Posted on May 21, 2013
Climate tort plaintiffs cannot catch a break in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. In a May 14, 2013, decision, the Fifth Circuit found—once again—that a group of Mississippi Gulf Coast property owners is barred from suing energy companies for tortiously emitting greenhouse gases (“GHGs”).
The case, Ned Comer, et al. v. Murphy Oil USA, et al., has a long and twisting history. At one point the case was widely viewed as in the vanguard of a handful of cases with the potential to radically realign the legal framework under which companies emit GHGs.
Comer was originally filed in the Southern District of Mississippi in 2005. Plaintiff coastal property owners alleged that the defendant companies’ emissions exacerbated climate change, which intensified Hurricane Katrina, which in turn damaged the plaintiffs’ property. Invoking the federal courts’ diversity jurisdiction, the plaintiffs sought compensatory and punitive damages, asserting state law claims of nuisance, trespass, and negligence, among other claims. The district court dismissed the claims on the grounds that the plaintiffs lacked standing and that the matter was not justiciable under the political question doctrine.
In November 2009, a Fifth Circuit panel reversed, in part, the district court’s dismissal of the claims. The Fifth Circuit panel found that plaintiffs had standing to bring the state law claims, which the court found did not present political questions.
The Fifth Circuit panel’s decision came in the wake of the Second Circuit’s precedent-setting September 2009 decision in State of Connecticut, et al. v. American Electric Power Company Inc., et al., in which the Second Circuit recognized the validity of federal common law public nuisance claims challenging the emission of GHGs, found that a number of states and private environmental groups had standing to press such claims, and rejected the argument that the claims are nonjusticiable. Together, these cases were viewed as potentially ushering in a new era in which companies emitting GHGs would need to contend not just with EPA’s regulations but also with common law climate tort claims seeking injunctive relief or money damages.
The new era was not to be. As to Comer, before the panel opinion’s mandate issued, a majority of the Fifth Circuit’s active, unrecused judges voted to rehear the case en banc. Under Fifth Circuit rules at the time, this vacated the panel opinion reversing the district court’s dismissal. Before the Fifth Circuit reheard the case en banc, however, another Fifth Circuit judge was recused, leaving the court with only eight active, unrecused judges. Five of the remaining eight judges then determined that, with the additional recusal, the court lacked a quorum to proceed, and the judges issued in May 2010 an order dismissing the plaintiffs’ appeal from the district court’s decision for lack of a quorum.
Plaintiffs petitioned the Supreme Court, seeking review of the Fifth’s Circuit dismissal of their appeal. The Supreme Court denied the petition in January 2011, at which point one might have expected the case to be over.
However, the same group of property owners proceeded to file a new complaint in May 2011 alleging many of the same nuisance, trespass, and negligence claims against the same energy company defendants. The District Court again dismissed the claims, finding them to be barred by res judicata and the applicable statute of limitations, and also to fail to establish proximate causation and be preempted by the Clean Air Act. In addition, as it had in Comer I, the court found that the plaintiffs lacked standing and that the claims raised nonjusticiable political questions.
The Fifth Circuit’s May 2013 decision in Comer II upholds the district court’s dismissal of the climate tort claims. The Fifth Circuit agreed the case is barred by res judicata, and did not address the district court’s other grounds for dismissal. Despite the procedural quirks of Comer I, the Fifth Circuit found the district court’s decision in that case to represent a final judgment, never modified on appeal. In addition, the Fifth Circuit found the district court’s final judgment to be on the merits because it adjudicated the jurisdictional issues of standing and justiciability.
Fall of 2009 may turn out to have been an apogee of sorts for climate tort claims. In June 2011, the Supreme Court issued a decision in Connecticut v. American Electric Power, holding that the Clean Air Act and the EPA actions it authorizes displace any federal common law right to seek abatement of GHG emissions. Climate tort plaintiffs in a third case, Native Village of Kivalina v. Exxon Mobil Corp., et al., were also on the losing end of a September 2012 Ninth Circuit panel decision which found the plaintiffs’ claims that climate change would result in erosion and flooding of the island where they live to be a matter that should be left to the legislative and executive branches of government. The Kivalina plaintiffs petitioned the Supreme Court in February for a writ of certiorari.
As GHG levels in the atmosphere approach their highest levels in hundreds of thousands of years or longer, the prospects for new legislative or executive branch action are uncertain. Although California recently implemented an economy-wide GHG cap and trade scheme, which began imposing compliance obligations earlier this year, that program is being challenged in the courts and there appears to be little appetite for comprehensive federal climate change legislation. EPA proposed in April 2012 a GHG performance standard for new power plants pursuant to its Clean Air Act authority, but the timing for action with respect to existing power plants and other emitting sectors is unclear. In light of the uncertainty on the regulatory and legislative fronts, and given the massive alleged harms involved, it may be too early to say if the climate tort is essentially finished or will in the future be resuscitated in a new and more potent guise.
Posted on May 14, 2013
Cheap gas prices driven by a boom in new shale gas development, coupled with more stringent emissions controls for coal fired plants, are causing a shift from coal to natural gas as the primary source of electric power in the United States. In the short term, most welcome this shift because natural gas produces significantly fewer greenhouse gas (“GHG”) emissions. But it appears increasingly certain that in the long run, this shift will result in decreased energy grid reliability and significantly higher electricity costs due to natural gas price volatility.
A recent Duke University study concludes that the cost of compliance with new emissions standards could make almost two-thirds of existing coal fired plants “as expensive as natural gas even if natural gas prices rise.” This combination of low gas prices and the high cost of coal emissions compliance already has resulted in replacement of many coal plants instead of retro-fitting them with expensive environmental controls. Add to that the uncertainty of potential future GHG emissions standards, and construction of new coal fired power plants is at a near standstill.
The Rocky Mountain Coal Mining Institute (“RMCMI”) estimates that these factors will combine to force closure of up to 100 gigawatts of coal plant capacity, or approximately one third of the coal-fired fleet, resulting in a net increase of 32 gigawatts of gas capacity in the next three years. By 2020, RMCMI estimates that gas generating capacity will exceed that of coal, nuclear, and hydroelectric combined. The RMCMI further projects that the shift to natural gas generation will cause the demand for natural gas to exceed even the most rosy new shale gas production predictions, causing volatile natural gas price swings.
Grid reliability problems and gas price volatility were highlighted by Gordon van Welie, the head of New England’s power grid, during recent testimony before Congress. He observed that more than half of New England's electricity is generated from natural gas, which has displaced a more diversified mix of oil, coal, gas and nuclear power over the past ten years.
He testified that even though natural gas generally is plentiful, New England’s inadequate gas pipeline capacity limits supplies during peak usage. For example, during a recent extreme cold snap in New England, “natural gas prices in late January spiked to $34/MMBtu, in contrast to prices below $4/MMBtu across most of the country.” The high gas prices caused wholesale electricity price spikes of more than 100% in January and 300% in February 2013 compared with 2012. There also were “multiple instances where generators could not get fuel to run,” including one instance when more than 6,000 MW were offline due to fuel shortages. Testimony at 7. To avoid even worse problems in the future, he urges increased construction of pipeline infrastructure, but construction of gas pipelines will take time. In the short and intermediate term, he predicts continued price volatility and grid reliability problems during peak usage.
In addition to pressures from increased usage of natural gas in the United States, there also is increasing support within the Obama Administration to side with those seeking to export liquefied natural gas because prices in foreign markets are much higher. If the export of natural gas becomes a reality, then domestic gas prices likely will increase even more.
Although the vast shale gas reserves are fueling a shift to natural gas power generation with a corresponding reduction in GHGs, over-reliance on natural gas will almost certainly have the unintended consequence of causing grid reliability problems and volatile price spikes. This likelihood argues for a more balanced energy portfolio with a broad mix of power from renewable, hydropower, coal, oil, nuclear, and natural gas. To insure future stable energy prices and reliable energy production, electric utilities and state and federal regulators should take a long term view when deciding whether to shift to natural gas generation and decommission existing coal and nuclear plants.
Posted on May 10, 2013
Proposals to export liquefied natural gas (“LNG”) produced in large part from shale gas recovered by hydraulic fracturing techniques or “fracing” continue the public debate about the desirability of exports of other energy resources. This political, regulatory, environmental and trade debate engages powerful politicians, lobbyists, environmental groups, trade associations, developers, producers, state regulatory authorities, consultants, academics, and landowners, and a broad spectrum of the press and public.
On its face, the notion of substantial exports of LNG to both countries with which the U.S. has free trade agreements (FTA) in place and those it does not, seems highly attractive. Such exports would improve the balance of trade deficits, create new jobs associated with the production; and produce tax revenue. And, from the broad environmental perspective, LNG exports would lower greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) in countries with heavy reliance now and in the future on coal or oil for electric generation, or in countries with need for replacement of nuclear facilities.
Query then, what are the factors that engender the impassioned debate on energy resource export policy? Key are: (1) fears of massive development of “frac” gas, freighted with concern over impacts on water, air, and use. Analogous to the Keystone XL battle, another concern is development of the unconventional gas for the benefit of foreign interests, particularly those without an FTA in place with the U.S. (export to those countries with FTA agreements with the U.S. is deemed by law to be in the public interest). (2) A second issue in contention on LNG is the impact on domestic energy prices if significant LNG exports limit availability of natural gas for domestic industrial and other uses. (This issue harkens back to the energy crises of the 1970s when natural gas availability was tight and energy prices sky high.)
So, although not explicitly an environmental-based objection, such opponents of LNG exports find friendly bedfellows with the environmental objectors and the commercial interests concerned about their ability to rely upon and benefit from increased gas supply. Industrial interests argue that stopping exports to non-FTA countries, particularly the insatiable Asian markets, will result in an industrial renaissance with jobs and development growing significantly. And, some opponents of LNG exports to non-FTA countries ironically, (to this blogger at least) express little regard for overall environmental benefit to potential importing countries and thus the globe. Rather, the impact on the United States from development of unconventionally sourced gas supply has been their focus point. Yet, LNG is only part of the energy export debate.
Further complicating this analysis is the parallel potential increase in the export of U.S. coal to energy hungry nations, particularly in Asia. As noted above, there is a broader questioning on the entire topic of U.S. energy resources exports: LNG, oil or refined products and coal. In addition to the Keystone XL pipeline standoff, many environmentally oriented players (e.g., the Sierra Club) and political leaders have expressed reservations about the export of U.S. coal for two primary reasons – the impact on the U.S. of new infrastructure for storage, transportation and increased mining activities, and the increase in GHG emissions worldwide as a result of heavier coal-fired electric generation. And in the past months, several proposed coal export projects have been scrapped. This energy export issue makes for a complicated stew of federal, local and regional politics. What makes the entire public war of words (and the behind the scenes maneuvering) so fascinating is the question of who or what decides where and with what restrictions U.S. energy resources are to be marketed to the world – the federal agencies, the state and local governmental entities, or the market? The next few months may provide guidance on LNG and perhaps the Keystone XL pipeline, however, the national and international implications of these decisions are so important that it is unlikely that peace will settle on these matters for decades.
Posted on May 9, 2013
The world’s biggest carbon permit market was left in disarray after the European Parliament on April 16, 2013 rejected an emergency plan that would have forced companies to pay more for polluting.
Permits are a key part of the EU Bloc’s cap-and-trade plan to tackle global warming. The European Parliament rejected a proposal to reduce the short-term supply of carbon permits as a way of pushing up the price. At the launch of permits in 2005, the cost of a permit was nearly €30 for each ton of carbon emitted. Following the vote on April 16, 2013, the price plummeted to a little over €2.5 a ton.
Making matters worse, following the vote, the European Parliament’s Environment Committee coordinators failed to set a date for a vote on an amended version.
Not only is the collapse of the cornerstone of its climate policy an embarrassment to the EU, but its failure resonates in other areas of the world. Australia has fixed a carbon price of $23 a ton until moving to a floating market price following the EU model in 2015. But, that is being reconsidered. The EU situation, coupled with the U. S. Senate’s rejection on March 22, 2013 of a bill to impose a fee on carbon, means that the Obama Administration will have an uphill battle for any future proposals for a fee or tax on carbon emissions.
Posted on April 18, 2013
You may know that Washington State Governor Jay Inslee is a climate champion, first as a long-serving member of Congress and now as Governor. But you may not know that he just finished leading a bipartisan effort that succeeded in passing climate change legislation.
His climate action bill passed the State House March 25th on a bipartisan 61 to 32 vote. The bill earlier passed the Republican-controlled State Senate on a 37 to 12 vote. And a few days ago it headed to Governor Inslee’s desk for a well-earned signature.
The bill commissions an independent evaluation of climate pollution reduction programs in other states and Canadian provinces, and of opportunities for new job-producing investments in Washington relating to cleaner energy and greater energy efficiency. Then it requires the Governor and legislative leaders to use that survey data to plot out together what set of policies will get the State to hit its climate pollution limits established by earlier legislation, including a greenhouse gas emission reduction to 1990 levels by the year 2020.
“The Governor’s climate action bill keeps our state in the game – requiring leaders to map out a strategy to grow our clean energy economy and reduce climate pollution,” said Joan Crooks, executive director of Washington Environmental Council.
And here — in sharp contrast to the other Washington — Republicans and conservative Democrats agreed.
Posted on April 11, 2013
Climate Change and the deficit are at the top of the legislative and policy agenda for the country. Some economists love the “carbon tax.” Senators Sanders and Boxer recently proposed the Climate Protection Act of 2013 -- to impose a tax on fossil fuels and high carbon intensity products sold in the US. Many in the popular press are now advocating for a carbon tax, to reduce the deficit and to provide for reductions in carbon emissions.
Rather than believe that a tax can create just the right mix of incentives and funds to promote de-carbonization measures, I would argue that the ability to offset ought to be included in any such measure. Carbon offset credits are based on one of the most significant legislative changes in the 1977 Clean Air Amendments --the requirement to get Emission Reduction Credits. While ERCs were limited to requirements for a new or modified major emitting facility in a “non-attainment area,” the principles of ERC of ERCs can be found in the documentation now known as “carbon offsets.” Scores of methodologies or protocols are now recognized as scientifically valid for activities which are not required by law and which do not represent business as usual. The proof required to earn a valid carbon offset credits is considerable, at least as exacting than even what EPA requires for ERCs. Because it is the regulated industry which chooses whether to use an offset or not, offset credits have another level of proof -- that of the end user - to satisfy. And Innovation and entrepreneurs are characteristic of carbon offset credits.
Not only are carbon offsets a recognized cost containment tool in many GHG control programs, it allows different approaches to carbon reduction to compete against each other. The most efficient and most effective will have the lower price; and hence be more attractive than other ways of reducing. And it will bring in sectors with GHG emissions which would not be reduced otherwise. From livestock wastewater operations to improved forestry management, from rice cultivation practices to coal mine methane, emission reductions will occur which would not otherwise. A more detailed discussion of this topic can be found at www.Dentons.com.
Posted on January 30, 2013
Four California GHG offset protocols survived an important court test last week in Citizens Climate Lobby et al vs. California Air Resources Board (Superior Court of California, County of San Francisco).
In his January 25, 2013, Statement of Decision, Judge Goldsmith described GHG offsets:
“An offset credit represents a reduction of GHG emissions from an approved uncapped source …Each offset credit represents an emission reduction of one CO2e… An uncapped source is an entity that is not regulated by the cap-and-trade program. Not every reduction is eligible for offset credit. Credits are only awarded to GHG emission reductions carried out pursuant to one of four Protocols promulgated by Respondent [CARB].”
So far, CARB has only approved GHG offset projects in four categories:
1. Forest Projects
2. Urban Forest Projects
3. Livestock Projects
4. Ozone Depleting Substance Projects
CARB also limited the locations of qualifying GHG offset projects and capped the amount of GHG offset credits entities could use to comply with the state’s GHG cap-and-trade program.
Last year, two environmental groups sued CARB in San Francisco Superior Court to block even this limited offset program, claiming that CARB’s approach to satisfying the “additionality” test for GHG offsets conflicted with the California Global Warming Solution Act of 2006 (aka “AB32”). The court described the “additionality” test as follows:
“Additionality is the linchpin of an offset program. A reduction is additional if it would not have occurred without the financial incentive provided by the offset credit. Additionality is essential to the environmental integrity of an offset program because if reductions are not additional, then the cap-and-trade program will not reduce GHG emissions beyond what would have occurred anyway. . . .”
For its four GHG offset Protocols, CARB adopted a “standard-based approach,” relying on information about the additionality of categories of prospects. The petitioners preferred that CARB evaluate each offset project’s additionality individually, project-by-project, based on site-specific data and parameters.
CARB vigorously defended its approach to additionality and its GHG offset Protocols in this case. Several California utilities and coalitions intervened on CARB’s side. Very significantly, the Environmental Defense Fund and the Nature Conservancy also sided with CARB in this case.
In his January 25 Statement of Decision Judge Goldsmith upheld CARB’s offset Protocols on all issues. In particular, he found that:
1. “… as to the Livestock Protocol, the Ozone Depleting Substances Protocol, the Urban Forests Protocol, and the U.S. Forests Protocol, that [CARB] has adequately considered all relevant factors and has demonstrated a rational connection between these factors, the policy implemented, and the purpose of the enabling statutes …the Protocols are not arbitrary and capricious.”
2. “… Health and Safety Code section 38562, subdivision (d)(2) does not foreclose [CARB] from using standardized mechanisms [for additionality] and it is within the [CARB’s] legislatively delegated lawmaking authority to choose standardized mechanisms …”
3. “… [CARB’s] use of standardized mechanisms is supported by evidence contained in the administrative record.”
4. “… Petitioners have failed to demonstrate that the Legislature foreclosed the use of standardized additionality mechanisms or demonstrate that [CARB] acted arbitrarily or capriciously in promulgating additionality standards."
Prompted by CARB and the Intervenors, the court recognized the important roles that GHG offsets play in reducing the cost of GHG emission reductions and promoting innovation. The court’s 34 page opinion thoroughly analyzes complex legal issues, including the “additionality” issue. Along the way, the court also accepted CARB’s rejection of the Kyoto Protocols’ Clean Development Mechanism (“CDM”), finding as follows:
“The Court finds the factors which have rendered the CDM problematic in terms of administrative complexity, delay, and cost, to be highly persuasive in concluding that [CARB’s] rejection of the CDM project-by-project approach was justified programmatically and consistent with its legislative grant of discretion.” (Statement, p. 11)
This finding, and much of this court decision, may be of interest to climate practitioners here in the U.S. and overseas.
Posted on January 2, 2013
An earlier post noted that adaptation to climate change is inevitable and is finally emerging as a priority for public policy. Long overshadowed by campaigns to prevent or slow global warming, federal and state initiatives and efforts by many professionals have resulted in efforts to start to collect data and promote serious planning for ocean rise and other effects of climate change.
Storm Sandy has more than reinforced that trend: it has established a much wider recognition that planning, design, engineering and regulatory decisions must incorporate the expected impacts of climate change and can no longer rely on historic weather and temperature conditions. That shift will have broad implications throughout the legal system, amounting to an emerging law of adaptation to climate change that is distinguishable from the emerging law of greenhouse gas controls.
As often is true, the legal academy is in the vanguard – there is a surge of law review articles and also a recent compilation published by the ABA.
For example, utility regulators have broad authority to require public service companies to prudently operate and maintain their systems. It is common for regulators to require emergency response plans, and, in some states, to impose significant penalties for overly delayed restoration of service after storm events.
Now, regulators are likely to require utilities also take account of changes because of global warming effects, not just based on historic conditions. Environmental groups recently petitioned NY regulators to so require.
But how exactly can this step be done? Modeling of the timing and extent of climate change effects can only produce broad ranges and generalities and are indefinite about effects at particular locations. What retrofitting is needed to assure reliable service to far future ratepayers and at what expense to current ratepayers? Ratepayers, regulators and utility stockholders will not reach agreement without significant dispute.
Existing zoning for flood plains should be modified to account for climate change. Making those changes will trigger large disputes as previously settled expectations are overturned. Until the rules are changed, are zoning bodies tied to outdated flood control maps incorporated into their regulations, or can they consider supplemental, updated information?
Environmental impact reviews for proposed projects typically address the effects of a project on the environment. Now must they consider the effects of the environment on the project? How? It will be litigated.
Also, as noted in an earlier post, the public trust doctrine might not serve to require regulatory agencies to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. But will it successfully undergird a state’s assertion of authority to regulate activities on or affecting lands subject to the public trust in order to account for changes and threats to shorelines? As beaches recede, will public trust lands start to incorporate currently private property?
The common law of property, too, will be affected. A landowner can lose title to land if it slowly disappears by reliction due to changes in a water body’s natural behavior, whereas a sudden loss by avulsion allows the landowner to keep title and restore the land. But what if the sudden loss is due to a storm event that is part of a slow rise in ocean levels?
Finally, at what point will it become clear that professionals must take account of global warming in designing structures or else experience risk of liability for unanticipated effects?
Posted on November 16, 2012
Massachusetts’ ambitious plan to address greenhouse gas emissions on a state-wide basis attracted private money last month to measure its success and costs. Boston-based Barr Foundation’s grant of $230,000 will establish a “performance management tool” to track and measure the success of initiatives undertaken under Massachusetts’ Global Warming Solutions Act (“GWSA”). Supporters expect it to “serve as a national and regional model that other states can adopt to analyze” their own greenhouse gas reduction efforts. The GWSA, enacted in 2008, requires extremely ambitious reductions in greenhouse gas emissions within Massachusetts in the coming decades: an 80% emissions reduction goal by 2050 and 10-25% by 2020 from a 1990 emissions baseline The act directed the Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs to set the 2020 reductions and adopt a plan for achieving them.
The planning and regulatory documents issued since enactment recognize that the success of a single state’s effort to address the causes of climate change cannot be measured by the impact of its own reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in effecting changes in the global climate. The effect will simply be too small to measure. Instead, the state’s plan touts the beneficial effects of spurring economic development through the encouragement of green energy and other high tech businesses, the reduction of localized pollution, and the stabilization of energy prices. The success of the program in “bending the curve” of rising greenhouse gas emissions, however, rests entirely on its ability to serve as an example to other political entities – states mainly but, ultimately, geopolitical entities through broader global participation.
In December 2010, the Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs released the Massachusetts Clean Energy and Climate Plan for 2020 setting the reduction target at 25% below 1990 baseline. The Executive Summary summarizes reductions anticipated from existing and expected programs (table at page 6). Policies relating to Buildings (9.8% or more than one third of the 25% reduction), Electricity (7.7%) and Transportation (7.6%) account for the vast majority of the reductions. Within each sector, reductions are characterized as either “Existing Policy” (e.g., Federal and California vehicle efficiency and GHC standards – 2.6% reduction), “Expanded Policy” (e.g., advanced building energy codes – 1.6% reduction), or “New Policy” (e.g., Green DOT, the Massachusetts’ transportation agencies fulfillment of their sustainability commitment – 1.2% reduction). The Barr Foundation’s grant will help create the “dashboard” that presumably will take into account the likelihood of adoption of new programs or the expansion of existing ones and the ultimate efficacy of any of the programs, as it tracks the progress of the Massachusetts program.
Efforts to track the success of the Massachusetts program will build on the work done by MassINC, a Boston-based “independent think tank” that earlier this year released a book-length report titled “Rising to the Challenge/Assessing the Massachusetts Response to Climate Change.” This very thoughtful work looks specifically at Massachusetts’ progress to date and likely future success in emission reductions in various sectors; it provides useful capsule descriptions of other state’s programs and of regional and foreign initiatives. And it discusses the crucial issue of the economic costs and benefits of the program, as that will be a prime determinant of the program’s ability to be a role model for other jurisdictions.
The MassINC report recognizes that data on the subject of economic costs and benefits are subject to extremely complex and differing interpretations. The report notes there is general agreement in Massachusetts that “it is desirable to reduce greenhouse gases and develop clean energy [,] it is more difficult to reach consensus when the subject turns to the cost of addressing climate change ….” Id. at 75. Nonetheless, a convincing explanation of the specific costs and benefits of various courses of action is a necessary component of any successful program because the ultimate effectiveness of a state’s program rests on its attractiveness as a model for other jurisdictions – including those with different views of the appropriate tradeoffs between environmental protection and economic development.
Posted on November 16, 2012
Sunday’s New York Times had an op-ed piece by Cass Sunstein, recently departed head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, advocating for sensible measures to address global climate change. Sunstein’s argument is that
"Economists of diverse viewpoints concur that if the international community entered into a sensible agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the economic benefits would greatly outweigh the costs."
I don’t disagree with anything he says; I only wonder whether anyone is paying attention. On one hand, while Sunstein notes that President Obama supports cost-benefit analysis, Democrats in Congress – and many environmentalists – have long been skeptical, treating environmental questions as moral issues that should not be subject to something as crass as cost-benefit analysis.
Republicans used to support cost-benefit analysis. Indeed, Sunstein opens the op-ed with a discussion of the Reagan administration’s support of the Montreal Protocol on ozone-depleting chemicals. However, for the past ten years or so, Republicans have abandoned cost-benefit analysis for something much simpler – cost analysis. Today, if regulations cost too much – whatever that means – then they are “job-killers” and thus bad, even if the benefits exceed costs, sometimes by several multiples.
Maybe four years at MIT brainwashed me into blind acceptance of quantitative analysis, but this stuff doesn’t seem that hard to me. It is profoundly depressing that a significant number of environmentalists look only to the benefits of environmental regulation, while a similar percentage of conservatives now only look at its costs.
Somehow, we’ve got to get the twain to meet.
Posted on October 17, 2012
By Deborah Jennings and Andrew Schatz
If California regulators approve a proposed AES combined-cycle natural gas-fired peaking power plant, it could blur the standard for Best Available Control Technology (BACT) for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from gas-fired electric generating facilities. EPA expressly excluded simple cycle peaking units from its recently proposed New Source Performance Standards (NSPS) for GHGs because combined cycle units, which are GHG lower-emitting, were presumed not to be useable as peakers. By virtue of AES’s proposed combined-cycle peaking plant, EPA may be moved to change its view. Low-emitting combined cycle may set the BACT standard for future, gas-fired peaking units as a result.
AES is proposing to use a combined-cycle system in a peaking capacity at its Huntington Beach Energy Project (HBEP) in Huntington Beach, California. See AES Southland Development, LLC, BACT Determination for the Huntington Beach Energy Project (June 2012). The HBEP will consist of two combined cycle power blocks with a net capacity of 939 MW to be used for peaking and supplying local capacity. AES’s proposal to use combined-cycle for a peaking unit is notable because typically peakers have been simple cycle systems. The combined-cycle system is more efficient than simple cycle systems and has lower GHG emission rates. Whereas simple cycle systems combust natural gas to generate electricity, combined cycle-systems also capture lost heat from the combustion process to generate additional electricity through a steam turbine (i.e. a heat recovery steam generator). Accordingly, BACT for GHG emissions at the HBEP project results in an GHG emissions rate of 1,082 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour (lbs CO2/MWh). In contrast, a recent BACT determination for the simple cycle “peaking” power plant at the Pio Pico Energy Center in San Diego was 1,181 lbs CO2/MWh.
Regulatory agencies have struggled to determine what constitutes GHG BACT for natural gas (and other fossil-fuel) fired power plants. Regulatory authorities have declined to require natural gas-fired power plant projects to consider GHG lower emitting combined-cycle technologies in a BACT analysis. For example, in June 2012, Wisconsin authorities declined EPA Region V’s request to consider the use of combined-cycle gas turbines in a GHG permit for a wastewater utility fuelled by landfill gas.
EPA has sent conflicting signals on the issue. In the past, EPA has suggested from time to time that combined cycle be considered in the BACT analysis for natural gas plants. However, in drafting its New Source Performance Standards (NSPS) for GHG Emissions for New Stationary Sources: Electric Utility Generating Units (EGUs), EPA concluded that it cannot require proposed simple cycle facilities to meet the NSPS designed for combined-cycle natural gas facilities based on functional differences in peaking plants. 77 Fed. Reg. 22392 (April 13, 2012).
Specifically, EPA declined to include simple cycle facilities as an affected source in the proposed 40 CFR part 60, subpart TTTT for GHG emissions from new facilities governing combined-cycle plants and coal-fired plants. Id. at 22411. In its NSPS proposal, EPA required new fossil fuel-fired EGUs greater than 25 MW to meet an output-based standard of 1,000 lb CO2/MWh, representing the performance of widely used natural gas combined cycle technology. Id. at 22392. (Interestingly, in setting the NSPS at 1,000 lb CO2/MWh, EPA proposes a more stringent threshold for GHG emissions from new facilities than even HBEP). In choosing to exclude simple-cycle facilities from this standard, EPA reasoned that unlike combined-cycle plants (which are typically designed to provide baseload power and are able to emit CO2 at similar levels), simple-cycle plants are typically designed to provide peaking power, operate less, and “it would be much more expensive to lower their emission profile to that of a combined cycle power plant.” Id. at 22411.
In proposing a relatively lower emitting combined-cycle for a peaking unit, the AES project casts doubt on EPA’s conclusion that simple cycle is different. Accordingly, EPA may come to impose combined-cycle BACT limits on future natural gas combustion peaking facilities.
Posted on October 8, 2012
The full import of the pivotal American Electric Power Co., Inc. v. Connecticut, 131 S. Ct. 2527 (2011), decision holding that federal common law claims for injunctive relief were displaced by federal regulation of GHGs under the CAA remain to be decided. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has now upheld the dismissal of a federal nuisance action filed in 2008 against Exxon Mobil et al., seeking damages for flooding attributable to climate change. Native Village of Kivalina v. Exxon-Mobil Corp., No. 09-17490 (Sept. 21, 2012). Damage estimates approached $400 million. The suit was dismissed by the District Court in 2009 on the grounds the regulation of greenhouse gases was a legislative matter rather than a judicial controversy and for lack of standing.
The Supreme Court in AEP held only that the plaintiff was not entitled to injunctive relief. Relying on AEP, the Ninth Circuit held that the federal Clean Air Act displaces climate change-related federal common law public nuisance claims for both injunctive relief and damages. In a concurring opinion, Judge Pro wrote that he would have dismissed for lack of standing as the plaintiff had failed to prove its injuries were directly attributable to the defendants.
In AEP, the Supreme Court held that the CAA would bar state common law nuisance claims if such claims were preempted, but the Court did not decide if the CAA in fact preempted state common law nuisance claims. In Kivalina, the district court dismissed the state common law nuisance claims without prejudice. The Ninth Circuit did not rule on the validity of these claims. Since the plaintiff’s state common law claims are undisturbed by this decision, it remains to be seen whether Kivalina or other will pursue such claims.
Posted on September 21, 2012
The August 2012 preliminary results from the European Space Agency’s CryoSat-2 probe indicate that 900 cubic kilometers of summer sea ice has disappeared from the Arctic ocean over the past year. This rate of loss is 50% higher than most scenarios from historic information outlined by polar scientists. The summer figures provide a real shock. In 2004 there were about 13,000 cubic kilometers of summer sea ice in the Arctic -- now only 7,000 cubic kilometers were measured. If the current annual loss of around 900 cubic kilometers continues, summer ice coverage could disappear in about a decade in the Arctic.
The new sea ice measurement was set on August 26, 2012, a full three weeks before the usual end of the melting season, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center. So more melt in 2012 is predicted. Every major scientific institution that tracks Arctic sea ice agrees that new records for low ice area, extent, and volume have been set. These organizations include the University of Washington Polar Science Center (a new record for low ice volume), the Nansen Environmental & Remote Sensing Center in Norway, and the University of Illinois Cryosphere Today.
The consequences of losing the Arctic’s sea ice coverage, even for only part of the year, could be profound. Without the cap’s white brilliance to reflect sunlight back into space, the region will heat up even more than at present. As a result, ocean temperatures will rise and methane deposits on the ocean floor could melt, evaporate and bubble into the atmosphere. Scientists have recently reported evidence that methane plumes are now appearing in many areas. Methane is a particularly powerful greenhouse gas and rising levels of it in the atmosphere are only likely to accelerate global warming. And, with the disappearance of sea ice around the shores of Greenland, its glaciers will melt faster and raise sea levels even more rapidly than previously predicted.
Posted on August 20, 2012
Co-Authored by: Beth A. Coombs, Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP
California’s recently approved regulations establishing a Cap-and-Trade Program for the reduction of greenhouse gas (“GHG”) emissions are already under attack in California court. In March 2012, two citizen groups filed a petition challenging the California Air Resources Board’s (“CARB’s”) regulations that allow entities to quantify GHG emission reductions and take credit for those reductions while, at the same time, making such reductions available to other GHG emitters to purchase as an “offset” to their own greenhouse gas emissions. The case, Citizens Climate Lobby and Our Children’s Earth Foundation v. California Air Resources Board, Case No. CGC-12-519554, filed in San Francisco County Superior Court, represents the first major legal challenge to California’s landmark Cap-and-Trade Program.
The Cap-and-Trade program is part of the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, which the California legislature adopted in 2006 under Assembly Bill 32. The bill required statewide GHG emissions to be reduced to their prior 1990 levels by 2020. Cal. Health & Saf. Code § 38550. As part of its overall statutory scheme, AB 32 vested the CARB with the discretion to decide whether to adopt regulations employing “market based compliance mechanisms.” Health & Safety Code §38570. Exercising that discretion, CARB, through a multi-year process involving extensive public comment, promulgated regulations establishing offset credits through protocols specific to certain industries or business operations. It is these offset protocols that are now under attack.
Petitioners claim that the protocols adopted by the CARB allow GHG emission reductions that are not “additional.” This, they say, violates AB 32’s mandate that offsets must be “in addition to any greenhouse gas emission reduction otherwise required by law or regulation, and any other greenhouse gas emission reduction that otherwise would occur.” Cal. Health & Saf. Code § 38562(d)(emphasis supplied). However, Petitioners’ interpretation of “additionality” is inappropriately and prohibitively narrow. For example, under Petitioners’ view of AB 32’s requirements, the offset protocol for the use of anaerobic digesters that reduce GHG emissions (primarily methane) by treating manure at dairies and hog farms allows in “non-additional” projects because some farms within the United States already use digesters—despite the fact that (1) farms currently using digesters would not be credited under the program, (2) the use of digesters on farms is still rare, and (3) most digesters currently in use were installed under grants for increasing energy efficiency. As another example, Petitioners argue that the offset protocol for the destruction of ozone depleting substances (“ODS”) allows crediting for projects that otherwise would occur because while less than 1.5% of recoverable U.S. sourced ODS is currently being destroyed, there are still ‘business reasons” aside from offset incentives for destroying ODS. And they point to the General Electric Company as an example of a company that gains “goodwill” with the consumer public by voluntarily destroying ODS.
This prohibitively narrow view of AB 32’s offset requirements for “additionality” effectively nullifies the California legislature’s grant of regulatory authority to CARB to create an offset program, because no such program could comply with the strictures laid out by Petitioners. Indeed, it is Petitioners’ philosophical disagreement with the legislature’s decision to allow an offset program that underlies this litigation. Two members of one of the groups challenging the offsets long ago advised CARB that, “[i]t is critically important for ARB to resist the temptation to make offsets part of California’s cap-and-trade program.” Laurie Williams & Allan Zabel, Comment on Proposed GHG Offset Protocols, 9, Dec. 13, 2010, Comment 521 for California Cap-and-Trade Program. But this fundamental disagreement about whether offsets should be part of a government greenhouse gas reduction program is necessarily a policy decision – not one that should be decided by the courts – and the legislature clearly gave CARB the discretion to adopt the protocols.
The legal problem with Petitioners’ attack is that they sidestep the critical definition of “additional” that CARB adopted as part of the same regulatory package that contains the offset protocols. That definition provides that:
"in the context of offset credits, [GHG] emission reductions or removals that exceed any [GHG] reduction or removals otherwise required by law, regulation or legally binding mandate, and that exceed any [GHG] reductions or removals that would otherwise occur in a conservative business-as-usual scenario.” Cal. Code of Regs. tit. 17, Section 95802(a)(3).
The four protocols challenged by the litigation – livestock (digestors), ozone depleting substances, forests and urban forests – were all developed through a lengthy and thorough public process involving stakeholders from all perspectives on the political spectrum. In each case, data and research were devoted to determining what “business as usual” meant with respect to GHG emissions reductions. And where there were clear additional steps that very few, or almost none, of the industry was taking regarding GHG emissions reductions, then protocols were developed to recognize such steps as potentially qualifying for offsets. There seems little doubt that the protocols easily meet the CARB definition of “additional” and that may be why Petitioners chose to avoid a challenge of the regulatory definition, and instead simply to claim that the protocols violate the statute. But their failure to challenge the definition in the same regulatory package seems like a transparent attempt to avoid the more lenient “arbitrary and capricious” standard of review for the adoption of most regulatory programs in California, and to try for the more rigorous “de novo” standard of review.
All of these issues are laid out in the briefs that have been filed by Petitioners, CARB, and the interveners which include the Climate Action Registry (the original developer of the protocols), a business interveners group which includes many of the large utilities (Southern California Edison, for example, is a member), and the Environmental Defense Fund. The Nature Conservancy has also submitted an amicus brief. It is certainly telling that a coalition of major utilities, the Environmental Defense Fund, and The Nature Conservancy have all lined up to take the same position of defending CARB’s adoption of the four offset protocols.
The Court has scheduled November 6, 2012 as the date to hear the matter.
Posted on July 30, 2012
Based on a doctrine going back to Roman times – the “Public Trust Doctrine,” a consortium of national and state environmental organizations have brought a series of lawsuits, naming minors as plaintiffs, seeking declarations that federal and state governments have an independent, fiduciary responsibility to protect the quality of air as a public natural resource and to do so by regulating GHGs. Though generally unsuccessful, they have obtained two recent rulings that have lent some credence to their efforts. These rulings raise fundamental questions regarding the bases for government regulation to protect the environment.
On July 9, 2012, a Travis County district court judge, in response to the plea to the jurisdiction of the Defendant Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), found that the agency’s “conclusion that the public trust doctrine is exclusively limited to the conservation of water is legally invalid.” Bonser-Lain v. Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Case No. D-1-GN-11-002194 (201st Dist. Ct., Travis County, Tex.). According to the court, the doctrine includes all the natural resources of the state. The court, however, also found that the agency’s refusal to exercise its authority, based on current litigation by TCEQ against EPA regarding the ability of EPA to regulate GHGs, was a reasonable exercise of discretion. The plaintiffs had filed a petition for rulemaking with the agency, which the agency had denied, that would have required, among other things, that GHG emissions from fossil fuels be frozen at 2012 levels and that a plan be developed to implement the corresponding reductions.
On June 29, 2012, a New Mexico district court judge, without much explanation, denied in part that state’s motion to dismiss a similar lawsuit, which sought a declaration that the state had failed to comply with its public trust obligation to protect the atmosphere. Sanders-Reed v. Martinez, Case No. D-101-CV-2011-01514 (Santa Fe County First Judicial District Court, NM). The court’s ruling allowed the law suit to go forward.
This series of suits and the decisions in these two cases raise fundamental questions about the bases for governmental regulation to protect the environment. First, should the atmosphere be considered a public trust resource? Although air is included in the definition of a natural resource under Superfund, it is different than other natural resources, e.g., land, fish, wildlife, biota, water, groundwater, and drinking water supplies, in that it is not something that can be captured and conserved or its use managed. Even assuming air is properly categorized as a public trust resource, should an independent common law duty be imposed on states requiring them to take action to protect it? As a practical matter, all states do have extensive regulatory schemes to protect air quality. What additional benefit does the imposition of a common law duty create? If a duty is to be imposed, should it be translated into specific requirements to compel a specific result, and, if so, based on what guidance. Are the specifics of air quality protection better left to federal and state legislatures and the agencies that implement their legislation? Finally, with regard to GHG emissions, in addition to concerns about identifying appropriate requirements, are they better managed on the federal and international level because, unlike traditional air pollutants, their impact is global rather than regional? These questions all appear to be political ones, better handled in forums other than the courts.
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Posted on June 29, 2012
The body of caselaw rejecting climate change tort claims seeking judicially-imposed restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions, which I reviewed in a prior post on January 3, 2012, continues to grow. That post predicted that (i) none of these suits were likely to succeed, given the U.S. Supreme Court’s holding last year in Connecticut et al. v. American Electric Power Co. et al. (“AEP”) that common law “nuisance” claims seeking such restrictions are displaced by the Clean Air Act, but nevertheless (ii) plaintiffs would continue to repackage and pursue the claims in different courts under different common law labels. Both predications have proved accurate.
Two of the cases summarized in that post, Comer et al. v. Murphy Oil USA et al. and Alec L. et al. v. Jackson et al., have since been dismissed by the presiding district courts. In Comer, where a group of Mississippi landowners sued scores of national electric utilities and other companies for damages caused by Hurricane Katrina, claiming that the defendants’ greenhouse gas emissions constituted a common law “nuisance,” the court held that the claims were preempted by the Clean Air Act and, further, that they presented non-justiciable political questions and plaintiffs lacked standing. In Alec L., where a group of plaintiffs sued several federal agencies under the “public trust” doctrine, seeking an order mandating greenhouse gas regulations, the court likewise held that the claims could not be recognized as a matter of federal law and, in any event, would be displaced by the Clean Air Act. A third case, Native Village of Kivalina v. ExxonMobil Corp. et al., remains pending before the Ninth Circuit, following the district court’s dismissal of the complaint on grounds that the “nuisance” claims were non-justiciable and plaintiffs lacked standing.
In addition, “public trust” claims have now been filed in nearly all fifty states. Some of these take the form, like Alec L., of common law tort litigation, with non-profit groups and individuals suing state officials and agencies in state courts, seeking injunctive orders directing the promulgation of greenhouse gas regulations. Several of these cases have already been dismissed, including in Alaska and Oregon (both on political question and justiciability grounds); none has proceeded past the pleading stage. Other claims take the form of administrative petitions, asking the relevant state agencies to issue greenhouse has regulations. Many of these petitions, in more than 30 states so far, have already been denied; none has been granted.
The unanimous rejection of these claims should presumably, at some time, begin to deter the filing of further climate change litigation. But that tipping point does not seem yet to have occurred. At least for the immediate future, it appears likely that plaintiffs will continue to use – and, to many minds, distort – the common law tort system to pursue the political goal of greenhouse gas regulation.
Posted on June 28, 2012
Late in the fall of 2011, the California Air Resources Board adopted its groundbreaking cap-and-trade rules (CTR) for greenhouse gasses. ARB faced stiff headwinds at every step. This month, one lingering legal tempest subsided while a new legal gale appeared on the horizon. Each involves novel environmental justice claims and could snuff out CTR and similar programs in other states.
First, balmier breezes for CTR: in a decision filed June 19, 2012, the California Court of Appeals rejected a 2009 mandamus petition filed by the Association of Irritated Residents (AIR) and other groups and upheld ARB’s climate plan under the “California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006” (Cal. Health & Safety Code §38500 et seq., also known as “AB 32”). The court recognized the magnitude of ARB’s challenge under AB 32 and held: “After reviewing the record before us, we are satisfied that the [ARB] has approached its difficult task in conformity with [AB 32], and that the [GHG] measures that it has recommended reflect the exercise of sound judgment based upon substantial evidence. Further research and experience likely will suggest modifications to the blueprint drawn in the [ARB] scoping plan, but the plan‘s adoption in 2009 was in no respect arbitrary or capricious.” (p. 22).
In its 2009 mandamus petition, AIR et al. had challenged ARB’s overall plan to implement AB32, partly on the grounds that the plan’s CTR element did not adequately protect already overburdened local communities. The petitioners preferred “direct regulation” of GHGs at sources, another major element of ARB’s plan. They asserted that the full benefits of AB 32 to communities surrounding major sources could only be obtained by controlling GHG emissions at each GHG source, rather than by adopting the CTR. CTR would allow GHG sources to acquire and trade GHG allowances and/or GHG offsets resulting from GHG reductions in other communities, states, provinces or countries.
Now, a new tempest: earlier this month, AIR et al. filed a new complaint with EPA under title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act alleging that ARB had discriminated against African/American, Latino and Asian/Pacific Islander residents throughout California by adopting and implementing CTR. The title 6 complainants ask EPA to require, as a condition of continuing to provide federal financial assistance to ARB, that ARB reverse its decision to approve the CTR and adopt less discriminatory alternatives. It is impossible to say how or when EPA will respond.
Forecast: ARB will continue to try to implement CTR on schedule in spite of all legal flurries.
A lot is at stake now. Under the CTR, ARB plans to conduct its first auction of GHG allowances in November of this year, which could raise tens of millions of dollars. Starting January 1, 2013, refineries, power plants and other major GHG sources throughout California must properly account for all of their GHG emissions and later surrender qualifying GHG allowances and/or GHG offsets to ARB for every ton of GHGs emitted during the first compliance period (2013-14). Later this month, ARB plans to link its CTR to a similar program in the Canadian Province of Québec. Please see the June 11, 2012 ARB Notice.
But all regulated and other interested parties are left with new questions about how these legal winds may affect:
• The willingness of regulated companies and GHG traders to bid tens of millions or more for GHG allowances at ARB auctions.
• The willingness of other states to adopt cap-and-trade programs and link them to the ARB CTR. U.S. states are now vulnerable to federal title VI complaints as soon as they adopt their own cap-and-trade programs.
• The ability of ARB to contain the costs of AB 32 and minimize leakage by adopting the CTR and linking it to other cap-and-trade programs, as provided by AB 32.
• The continued ability of California to maintain its own climate program and achieve its climate goals.
It surely looks like more westerlies are approaching the CTR on the legal radar.
Posted on April 17, 2012
On February 28 and 29, 2012, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit heard oral argument in Coalition for Responsible Regulation v. EPA, No. 09-1322 et. al., consolidated challenges to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ’s greenhouse gas (GHG) regulations. These regulations are being challenged by a coalition of industry groups and some states (the Coalition). The Coalition argues that the EPA does not have the authority to regulate GHGs from stationary sources under the Clean Air Act (CAA)’s Prevention of Significant Deterioration (PSD) permitting program without Congress amending the law.
The Coalition is asking the Court to vacate EPA’s rules regulating greenhouse gases, including the so-called Tailpipe and Tailoring Rules, on the grounds that they are contrary to the Clean Air Act and deviate from the explicit emission permitting thresholds in the CAA. As Peter Keisler, a lawyer for the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) argued, “the agency crossed the line from stationary interpretation to statutory revision” and violated the law by raising the emissions thresholds far above those provided for by Congress in the CAA in order to avoid issuance of an unmanageable number of PSD permits in the short term .
The PSD program applies to new major sources or major modifications at existing sources for pollutants where the area the source is located is in attainment or unclassifiable with the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS). As Keisler explained to the court, 83% of the GHG emissions from stationary sources would be regulated if EPA addressed greenhouse gas emissions solely in permits for the larger sources already subject to PSD requirements based on their emissions of criteria pollutants.
As Keisler then explained, under EPA’s Tailoring Rule which requires permits based solely on greenhouse gas emissions, 86% of the GHG emissions from stationary sources would be regulated – “a very tiny increment of difference, but a huge difference” in the number of sources that would now be regulated. And this increment of difference between 83% to 86% would translate into stationary sources never before regulated and now required to meet all PSD requirements, including implementation of costly best available control technology (BACT).
A decision by the Court is expected this summer.
Having participated in oral argument preparation and having observed both days of the oral arguments, it is my impression that the NAM arguments against EPA's Tailoring Rule provide the Coalition with the best chance for victory. NAM’s sound interpretation of the CAA and Congressional intent, coupled with the "avoidance of absurd results" doctrine, would blunt EPA's quantum leap through the CAA to create non-statutory GHG emission thresholds capturing only an additional 3% of stationary sources that were previously unregulated and would now have to bear crippling air pollution control costs for no real environmental benefit. This is the real absurdity of EPA's Tailoring Rule that I hope the court's decision will remedy.
Posted on April 13, 2012
By Daniel Riesel and Vicki Shiah, Sive Paget & Riesel, PC
On March 27, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed a rule limiting carbon dioxide (“CO2”) emissions
from new power plants fired by fossil fuels such as coal or natural gas. The rule applies to new fossil fuel-fired electric utility generating units in the continental United States; they do not apply to existing units or new “transitional” units that already have received preconstruction air emission permits and that start construction within 12 months of the proposed rule’s publication in the Federal Register.
Covered power plants would be required to meet an output-based standard of 1,000 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour. This standard favors natural gas over coal. EPA states that “[n]ew natural gas combined cycle power plant units should be able to meet the proposed standard
without add-on controls.” By contrast, coal-fired power plants would not be able to meet this standard without carbon capture and storage technology
, which is still under development and is expected to be quite costly – though EPA expects that the cost of such technology will decrease over time.
It is not clear whether the proposed regulation will have a significant effect on the energy industry, as the standard appears to reinforce current trends rather than require radical changes. In the preamble
to the proposed rule, EPA notes that, at present, “the industry generally is not building” coal-fired power plants and is not expected to do so “for the foreseeable future,” while natural gas is becoming more common as an energy source. According to EPA, the 1,000 lb/MWh standard is already being met by 95% of natural gas-fired combined cycle power plants that commenced operation between 2006 and 2010.
The proposed rule (a New Source Performance Standard
under Section 111 of the Clean Air Act) results from a settlement
between EPA and a group of states and environmental groups. These plaintiffs sued EPA in opposition to the agency’s refusal, in 2006, to establish greenhouse gas emission standards for new and modified power plants. EPA was required to revisit this decision in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Massachusetts v. EPA,
which affirmed EPA’s statutory authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.
Under the settlement
giving rise to the standard proposed last week, EPA had also agreed to establish CO2 emissions guidelines for existing fossil fuel power plants. EPA has yet to propose such standards, and the time frame for its doing so is uncertain; EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson recently stated
, "[w]e don't have plans to address existing plants."
The full text of the proposed rule is available here
. Public comments are being accepted under Docket ID No. EPA‐HQ‐OAR‐2011‐0660 at www.regulations.gov
for 60 days after the proposed rule’s publication in the Federal Register.
Posted on March 27, 2012
I attended on February 28th and 29th the oral arguments in the D.C. Circuit for what are euphemistically referred to as the “Greenhouse Gas Cases” now pending before that court. Two days of arguments, with 17 different attorneys presenting oral argument. Perhaps not surprisingly, the judges weren’t the only ones who lost track of which issues were being addressed by different advocates. The advocates themselves seemed to forget at times and repeatedly walked over each other’s lines. It reminded me why the Supreme Court is so reluctant to allow for divided argument even in circumstances when the case for divided argument is otherwise quite compelling.
I will leave it to others to dwell on what the D.C. Circuit is likely to do, and instead will don my academic garb for an ironic aside on the history of the CAA’s PSD program. In watching the oral arguments, I was reminded about the extraordinary role that Hunton & Williams has played since the emergence of modern environmental law serving as environmental counsel for the powerplant industry including in this latest round. One would be hard-pressed to identify any other law firm that has been such a constant and consistent voice on behalf of industry during the past four-plus decades of environmental litigation, especially on air pollution matters.
With the benefit of hindsight, however, those industrial clients might have fared a bit better had Hunton & Williams made one discrete exception to the consistency of its record. The PSD program today finds its origins in the Supreme Court’s 1973 affirmance by an equally divided Court in Fri v. Sierra Club of a district court ruling that embraced the Sierra Club’s claim that the Clean Air Act, as drafted in 1970, required EPA to prevent “significant deterioration” of areas of the nation that were at the time cleaner than national ambient air quality standards. The papers of Justice Harry Blackmun, which can be found in the Library of Congress, reveal, however, that Sierra Club achieved that affirmance after Hunton & Williams filed an amicus brief in the case in support of Edison Electric’s contention that the Clean Air Act did not require such a program. That filing apparently prompted Justice Lewis Powell – a former Hunton & Williams partner – to recuse himself from the case (after sitting at oral argument), resulting in the 4/4 split. There is little doubt, based on his other pro-business votes in environmental pollution cases how Justice Powell would have voted had he not recused himself. The most certain upshot would have been an EPA victory and therefore the Agency never would have had to promulgate PSD regulations in compliance with the High Court’s ruling. And the absence of those initial PSD regulations would have dramatically shifted the political dynamic when Congress was amending the statute in 1977.
What I have always found especially odd about the firm’s amicus filing in the PSD case is that this was not the first time Justice Powell had recused himself in light of Hunton & William’s participation in a case before the Court, including on behalf of the powerplant industry as amicus curiae. The Justice had done so consistently since joining the Court, which makes one wonder what the firm was thinking when it filed the amicus brief in Fri v. Sierra Club. Interestingly, Justice Powell ended that recusal practice soon afterwards. Perhaps the Justice received a very unhappy communication from either Henry Nickel or his close friend at the firm, George Freeman, regarding the necessity of a recusal in those circumstances? Of course, I have no knowledge whether such a communication ever in fact occurred, but it does not take a lot of imagination to speculate that some folks at Hunton were likely exceedingly unhappy about the Justice’s recusal in light of the Court’s 4/4 affirmance.
In all events, and regardless of the outcome of the recent greenhouse gas cases before the D.C. Circuit, the Sierra Club’s thank-you note to Hunton & Williams would seem long overdue.
Posted on February 29, 2012
By Deborah Jennings and Andrew Schatz
In the wake of expected Greenhouse Gas New Source Performance Standards (NSPS) for Electric Generating Units pursuant to Section 111 of the Clean Air Act, Congress has shown some early resistance. On November 4, 2011, EPA submitted to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) its proposed rule for regulatory review. The proposed rule would require new and modified electric utilities to meet potentially stringent performance standards and emissions guidelines for greenhouse gases at a level that has been “adequately demonstrated” by existing technology. 42 U.S.C. § 7411(a)(1). Although the stringency of such standards is uncertain, they could require installation of expensive technology controls for fossil fuel combustion power plants.
In response, a group of 221 Congressmen submitted a letter on February 23, 2012 to OMB urging the White House to bar EPA from issuing its proposed NSPS rule. The letter cited, among other things, concerns that the rules could require installation of costly technology, such as carbon-capture and storage, which they feared would increase electricity costs. The 221 figure is significant, because it constitutes a majority of the House of Representatives, who along with the Senate, could pass a resolution overturning the rule (with Presidential approval or Congressional override of a veto) under the Congressional Review Act (CRA), 5 U.S.C. §§ 801-808.
Yet, history suggests it is very unlikely that Congress will reverse an EPA climate change regulation using the Congressional Review Act. For starters, the CRA allows Congress to pass a disapproval resolution seeking to reverse a recently promulgated federal regulation by a simple majority vote (no filibusters) within 60 days of receiving the final rule or its date of publication in the federal register. Thus, Congress has a very short-time frame to pass such resolutions in both the House and the Senate. Moreover, the President can still veto the disapproval resolution. At that point, Congress would need a two-thirds majority to override the veto. In fact, Congress has only successfully used the CRA once, overturning a Department of Labor rulemaking on ergonomics passed in the waning days of the Clinton Administration.
Such a scenario could shape up this time around. EPA originally planned on issuing the proposed utility standards in July 2011 and the final standards in May 2012. Since EPA has yet to issue its proposed rule, a final rule may not be expected until late 2012 or early 2013, at the conclusion of President Obama’s first term.
Posted on January 3, 2012
For some advocates of greenhouse gas regulation, tort law has become the primary vehicle to achieve their goal. Dissatisfied with their progress in the political branches, they’ve begun presenting their claims to courts as tort lawsuits. When the claims are rejected, they repackage them in different common-law wrappings and sue again.
The first of these suits was Connecticut et al. v. American Electric Power Co. et al. (“AEP”) (dismissed by the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year), in which several States and land trusts sought to declare greenhouse gas emissions a common law “nuisance” and secure an injunction capping emissions from a small group of national electric utilities at levels the plaintiffs deemed “reasonable.” Next came Comer et al. v. Murphy Oil USA et al., where a group of Mississippi landowners sued the same utilities, and scores of other companies, for damages caused by Hurricane Katrina, claiming that the defendants’ greenhouse gas emissions constituted a common law “nuisance,” a “trespass,” and “negligence.” (After dismissal by the district court and Fifth Circuit, the plaintiffs simply refiled the case—motions to dismiss again are in briefing). Next, in Native Village of Kivalina v. ExxonMobil Corp. et al., an Alaskan village relied on many of these same common law theories, with allegations of a “conspiracy” added for good measure, suing many of the same defendants for costs the village would purportedly incur protecting itself from storms and other risks they attributed to climate change. (The district court’s dismissal was recently argued to the Ninth Circuit.) While courts have thus far rejected all of these suits at the pleading stage, the complaints reflect a continuing trend towards regulation by litigation, in which individual groups of plaintiffs endeavor to advance policy goals through common law actions.
The most recent case is Alec L. et al. v. Jackson et al. Casting aside even the pretense of a traditional tort case, where one party seeks relief for damages caused by another party’s conduct, the plaintiffs in Alec L. are suing five federal Executive Branch agencies (the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Defense, Department of the Interior, Department of Commerce, and Department of Agriculture), and explicitly seek an order directing those agencies to promulgate regulations addressing greenhouse gas emissions. Relying on the “public trust doctrine,” an archaic common law concept rarely cited in modern court decisions, the plaintiffs assert that the federal government holds the atmosphere “in trust” for the public, and that these agencies therefore have a fiduciary obligation to protect the atmosphere from greenhouse gas emissions. In particular, they ask the court to order the agencies to impose immediate and drastic restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions in this country (6% annually), with the ultimate goal of virtually eliminating the use of conventional fuels by the end of the century.
There is no reason to think that the claims in Alec L. will fare any better than those in the other tort cases discussed above. All of these claims seek to impose liability for global climatic conditions that are attributable (if at all) to greenhouse gas emissions from billions of sources around the planet over the course of centuries, not to any particular, small group of defendants. Moreover, they would all put a federal court in the position of making fundamental policy determinations regarding the proper regulatory approach to issues of national and international importance, ordinarily reserved for the political branches. Indeed, in this respect, the claims in Alec L. are even more difficult to rationalize than those in AEP, as Alec L. asks the court to commandeer and control agencies of the federal government in a manner directly contrary to pre-existing statutory mandates and executive directives. However, what Alec L. does show is that advocates for greenhouse gas regulation, undiscouraged by their lack of reception at the Supreme Court earlier this year, will continue re-wrapping their claims to send them to more courts.
Posted on August 17, 2011
By Joseph Manko - Manko, Gold, Katcher & Fox, LLP
While climate change skeptics continue to dispute the linkage between climate change and greenhouse gas emissions, others throughout the scientific community continue to report on problems being caused by climate change and to call for a serious assessment of what can be done to adapt to these changes in climate. The following are a few examples of recent reports on climate change impacts and calls for adaptation to those impacts.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) concludes that the temperature in the first decade of the 21st century (2000-2010), averages 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit above that of the 1970s. Without including the record high temperatures in the first half of 2011, satellite data indicate that the earth’s groundwater is being depleted. In addition, a report by the PEW Center on Global Climate Change concludes that climate change is increasing the frequency of extreme weather events (e.g., wildfires in the southwest, flooding in North Dakota and myriad tornadoes, heat waves, and heavy precipitation) and calls for the entire community to join with the scientific community not only to determine the resultant damage and debate its causes, but also to decide how best to respond by means of adaptation.
Areas of adaptation include reducing our reliance on fossil fuel and our demand for electricity while increasing green practices (to further reduce the emission of greenhouse gases). Those leading the “adaptation discussion” also call for efforts to make certain that our infrastructure is protected from climate change by focusing on its repair, restoration, and -- in some instances -- relocation.
Accomplishing these adaptive practices in “normal times” would be tough. It is even more difficult to make progress, though, in the height of a recession, with legislators at both the federal and state level facing persistent gridlock and reduced budgets for infrastructure improvements (e.g., EPA’s Federal Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Funds).
Posted on June 30, 2011
By: Bob Wyman and Aron Potash, Latham & Watkins LLP
The ultimate fate of California's greenhouse gas (GHG) cap and trade program is firmly in the hands of the judiciary and, for now, the program may continue. On June 3, 2011, the California Court of Appeal for the First Appellate District temporarily stayed a writ of mandate enjoining California from further work on its program until the State more fully analyzes the environmental impacts of alternatives to cap and trade. The writ of mandate was first issued in Association of Irritated Residents v. California Air Resources Board following the California Air Resources Board's (CARB) petition to the court for a writ of supersedeas. CARB's petition asks the court to both declare the trial court's writ of mandate automatically stayed upon CARB's June 1 appeal and, failing that, to issue a discretionary stay of the writ of mandate pending CARB's appeal. The June 3 ruling granted CARB a stay, although only a temporary one. The Association of Irritated Residents and other appellees have until June 20 to file a brief opposing CARB's petition for a writ of supersedeas. Perhaps unaware that the writ of mandate had been temporarily stayed, the court that issued the writ issued another order on June 6 declaring both that the writ was not automatically stayed upon CARB's appeal and that CARB violated the writ by continuing cap and trade implementation activities. Nonetheless, given the temporary stay, CARB is in the clear to continue implementation activities for now. For how much longer is a question that will be resolved as CARB's appeal and petition for a writ of supersedeas wind their way through the appellate court.
Posted on May 12, 2011
Although even casual observers will have noted the fanfare surrounding the U. S. Securities Exchange Commission (SEC)'s release last year of guidance to public companies on disclosures regarding climate change and its consequences under federal securities laws and regulations, far less attention has been given to other developments in the carbon disclosure milieu that should inform corporate strategy. While the debate over regulation of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions remains a hot topic in the courts, stakeholder pressure for greater transparency regarding GHG emissions management continues unabated, as illustrated by the evolving agendas of key stakeholders in the U.S. and abroad, two of which are highlighted briefly below.
Carbon Disclosure Project
The Carbon Disclosure Project (“CDP”) is a non-profit initiative launched in London in 2000 “to collect and distribute high quality information that motivates investors, corporations and governments to take action to prevent dangerous climate change.” Approximately 2,500 organizations in over 60 countries now measure and disclose GHG emissions and climate change strategies through CDP. Data is made available for use by institutional investors, corporations, policymakers and their advisors, public sector organizations, government bodies, academics and the public, including via channels on both Bloomberg and Google Finance. Investor CDP requests information on GHG emissions and climate change strategies on behalf of 534 institutional investors with a combined $64 trillion in assets under management and provides climate change data from thousands of the world’s largest corporations. Other notable initiatives include CDP Supply Chain, through which 60 corporate members encourage suppliers to measure and disclose climate change information. CDP's Public Procurement initiative, through which national and local governments can question suppliers about energy use, GHG emissions and related risks, is a beginning to have an impact, including at the US General Services Administration, where work is underway on a project analyzing the costs and benefits of disclosing through CDP. CDP has launched a new product for investors with FTSE and ENDS Carbon called the FTSE CDP Carbon Strategy Index. It has launched initially with two UK indices; the FTSE CDP Carbon Strategy All-Share Index and the FTSE CDP Carbon Strategy 350 Index. Both indices have been designed in response to growing awareness of the significant potential impact of climate change on investment returns. Post Copenhagen, governments across the globe have been working towards holding emissions below levels that would increase global temperatures by 2ºC. Achieving these levels will require increased costs for carbon emissions. The FTSE CDP Carbon Strategy Index Series reflects this carbon risk in its initial offering of ‘carbon-tilted’ versions of the UK’s FTSE All-Share and FTSE 350 indices. The indices feature the same constituents with a variation of weightings based on their exposure to carbon risk, relative to their sector peers. The index series is based on future-oriented criteria rather than past emissions data. It is the first index series to offer a long term forward-looking investment tool that closely tracks established UK benchmarks while supporting the reduction of climate change risks across investment portfolios. This means retail and institutional investors, such as pension funds, can achieve broad and diversified market exposure as well as manage the impact of climate change on their investment. One can gain considerable insight into the state of the art of carbon disclosure from a review of responses to CDP, as well as the cross-cutting analyses compiled by the organization and its partners. To access the most current and archived reports, click here.
Climate Disclosure Standards Board
The Climate Disclosure Standards Board ("CDSB") is an initiative convened by the World Economic Forum at its annual meeting in 2007 and hosted by the CDP as Secretariat in response to increasing demands for standardized reporting of climate change information in “mainstream” reports. The term "mainstream reports“ is used to describe annual reports in which corporations are required to deliver audited financial results under the corporate, compliance or securities laws. CDSB released a Reporting Framework in September of 2010. In connection with its work, CDSB has also compiled a database of global developments on legislation that directly or indirectly affects the way in which GHG emissions are calculated and/or the way in which risks are disclosed in corporate and securities filings. CDSB is in the process of upgrading the format to a new platform called “Interactive Standards” where the public and others will be able to see and contribute to the database. Other plans for 2011 center around engagement with corporations, investors and regulators through structured programs designed to align further the needs of preparers and users of climate change-related information.