One of the interesting questions that emerged in the strategic planning process for the Environmental Law Institute is whether ELI could offer more support in the development and/or administration of supplemental environmental projects, or “SEPs”.
Having played a role in the birthing of the original SEP framework in the early 1990s while at EPA, and through my own experience as a practitioner, I am convinced that penalty mitigation through the performance of SEPs can come as close to a win-win as is possible in the enforcement context. Rather than having penalties, payable as they are only to the U.S. Treasury, lose their site-specific identify and value, SEPs allow diversion of some of those resources to projects geared toward environmental or process improvements that not only achieve compliance, but also provide discrete and measurable environmental benefits.
Development and implementation of a suitable SEP can at times be challenging. For these reasons, companies sometimes opt in favor of paying a large penalty rather than a reduced penalty with a SEP. Meanwhile, the government appears to be keener than ever about utilizing this tool. EPA’s draft Environmental Justice Plan 2020 Action Agenda, for example, observes that “when these types of projects are feasible, they can play an important role in cases that raise environmental justice concerns. Thus, EPA is setting the goal of increasing the number of SEPs and mitigation projects affecting overburdened communities.”
So here’s the thought. Perhaps to lighten the SEP load for defendants and government alike, an entity like ELI could help in the conceptualization and, in appropriate cases, the administration of SEPs. As it happens, ELI already has experience in this area. For example, in the context of settlement negotiations between a state environmental regulatory agency and a defendant (I’ll not disclose identities here), ELI was brought in to help shape and then implement a SEP to develop a training module on the regulations at issue in the case. Under the SEP, in addition to developing the training materials, ELI is to deliver at least two in-person classes to targeted audiences comprised of manufacturers and/or consumers, and to make these informational briefings more broadly available online (via, e.g., webinars, and audio-video recordings suitable for posting, including on the ELI website).
And this SEP is not a one-off. As a research and education institute, a convener experienced in community outreach and engagement, and a non-partisan presence having affinities with both regulators and the business community, ELI is well-suited to work with companies and their representatives to craft and execute approvable SEPs. These range from education of stakeholders about regulatory requirements and measures that go beyond compliance; to research, analysis, and publication of information on best practices for compliance and beyond; to monitoring and evaluating the success of on-the-ground SEPs undertaken by other organizations. Also, it probably goes without saying, but because we’re a non-profit, we can and must do our work on a cost-basis. In other words, we’re cheap.
Just a thought to tuck away for the next time a SEP enters your or your client’s equation.