If Congress Wants to Limit EPA’s Discretion, Perhaps It Should Do a Better Job Legislating

Posted on June 5, 2015 by Seth Jaffe

Earlier this week, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected both industry and environmental group petitions challenging EPA’s determination of what is a solid waste in the context of Clean Air Act standards for incinerators and other combustion units.  It wasn’t actually a difficult case, but it does provide a lesson for Congress.  When the technical nature of EPA’s decisions was layered on top of the fundamental deference given EPA’s interpretation of the statute under Chevron, the petitioners were never going to prevail:

We afford great deference to EPA’s determinations based on technical matters within its area of expertise.

Scrap_Tires

The crux of the environmental petitioners’ case was that certain of the materials, such as scrap tires, exempted by EPA from the definition of solid waste, are unambiguously “discarded” within the meaning of RCRA, so that EPA did not have discretion to exempt them.  Unfortunately, as the Court noted:

the term “discarded” is “marked by the kind of ambiguity demanding resolution by the agency’s delegated lawmaking powers.”

In other words, given the current state of decrepitude of the non-delegation doctrine, when Congress enacts legislation using words as vague as “discarded”, it is essentially telling EPA to figure out what Congress meant to say.  And when EPA does figure out what Congress meant to say, the Courts are not going to disturb EPA’s interpretation.

For those in Congress who don’t like the way EPA implements statutes for which it is responsible, they might learn a lesson from Pogo.

Superfund Rant For a New Congress

Posted on November 13, 2014 by Seth Jaffe

So the new Congress will be controlled by the GOP.  The House and Senate will consider various bills to rein in EPA authority.  Here’s one relatively modest suggestion for congressional consideration:  amend CERCLA to limit EPA’s authority to recover oversight costs.

How many of us in the private sector have been in meetings with EPA where EPA had more technical people in attendance than the PRPs who were performing the remedy?  How many of us have had clients receive oversight cost bills where the total amount of the oversight costs approached the amount spent on actually performing the remedy?  How many us have had oversight requests that have turned response actions into research projects?  All of this for a program that EPA’s own analyses always show to be at the bottom of the barrel when it comes to actual risks to the public.

Here’s the proposal.  I’m not suggesting that EPA have no authority to recover oversight costs.  Just limit it to 10% of the response costs incurred to actually design and implement the remedy.  Make it 15% if you want to be generous.

Mitch McConnell, are you listening? 

The Wilderness Act at 50: The Golden Anniversaries Begin

Posted on August 5, 2014 by Stephen R. Brown

On September 3, the Wilderness Act turns 50 years old.  This milestone marks the beginning of the golden anniversaries for the golden age of environmental statutes.  During the next dozen years we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the National Environmental Policy Act (1970), the Clean Air Act (1970), the Clean Water Act (1972), the Endangered Species Act (1973), the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (1976), the National Forest Management Act (1976), the Federal Lands Policy and Management Act (1976), and soon after, the Superfund statute (1980).  These 50th anniversaries are a time to reflect on the success and failures of each statute, as well as their capabilities to adapt to environmental issues that were hardly contemplated a half century ago.  Although the Wilderness Act does not receive the air time as its media-specific cousins, it still is a useful model to evaluate an environmental statute as it reaches this vintage.  

Today it seems almost incomprehensible that any federal statute of significance could pass a house of Congress with only one dissenting vote.  Yet that’s what occurred when the House passed the bill in 1964 after eight years of debate and countless revisions.  The Act probably never would have reached its current form were it not for the tireless work of Howard Zahniser and the decades of support dating back to legendary figures such as Bob Marshall and Aldo Leopold and others.  With this legacy, it's not surprising that Act’s language defining “wilderness” borders on prose:

A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.

The Wilderness Act is elegant in its simplicity, yet enormous in geographic scope.  On the day of its enactment, the Act immediately designated 9.1 million acres, mostly in National Forests that already were managed as primitive areas.  Since 1964, formal wilderness designation has grown to nearly 110 million acres in more than 750 different named areas.

Structurally the Act sets criteria for wilderness, reserves to Congress the authority to designate wilderness, and sets guidelines for management.  The guidelines take the form of rigid categories of what can and cannot occur in a wilderness area.  Generally that means no roads, few structures and no forms of mechanical transportation.  The Act’s guidelines do not contain numeric standards, detailed permitting, or stringent enforcement regimes.  This is not surprising because, unlike the media specific statutes like the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, the Wilderness Act was not intended to correct problems of the past, but instead is designed to preserve for the future a resource that was perceived to be vanishing. 

*Click here to read full article*

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.

Muddling Through: Clean Water Act Edition

Posted on March 1, 2011 by Seth Jaffe

Previously, I discussed EPA’s efforts to “muddle through” on climate change in the absence of comprehensive legislation. This week, I think it’s the Clean Water Act’s turn. If there were any regulatory situation which required some serious muddling through at the moment, interpretation of the Supreme Court’s Rapanos decision almost is a match for the current climate mess. As most of my readers know, Rapanos was a 4-1-4 decision which left EPA, the Corps, developers and environmentalists fairly equally perplexed

Most stakeholders have assumed that Kennedy’s concurring opinion, requiring a “significant nexus” between wetlands and traditional navigable waters before those wetlands are subject to jurisdiction under the CWA, is the law of the land at this point. That is the approach adopted in the Rapanos Guidance issued by EPA and the Corps in 2007. 

A recent decision by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, in Precon Development Corporation v. Army Corps of Engineers, illustrates just how muddled post-Rapanos interpretation has become. The decision in Precon – reversing the District Court – found that the Corps had not built a record sufficient to establish that the wetlands which Precon sought to develop were jurisdictional under the CWA. 

There were two technical issues in Precon. Precon lost what one might have thought would be the more significant issue – the Corps’ finding that, although only 4.8 acres were really at issue in this case, and Precon’s entire development includes 166 acres of wetlands, 448 acres of “similarly situated” wetlands would be examined for a substantial nexus to navigable waters. Precon ultimately won, however, because the Court concluded that the Corps’ record did not contain enough physical evidence to support its determination that a significant nexus exists between the 448 wetland acres and the downstream navigable water. 

The Court’s conclusion raised two issues of broad concern to stakeholders. First, the Court granted little deference to EPA’s conclusion on the significant nexus issue. The Corps argued that its conclusion that there was a significant nexus between the site wetlands and the downstream navigable waters was a factual conclusion. However, the Court concluded that the significant nexus determination was not factual. The Court stated that:

The question is instead whether the Corps’ findings were adequate to support the ultimate conclusion that a significant nexus exists. This legal determination is essentially now a matter of statutory construction, as Justice Kennedy established that a “significant nexus” is a statutory requirement for bringing wetlands adjacent to non-navigable tributaries within the CWA’s definition of “navigable waters.”

Well, this is certainly a nice question of administrative law. The significant nexus issue may now be the ultimate legal question. Nonetheless, I would guess that most wetlands scientists and hydrologists would say that this is largely a factual question. Even if the agency is applying its judgment to answer that question, it’s the type of judgment that requires technical expertise – expertise to which courts have traditionally deferred.

The second of the Court’s important pronouncements was that it would not give the EPA/Corps Rapanos Guidance deference under Chevron. Why not?

Because – although it could – the Corps has not adopted an interpretation of “navigable waters” that incorporates this concept through notice-and-comment rulemaking, but instead has interpreted the term only in a non-binding guidance document.”

Isn’t it timely, then, that EPA and the Corps sent a draft new Rapanos guidance to OMB in December, and GOP leadership in the House is proposing language in a continuing resolution that would preclude EPA from using any funds “to implement, administer, or enforce a change to a rule or guidance document pertaining to the definition of waters under the jurisdiction of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (33 U.S.C. 1251).” Perhaps EPA and the Corps should take half a loaf. Why not agree to shelve the guidance and instead proceed with notice-and-comment rulemaking to clarify Rapanos? At least then the Courts might grant EPA and the Corps more deference in implementation.  It’s already been almost five years since Rapanos was issued. EPA and the Corps can hardly argue that it’s necessary to go the guidance route because they don’t have the time to proceed through the full regulatory process.

Enough muddling through. Take the time to do it right and issue regulations. Then, maybe the muddle will abate. (Can one abate a muddle?)

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.