Being On the Eve of Destruction Does Not Provide a Basis for Judicial Relief

Posted on January 23, 2020 by Seth Jaffe

Last week, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the plaintiffs in Juliana v. United States do not have standing.  Given where we are, this is about as momentous a decision as I can imagine.  I get the majority opinion.  Under traditional standing doctrine, it may even be right, though I think it’s a close call.

However, this is not a time for timidly falling back on the easy jurisprudential path.  Extraordinary times demand something extraordinary, from our judges as well as our elected leaders.  If our government is even around in a hundred years, I think that this decision will likely be seen as of a piece with Dred ScottPlessy v. Ferguson, and Korematsu

The cruel irony underlying the opinion is that it is the very scope of the climate problem and the comprehensive government response that it demands that is the basis of the court’s decision that courts are not in a position to oversee the response.  Is this the first case ever brought before our nation’s courts in which the court ruled that it could not grant relief, precisely because relief is so necessary?

I’ll note one other issue.  The majority opinion was clearly sympathetic to the plaintiffs, but ultimately concluded that:

the plaintiffs’ case must be made to the political branches or to the electorate at large.

What if, however, our legislative and executive branches are literally incapable of addressing climate change?  That’s pretty much the view of my intellectual hero, Daniel Kahneman.  If we are truly on the eve of destruction and Congress can’t do anything about it, must the courts remain powerless to step in?  And so I’ll leave you with the conclusion of the dissent:

Were we addressing a matter of social injustice, one might sincerely lament any delay, but take solace that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” The denial of an individual, constitutional right—though grievous and harmful—can be corrected in the future, even if it takes 91 years. And that possibility provides hope for future generations.

Where is the hope in today’s decision? Plaintiffs’ claims are based on science, specifically, an impending point of no return. If plaintiffs’ fears, backed by the government’s own studies, prove true, history will not judge us kindly. When the seas envelop our coastal cities, fires and droughts haunt our interiors, and storms ravage everything between, those remaining will ask: Why did so many do so little?

COURT-ORDERED REDUCTIONS OF GREENHOUSE GASES? THE URGENDA AND JULIANA DECISIONS

Posted on January 22, 2020 by John C. Dernbach

Two major climate change cases were decided in the last month—State of the Netherlands v. Urgenda (Dec. 20, 2019) and Juliana v. United States (Jan. 17, 2020).  They illustrate sharply contrasting views about the role of courts in forcing reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

The Urgenda decision, issued by the Supreme Court of the Netherlands, upheld lower court decisions in 2015 and 2018 requiring the national government to “reduce greenhouse gases by the end of 2020 by at least 25% compared to 1990.”  The government’s current goal of a 20% reduction by 2020, the Court held, violates Articles 2 and 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), a human rights treaty to which 47 nations are parties, including the Netherlands.  As our colleague Michael Gerrard has pointed out, this is the first judicial decision anywhere in the world to explicitly require a government to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.  

Article 2 of the EHCR ‘protects the right to life,” and means that a nation has a “positive obligation to take appropriate steps to safeguard the lives of those within its jurisdiction.”  Article 8 “protects the right to respect for private and family life,” which includes a nation’s “positive obligation to take reasonable and appropriate measures to protect individuals against serious damage to their environment.”  Finally, and significantly, Article 13 “provides that if the rights and freedoms under the ECHR are violated, there exists the right to an effective remedy before a national authority.” 

Climate change science, the Court said, compels the conclusion that there is a “genuine threat of dangerous climate change,” and that the “lives and welfare of Dutch residents could be seriously jeopardized.”  In addition, “there is a high degree of international consensus” on the need to achieve at least a 25% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 to prevent dangerous climate change.  The government violated its duties under the ECHR with a less ambitious short-term goal, the court held.  (The 2019 Dutch Climate Act sets a 49% reduction goal for 2030 and a 95% reduction goal for 2050, and there was no dispute about long-term goals.) 

The Supreme Court rejected the government’s argument that “it is not for the courts” to make political decisions “on the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.”  ”The protection of human rights…is an essential component of a democratic state under the rule of law,” the Court said.  “This case involves an exceptional situation. After all, there is the threat of dangerous climate change.”  The government, not the courts, will decide which measures to employ to achieve the required reduction, the court explained.  

In the Juliana case, 21 young people are the principal plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the United States, claiming, among other things, a right under the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment to a “climate system capable of sustaining human life.”  They developed a “substantial record” establishing the severity of existing and projected climate change impacts, and showing that the government had not only failed to act but that it “affirmatively promotes fossil fuel use in a host of ways.”  They sought declaratory and injunctive relief requiring the “government to implement a plan to ‘phase down fossil fuel emissions and draw down excess atmospheric [carbon dioxide].’”

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, by a 2-1 vote, “reluctantly” held that youth plaintiffs did not have standing.  All three judges agreed that climate change caused by human activity presents grave, even existential, risks.  For the majority, Judge Andrew Hurwitz wrote that the plaintiffs met the first two requirements for standing—some had suffered concrete and particularized injuries, and their injuries were “fairly traceable to” carbon emissions.  But even assuming that there is a constitutional right to a “climate system capable of sustaining human life,” the court said, they do not meet the third requirement because “it is beyond the power of an Article III court to order, design, supervise, or implement the plaintiffs’ requested remedial plan.”

The plaintiffs had argued that the legislative and executive branches of government can figure out which particular measures to employ to “phase down fossil fuel emissions and draw down excess atmospheric [carbon dioxide].”  But even then, the court said, a court would have to decide whether the government’s response is sufficient.  There is no “limited and precise” standard, the majority wrote, by which a court could determine the adequacy of the government’s response.

Judge Josephine Staton’s lengthy dissenting opinion states that the plaintiffs are seeking to “enforce the most basic structural principle embedded in our system of ordered liberty: that the Constitution does not condone the Nation’s willful destruction.”  The discernible standard, she wrote, is “the amount of fossil-fuel emissions that will irreparably devastate our nation.”  This is a scientific question, she said, not a political one.  

Julia Olson, co-counsel for plaintiffs in the case, issued a statement saying the next step would be a petition for en banc review in the Ninth Circuit. 

As both cases indicate, there is no universal answer on the authority of courts to order reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, and this issue is not going away.

MAKING MIRACLES HAPPEN

Posted on January 21, 2020 by Charles F. Becker

I’ve known Drew Tierney since I was 10. I’d call him a friend, but he’d find a way to argue about it.  You know the type, they live to disagree – you desperately want to prove them wrong, but it never happens.

DT (as his friends call him) and I met for lunch last week. He was in fine form and clearly ready for a fight.  We ordered a beer and food and started watching a game.

DT: “So, it’s a good thing we finally got that Soleimani dude, right?”

DT is one of those people that put “right” at the end of every sentence so that you have to agree or become bait. I wasn’t in the mood.

Me: “I suppose, but we’ll just have to see where it goes.”

That seemed to satisfy him as he took a bite out of his chicken sandwich, then said:

“Does it really count as an impeachment if nothing is sent over to the Senate? That wouldn’t be fair, right?”

I chomped down hard on a piece of celery causing a neighboring table to stop talking for a moment. But I bit my tongue at the same time.

Me: “I’ll leave that one to the scholars.”

I could see DT process my comment and he apparently decided that yet another impeachment debate wasn’t worth the effort. He took another bite and said:

“It’s a real shame that the Dems can’t get their act together on that climate change thingy.”

He kind of spit out the word “thingy.” He knew that would do it  . . . and it did.

Me: “Climate change thingy? Are you kidding me? Climate change is a disaster, and everyone knows it!”

DT: “Really? Everyone?”

Finally!  One I could win.  I knew this stuff.

Me: “Do you know that 69% of all Americans believe that we need to take aggressive action to fight climate change?  And that includes 56% of Republicans and 71% of independents.  That’s pretty impressive.”

DT: “Yeah, but 43% say they wouldn’t pay a dime to deal with climate change.  And only 28% overall would be willing to pay even an extra $10 a month to help.  That’s $120 a year!  That means about two-thirds of your support will talk the talk but won’t walk the walk.

Me: “Well, OK, but from 2014 to 2019, the people who saw climate change as an actual crisis went from 23% to 38%. That means more than one-third of the country see it as critical.”

DT: “But for Republicans, it started out at 12% and stayed at 12%. Not what I’d call a burning issue, is it? In fact, the polls of all the voters in 2012, 2016, and 2019 show that of the top issues for voters, climate change has always ranked right near the bottom.”

Me: “That’s because Republicans skew the results!”

I had him. 

Surprisingly, DT seemed unpersuaded.

DT: “I don’t think that word means what you think it means. I think you mean to say Republicans participated in the results. There are as many Republicans as Democrats. The problem is you keep forgetting that. “

Me: “I can’t help it if 88% of them can’t read.”

DT:  “Let me suggest that telling Republicans they’re illiterate doesn’t seem to be a particularly persuasive argument, right?”

This wasn’t going exactly as I planned.

DT: “Whether you like it or not, the difference in the parties’ view on climate change has the biggest gap of any of the priority issues -- there’s a 46% difference between the parties in how important climate change is to the country. Heck, Trump shut down the government over a border wall and the difference between the parties on immigration is a measly 28%.  You’re not going to close the gap by pounding your fist and saying ‘you just don’t get it’ to the people whose vote you need.”

Me: “But DT, it doesn’t matter what the difference is . . . what about our children?”

DT stopped eating, looked at me, and sighed.

DT: “Well, there it is. The ‘you’re-killing-our-children’ argument. The last bastion of the self-righteous. But you know what, I’ll give you that argument. You’re right, we might be killing our children, but all you’ve succeeded in doing is to make both parties dig in deeper. The problem is you believe that climate change is a moral issue.  Maybe it was at one time, but not anymore. You know that whatever the solution is going to be, it will have to be instigated by the federal government. You keep telling me it’s going to cost billions of dollars and will go on for decades.  It seems to me that makes it, by definition, a problem for Congress.  Like it or not, you’ve made it political, right?  And once you make it a political problem, in this day, good luck.”

That really was a show stopper.  DT was right about it being a money issue.  And at this scale, it was going to have to be done by Congress, so clearly it was political. In years past, maybe some sort of middle ground was possible, but not today – or tomorrow.   So does DT win again?

But then I saw it.  I realized DT wasn’t really a bad person, he was just a good arguer.  And he was a good arguer because he always forced you to argue in his ballpark.  The real problem was we were just in the wrong stadium.

Me: “OK DT, you’re right.  The costs are really big.  I doubt that we’ll ever agree on a solution, so it’s not worth arguing about.”

DT was puzzled for a moment, but he seemed satisfied.  We ordered another beer and continued to watch the game.

Me: “By the way, how’s your daughter doing at Southeastern?”

DT: “Don’t get me started.  The cost of that place is killing me.”

Me: “I hear ya.  I’ve got the same problem.  I’m just happy the investments are working out.”

Next to politics, DT’s favorite topic is money and he’s nothing if not a creature of habit – thankfully.

DT: “Really?  What’s working for you?”

Me: “I put a lot into Sunkist Dynamics a few years ago. They’ve been going nuts!”

DT: “What do they do?”

Me: “Solar panels, and they’re American made.  It’s sort of like buying Exxon at $5 a share.”

DT: “So, there’s really money there?”

Me: “Ohhh, yeah.”  And I added an eye roll that implied that you were an idiot if you weren’t already on this gravy train.  DT looked around, leaned over and sort of whispered to me:

“You think I can I get in?”

Me: “Oh, no.  Sorry DT, it was a private placement deal.”  I took a sip of beer and let that sink in for a moment.  “But I do know about a group of investors that are going to fund a wind farm.  The possibilities are huge.  Think about it – you make money whenever the wind blows.”

I saw DT stop for a moment and sort of gaze into the distance.  He was calculating how much money he might make when the primary input was free. 

DT: “That sounds like a pretty good buy . . . right?”

Me: “Well, it’s up to you.  Just don’t tell a lot of people – I want to keep this between us.”

DT: “Not a problem – I get it – too many cooks kind of thing.”  He ran his two fingers across his lips and added: “Zipped tight.” 

Then a minor miracle happened:

DT: “By the way, lunch is on me today.”

I ordered dessert.

In re PennEast Pipeline Company: A New Twist in the Pipeline or Established Constitutional Law?

Posted on January 17, 2020 by Catherine R. McCabe

Adding another chapter to the legal controversies that continue to rage over the siting of new gas pipelines, on September 10, 2019 the Third Circuit upheld the State of New Jersey’s sovereign immunity objection to the PennEast Pipeline Company’s attempt to condemn a right-of-way through state-owned property.   The Court held that, while the National Gas Act delegates the federal government’s power of eminent domain to private pipeline companies, that power cannot be used by private parties to overcome a state’s assertion of sovereign immunity.

PennEast sought to construct a new pipeline to carry natural gas from the Marcellus shale fields of Pennsylvania into central New Jersey.  PennEast’s proposed route would pass through more than 40 properties either owned by the State of New Jersey or protected by state-held easements for conservation, agricultural or recreational purposes.  The route was approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), over the objections of the state and many private parties. 

Armed with its FERC certification, PennEast initiated condemnation actions against the state and private property owners along its proposed route.  The state objected, invoking, among other arguments, its right of sovereign immunity from suits by private parties.  The U.S. district court ruled in favor of PennEast, citing the Natural Gas Act’s authorization for private gas companies to use the power of eminent domain to acquire rights-of-way for pipeline routes approved by FERC. 

On appeal, a three-judge panel of the Third Circuit reversed, ruling that the Natural Gas Act does not go so far as to delegate the federal government’s exemption from states’ sovereign immunity to private parties.  The panel cited the Supreme Court’s prior decisions in Blatchford v. Native Village of Noatak and Dellmuth v. Muth holding that Congress can override the sovereign immunity of states only by making its intention to do so “unmistakably clear” in the language of the statute.  The panel found nothing in the text of the National Gas Act to support the argument that Congress did so in that statute.  

Moreover, while not reaching the issue, the court expressed strong doubt that Congress would have the constitutional authority to override states’ sovereign immunity, even if it chose to amend the statute to make that intent clear.  The court pointed out that Congress relied on its Commerce Clause powers to enact the Natural Gas Act and that, under the Supreme Court’s ruling in Seminole Tribe of Fla. V. Florida Congress cannot invoke its Commerce Clause powers to abrogate state sovereign immunity.

PennEast’s petition for en banc review was denied by the Third Circuit on November 5, 2019.  The company has publicly stated its intent to seek Supreme Court review, but has not explained what basis for review it would urge upon the Court.  There is no conflict among the circuits, as no other court of appeals has addressed this issue. 

PennEast may argue that this case presents a new and important question of law that has not been settled by the Supreme Court.  But the Third Circuit opinion rests firmly on established Supreme Court precedent that will be difficult to overcome.

So is this the end of the pipeline for PennEast?  Will the Supreme Court take up an invitation to rule against states’ constitutionally-protected sovereign rights?  Will PennEast turn back to FERC and ask for direct federal condemnation?  It’s too early to tell.  In any case, either route poses significant challenges – including PennEast’s own argument, noted by the Third Circuit, that FERC does not actually have direct condemnation authority under the Natural Gas Act.

What’s in a (Tribal) Name?

Posted on January 16, 2020 by Tom Sansonetti

At the time of the American Revolution in what is now upstate New York, there lived a branch of the Iroquois Nation known as the Oneida Indians.  As the 18th Century came to a close, two groups of Oneidas left the area to seek a better homeland.  One group moved to Canada and the other to Wisconsin.  Approximately one thousand Oneida remained behind.

In the ensuing two hundred years, the Wisconsin Oneidas and New York Oneidas each overcame many hardships.  Despite their shared original heritage, the two tribes have had little to do with one another, until more recently.

The Department of the Interior (“DOI”) through its Bureau of Indian Affairs (“BIA”), is required by law to publish annually an official list of federally recognized tribes.  There are many economic benefits for tribes included on the list.  At the present time, there are 562 federally recognized tribes. 

In 2010, the tribe then known as the “Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin” (the “Wisconsin Oneidas”) passed a resolution requesting that DOI conduct a special election on its reservation to amend the tribe’s constitution by, among other things, changing the tribe’s name to the “Oneida Nation.”  In 2011, the DOI notified the Wisconsin Oneidas that the proposed election could proceed but noted that the Wisconsin Oneidas should consider the potential that the name change may cause confusion with the New York Oneidas, who then called themselves the “Oneida Nation of New York.”  The Wisconsin Oneidas thereafter voted to adopt the proposed name change and received approval from DOI in a June 2015 document signed by the Acting Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, who happened to be an enrolled member of the Wisconsin Oneidas.

In 2016, the revised list of federally recognized tribes published in the Federal Register referred to the Wisconsin Oneidas as “Oneida Nation.”  The Oneida Nation of New York was never consulted or conferred with by DOI about the Wisconsin Oneidas’ name change ambitions.  The New York Oneidas’ realization as to what had happened came only with the publication of the revised list.

The Wisconsin Oneidas wasted no time thereafter by petitioning the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board of the United States Patent and Trademark Office (“TTAB”) to cancel the New York Oneidas’ registration of the marks “Oneida” and “Oneida Indian Nation.”  The Wisconsin Oneidas touted their new federally recognized name “Oneida Nation” – in arguing that the New York Oneidas should not be allowed to limit the Wisconsin Oneidas use of that name.

The New York Oneidas then brought an action against DOI in federal district court in Albany, New York, asserting claims under the Administrative Procedure Act.  The New York Oneidas asserted a lack of due process, and injury due to the confusion caused by DOI’s approval of the Wisconsin Oneidas’ name change.  In addition, the New York Oneidas alleged a conflict of interest considering that a member of the Wisconsin Oneida served as the DOI official that approved the name change.

The federal district court granted the government’s motion to dismiss the case against DOI for lack of subject matter jurisdiction because it determined that the New York Oneida lacked standing. On appeal, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court ruling on October 21, 2019. Oneida Indian Nation v. United States Department of the Interior, Case No. 18-2607.

The key issue in the New York Oneidas not having standing centered on the redressability of the alleged wrongs.  Because the DOI’s present policy is to allow tribes to call themselves what they want pursuant to a duly called election, remanding the case back to DOI made no sense in the courts’ view.  Both the district and appellate courts noted the lack of notice to the New York Oneidas and the possibility of future confusion by outside entities as to which of the tribes is the “real” Oneida Indian Nation.  Efforts between the tribes to resolve the dispute have proven unsuccessful.

Given the DOI’s policy of allowing tribes to self-name and BIA’s lack of intervention in the Wisconsin Oneidas administrative name change, the New York Oneidas have since decided to change their name to the “Oneida Indian Nation,” leaving out any geographical reference.  It is expected that the 2020 Federal Register will list both tribes preferred monikers. 

In the meantime, the TTAB trademark litigation rages on, and unless and until DOI changes its tribal names policy, any outside entity doing business with one of the Oneida tribes had best determine which tribal nation is which!

WHEN DOES “RESPONSIBLE” MEAN NEVER HAVING TO SAY YOU’RE SORRY TO CERCLA?

Posted on January 15, 2020 by Jeff Thaler

Given the billions of dollars that have been spent at federal Superfund sites, and the billions still to come, it is fascinating how relatively little attention has been devoted to the case of Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO) v Christian recently argued in the U.S. Supreme Court. Is it because there might not yet be a final judgment in the Montana court case? Or because preemption is an insufficiently dramatic attention-grabbing legal issue? Or because relatively few amicus briefs were filed? Or are people just plain tired of CERCLA?

To the last question, certainly environmental lawyers and engineers are not so fatigued! Indeed, the Christian case raises some interesting issues.  If the Court reaches the merits rather than remands the case for lack of a final judgment, resolution of the issues could impact clean-up cases and the scope of remediation efforts all over the U.S., as well as who is a “potentially responsible party” under CERCLA, and potentially also impact federal-state relations and conflicts in other areas of law.

In 1980—the year that CERCLA was enacted—the Anaconda Smelter ceased its copper refining operations. However, because Anaconda’s smokestacks had emitted arsenic and lead across five nearby towns, 20,000 acres and thousands of homes, in 1983 EPA placed the area on its list of Superfund sites. While ARCO (the then-owner of the smelter) was identified as the lead Potentially Responsible Party (PRP), and has since spent $450 million in carrying out the EPA’s remediation plan, downwind landowners wanted more cleanup work done on their lands than what EPA had ordered. They thus sued ARCO in state court 11 years ago.

In its December 29, 2017 decision, the Montana Supreme Court allowed plaintiffs to bring state law claims for more clean-up at federally designated sites of ongoing remediation. The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari in June 2019. Two of the granted issues are particularly interesting and potentially far-reaching: 1) Is a private (downwind) landowner at a Superfund site a PRP who must first get EPA’s approval for remedial action, even if that landowner has not been ordered to pay for a cleanup—in other words, who really is “responsible” under CERCLA? And 2) Does CERCLA explicitly or implicitly preempt or otherwise bar state common law claims for restoration, if such claims seek cleanup remedies at odds with (i.e. exceeding) EPA-ordered remedies?

Public Citizen and a group of 15 states (led by Virginia) filed amicus briefs in support of the Montana landowners and the Montana court decision; the Solicitor General and the Chamber of Commerce (with a group of other trade groups) supported ARCO. Arguments of statutory interpretation and federal-state sovereignty were front and center in the briefs.

The case was orally argued on December 3, 2019. Some of the Justices seemed concerned with precluding the claim in light of CERCLA’s text which allows for states to have a meaningful role in the remediation of hazardous sites. Other Justices seemed sympathetic to EPA and ARCO’s concerns that plaintiffs’ desired remediation might worsen groundwater quality by releasing toxins in the soil. And the Solicitor General’s representative spent much of his time defending the assertion that the plaintiff landowners should be treated as PRPs.

Ultimately, should the Court reach the merits, the Justices appeared to be trying to devise a way for the states to maintain an active role in CERCLA remediations without allowing landowners to “interfere” with EPA’s cleanup plan. Coincidentally, in an ACOEL small world moment, because Vermont and Maine were part of the 15-state amicus team, ACOEL members Pat Parenteau (VT) and Jeff Thaler (Maine) were each interviewed after the oral argument by the same news reporter.

Fortunately, they did not contradict each other, or have to say “sorry” when the article came out.

Superfund: 20+20 = 40

Posted on January 14, 2020 by John Barkett

It seems hard to believe that the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA)—affectionately known as the Superfund law—will be forty-years old in December 2020.

I first became involved with CERCLA in 1981, a few months after the law’s adoption. The State of Florida’s environmental regulatory agency was concerned about a transformer salvaging operation. It feared that mineral oil containing polychlorinated biphenyls that had been spilled on the ground would be carried throughout the surrounding area if a hurricane hit Miami and caused severe flooding. So it called on the Environmental Protection Agency to conduct a removal action – an emergency response – under CERCLA. That led to a lawsuit to gain access.  I represented a utility that had sold transformers to the salvager. A federal district court judge set a hearing on EPA’s motion for a preliminary injunction to gain access and allowed two weeks for discovery.  The judge also ordered the utility to intervene in the action.  We were taking depositions around the clock until the judge called us into chambers just before the hearing was scheduled to begin. We left chambers and headed not to the courtroom but to a hotel where we were ordered to engage in settlement discussions and not to return until a settlement had been reached.  The settlement was reached.  No hurricane hit.  The site was eventually remediated.  And acronyms like RI/FS, RD/RA, PRP, and NPL became a part of my daily vocabulary.

This case, however, was not the norm.  Once Chem-Dyne came down establishing the principle that in a government cost recovery action, the Superfund law created joint and several liability, and other cases affirmed EPA’s position that liability was also strict and retroactive, the litigation floodgates opened.  To conserve enforcement resources, EPA (the United States) sued “deep pocket” parties. Those parties then sued other PRPs who sued other PRPs—waves of multi-party actions.  The calls to members of Congress became louder as pizza parlors were spending more money on lawyers for the hazardous substances in the ink on their pizza boxes than they could make on a calzone.

Reforms eventually followed in the next two decades of Superfund.  The Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act (SARA) in 1986 plugged some holes in the statute and expressly provided for contribution actions.  The “innocent landowner” defense was added and literally created an industry – environmental assessment firms sprung up over night offering their services to anyone buying land or lending money for a real estate acquisition. 

Other amendments followed.  Section 107 of CERCLA initially ended in subparagraph (m).  Now there is a subparagraph (n) to protect fiduciaries, (o) to protect “de micromis” parties, (p) to create a municipal solid waste exception, (q) to address contiguous properties, and (r) to address prospective purchasers.   The Superfund Recycling Equity Act was passed in 1999 to reverse decisions of courts which found that a person recycling certain products was an arranger for disposal liable under Section 107(a)(3) of CERCLA.

Landfills, used oil recyclers, and solvent recyclers received most of the attention in the first three decades of Superfund—and in many cases are still receiving attention.    In the fourth decade of Superfund, river sediment sites have been the most prominent sites on the National Priorities List.  Their remedial investigation/feasibility study and remedial design/remedial action costs dwarf those of landfills on the NPL.

The Supreme Court has weighed in on the Superfund law on a few occasions. Key Tronic wounded the private Superfund enforcement business when the Court in 1994 determined that a private Superfund plaintiff could not recover litigation attorneys’ fees under CERCLA. Aviall (2004), Atlantic Research (2007), and Burlington Northern (2009) followed in a string of decisions that shook up the Superfund jurisprudence in the arena of contribution actions, cost recovery actions, and the evidence required to establish when someone has arranged for disposal or treatment of a hazardous substance. Burlington Northern also weighed in on how to prove a reasonable basis for apportionment in a cost recovery action.

A lot of money has been spent on Superfund sites these past 39 years.  Whether the risk reduction bought with those dollars was the best use of these funds can be debated.  But there is no debate that toxicology has risen in prominence because of Superfund and lawyers have had to become familiar with notations or phrases like 1 x 106, slope factor, and reference dose, to make sense of the difference between carcinogenic and non-carcinogenic risks in human health risk assessments.

All Superfund lawyers know Section 113(f)(1) of CERCLA, the statutory standard applicable in a contribution action: the court is to allocate response costs according to “such equitable factors as the court determines are appropriate.”  That text has resulted in the “Gore factors,” the “Torres factors,” and a host of arguments – sometimes supported by facts and oftentimes supported by inferences or even educated guesswork – as judges and allocators attempt to satisfy the statutory standard.

As we embark on a fifth decade of Superfund, we have another Superfund Task Force and a new set of recommendations focused on trying to speed up cleanups, accelerate remedial design, encourage private investment resulting in reuse of Superfund sites, promote redevelopment of sites to revitalize communities, and promote transparency and engagement with Superfund stakeholders. Actions always speak louder than words, so we can all just watch and hope that the noble goals of this latest Superfund Task Force can be met.

So, here’s to a “Happy 40th” to the Superfund law in 2020.  I was there for your birth and am glad to still be around to declare: you have definitely aged, but you still seem to be going strong!

It’s Not Going to Be Easy to Be Green

Posted on January 8, 2020 by Seth Jaffe

The New York Citizens Budget Commission has released a report regarding the state’s ability to meet its ambitious GHG reduction targets.  It’s sobering reading.  The CBC states that it is “uncertain” whether New York can meet those goals.  It identifies four reasons:

Immense scaling up of renewable generation capacity is necessary and is likely infeasible by 2030.

The focus on building renewable resources, particularly offshore wind, and entering into long-term power contracts limits flexibility and diminishes consideration of other cost-effective approaches.

State policies on nuclear, natural gas, and hydropower are counterproductive.

The focus on other sectors—particularly transportation—is insufficient.

I understand that some people think that natural gas’s time has passed.  I understand that some people don’t like nuclear power.  I understand that some people don’t like hydropower.

However, I also understand, as the report points out, that some people also don’t like the transmission lines necessary to bring large-scale wind to consumers.  And, indeed, some people don’t even like wind power.  At the same time, people do like their iPhones and their cars, and fresh fruit from foreign places.  In short, even if you don’t like some of the conclusions of this report, it’s a valuable reminder of just how difficult this is going to be.

It’s not easy being green.

When is risk reduction not a benefit?

Posted on January 7, 2020 by Adam Babich

EPA filed a status report on October 15 in the slow-moving mercury and air toxics (MATS) litigation, which is now Murray Energy Corp. v. EPA, No. 16-1127 (D.C. Cir., filed April 26, 2016). The case is a challenge to EPA standards for coal-fired power plants that have been on the books since April 16, 2012, despite a U.S. Supreme Court remand in Michigan v. EPA, 135 S. Ct. 2699 (2015), followed by a D.C. Circuit decision not to vacate, White Stallion Energy Center v. EPA, 2015 WL 11051103 (D.C. Cir. 2015), cert. denied, 136 S. Ct. 2463 (2016), and the pending 2016 challenge to an EPA supplemental finding. EPA’s October 15 status report says that the agency has sent OMB a draft final rule regarding its proposal—published in February 2019—to withdraw its finding that a MATS rule is “appropriate and necessary” while leaving the applicable emission standards in place. 84 Fed. Reg. 2670 (Feb. 7, 2019). These proceedings retain a relevance apart from their utility in illustrating the occasionally bizarre nature of the world in which we live and litigate.

EPA’s proposal would, among other things, implement a new approach to analyzing the benefits of a regulation. Specifically—when calculating benefits for purposes of determining whether regulation of hazardous air pollutants is appropriate—EPA would eschew consideration of “co-benefits” flowing from accompanying reductions in emissions of other pollutants, such as nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and fine particulate matter. Thus, “if the HAP [Hazardous Air Pollutant]-related benefits are not at least moderately commensurate with the cost of HAP controls, then no amount of co-benefits can offset this imbalance for purposes of a determination that it is appropriate to regulate under CAA section 112(n)(1)(A).” 84 Fed. Reg. at 2676. The idea is that non-HAP benefits should not receive “equal consideration” because criteria pollutants “are already addressed” by another regulatory program. Id. at 2677.

The analysis is reminiscent of EPA’s infamous Select Steel opinion, which dismissed an environmental-justice complaint. EPA File No. 5R-98-R5. In that 1998 opinion, the agency found that because the NAAQS for ozone “has been set at a level that is presumptively sufficient to protect public health and allows for an adequate margin of safety … there is no affected population which suffers ‘adverse’ impacts within the meaning of Title VI resulting from the incremental VOC emissions [that do not cause NAAQS violations].” There could be no disproportionate impact on a minority community that met NAAQS because there was no “adverse” impact at all!

The conclusion that achievement of NAAQS eliminates risk ignores a reality that Congress perceived when it amended the Clean Air Act in 1977. Congress recognized the need to protect people from harmful exposures “notwithstanding attainment and maintenance of all national ambient air quality standards.” 42 U.S.C. § 7470(1). The legislative history acknowledges, “The idea that the national primary standards are adequate to protect the health of the public has been belied.” H.R. Rep. No. 95-294 at 112 (May 12, 1977) (accompanying H.R. 6161). Senator Muskie—the father of the Clean Air Act—explained, “[T]here is no such thing as a threshold for health effects,” S. Deb. on S. 252, 123 Cong. Rec. 18,460 (June 10, 1977). “Even at the national primary standard level, which is the health standard, there are health effects that are not protected against.” Id.

“Appropriate” is an “all-encompassing term that naturally and traditionally includes consideration of all the relevant factors.” 135 S. Ct. at 2707 (quotation marks and citation omitted). Just as it was not “appropriate” for EPA to ignore costs when deciding to promulgate MATS, id., it would be inappropriate to ignore the benefit of lives saved because of ancillary reductions of criteria pollutants.

Risky Business: Ethylene Oxide Business Closures Prompt FDA Alert; EPA Regulations to Follow

Posted on January 6, 2020 by David Tripp

Plant closures of medical equipment sterilization facilities in Chicago and Atlanta prompted the Federal Drug Administration to issue a statement on potential shortages of surgical and medical devices across the country. On October 25,  FDA Commissioner Sharpless noted the closure of two large sterilization facilities resulting in a shortage of pediatric breathing tubes and said, "The impact resulting from closure of these and perhaps more facilities will be difficult to reverse, and ultimately could result in years of spot or nationwide shortages of critical medical devices, which could compromise patient care."

The FDA underscores an important dilemma in environmental matters: when risk assessment information based on emerging science predicts cancer-causing effects at extremely low concentrations, how can citizen concerns be addressed while EPA is developing regulations to minimize impacts on health and protect availability of necessary goods and services?

What is EPA's role in these plant closures?  In the Chicago suburb of Willowbrook, EPA participated in public meetings and confirmed the Sterigenics facility was permitted under the Clean Air Act and operating within permit limits. Sterigenics used Ethylene Oxide (EO or EtO) to sterilize medical devices. EO is uniquely suited for use on medical devices and is the most common sterilizing agent  in the U.S., safeguarding an estimated 50 billion medical devices annually including surgical kits for C-sections, cardiac and knee surgeries, and feeding tubes for neonatal care units. At Willowbrook, based on community health concerns, EPA asked ATSDR for input. ATSDR issued a Letter Health Consultation on August 21, 2018, stating that if measured and modeled data represent typical EtO concentrations in ambient air, an elevated cancer risk exists, and the Illinois Department of Public Health should investigate any elevated cancers in the surrounding population.

IDPH followed with its Cancer Incidence Assessment report, covering 1995 through 2015, finding increases in certain cancers, but concluding that limitations in methodology and data existed. IDPH strongly recommended future studies with larger populations, preferably involving multiple EtO emissions sites to confirm the assessment's findings.

The recommended longer term emission reductions and studies did not happen. Public opposition resulted in lawsuits seeking injunctive relief, and a Seal Order was filed by the State of Illinois. Sterigenics reached settlement with the State to allow reopening with additional emission controls, then closed both Willowbrook and a similar facility in Atlanta. Sterilization facilities which have closed, or are facing public pressure, are caught in a predicament of compliance with existing Clean Air permit requirements being overtaken by local and public pressure. EPA has begun the development of a numeric standard for EO, but in the interim a calculated risk screening level for EO at the 0.10 part per trillion threshold became the de facto control number. However, that threshold number is being hotly debated and one state has indicated it will promulgate a limit 40,000 times higher.  

The concerned citizens and municipalities believe the right result was reached when the facilities closed. FDA and the medical community believe a crisis in availability of sterilization for medical devices and instruments is foreseeable. For the companies, operation in compliance with federal and state permits did not offset sudden forces leading to closure. EPA has announced its "Suite of Actions to Address Ethylene Oxide," including proposed rulemakings for two sets of EO emission standards. The fair notice of these EPA regulatory actions  contrasts with the abrupt pressure for closure forced on the shuttered companies by a risk assessment more commonly used as the beginning step in a screening process that leads to a balanced decision on remedial actions.

Whether EPA and FDA can cooperate effectively to prevent critical shortages of sterilized medical devices remains to be seen. Until a viable option to EO sterilization of medical devices is found and implemented, medical sterilization remains a risky business.

Jersey Girl ‘Cause down the shore everything’s all right, You and your baby on a Saturday night….

Posted on December 23, 2019 by Virginia C. Robbins

These lyrics from the Jersey Girl tune on Bruce Springsteen’s 1984 single echo the summers of his youth spent at the New Jersey shore.  I was reminded of Springsteen while reading the book “The Geography of Risk, Epic Storms, Rising Seas, and the Cost of America’s Coasts” written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Gilbert M. Gaul, that was published earlier this year.  Gaul’s book makes clear that today everything is definitely not all right at the shore.

Gaul’s well-researched and engaging book presents, among others, the cautionary tale of development and post-storm restoration on Long Beach Island, a barrier island located midway along the 141-mile-long New Jersey coast. Gaul introduces us to an industrious New Jersey character, Morris Shapiro, a Lithuanian immigrant who arrived in the U.S. in 1899. In 1926 Shapiro bought 53 acres on Long Beach Island between the ocean and the bay. Over time, Shapiro, his sons, and others built thousands of small summer homes on Long Beach Island and along the bay coast behind the barrier island. These modest homes were not built for the wealthy, but for teachers, postal employees, and auto assembly workers in a nearby Ford plant. If a storm knocked one of the tiny houses down, it would be replaced with another small cottage.

By 1962 there were 5,361 homes on Long Beach Island. The tax base from this development allowed the local communities to flourish. On March 6, 1962, a mega-storm known as the Ash Wednesday Nor’easter obliterated much of the island. One thousand homes were severely impaired and 600 were destroyed. The storm caused $2 billion in damage in today’s dollars. In the immediate aftermath of the storm, rather than giving serious consideration to whether reconstruction in such a vulnerable location would be prudent and sustainable, town leaders wanted to know how quickly the homes could be rebuilt in time for Memorial Day weekend.

At the time, New Jersey’s Governor Hughes tried to slow down the redevelopment by proposing a 6-month moratorium on new building while a plan for protecting the coast was prepared. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers agreed with the governor and suggested a 50-foot wide buffer along the barrier island to protect its sand dunes. But the beach-town mayors and other politicians would have none of this. They were focused on the economic disaster that would occur if the shore were not up and operating by the summer season.

Gaul says his book, in part, is a meditation on the question of risk: How much should be private; how much public? He states that the cost of storm damage that was once borne by beach towns and homeowners is now largely paid for by federal taxpayers. In the 1950s, the federal government paid for 5 percent of the cost of rebuilding after hurricanes. Today it covers 70 percent, or in some cases 100 percent. Federal government subsidies created a moral hazard by encouraging development and reconstruction in fragile coastal ecosystems not only in New Jersey, but also in North and South Carolina, Florida, Louisiana, Alabama and Texas. Gaul’s narrative includes insights on the political and business leaders in these states whose economic and political interests encourage reconstruction after storm events. In contrast, Gaul speaks with Duke’s Emeritus Professor of coastal geology, Orrin Pilkey, who describes the relentless development along our shores as “madness and hubris of unbelievable proportions.”

The author describes the hurricanes that have recently devastated the U.S. coast and how U.S. taxpayers living far from the coastline pay for federal programs that grant disaster relief, issue flood insurance and pay claims, and recreate beaches. Gaul explains that by law federal flood insurance premiums are not based on an assessment of the risks associated with the location of a particular insured property, but rather on national blended averages that overstate the risk for some inland homes and understate it for coastal homes. This makes little sense given that, since 2000, the federal program has paid more than $45 billion in claims for coastal floods, and many of these for second homes, but only $5 billion for all other types of floods. The federal flood insurance program is underfunded and owes the U.S. Treasury about $24 billion.

Gaul calls the failure to slow unrestricted coastal building one of the most costly and damaging planning failures in our history with about $3 trillion worth of property now at risk. To create resiliency to protect this property, there are funding demands being made now for extraordinarily expensive infrastructure projects: $20 billion to protect New York Harbor and lower Manhattan; and $61 billion for the coast of Texas, including Galveston and the Houston Ship Channel. But can we ever build enough surge gates, barriers and levees to protect our cities and industries in coastal areas or will the water win in the end? This book suggests that we have no choice but to attempt to protect the heavily developed and valuable properties in coastal areas. At the same time, we should consider a more equitable way of charging for the resiliency projects, rather than simply passing all the costs on to taxpayers.

What impact will this book have? It should prompt serious public debate and action at the local, state and federal levels to restore natural resiliency along our coasts, but I doubt it will. The history of government funding of reconstruction in fragile coastal ecosystems over the past 60 years leads me to believe that the forces profiting from the current policy are far stronger than wrecking-ball rain and wind. To avoid economic disaster, I believe coastal communities will continue their infrastructure resiliency efforts using local, state and federal funds (raising roads, elevating homes, constructing better bridges). That might be acceptable if we devise an equitable way of allocating the costs of these projects in large measure to those who benefit most from them. But sadly, this approach ignores any land ethic, as in the words of Aldo Leopold from his A Sand County Almanac: The land-relation is still strictly economic, entailing privileges but not obligations.

There are communities that appear to be reaching a sustainability breaking point because of rising sea levels. One example is the barrier island of Ocracoke, NC, at three feet above sea level. Hit hard by Hurricane Dorian, some residents retreated after being traumatized by rising flood waters. In a November 9, 2019 article about Dorian’s impact to Ocracoke, The Washington Post reported that local and state officials are committed to rebuilding the island even though they recognize that long-term recovery does not appear sustainable. Orrin Pilkey is right – madness and hubris.

The Bees Just Got Busier: EPA Approves New Fungicide to be Delivered by the Bees Themselves

Posted on December 20, 2019 by Richard Horder

EPA has been a hive of activity regarding the declining bee population. The agency recently approved an organic fungicide that is to be delivered to crops via “bee vectoring”—a process by which commercially-reared bees walk through trays of pesticide powder, collecting it on their legs and fur. The bees are then released into the wild, and when they land on flowers to collect pollen, the pesticide is distributed directly to the source. It’s true! I am not pollen your leg here.

The fungicide, Clonostachys rosea strain CR-7 (also known as “Vectorite”), is aimed at protecting “high value” crops such as almonds, blueberries, strawberries and sunflowers. The fungicide’s creator, Canadian company Bee Vectoring Technology International (BVT), claims it is a “naturally occurring, non-genetically modified, unique fungus found throughout the world”—in other words, totally bee-nign. 

BVT had to seek approval from EPA for this unique fungicide and distribution process. Section 408 of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA) authorizes EPA to set tolerances, or maximum residue limits, for pesticide residues on foods. Without such a tolerance, food containing residue is subject to seizure by the government. EPA approved an exemption from this tolerance requirement for residues of Vectorite in August 2019, finding that it is “safe” within the meaning of FFDCA. Vectorite is the first pesticide EPA has ever allowed to be deployed by bees—a bee-utiful use of the exemption.

Here is what all the buzz is about: Vectorite may be a win-win for bees and struggling crops alike. Bumblebees have been declining at an alarming rate in the U.S. in recent years, and studies show that common chemical fungicides are responsible for at least 70% of this decline. These fungicides are traditionally applied via spraying, an imprecise method which requires more product than necessary, with the rest ending up in water sources or on land—a stinging result for the environment and bees alike. But the use of bee vectoring, a highly precise distribution method, may end up replacing the use of these traditional fungicides, thereby bolstering the declining bee population. It seems like bee vectoring is the bee’s knees and a honey of a solution!

But now for the buzz kill: some biologists believe the fungicide may prove harmful to the busy bees who deliver it. Sheila Colla, a conservation biologist at the University of York, thinks that farmers will continue to use insecticides in addition to Vectorite to combat fungal diseases. Not only that, but there is also the potential that this method will adversely affect the wild bee population. The rusty-patched bumblebee (Bombus affinis), listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act just two years ago, may very well have “[rapidly declined] because they were exposed to a novel disease from managed bees.” For more on the rusty patched bumblebee, see an earlier blog post of mine, Bumble Bee Buzzkill.

The question is, then (with apologies to Shakespeare): “to bee, or not to bee?” Even if Vectorite is not the solution to the plight of the American bumblebee, hopefully it will, at the very least, make farmers buzz off of the large-scale application of harmful chemical fungicides.

Whiskey In The Punch Bowl At SCOTUS: What’s The Point (Source)?

Posted on December 18, 2019 by Theodore Garrett

If you have wondered if confusion over the jurisdictional reach of the Clean Water Act may drive one to drink, read the transcript in County of Maui v. Hawaii Wildlife Fund, SCOTUS No 18-260, argued on November 6, 2019. 

The issue in Maui is whether a NPDES permit is required for the discharge of pollutants from injection wells that reach the ocean by migrating through groundwater.  The district court and court of appeals held that a permit is required.  The issue has potentially important ramifications for affected parties who discharge pollutants that may eventually migrate to waters of the United States (WOTUS), and interested parties will await the Supreme Court’s decision in Maui to see if it offers a workable solution.

Both sides seem to agree that the relevant question is whether there is a discharge from a point source to WOTUS.  The Solicitor General, perhaps in an early holiday mood, offered a punchbowl analogy: “For example, if at my home I pour whiskey from a bottle into a flask and then I bring the flask to a party at a different location and I pour whiskey into the punch bowl there, nobody would say that I had added whiskey to the punch from the bottle.”  Under this approach, where a pipe discharges to land or groundwater, one would not need a NPDES permit because the discharge was not from a point source to WOTUS. 

Not to be outdone on the analogy front, the Wildlife Fund’s lawyer took the Court shopping for groceries.  “When you buy groceries, you say they came from the store, not from your car, even though that's the last place they were before they entered your house.”  In the same vein, he argued, pollutants in the ocean that came from the county’s injection wells thus require a permit.

The Justices’ comments reflected difficulty in distinguishing discharges requiring a permit and those that do not.  Perhaps tough analogies make for tough decisions.

With respect to the Wildlife Fund’s position, Justice Alito offered the example of “an ordinary family out in the country that has a septic tank, and they buy it from somebody who installs them and they get the building permit that's required by that rural municipality.” What if they discover years later that pollutants are leaking out of the septic tank and migrating to waters of the United States.  Would they be violating the Clean Water Act for lack of a permit?  The Fund’s lawyer, apparently struggling, said that if the homeowner would have no reason to believe the pollutants from the septic tank would get to navigable waters, “they wouldn't be held liable.”  When that didn’t seem to get traction, he moved to the concept of traceability.  But noting that “water does run downhill,” Justice Breyer said that “traceability and causation don't quite seem to do it, “asking plaintiff’s counsel if he had “any sort of fall-back” position “that would cure my worry.”  Justice Gorsuch posited hypothetically that discharges from a septic tank are foreseeable and will end up in waters of the United States: “what limiting principle do you have to offer the Court?”  Justice Alito added that the term "from" could be read very broadly to cover a discharge “ by some means, no matter how remote” that reaches WOTUS: “So what concerns me is whether there is any limiting principle that can be found in the text and is workable and does not lead to absurd results.”

The Justices also had problems with the county’s position. Justice Breyer expressed concern with preventing evasion, asking what would happen if one decided to end a pipe a few feet from a river or the ocean.  “Now you know perfectly well that it'll drip down into the ground and it'll be carried out into the navigable water.”  In that case,  Justice Beyer said, “what we have is, I take it, an absolute road map for people who want to avoid the point source regulation.” The county argues that such discharges should be regulated under state groundwater programs.  But Justice Sotomayor found that to be a problem: “Because it presumes the state will regulate, and some states don't.”  Later on, she asked rhetorically: “Why are you doing what you're doing? This is fairly traceable to you in large quantities. The state didn't control you.”  Justice Kagan said that the question isn’t whether there is a back stop, but rather whether the statute requires a permit: “So, here, it's from a point source, which is the well, and it's to navigable waters, which is the ocean, and it's an addition.  How does this statute not apply?”

The Court will discuss these issues in conference and issue its decision in due course.  One might posit that a hydrologic connection should be dispositive, but in Rapanos, the Court split 4-4-1 on the issue of the scope of WOTUS, and the composition of the court has changed since then.  And in the Sackett case, where the plaintiffs prevailed 9-0, the plaintiffs complained of uncertainty whether they needed a permit, a factor which might be of concern to some Justices in the present case.  Will there be a majority opinion for the Court containing a workable “limiting principle?”  Stay tuned.

EPA’s Game Plan on Federalism -- Block-by-Block

Posted on December 13, 2019 by Gregory Bibler

I commend Vicki Arroyo’s recent elegy on the Dissolution of Cooperative Federalism in the Trump Era. both for its eloquence and its restraint.  To paraphrase, the Trump Administration’s lawsuit against California’s climate change policies “is just the latest salvo in a sustained, direct assault by EPA and the Administration on the bedrock principles of states’ rights and ‘cooperative federalism.’”

The Trump Administration’s EPA, at least as envisioned by the President and EPA’s Administrator, is not like any this country has seen before.  Administrator Wheeler represented in the written statement he submitted at his confirmation hearing that EPA is “advancing the President’s regulatory reform agenda.”  The  Administrator’s favorite measure of EPA’s success, in fact, is the number of “major deregulatory actions” it has implemented.  As of January 2019, he reported, EPA had finalized 33 such actions.  The Administrator has updated that metric regularly in his public remarks.  In his recent address to Detroit’s Economic Club, he announced EPA has taken 46 major deregulatory actions, and that another 45 are in the pipeline.  The Administrator also lauded EPA’s preeminence in complying with the President’s executive order requiring agencies to eliminate two regulations for every new one finalized.  As of October 2019, EPA has cut 26 regulations while creating four new ones, he stated.

The Trump Administration’s attitude toward “states’ rights” and “cooperative federalism” only make sense when viewed through this policy lens.  EPA’s current focus and mission is deregulation, not environmental protection.  If allowing states to create their own standards for emissions from coal-fired power plants will ease regulations inimical to coal-producing states, then EPA favors states’ rights.  When states employ authority given to them under Section 401 of the Clean Water Act to impose conditions or limitations on fossil fuel infrastructure projects, or California reaches agreement with automobile manufacturers on more ambitious auto emission standards, however, then EPA insists on exercising preemptive federal authority.

This sometimes-federalism frequently is derided as “Fickle Federalism.”  One commenter has coined a term that is more apt:  “Jenga Federalism.” Jenga is a game in which the goal is to destabilize a stack of blocks piece-by-piece rather than knocking it down in one blow.  As the EPA Administrator’s deregulatory metrics show, that is precisely the game EPA now is playing.

It was not enough, however, for the Trump Administration’s EPA to take direct legal action against California standards that conflicted with EPA’s deregulatory agenda.  EPA retaliated by threatening to withhold federal highway funds, demanding that the state submit a plan to control water pollution tied to its “homelessness crisis,” and referring auto manufacturers who agreed to meet California efficiency and emission standards to the Department of Justice for potential anti-trust prosecutions.

Using enforcement authority against a state as a political weapon – particularly a “Blue State” viewed by the White House as a political enemy – is an unprecedented EPA tactic.  Sadly, it is not without precedent in this Administration.  It is a form of quid pro quo.

To be clear, I have lodged my full share of challenges to EPA’s and states’ decisions, interpretations, guidance and regulations.  I expect and intend to continue to do that, as and when appropriate, based on the science, the law, and common sense.  There is an institutional process for that.  It is called the rule of law.  It is the process, in fact, currently underway across the country in dozens of administrative and judicial proceedings challenging deregulatory actions taken or proposed by EPA and other federal agencies.

What troubles me most is that, by engaging in political score settling against California, EPA has diverged from our institutional norms.  It is one thing for the President, personally, to engage in such tactics.  It is quite another when the Administration, as a whole, does so at the President’s bidding.  It reflects a Hobbesian philosophy of government, in which the Executive wields centralized and undivided power, and the private interest of the Executive is perceived to be the same as that of the public.  That is not a vision that the Constitution will support.  And, surely, it is not a vision that our judicial system or our democratic institutions will endorse.

Cutting Carbon While Feeding People: The Role of Food Rescue in Slowing Climate Change

Posted on December 11, 2019 by Adam Kahn

The Natural Resources Defense Council reports that up to 40% of all food in the United States is wasted, even as 40 million Americans lack consistent access to adequate and nutritious food. Donation of useable food has palpable and obvious social benefits.  Recovering (or rescuing) edible food from restaurants, groceries and institutions that would otherwise go to waste can help “bridg[e] the gap between abundance and need.”  Reduction in food waste (through food rescue or otherwise) will also yield big reductions in carbon emissions.

From an environmental regulatory perspective, managing food that has been deemed unsalable has traditionally been considered a solid waste problem.  Four northeastern states (Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont) and California limit the disposal of “food waste” or other organics in conventional waste streams that go to landfills or waste to energy facilities.  Getting usable food out of the waste stream, for the most part, satisfies most existing regulatory schemes, regardless of how it is done.  However, these rules do not create a clear preference or incentive for “rescuing” food so that it can be eaten by people. 

This is not to suggest that regulators are ignoring benefits of food waste reduction in setting solid waste policy.  The USDA and US EPA have presented inverse pyramids of priorities for preventing or diverting wasted food; food rescue is number two, right after prevention of food waste at the production level.   These efforts and similar efforts may be having some effect:  In my home state of Massachusetts, the current draft Solid Waste Master Plan appropriately highlights the 60% increase in rescue of fresh and perishable food between 2010 and 2018.  The non-profit ReFED has developed an impressive Food Waste Policy Finder that compiles ways in which food wastage can be reduced, and an equally impressive Roadmap to identify cost-effective regulatory, policy, and business solutions to reduce food waste.  Outside of solid waste rules, food waste can be reduced by improving “sell by” or “use by” date labeling requirements, food handling practices and regulations, usage and waste tracking information, packaging and portion sizes, consumer and business education, and donation-related tax incentives.  

Food rescue and other forms of food waste reduction can also reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has concluded that 8-10% of total anthropogenic carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) emissions result from food loss and waste.  In 2011, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) similarly found that food wastage accounted for 3.6 billion tons of CO2e, or as FAO put it “if food wastage was a country, it would be the third largest emitting country in the world” (right after China and the US and right before India and Russia).  Of that figure, about 35% comes in the distribution and consumption phases of the food supply chain, which are the stages where food rescue comes into play.  Similar statistics abound in other reputable publications.

So, what role can environmental law serve to help realize the climate benefits of food rescue, apart from continued improvements in solid waste policy?

Jurisdictions that regulate carbon emissions, or have carbon emission caps or reduction targets, should consider providing tradable credits for rescue of food or other beneficial reuse.  This will be complicated, particularly in the absence of economy-wide regulation of carbon emissions.  Nonetheless, an administrable system would create a new avenue to enable would-be producers of food waste to monetize their good deeds through tradable carbon-avoidance credits.  As a first step to any of this, we should agree on a transparent and understandable standard for measuring the carbon impact from food rescue.  The Food Loss and Waste Accounting and Reporting Standard is one potential example.  Once a methodology is accepted, the carbon benefits of food waste reduction can be quantified and then rewarded. 

Even in the absence of tradable credits, requiring carbon offsets in the form of food waste reduction could form part of a jurisdiction’s larger carbon reduction plan.  For example, state and local regulatory authorities with mandates to minimize environmental impacts could require development projects (particularly those involving the food industry) to offset incremental greenhouse gas emissions through food waste reduction.  Similarly, environmental regulators that retain the ability to consider supplemental environmental projects could consider food waste reduction as part of resolution of environmental enforcement actions.

These ideas will take time and collective will to put in place.  But individual action does not need to wait: reducing food waste today will have carbon benefits today even if no one is measuring, regulating, or rewarding it. 

Supremes Let Hoopa Stand, Leave Door Open for EPA to Reshape CWA 401

Posted on December 10, 2019 by Rick Glick

On December 9, the Supreme Court denied certiorari to review the D. C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in Hoopa Valley Tribe v. FERC.  As reported in this space, in January the D.C. Circuit roundly rejected the common practice of withdrawing and then refiling applications for state water quality certification to avoid the one-year limit for state action under Section 401 of the Clean Water Act. 

Under Section 401, applicants for federal authorizations that could result in a discharge to navigable waters must first obtain certification from the state that applicable water quality standards would be met.  States must act on Section 401 applications within one year, or they are deemed to have waived their authority.  State authority under Section 401 is broad and presents an opportunity to superimpose state policy on federal licenses or permits, an opportunity many states are eager to exercise.

Section 401 is often invoked in the context of licensing and relicensing of hydroelectric power facilities before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.  Such facilities and their impacts are complex, and states struggle to complete their analysis within one year.  This has led to states offering applicants the choice of either withdrawing and refiling the application to reset the clock, or having their certification denied.

In the Hoopa case, PacifiCorp entered into a settlement agreement with the states of Oregon and California, and other stakeholders, concerning removal of four dams on the Klamath River.  As part of the settlement, PacifiCorp would annually submit a letter to withdraw its pending Section 401 applications before both states and simultaneously refile the application with no changes.  The D. C. Circuit found this practice a subversion of the plain statutory language limiting state action to one year.

So, with the Supreme Court’s denial of certiorari, the withdrawal/refile stratagem seems less viable.  Where do we go from here?  One answer is that when states need more time they will simply deny Section 401 applications without prejudice, meaning the applicant can reapply.  But that approach could also be seen by the courts as an evasion of the one-year limitation.

Another answer lies with EPA, which recently proposed new rules to constrain state authority under Section 401.  As part of the reform of Section 401 policy, the new rules would adopt time limitations “consistent” with the Hoopa decision:  “The certifying authority is not authorized to request the project proponent to withdraw a certification request or to take any other action for the purpose of modifying or restarting the established reasonable [i.e. no more than one year] period of time.”

Under the new rules, then, one year means one year.  However, the new rules, once adopted, will certainly be challenged.  Two related issues are whether EPA has authority to direct state implementation of Section 401 and, if it does, whether EPA’s interpretation is entitled to Chevron deference.

While all of this plays out, however, the D. C. Circuit’s decision in Hoopa stands, but many questions remain to be answered.  Did Hoopa effectively kill the withdraw/refile workaround?  Or should Hoopa be read narrowly and limited to the unique facts underlying the case?  And how will all this ultimately affect the timing and content of federal permits for major projects?  Stay tuned.

Should Someone be Reading The SEP Policy its Last Rights?

Posted on December 5, 2019 by Heidi Friedman

Chances are if you have been on either side of a settlement for an environmental violation over the past 20 years, you have discussed and/or negotiated a supplemental environmental project (SEP) as part of the overall resolution of a matter.  SEPs are projects that go beyond what is required by law, although the projects do have to have a “nexus” to the violation being addressed.  Settling parties can receive a credit toward mitigation of the civil penalty for a portion of the value of funds spent on implementing SEPs, and SEPs are the favorite child of many since a quality SEP can close the gap on a contentious penalty negotiation – visualize a bridge that pops up bringing two sides together.  Instead of building these bridges, the Asst. Attorney General’s August 21, 2019 Memorandum analogizes SEPs to elephants explaining that “Congress does not ‘hide elephants in mouseholes’ (citing Gonzales v. Oregon, 546 U.S. 243, 267 (2006)) and if Congress had intended the use of such a “controversial miscellaneous-receipt-circumvention device[], it would not have done so without mentioning SEPs by name.”  And while the elephant/mousehole analysis relates specifically to an interpretation of the 2018 Clean Water Act Amendments, it still seems challenging to think of such a long-accepted settlement tool as now being the elephant in the room. 

The August 2019 memorandum all but eliminates SEPs for civil consent decrees and settlement agreements with state and local governments, which at first read may be seem a narrow focus.  Yet, the grounds set forth in that memo and related analysis provide a clear path for this Administration to fully exterminate this elephant or at least put it to rest for now.  One recent example is in July 2017, when DOJ modified a finalized settlement with Harley Davidson in a Clean Air Act case by removing the SEP.  This left the American Lung Association without its project to retrofit or change out wood-burning fireplaces and left Harley Davidson paying a larger penalty.  From the defense side of things, many companies favor SEPs since a SEP can allow the company to support an innovative project that can truly benefit a community’s local environment.  And to be transparent, there can also be potential tax advantages while penalties are not tax deductible. Keep in mind that the SEP does not replace the payment of a penalty, it supplements and somewhat mitigates the potential penalty payment that might have been sought and obtained.

Yet, what we are seeing is a clear signal that money is the only path to resolution.  The crux of Clark’s analysis and any debate over SEPs is that SEPs are seen as “…mechanisms for sidestepping the power of the purse.”  (citing to H.R. Rep. 115-72, at 5-6) or said in another way, “…implicating Congress’ constitutional power over appropriations.”  The Clark view is that Congress should be able to spend its penalty funds as it pleases whether its defense spending or the opioid crisis, without any nexus to the alleged violation, and thus, allowing a SEP to direct funds in a manner that serves narrower statutory purposes interferes with this autonomy.  Don’t get me wrong, we need government intervention in the opioid crisis, but do we further the purpose of our environmental laws when we are just collecting as much penalty money as possible?  Using environmental penalty policies to fund another defense tank for example seems counter intuitive to the intent of the Clean Water Act or the Clean Air Act in the first place.  While I am certainly not a constitutional scholar, I do know that we have the judiciary reviewing and approving SEPs as part of the Consent Decree process providing a further check on the scope and direction of this often favored alternative. 

For you elephant lovers out there, EPA does seem to be keeping the policy alive and well at the moment as the memo is not even posted to the SEP page on its website.  According to the EPA 2018 enforcement statistics, the value of SEPs in settlements jumped from 17.75M in 2017 to 28.93M in 2018.   Further, in FY2018, EPA enforcement cases included 100 SEPS.   Looking at the last 10 years (2008 to 2018), the total value of 1,418 SEPS was $577M. This is not peanuts no matter how you look at it, but here’s hoping we are able to keep the elephant alive and well.

12 Legal Tools to Push Climate Preparedness

Posted on December 4, 2019 by Michael Gerrard

We know that, mostly as a result of climate change, extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and severe.  Reducing greenhouse gas emissions should be the highest priority, but that won’t be enough to prevent severe impacts, some of which are already occurring. Here are twelve ways the law can help society cope with these impacts.

1. Flood maps – The Federal Emergency Management Agency should update its flood maps and make them reflect anticipated future climate conditions, not just past experience.

2. Disclose flood risks – Prospective buyers of property should be given information about any flood risks faced by the property.

3. Environmental impact assessments – Environmental reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act and its state counterparts should consider the climate conditions expected at the end of a project’s useful life, not just at the start, to help ensure the project can withstand those conditions.

4. Public utility regulation – Other states should follow the lead of the New York Public Service Commission in requiring major utilities (in this case, Con Edison) to study expected future climate conditions going out decades, and prepare plans to cope with those conditions in order to maintain reliability.

5. Permit conditions – Several statutes require permit holders to have and implement plans to prepare for extreme events – e.g., Clean Air Act; Clean Water Act; Oil Pollution Act; Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. The Conservation Law Foundation is pushing these requirements in lawsuits in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

6. Securities disclosure – As required (but not enforced) by the Securities and Exchange Commission, and as advanced by the Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures, public companies should disclose the physical risk to their facilities and operations from climate change.

7. Heat – To cope with the dangerous heat conditions to come, cities should require landlords, including of public housing, to provide air conditioning or otherwise keep apartments cool enough to not endanger health.  They should also require suitably-shaped roofs to be white, green, or topped with solar panels; and they should require large-scale tree planting.

8. Building codes – Codes should require buildings to be designed and built so as to withstand anticipated flooding, wildfires, and other risks.

9. Inspections – Flooding-vulnerable infrastructure such as levees and dams should be inspected frequently and repaired when needed.

10. Toxic sites – The remediation of contaminated sites under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act and other programs should reflect future flood risk.

11. Architects’ training – The states’ architects licensing boards should require architects to take continuing education courses on climate risks.

12. Managed retreat – Though politically toxic almost everyone, cities that are vulnerable to future extreme flooding should begin planning to retreat from shorelines and riverbanks that will become uninhabitable, and to relocate uses to safe areas.

No Right Way to Do the Wrong Thing

Posted on December 3, 2019 by Krista McIntyre

“If we lose all wild species we’re gonna lose ourselves,” Patagonia CEO, Yvon Chouinard, says at the close of the movie Artifishal: The Fight to Save Wild Salmon, produced by Patagonia Films. The film grabbed my attention for three reasons. First, Patagonia makes movies? Second, I live in Idaho and I eat a lot of salmon. And third, the film made me very mad.

Artifishal explores the extinction threat to wild salmon posed by fish hatcheries and fish farms. The unintended consequences to ecosystems of mixing fish hatchery populations with wild species populations extend far beyond the fish. Killer whales are threatened by declining wild salmon population and human communities are impacted by scarcity. It’s all connected and it’s all a big mess.

“The road to extinction is paved with good intentions,” reads the trailer for Artifishal. The good intentions to farm and restock hatchery fish among wild populations represent a twentieth century solution for a twenty-first century reality. This is the part that makes me mad. Although the data reveals that hatchery fish are devastating to wild populations and the data reveals that if left alone wild populations recover on their own, humans can’t get out of the way.

On the contrary, Artifishal reveals that we trust the controlled, engineered solutions conceived in modern times by humans more than we trust the repeated, demonstrated success of millions of years of natural evolution. Artifishal makes the case persuasively for scrapping taxpayer supported hatchery projects in favor of reestablishing natural conditions conducive to wild evolution. Chouinard effectively punctuates this theme of the film: “There’s no right way to do the wrong thing.”

Artifishal exposes deeper conflicts facing humans since the very beginning. Nature diversifies, humans simplify. Nature nourishes, humans consume. Nature evolves, humans engineer. Wild salmon populations cannot keep up with human population demands. And so far our solution to the problem we created are only creating new threats. So, what can we do to help?

Buy more Patagonia gear. Support the projects and organizations Patagonia supports. Years ago, the privately held company committed to support grassroots environmental organizations and the planet as the company grows. The company distributes one percent of annual sales to local organizations, it’s called the “earth tax.” Chouinard’s environmental values are woven into the company’s DNA. Artifishal is not a movie made to sell product, it was made to expand our thinking. Check it out on YouTube, iTunes, and Amazon Prime.

ORSANCO ADDS FLEXIBILITY TO OHIO RIVER WATER QUALITY PROGRAM

Posted on November 26, 2019 by David Flannery

In an earlier blog, I raised the question of “When Should A Regulatory Program Be Eliminated”. After a four-year effort, three public comment periods, four hearings and six webinars, the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO – the interstate compact that regulates the water quality of the Ohio River) acted in June 2019 to answer this question. ORSANCO did so by revising its Pollution Control Standards to make it clear that while its Ohio River numerical water quality criteria would remain in place, the designated use for the Ohio River established by the ORSANCO Compact would be the primary mechanism by which ORSANCO would protect the quality of the Ohio River. 

In explaining the significance of its decision to leave its numerical water quality criteria on-the-books, ORSANCO offered the following sentence making it clear that its standards were to be considered by member states but were not mandatory:

The standards were adopted by the Commission for use or consideration by signatory States as they develop and implement their programs to assure that those designated uses and other goals regarding pollution control and prevention set forth in the Compact will be achieved. Emphasis added.

At its meeting in October 2019, ORSANCO adopted the process by which it would assess the consistency of the state-issued NPDES permits with its revised Pollution Control Standards.  Under that review process, ORSANCO’s staff will review the conditions on permits issued by member states and will compare those permit conditions to what they would have been had the ORSANCO numerical water quality criteria been applied.  If the state-issued permit contains any less stringent conditions, the state will be given the opportunity to explain how the terms of its permit would protect the designated uses of the Ohio River established by its Compact.

In short, while the ORSANCO numerical water quality criteria will continue to be available for “consideration” by States, the only mandatory duty imposed on the member states is the issuance of permits that are protective of the designated uses that the ORSANCO Compact has assigned to the Ohio River. 

Confidentiality of “Voluntary” Submittals to EPA

Posted on November 25, 2019 by Stephen Gidiere

When is the confidentiality of sensitive information provided at EPA’s request protected?  In Food Marketing Institute v. Argus Leader Media (“FMI”), the Supreme Court addressed the question, but uncertainty remains.

It happens at least once in every television crime drama.  The police bring in for questioning the prime suspect.  After an initial back and forth, it becomes apparent they have no warrant or enough evidence to hold the suspect, who then asks:  “Am I under arrest?”  “No,” the police respond.  “You are free to leave.”  But of course, they never do.  In reality—warrant or not—the suspect is stuck there.

For years, the same drama repeated itself countless times for companies and individuals facing requests from EPA for confidential business information and, understandably, concerned about the further dissemination of sensitive data submitted to EPA via the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”).  While FOIA Exemption 4 provides that “trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a person and privileged or confidential” are exempt from further disclosure, determining whether certain information is protected is no simple task, thanks mostly to a web of court decisions interpreting Exemption 4.

For decades, the inquiry began by asking whether the information was submitted to EPA “voluntarily.”  That’s the test the D.C. Circuit established in its 1992 Critical Mass decision.  If the information was submitted voluntarily, then the submitter could protect the information by simply showing it was not the kind of information that it normally releases to the public.  If the information was compelled or required, then the submitter would have to meet a more stringent “competitive harm” test.

And so debates raged over what exactly it meant to provide the information “voluntarily.”  If the submitter objected to EPA’s statutory authority to issue the request, but submitted the information anyway, was that “voluntarily?”  Did EPA have to issue and enforce a subpoena to defeat such a claim?  Or was it enough that EPA possessed authority to do so, even if not exercised?  In reality, like the suspect, the submitted was never really free to leave, right?

But thanks to the Supreme Court’s recent decision FMI, submitters of information to EPA have been liberated from their imaginary chains!  In FMI, the Supreme Court held that the “competitive harm” test is “inconsistent with the terms of statute” and rejected the D.C. Circuit’s “casual disregard of the rules of statutory interpretation” in formulating that test.  In addition, the Court found “no persuasive reason” to distinguish between “voluntary” and “required” submissions.  Instead, the Court held that all submissions should be evaluated for Exemption 4 coverage based on whether the information is “customarily and actually treated as private by its owner.”

So, now submitters are in control, right?  Not so fast.  The Court also found that Exemption 4 may not apply unless the information was “provided to the government under an assurance of privacy,” arguably putting EPA and other agencies back in control.  Should submitters insist on such an assurance before submitting their information and data?  Sounds likes it is time to lawyer up.

Dan Esty’s Challenge to ACOEL: Let’s Do It

Posted on November 21, 2019 by Ridgway Hall

At ACOEL’s meeting in Williamsburg last month Dan Esty challenged us to undertake a multi-year project to transform the legal framework for environmental protection. He argued persuasively that our country has outgrown its tolerance for command and control regulation, and that advances in emissions modeling and risk assessment plus the ready availability of abundant and low cost data now make possible a shift to a market-driven system. This would allow a price to be put on pollution, or “harm”, and eliminate externalities: that is, everyone must either eliminate or pay for his or her pollution.

This system would be science-based, flexible, transparent, and more efficient than command and control. It would also be more politically appealing by allowing the market to determine our choices instead of regulatory hammers. Dan’s proposal is described at length in his thoughtful article Red Lights to Green Lights: From 20th Century Environmental Regulation to 21st Century Sustainability.

The need for such an overhaul is great because our current system is not working well. Unless we can develop a legal framework that is more efficient and politically acceptable, environmental protection faces an uncertain future at a time when the need for responsible stewardship has never been greater. The magnitude of the challenge is enormous. Yet who is better equipped to tackle this than ACOEL? No one. We should do it. My purpose in this article is not to debate that. Rather, as an initial step, it is to point out that about 25 years ago, when EPA was 25 years old and we had already seen the last major piece of federal environmental legislation, the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, there was a widespread recognition even then that we needed major reforms in our legal framework. The call was for greater flexibility, market incentives, and more holistic approaches. During the 2 year period 1996-98 at least six major reports were published based on thoughtful analyses by a wide range of stakeholders committed to finding better ways to protect our environment and human health. They provide a useful foundation for any new effort. They include: 

- The Aspen Institute, The Alternative Path: A Cleaner, Cheaper Way to Protect and Enhance the Environment (1996)

- Enterprise for the Environment, The Environmental Protection System in Transition: Toward a More Desirable Future (William Ruckelshaus, Chair; Center for Strategic and International Studies, National Academy of Public Administration and The Keystone Center, 1998)

- The President’s Council on Sustainable Development, Sustainable America: A New Consensus for Prosperity, Opportunity and a Healthy Environment for the Future (1996)

- National Environmental Policy Institute, Integrating Environmental Policy: A Blue- Print for 21st Century Environmentalism (1996)

- National Academy of Public Administration, Resolving the Paradox of Environmental Protection: An Agenda for Congress, EPA and the States (1997)

- Marian R. Chertow and Daniel C. Esty, eds., Thinking Ecologically: The Next Generation of Environmental Policy (a collection of papers produced by the “Next Generation Project” of the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy, 1997).

A consensus ran through all these reports that while command and control regulation focusing on end of pipe controls was right to deal with the serious environmental problems of the 1970s, something more flexible and cost-effective was needed for the future. The proposals included a focus on the multi-media footprint of an entire plant, consideration of regional and ecosystem-wide approaches, incentives for innovative management and market-driven solutions, and sector-based strategies. They also included greater use of corporate environmental, health and safety management systems coupled with robust compliance auditing; greater incentives for innovative technology; product life cycle management; “alternative tracks” under which a facility would be given broad performance or protection goals with flexibility on how to get there; and the use of tax incentives, marketable pollution rights, and other financial mechanisms.

While some considered replacing our media-specific statutes with a single holistic environmental statute, there was broad recognition that even by the mid-‘90s the mood in Congress was sufficiently divisive that that was not possible, and any effort to do that could produce something much worse. Robert Sussman proposed a more promising alternative, “An Integrating Statute” (Environmental Forum, March/April 1996) which would allow broad-gauge, multi-media strategies though integrated application of existing statutes.

What was the result of this extraordinary outpouring of creative thinking from the brightest, most experienced and diverse brainstormers available? No new legislation, some minor efforts to streamline regulations, a few more flexible policies at EPA, and little else. There is a lot in these reports that will provide helpful background for any effort that ACOEL or anyone else might launch to achieve the new legal framework that Dan envisions, but getting there will be a huge task.  It will almost certainly require new legislation that can attract bipartisan support.

Just this past April, in recognition of EPA’s 50th anniversary, the American University Center for Environmental Policy and the EPA Alumni Association hosted a 2 day conference on “EPA and the Future of Environmental Protection”, featuring a wide range of highly qualified speakers, including four past EPA Administrators. Many of the same issues were discussed, but some fresh perspectives and ideas seemed to emerge. A report is due to be released within the next few weeks, and I will discuss its principal recommendations in a future blog post.

Will NEPA’s Golden Anniversary be Tarnished by the Trump Administration’s efforts to overhaul the long-established regulations?

Posted on November 18, 2019 by Brenda Mallory

As the 50th Anniversary of the National Environmental Policy Act approaches, we may be on the verge of one of the most significant regulatory revisions in the statute’s history. NEPA advocates—and all those who believe it is important for the federal government to have a robust tool to assess the impacts of its actions before commencing them—watch and wait with trepidation for the release of proposed rules substantially modifying the Council on Environmental Quality’s longstanding regulations governing NEPA practice.

What is the cause for concern? On October 11, 2019, CEQ submitted proposed regulations to the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs within the Office of Management and Budget, to begin the inter-agency review process governed by Executive Order 12866.  CEQ’s proposal is highly anticipated because, in the name of “streamlining” and reducing “burdens” on industry, NEPA has been a target for reform since the beginning of the Trump Administration. The Administration’s emphasis on instituting shortcuts has far exceeded any focus on ensuring sufficient environmental review or public engagement. Through a series of Executive Orders, President Trump has directed all agencies, but particularly CEQ and OMB, to take steps to remove obstacles to infrastructure and energy development, among other priorities.

In January 2017, Executive Order 13766 focused on expediting environmental reviews and approvals for “High Priority” infrastructure projects. In March, Executive Order 13783 proclaimed a national interest in promoting the development of the nation’s energy resources while avoiding regulatory burdens that “unnecessarily” encumber energy production. In August 2017, Executive Order 13807 directed CEQ and OMB to take actions to promote streamlining and greater accountability in the environmental review process. Then, in June 2018, CEQ issued an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking soliciting comments on revising broad aspects of its NEPA regulations, from details on page limits to the definition of core, NEPA terms such as “significantly,” “reasonably foreseeable,” and “alternatives.” It was clear that every aspect of the regulations was open for discussion. CEQ received approximately 12,500 comments.

Since then, CEQ issued proposed Guidance on addressing GHG impacts, encouraging a narrow focus for review and offering a litany of reasons why only minimal qualitative analysis might be necessary (i.e., emissions are not “substantial,” it’s not “practicable,” or “the complexity of identifying emissions would make quantification overly speculative”). In addition, a number of agencies and departments have issued revisions to their internal rules and guidance that reflect these themes of reducing burdens and greater efficiency, with seemingly little concern about the impact on environmental analysis or public participation. For example, the Forest Service has proposed revisions to its regulations that, among other things, dramatically expand categorical exclusions and discourage site-specific analysis. BLM has issued a number of guidance documents on oil and gas development, oil and gas leasing reforms, and the NEPA document clearing process that shorten time-frames for analysis and eliminate public input. Finally, the Department of Homeland Security, in the name of border security, has issued waivers of many environmental review requirements.

What changes could be harmful from an environmental and public participation perspective?

The changes that have been implemented by the agencies referenced above as well as others are instructive on the type of revisions we can expect to see in CEQ’s upcoming proposal, although the revisions are likely to go farther and have the effect of imbedding these themes in foundational terms. The public should be on the alert for revisions that have the following impacts on the NEPA process:  

  • Eliminating the need for NEPA documentation and avoiding public process: These may include
    • Expansion of categorical exclusions, changing the administrative processes so exclusions can be established without CEQ oversight, and the removal of limitations on when categorical exclusions can be used;
    • Allowing multiple categorical exclusions to be used on one project;
    • CEQ adoption of a practice created by BLM known as the Determination of NEPA Adequacy (DNA), which would allow agencies to determine that existing NEPA documentation on tangentially-related actions eliminates the need for further environmental review or public process; and
    • Elimination or reduction of time-periods for scoping and public comment, making it difficult if not impossible for the public to engage.
  • Narrowing the scope of review associated with specific federal actions so that neither the agency nor the public can assess or understand the full impact of the action: Revisions that have this effect include
    • Discouragement of site-specific analysis and site visits;
    • Redefining what is considered a foreseeable effect of an action requiring analysis; and
    • Reframing what is within the agency’s discretion or authority.
  • Reducing the number of alternatives that need to be evaluated; and
  • Truncating consideration of appropriate mitigation measures.

As of this writing, it is not clear when the proposal will be issued or how much time will be allowed for comments, but unconfirmed rumors suggest it will be soon.

I encourage those interested in protecting this important tool for environmental assessment and public engagement to let their voices be heard. While striving for greater efficiency can be a laudable goal, NEPA was not intended to be a process for rubber-stamping government decisions. We should not allow NEPA’s ultimate goals to be subverted by false claims for good government.

The author is an ACOEL fellow and is the former General Counsel of CEQ.

What’s Up with Gundy?

Posted on November 14, 2019 by Allan Gates

Last summer the Supreme Court announced its decision in Gundy v. United States.  Conservative advocates had eagerly followed the case, hoping it would restore the nondelegation doctrine to the glory days of 1935, the year Schechter Poultry and Panama Refining Co. v. Ryan used the nondelegation doctrine to cut down a broad swath of New Deal programs.

The decision in Gundy disappointed conservative hopes, but only by the slimmest possible margin.  A plurality of four justices — Justice Kagan joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor — voted to uphold the statute in question, following the very tolerant nondelegation analysis the Court has used consistently for decades.  Three justices — Justice Gorsuch joined by the Chief Justice and Justice Thomas — voted to invalidate the statute using a new and much more robust nondelegation analysis.  Justice Alito concurred in the judgment reached by the plurality, but only because a short-handed Court did not have a majority of Justices willing to establish a new (or resurrect a very old) nondelegation standard.  His opinion openly invited a new nondelegation challenge once the Court has a full complement of nine justices.  Justice Kavanaugh did not participate in Gundy because he was not on the Court when it heard oral argument.

College fellow Lisa Heinzerling wrote a very perceptive blog post about Gundy last May, three weeks before the decision was announced, noting that the Court was lingering over Gundy longer than any other case that Term.  In retrospect, the timeline is even more interesting than Lisa could have known.  Gundy was argued on the first day of the Term, October 2, 2018.  It was decided at the very end of the Term, June 20, 2019.  Justice Kavanaugh joined the Court on October 6, 2019.  Presumably, Justice Kavanaugh was in the room at every conference in which the Court struggled over how to resolve its 4-4 split over nondelegation in Gundy.  When one considers this timeline, Justice Alito’s open invitation for another nondelegation challenge packs special punch.

The significance of the unusual timeline was not lost on Gundy’s counsel, a New York public defender who had taken Gundy’s case farther than anyone could have expected.  She promptly filed a petition for rehearing.  Rehearing in the Supreme Court is extremely rare, but Gundy’s public defender aptly noted that her request presented one of the few circumstances that has prompted the Court to grant rehearing in the past, namely a short-handed Court that divided 4-4 with a new justice in place who could resolve the split if rehearing were granted.

The timeline of the Court’s consideration of Gundy’s petition for rehearing is also interesting.  The petition was filed on July 11 and scheduled for consideration at the Court’s October 1, 2019 conference.  Following that conference, the Court relisted the petition for consideration at the October 11, 2019 conference.  Since then it has been relisted four more times.  Most recently the petition has been scheduled for consideration at the November 15 conference. 

As the Justices ponder Gundy’s petition for rehearing, it seems likely they know if rehearing were granted, the result would be different the second time around.  Among other things, the Court is probably considering how the general public would react to seeing the Court flip on a do-over of a high profile constitutional case solely because a new Justice joined the Court, particularly when that Justice was confirmed by a bare partisan majority after a bruising confirmation hearing.

It is worth noting that there are petitions for certiorari pending in Paul v. United States and Caldwell v. United States, cases identical to Gundy, that were being held pending the decision in Gundy.  The Court might mitigate the public appearance of a highly political flip by taking one of those cases as the vehicle for addressing nondelegation.

IMO 2020 – A Strikeout for Sulfur, but Black Carbon Is Still on Base

Posted on November 7, 2019 by Susan Cooke

Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from international shipping supposedly represent 2% to 3% of the world total, about on par with those emitted by Germany.  However, there are no GHG emission restrictions covering ships on the high seas.  Moreover, even the current limits on sulfur and NOx are far less stringent than those imposed in many developed countries, although things are about to change on the SO2 front.

That is about to change.  The International Maritime Organization (IMO), which is part of the United Nations, recently announced a new and more stringent standard, set forth in Annex VI  of the International Convention on the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL).  On January 1, 2020, marine vessels must meet a 0.5% (by weight) sulfur-in-fuel standard or install scrubbers to meet that standard.  In addition, starting March 1, 2020, such vessels without scrubbers may no longer carry heavy fuel oil on board.  Even more stringent standards are already in place within so-called Emission Control Areas.  For example, there is a 0.1% sulfur-in-fuel limit for vessels operating within the territorial waters of Canada, the continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. 

Annex VI also contains provisions for lowering NOx emissions.  Marine diesel engines above 130 kW installed on a ship constructed on or after January 1, 2011 must meet so-called Tier II standards, and such diesel engines installed on vessels constructed on or after January 1, 2016 and operating in the U.S. and Canadian waters described above must meet the more stringent Tier III standards. 

It is expected that most vessels will utilize lower sulfur fuel rather than employ scrubbers.  This move away from residual fuel oil (known as heavy fuel oil or HFO) toward low sulfur blended intermediate fuels and lighter, more refined grades will have another salutary effect – a reduction in the emission of black carbon, the sooty material resulting from incomplete combustion of fossil fuel, which comprises a significant portion of particulate matter, an air pollutant.  And while black carbon has a lifetime of only days to weeks after its release into the atmosphere, its warming impact on climate, per unit of mass, is 460-1,500 times stronger than CO2.

In 2018 the IMO adopted an initial climate strategy targeting a 50% reduction in GHG emissions by 2050 from 2008 levels through a mix of proposed measures ranging from efficiency improvements to existing vessels, speed reductions, use of lower carbon fuels, methane and VOC emission controls, national action plans, and GHG reduction initiatives implemented at ports.  While black carbon is estimated to account for 7%-21% of the overall climate impact of international shipping, this initial strategy does not include any specific measures for reducing black carbon emissions.  However, an IMO subcommittee is now considering what action might be undertaken to address this pollutant beyond the ancillary effect of the new sulfur standard. 

One particular concern is the increased shipping anticipated in Arctic waters as ice recedes, and the deleterious impact of black carbon emissions from an increased number of vessels plying those waters.  Indeed, the impact of black carbon emissions is specifically noted in Par. 70, ANNEX 2, of the IMO Note regarding adoption of its Initial Strategy.   

A new ball game – or at least the warm-up for that game – is about to commence where various measures to control black carbon emissions will be tossed out for consideration.  While the winning strategy is expected to be several years in the making, one proposal garnering interest is the mandated use of distillate fuel in lieu of HFO, which can be paired with mandated use of diesel particulate filters to remove most of the black carbon.  But this strategy will be costly and may not make it to first base.  Consequently, in the inimitable words of Yogi Berra: “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future”.