Calling Off the NEPA Hounds – The CEQ’s 2019 Draft Guidance on GHG Emissions

Posted on September 12, 2019 by JB Ruhl

On June 26, 2019, the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) published a Draft National Environmental Policy Act Guidance on Consideration of Greenhouse Gas Emissions (84 Fed. Reg. 30097). This new guidance would replace the guidance on that theme CEQ published in August 2016 (2016 Guidance) and which President Trump extinguished by executive order, and CEQ immediately withdrew, early in April 2017 (E.O. 13783 and 82 Fed. Reg. 16576). The much shorter 2019 Draft Guidance bears some similarities to the 2016 Guidance:

  • Both advise agencies to use GHG emissions as a proxy for climate effects.    
  • Both emphasize that agencies should follow the NEPA “rule of reason” for identifying direct and indirect effects and for keeping the depth of analysis proportionate to the scale of the effects.
  • Both allow agencies to use available emission quantification tools, but also to refrain from quantification if the available information is of poor quality or if the analysis would be too complicated, provided they explain why.
  • Both advise agencies not to engage in overly speculative analysis.
  • Both emphasize that NEPA does not require cost-benefit monetization analysis.

From there, however, the two guidances look nothing alike. To begin with, the 2016 Guidance declared that “climate change is a fundamental environmental issue, and its effects fall squarely within NEPA’s purview,” and that “it is now well established that rising global atmospheric GHG emission concentrations are significantly affecting the Earth’s environment.” In short, climate change was the core focus throughout the 2016 Guidance. By contrast, the 2019 Draft Guidance refers only to “potential climate effects” of GHG emissions, and does so only twice in the document. It is perhaps remarkable that any Trump administration guidance actually recognizes that GHG emissions could have “potential climate effects,” but the CEQ skirts the issue so much that one might easily miss the point of why agencies are being asked to conduct GHG emissions analyses in the first place.

More substantively, the 2019 Draft Guidance omits three key features (among others) of the 2016 Guidance. First, there is no mention of mitigation in the 2019 Draft Guidance, whereas that was a focus of the 2016 Guidance. Under the 2019 Draft Guidance, in other words, agencies would estimate GHG emissions of the proposed action but not need to consider action alternatives that generate lower emissions or higher sequestration.

Second, the 2016 Guidance included a section on scope of the action that advised agencies to consider predicate and consequential effects of the action. For example, proposed resource extraction actions should consider GHG emissions from reasonably foreseeable predicates such as clearing land and building access roads, and from reasonably foreseeable consequences such as transportation, refining, and use of the resource. The 2019 Draft Guidance makes no mention of such analyses.

Most glaringly of all, the 2019 Draft Guidance completely ignores the need to assess the impacts of climate change on the proposed action. Recognizing that “GHGs already in the atmosphere will continue altering the climate system into the future” and that “NEPA review should consider an action in the context of the future state of the environment,” the 2016 Guidance included an extensive section advising agencies on how to evaluate the effects of climate change on a proposed action and to consider how adaptation and resilience measures might be integrated into the action. No doubt because it would require acknowledging that climate change is occurring, the 2019 Draft Guidance contains no such guidance.

The bottom line is that, if the 2019 Draft Guidance were adopted as is, agencies will conduct GHG emissions analyses but not need to consider reasonably foreseeable upstream and downstream emissions or how the action could incorporate climate change mitigation, adaptation, and resilience. Of course, that would just be CEQ guidance. The courts may have a different idea for how NEPA engages climate change.

Three Steps Back – DOJ Restrictions on Use of SEPs Are Misguided and Counter-Productive

Posted on September 10, 2019 by Zach C. Miller

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has taken three steps since June 2017 through August 2019 that severely limit the use of Supplemental Environmental Projects (SEPs) in civil environmental settlements.  Those actions are legally unsound, are generally not sought or supported by the business community or state or local governments, and are counter-productive to the effective enforcement of federal environmental law.  Such actions, and the recent DOJ threat to completely ban use of SEPs in the future, should be revisited and reversed.

A SEP is a consensual, environmentally beneficial project related to an underlying environmental law violation, but not necessary to achieve compliance, that generally results in a reduction in the party’s monetary civil penalty.  SEPs have been widely used in settlements with both businesses and state and local governments since the 1980s and have historically been supported by both parties.  Their use has been governed by a series of EPA policies, most recently updated in 2015.  For example, the 2015 SEP Policy requires that a qualified SEP cannot be a cash payment to a third party, must voluntarily go beyond what is required to comply with law, and must meet one or more specified categories of public environmental benefits.  EPA estimates that, from 1998 through 2012, it negotiated SEPs worth over a billion dollars.

Since 2017, DOJ has unwisely taken several steps that curtail the use of SEPs.  On June 5, 2017, then-Attorney General Sessions issued a one-page Memorandum to DOJ attorneys that broadly prohibited any settlement “that directs or provides for a payment or loan to any non-governmental entity that is not a party to the dispute.”

Questions about whether this new policy prohibited SEPs generally or allowed their continued use with governmental entities were answered by DOJ’s next two steps.  On November 7, 2018, DOJ issued a policy directive that prohibited DOJ from agreeing to any settlements with a state or local government that “extract greater or different relief from the defendant than could be obtained through agency enforcement authority or by litigating the matter to judgment.”

Then, in a memo dated August 21, 2019, political appointee Assistant AG Jeff Clark made clear that the 2017 and 2018 policies are considered by DOJ to prohibit the use of SEPs in all settlements with state and local governments.  However, in recognition of the strong support for SEPs by many governmental entities, the memo temporarily allows the extremely limited use of SEPs with such entities (“only as a matter of last resort” … and only as “a small component of the overall settlement”) during an unspecified “interim period … pending my [AAG Clark’s] broader review of the SEP policy.”  In other words, the referenced impending “broader review” could and, under the reasoning of the August 2019 memo, likely will conclude that any and all use of SEPs is unlawful and prohibited.

But that reasoning is circular and unsound.  The August 2019 Memo acknowledges that the AG’s June 2017 policy “largely tracks” and in effect implements the 2017 “Stop Settlement Slush Funds Act,” which prohibited settlements allowing payments to parties other than the U.S., and was passed on a partisan vote in the House but was rejected by the Senate.  H.R. 732, 115th Cong., 1st Sess. (2017).  Among other problems, that rejected bill failed to recognize that the 2015 SEP Policy already expressly prohibits cash payments to third parties, and some environmental statutes (not consensual settlements) provide for assessment of attorneys’ fees to prevailing parties, so the perceived “settlement slush fund” problem was illusory.  The November 2018 DOJ Memo then purported to implement that initial 2017 policy, and the August 2019 Memo thereafter concludes that the preceding 2017 and 2018 DOJ policies together mandate that SEPs must be banned.  The 2019 Memo also analyzes at length the narrow 2018 infrastructure-related amendments to the Clean Water Act and concludes they do not expressly authorize the use of SEPs.  But it does not analyze the long-standing, bi-partisan legal conclusions that nothing in federal law prohibits the use of SEPs and that doing so is within DOJ’s and EPA’s broad enforcement discretion.  Rather, DOJ’s conclusions, in a house-of-cards fashion, are based solely on “enforcement” of its own novel policies based in turn on a piece of rejected partisan legislation.  Space does not permit a detailed response here to the August 2019 Memo’s other high-minded but tenuous allegations about SEPs infringing on Congress’ “power of the purse” and on “local democratic processes,” except to say, please see the Administration’s own contrary positions on those points for White House Border Wall funding and restricting State vehicle emission limits.

Sometimes, it’s been said, it’s necessary to take a step back to take two steps forward.  DOJ’s actions restricting SEPs, however, are three huge steps backwards, with a threat of a fourth misstep and disastrous total ban.  Such a ban would preclude consensual, beneficial projects long favored by business and local governments and would unduly hinder and delay resolution of federal environmental enforcement actions.  Those serious missteps should be revisited and reversed.