Rifle Shots – Unleashing the Power of the Tweak

Posted on February 24, 2017 by JB Ruhl

Here’s a thought exercise: I’ll give you a budget of 25 words (including conjunctions, articles, and all the other little ones). You use up a word by either deleting, adding, or replacing one in an existing federal environmental or natural resources statute. How much could you transform the field of practice with just those 25 word edits? The answer is, quite a lot.

When we think of statutory reform, we usually think big, right on up to “repeal and replace.” But after more than 25 years of very little legislative action on federal environmental and natural resources statutes—the National Wildlife Refuge Improvement Act, Sustainable Fishing Act, and the recent Toxic Substances Control Act reforms are a few exceptions since the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments—much rides on the accumulations of judicial and agency interpretations of the meaning of a word here and a phrase there. As we enter a period of potential legislative volatility in this field, therefore, the rifle shot may be just as much in play as the nuclear bomb.

Like any statutory reform, rifle shots can make regulatory statutes either more or less regulatory. For example, one could add “including carbon dioxide” or “excluding carbon dioxide” in just the right place in the Clean Air Act and with those three words put an end to a lot of debate and litigation. Given the current political climate, however, it’s reasonable to assume any rifle shot would be aimed at reducing regulatory impacts. But even with just 25 words in the clip, one could transform the impact of several regulatory programs before running out.

For example, delete the words “harm” and “harass” from the statutory definition of “take” in the Endangered Species Act (ESA) (16 U.S.C. 1532(19)) [LINK 1] and you have a very different regulatory program. Much if not most of the land use regulation impact under the ESA stems from the inclusion of those two words; without them, the ESA’s prohibition of unpermitted take would restrict actions like hunting, killing, shooting, and wounding, but could not reach indirect “harming” from habitat modification.   Of course, the interagency consultation program under Section 7 (16 U.S.C. 1536(a)(2)) [LINK 2] would still be in place, prohibiting federal agencies from taking actions that “jeopardize” the continued existence of species. But just add “substantially” before “jeopardize” and the practical effect of that prohibition is greatly reduced.

I’ve managed to transform the ESA, vastly reducing its regulatory impact, with just three word tweaks. Twenty-two to go. Here are some more examples.  I’ll let readers evaluate the impacts.

·         Speaking of evaluating impacts, the environmental impact review process of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) can really slow things down (42 U.S.C. 4332(B)). [LINK 3] To “streamline” the process, add the word “direct” before “environmental impact” in subpart (C)(1), which would eliminate the current practice of requiring analysis of indirect and cumulative impacts, and delete subpart (C)(iii), which requires agencies to evaluate “alternatives to the proposed action,” to remove a factor that bogs down much NEPA litigation. (Six more words down, sixteen to go.)

·         Heard all the commotion about which “waters” are subject to the Clean Water Act? Clear that up by changing the statutory definition of “navigable waters” (33 U.S.C. 1362(7)) [LINK 4] to read “waters of the United States subject to navigation.” That would be pretty extreme—it would remove most wetlands from jurisdiction—so one could control how far jurisdiction extends over wetlands by adding and their adjacent wetlands.” This would draw the line much closer to navigable water bodies than current interpretations reflected in Supreme Court opinions and agency regulations—Rapanos and the Water of the United States Rule become history. (Seven more words down, nine to go.)

·         And if you also want to put to rest the question whether the Clean Water Act applies to groundwater, edit the front end of the definition to read “surface waters.” (Another word down, eight to go.)

·         The Circuits are split over whether the Migratory Bird Treaty Act’s list of prohibited activities (16 U.S.C. 703(a)), [LINK 5] which includes to “take” or “kill,” sweeps within the statute’s reach any “incidental” taking or killing—injury or mortality that is not the direct purpose of the activity, such as strikes by wind turbines. Easy to solve! Add the word “purposeful” before the list of prohibited activities. (Another word down, seven to go.)

·         And, while we’re at it, let’s go ahead and add “excluding carbon dioxide” to the Clean Air Act definition of “air pollutant” (42 U.S.C. 7602(g)). [LINK 6] Adios, Clean Power Plan. (Three more words down, leaving just four to go.)

I’ll leave it to readers to think about how to use the last four words. The point here is that the system of environmental and natural resources law has become quite fragile. With Congress out of the picture for so long, courts and agencies have built up an interpretation infrastructure under which a single word or phrase often carries a tremendous burden of substantive and procedural program implementation. As a consequence, a mere tweak here and there can have dramatic effects on the program.

Granted, anyone who closely follows the statutes tweaked above will quickly appreciate the impact of any of the tweaks, and I’ve chosen some powerful examples unlikely to slip by any such experts. But subtler tweaks buried deep in a larger bill could more easily fly below the radar.

It remains to be seen whether Congress takes this rifle shot approach or goes bigger.  Rifle shots don’t eliminate or “gut” entire programs, which may be the current congressional appetite, but the above examples show the potency of this approach. I for one will be keeping my eyes out for rifle shots in bills every bit as much as I will be following the big bomb reform efforts. Do not underestimate the power of the tweak!

Bumble Bee Buzzkill

Posted on February 14, 2017 by Richard Horder

Citing its deep decline in numbers, on January 10, 2017, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (“FWS”) listed the rusty patched bumble bee, Bombus affinis, as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”).  FWS estimates the rusty patched bumble bee population has seen as much as a 91 percent reduction since the mid to late 1990s.  Twenty years ago, this species was practically ubiquitous in eastern North America, spanning across 28 states.  Now its territory covers only small regions in 12 states: Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, and Wisconsin.

This listing is the first for bees under the ESA, but unlikely the last.  Like the rusty patch bumble bee, other bee species are facing steep declines in their respective populations.  Declining bee populations are troubling, because bees, as pollinators, are vital to the U.S. agricultural industry.  According to a study conducted in 2010 by Cornell University, bees and other pollinators are estimated to contribute a total of $29 billion to the industry, with $16.35 billion attributed specifically to pollination. 

The direct cause of these dramatic declines in bee populations is undetermined and likely due to a multitude of factors.  FWS states the threats to the rusty patched bumble bee include disease, exposure to pesticides, habitat loss, and climate change.  This listing will likely intensify the debate over commonly used pesticides, including neonicotinoids, which have undergone additional scrutiny after a 2016 study published in Nature linked the use of neonicotinoids to the decline of wild bee populations in England.

FWS published the proposal for this listing in the Federal Register on September 22, 2016 and the final listing was published in the Federal Regulation on. January 10, 2017. However, due to the Trump administration’s Inauguration Day memorandum halting or delaying any new federal regulations, the ESA’s protection for the rusty patch bumble bee is delayed until March 21, 2017-a stinging result.

The Conservative Uphill Slog for a Carbon Tax

Posted on February 9, 2017 by Seth Jaffe

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

Here are the highlights:

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

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

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

IS PRESIDENT TRUMP REPEATING REAGAN’S MISSTEPS ON REGULATORY “REFORM”?

Posted on February 8, 2017 by Robert Percival

President Donald Trump’s first weeks in office have seemed like a reality TV show highlighted by frequent signing ceremonies for hastily-drafted executive orders.  One of these orders, signed on January 30, is entitled “Reducing Regulation and Controlling Regulatory Costs” (Executive Order 13771).   President Trump described it as mandating “the largest cut by far, ever in terms of regulation” and the key to “cutting regulations massively” for businesses. The order requires federal agencies to repeal two existing regulations for each new regulation they issue and it gives each agency a regulatory budget of zero for the imposition of aggregate costs on industry during the current fiscal year. 

The words “cost” or “costs” appear 18 times in the executive order; entirely missing from it is any discussion of the benefits of regulation.  By focusing solely on reducing the costs of regulation, President Trump is repeating a crucial mistake the Reagan administration made after launching a major “regulatory reform” initiative in 1981.  President Reagan’s Executive Order 12291 created a new system of regulatory review centered in the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).  It mandated that federal agencies perform cost/benefit analyses to support any major rule likely to cost more than $100 million annually.  Subsequent Presidents of both parties have retained this requirement and the centralization of regulatory review in OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.

Unlike Trump’s executive order, Reagan’s order directed federal agencies to consider both the costs and benefits of regulation.  It specified that such agencies should seek to maximize net benefits to society and to issue regulations only when their potential benefits outweighed their potential costs.  However, the Reagan administration undermined these directives by maintaining that costs and benefits need not be weighed when an agency proposed to repeal a regulation.  This contributed to a disastrous effort to repeal limits on the amount of lead additives that could be used in gasoline.

At the direction of Reagan’s Task Force on Regulatory Relief, EPA proposed to repeal the lead limits that had been sustained in the D.C. Circuit’s historic, en banc decision in Ethyl Corporation v. EPA.  While this would have saved oil refiners a small amount of money, it would have dramatically increased lead poisoning, costing society far more.  Yet, despite the Reagan administration’s new emphasis on cost/benefit analysis, no cost/benefit analysis was performed because EPA was proposing to repeal a regulation.

The rulemaking to abolish limits on lead in gasoline spawned such a firestorm of opposition, even from conservative columnist George Will, that the Reagan administration was forced instead to strengthen the regulation.  Three years later, after William Ruckelhaus had returned to lead EPA, the agency performed a cost/benefit analysis of phasing lead out of gasoline entirely.  After the analysis found overwhelming net benefits from banning leaded gasoline, EPA did so. Today nearly every country in the world has followed the U.S. in banning leaded gasoline, dramatically reducing lead poisoning.  Economists estimate that lead phase-out now generates more than two trillion dollars per year in net benefits globally. 

Under President Trump’s new executive order, federal agencies must repeal two rules, regardless of their benefits, in order to take any new regulatory action.  And the costs of the new regulation must be offset by the reduced costs from repealing existing rules. Thus, if EPA wants to strengthen regulations on lead in drinking water to protect people like the residents of Flint, Michigan, Trump’s executive order requires it to repeal two existing rules, for example (god forbid) by no longer prohibiting oil refiners from adding lead to gasoline. 

President Trump’s executive order has legal qualifiers that offer some hope.  It purports not to “impair or otherwise affect” agencies’ existing legal authority and it requires federal agencies to comply with the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) when repealing rules.  The APA’s judicial review provisions direct courts to strike down agency actions that are “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law.”  If an agency’s only justification for repealing a rule is to comply with President Trump’s new directive, it should be possible to convince a reviewing court that the action is arbitrary enough to be struck down. 

President Reagan’s efforts to relax environmental regulation generated a backlash in Congress, which responded by greatly strengthening the environmental laws and adding numerous deadlines for EPA action.  But that was because Congress then was controlled by lawmakers who cared about environmental protection.  Today’s Congress is controlled by lawmakers who regularly campaign against EPA regulations.  Regulations that are outmoded, ineffective, or excessively burdensome should be repealed, as President Obama directed in 2011 when he issued Executive Order 13563.   But President Trump’s poorly drafted Executive Order 13771 opens the door to repealing long-established protections for public health, safety and the environment without consideration of the enormous benefits they produce.

The Conservative Case For Chevron Deference

Posted on January 30, 2017 by Seth Jaffe

With GOP control of Congress and the White House, conservatives appear to have Chevron deference in their crosshairs.  Put simply, I don’t get it.  There are at least two good reasons why conservatives should prefer Chevron deference to no deference.

First, the alternative is for courts to decide all questions of agency authority.  But haven’t conservatives railed against unelected judges for years?  Bureaucrats are unelected, but at least they work for the elected President.  Isn’t EPA more likely to be responsive to President Trump than federal judges would be?

Second, the EDFs and NRDCs of this world would laugh hysterically at the notion that they have more sway with EPA than the regulated community.  Anyone ever heard of “Regulatory Capture”?

The argument in support of Chevron was made cogently by Ed McTiernan in a recent blog post, but the strength of the argument was really brought home by the decision this past week in Catskill Mountains Chapter of Trout Unlimited v. EPA, in which the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals – to fairly wide surprise – reversed a district court decision that had struck down EPA’s “water transfer” rule.  

The rule was much favored by the regulated community, but there were very good jurisprudential reasons to affirm the District Court.  Indeed, the decision was 2-1 and even the majority opinion repeatedly noted that, were it writing on a blank slate, it might well prefer an interpretation that would strike down the rule.

Why, then, did the Appeals Court reverse the District Court and affirm the rule?  Chevron deference, of course.

Conservatives, be careful what you wish for.

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

Posted on January 26, 2017 by Theodore Garrett

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

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

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

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

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

Posted on January 17, 2017 by Seth Jaffe

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s past is prologue” —William Shakespeare, The Tempest

Posted on January 3, 2017 by Joseph Manko

I first began to focus on the need to protect our environment in the 1960’s, starting with Rachel Carson’s indictment of one particular pollutant, the pesticide DDT in her seminal work, “Silent Spring.”  As the decade of the ‘60’s proceeded, environmental protection began to focus on the local release/discharge of contaminants into the air, ground and water.  Each state dealt with these problems in a scattershot manner until the EPA was formed in 1970 to administer laws passed by Congress to be uniform – commonly called “command and control.” 

On Wednesday, October 17, 1973, the Arab-dominated Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (“OPEC”) decided to reduce the exports of the most basic transportable fossil fuel – oil - to the United States and other countries who aided Israel during the Yom Kippur.  This was commonly called the “OPEC Embargo” and exposed our national dependence on Mideast oil.  

Against this backdrop, on Monday, October 15, 1973, I left my corporate law practice and took my “Hamiltonian shot,” becoming EPA Region 3’s general counsel.  I joined the newly created EPA under Administrator Russell Train to implement, apply and enforce the new environmental statutes - the Clean Water Act (CWA–1972), Clean Air Act (CAA-1970) and National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA-1969).  Instead, because of the OPEC embargo, I was processing CAA variance requests to burn wood chips in furnaces in Philadelphia and fill my gas tank on alternative weekdays.  When the embargo ended the following year, we went about achieving EPA’s mission to protect the environment and coordinate the three E’s – the economy, ecology and energy – focus on the latter would grow in importance – and argument – in the years to come.   

I left my position in October 1975 and started a private practice in environmental law and later began to teach environmental law.  Along came the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (“RCRA”), and on the eve of President-Elect Ronald Regan’s inauguration, the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (“CERCLA”).  The federal government was clearly on track to achieve its mission.

In January 1981, however, President Regan determined to “reverse” environmental protection by the federal government and return it to “state control,” welcoming to this cause a number of inexperienced, unqualified and hostile political friends to dismantle the federal program.  The result – James Watt left his Secretary of the Interior post in disgrace on October 10, 1983; EPA Administrator Anne Gorsuch resigned in disgrace on March 9, 1983; Rita Lavelle, the EPA Assistant Administrator for Hazardous Waste and Superfund, wound up serving prison time for lying to Congress; and at least one Regan appointed EPA regional administrator was thrown out of office. 

During the twenty-eight Bush/Clinton/Bush/Obama scandal free years, EPA went about its business of environmental protection, leading up to the presidential election of October 2016.  The near unanimous global and scientific recognition that climate change was happening led to efforts to reign in carbon emissions primarily from the burning of fossil fuel (coal and oil), culminating this fall in the Paris Agreement.  President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry led the successful fight to get the requisite number of countries to sign on with the United States.  Environmental protection became a global need, no longer a local problem.

And then came November 8, the election of Donald Trump. 

As he proceeded to name the people he wanted to make up his cabinet, speculation began as to whether as President-Elect he would actually activate his campaign attacks on environmental protection.  Now almost a month before his inauguration, he has actualized his campaign promises.  First, he selected Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt as EPA Administrator, a climate change denier who led the attack in court on President Obama’s Clean Power Plan (the vehicle US planned to use to reduce carbon emissions from fossil fuel in fulfillment of its Paris Agreement commitment).  Second, he tapped Rex Tillerson, the CEO of ExxonMobil, the world’s largest fossil fuel producer and defendant in NY v. Exxon, to be his Secretary of State.  Third, for Energy Secretary, he has designated Texas Governor Rick Perry, the man who in his 2011 campaign famously forgot that the third federal agency he would abolish was the Department of Energy.  Finally, with these selections, he has made it abundantly clear that he meant what he said about reeling in the EPA. 

Will he succeed during his administration or will he fail in his efforts to reprise the Reagan assault.  Some of the big differences between the 1980’s and today are (1) environmental degradation is now understandably global, not just local, (2) the rest of the world is similarly impacted and is watching us, and (3) the stakes are much higher.  Will Congress permit a legislative dismantling of the statutory structure it put together over the past 45 years?  Will the myriad environmental NGOs be strong enough (and sufficiently funded) to take these attacks to court?  Will EPA be able to preserve its regulatory program to implement environmental protection?  Will the courts uphold these executive anti-environmental attack efforts or stop them?  And in that regard, who will be Trump’s selection of SCOTUS Justice #9? 

We wonder.  Many of us worry.  And all of us wait.

The Window, Again

Posted on December 23, 2016 by Steven J. Levine

My practice, one way or another, is all about compliance . . . or noncompliance.  This is as true of the litigation side as it is of the regulatory counseling side.  I typically face the question of which of those terms best describes the situation a client brings to me.  It’s always been true that the practice goes beyond the mere facts or law at hand.  The real world also includes the client’s culture and values, politics, and economics.  These aspects, and others in varying proportions, have usually controlled process and outcome.

Today I am witnessing what appears to be an unprecedented unraveling of these foundations.  I see it in the words and actions of regulators, consultants, other attorneys, judges, and clients.  Obviously this imposes itself on the lawyer’s task of figuring out what the problem is, on the one hand, and, on the other, what the best advice for a client might be, specifically how (and when) to address the problem.  The path forward these days seems to be influenced, often significantly, by two related things:  widespread mistrust of government/science/etc., and a social media rife with rumors, innuendo, assumptions, and the like.  So I find myself asking:  of what value is advice derived from traditional avenues of carefully established fact, well-analyzed law, professional judgment, and years of relationship building?

I find the answer in the first week at my first real law job clerking for a federal district court judge.  On the third day of that job, I stood behind my desk, looked out the window, and thought, with despairing certainty:  I don’t have the tools to do this job!  I will never make it as a law clerk!  I will never make it as a lawyer!  Why did I ever go to law school?  Time passed.  Things cleared up.  I learned how to begin to apply what I knew to what I had to do.  And, while the view may be new, the path forward is the same as ever.  Now, as I think about the potential unraveling of fundamental policies and foundations upon which we have rested for a generation, I’m looking out of that same window, in a sense. 

Doin’ the Dunes – I Thought It Was Over

Posted on December 20, 2016 by Joseph Manko

In July I wrote what I thought surely would be my last blog on the more than three years of legal challenges by the City of Margate, New Jersey Commissioners with their decision not to appeal the state and federal courts’ upholding the State’s and Army Corps’ authority to build dunes in Atlantic County, New Jersey.  I titled the blog “Signing Off” – concluding that the fat lady had in fact sung. 

Well I was wrong. 

Six residents have now paraded into U.S. District Court with their expert, Chuck Dutill, a civil engineer and hydrologist, to testify before Judge Renee Marie Bumb, who had decided the earlier case.  Judge Bumb called the testimony “pretty fantastic,” but confirmed that this was the gist of the testimony:

“It sounds like from your testimony the Army Corps is turning the beach into a junkyard,” she said. “You’ve described a big parade of horribles: animal feces, oils, adults being hurt. It sounds pretty fantastic. Is that in some way hyperbole if you don’t mind? Is that your testimony?”

“That is absolutely my testimony,” Dutill replied.

“What I’m hearing is what the defendant proposes to do is turn the beach of Margate into the junkyard of Margate,” the judge said. “That is what I’m hearing.”

And until she rules – and as expected rules against the residents – and they decide to appeal, the fat lady continues to stand by for yet another reprise.

FWS Goes Back to Square One On Listing the Wolverine. It’s Not Going to Be Any Easier This Time Around.

Posted on October 27, 2016 by Seth Jaffe

In April, Judge Dana Christensen vacated the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to withdraw its proposed listing of a distinct population segment of the North American wolverine WolverineSnowas threatened under the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”).  Bowing to the inevitable, the Fish and Wildlife Service ("FWS") has published in the Federal Register a formal acknowledgement that the Court’s vacatur of the withdrawal of the proposed listing returns the situation to the status quo.

In other words, the proposed rule that would have listed the wolverine distinct population segment ("DPS") is back in play.  Specifically, the FWS announced that

"we will be initiating an entirely new status review of the North American wolverine,hugh-jackman-wolverineto determine whether this DPS meets the definition of an endangered or threatened species under the Act, or whether the species is not warranted for listing.

FWS also reopened the comment period on the proposed listing and invited the public to provide comment, identifying nine specific areas in which it sought comments, including

"Information on the projected and reasonably likely impacts of climate change on the wolverine and its habitat, including the loss of snowpack and impacts to wolverine denning habitat.

This is all well and good and certainly required under Judge Christensen’s order, but neither Judge Christensen nor FWS has the tools necessary to address the core issue here, i.e., the unwieldy nature of the ESA.  It simply wasn’t designed to solve all of the ecological problems resulting from climate change.

It would be nice if Congress weren’t completely dysfunctional.

Why You Should Pay Attention to ECOS

Posted on October 26, 2016 by Martha Rudolph

ECOS – the Environmental Council of States – I suspect that most of you have heard of it, but what do you really know about ECOS?  And, why should you care?  As the current Past President of ECOS, I acknowledge upfront that I might be biased – but consider the following.  ECOS is the national non-profit, non-partisan association of state and territorial environmental agency leaders.  ECOS was founded in late 1993 at a time when the relationship between states and the EPA was strained.  As Mary A. Gade, then director of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, put it:  “The times called for states to assume primary responsibility and leadership for environmental protection.  As individual states began to articulate this new perspective, state commissioners realized the need to band together for information-sharing, strength, and support.” 

Today, reflected in the ECOS 2016-2020 Strategic Plan, much of ECOS’ original purpose remains:  “To improve the capability of state environmental agencies and their leaders to protect and improve human health and the environment of the United States of America. Our belief is that state government agencies are the keys to delivering environmental protection afforded by both federal and state law.”

While the purpose remains consistent, how ECOS achieves it has evolved.

One example lies in the ECOS-organized forums where states and EPA meet to discuss - and often debate - environmental concerns and our respective roles in implementing and enforcing environmental programs.  While the early ECOS years were not without success working with EPA, the tenor of the overall relationship with EPA was uneven.  Today, ECOS has a productive relationship with EPA.  We still discuss, debate, and disagree, but in a much more constructive way.  EPA representatives at all levels routinely attend and engage in the spring and fall ECOS meetings, as well as other ECOS conferences.  ECOS members have been invited to internal EPA budget meetings to share our budget concerns and needs.  ECOS and EPA have worked on several joint-governance projects, including the creation of E-Enterprise for the Environment.  Through E-Enterprise, state, EPA and tribal representatives work to streamline environmental business processes and share innovations across programs to improve environmental results, and enhance services to the regulated community and the public by making government more efficient and effective.

ECOS is fast becoming the “go-to” organization for Congress, the White House, federal agencies, national organizations, and the media to learn about state issues, concerns, positions, innovations and ideas regarding environmental matters.  Through engagement with senior government officials, testimony before Congress and many position letters, ECOS has expressed state perspectives on key legislative and regulatory issues, like reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act, funding for state environmental programs and water infrastructure, increased authority over coal combustion residual sites, workload flexibility in state-EPA agreements, enforcement training, expediting federal facility cleanups, and environmental justice tools. 

ECOS has developed relationships with the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense:  these agencies regularly participate in ECOS.    ECOS’ Legal Network brings state environmental agency counsel together with EPA counsel and DOJ’s Counselor, to explore lessons learned from successful enforcement and compliance initiatives, and to discuss best practices and enhanced collaboration. 

So, how about the relationship among the states themselves?  ECOS has also become a venue for states to explore differences in positions and ideas.  Not surprising, membership within ECOS is politically diverse.  ECOS has recognized and embraced this diversity by creating a space for states to express their opinions and positions, encouraging members to learn from each other, to reach “across the aisle” to understand differing perspectives, to compromise where needed and to develop strong and lasting relationships.  ECOS will pull in experts from within the states and from other organizations to provide valuable and sometimes critical perspectives and analyses on important issues, so that state environmental leaders can better understand the complexities and impacts of environmental programs and initiatives.  The lawyers of ACOEL are one source of that expertise, and they have provided valuable legal analyses to ECOS and its members on the Clean Power Plan and WOTUS.  ECOS is even reaching across state agency lines, as shown by this spring’s Memorandum of Agreement with ECOS, EPA, and the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials to advance cooperative initiatives pertaining to environmental health, acknowledging that the public health and well-being of U.S. citizens relies on the condition of their physical environment.

So, why should you care about ECOS?  Because the vast majority of day-to-day environmental program adoption, implementation and enforcement is done by the states.  As Mary A. Gade said when ECOS was first created: “Charged with advancing a state’s environmental agenda, state commissioners strategize daily with governors, state and national legislators, and local government officials to accomplish their goals.  State environmental commissioners have political access, substantive expertise and, most importantly, legislative combat experience.”  When you organize a group of battle-ready commissioners who lead state environmental programs, and who meet and work together on a regular basis, wouldn’t you want to know what they are doing?  My advice:  check out http://www.ecos.org and find out what you are missing.

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

Posted on October 6, 2016 by Seth Jaffe

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

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

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

EPA Eliminates “But For” Causation From the Exceptional Events Rule: Tort Professors Everywhere Get Excited

Posted on September 21, 2016 by Seth Jaffe

On Monday, EPA promulgated amendments to its “Exceptional Events” Rule.  The rule is important, particularly in the Western states, and most particularly in connection with EPA’s latest iteration of the ozone NAAQS.  EPA’s most significant revision was to eliminate the requirement that state air agencies demonstrate that, “but for” the exceptional event, the state or relevant area would have complied with the applicable NAAQS.  The change is important for two reasons.  First, on the merits, EPA noted that:

"the “but for” criterion has often been interpreted as implying the need for a strict quantitative analysis to show a single value … of the estimated air quality impact from the event. As a result, some air agencies began using burdensome approaches to provide quantitative analyses in their exceptional events demonstrations to show that the event in question was a “but for” cause of a NAAQS exceedance or violation in the sense that without the event, the exceedance or violation would not have occurred. In many cases, the “but for” role of a single source or event is difficult to determine with certainty and it is more often the case that the impact of emissions from events and other sources cannot be separately quantified and distinguished."

I think that EPA got this exactly right.  As tort professors have always known, how a burden of proof is allocated is often outcome-determinative.

Which brings me to the second reason why the change is important – at least to me.  Just hearing the words “but for” causation triggers an uncontrollable wave of nostalgia.  In 1996, my client, New England Telephone, was keetenroberternesttnawarded summary judgment in a CERCLA contribution case.  It was then the first – and may still be the only – case in which a defendant who admittedly sent hazardous substances to a site was awarded summary judgment on the ground that its wastes had not caused the incurrence of any response costs.

I like to think that NET prevailed due to the fine lawyering of its counsel, but I have always known in my heart of hearts that the identity of the judge may have had something to do with the result.  The case was heard by Robert Keeton, distinguished judge, Harvard Law professor and – importantly – one of the authors of Prosser and Keeton on Torts.

At the summary judgment hearing, Judge Keeton did not want to hear from me, even though it was my motion.  He did not really even want to hear from the plaintiffs’ counsel.  Instead, he launched into an approximately 30-minute lecture on the role of causation in tort law, including, of course, a discussion of “but for” causation.  When he finished the discussion from Prosser and Keeton about the so-called “Minnesota fire cases”, Judge Keeton paused, looked up, smiled broadly, and said:  “I wrote that part.”

It was the best summary judgment argument I ever gave.  I never said a word.

A Lumber Mill Biomass CoGen Need Not Consider Other Fuels In Its BACT Analysis. Other Sources Should Be So Lucky.

Posted on September 8, 2016 by Seth Jaffe

Ever since EPA began considering how BACT analysis would be applied to greenhouse gas emissions, there has been concern that EPA would use its BACT authority to “redefine the source” – with the particular concern that BACT for a coal plant would now be to burn natural gas instead.  In Helping Hands Tools v. EPA, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals this week gave some protection to biomass plants biomassfrom such redefinition of the source.  However, other types of facilities will get no comfort from the decision.

Helping Hands Tools involved a challenge to a PSD permit issued to Sierra Pacific for a cogeneration plant to be located at one of its existing lumber mills.  Under EPA’s BACT Guidance, Sierra Pacific stated that the purpose of the CoGen plant was to use wood waste from the mill and nearby facilities to generate electricity and heat. Relying in part on the 7th Circuit decision in Sierra Club v. EPA, which held that it would impermissibly redefine the source to require a mine-mouth coal generating plant to consider different fuels in its BACT analysis, the 9th Circuit found that EPA was reasonable in determining that, because a fundamental purpose of the CoGen plant was to burn wood waste, it would impermissibly redefine the source to require Sierra Pacific to consider solar power as part of its BACT analysis.

Importantly, the Court also rejected the plaintiffs’ request that Sierra Pacific consider greater use of natural gas.  The Court concluded that very limited use of natural gas for the purposes of startup, shutdown, and flame stabilization did not undermine the fundamental purpose to burn wood waste.  This is critical to source-located biomass facilities, because EPA’s GHG Permitting Guidance specifically says that greater use of an existing fuel should be considered in the BACT analysis:

"unless it can be demonstrated that such an option would disrupt the applicant’s basic business purpose for the proposed facility."

Unfortunately, the language of the decision appears to me to give EPA substantial leeway in future BACT analyses to redefine the source in other cases.  It seems to me that, building on the 7th Circuit decision, the Court has simply created an exception to potential source redefinition in circumstances where the location of the facility justifies a very narrow fuel selection.  If a coal plant intends to burn coal from the mine next door, ok.  If a lumber mill intends to burn its own wood waste, ok.  Otherwise, however, all bets are off.

What is particularly troubling was the Court’s acknowledgement that the GHG BACT guidance is vague, and its deference to EPA’s application of its own vague guidance. This is precisely the concern I noted when the Guidance was first issued.  Time will tell, but I foresee some fairly extreme BACT determinations being blessed by some very deferential courts.

Chevron Deference Lives! EPA’s Boiler Rule (Mostly) Survives Review

Posted on August 2, 2016 by Seth Jaffe

On Friday, the D.C. Circuit largely upheld EPA’s Boiler MACT rule. boiler-mactThe industry challenges were a complete washout.  The environmental petitioners won one significant victory and a number of smaller ones.

The environmental petitioners’ one significant victory is important.  EPA included within relevant subcategories any source that burns a fuel containing at least 10% of the “subcategory-defining fuel.”  However, for defining MACT, EPA included only those sources that burn fuel containing at 90% of the subcategory-defining fuel for existing sources, and 100% for new sources.  The Court rejected this approach.

"The CAA, however, demands that source subcategories take the bitter with the sweet. Section 7412 mandates, without ambiguity, that the EPA set the MACT floor at the level achieved by the best performing source, or the average of the best performing sources, in a subcategory. It thus follows that if the EPA includes a source in a subcategory, it must take into account that source’s emissions levels in setting the MACT floor."

Which brings me to my big take-away from this decision.  Chevron lives.  By my count, The Court cited Chevron 30 times.  Chevron pervades the decision.  Even in the one big issue that EPA lost, the Court’s decision was based not on a rejection of EPA’s interpretation of an ambiguous provision under step 2 of Chevron, but on a plain meaning interpretation of § 112.  EPA defined what a source is, but it then refused to calculate MACT based upon the performance of all of the sources in a given subcategory.  The statute simply did not allow EPA that leeway.

Other than EPA’s attempt to avoid taking “the bitter with the sweet”, however, the Court’s deference – by three Republican appointees – to EPA’s technical decisions was notable.  Not every case is the Clean Power Plan.  Where EPA is not really pushing the boundaries, I don’t see the Supreme Court weakening Chevron any time soon.

Viva La Deference—Chevron deference that is

Posted on July 5, 2016 by Jeff Civins

Administrative lawyers, especially environmental lawyers, are well familiar with the doctrine of Chevron deference as applied to agency interpretations of statutes.  In the 1984 Clean Air Act case of Chevron U.S.A. Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, the U.S. Supreme Court announced a 2-step approach: (1) the court must determine whether Congress has directly spoken to the precise question at issue and, if so, that ends the matter—the Court, as well the agency, must give effect to that intent; and (2) if not, the court must defer to the agency’s interpretation if it is “reasonable,” the  presumption being that Congress intended to leave its resolution to the agency.  In a more recent Clean Air Act case, Michigan v. EPA, the Court, although determining EPA acted unreasonably in failing to consider costs in its regulation of hazardous air pollutants from power plants,  applied the Chevron doctrine, but Justice Thomas, in his concurring opinion, challenged the doctrine’s legal underpinnings, causing some to question the continued vitality of the doctrine.  In Encino Motorcars v, Navarro, decided on June 20, 2016, the Supreme Court, although deciding that the agency’s interpretation was not entitled to deference, provided assurance that the Chevron doctrine is alive and well.

The case involved the issue of whether service advisors at car dealerships were exempt from overtime pay under the Fair Labor Standards Act.  In 2008, the Department of Labor had proposed a rule confirming a long-standing practice that they were exempt, but in its final rulemaking--in 2011--it reversed course, without explanation.   The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit had applied Chevron deference in upholding the rule, but the Supreme Court reversed.  It held that, although the Department could change its policy, its interpretation was not entitled to Chevron deference because it did not provide a reasoned explanation for doing so.  The Court therefore remanded to the Ninth Circuit to determine the rule’s validity in the first instance.  In her concurring opinion, Justice Ginsburg, joined by Justice Sotomayor, noted: “’[U]nexplained inconsistency’ in agency policy is ‘a reason for holding an interpretation to be an arbitrary and capricious change from agency practice.’”  In his dissent, Justice Thomas, joined by Justice Alito, agreed with the majority--that the Court “need not wade into the murky waters of Chevron deference,” but disagreed that the Court should have reversed and argued that the rule change was simply invalid.

So, Chevron deference lives, but it does not apply to unexplained rule changes. 

 

Minnesota May Not Prohibit Power Sales That Would Increase Statewide CO2 Emissions. Why Not? Pick Your Reason.

Posted on June 17, 2016 by Seth Jaffe

If you needed any further proof that energyelec_mag_fieldlaw is very complicated, Wednesday’s decision in North Dakota v. Heydinger should convince you.  The judgment is simple – the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a Minnesota statute which provides in part that:

"no person shall . . . (2) import or commit to import from outside the state power from a new large energy facility that would contribute to statewide power sector carbon dioxide emissions; or (3) enter into a new long-term power purchase agreement that would increase statewide power sector carbon dioxide emissions."

Why, you ask?

  • The panel opinion, by Judge Loken, stated that the Minnesota statute violates the dormant Commerce Clause, by regulating purely “extraterritorial” economic activity.
  • Judge Murphy, in the first concurrence, disagreed with Judge Loken’s conclusion that the statute violates the dormant Commerce Clause, but joined the judgment, because she concluded that the statute is preempted by the Federal Power Act.
  • Judge Colloton, in the second concurrence, agreed with Judge Murphy that the statute does not violate the dormant clause, but also concurred in the judgment. Judge Colloton concluded that, to the extent that the “statute bans wholesale sales of electric energy in interstate commerce,” it is preempted by the Federal Power Act.  However, Judge Colloton wrote separately, because he at least partially disagrees with Judge Murphy (as well as with Judge Loken) and does not believe that the Minnesota statute constitutes a complete ban on wholesale sales of energy that increase CO2 emissions.  However, Judge Colloton concluded that, to the extent that the statute is not preempted by the Federal Power Act, it is preempted by the Clean Air Act.

Is that sufficiently clear?

I do feel compelled to add two final notes.  First, I don’t understand why Judge Loken wrote the panel opinion, when his rationale did not command a majority.  Indeed, as Judge Colloton pointed out, the Court should not even have reached the constitutional issue, since a panel majority existed that was prepared to strike down the Minnesota statute on statutory grounds.  (Preemption is considered a statutory, not a constitutional, rationale.)

Second, don’t analogize the electric energy transmission to the flow of water in a pipe, at least before Judge Murphy.  Here’s your electricity and magnetism primer for the day, courtesy of the Judge.

"In the electricity transmission system, individual electrons do not actually “flow” in the same sense as water in a pipe. Rather, the electrons oscillate in place, and it is electric energy which is transmitted through the propagation of an electromagnetic wave.

Certainly brought me back to course 8.02 at MIT.  Not one of my favorites.

The Global Warming Solutions Act Requires MassDEP to Promulgate Declining Annual GHG Emissions Limits for Multiple Sources: Yikes!

Posted on May 23, 2016 by Seth Jaffe

On Tuesday, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts (SJC) ruled that MassDEP had violated the Global Warming Solutions Act progress-on-2020-planby failing

"To promulgate regulations that address multiple sources or categories of sources of greenhouse gas emissions, impose a limit on emissions that may be released, limit the aggregate emissions released from each group of regulated sources or categories of sources, set emissions limits for each year, and set limits that decline on an annual basis."

Phew.

The SJC gets the final word, so I won’t spend much time explaining why the SJC got it wrong, though I will note that to suggest that the legislature’s use of the phrase “desired level” of GHG emissions unambiguously requires MassDEP to establish hard targets was at best overenthusiastic.

The bigger question at this point is what the decision means.  First, it’s clear that MassDEP must establish hard declining emissions limits for more than one, but less than all, categories of GHG emitting sources.

Second, MassDEP must promulgate regulations that limit total emissions – not emission rates.

Third, the regulations must truly control Massachusetts sources.  The SJC specifically found that RGGI doesn’t satisfy the GWSA requirement, in part because Massachusetts sources can purchase allowances from out of state facilities.

But where does this leave MassDEP?  In a deep hole, for sure.  Unless it wants to ditch RGGI, it can’t regulate power generation, because the type of program that the SJC said is required would simply be incompatible with RGGI.

How about mobile sources?  They are the largest growing source of GHG emissions.  Unfortunately, we come back to the SJC’s injunction that MassDEP must regulate total emissions, not emission rates.  You tell me how MassDEP is going to issue regulations setting a cap on mobile source emissions.

The only obvious candidates I see are buildings and industrial sources other than power generation.

I don’t envy MassDEP – and the nature of the task only emphasizes the extent of the SJC’s overreach here – but I said I wouldn’t get into that.

Looking Back Over 100 Years of the National Park Service, Looking Ahead to the Future of Environmental Law

Posted on May 20, 2016 by Benjamin F. Wilson

August 25, 2016 is the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service.  The many planned celebrations and observances provide an opportunity for everyone to become reacquainted with these great outdoor spaces and reflect on the world around us.  As your summer plans take shape, be sure to visit FindYourPark.com and try to visit at least one national park.  I invite you to share photos of your travels in the comments section of this post, and perhaps ACOEL can find a place for the collection of images of its members enjoying these national treasures.

As I reflect on the Park Service’s anniversary, I observe that it presents a chance for me – and for all environmental lawyers – to take stock of where we have been as a profession.  Why – and how – we do what we do?  What challenges will the next 100 years hold?

I issue this charge, in part, to carry on the conservation legacy of Henry L. Diamond.  Henry was a founder of my firm, Beveridge & Diamond, and a great environmental lawyer and mentor to many (including myself).  Sadly, we lost Henry earlier this year.

Henry and many others like him paved the way for our generation to be stewards of the planet and the environmental laws that govern our interactions with it.  We have made progress, but new challenges have emerged.  Easy answers, if they ever existed, are fewer and farther between.  So what, then, does the future hold for the next generation of environmental lawyers? 

Future generations of lawyers would do well to focus on the funding mechanisms that are critical but often overlooked components to achieving our most important environmental and sustainability goals.  As an example, we can look to the past.  Early in his career, Henry Diamond assisted the Chairman of the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission, Laurance Rockefeller, in editing the Commission’s seminal report, Outdoor Recreation for America, that was delivered to President John F. Kennedy in 1962.  Among the Commission’s more significant recommendations was the idea to use revenues from oil and gas leasing to pay for the acquisition and conservation of public lands.  Congress took action on this recommendation, creating the Land & Water Conservation Fund in 1965 as the primary funding vehicle for acquiring land for parks and national wildlife refuges.  While the fund has been by all accounts a success in achieving its goals, much work remains to be done and the fund is regularly the target of budgetary battles and attempts to reallocate its resources to other priorities.  Today, the four federal land management agencies estimate the accumulated backlog of deferred federal acquisition needs is around $30 billion. 

I expect climate change will dominate the agenda for the young lawyers of our current era.  They will need to tackle challenges not only relating to controlling emissions of greenhouse gases, but also adaptation resulting from climate change.  Sea level rise, altered agricultural growing seasons, drought and water management, and other issues will increase in prominence for this next generation.

We can expect our infrastructure needs to continue to evolve – not only replacing aging roads, bridges, tunnels, railroads, ports, and airports, but also the move to urban centers and the redevelopment of former industrial properties.  Autonomous vehicles and drones also pose novel environmental and land use issues.  These trends will require us to apply “old” environmental tools in new ways, and certainly to innovate.  As my colleague Fred Wagner recently observed on his EnviroStructure blog, laws often lag developments, with benefits and detractions.  Hopefully the environmental lawyers of the future will not see – or be seen – as a discrete area of practice so much as an integrated resource for planners and other professions.  Only in this way can the environmental bar forge new solutions to emerging challenges.

The global production and movement of products creates issues throughout the supply chain, some of which are just coming to the fore.  From raw material sourcing through product end-of-life considerations, environmental, natural resource, human rights, and cultural issues necessitate an environmental bar that can nimbly balance progress with protection.  As sustainability continues its evolution from an abstract ideal to something that is ever more firmly imbedded in every aspect of business, products, services, construction, policymaking and more, environmental lawyers need to stay with their counterparts in other sectors that are setting new standards and definitions.  This area in particular is one in which non-governmental organizations and industry leaders often “set the market,” with major consequences for individuals, businesses, and the planet.

Finally, as technology moves ever faster, so do the tools with which to observe our environment, to share information about potential environmental risks, and to mobilize in response.  With limited resources, government enforcers are already taking a page from the playbooks of environmental activists, who themselves are bringing new pressures for disclosures and changes to companies worldwide.  With every trend noted above, companies must not underestimate the power of individual consumers in the age of instantaneous global communication, when even one or two individuals can alter the plans and policies of government and industry.

Before Henry Diamond passed away, he penned an eloquent call to action that appeared in the March/April edition of the Environmental Law Institute’s Environmental Forum (“Lessons Learned for Today”)I commend that article to you.  It shares the story of the 1965 White House Conference on Natural Beauty and how a diverse and committed group of businesspeople, policymakers, and conservationists (some of whom were all of those things) at that event influenced the evolution of environmental law and regulation for the decades to come.  Laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and others have their roots in that Conference.  In recognition of his lifetime of leadership, Henry received the ELI Environmental Achievement Award in October 2015.  The tribute video shown during the award ceremony underscores Henry’s vision and commitment to advancing environmental law.  I hope it may inspire ACOEL members and others to follow Henry’s lead.

These are just a few things I think the future holds for environmental lawyers.  What trends do you predict?  How should the environmental bar and ACOEL respond?  

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.

Big Changes With Little Fanfare: The FHWA Proposes to Use GHG Emissions as a Performance Measure

Posted on April 27, 2016 by Seth Jaffe

This week, the Federal Highway Administration issued a Noticed of Proposed Rulemaking to promulgate performance measures to be used in evaluating federal funding of transportation projects.  The requirement for performance measures stems from the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, aka MAP-21.  MAP-21 requires the FHWA to establish performance standards in 12 categories, one of which is “on-road mobile source emissions.”  MAP 21

The NPRM addresses this criterion, focusing largely on emissions of criteria pollutants.  However, buried in the 423-page NPRM is a six-page section labeled “Consideration of a Greenhouse Gas Emissions Measure.”

And thus the FHWA drops a bomb that could revolutionize federal funding of transportation projects.  It’s important to note that this may not happen.  If the next President is Republican, it certainly won’t.  Even if the FHWA goes forward, there would be legal challenges to its authority to use GHG as part of the performance measures.

If it does go forward though, it really would be revolutionary.  As the NPRM states, transportation sources are rapidly increasing as a source of GHG emissions:

GHG emissions from on-road sources represent approximately 23 percent of economy-wide GHGs, but have accounted for more than two-thirds of the net increase in total U.S. GHGs since 1990.

The enormity of both the challenges facing the FHWA in attempting to establish a performance measure for GHG emissions and the potential impact implementation of a GHG performance measure would have is reflected in some of the 13 questions that FHWA posed for comment:

  • Should the measure be limited to emissions coming from the tailpipe, or should it consider emissions generated upstream in the life cycle of the vehicle operations?
  • Should CO2 emissions performance be estimated based on gasoline and diesel fuel sales, system use (vehicle miles traveled), or other surrogates?
  • Would a performance measure on CO2 emissions help to improve transparency and to realign incentives such that State DOTs and MPOs are better positioned to meet national climate change goals?
  • How long would it take for transportation agencies to implement such a measure?

Welcome to the brave new world of integrated planning to manage GHG emissions in a critical sector of our economy.

Children’s Crusade to Combat Climate Change Continues

Posted on April 18, 2016 by Rick Glick

As reported by Seth Jaffe in this space, a federal magistrate judge in Oregon has kept alive the dreams of a group of young plaintiffs—aided by environmental advocacy groups—to compel government action against climate change.  Like a similar case brought by the same plaintiffs a few years ago in state court, discussed below, the federal case seeks a declaration that government inaction violates the public trust.  But in the federal case, plaintiffs added claims that their constitutional rights to life, liberty and property also are being violated.

The judge denied the government’s motion to dismiss on the basis that the matter is a political question better left to Congress.  Magistrate Judge Thomas M. Coffin reasoned that the pleadings were adequate on their face and that the substantive issues raised by the defendants should await motions for summary judgment or trial.  Still, the judge gave hope to the plaintiffs, which, I think will be short lived.  Climate change is simply too big, diffuse and complex an issue for the courts to try to fashion a remedy around.

This same group of plaintiffs has had mixed success in pursuing its objectives at the state level.  In June 2014 I posted about the Oregon Court of Appeals reversing and remanding a trial court’s dismissal of a similar claim against the state.  The appellate court concluded that the plaintiffs were entitled to a determination whether the atmosphere is a public trust resource and whether Oregon state government had breached its fiduciary responsibility by not adequately protecting it.  On remand, Lane County Circuit Court Judge Karsten H. Rasmussen granted the state summary judgment and dismissed the suit with prejudice.  The case is now again pending before the Court of Appeals.

In his 19-page opinion, Judge Rasmussen concluded that the public trust does not extend to the atmosphere.  The contours of the public trust are a matter of state common law, and Oregon law ties the public trust to title and restraints on alienation.  The court concluded that there could be no title in the atmosphere and therefore public trust fiduciary obligations do not exist.  The court also noted that traditional public trust resources, such as submerged lands, are exhaustible, which under Oregon law confers a fiduciary responsibility on the state.  While the atmosphere may be altered or even damaged, the court found that it is not exhaustible.

The court added the following thought, which I think will guide the U.S. District Court when it hears the current case:

The Plaintiffs effectively ask the Court to do away with the Legislature entirely on the issue of GHG emissions on the theory that the Legislature is not doing enough. If "not doing enough" were the standard for judicial action, individual judges would regularly be asked to substitute their individual judgment for the collective judgment of the Legislature, which strikes this Court as a singularly bad and undemocratic idea.

            Watch this space for further developments in Oregon state and federal courts.

A Substantive Due Process Right to Climate Change Regulation? What’s a Lonely Apostle of Judicial Restraint To Do?

Posted on April 13, 2016 by Seth Jaffe

Late last week, Magistrate Judge Thomas Coffin concluded that the most recent public trust Mosaic_of_Justinianus_I_-_Basilica_San_Vitale_(Ravenna) (1)case, which seeks an injunction requiring the United States to take actions to reduce atmospheric CO2 concentrations to 350 parts per million by 2100, should not be dismissed.

The complaint here is similar to, but broader than, others of its ilk.  As we noted previously, at least one federal court has already held that there is no public trust in the atmosphere.  Perhaps in response to that case, the plaintiffs here appear to have focused their arguments on the government’s public trust responsibilities with respect to various waters of the United States, though the opinion does not make clear precisely what the complaint alleges to be the subject of the public trust obligation.

The plaintiffs not only allege that the United States has violated its public trust obligations, but that that violation in turn constitutes a violation of the plaintiffs’ substantive due process rights.  Magistrate Judge Coffin takes pains to make clear that this is only about a motion to dismiss, but I still think he got it wrong.

Indeed, I think that Magistrate Judge Coffin ignored that well known latin maxim:  “Oportet te quasi ludens loqui.” (Which is how the on-line translator I used translated “You must be joking.”  I hereby disclaim any warranty that this is even close to correct.)

Call me old-fashioned, but I believe in judicial restraint.  And that applies to everyone.  Traditionally, conservatives have accused liberals of judicial activism.  To my totally objective mind, in recent years at least, it is the conservative judges who could more fairly be called activist.  For one case, at least, the shoe seems to be back on its original foot.  I just cannot see this decision standing.  The District Judge should reject Magistrate Judge Coffin’s Findings and Recommendation.  If he or she doesn’t, this case is sufficiently novel and important to warrant interlocutory appeal, and the 9th Circuit should reverse.  And if that doesn’t happen, it will be up to the eight (oops, I meant nine) members of the Supreme Court to get it right.  One of them surely will.

Technicians or Politicians—Whom to Believe?

Posted on February 19, 2016 by Jeffrey Haynes

Amid the finger-pointing, forced resignations, and mea culpas, a question has hovered over the Flint water crisis. What did staff at the Flint water plant say before the switch to Flint River water? 

For months, Michigan’s governor Rick Snyder and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality have admitted mistakes but never quite explained why Flint switched from Lake Huron water to Flint River water without prior pilot studies. Critics assailed the saving-costs-at-the-expense-of-the-public-health attitude. Apologists apologized and promised remedial measures. But until last weekend, we did not know what the engineers and technicians who operate the Flint water plant thought of the switch.

On February 13, the Detroit Free Press reported that the Flint water lab supervisor questioned the switch. One week before the grandiose public ceremony celebrating the new era for Flint, the lab supervisor told DEQ he needed time to train staff and update monitoring to be ready to use Flint River water. He complained that higher-ups seemed to have their own agenda.

Like many members of this College, I have spent my career fighting the regulator attitude that “we’re the government experts—trust us” and being dismayed when courts blindly defer to an agency. But when faced with a choice, should we believe agency staff, or politicians and their flappers (see Gulliver’s Travels)? We should start by considering the views of the technical folks who take seriously their jobs to protect publichealth. We might get better policy.

 

From the Detroit Free Press, February 18, 2016