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

Posted on February 17, 2016 by William Session

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            Stay tuned to this blogspot for more breaking news.

The Supreme Court Stay of the Clean Power Plan and the Paris Pledges

Posted on February 10, 2016 by Michael Gerrard

The Supreme Court’s unprecedented, unexpected and unexplained action yesterday staying implementation of the Clean Power Plan is one of the most environmentally harmful judicial actions of all time. However, the damage it does to the United States’ ability to meet its Paris pledge is less than it might seem. But that is not because the Clean Power Plan wasn’t important; it is because the Plan didn’t do nearly enough.

The Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) that the U.S. submitted in advance of COP21 reiterated the prior goal of achieving a 17% reduction below 2005 levels in 2020, and conveyed a new pledge of a 26% to 28% reduction by 2025. The INDC cited the Clean Power Plan as one of the actions being taken to meet those pledges, but did not present any numbers on what actions would lead to what reductions.

More detail was presented in the Second Biennial Report of the United States under the Framework Convention on Climate Change, submitted by the Department of State in January 2016. As the report makes clear, the Clean Power Plan’s actual emissions reductions do not begin until 2022, and thus have no bearing on achievement of the 2020 goal. From 2020 to 2025, the Report expects carbon dioxide emissions to fall from 5,409 to 5,305 MtCO2e (Table 4) with implementation of the Clean Power Plan, energy efficiency standards, fuel economy standards, and numerous other measures that are already on the books, and down to 5,094 in 2030.  (The report does not separately specify how much of this is due to the Clean Power Plan alone; the numbers result from a complex modeling exercise that included numerous interrelated actions.)

That is not nearly enough of a reduction to meet the 26% target (much less the 28% aspiration) for 2025.  Instead, a host of additional measures are also needed. The Biennial Report lists these as possibilities to reduce carbon dioxide emissions:

  • Full implementation of Phase II heavy-duty vehicle fuel economy standards.
  • Finalization of proposed, new, or updated appliance and equipment efficiency standards.
  • Increased efficiency of new and existing residential and commercial buildings.
  • Reduction in industrial energy demand in several subsectors.
  • Additional state actions in the electricity sector.
  • Enhanced federal programs that lead to greater efficiencies in industry and transportation, including greater biofuel deployment and commercial aviation efficiency.

To address other greenhouse gases, the Biennial Report lists these possible added measures:

  • An amendment (already in the works) to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer to phase down production and consumption of hydrofluorocarbons.
  • Measures to reduce methane emissions from landfills, coalmining, agriculture, and oil and gas systems.
  • More efficient nutrient application techniques that reduce nitrous oxide emissions

Even all of the above is not enough to meet the 2025 goals. The Biennial Report puts heavy reliance on the land-use sink – on the ability of forests and other vegetated areas to absorb a considerable amount of the greenhouse gases that are emitted. And even with an “optimistic sink” scenario and a number of other favorable assumptions, the key summary graph in the Biennial Report (Figure 6) shows a reduction of about 27% in 2025.

In sum, while the Clean Power Plan is the biggest game in town in terms of achieving the Paris goals, it is by no means the only game in town. While we express our justifiable fury over the Supreme Court’s action, we need to bear in mind that there are many other things that the U.S. must do in the next several years to control greenhouse gas emissions.

EPA Has Surprisingly Broad Authority to Regulate GHGs

Posted on January 28, 2016 by Michael Gerrard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted on January 20, 2016 by Seth Jaffe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wish it were otherwise.

ipse dixit