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

Posted on September 10, 2019 by Zach C. Miller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Truth about Sue and Settle that Scott Pruitt Ignores

Posted on December 4, 2017 by Jonathan Z. Cannon

Seth Jaffe’s post about EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s sue and settle directive is right on. As he notes, the Administrator punts on the question at the core of his holy war against sue and settle: that is, what is the evidence that sue and settle has been abused in the way he presumes?  In particular, was sue and settle systematically used during the Obama administration as a vehicle of collusion between environmental groups and sympathetic agency officials, catering to the greens through rulemaking in secret? That was the characterization advanced by the Chamber of Commerce and other pro-business and anti-regulatory groups that made sue and settle a battle cry in their war against Obama’s environmental policies. Without citing any evidence, Pruitt has proceeded as if that characterization is correct.

A careful, fact-based, analytically disciplined examination of the practice of sue and settle during the Obama administration shows that this characterization is not correct.  That examination appeared in a law review note by a former law student of mine, Ben Tyson, who went on to clerk for Chief Justice Roberts on the Supreme Court.  I recommend that anyone who is interested in this issue -- and who delights in careful research and analysis – read the entire article. But here’s a brief summary for those who don’t have the time.

Tyson’s analysis is based on eighty-eight sue and settle cases arising under the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and the Endangered species act during the Obama administration.  This data set includes twenty-eight cases that were missed by the Chamber of Commerce in its 2013 report, Sue and Settle: Regulating Behind Closed Doors.  In his analysis Tyson is careful to distinguish between decision-forcing consent decrees, which simply require the agency to do what it is statutorily required to do and do not have a potentially adverse effect on public participation in rulemaking, and substantive consent degrees, in which the agency agrees to propose a particular regulatory change, with dismissal of the litigation dependent upon adoption of that change after public notice and comment. Of the total eighty-eight sue and settle suits, seventy-nine were brought by environmental groups.  But all but four of these suits by environmentalists sought decision-forcing consent decrees, not substantive outcomes. And in three of those four cases, there was at least one industry intervenor that had a right to be heard on the proposed decree.  Tyson concludes: “Sue-and-settle, when used by environmental group plaintiffs, is not principally about secret, backdoor rulemaking.” Instead, overwhelmingly, environmental groups used litigation to enforce existing statutory requirements. 

Ironically, although industry brought far fewer sue and settle suits overall (only nine compared to the environmental groups’ 79), five of those suits resulted in consent decrees with substantive terms. And there was no environmental intervenor in any of those cases to contest entry of the consent decree. Based on the data, industry used sue and settle to achieve substantive outcomes more often than environmental groups. And the total number of substantive sue and settle suits by industry and environmental groups was relatively small (9, or 10% of the 88 cases). Improving public participation is always worth attention, but one wonders what all the fuss was about.