only a few months.  Within 6 months after the CPUC issued its order, two battery storage facilities were completed.  SDGE contracted for the installation of two energy storage projects totaling 37.5 MW.  The larger 30 MW project in Escondido is said to be the biggest lithium ion battery storage facility in service on a utility grid in the world and is capable of serving 20,000 customers for four hours.  Also, Tesla completed a battery storage facility for SCE at the Mira Loma substation capable of powering about 15,000 homes for four hours.

These California energy storage projects are providing valuable “lessons learned” about the efficiency of battery technology, its benefits and limitations.  For example, building on these lessons, New York has established aggressive goals for meeting its electricity needs through renewable sources.  New York’s Governor Cuomo established a goal for 50 percent of the state’s electric needs to be met by renewable sources by 2030.  The strategy is to transform New York’s electric industry by building a cleaner, more resilient and affordable energy system through investment in clean technologies like solar, wind and energy efficiency.  And because wind and solar sources cannot always generate power during times of high electricity demand, energy storage must be a key component of the state’s energy future and more needs to be done for system operators to understand it and to develop the business models that will work.      

In October 2016, the New York Department of Public Service issued a Staff Report and Recommendations in the Value of Distributed Energy Resources Proceeding.  The goal of the proceeding is to develop accurate pricing for clean distributed energy resources (DERs) that reflects the actual value created by technologies that produce power outside of the utility grid (e.g., fuel cells, microturbines, and photovoltaics) and technologies that produce power or store power (e.g., batteries and flywheels) as well as demand-side measures.

The staff report supports including projects that pair any energy storage technology with an eligible generation facility to receive compensation under a proposed tariff.  The report also identifies a utility-driven demonstration project supporting solar-plus-storage.  Consolidated Edison Company of New York is currently pursuing a demonstration project that combines multiple solar plus storage systems to improve grid resiliency and provide a dispatchable “virtual power plant” that Con Edison can control and rely on in real time.  Con Edison is also pursuing grid-scale energy storage through a request for information seeking to demonstrate how large-scale utility storage can improve company operations, and establish how a singular type of energy storage can offer multiple kinds of value.   

Also, at its March 9, 2017 session, New York’s Public Service Commission (PSC) enacted a new compensation structure to value DERs installed in New York.  The order establishes compensation values for the first time in New York for energy storage (battery) systems when combined with certain types of DERs.  In addition, the PSC directed the state’s utilities to significantly increase the scope and speed of their energy storage endeavors.  By the end of 2018, each utility must have deployed and begun operating energy storage projects at no fewer than two separate distribution substations or feeders.  The Commission tasked the utilities with striving to perform at least two types of grid functions with the deployed energy resources, for example, increasing hosting capacity and peak load reduction.  The Commission stated that these actions are both feasible and necessary to promote timely development of a modern grid capable of managing DERs.   

These developments promise good outcomes for the deployment of energy storage, for environmental protection and for consumers.  They may also play a role in the planned shutdown (by 2021) of the Indian Point nuclear power facility, that has the capacity to generate more than 2000 MW of electricity and that serves about 25% of the energy needs of New York City and Westchester.  At a recent legislative hearing on the Indian Point shutdown, state officials discussed making up for the lost energy by efficiency programs and by encouraging opportunities for renewable, non-polluting sources like solar, wind and hydropower.  Their focus on renewables bodes well for further investment in energy storage as a component of reliable service using a resilient distribution system.  The battery storage “lessons learned” in Southern California in resolving the gas leak crisis may be valuable to New York State in planning for the shutdown of Indian Point.

The Conservative Uphill Slog for a Carbon Tax

Posted on February 9, 2017 by Seth Jaffe

Earlier this week, the Climate Leadership Council rolled out The Conservative Case for Carbon Dividends (note the absence of the “T” word in that title!).  It’s a serious proposal and, if we lived in a world of facts, rather than alternative facts, it would be a useful starting point for a discussion.

Here are the highlights:

  • A gradually increasing carbon tax, starting somewhere around $40/ton.
  • Return of all revenue from the tax to citizens through dividend checks.  The CLC predicts that the 70% of Americans with lowest income would receive more in dividends than they would pay in taxes.
  • Border carbon adjustments.
  • Elimination of existing carbon regulations.  It’s not clear what this would cover, but it would include at least the Clean Power Plan.  It would also include elimination of tort liability (presumably limited to tort liability related to claims concerning climate change).

I’d sign up for this today, but I’m not exactly one of the people that needs convincing.  According to GreenWire (subscription required), former Secretary of State James Baker, who led the public presentation of the report, acknowledged that attaining enactment of the proposal would be an “uphill slog.”  I think that’s putting it mildly.  The CLC members are basically a who’s who of the old-line GOP mainstream – precisely the types that President Trump appears to have consigned to the dustbin of history.

Nonetheless, hope springs eternal and we have to start somewhere.

Trump Greenlights Keystone and Dakota Access Pipelines, but the Battle is Far From Over

Posted on January 26, 2017 by Patrick A. Parenteau

President Trump wasted no time making good on his promise to reverse President Obama’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and move U.S. energy policy towards cleaner energy sources.  On January 24 Trump signed two executive memoranda, one inviting TransCanada to resubmit its application to build the 800,000 barrel a day Keystone XL pipeline from the Canadian oil sands to the Gulf Coast; the other directing the Army Corps of Engineers to expedite the review and approval of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) to carry approximately 500,000 barrels per day of crude oil from the Bakken shale in North Dakota to oil markets in the United States. But a close reading raises some sticky legal and economic issues that will have to be resolved before the oil starts flowing.  [LINKS to Keystone and DAPL Memos]

In announcing the Keystone Memo, Trump said that approval was contingent on TransCanada’s  willingness to “renegotiate some of the terms” – including perhaps a commitment to use US steel and a share in any profits. The problem is that tar sands oil is not only the dirtiest fuel on the planet, it’s also the most expensive to extract. To be profitable oil prices need to be above $80 per barrel; today they sit around $52, and it is unlikely they will rise much higher in the foreseeable future given the competition from shale oil and the fracking boom that is flooding the market in the US. The break-even point for Bakken shale oil is $29 per barrel. Seventeen major oil sands projects were canceled after oil prices crashed in 2014, as companies took major losses. Major investors in the oil sands have begun to leave, including Norway-based Statoil, which pulled out of the oil sands in December 2016. So cutting a deal to the President’s liking may be harder than it looks.

Assuming the deal goes down, the Keystone Memo issues several directives to clear the way for the project. It directs the State Department to make a final decision within 60 days of the date TransCanada re-submits its application, and it further specifies that “to the maximum extent permitted by law” the final supplemental EIS issued in 2014 shall satisfy the requirements of NEPA as well as the consultation requirements of the Endangered Species Act, and “any other provision of law that requires executive department consultation or review.” The Keystone Memo also directs the Corps of Engineers to use Nationwide Permit 12 to summarily authorize the stream crossings needed to complete the project. These fast track measures are sure to be tested in court by the opponents who are not about to let their hard won victory be snatched away without a furious fight—in the courts as well as in the streets. While courts have ruled that the presidential permit itself is not reviewable, there is presumably no bar to challenging the decisions of the Corps and the Department of Interior that are necessary to complete the project.

The DAPL Memo directs the Secretary of the Army and the Chief of the Corps of Engineers to “review and approve in an expedited manner, to the extent permitted by law and as warranted, and with such conditions as are necessary or appropriate, requests for approvals to construct and operate the DAPL, including easements or rights-of-way to cross Federal areas under section 28 of the Mineral Leasing Act.” The Memo also instructs the Secretary to consider whether to rescind the memorandum issued by the Obama administration requiring preparation of an EIS on DAPL’s   request for an easement to cross Lake Oahe, and to deem the previously-issued Environmental Assessment sufficient to satisfy NEPA.

The Standing Rock protest over DAPL has become an historic confrontation that has united an Indigenous land-and-water movement and climate activism to confront a fossil-fuel corporation protected by a militarized police force.  At one point in December thousands of veterans arrived to provide a safe space for the protesters who call themselves “water protectors.” Litigation filed by the Standing Rock Tribe and other tribes challenging the Corps’ issuance of permits under the Clean Water Act and Rivers and Harbors Act is pending in federal district court in the District of Columbia.  Judge Boasberg denied a preliminary injunction but has yet to rule on the merits of the case. At the moment, the court is considering DAPL’s motion for summary judgment to declare that the project already has all of the approvals it needs and the Corps should not be able to reverse its earlier decision that an EIS was not required. Though the Justice Department has vigorously opposed this move, it will be interesting to see whether the Trump administration adopts a different posture. In any event, the Tribe has raised serious questions about whether the Corps properly evaluated threats to its water supply intake and alternative routes that would lessen the risk. One of the allegations invokes environmental justice concerns arguing that the project was re-routed away from Bismarck in response to concerns about threats to its water supply. The Tribe has also raised novel questions about whether granting the easement would violate treaty rights under the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie.

At the hearing on DAPL’s motion for summary judgment, Judge Boasberg acknowledged the uncertainty about what the new administration might do but observed that “It’s not my business to guess.” For now the rest of us will have to guess at what the final outcome of this epic confrontation that has galvanized indigenous peoples from all over the world will be.

The New Administration’s Initial Executive Order and Memoranda On Energy and Environmental Issues

Posted on January 26, 2017 by Theodore Garrett

The Trump administration has issued a key Executive Order and several memoranda relating to energy and the environment.  The goal of the Executive Order -- Expediting Environmental Reviews and Approvals for High Priority Infrastructure Projects – is to expedite environmental reviews and approvals.  It provides that action by the Chair of the Counsel of Environmental Quality to designate an infrastructure project as high priority would trigger an expedited review and approval process, as described in the memorandum Streamlining Permitting and Reducing Regulatory Burdens for Domestic Manufacturing.

Two other memoranda – those addressing the construction of the Keystone Pipeline and construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline – are intended to clear the way for approval of these two controversial pipelines.  The President also stated that he wants pipe for U.S. pipelines to be made with American steel.     

Finally, the White House issued a memorandum providing for a regulatory freeze of regulations that have not taken effect and withdrawal of regulations that have not yet been published in the Federal Register. In accordance with this directive, EPA has issued a notice postponing to March 21, 2017 the effective date of 30 regulations that were published by EPA after October 28, 2016.  The delay is intended to provide further review of these regulations by the new Administration.

The Order and memoranda do not change the requirements of relevant environmental statutes.  It remains to be seen to what extent these policies will affect future permitting or regulatory decisions.  Interested parties will wish to carefully monitor how these developments unfold. 

The NSR Regulations Still Make No Sense: The 6th Circuit Reverses the DTE Decision Based on a 1-Judge Minority Opinion

Posted on January 17, 2017 by Seth Jaffe

Last week, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed – for the second time – a District Court decision granting summary judgment to DTE Energy in the United States’ case alleging that DTE Energy had violated EPA’s NSR regulations.  According to the 6th Circuit, EPA has authority to bring an enforcement action against DTE Energy, notwithstanding that the regulations don’t provide for EPA review of DTE Energy’s emissions projections prior to construction and also notwithstanding that the project did not in fact result in a significant net emissions increase.

One might well be surprised by the result, but the result itself is not the most surprising part of the case at this point.  What’s really surprising is that the United States won the case even though only one of the three judges on the panel agreed with EPA’s position.

How could such a thing happen, you might ask?  Here’s the best I can do.  Judge Daughtrey, author of the panel opinion, believes that EPA has the authority to second-guess DTE’s estimates if they are not adequately explained.  Judge Rogers disagreed and dissented.  Judge Batchelder also disagreed with Judge Daughtrey’s views, pretty much in their entirety.  However, Judge Batchelder concluded that she had already been outvoted once, in the first 6th Circuit review of this case and she felt bound to follow the decision in DTE 1.  The law remains an ass.  

Even were Donald Trump not about to nominate a Supreme Court justice, I’d say that this case is ripe for an appeal to the Supreme Court and, if I were DTE, I’d pursue that appeal vigorously and with a fairly optimistic view of my chances.

And once again, I’ll suggest that the very fact that the NSR program can repeatedly thrust such incomprehensible cases upon us is itself reason to conclude that the entire program is ripe for a thorough overhaul – or perhaps elimination.

Stop the Presses: Nuclear Power Still Does Not Emit Greenhouse Gases

Posted on October 6, 2016 by Seth Jaffe

On Monday, the TVA announced that Watts Bar Unit 2 watts-barhad successfully completed what is known as its final power ascension test.  It is now producing 1,150 MW of power in pre-commercial operation.  Though EnergyWire did report it (subscription required), I would have thought this would have received more coverage.  It’s been 20 years since the last nuclear facility came online in the United States.

In case anyone has forgotten, we’re trying to reduce GHG emissions in this country.  Nuclear power – still – does not produce GHG emissions.  Nuclear power’s role in combatting climate change seems only to be more salient in light of the recent study by Washington State University researchers concluding that hydroelectric dam reservoirs are a significant source of GHGs.  According to the study, reservoirs produce the equivalent of 1 gigaton of CO2 annually, or 1.3% of all GHGs produced by humans.

If we want to be carbon-free in our energy production, that leaves solar and nuclear.  Solar has a huge and growing role to play.  But are we really going to turn our back on nuclear power as an option?  As Robert Heinlein and Milton Friedman noted, TANSTAAFL.

RGGI Is a Success Story. When Will It Be Obsolete?

Posted on September 29, 2016 by Seth Jaffe

When RGGI rggilogo2was first implemented, I heard Ian Bowles, then Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs in Massachusetts, say more than once that the purpose of RGGI wasn’t really to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or jump start the clean energy economy.  Instead, the goal was much more modest; it was simply to demonstrate that a trading regime could work.  The RGGI states were to serve as a model, to be the laboratory of a GHG allowance system.  The hope was certainly that RGGI would succeed its way into obsolescence.  Surely, by 2016, there would be a federal statutory basis for GHG regulation.

It’s now September 2016 and a federal statutory basis for a GHG trading system remains a seemingly distant hope (this post is definitely not about the Clean Power Plan).  We may still be waiting, but we do at least have substantial data from the laboratory that is RGGI.  In fact, yesterday, RGGI released its analysis of The Investment of RGGI Proceeds through 2014.  Some highlights:

  • Power sector GHG emissions have decreased by more than 45% since 2005, while regional GDP has increased by about 8%.
  • The total value of RGGI investments reached $1.37 billion through 2014.
  • Energy efficiency has taken up 58% of RGGI investment. The report states that the expected return is $3.62 billion in lifetime energy bill savings.
  • Clean and renewable energy make up 13% of investments, with an expected return of $836 million in lifetime energy bill savings.

One can quibble with these numbers.  They don’t really provide a reliable comparison to what would have happened in the absence of RGGI.  Nonetheless, it’s pretty clear that RGGI does work.  We can reduce GHG emissions without giving up on economic growth, and we can use the regulatory process to move our energy economy where it needs to be.

Now, if someone could just figure out a way to make RGGI obsolete, that would be true success.