Does Chevron Ever Permit EPA to Rewrite a Statute? EPA’s Release Reporting Exemptions Are Struck Down

Posted on April 13, 2017 by Seth Jaffe

On Tuesday, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia vacated EPA’s final rule governing reporting of air releases from animal feeding operations.  The Court found that EPA had no statutory authority to exempt AFOs from the reporting regulations.

The decision is also important because it is another in a recent line of cases regarding the extent of agency authority to interpret statutes.  The issue was whether EPA had authority to exempt smaller AFOs from reporting requirements, on the ground that it could not:

foresee a situation where [it] would take any future response action as a result of such notification[s].

Although EPA did not explicitly justify its rule on de minimis grounds, the Court understood EPA to be making a de minimis argument and analyzed the rule in that context.  The Court concluded that EPA had not justified a de minimis exception, because:

an agency can’t use it to create an exception where application of the literal terms would “provide benefits, in the sense of furthering the regulatory objectives, but the agency concludes that the acknowledged benefits are exceeded by the costs.”

Here, the Court found that there were benefits to requiring reporting without a de minimis exception.  That was enough to vacate the rule.

It is worth noting the concurrence from Judge Janice Rogers Brown, who agreed that EPA had overstepped, but was concerned about the panel opinion’s summary of Chevron as being focused on whether the agency’s interpretation is “reasonable.”  Stoking the anti-Chevron flames, Judge Brown wrote to make clear that the “reasonableness” inquiry does not apply at step one of Chevron.  Ever-vigilant, she wants to be certain that courts do not abdicate their duty to state what the unambiguous language of a statute means.

I don’t have any problem with that.  Phase I of Chevron is an important bedrock principle.  If there’s no ambiguity, there’s no deference.  However, it’s worth noting that Judge Brown also stated that:

an Article III renaissance is emerging against the judicial abdication performed in Chevron’s name.

Notwithstanding the congressional discussion of this issue, I remain skeptical that any such “Article III renaissance” is occurring.  One concurrence from one appellate judge who happens to be named Gorsuch does not a renaissance make.

Of course, the really important part of Judge Brown’s concurrence was her citation to Luck Be a Lady, from Guys and Dolls, the greatest musical of all time.

The Conservative Uphill Slog for a Carbon Tax

Posted on February 9, 2017 by Seth Jaffe

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

Here are the highlights:

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

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

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

Flint: Pb or not Pb, that is the Question

Posted on February 11, 2016 by Paul Seals

There is no safe blood lead level in children.

In following the inexplicable regulatory missteps in the Flint public water supply debacle, I could not help but think of the progress that has been made in removing lead from the environment and out of our children’s blood.  In spending my professional career addressing environmental issues and problems from a state, federal and private practice perspective, I often have wondered what difference does it make.   In the case of lead, we can actually measure our progress and success.

As a teenager, I filled my ‘54 Ford with regular leaded gasoline.   Lead was not only in gasoline, it was everywhere.  Recognizing the significant and often irreversible health effects of lead, regulatory programs were initiated at the federal, state, and local levels to “get the lead out.”  The implementation of these programs reduced or eliminated lead from gasoline, foods and food packaging, house paint, water pipes, plumbing fixtures, and solder used in plumbing and drink cans.  

Did these programs work?  In 1978, approximately 13.5 million children aged 1-5 had blood lead levels (BLLs) greater than or equal to 10 micrograms per deciliter (ug/dL) of blood, which was until recently the level of concern recommended by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).   The recommended level is now 5 ug/dL.  Also, back in the 70s, the average BLL was approximately 15 ug/dL.  Black children and children living in low-income families were at greater risk.     

We have come a long way from the 70s.  The average BLL in children dropped to 1.4 ug/dL by 2008.  Below is a table graphically demonstrating this dramatic decrease in BLLs.  The table is based on data from National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, United States, 1971 – 2008, taken from a CDC report, Lead in Drinking Water and Human Blood Lead Levels in the United States, August 10, 2012.

As we beat ourselves up over the mistakes in Flint, we should take a moment to reflect on and be re-energized by the demonstrable success of these regulatory programs.   What we have done has made a difference!  Flint reminds us that more must still be done.

 

Timeline of lead poisoning prevention policies and blood lead levels in children aged 1–5 years, by year — National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, United States, 1971–2008

"We All Let the Citizens of Flint Down"

Posted on February 4, 2016 by Alexandra Dapolito Dunn

With busloads of concerned citizens from Flint and nearby cities gathered around the Rayburn House Office Building on February 3, environmental regulators and science experts appeared before the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform (Committee) to give testimony regarding lead contamination in Flint, Michigan’s public drinking water.  As detailed in this recent NPR podcast, well worth the 40 minute listen, between 6,000 and 12,000 children are estimated to have elevated blood lead levels following the City’s drinking water source change from Detroit water to water from the Flint River in 2014. 

How could a crisis like this have happened? While at first water policy groups were quick to highlight the nation’s aging water infrastructure and investment gap – EPA’s most recent estimate is that $384 billion is needed to assure safe drinking water from 2013 to 2030 – and certainly lead pipes to homes in older communities is a costly replacement problem – at the root of Flint was classic government dysfunction combined with assessments of safety that make sense to regulators but perhaps not to everyday people. At the hearing Joel Beauvais, acting Assistant Administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Water faced questions from Committee members about the Agency’s delayed response to the situation, while the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s acting Director Keith Creagh was to explain why state officials did not act to address contamination immediately. Both officials attributed the crisis to breakdown in communication between the agencies that inhibited officials’ swift action. What happened in Flint “was avoidable and should have never happened,” according to Beauvais; while Creagh’s testimony stated that “[w]e all share responsibility in the Flint water crisis, whether it’s the city, the state, or the federal government… We all let the citizens of Flint down.”

The hearing ultimately took on a forward look, noting a reaffirmed commitment to protecting public health. “We do have clear standards. We do have clear accountability, so we have a clear path forward, said Creagh. “We are working in conjunction with the city, the state and federal government to ensure it doesn’t happen again.”  Beauvais noted “it is imperative that Michigan, other states, EPA and drinking water system owners and operators nationwide work together and take steps to ensure that this never happens again.”

EPA and Michigan state and local officials are now in non-stop mode to ensure that prompt, concerted efforts are taken to address public health hazards. Members of Congress are introducing bills to fund Flint’s systems and to aid the affected citizens.  Even philanthropic groups are stepping in.  EPA’s Inspector General is doing a deep dive into the Agency’s response, Michigan Governor Snyder is seeking answers, and even the Federal Bureau of Investigation is looking into criminal aspects of the matter. Flint’s drinking water will get better – and yet the affected population may never fully recover from their excessive lead exposures.  

The #FlintWaterCrisis is a sober reminder of the need to keep the nexus between environmental quality regulation and public health protection very tight.  As professionals in the environmental field, we cannot fear having frank conversations in the open about risks – and the importance of taking precautionary steps – when human health is at issue.  

Where You Stand Depends on Where You Sit: Utility MACT Edition

Posted on August 30, 2011 by Seth Jaffe

As the deadline passed last week for submitting comments on EPA's Utility MACT rule, it's worth taking a big picture look at how the commenters line up. Big utility groups, such as the Edison Electric Institute and the American Public Power Association are looking for EPA to delay the rules. The basic argument is that it is going to take a long time to comply. EEI states that so many facilities will require extensions that the number of requests will create a backlog that will itself essentially create compliance problems.

However, it is not just environmental and public health groups that filed comments in support of the MACT rule. Exelon, which has a large nuclear fleet, submitted comments in support of the rule. In fact, Exelon referred to the "overblown critique" of the Utility MACT proposal, stating that the "lack of a national standard for toxic emissions continues to be a barrier to investment in new, cleaner generation capacity." Industry supporters are not limited to Exelon. The Clean Energy Group, which includes PG&E, Calpine, and other generators with large gas fleets, also focused on the "business certainty the electric sector needs to move forward with capital investment decisions."

In looking at these comments, it is worth keeping in mind that the Utility MACT rule is only one of nine rules under development by EPA that would impose costs on coal-fired power plants. This confluence of rules has been referred to as the "train wreck" for coal-fired power plants. While the Utility MACT rule may impose the greatest costs - and achieve the greatest benefits, according to EPA - many are concerned about the cumulative impact on coal-fired capacity. Earlier this week, the Congressional Research Service attempted to debunk the train wreck perspective:

The primary impacts of many of the rules will largely be on coal-fired plants more than 40 years old that have not, until now, installed state-of-the-art pollution controls. Many of these plants are inefficient and are being replaced by more efficient combined cycle natural gas plants, a development likely to be encouraged if the price of competing fuel - natural gas - continues to be low, almost regardless of EPA rules.

In any case, what's the argument against promulgation of these rules on the same time frame? Isn't that a good thing? There may be coal-fired plants which could sustain the capital investment required to comply with Utility MACT, but not the added cost of cooling water intake improvements to comply with new Clean Water Act requirements or the added cost of new disposal requirements if coal ash is regulated as a hazardous waste. Isn't it better to know about all of these rules up front, so that facilities can plan for the total cost of all the rules? Wouldn't a facility have legitimate cause to complain if the rules were instead issued seriatim, so that the facilities did not know about the full range of regulatory compliance costs when they make the decision whether to invest to comply with the first rule or instead to shut down?

Does the Wisdom of An Idea Depend on Its Source? Senate Republicans Propose Merging EPA and DOE

Posted on May 10, 2011 by Seth Jaffe

E&E Daily reported today that Senate Republicans are preparing legislation to combine EPA and the Department of Energy. The list of Senators identified as supporting the proposal is a virtual who’s who of conservatives, including Jim DeMint, a favorite of the Tea Party. Accordingly to Richard Burr (R. N.C.), the measure would reduce waste by eliminating duplicative programs in EPA and DOE.

Why is this even a story? Perhaps because Democratic Governor Deval Patrick did the same thing in Massachusetts in 2007, forming what has been considered a very successful Executive Office of Energy and Environment. Perhaps because newly elected Democratic Governor Dannell Malloy recently did the same thing, creating the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection in Connecticut (and naming my friend and law school classmate Dan Esty to be first Commissioner of the combined agency).

So, is this a progressive idea to ensure that energy development, which is a very big part of our economy, is considered together with environmental protection, or is this a regressive idea, intended to eliminate spending? 

Perhaps, just perhaps, it’s simply a good idea.

Politics would determine whether the combined agency leadership would pursue an aggressive environmental protection and clean energy agenda or whether it would instead avoid new regulatory programs in order to facilitate an aggressive program of developing traditional energy resources. Either way, it makes sense to house these two functions under one roof.

For those of us who follow politics as the blood sport it’s become, it will be interesting to see if this idea gets any traction and, if so, where Congressional Democrats line up. Are they going to try to tar this as a simple-minded conservative idea? If so, will the President’s friend Governor Patrick be caught in a Mitt Romney-like dance, trying to argue that it was a good idea for Massachusetts but would not be a good idea nationally? 

Serious kudos to the first liberal Democrat who unambiguously supports this proposal.

Another Corner Heard From: Portland (Oregon) Releases a New Climate Action Plan

Posted on November 4, 2010 by Seth Jaffe

Last week, the City of Portland, Oregon (together with Multnomah County) released an updated Climate Action Plan. The Plan presents a number of aggressive goals and targets, with ultimate goals of GHG reductions of 40% by 2030 and 80% by 2050.

The details of the Plan are obviously only relevant to those in the Portland area, but for those anticipating what regulation might look like in California, Massachusetts, and other states that have enacted or will soon enacted some version of a Global Warming Solutions Act, the Plan provides a helpful catalogue of the types of changes that might be sought. Therefore, a quick summary of some of the 2030 goals seems warranted

Reduce energy use from existing buildings by 20%-25%

All new buildings – and homes -- should have zero net GHG emissions. 

Reduce VMT by 30% from 2008 levels

Recover 90% of all waste generated

Reduce consumption of carbon-intensive foods

Expand “urban forest canopy” to cover one-third of Portland

Reduce emissions from City and County operations by 50% from 1990 levels

What’s my take? I have two immediate reactions. First, if any further evidence were needed that attaining significant GHG emission reductions is going to involve major social and economic changes, this is certainly it. 

Second, and perhaps more importantly, this Plan, and others like it, have to constitute a heavy thumb on the side of the scale arguing for comprehensive federal legislation. In the past, I’ve argued that federal legislation would be preferable to a patchwork made up of EPA regulation under existing Clean Air Act authority, public nuisance litigation, and state and regional initiatives. To that list, we can now add comprehensive local regulation. I don’t mean to be too sanguine about the ability of federal legislation to harmonize this entire process; the existing bills would not preempt most state, regional, and local regulations (other than cap-and-trade programs). Nonetheless, delays in federal enactment can only contribute to the proliferation of state, regional, and local programs, some of which may be beneficial, but many of which will be inefficient, contradictory, or both.

Climate Legislation Is Dead (For Now): Long Live Conventional Pollutants

Posted on July 28, 2010 by Seth Jaffe

Climate change legislation is dead for now. I won’t pretend it’s not depressing, even though I avoid the political channels and ignore the rhetoric. For those of us who haven’t refudiated climate change science, it’s a victory for the pessimists and evidence that Congress has a hard time addressing long-range problems, even if consequential.

With respect to regulation of GHG, it’s the worst of both worlds and no one should be happy (which is why I held out hope until the end that cooler heads would prevail). We’re still going to have regulation of GHG, the mechanism being EPA’s recently promulgated Tailoring Rule for GHG. One word. Ugh. Does this really make climate skeptics happy? Do they really think that they will somehow succeed in rolling back the Tailoring Rule? I don’t think so. On the other hand, we don’t have an economy-wide cap-and-trade or carbon tax regime. Are environmentalists happy? I still don’t think so. 

I’m left feeling a little like Rodney King. Certainly, the issue isn’t going to go away before the next Congress is sworn in.

As I have noted before, however, problems with climate change legislation don’t mean that Congress can’t enact legislation further regulating traditional pollutants. The three-pollutant bill now before the Senate already has a Republic co-sponsor, Lamar Alexander. Now, according to a report in E&E Daily, even Senator Inhofe is stating that he’s interested in working with Democrats to move three-pollutant legislation. Given the failure to move GHG legislation, hell is likely to get hotter before freezing over, but if Inhofe can really be brought on board, there’s no reason why legislation couldn’t pass.

Three-pollutant legislation shares one significant feature with the GHG issue. Like GHG regulation, efficient regulation is hampered by limitations in existing law, as we saw with the D.C. Circuit’s rejection of the trading regime in the CAIR regulations, and EPA’s much more limited trading program in the Transport Rule. Senator Voinovich, another Republican that three-pollutant legislation supporters would like to have with them, noted as much, saying that the transport rule would be a "stringent and inflexible regime." New legislation could provide for a more robust trading regime. We’ll see if that’s enough to bring Republicans on board.

I sure hope so. Right now, all we’ve got is a GHG regulatory program that won’t do much for climate change, but will cause my clients endless headaches, and a Transport Rule that’s probably the best EPA can do on traditional interstate pollution, but not nearly as cost-effective as it might be with new legislative authority. I remain an optimist, but sometimes it’s difficult.

Livable Communities -- And How to Achieve Them

Posted on June 10, 2010 by Seth Jaffe

With work on financial reform almost complete, Senator Dodd announced this week that his remaining legislative priority is the enactment of the Livable Communities Act, S. 1619. There is a companion house bill, H.R. 4690. A hearing on the Senate bill will be held tomorrow.

It’s hard to be against livable communities and I may just be getting crotchety, but this legislation seems some combination of pointless and misguided. The legislative findings discuss traffic congestion, the percentage of oil used for transportation and CO2 generated from transportation, and the need to encourage and sustain compact development and historical town centers.  And we’re going to solve this – or even make a dent – by making grants to “micropolitan” statistical areas? I don’t think so.

I agree that sprawl is a problem. I support transit-oriented development. However, there are reasons why we see development where we sit it in the United States. People still like the freedom and flexibility of personal automobile use. If we think that all that driving causes externalities – and I do – I’ve got two words for you: carbon tax. Until we make people internalize the cost of their living choices, they will continue to make those same choices and money spent on encouraging livable communities will be largely wasted. If we can’t summon the political will to tax carbon, we shouldn’t pretend that we’re solving the problem by spending money on micropolitan areas.

Another Corner Heard From: Portland (Oregon) Releases a New Climate Action Plan

Posted on November 4, 2009 by Seth Jaffe

Last week, the City of Portland, Oregon (together with Multnomah County) released an updated Climate Action Plan. The Plan presents a number of aggressive goals and targets, with ultimate goals of GHG reductions of 40% by 2030 and 80% by 2050.

The details of the Plan are obviously only relevant to those in the Portland area, but for those anticipating what regulation might look like in California, Massachusetts, and other states that have enacted or will soon enacted some version of a Global Warming Solutions Act, the Plan provides a helpful catalogue of the types of changes that might be sought. Therefore, a quick summary of some of the 2030 goals seems warranted

Reduce energy use from existing buildings by 20%-25%

All new buildings – and homes -- should have zero net GHG emissions. 

Reduce VMT by 30% from 2008 levels

Recover 90% of all waste generated

Reduce consumption of carbon-intensive foods

Expand “urban forest canopy” to cover one-third of Portland

Reduce emissions from City and County operations by 50% from 1990 levels

What’s my take? I have two immediate reactions. First, if any further evidence were needed that attaining significant GHG emission reductions is going to involve major social and economic changes, this is certainly it. 

Second, and perhaps more importantly, this Plan, and others like it, have to constitute a heavy thumb on the side of the scale arguing for comprehensive federal legislation. In the past, I’ve argued that federal legislation would be preferable to a patchwork made up of EPA regulation under existing Clean Air Act authority, public nuisance litigation, and state and regional initiatives. To that list, we can now add comprehensive local regulation. I don’t mean to be too sanguine about the ability of federal legislation to harmonize this entire process; the existing bills would not preempt most state, regional, and local regulations (other than cap-and-trade programs). Nonetheless, delays in federal enactment can only contribute to the proliferation of state, regional, and local programs, some of which may be beneficial, but many of which will be inefficient, contradictory, or both.

Another Corner Heard From: Portland (Oregon) Releases a New Climate Action Plan

Posted on November 4, 2009 by Seth Jaffe

Last week, the City of Portland, Oregon (together with Multnomah County) released an updated Climate Action Plan. The Plan presents a number of aggressive goals and targets, with ultimate goals of GHG reductions of 40% by 2030 and 80% by 2050.

The details of the Plan are obviously only relevant to those in the Portland area, but for those anticipating what regulation might look like in California, Massachusetts, and other states that have enacted or will soon enacted some version of a Global Warming Solutions Act, the Plan provides a helpful catalogue of the types of changes that might be sought. Therefore, a quick summary of some of the 2030 goals seems warranted

Reduce energy use from existing buildings by 20%-25%

All new buildings – and homes -- should have zero net GHG emissions. 

Reduce VMT by 30% from 2008 levels

Recover 90% of all waste generated

Reduce consumption of carbon-intensive foods

Expand “urban forest canopy” to cover one-third of Portland

Reduce emissions from City and County operations by 50% from 1990 levels

What’s my take? I have two immediate reactions. First, if any further evidence were needed that attaining significant GHG emission reductions is going to involve major social and economic changes, this is certainly it. 

Second, and perhaps more importantly, this Plan, and others like it, have to constitute a heavy thumb on the side of the scale arguing for comprehensive federal legislation. In the past, I’ve argued that federal legislation would be preferable to a patchwork made up of EPA regulation under existing Clean Air Act authority, public nuisance litigation, and state and regional initiatives. To that list, we can now add comprehensive local regulation. I don’t mean to be too sanguine about the ability of federal legislation to harmonize this entire process; the existing bills would not preempt most state, regional, and local regulations (other than cap-and-trade programs). Nonetheless, delays in federal enactment can only contribute to the proliferation of state, regional, and local programs, some of which may be beneficial, but many of which will be inefficient, contradictory, or both.

Another Corner Heard From: Portland (Oregon) Releases a New Climate Action Plan

Posted on November 4, 2009 by Seth Jaffe

Last week, the City of Portland, Oregon (together with Multnomah County) released an updated Climate Action Plan. The Plan presents a number of aggressive goals and targets, with ultimate goals of GHG reductions of 40% by 2030 and 80% by 2050.

The details of the Plan are obviously only relevant to those in the Portland area, but for those anticipating what regulation might look like in California, Massachusetts, and other states that have enacted or will soon enacted some version of a Global Warming Solutions Act, the Plan provides a helpful catalogue of the types of changes that might be sought. Therefore, a quick summary of some of the 2030 goals seems warranted

Reduce energy use from existing buildings by 20%-25%

All new buildings – and homes -- should have zero net GHG emissions. 

Reduce VMT by 30% from 2008 levels

Recover 90% of all waste generated

Reduce consumption of carbon-intensive foods

Expand “urban forest canopy” to cover one-third of Portland

Reduce emissions from City and County operations by 50% from 1990 levels

What’s my take? I have two immediate reactions. First, if any further evidence were needed that attaining significant GHG emission reductions is going to involve major social and economic changes, this is certainly it. 

Second, and perhaps more importantly, this Plan, and others like it, have to constitute a heavy thumb on the side of the scale arguing for comprehensive federal legislation. In the past, I’ve argued that federal legislation would be preferable to a patchwork made up of EPA regulation under existing Clean Air Act authority, public nuisance litigation, and state and regional initiatives. To that list, we can now add comprehensive local regulation. I don’t mean to be too sanguine about the ability of federal legislation to harmonize this entire process; the existing bills would not preempt most state, regional, and local regulations (other than cap-and-trade programs). Nonetheless, delays in federal enactment can only contribute to the proliferation of state, regional, and local programs, some of which may be beneficial, but many of which will be inefficient, contradictory, or both.