EPA Gets the Black Flag on Clean Air Act Racing Exemption

Posted on April 28, 2016 by Samuel I. Gutter

In auto racing, the black flag is the ultimate sanction, signaling that a competitor has been disqualified and has to leave the race. That’s what happened to EPA recently, when it withdrew a controversial proposed rule to “clarify” that the Clean Air Act prohibits converting a certified vehicle for racing.

Merits aside, EPA’s start-and-stop performance is an excellent example of notice-and-comment rulemaking gone wrong. The original proposal appeared last July, a brief passage buried in the middle of a 629-page proposed rule on greenhouse gas emissions for medium- and heavy-duty engines and vehicles – hardly the place where one would look for a rule directed at race cars. See 80 Fed.Reg. 40137, 40527, 40552 (July 13, 2016). As should have been expected, EPA’s pronouncement that the Clean Air Act flatly prohibits converting emission-certified vehicles for competition went unnoticed for months. It wasn’t until late December, nearly three months after the close of the comment period, that SEMA (the Specialty Equipment Market Association, the trade group representing the motor vehicle aftermarket industry) discovered the proposed rule.

That’s when the yellow flag came out. SEMA and its members blasted EPA’s interpretation as reversing a decades-old policy that allowed the race-conversion market to flourish, and for hiding the proposal in an inapplicable rule. EPA’s response was to hold to its interpretation and to post SEMA’s comment letter in a “notice of data availability” so that others could comment – not on EPA’s proposal, but on SEMA’s letter. 81 Fed.Reg. 10822 (March 2, 2016). 

SEMA stepped up the pressure with a White House petition that quickly garnered more than 150,000 signatures. Then came a letter to EPA from seven state attorneys general, and bills in both the House and Senate (brilliantly named the Recognizing the Protection of Motorsports Act, or “RPM”) to reverse EPA’s interpretation and codify the race exemption in the Clean Air Act.

On April 15, EPA hit the brakes, announcing that it was withdrawing its proposal. www.epa.gov/otaq/climate/regs-heavy-duty.htm. EPA stated that it never meant to change its policy towards “dedicated competition vehicles,” but admitted that its “attempt to clarify led to confusion.” EPA voiced its support for “motorsports and its contributions to the American economy and communities all across the country.

The checkered flag came out, but EPA had already pulled into the pits.

Dispute Resolution for CERCLA Sediment Investigations

Posted on February 22, 2016 by Mark W. Schneider

In my last blog entry, I advocated for the amendment of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) to eliminate the bar on pre-enforcement review as one step toward improving the investigation and cleanup of sediment sites.  In this entry, I propose that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and potentially responsible parties (PRPs) significantly revise the dispute resolution process for EPA Administrative Settlement Agreements and Orders on Consent (“ASAOCs”) to require the resolution of disputes by neutral third parties unaffiliated with EPA or an affected PRP. 

The goal of sediment remediation is to protect public health and the environment through prompt and cost-effective remedial action.  Unfortunately, this goal has not been met at many sediment sites.  At some sites, neither the public nor the PRPs have been served by investigations that have unnecessarily taken decades and wastefed hundreds of millions of dollars to undertake.  EPA’s selection of remedies at many sites has been delayed and has not resulted in the selection of protective and cost-effective remedies.

Most sediment cleanups are performed in accordance with consent decrees, which appropriately vest dispute resolution authority in federal district court judges.  In contrast, most sediment investigations are conducted under ASAOCs, which vest dispute resolution authority in EPA personnel.  While many at EPA with responsibility for dispute resolution have the best of intentions and seek to be objective, the fact that they work for EPA, often supervise the EPA staff who made the decision leading to the dispute, and are often steeped in EPA practices renders most of them unable to serve in a truly independent role.  To ensure fairer dispute resolution, ASAOCs should instead vest dispute resolution authority in neutral third parties with no affiliation with either EPA or the PRPs subject to the ASAOC.  This would require the amendment of existing ASAOCs and the insertion of new dispute resolution language, which differs from EPA’s model language, in ASAOCs that have not yet been signed. 

Additionally, while the dispute resolution official should be deferential to EPA, he or she should not rubber-stamp agency decisions, as currently is often the case.  Where investigations have been mired in years of inaction, an independent dispute resolver with a fresh perspective may determine that EPA has sufficient data to make informed cleanup decisions and could compel agency action.  At other sites where EPA is requiring PRPs to prepare feasibility studies advocating for remedies that almost certainly will fail, it is essential that a neutral decision-maker act independently to ensure that feasible remedies are selected.

EPA will resist any effort to revise its approach to dispute resolution, and it may require the intervention of elected officials or others to compel such a change. The public, EPA, and affected PRPs would all benefit from it. 

Revisiting CERCLA Pre-Enforcement Review

Posted on February 22, 2016 by Mark W. Schneider

As a private practitioner and former trial attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice, I have advocated for timely and cost-effective cleanups that protect public health and the environment.  Unfortunately, only a minority of cleanups under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) have met these criteria.  Of the many impediments to the thorough, prompt and cost-effective remediation of contaminated sites, and sediment sites in particular, one of the most significant is CERCLA’s bar on pre-enforcement review of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) remedial decisions.  To promote more effective and timely cleanups of sediment sites, I suggest that CERCLA be amended to eliminate the current bar on pre-enforcement review.  By allowing potentially responsible parties (PRPs) to seek and obtain judicial review of EPA decisions or failures to make decisions, more progress would likely be made on more sites.

CERCLA Section 113(h) states that, with limited exceptions, “No Federal court shall have jurisdiction … to review any challenges to removal or remedial action selected under section 9604 of this title, or to review any order issued under section 9606(a) of this title ….”  42 U.S.C. § 9613(h).  Despite many challenges, courts have generally upheld the validity of this provision.  As a result, PRPs typically cannot challenge EPA's decisions unless EPA has sought to compel performance under an enforcement order or if EPA is acting under a consent decree.  As the “opportunity” for challenge may not come until years after EPA has made its cleanup decision, most PRPs are not willing to face the risk of losing a remedy challenge and the potential imposition of treble damages.  

CERCLA should be amended to allow parties to challenge agency action or inaction at other times in the process, such as during the preparation of remedial investigations and feasibility studies.  At many sediment sites, EPA has delayed remediation and required parties to incur hundreds of millions of dollars during investigations.  If PRPs had the opportunity to obtain judicial review of agency action and inaction earlier in the process, they could seek to compel the agency to act in a way that is consistent with CERCLA’s requirements.

Having worked at the Department of Justice when CERCLA Section 113(h) was drafted, I recall my colleagues stating at the time that a bar on pre-enforcement review was necessary to avoid the challenges of having a non-expert federal judge address complex scientific questions and to prevent PRPs from tying up EPA in litigation.  I offer three suggestions in response to these concerns.  First, if a federal judge were confronted with a particularly complex issue, the court could appoint a special master to handle the proceedings.  Second, to encourage PRPs to seek prompt resolutions, a CERCLA amendment could require PRPs to fully comply with an agency’s directives pending resolution of the judicial dispute and impose a penalty on those parties whose challenge of agency action was unsuccessful.  Third, agencies could seek an expedited hearing of disputed issues.

While it is very unlikely that Congress would consider a CERCLA amendment to address only this issue, PRPs should raise this issue the next time amendments are being considered.  It will succeed only through the concerted efforts of advocates who seek more and better cleanups and those who seek prompt and reasonable government decision-making.   

Courts Narrow Citizen Suit Potential

Posted on February 18, 2016 by Donald Shandy

Citizen suits under federal environmental laws have been under fire through criticism of “sue and settle” where agencies, in particular the U.S. EPA, have been accused of intentionally relinquishing statutory discretion for the sake of settling lawsuits without participation by affected third parties.  From this perspective, the scope of citizen suits has broadened.  However, two recent federal circuit court opinions curb this growth. 

On January 6, 2016, the Third Circuit and Sixth Circuit Courts of Appeals issued opinions that underscore certain limitations in the citizen suit provisions.  The Third Circuit examined a Clean Air Act citizen suit in Group Against Smog and Pollution, Inc. v. Shenango Inc. (No. 15-2041) (GASP). The Sixth Circuit examined a Clean Water Act citizen suit in Askins v. Ohio Dept. of Agriculture, Ohio Envtl. Prot. Agency, U.S. EPA (No. 15-3147). Both courts affirmed dismissal of the citizen suits by the district courts based on statutory limitations Congress placed in each statute.

These two cases highlight a couple of important components of citizen suits.  First, citizen suits are to serve as a backup to the non-discretionary functions and enforcement responsibilities of the States and the EPA.  As the U.S. Supreme Court has said, “the citizen suit is meant to supplement rather than to supplant governmental action.”  The Sixth Circuit stated, “Paradoxically, [Plaintiffs’] expansive reading of the citizen-suit provision would grant citizen greater enforcement authority than the U.S. EPA. . . . Congress did not intend to give citizens greater and faster enforcement authority against a state than the U.S. EPA.” 

The other important component highlighted is the role of the “diligent prosecution bar” against citizen suits.  Citizen suits are prohibited if the EPA or State agency “has commenced and is diligently prosecuting” the matter.  While most courts seem willing to restrict citizen suits when there is clear prosecution (civil or criminal) in a state or federal court, the answer is less clear when there is no active or concluded matter at the courthouse or the enforcement action is only administrative. In GASP, the Third Circuit slightly tilted the bar in favor of the agency and regulated entity by concluding that if the agency has diligently prosecuted a suit, the presence of a final judgment, consent decree, or consent order and agreement would likely prevent a citizen suit challenge.  This is logical given that environmental enforcement proceedings that are filed in court often, if not always, result in a judicially enforceable consent decree or consent order and agreement in which the regulated entity must fulfill specified obligations or be subject to stipulated penalties. It also provides certainty to the agreement reached between the agency and the regulated entity, which benefits all involved. 

While these recent decisions were not momentous court opinions, the Third and Sixth Circuits did provide a bit more clarity to the role citizen and how our environmental laws are enforced.  In this arena, I think we all would agree that a little clarity can go a long way.

The Supreme Court Doesn’t Think Much of Paris in the Springtime

Posted on February 17, 2016 by William Session

            For us gray hairs, the phrase used to be “Dateline”, now it’s “Tweetline” . . .  Flash!. . . President Obama @POTUS “. . . Addressing climate change takes all of us, especially the private sector going all-in on clean energy worldwide."

            Apparently “all of us” didn’t include five Supreme Court Justices, led by its Chief Justice, John Roberts.  Indeed, it was SCOTUS going “all out” for climate change.  As in, going “all out” to frustrate one of the EPA’s and President Obama’s signature efforts to respond to and act upon climate change challenges to the global environment. What EPA and the President got (by a split decision) instead was a stay that some have characterized as the quashing of the biggest environmental regulatory change in United States history. 

            That body blow to regulatory appropriation of the climate change debate was instigated by the challenge of virtually every major coal power company to the EPA’s issuance of binding emission reduction requirements for existing domestic power plants.  The coal, fired power industry argued that EPA’s action was “draconian” and would cause the “shutting down or curtailing generation from existing plants and shifting that generation to new sources”.  That, of course, was the precise intent of POTUS and other signatories of the Paris climate change accord last year.

            SCOTUS’s stay was unprecedented and terse.  Not a word of explanation about why the stay was issued.  The proponents of the stay were modestly baffled.  In the words of Basin Power’s legislative rep, Dale Niezwaag, the decision came as a surprise . . . "The supreme court has never issued a stay on a rule that hasn't been ruled on by a lower court.  So this is precedent, setting from our point.  When we put it in, we figured it was going to be a long shot, so we were very surprised that the Supreme Court ruled in our favor”. 

            There are takeaways galore.  However, two are most intriguing to me.  Was this unprecedented stay an unwarranted and thinly disguised, reach into the realm of executive branch constitutional authority?  Second, did the Supreme Court simply muscle its way into a social and scientific debate that begs any legal or factual question of “irreparable harm” to either the power industry or the citizenry of the republic.  In short, was the stay an expression of SCOTUS climate change denial?

The stay makes EPA’s rules unenforceable and will undoubtedly limit their intended goal of achieving emissions cuts to (ostensibly) slow global warming.  More importantly, the ruling, in effect, invalidated POTUS’s pledge on climate agreement made in Paris last spring.  How should one construe the interjection of the Supreme Court into a case that would have, under normal circumstances, been taken up by the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit as soon as early 2017?  Was a signal being sent to that court to heed the antipathy some believe certain SCOTUS justices have towards the global warming debate altogether? 

            In keeping with my “newsflash” metaphor, since I started writing this post, the country mourns the unexpected passing of Justice Antonin Scalia.  The lack of a tie breaker justice for the foreseeable future could throw the question of the right of the EPA to forge ahead on the POTUS’s climate change agenda into months or years of limbo.  Will the D.C. Circuit’s decision answer the question next spring?  Will certain senators relent and vote in a replacement for Justice Scalia this year?  Will the eight remaining justices do something other than call things a tie until they have a full complement on the bench? 

            Stay tuned to this blogspot for more breaking news.

Supreme Court Puts Clean Power Plan on Hold, but Clean Agriculture Can Move Forward

Posted on February 12, 2016 by Peter Lehner

The Supreme Court's unexplained stay of the clean power plan was "one of the most environmentally harmful judicial actions of all time," writes Michael Gerrard of Columbia Law School in a recent, excellent blog. Rather than venting outrage, Gerrard quickly moves on to explain that the Clean Power Plan isn’t the only way to cut carbon pollution.

Ramping up efforts like fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks, and building efficiency standards, he notes, will also help reduce carbon pollution. Gerrard mentions a couple of points about agriculture, but often, this sector is overlooked when it comes to climate solutions. It’s worth taking a closer look at some of the opportunities to reduce climate pollution from our food system.

Food waste is the second largest component of most landfills. As it rots, it releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas. A recent report by the UN Conference on Trade and Development estimates that 2 percent to 4 percent of all manmade climate pollution arises simply from food rotting in landfills.

Keeping food waste out of landfills can help reduce methane pollution. Massachusetts, California, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, and some cities have enacted laws to manage organic waste disposal in landfills. The idea is to create incentives to reduce food waste and divert it to other purposes, such as animal feed or composting. Instead of being thrown away and becoming a source of pollution, this “waste” can be put to good use. Landfill gas collection systems can be further incentivized. And the nascent effort to reduce food waste from businesses and households can be significantly ramped up.

Another major source of greenhouse gases is the over application of fertilizer. Excess nitrogen fertilizer causes two big problems. The first is water pollution. Nitrogen that isn’t taken up by crops runs off farms and enters larger waterways, where it stimulates the growth of algae and creates “dead zones” deprived of oxygen. The second, and less frequently discussed issue, is the volatilization of nitrogen into nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas about 300 times more potent than CO2.  The IPCC estimates that 12 percent of all non-CO2 greenhouse gas emissions come from synthetic fertilizer application.  

A number of techniques can reduce these emissions while also providing a cost benefit to farmers. Farm policies could encourage practices like cover cropping, which reduces the need for fertilizer by making soils more rich and fertile. Crop rotations can do the same, yet current crop insurance programs actually discourage the use of these practices. Precision application technologies for fertilizers are getting ever better, but their uptake on farms is slow.

Manure from animals, and the "enteric emissions" from cattle (more commonly thought of as belching) are two more significant sources of climate pollution. Enteric fermentation alone may account for as much as 40 percent of all non-CO2 greenhouse gas emissions, according to the IPCC. Changes in diet might help with these emissions, but this is an area that needs more research.

Some of the emissions from manure can be captured if manure lagoons were covered and better managed. As it stands, these pits are only slightly regulated and are major sources of water pollution sources as well as odor nuisances. An even better practice is to raise cows on rotating pastures, where their waste can enhance soils and help store carbon. And, of course, if Americans did shift to a diet lower in red meat, as per the recommendation of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, we could further reduce climate pollution from cattle.

Agriculture is one of our nation's most important economic sectors, and is especially vulnerable to the extreme weather impacts of climate change. Its product -- food -- is critical not only for our economy, but is an integral and uniquely personal part of our everyday lives. When we think about how to address climate change, it makes sense to think about food and agriculture. The food we choose to produce, and how we produce it, use it, and dispose of it, all have an impact on climate pollution—and therefore have the potential to become climate solutions. 

Unprecedented Program Leads To Unprecedented Response

Posted on February 11, 2016 by Andrea Field

I am a terrible predictor of what cases the Supreme Court will hear and what the Court will decide on those matters it chooses to hear.  For example, I wrongly predicted that the Supreme Court would never consider reviewing the D.C. Circuit’s decisions in cases involving other recent EPA regulations, but the Supreme Court chose to hear those cases, which led to its decisions in Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA and Michigan v. EPAAnd if asked to guess whether the Court would issue a stay of EPA’s Clean Power Plan under section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act, I might well have said that the odds were greatly against that happening – despite the merits of the arguments being raised by those seeking the stay. 

Perhaps, though, my poor predictive abilities are the result of my looking at each case in isolation instead of looking at them in combination and considering whether the Supreme Court’s February 9, 2016 stay decision is an outgrowth of the combined knowledge gained by the Court in its recent reviews of those other Clean Air Act cases.  Specifically, as pointed out by State Petitioners in their briefs in support of a stay of the Clean Power Plan (see here and here,) EPA has touted its Plan as being one that will completely transform the way energy is created and delivered in this country even though – argued State Petitioners – the plain statutory language (of Clean Air Act section 111(d)) does not authorize such Agency action, and the approach of the Clean Power Plan is at odds with EPA’s 45-year history of implementing section 111(d).  Maybe such claims struck a chord with the Court, which – in UARG – told EPA that the Agency cannot make “decisions of vast ‘economic and political significance’” under a long-extant statute, like the Clean Air Act, without “clear congressional authorization.” 

And then there was Michigan, where the Court determined that EPA had proceeded unlawfully in adopting another extensive and expensive Clean Air Act regulatory program.  State Petitioners in the Clean Power Plan litigation made sure that the Court was aware that by the time the Court issued its decision in Michigan – a case where the underlying rule was not stayed during the pendency of litigation – the affected parties had spent billions of dollars to meet the terms of the underlying, un-stayed rule.  In other words, justice delayed in Michigan was justice denied.

None of this is to say what the Court will or will not do if and when it reviews arguments on the lawfulness of the Clean Power Plan.  I make no predictions on that.  But I believe the Court acted appropriately in calling for the completion of litigation before requiring affected parties to make the massive, unprecedented, costly, and transformative changes to the energy industry that the Clean Power Plan demands.       

EPA and DOJ Cannot Sugarcoat This: SCOTUS Stays the Clean Power Plan

Posted on February 10, 2016 by Seth Jaffe

Yesterday, the Supreme Court stayed EPA’s Clean Power Plan rule.  No matter how much EPA and DOJ proclaim that this says nothing about the ultimate results on the merits, the CPP is on very shaky ground at this point.

Everyone, supporters and opponents alike (and yours truly), thought that there was no possibility that the Court would grant a stay. And it is precisely because a Supreme Court stay of a rule pending judicial review is such an “extraordinary” – to use DOJ’s own word – form of relief that one has to conclude that five justices have decided that the rule must go.

This isn’t just a preliminary injunction; it’s a preliminary injunction on steroids.  First, everyone seems to acknowledge that it’s unprecedented for the Supreme Court to stay a rule pending judicial review.  Second, the standards in DOJ’s own brief make pretty clear that a stay will only issue if the Court is pretty convinced on the merits.  Finally, it’s worth noting that the Court implied that it does not even trust the Court of Appeals, because the stay will remain in force, even if the D.C. Circuit affirms the rule.  The stay will only terminate either:  (1) if the Court of Appeals upholds the CPP and the Supreme Court denies certiorari or (2) if the order is upheld and the Supreme Court also upholds it.

Back to the drawing board for EPA.  Perhaps § 115 of the Clean Air provides a way out!

"We All Let the Citizens of Flint Down"

Posted on February 4, 2016 by Alexandra Dapolito Dunn

With busloads of concerned citizens from Flint and nearby cities gathered around the Rayburn House Office Building on February 3, environmental regulators and science experts appeared before the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform (Committee) to give testimony regarding lead contamination in Flint, Michigan’s public drinking water.  As detailed in this recent NPR podcast, well worth the 40 minute listen, between 6,000 and 12,000 children are estimated to have elevated blood lead levels following the City’s drinking water source change from Detroit water to water from the Flint River in 2014. 

How could a crisis like this have happened? While at first water policy groups were quick to highlight the nation’s aging water infrastructure and investment gap – EPA’s most recent estimate is that $384 billion is needed to assure safe drinking water from 2013 to 2030 – and certainly lead pipes to homes in older communities is a costly replacement problem – at the root of Flint was classic government dysfunction combined with assessments of safety that make sense to regulators but perhaps not to everyday people. At the hearing Joel Beauvais, acting Assistant Administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Water faced questions from Committee members about the Agency’s delayed response to the situation, while the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s acting Director Keith Creagh was to explain why state officials did not act to address contamination immediately. Both officials attributed the crisis to breakdown in communication between the agencies that inhibited officials’ swift action. What happened in Flint “was avoidable and should have never happened,” according to Beauvais; while Creagh’s testimony stated that “[w]e all share responsibility in the Flint water crisis, whether it’s the city, the state, or the federal government… We all let the citizens of Flint down.”

The hearing ultimately took on a forward look, noting a reaffirmed commitment to protecting public health. “We do have clear standards. We do have clear accountability, so we have a clear path forward, said Creagh. “We are working in conjunction with the city, the state and federal government to ensure it doesn’t happen again.”  Beauvais noted “it is imperative that Michigan, other states, EPA and drinking water system owners and operators nationwide work together and take steps to ensure that this never happens again.”

EPA and Michigan state and local officials are now in non-stop mode to ensure that prompt, concerted efforts are taken to address public health hazards. Members of Congress are introducing bills to fund Flint’s systems and to aid the affected citizens.  Even philanthropic groups are stepping in.  EPA’s Inspector General is doing a deep dive into the Agency’s response, Michigan Governor Snyder is seeking answers, and even the Federal Bureau of Investigation is looking into criminal aspects of the matter. Flint’s drinking water will get better – and yet the affected population may never fully recover from their excessive lead exposures.  

The #FlintWaterCrisis is a sober reminder of the need to keep the nexus between environmental quality regulation and public health protection very tight.  As professionals in the environmental field, we cannot fear having frank conversations in the open about risks – and the importance of taking precautionary steps – when human health is at issue.  

EPA Has Surprisingly Broad Authority to Regulate GHGs

Posted on January 28, 2016 by Michael Gerrard

Our friend Seth Jaffe wrote a very interesting blog on January 20, “Does the Paris Agreement Provide EPA With Authority Under the CAA to Impose Economy-Wide GHG Controls? Count Me Skeptical.”  It took issue with a paper that I co-authored with several other colleagues in academia in which we argue that Section 115 of the Clean Air Act provides the EPA with broad authority to implement a multi-state, multi-source, multi-gas regulatory system to reduce greenhouse gases.  

The blog post agreed with our paper that it would be great if Section 115 provided this authority because it means EPA could implement an efficient, flexible, cross-sectoral approach to reducing greenhouse gases (GHGs).

However, Seth questioned our conclusion that Section 115 provides such authority because, in his view, courts are likely to conclude the “reciprocity” requirement in Section 115 could not be satisfied by the nonbinding emissions reduction commitments countries made in the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) they submitted for the Paris agreement concluded at the United Nations climate conference in December.  In the words of blog post, “I think most judges would interpret the word ‘reciprocity’ in a statute to mean something that is legally-binding; otherwise, it doesn’t mean anything.”  For several reasons, we disagree.

First, a reviewing court does not need to interpret what the word “reciprocity” means in Section 115, because Congress has explicitly defined it.  Reciprocity is the title of Section 115(c), which provides:

"This section shall apply only to a foreign country which the Administrator determines has given the United States essentially the same rights with respect to the prevention or control of air pollution occurring in that country as is given that country by this section."

The only right given to a foreign country by Section 115 is a provision in Section 115(b) that states a foreign country affected by air pollution originating in the U.S. “shall be invited to appear at any public hearing” associated with the revision of a relevant portion of the state implementation plan to address the pollutant.  In short, Section 115 specifies that reciprocity means the foreign countries in question need to have given the U.S. “essentially the same rights” as are given by Section 115, and the only right provided in Section 115 is the procedural right to appear at a hearing. 

Understanding the legislative history helps explain why the focus of the reciprocity requirement is on a procedural right.  As we explain in detail in the paper, Section 115 was a procedural provision when it was first enacted in 1965:  if pollution from the U.S. was endangering other countries, the other countries had a right to participate in abatement conferences where potential responses would be discussed, not a right to insist on actual emission reductions.  Although Congress amended the provision in the 1977 Clean Air Amendments to replace the abatement conference with federal and state action through the Section 110 state implementation plan process, the reciprocity language in Section 115(c) was not changed, leaving it with its procedural test.     

Second, we note in our paper that the Paris agreement contains a new set of procedures through which countries that join the agreement will be able to review and provide input on each other’s respective emissions reductions plans.  To the extent a court might conclude that such procedural rights must be "legally binding," then the Paris agreement satisfies that test because although the emission reduction targets themselves that were submitted in the INDCs will not be legally enforceable by other countries, the procedural elements of the Paris agreement will be binding international law.  

We note in the paper that although Paris provides a strong basis to satisfy Section 115 reciprocity, that reciprocity could also be satisfied by other international arrangements that the United States has with a variety of countries, particularly Mexico and Canada, the EU, and China.

Third, the blog post does not engage the issue of procedural reciprocity; rather it focuses on a substantive view of reciprocity (i.e. that reciprocity requires that other countries are actually reducing emissions of GHGs) and asserts that substantive reciprocity requirement could not be met by the internationally non-binding commitments made in the INDCs.  Although we believe that the correct reading of Section 115 is that it only requires procedural reciprocity, we recognize that a court could conclude that Section 115 also implicitly includes a substantive reciprocity requirement.  In the first instance, we noted that this requirement might be met by the international law principle sic utere tuo ut alienum non laedus, which directs nations to avoid causing significant injuries to the environment of other nations, most recently explained in the International Court of Justice’s Pulp Mills case.  

The author skips over this element to focus his skepticism that the reciprocity requirement could be satisfied by non-binding commitments in the INDCs.  But actually the U.S. and other countries have made reciprocally non-binding commitments in their INDCs.  That is, the U.S. has made an international political commitment to reduce emissions a certain amount, and has received essentially the same rights in the non-binding international commitments from other countries to reduce emissions.  

Someone could argue that the U.S. INDC may be non-binding, but Section 115 is domestic law in the U.S. and substantive reciprocity cannot exist unless other countries also have domestic laws requiring emission reductions.  If this is the test, however, it can also be met.  In fact, the INDCs submitted by other countries identified the binding domestic laws through which the INDCs would be implemented.  We did not focus on this aspect in our paper, but some examples are: (1) the United States identified the Clean Air Act and other laws and regulations “relevant to implementation” of the U.S. commitment; (2) China identified the measures that had been incorporated into domestic law and regulation through previous five-year plans, and outlined a variety of policies and strategies that would be incorporated into subsequent five-year plans to implement their emissions commitment; and (3) the EU noted that the necessary legislation to implement its target was being introduced to the EU parliament in 2015 and 2016.  Therefore, if “legally binding” domestic laws are required to find reciprocity under Section 115, EPA could reasonably examine the legally binding provisions in other countries’ domestic systems to find that reciprocity.

To summarize, our view is that Section 115 likely requires only procedural reciprocity.  If a court concluded Section 115 required substantive reciprocity, then EPA could reasonably find that requirement met through the reciprocal political commitments that the U.S. and other countries made in Paris as well as through the binding domestic laws and regulations in the U.S. and other countries that will implement the commitments.

We look forward to further dialog on this topic, which we think is an important part of unlocking this powerful, untapped tool that the EPA possesses to design an efficient and flexible system to reduce GHGs.

Does the Paris Agreement Provide EPA With Authority Under the CAA To Impose Economy-Wide GHG Controls? Count Me Skeptical

Posted on January 20, 2016 by Seth Jaffe

In a very interesting article, Michael Burger of the Sabin Center and his co-authors suggest that, following the Paris climate agreement, § 115 of the Clean Air Act provides authority for EPA to develop economy-wide GHG emissions reduction regulations that would be more comprehensive and efficient than EPA’s current industry-specific approach.  And what, you may ask, is § 115?  Even the most dedicated “airhead” has probably never worked with it.

Section 115 provides that, where EPA determines that emissions from the US are endangering public health or welfare in a foreign country, it may require SIP revisions sufficient to eliminate the endangerment – but only so long as there is “reciprocity”, i.e., the foreign country:

"has given the United States essentially the same rights with respect to the prevention or control of air pollution occurring in that country as is given that country by this section."

I love the idea.  An economy-wide regime would be much more efficient.  I wish that the argument made sense to me, but it does not.

The authors state that a global treaty could provide reciprocity, but then argue that “less binding commitments, including political commitments, should also suffice.”  Thus, they conclude, the “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions”, or INDCs, which are the basis of the Paris Agreement, can provide reciprocity.  Can you say “ipse dixit“?

They provide no precedent for this, because, as they acknowledge, § 115 has never been used.  EPA started to use it once, and the authors provide two letters from then-Administrator Costle, suggesting that legally binding reciprocity is not required.  However, EPA dropped the plan and the two letters were not finally agency action and were never subject to judicial review.  Otherwise, the arguments simply seems to be that EPA can cloak itself in Chevron deference and that that is the end of the story.

Sorry, I don’t buy it.  We’re talking about the law here.  I think most judges would interpret the word “reciprocity” in a statute to mean something that is legally-binding; otherwise, it doesn’t mean anything.  I don’t think it’s even a close enough question that Chevron deference will get EPA over the finish line.

The illogic of the authors’ argument seems to me to be demonstrated by their own words, when they argue reciprocity can’t mean a legally binding agreement, because that would mean that the foreign nations would be able to go to court to ensure that the US also meets its commitments under the Paris agreement, and the US would never allow that.  But that’s precisely the point!  Because there is no treaty, and the US would not let other nations try to enforce the US commitments under Paris, we cannot enforce theirs, and there is no reciprocity.

I wish it were otherwise.

ipse dixit

After 15 Years, EPA Finally Moves to Ban Brain-Damaging Pesticide Chlorpyrifos

Posted on December 4, 2015 by Peter Lehner

Nearly 15 years have passed since the EPA effectively banned the residential use of the pesticide chlorpyrifos (often marketed under the name Dursban), which causes brain damage in children. Kids were exposed at home when they played on pesticide-treated rugs, or hugged pets wearing flea collars containing chlorpyrifos. Yet the agency’s decision left farmworkers and children in rural areas unprotected, as chlorpyrifos was still allowed in agriculture (often marketed under the name Lorsban). This organophosphate pesticide was, and still is, one of the most widely used in agriculture.

Last month, after a decision by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that called the EPA's delay "egregious," the EPA at last proposed to ban most agricultural uses of this toxic pesticide.  If the ban on food use applications is finalized -- and it will surely be fought by the agricultural industry-- it will be a major victory for public health and farm communities.

Back in 2007, Earthjustice (which under full disclosure is my employer) began legal action to protect children, farmworkers, and rural communities from chlorpyrifos. Despite the clear evidence of harm, more than five million pounds of toxic chlorpyrifos were still being sprayed every year on soybeans, fruit and nut orchards, and other crops, putting hundreds of thousands of people at risk of exposure. Farmworkers who handled chlorpyrifos, even with safety gear, had been poisoned. (The new farmworker protection standards, which required more vigilant training and monitoring, among other things, should reduce such harms.)  Their children risked exposure at home, as chemicals can linger on clothing. Not only farmworker communities, but anyone living downwind of farms could be exposed when the wind carried the toxic spray into their neighborhoods. Community monitoring even found chlorpyrifos in schoolyards. 

The EPA was failing to protect children from pesticide drift; nor did the agency recognize the growing body of peer-reviewed, published research that found children exposed to the pesticide in the womb had serious brain impairments, including lower IQs and attention deficit disorder.

Over the next nine years, the EPA repeatedly missed deadlines to respond to the petition, and it relied on a questionable exposure model created by Dow, the manufacturer of the pesticide. (In 1995, Dow was fined $732,000 by the EPA for concealing more than 200 reports of poisoning related to chlorpyrifos.)

Only in response to multiple lawsuits, and a court decision that set a mandatory deadline for response, did the EPA at last take action. The public comment process and the finalization of the rule still remain, but at least the process has started. This is a great step forward. Moreover, the EPA is also reviewing all organophosphate pesticides, which are used in the United States and worldwide on a wide variety of crops from corn to cotton to nuts. The decision on chlorpyrifos should set a strong example. 

Petitioner Beware: A Shift in Industry Standing Doctrine in the D.C. Circuit

Posted on November 17, 2015 by Ray Ludwiszewski

In a string of recent decisions, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit appears to be shifting away from the long-standing general presumption that standing is self-evident for target entities  of a regulatory program — Coalition for Responsible Regulation, Inc. v. EPA, Grocery Manufacturers Ass’n v. EPA, Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers v. EPA, and Delta Construction Company v. EPA.  

In Coalition for Responsible Regulation v. EPA, the D.C. Circuit held industry had “failed to establish that the [Greenhouse Gas] Rules caused them ‘injury in fact,’ [or that] injury … could be redressed by the Rules’ vacatur.” The court found that although “Industry Petitioners contend[ed] that they are injured because they are subject to regulation of [GHGs],” they lacked standing because several aspects of “the … Rules … actually mitigate Petitioners’ purported injuries.”

In Grocery Manufacturers and Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, EPA decisions concerning the ethanol regulatory program were challenged by a multitude of trade groups – automakers, oil companies, food suppliers – each claiming  its  members were harmed by the regulations.  In twin decisions separated by over two years, the D.C. Circuit held  none of this broad universe of industry petitioners had standing to challenge EPA’s actions.   

In Delta Construction Company v. EPA, the D.C. Circuit held all petitioners lacked standing to seek remand of EPA’s Greenhouse Gas (“GHG”) emission standards for heavy-duty trucks.  Some Petitioners had attacked the Rule because the emission standards would drive up the price of the trucks they purchased; another Petitioner alleged the rule made its products—modified diesel engines to run on vegetable oil —“economically infeasible.”  The Court found the Purchaser Petitioners’ standing failed on both the causation and redressibility prongs of the standing test.  The Manufacturer Petitioner was determined not to fall within the “zone of interests” intended to be protected by the Clean Air Act. 

These four D. C. Circuit rulings all found technical defects in the industry petitioners’ standing.  They may signal a lasting shift away from the basic  assumption that a regulated industry has standing to challenge regulations aimed at its activities.  

Given this new, strict scrutiny of industry standing, practitioners would be well advised not to take for granted the standing of their clients.  In the docketing statement for a regulatory challenge, industry counsel should substantively focus on the “brief statement of the basis for the … petitioner’s claim of standing” and reference materials in “the administrative record supporting the claim of standing.”

EPA To Rename OSWER: How About “The Office That Should Be Eliminated As Soon As Possible”?

Posted on November 2, 2015 by Seth Jaffe

According to the Daily Environment Report (subscription required), EPA is going to change the name of the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response to the Office of Land and Emergency Management.  What a grand name; surely it is an improvement.

I don’t think that this quite rises to the level of rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic (though I certainly have clients who would not object if OSWER sank without a trace), but one does get the sense of a bureaucracy beginning the long, hard, slog of trying to figure out how to perpetuate its existence as Superfund – mercifully – begins to fade away.

It’s probably a vain hope, but mightn’t EPA determine instead how to reallocate those functions of OSWER that need to continue, but actually try to figure out a way to shrink this element of the bureaucracy, instead of repurposing it?

titanic

EPA RELEASES FRAMEWORK FOR FUTURE CERCLA 108(b) FINANCIAL RESPONSIBILITY RULEMAKING

Posted on October 26, 2015 by Ronald R. Janke

The Environmental Protection Agency has released a framework for its future financial responsibility rulemaking under CERCLA 108(b).  Although this framework states EPA’s current thinking only in general terms, this document represents the clearest public statement of the agency’s intentions since it announced its intention to develop such rules for hardrock mining facilities in 2009.  This framework also informs of EPA’s intentions toward other classes of facilities in future rulemakings under this authority.  This framework appeared as part of a court filing on August 31, 2015 and was the subject of an EPA webinar on September 29, 2015.

EPA states that the regulatory approach it is considering has five foundational components. First, the universe of facilities to be regulated are hardrock mines and “primary processing activities located at or near the mine site that are under the same operational control as the mine.”  Second, the flow of funds from the financial responsibility instrument to the CERCLA would supplement existing CERCLA sources of funding, as EPA intends to use its existing CERCLA enforcement processes first to clean up sites.  Third, the scope and amount of financial responsibility would consist of three components: (1) response costs, calculated based on a model being developed by EPA to reflect the primary site conditions; (2) a fixed amount for natural resource damages and (3) a fixed amount for health assessment costs.

Fourth, EPA does not intend to preempt state, tribal and local government mining and reclamation closure requirements.  EPA intends to avoid preemption under CERCLA 114(d) by adopting financial responsibility requirements that are “in connection with liability for a release of a hazardous substance” in contrast to “many” state regulatory requirements designed to assure compliance with reclamation and closure requirements.  Fifth, EPA likewise intends that its CERCLA financial responsibility requirements will be distinct from federal closure and reclamation bonding requirements imposed by other federal agencies under other laws with jurisdiction over mining on federal lands.

The morsel of information provided in EPA’s framework leaves interested parties hungry for more information by what is left unsaid.  Particular concerns are the response cost model and its inputs and the path that EPA intends to tread around the multitude of existing financial assurance mechanisms that already apply to hardrock mining to avoid duplication and preemption.  In this regard, EPA could not have picked a more difficult place to begin drafting CERCLA 108(b) rules than for this industry, which has in place many and extensive financial assurances governing the impact of its operations.

What Do Opponents of the Clean Power Plan and the Oklahoma Sooners Have In Common?

Posted on October 23, 2015 by Seth Jaffe

So the Clean Power Plan has been published in the Federal Register.  For those who cannot get enough, you can find all of the important materials, including EPA’s Technical Support Documents, on EPA’s web site for the CPP. 

Not surprisingly, given the number of suits brought before the CPP was even finalized, opponents were literally lining up at the courthouse steps to be the first to sue.  West Virginia apparently won the race and is the named plaintiff in the main petition filed so far. 

Perhaps because Oklahoma has been one of the most persistent, and vocal, opponents of the CPP, this called to mind the origin of the Sooner State’s nickname – which seems particularly apt, since Oklahoma was one of the states that couldn’t wait for the rule to be promulgated to sue.

Sooners

Oklahoma is not actually among the plaintiffs in the West Virginia suit.  Oklahoma filed its own petition today.  One wonders whether Oklahoma was banished from playing with the other states as a result of its impatience.  Unlikely, since most of those in the West Virginia suit also filed early, but it did call to mind that other famous event in the history of the west, as recorded in Blazing Saddles.

EPA Proposes Changes to Hazardous Waste Generator Rules and a new Management of Hazardous Waste Pharmaceuticals Rule – One Step Forward, One Step Back?

Posted on October 12, 2015 by Kenneth Gray

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is proposing two new hazardous waste rules that EPA believes will strengthen environmental protection and reduce regulatory burdens.  The first is an update to the hazardous waste generator rules; the second is a new set of management standards for hazardous waste pharmaceuticals. 

These proposed rules have had a long gestation, and the generator proposals have been decades in the making.  Both proposed rules were signed by EPA on August 31, 2015 and will be published in the Federal Register for public comment within the next few weeks.  

While touted as providing needed flexibility, the rules are far from simple.  The axiom of environmental regulation holds true: complex rules only become more complex over time.

Hazardous Waste Generators

The proposed updates to the Hazardous Waste Generator Rules include more than 60 changes. Among the more notable changes is EPA’s proposal to allow a waste generator to avoid changes in generator status when generating larger amounts of waste only occasionally, provided the episodic waste is properly managed and additional notifications are submitted.  In addition, the rules would explicitly allow a conditionally exempt small quantity generator facility to send hazardous waste to a large quantity generator facility under common control.  In this case, a company could transfer waste from one of its locations to another.  That sounds logical, but there are “strings attached” to both proposals in the form of additional requirements or conditions for access. 

There are numerous other changes proposed, or highlighted for comment, some of which are likely to make waste management and compliance more complicated.  These provisions include:

  • New provisions on documenting waste determinations
  • Regular reporting by Small Quantity Generators
  • Additional labelling of containers for contents and hazards
  • Longer record keeping period for inspection logs
  • Required arrangements with responders (not just attempts)
  • Additional procedures for closure
  • Additional training for employees at Satellite Accumulation Areas 

These proposed changes are sure to provoke comments and controversy. In several of these areas, there will be more “opportunities for environmental excellence” (also commonly referred to as opportunities for violations).

Hazardous Waste Pharmaceuticals

The newly proposed Hazardous Waste Pharmaceuticals Rule includes a tailored, sector specific set of regulations for the management of hazardous waste pharmaceuticals by “Health Care Facilities” (including pharmacies) and “Reverse Distributors” (businesses that accept the return of pharmaceuticals). The rule would only apply to pharmaceuticals that already meet the definition of RCRA hazardous waste and that are generated by health care facilities.  However, for the first time, “Reverse Distributors” would be regulated under hazardous waste rules.

EPA is not proposing to change the list of pharmaceutical wastes that are considered hazardous wastes, with the exception of possible changes to address low-concentration nicotine products.  The Agency is also generally requesting comment on what criteria it might use to identify new pharmaceutical wastes.  The Agency abandoned its 2008 proposal that would have added new pharmaceuticals and applied new universal waste standards.  In fact, EPA has announced that universal waste management is prohibited.

Although already prohibited under most circumstances, EPA is adopting an explicit ban on flushing pharmaceuticals down the sink and toilet.  The Agency estimates that this will prevent the flushing of more than 6,400 tons of hazardous waste pharmaceuticals annually.  (Really? That seems pretty high…)  

EPA hopes that the new rule will make hazardous waste management easier for health care professionals by removing the traditional manufacturing-based hazardous waste generator requirements and instead providing a new set of regulations that are “designed to be workable in a health care setting.”  The Agency was sympathetic to the view that the existing hazardous waste rules were viewed as complex and difficult to comply with in a health care setting.  (Gee, haven’t all generators reached that conclusion for their industries?)  While these may be simplified as compared to existing hazardous waste rules, complying with the management standards will still require effort and diligence.  

The pre-publication versions are available on EPA’s website:

http://www2.epa.gov/hwgenerators/pre-publication-version-hazardous-waste-generator-improvements-proposed-rule

http://www2.epa.gov/hwgenerators/pre-publication-copy-management-standards-hazardous-waste-pharmaceuticals-proposed-rule

Curiouser and Curiouser: Sixth Circuit Not Sure of Jurisdiction but Stays WOTUS Rule Anyway

Posted on October 9, 2015 by Rick Glick

Does this make sense to you?  Eighteen states petitioned the Sixth Circuit to challenge the new rule adopted by EPA and the Corps of Engineers defining “waters of the United States” under the Clean Water Act.  Then the petitioners move the court to dismiss their own petition for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, but at the same time request a stay of the rule.  And then, the court acknowledges it may not have jurisdiction but issues the stay anyway!  That is exactly what Sixth Circuit did in the case published today.  

This case is among many seeking to block the rule.  The Clean Water Act confers original jurisdiction upon the circuit courts for challenges to “effluent limitations or other limitations.”  But as reported earlier in this space, thirteen states convinced a federal district judge in North Dakota that he had jurisdiction because the WOTUS rule is merely definitional, and neither an effluent nor other limitation. 

The court concluded that petitioners have a good chance at prevailing on the merits, that the rule exceeds “guidance” given by the Supreme Court in extending CWA jurisdiction too broadly.  The court also indicated that the final rule may have strayed too far from the notice given in the proposed rule in its definitions of jurisdictional waters.

The majority was not troubled by the fact the parties are still briefing subject matter jurisdiction, finding that it had plenty of authority to preserve the status quo pending a jurisdictional determination.  The dissent took the view that the proper sequence is to first decide jurisdiction, then decide on a national stay of a rule years in the making.  Pants first, then shoes.

Did the majority consider the situation an emergency that required immediate action?  No, the court found that petitioners were not persuasive that irreparable harm would occur without a stay, but neither could the court find any harm with freezing implementation of the rule.  The reasoning seems to be that we’ve muddled through so far, let’s take a step back and consider all the implications before implementation. 

Why do the states prefer to go after the rule in the district courts instead of the circuit courts of appeal?  Maybe they believe they can forum shop to find conservative judges and build a favorable body of case law before appealing.  Or maybe they believe they can more directly attack the science underlying the rule or otherwise augment the administrative record.  Whatever the reasons, the ultimate return of this issue to the Supreme Court will be delayed and the law dealing with regulation of wetland fills will remain as confused as ever.

A Brief Rant on Cost-Effectiveness Analysis

Posted on October 2, 2015 by Seth Jaffe

On September 29, 2015, the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals remanded EPA’s approval of Pennsylvania’s regional haze SIP.  Although I think that the decision was important and largely unobjectionable, it did get one issue wrong, and it happens to be an issue near and dear to my heart – cost-effectiveness analysis.  I am regularly surprised by the number of people who oppose its use and the number of people who just plain don’t get it.  The 3rd Circuit (and EPA and the plaintiffs) fall into the latter category in this case.

The issue here was what metric to use in measuring the cost-effectiveness of technologies intended to reduce regional haze.  Since this case involves compliance with a rule intended to reduce haze, I would have thought it self-evident that cost-effectiveness would be measured by the dollars spent divided by the amount of haze reduced.  Silly me.

For those of you who don’t know, there is a measure of visibility; it is known as a “deciview.”  Pennsylvania, to its credit, indeed measured cost-effectiveness on a dollars/deciview metric.  The plaintiffs argued that cost-effectiveness should be measured on the basis of dollars/ton of pollutant removed.  EPA waffled, first agreeing with the plaintiffs, but then concluding that, while its guidelines call for $/ton, it is acceptable to use $/dv.  The Court, following the rule of decision that it must evaluate EPA’s decision based on the reasoning used in the rule, rather than on a rationale first provided in litigation, concluded that, because EPA’s own guidelines found the $/dv metric to be “flawed”, EPA’s approval of the $/dv metric was unjustified and must be remanded.

I am not sure I can count the ways this was screwed up, but let me put it simply.  If we’re assessing cost effectiveness, and we have a measure of the outcomes we care about, we should use it.  To use a proxy – emissions – instead of the actual outcome the rule is intended to affect – visibility – is just plain nuts.

And I have to add that, not only did the Court get this 180 degrees wrong, but it did not even seem to be aware of just how bizarre it is to reject the metric that actually measures the outcomes the rule is trying to achieve.

Chicken Little Cannot Compare to the Opponents of the Clean Power Plan

Posted on September 10, 2015 by Seth Jaffe

On Wednesday, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the latest effort to stay EPA’s Clean Power Plan before it has even been promulgated in the Federal Register.  The Court simply stated that “petitioners have not satisfied the stringent standards that apply to petitions for extraordinary writs that seek to stay agency action.”

Really?  Tell me something I did not know.

I’m sorry.  The CPP is a far-ranging rule.  There are strong legal arguments against its validity.  Those arguments may prevail.  I see it as about a 50/50 bet.  This I do know, however.  The sky isn’t falling. The sky won’t fall, even for West Virginia, if the rule is affirmed and implemented. Those opposed to regulation have made these arguments from time immemorial – certainly no later than when Caesar tried to regulate the amount of lead in Roman goblets.  And if I’ve got that one wrong, at least no later than Ethyl Corporation v. EPA, when opponents of EPA’s rulemaking on leaded gasoline thought that the rule would mean the end of western civilization.

I’m not naïve.  I understand that these arguments are political as well as legal.  I just think that opponents of EPA rulemaking undermine their own political position in the long run by repeatedly predicting catastrophe, even though catastrophe never arrives.

sky is falling

Whole Lot of Craziness Going On

Posted on September 2, 2015 by Richard G. Stoll

A whole lot of craziness is going on in federal district and appellate courts all over the country right now.  About what?  About judicial review of EPA’s recent “WOTUS” rule under the Clean Water Act (CWA).  So I can avoid wheel re-invention, see the very recent ACOEL blogs by Seth Jaffe and Rick Glick.

So what’s the problem?  You might find a lot to hate about the Clean Air Act, the Resource Conservation Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and I could name a few others, but at least they all have one good thing going for them:  they all provide in a crystal clear manner that judicial review of EPA’s national rules under those statutes will lie exclusively with the D.C. Circuit.  No ifs, ands, buts, or maybes.

For reasons I have never understood (and I have been trying since the 1970s), Congress in its infinite wisdom chose a different path in the CWA.  In Section 509, they listed seven types of actions that must be reviewed in a federal Court of Appeal (not necessarily the D.C. Circuit) and left any other type of action to be reviewed initially in federal district court.

Over the years, a lot of mixed case law has developed regarding EPA’s CWA rules that don’t fit neatly within one of the seven types of actions Section 509 has specified for Court of Appeals review.  Quite predictably, as reflected in Seth’s and Rick’s recent blogs, three district courts last week reached conflicting results over whether WOTUS fits within the seven types.  In its WOTUS preamble, EPA included a discussion about confusion in the courts over the issue and took no position on whether WOTUS should initially be reviewed in a district court or Court of Appeals.

So how crazy is this:  right now, we have (1) a ruling from one district court judge in North Dakota finding he has jurisdiction and enjoining EPA from enforcing WOTUS; (2) a statement from EPA saying the agency will honor his injunction only in the 13 States that were plaintiffs in that action; (3) an order from that judge directing the parties to brief the issue of whether EPA has authority to honor his ruling in only those states; (4) decisions from two other federal district judges holding WOTUS judicial review must be brought only in a Court of Appeals; (5) numerous cases filed in several circuit Courts of Appeals that have been transferred (at least for now) to the 6th Circuit; (6) an almost certain EPA appeal to the 8th Circuit in attempt to reverse the North Dakota judge’s injunction; and (7) WOTUS review cases filed in numerous other federal district courts by lots of parties with various motions still pending.

This is early September, and I can’t imagine how this won’t get a lot crazier over the next few months.  Congress in its infinite wisdom!

First Blood: North Dakota Federal Court Strikes WOTUS Rule

Posted on August 31, 2015 by Rick Glick

With so many challenges filed in so many venues to EPA’s Waters of the United States or WOTUS rule, it seemed inevitable that some plaintiffs somewhere would find a sympathetic court.  And so it is that thirteen states found U. S. District Judge Ralph R. Erickson to preliminarily enjoin the “exceptionally expansive view” of the government’s reach under the Clean Water Act.

This case is interesting from a couple of perspectives.  First, Congress conferred original jurisdiction for challenges to EPA “effluent limitations or other limitations” and for permit decisions upon the Circuit Courts of Appeal.  In the past two days, district court judges in West Virginia and Georgia concluded they lacked jurisdiction over challenges to the WOTUS rule on that basis.  Judge Erickson, however, did not feel so constrained. 

The judge found that the WOTUS rule is simply definitional, and neither an effluent limitation nor an “other limitation” on states’ discretion.  Further, the judge found that the rule “has at best an attenuated connection to any permitting process.”   The conclusion states’ discretion is not affected is a bit odd in that the judge later concludes that the state plaintiffs satisfied all the criteria for a preliminary injunction, including irreparable harm caused by the rule. 

Second, Judge Erickson plays on an internecine dispute between EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers in an unusual way.   In my first sentence I refer to the WOTUS rule as EPA’s, although the rule was jointly adopted by EPA and the Corps.  However, recently leaked internal government memoranda indicate that the Corps disavows much of the technical support and policy choices underlying the rule.  Judge Erickson obliquely references these memoranda and seems to rely on them to conclude that plaintiffs are likely to succeed on the merits of their challenge. 

Typically, courts are loathe to rely on internal documents of uncertain provenance, as they prefer to leave the government room to openly discuss policies under development without fear its deliberations would be disclosed.  But in this case, Judge Erickson notes that he has not been presented with the full record for the WOTUS rulemaking, and so felt justified in citing the Corps memos. 

As Seth Jaffe has observed, it seems likely that Judge Erickson’s jurisdictional determination will not stand, and his reliance on the confidential exchanges between the Corps and EPA is a little disturbing.  However, his order highlights EPA’s poor management of this rulemaking, which has led to challenges from states, property rights advocates and environmentalists—a kind of anti-EPA trifecta. 

As previously noted, EPA released its draft WOTUS rule before the work of the Science Advisory Board was complete, thus raising questions as to the rule’s scientific objectivity.  Then EPA seemingly disregarded the technical concerns raised by its rulemaking partner, the Corps.  Any WOTUS rulemaking would be controversial, but EPA has unnecessarily raised the bar for public acceptance.

Two Days, Three Decisions, One Big Mess: Welcome to Judicial Review of the Waters of the United States Rule

Posted on August 28, 2015 by Seth Jaffe

On Wednesday, Judge Irene Keeley of the Northern District of West Virginia held that district courts do not have jurisdiction to hear challenges to EPA’s rule defining waters of the United States, because courts of appeal have original jurisdiction over “any effluent limitation or other limitation.”  Yesterday, Judge Lisa Wood of the Southern District of Georgia agreed.

Later yesterday, Judge Ralph Erickson of the District of North Dakota disagreed.  Finding that a definitional rule is not an effluent limitation and is not any “other limitation”, because it “places no new burden or requirements on the States”, Judge Erickson concluded that the district courts do have jurisdiction.  Addressing the merits, Judge Erickson concluded the states were likely to prevail, and would suffer irreparable harm in the absence of an injunction.  He thus enjoined enforcement of the rule in the 13 states involved in the case before him.

I’ll go out on a limb and assert that Judge Erickson’s decision is not likely to survive.  Why not?

  • Both the Georgia and West Virginia opinions cogently explain why the WOTUS rule is an “other limitation under existing CWA cases.
  • Judge Erickson was clearly trying to have his cake and eat it, too. It is, to put it mildly, internally inconsistent for Judge Erickson to conclude that he had jurisdiction to hear the case, because the “rule places no new burden or requirements on the States”, while ruling on the merits that the States will suffer irreparable harm if the rule goes into effect.  If they will suffer harm, it is precisely because the rule will limit them in new ways – which is pretty much what his own opinion says. 
  • As Judge Keeley noted, providing consolidated jurisdiction over all challenges to the rule in one court of appeals furthers

“the congressional goal of ensuring prompt resolution of challenges to EPA’s actions.”  That scheme would be undermined by … a “patchwork quilt” of district court rulings.

Based on these three decisions in just the last two days, it would seem that truer words were never spoken.

 

Ruminations on the Transition to a Low Carbon Economy

Posted on August 24, 2015 by Christopher Davis

Amid the controversy around the just released EPA Clean Power Plan rule, the impacts of climate change are becoming apparent with a proliferation of heat waves, droughts, floods, wildfires and other extreme weather events and trends, both in the U.S. and globally.  While many climate scientists (and world governments in the 2010 Cancun Agreements) have agreed that it is necessary to limit average global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius to avoid potentially catastrophic and irreversible effects of climate change, the impacts we’re now witnessing result from a temperature rise of just under 1 degree C. We are currently on a trajectory toward a 3 to 4 degree (or more) increase, which has sobering implications.

In preparation for the COP 21 negotiations in Paris, world governments are engaged in a “bottom up” process of submitting proposed national emission reduction pledges poetically called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs).  These are not expected to get us to a 2 degree future, but will hopefully form the basis for an international agreement that sets the world on a path toward that target or something close.

The U.S. INDC calls for reducing our emissions by 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, which will require additional measures beyond those currently proposed or in place (including the EPA Clean Power Plan, CAFÉ and truck efficiency standards, methane and HFC controls). All of these measures are controversial and under attack from various quarters. As the world’s second largest emitter, the U.S. must implement credible and effective emission reduction strategies to convince other major emitters in the developing world (China, India, et al) to control their emissions and to help avoid the worst effects of climate change.

Solving climate change clearly poses huge challenges, but it also presents huge economic opportunities. As highlighted in Ceres’ 2014 Clean Trillion report, International Energy Agency analyses show that the world needs an average of more than $1 trillion in additional annual investment in clean energy technologies (renewable energy, energy efficiency, efficient transport, etc.) beyond 2012 levels of about $250 billion. This creates a massive need for capital, and presents a huge economic and investment opportunity to finance the necessary low carbon, clean energy economy.

A global transition to a low carbon economy is in progress and accelerating, but too slowly.  Policies that put a meaningful price on carbon emissions and eliminate fossil fuel subsidies are needed to scale up clean energy investment. Fortunately there is growing business and investor support for such actions, as evidenced by the Global Investor Statement on Climate Change and recent letters from more than 350 companies supporting EPA’s Clean Power Plan. More such voices are needed to make the business and political case for solving climate change, before it is too late.

Castor and Pollux – the Strange Case of the Twin MOAs between EPA and California’s DOGGR

Posted on August 20, 2015 by Patrick Dennis

For those of you who, like me, are becoming more confident as the years go by that you have “seen it all” in the field of environmental law, this strange current event will change your mind.

California’s oil and gas production industry has been on a roll for the past decade.  Aided by the price of crude oil in the $100 per barrel range and new technologies, including hydraulic fracturing among others, industry has increased production from previously written-off reservoirs.  During this time, the California Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (“DOGGR”) has been the lead agency for that industry, issuing the key environmental permits for its regular operations.  Those include the underground injection permits that allow the industry to take the wastewater typically produced along with crude oil from subsurface production zones and reinject it underground into other water bearing zones.  For nearly thirty years, the issuance of such permits proceeded without major interruption or controversy, but as of the start of this year all that changed.

The story begins in 1982 with California’s application for primacy to implement the Underground Injection Control (“UIC”) program of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.  Historically, in California most crude oil producing formations are comprised of over 90% water.  Produced water, generally of poor quality, has been disposed as Class II wastes through underground injection wells often located near the production wells.  California’s application for UIC primacy identified those underground aquifers where injection of produced water from oil and gas production was already taking place.  These aquifers were exempt from the prohibition on underground injection of Class II wastes either because they contained greater than 3,000 mg/l of total dissolved solids (“TDS”) and as a result were considered to be unfit as drinking water, or they contained less than 3,000 TDS but met stringent standards of the UIC program.

In a memorandum of agreement (“MOA”) between US EPA and DOGGR executed in September 1982, the two agencies memorialized their agreement to allow DOGGR to implement the federal UIC program in California.  A list of both exempt and non-exempt aquifers is attached to the MOA.  Just a few months later, in December 1982 a second version of the MOA was circulated that transferred 11 of the aquifers from the non-exempt list to the exempt list.  Then, in one of the stranger administrative developments I’ve seen, the September 1982 signature page was affixed to the end of the changed MOA and attachment.  Thus, there were two MOAs – MOA1 drafted and executed in September 1982 and MOA2 apparently drafted and agreed upon in December 1982,  both using the same signature page from September.  The 11 aquifers that went from non-exempt aquifers into which there could be no Class II discharge to exempt aquifers allowed to receive Class II discharges included some of the more critical subsurface aquifers used by the oil and gas industry.                  

As a result of the 1982 MOAs and the transfer of the administration of the UIC program to DOGGR, California’s oil and gas industry was able to secure a much closer (geographically and philosophically) regulatory agency.  UIC permits have been routinely issued to oil and gas producers for injection into exempt aquifers – as recognized in MOA2.  Today there are approximately 50,000 produced water and enhanced recovery oil and gas injection wells in California.  The oil and gas industry has invested hundreds of millions, more likely billions, of dollars in infrastructure and hardware for these wells based in substantial part on the authorizations in their DOGGR permits.

Now we come to the punchline and the strange situation we find ourselves in today. 

Beginning in about 2012, US EPA took a hard look at DOGGR’s implementation of the UIC program and concluded that DOGGR may have issued UIC permits for injection into underground formations that either were not, or should not have been, exempt under the standards set forth in the UIC program. That audit culminated this year in a series of letters issued by both EPA and DOGGR setting forth an ad hoc program to re-evaluate many of the underground formations that had been treated as exempt by DOGGR for decades, including the 11 aquifers that had been “switched” from non-exempt to exempt status by MOA2.  EPA and DOGGR contend that industry must prove that some of these long-held exempt aquifers really qualify for their exemptions, even though industry received permits from DOGGR based upon the 1982 MOA.  This complete reversal of long-held assumptions has caused a substantial amount of angst and uncertainty in the industry.

But perhaps the most astonishing development is the publication of analyses of the validity of the two competing MOAs for the 11 aquifers that appeared on the California EPA website and the dissemination of the competing MOAs on the DOGGR website.  In a March 2, 2015 memorandum authored by Matthew Rodriguez, the Secretary of Cal EPA, the strange procedural history of the competing MOAs, with identical signature pages, is detailed and includes a relatively candid admission that “DOGGR and U.S. EPA agreed to exempt the 11 aquifers, but may not have followed regulatory procedures.” 

Cal EPA and DOGGR seem to agree that they assumed and treated the 11 aquifers as exempt for 30 years and that MOA2 appears to be the real, and final, MOA.  However, US EPA has not issued a final opinion on that issue and continues to leave open the prospect that the 11 aquifers, among others, were never somehow officially exempt under the UIC.  They have even adopted a moniker for the 11 and calling them the “11 historically-exempt aquifers.”  

The final conclusion to this story is yet to be written.  Assuming that re-consideration of the  status of the exempt aquifers does not result in the removal of their exemption, then it may not be necessary to determine what legal significance the competing MOAs enjoy, or which one is “right.”  But if EPA or DOGGR change the status of aquifers from exempt to non-exempt, their actions may shut down injection operations, thereby imperiling ongoing oil and gas operations.  In that event, one or more of the affected industry companies may challenge the validity of MOA1 and seek to compel validation of MOA2.

If that happens, then as an oil and gas industry lawyer, I’m hoping that as between the twin MOAs, MOA2 is Pollux[1] and MOA1 is Castor.                            

 


   [1]   For those unfamiliar with Greek mythology, Pollux and Castor were twins with ambiguous parentage, but only Pollux was immortal and Castor was not.