President Obama Can Dramatically and Cost-Effectively Cut Carbon Pollution from Power Plants Using the Clean Air Act

Posted on June 7, 2013 by Peter Lehner

On the night of his re-election, President Obama told the nation that he wanted “our children to live in an America…that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.”

In the past year, we’ve seen extreme weather, fueled by carbon pollution, cost hundreds of American lives and nearly $100 billion in damage across the country. Yet right now we have no national standards to control carbon pollution from the biggest emitters—the 1500 existing power plants which are responsible for 40 percent of U.S. carbon pollution. NRDC has developed a plan for how the President could use his existing authority under the Clean Air Act to cut this climate-changing pollution from power plants, quickly and cost-effectively.

In a 2011 Supreme Court decision, American Electric Power v. Connecticut, the court ruled that it is the EPA’s responsibility to curb carbon pollution from power plants, new and existing. Carbon pollution limits for new power plants have been proposed and the EPA needs to make them final.  But the step that will make the biggest difference is cutting pollution from existing power plants. Under section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act, the EPA could set state-specific standards for average emissions from existing power plants based on each state’s current energy mix. Then states and power plant owners would have broad flexibility in deciding how to meet those standards, using a range of cost-effective measures and technologies.

Not all states line up at the same starting point when it comes to carbon emissions—some are heavily coal dependent, while others rely more on lower-carbon fuels and clean, renewable energy. Developing state-specific standards will give heavily coal-reliant states more realistic targets, while still moving them toward a cleaner energy supply. In addition, states and power plant owners can keep costs down by using a variety of measures to achieve compliance, whether it’s installing a new boiler in an old coal-fired plant, or investing in a home-weatherization program to reduce energy demand. These efficiency measures will help keep energy bills low and also create thousands of jobs that can’t be outsourced.

All in all, NRDC’s flexible, cost-effective proposal can achieve a 26 percent reduction (from 2005 levels) in carbon pollution from power plants by 2020, according to modeling done by the same firm the EPA uses for much of its air pollution modeling. The cost of compliance, about $4 billion, is comparatively low, and is vastly outweighed by the benefits--$25 to $60 billion in savings. These benefits come in the form of 3,600 lives saved, and thousands of asthma attacks and other illness prevented each year due to less air pollution, as well as the value of reducing carbon pollution by 560 million tons. This is twice the reduction that will be achieved by clean car standards.

The President has been very clear about the need to do something to curb global warming. This cost-effective proposal could be his biggest opportunity to take decisive action. He can dramatically reduce carbon pollution from power plants--while creating major health benefits and jobs--using his existing authority under the Clean Air Act.

Looking Ahead to Obama’s Second Term – Thoughts on the Administration’s Environmental Agenda

Posted on December 14, 2012 by Daniel Riesel

Although the still-divided Congress is unlikely to pass significant new environmental legislation over the next four years, the second-term Obama administration has an opportunity to pursue its environmental agenda through the EPA with diminished fear of impacts on the next election. 

The current term saw a period of strong leadership at EPA, but there is a feeling that the agency has not allowed the other regulatory shoe to drop.  EPA stalled on several important regulations, as if anticipating the Romney complaint that excessive regulation was a cause of the recession. Having escaped the prospect of a president hostile to its mission, EPA is now prepared to roll out a queue of pending air pollution regulations in the coming weeks.  The regulations will include final national ambient air quality standards, revised power plant emission standards, and expanded boiler emission rules.   

Since the election, articles and opinion pieces have abounded that speculate on the Obama administration’s second-term approach to climate change. On November 12, 2012, the New York Times published an op-ed article suggesting that the administration could tackle both climate change and the recession by imposing a carbon tax.  A similar suggestion was made in the New Yorker on December 12, 2012.  This is undoubtedly a worthwhile concept, but it is probably a regulation too far.

The second Obama term could be an opportune time to revisit old chestnuts and resolve issues that have bedeviled both the regulated community and environmental advocates.  For example, the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers have been muddling through a proposed guidance document that aims to clarify the Supreme Court’s murky definition of “waters of the United States” subject to EPA jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act. But why should EPA and the Corps issue mere guidance rather than promptly promulgate binding regulations, which are subject to judicial review?  As a result of adopting binding standards the agencies could gain, in addition to regulatory certainty, a strong basis to resist efforts to make the federal government the national waterfront rezoning authority.

Another stalled national environmental initiative that would benefit from robust leadership in the Obama II administration is EPA’s effort to update its regulations for industrial cooling water intake structures.  EPA proposed regulations, designed to protect aquatic organisms, have remained in draft form since March 2011; additional data has been collected and is being analyzed in the interim.  Pending final federal regulations, states have been left to adopt varying approaches to this important issue.

Finally, this period of relative freedom from election concerns might allow the administration to address a significant example of environmental unfairness, CERCLA’s scheme of sticking certain liable parties with the “orphan share” of environmental remediation costs that arise from contamination, generated over the last two centuries of industrial development, for which no financially solvent responsible party can be identified.  The orphan share is often laid at the doorstep of a financially solvent polluter that caused some, but not all, of the pollution at a Superfund site.  Fairness dictates that the public fund the orphan share, as opposed to the party that is prepared to step forward and clean up its own portion of the mess.  Perhaps such a policy might have a sobering effect on the members of the public who clamor for a return to pristine conditions, so long as they don’t have to pay for it.


Posted on August 6, 2010 by Deborah jennings

With Congress failing to act on climate change, attention turns to EPA’s efforts to regulate greenhouse gases (GHGs) pursuant to its authority under the Clean Air Act (CAA). On December 7, 2009, the EPA issued its Endangerment Finding for GHGs, concluding under the CAA’s mobile source section that GHGs endanger public health and welfare, and that GHG emissions from motor vehicles contribute to climate change. See 74 Fed. Reg. 66,496 (Dec. 15, 2009). The determination was a direct response to the Supreme Court’s decision in Massachusetts v. EPA, 549 U.S. 497 (2007), holding that because GHGs are considered “air pollutants” under § 202(a) of the CAA, EPA has authority to regulate them if it determines that they endanger public health or welfare.

Although the Endangerment Finding does not itself impose any requirements on regulated entities, it sets in motion a chain of events culminating in the regulation of GHGs emissions from stationary sources under the CAA. First, it is the predicate for EPA’s rule, signed jointly with the Department of Transportation (DOT) on April 1, 2010, to create GHG emission standards and Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards for light duty vehicles (e.g., cars, light-trucks). See 74 Fed. Reg. 49,454 (proposed on Sept. 15, 2009); 75 Fed. Reg. 25324 (finalized on May 7, 2010). This will dramatically improve fuel economy, requiring automobile companies to meet a combined average fleet of 250 grams of CO2 per mile, or 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016. Additionally, on May 21, 2010, President Obama directed the EPA and DOT to create GHG and CAFE standards for medium- and heavy-duty trucks for Model Years 2014-2018, which currently average only 6.1 miles per gallon. He also directed the agencies to extend the national program for cars and light-duty trucks to Model Years 2017-2025.

The implications of the initial mobile source rule cannot be overstated. According to EPA, as soon as the rule “takes effect” on January 2, 2011, GHGs will become “subject to regulation” under the CAA and therefore must be regulated from stationary sources as well. Stationary sources producing relatively low threshold quantities of GHGs would become subject to the Title V and Prevention of Significant Deterioration (PSD) permitting programs, and potentially stringent pollution controls associated with the latter. In a related rulemaking, EPA announced that the rule would “take effect” no earlier than January 2, 2011, so that PSD for GHGs would not be triggered until that date. 75 Fed. Reg. 17004 (Apr. 2, 2010).

In anticipation of the automobile GHG standard triggering PSD for stationary sources, EPA recently finalized a “Tailoring Rule” to raise the statutory threshold for regulation under the PSD and Title V programs to insulate smaller GHG sources from being subject to such requirements. See 74 Fed. Reg. 55,292 (Oct. 27, 2009) (proposed rule); 75 Fed. Reg. 31,514 (June 3, 2010) (final rule). Under the CAA, sources emitting 100 or 250 tons per year (tpy) of a “regulated pollutant” are subject to the PSD program, while Title V permitting requirements apply to sources emitting 100 tpy or more. By increasing these thresholds to 75,000 or 100,000 tpy of GHGs under the final rulemaking, EPA hopes to protect smaller entities, such as small farms and businesses, from the prospect of onerous GHG controls. While significantly paring down the number of potentially regulated entities, the final Tailoring Rule would still cover 67% of GHG emissions from stationary sources in the United States.

Under the final rule, EPA will phase in the PSD and Title V permitting requirements in two initial stages. First, between January 2, 2011 and June 30, 2011, only sources currently subject to the PSD permitting program for pollutants other than GHGs would be subject to additional permitting requirements for their GHG emissions under PSD. Thus, where a new or modified source exceeds significant emissions thresholds for a traditional PSD pollutant and also increases GHGs by 75,000 tpy CO2e, it will be required to install Best Available Control Technology (BACT) to reduce GHG emissions. These controls are determined on a case-by-case basis during the PSD permitting process, taking into account, among other things, the cost and effectiveness of the control technology. While BACT has yet to be determined, it is very likely to carry significant teeth for new and modified facilities, and will undoubtedly be less flexible than purchasing carbon credits to offset a facility’s emissions. Similarly, only sources currently subject to the Title V operating permit program would be required to meet applicable GHG requirements. No sources would be subject to CAA permitting requirements based solely on their GHG emissions at this time.

Under Step 2 (July 1, 2011 to June 30, 2013), new construction projects emitting at least 100,000 tpy CO2e of GHGs and modifications of existing facilities increasing GHG emissions by 75,000 tpy CO2e will be subject to PSD permitting requirements, regardless of whether they significantly increase emissions of any other pollutant. Title V operating permit requirements will apply to sources emitting at least 100,000 tpy of GHGs. The rules will require certain sources, such as solid waste landfills and industrial manufacturers, to acquire permits for the first time.

Finally, EPA plans on exploring a third step, which may expand permitting requirements for sources emitting at least 50,000 tpy of GHGs, but will not require permitting for facilities emitting below that threshold. Sources exceeding the 50,000 tpy threshold would not be subject to permitting requirements until at least April 2016.

As part of this flurry of new climate change regulatory activity, EPA also approved a Mandatory Greenhouse Gas Reporting Rule, requiring fossil fuel or industrial GHG suppliers, vehicle and engine manufacturers, and facilities emitting greater than 25,000 tpy GHGs to submit annual reports to EPA reporting their emissions. 74 Fed. Reg. 56,260 (Oct. 30, 2009). The information gathered will be used to create a national GHG registry covering 85-90% of national emissions, while also informing future policy decisions. Facilities must commence monitoring on January 1, 2010 and submit to EPA their first annual reports containing 2010 data by March 31, 2011.

Although most of EPA’s measures are sure to be challenged in court, they represent an extremely critical foundation for greenhouse gas controls in the U.S. EPA action under the Obama Administration has all but ensured that U.S. businesses will operate in a carbon-constrained environment.

Be Careful What You Wish For

Posted on December 11, 2009 by Lee A. DeHihns, III

On December 7, 2009, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson stated that greenhouse gases (GHGs) “threaten the public health and welfare of the American people”. This CAA endangerment finding was what everyone had expected due to the strong proposed finding and the inevitable result of legislation that the Obama administration has been supporting.  

Now that the U.S. has a position to take to Copenhagen - either EPA or Congress will tackle and reduce GHGs - so count on the U.S. to do its part. Despite all the discussions about the costs of the U.S. policy on the U.S. economy, which are not close to being resolved, where will the money come from to help the 3rd World countries? Amounts of $10B a year and upwards of hundreds of billions of dollars are used like the money is easily available in today’s economy. 

If GHGs are a serious threat, reductions are necessary and need to start soon. However, let’s be very careful to not to solve the problem by pushing the cost of energy so high that most of the world will eventually enjoy clearer skies and air, while sitting in the dark or shivering during the winter months.   

In shifting to cleaner fuel sources like natural gas (or solar or wind) as preferred sources of energy we need to be certain that the supply system can be created in a cost-effective manner and in time to meet the GHG emissions reduction goals. We also need to be sure that siting such generation facilities meets with the expectations of the host communities.


Pres. Obama's DOJ Takes Second Shot at Citizen Suit Dismissal

Posted on April 3, 2009 by Jarred O. Taylor, II

Citizen suits in the environmental world are those filed in federal court under the authority Congress gave to a citizen to seek enforcement of the environmental laws, typically when the citizen believes the regulatory authority (i.e. EPA or a state agency) is not doing its job or has missed a violation.  


Entire articles have been written about the efficacy of such suits, and their appropriateness in the face of an already-initiated governmental enforcement or cleanup action. Recent cases suggest the courts want to encourage, and not discourage, such filings, although one recent US Supreme Court decision found the citizens lacked standing because there was not an actual, live, dispute. Summers v. Earth Island Institute, __U.S.__(No. 07-463, March 3, 2009) (see ACOEL blog entry of March 4, 2009).


Some, therefore, found it surprising when, on March 6, 2009, President Obama’s Justice Department filed a motion seeking the dismissal of a citizen suit filed against the United States over alleged mining contamination in a national forest. What some found even more surprising was this was not the DOJ’s first shot at the citizen group, the DOJ having attempted to get the case dismissed one time before, under Pres. Bush’s DOJ.


In Washington Environmental Council v. Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest (W.D. Wash, CV No. 06-1249), the United States had argued in 2007 that it was already taking action at the site under Superfund, and argued that the citizen suit was a barred challenge to the United States’ “removal or remedial action” under Section 113(h) of Superfund. The federal district court denied this first motion to dismiss on the basis that the US Forest Service was just at the inspection and investigation stage, and had not actually selected a remedy.


On March 6, 2009, with the citizen suit still pending, DOJ filed another motion to dismiss, arguing that the US Forest Service had advanced its Superfund work so that all of its inspections were complete and it was beginning to perform the engineering evaluation for remediation, and to calculate those costs. DOJ argued in its motion that such activity, even though before any cleanup had been actually conducted, does meet the Section 113(h) criteria barring such challenges, and that the citizen suit should be dismissed. The author is unaware of a court ruling on this recent motion.


One hopes the administration’s position in this case (whether right or wrong) would be the same if the subject of the citizen group’s complaint was a non government organization or other private company, and not the United States. Comments?


Posted on February 24, 2009 by Elliot Laws

As Lisa Jackson completes her first month as President Obama’s environmental chief, she is just scratching the surface on some of the myriad issues that will likely have impacts far beyond typical environmental concerns, for decades to come. There has to be some mixture of excitement and fear facing this new administration, as the challenges before it dwarf all of those in memory. That mixture will be especially prevalent at EPA. Usually in times like these — war, recession, high unemployment –— environmental issues can be expected to fade from the front pages. An EPA administrator would receive the old admonition to be seen and not heard. However, unlike past crises environmental issues are in the forefront — primarily in the form of climate change and energy. It is notable that when the government is lending billions of dollars to Citibank and debating the very existence of the big three automakers, one of the first actions of the incoming Obama administration has been to review EPA’s previous decision to deny California’s petition for a Clean Air Act waiver to allow it to regulate greenhouse gases from mobile sources.



The expectations for success that many Obama supporters have are high. Those expectations are high in the environmental community — perhaps too high. The ongoing financial collapse in the United States and abroad has changed the landscape in ways that could not have been imagined as recently as August, when Obama accepted the Democratic nomination for president. With the federal government having committed nearly $1 trillion in an attempt to save financial institutions across the country; with Congress passing an economic stimulus package costing an additional $750 billion; with the United States still conducting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, outside of the infusion of stimulus cash for “shovel-ready projects” the expectation that EPA’s budget will experience significant increases over the Bush years is hardly a reasoned view. It’s not just the mind boggling challenge facing us on the economy, it’s also the difficult decisions that must be made to address climate change; it’s the need to seriously address the nation’s nearly suicidal dependence on foreign oil; and it’s myriad other issues that will all require hard choices and sacrifice.


Those expectations are probably low in the business community — as they normally are when the country shifts from a Republican to a Democratic administration. And similarly, those expectations are perhaps too low. I believe if this president will be true to one of his campaign promises, it is to govern in a way that puts partisanship on the sidelines. He has already proved that commitment by sending a strong signal to Senate Democrats that he does not wish to see retaliation against Senator Joe Lieberman (I-Connecticut) for his support not only of John McCain, but also Republican senatorial candidates in Minnesota, Maine, and Oregon. What Obama signaled with that position is that he is not going to put partisanship ahead of his plans to help America, even if partisans refuse his offers to join him.. He is looking at new alliances and will work with people who were not shy in their opposition to his election as he works as president. The mantra of “no permanent friends; no permanent enemies” is likely to be the Obama approach to working in Washington, DC.


We as a nation are facing an uncertain future. The environment is likely going to play a larger role in the lives of average Americans than it has since its heyday in the 1970s. Lisa Jackson has the monumental task of rallying an agency suffering from low morale, with precious few additional resources, to make decisions in perhaps the most hotly debated and controversial area of environmental law and policy ever. She will make recommendations and decisions that will have implications not only on the very future of the United States, but likely for the world as well. To the NGO community, the challenge is not to be disappointed as this president makes decisions that balance multiple important considerations and who will often decide that another consideration must trump the environmental choice. To the business community, the challenge is to be more optimistic and to show the initiative and courage necessary to work with this new administration and its traditional allies to solve the monumental problems facing the world.

A Quick Economic Stimulus Meets a Slow Environmental Process - Are NEPA Waivers Needed to Reach Energy Independence?

Posted on January 30, 2009 by Bradley Marten

President Obama has pressed Congress this week to enact an economic stimulus package that would “double our capacity to generate alternative sources of energy like wind, solar, and biofuels . . . and build a new electricity grid that lay down more than 3,000 miles of transmission lines to convey this new energy from coast to coast.”[i] On Wednesday, January 28, 2009, the House passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (H.R. 1), which contains nearly $15 billion in capital investments and loan guarantees for renewable energy projects and new electric transmission lines, and $18.5 billion for energy efficiency programs.  The Administration’s stated goal is to spend this money in the next 18 months. This may be possible for the energy efficiency projects such as weatherizing homes and government buildings.  But for dozens of new wind farms and thousands of miles of transmission lines, it is not, and a good part of the reason is that those projects have yet to undergo environmental review or receive necessary permits.

[i] These remarks came in the President’s first weekly address, which was delivered on Saturday, January 24, 2009. The address can be viewed at this link.


Typically, siting a transmission line, wind farm, or other major energy facility involves obtaining a long list of environmental permits, each of which has a review process that can be used by opponents of the project to delay and sometimes defeat it. Moving infrastructure projects forward quickly will only be possible if Congress and the Administration speed up the environmental review and permitting process.  

In a January 26, 2009, report, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that it will take up to seven years to spend the money that H.R. 1 dedicated to expanding alternative energy. Experience teaches that this estimate may be overly conservative. For example, the Arrowhead-Weston Transmission Project, a 220 mile transmission line from Wisconsin to Minnesota, took nine years to permit and construct, even though all but 50 miles of it were in existing transmission line corridors. Southern California Edison’s Tehachapi Transmission Project, a 250 mile transmission project to deliver electricity generated from wind farms in Southern California, took over 10 years to design, permit, and begin construction. Indeed, portions of the project are still undergoing environmental review by the U.S. Forest Service and others.

Recently, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger requested up to $44 billion for transportation, energy and water projects in California, claiming that these projects will create as many as 800,000 new jobs.  Knowing that traditional environmental review would slow short-term job creation, Governor Schwarzenegger asked the Obama Administration to “waive or greatly streamline National Environmental Protection Act requirements consistent with our statutory proposals to modify the California Environment Quality Act for transportation projects.”

The proposal drew immediately fire from environmental groups. In a January 13, 2009, letter to House and Senate Democratic leaders, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the League of Conservation Voters and Environment California called Governor Schwarzenegger’s proposal “unproductive and harmful” to the federal debate over reviving the economy.  “Inevitably, in the course of congressional consideration, special interests will assert that we cannot afford the NEPA process in a time of national urgency,” they said.  “The truth is that we cannot afford that kind of leap-before-you-look rashness.” 

The new Administration must navigate this tension – quickly addressing the economic crisis while maintaining the integrity of the environmental review process. Doing so will require identifying ways that environmental review and permitting can be streamlined and modernized, alongside the infrastructure system.  We ought to be able to get wind farms and bridges and light rail built in a time frame that provides the short-term stimulus our economy needs, and also allow for sufficient environmental review to make sure our resources are protected.   This article lays out some of the options the new Administration may wish to consider as it seeks to balance job creation with environmental stewardship.

Approaches for Streamlining the Environmental Review Process

Use Existing Provisions Allowing Temporary Waivers


Many environmental regulatory statutes contain waivers of applicable requirements in response to natural disasters or other emergency conditions.  For example, the Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act authorizes NEPA waivers to facilitate prompt responses to natural disasters.[1]  Similarly, the White House Council of Environmental Quality (CEQ) is authorized to approve “alternative arrangements” allowing federal agencies to modify or limit NEPA review in response to natural disasters.[2]  Other federal environmental laws with emergency response provisions include the Clean Water Act[3] and CERCLA.[4]

In response to Hurricane Katrina, CEQ approved expedited NEPA review procedures for certain U.S. Army Corps of Engineers flood control projects.  EPA temporarily waived certain Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, and other environmental regulations in Katrina’s wake.  Both Louisiana and Mississippi issued similar emergency administrative orders, temporarily suspending certain environmental regulations to facilitate clearing hurricane debris and other emergency response actions.

Waivers Based on Grounds of National Security

In 2002, after the Natural Resources Defense Council obtained a preliminary injunction halting the U.S. Navy’s use of a low-frequency, active, surveillance towed array sonar system,[5] President Bush issued a “Presidential Exemption from the Coastal Zone Management Act,”[6] in order to “ensure effective and timely training of the United States naval forces in anti-submarine warfare using mid-frequency active sonar.”  The Presidential exemption allowed the Navy to train and certify strike groups capable of deployment “in support of world-wide operational and combat activities, which are essential to national security.”

The United States Supreme Court upheld the President’s action, finding that the public interest in adequately training the Navy’s antisubmarine forces “plainly outweighs” conservationists’ interests in studying marine mammals that may be injured by sonar exercises.[7]

Legislative Exemptions for Specific Projects


Congress has also periodically either limited or exempted review under NEPA and other environmental statutes for specific projects or categories of projects.  For example, the Energy Policy Act of 2005 modified the environmental compliance requirements for a broad range of energy-related projects.  The modified environmental compliance measures included:

  • Establishing a rebuttable presumption that certain oil and gas projects conducted on federal land are categorically exempted from NEPA review (§ 390);
  • Exempting hydraulic fracturing in aid of oil, gas, and geothermal energy extraction from certain requirements in the Safe Drinking Water Act (§ 322);
  • Exempting oil and gas exploration, production, and transportation construction projects from the Clean Water Act’s construction stormwater regulations (§ 323);
  • Requiring EPA and federal land management agencies in Western states to develop a pilot project to expedite environmental review and permitting under NEPA, the ESA, the Clean Water Act, and other federal statutes (§ 365);
  • Expediting the permitting process for natural gas facilities located on federal lands (§ 366); and
  • Shortening the time frame for appealing permitting decisions under the Coastal Zone Management Act (§ 381).

Congress has also exempted or provided limited NEPA review for other projects, for example:

·        The TransAlaska Pipeline was exempted from NEPA review after completion of the initial EIS (43 U.S.C. § 1625(d));

·        Certain actions taken pursuant to the Clean Air Act are exempted from NEPA review (15 U.S.C. § 793(c)(1));

·        Department of Energy decisions to grant or deny exemptions from regulations governing fuel use at coal-fired power plants are exempted from NEPA review (42 U.S.C. § 8473);

·        For certain retrievable radioactive waste storage projects, an Environmental Assessment (as opposed to an EIS) constitutes sufficient compliance with NEPA (42 U.S.C. § 10155(c)(2)(A));

·        Alternate environmental review procedures have been established for determining surface transportation rights-of-way in the Arctic National Preserve (42 U.S.C. § 410hh(4)(d); and

·        Certain Department of Housing and Urban Development funding decisions are exempt from NEPA review, based on certification of compliance with state and local laws (42 U.S.C. § 3547(2)).

Using Streamlined Environmental Review to Address Economic Conditions


While legislative, regulatory, and executive precedent exists for either waiving or limiting environmental review, those precedents have rarely been used to justify waiving environmental review on the grounds of an economic crisis.[8]  But precedent exists for using “alternative arrangements” for environmental review in response to economic concerns.  In 1980, after General Motors threatened to build a new manufacturing facility outside the city limits unless the city cleared and delivered an appropriate site for the facility, the City of Detroit declared a state of emergency based on an economic crisis.  In September 1980, CEQ approved an “alternative arrangement” under NEPA allowing the Department of Housing and Urban Development to release loan guarantee funds prior to the completion of NEPA review.[9]

The challenge for the new Administration and Congress is to strike a balance between expediting environmental review while maintaining sufficient oversight to prevent bad decision making.  Options to achieve that goal include: (1) expediting funding for “shovel ready” projects which already have undergone federal and state environmental review and obtained necessary permits; (2) using programmatic environmental review of project categories that would obviate the need for project-specific (and often redundant) environmental reviews; (3) providing limited exemptions or streamlined environmental review for specific categories of projects; and (4) limiting judicial review of final agency approvals for projects funded by the stimulus bill, while providing for oversight, review, and approval by CEQ.

For more information, please contact Bradley Marten

[1] See 42 U.S.C. § 5159.

[2] 40 CFR § 1506.11.

[3] Under 40 CFR § 122.3, the President or an agency acting with delegated Presidential authority may grant a waiver of the NPDES requirement if necessary to address substantial threats to public health or welfare. EPA invoked this exception in response to Hurricane Katrina. Another exception is 40 CFR § 122.41(n), which allows a wavier in the event of an “upset,” which is the temporary failure to comply with NPDES permit conditions based on factors that are beyond the reasonable control of an operator, for example, a power failure or a large spill of contaminants into a collection and treatment system.

[4] CERCLA provides the President and EPA with broad authority and flexibility to undertake response actions whenever there is a release or threatened release of a hazardous substance which presents an imminent and substantial danger. See 40 CFR § 300.400(e)(1).

[5] See NRDC v. Evans, 232 F. Supp.2d 1003 (N.D. Cal. 2002) (for more information on this decision, see Colleen C. Karpinsky, A Whale of a Tale: The Sea of Controversy Surrounding the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the U.S. Navy’s Proposed Use of the SURTASS-LFA Sonar System, 12 Penn St. Envtl. L. Rev. 389 (2004)).

[6] Per its terms, the Presidential Exemption was based on the “Constitution and the laws of the United States, including section 1456(c)(1)(B) of title 16, United States Code.”

[7] Winters v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 555 U.S. ___, 129 S. Ct. 365 (2008).

[8] While NEPA allows agencies to allow “alternative arrangements” suspending or modifying environmental review, CEQ regulations limit their applicability to “actions necessary to control the immediate impact of the emergency.” 40 CFR § 1506.11 (emphasis supplied).

[9] Although the full NEPA review was eventually completed, the “alternative arrangement” allowed HUD and the city to expedite project activities in response to an economic crisis. The facts of the Detroit “alternative arrangement” are summarized at Crosby v. Little, 512 F. Supp. 1363 (E.D. Mich. 1981).


Posted on November 10, 2008 by Larry Ausherman

It has been a long time since an environmental issue attracted some serious attention in a presidential campaign. This is the year, and climate change is the issue. From his campaign to his election night reference to a "planet in peril", President-Elect Obama has focused on climate change. There are a few other environmental issues to watch as well.


Climate Change

            The issue of climate change overshadowed other environmental issues in this election, in part because it is directly linked to other high priorities of the new administration. Goals of creating 5 million green-collar jobs and a focus on renewable energy and energy conservation enlarge the profile of climate change initiatives. For example, on the Obama-Biden website, the topics of environment and energy are grouped together as one, and the initiatives of each are related. 


            Green house gases reduction is an important goal for President-Elect Obama. The goal to reduce greenhouse gases has many parts, but imposing an economy-wide cap and trade system is the centerpiece of the policy. The plan would require that all credits be purchased at auction by industry. Costs to purchase credits could be enormous.


            In addition to domestic commitments to climate change initiatives, Obama supports "re-engaging" with the United Nations and the creation of a Global Energy Forum that includes the G8+5 Nations . The initial steps of his international policy may come soon when Obama's representatives will likely visit the climate change talks in Poznan, Poland this December.


            The broadening Democratic majority in Congress favors Obama's climate change agenda. In addition to Democratic gains in the House and the Senate, the League of Conservation Voters reports that seven of its 2008 "dirty dozen" legislators were defeated in the 2008 election. Among environmental groups, hopes are high for the new presidency.


            But because Obama's objectives require heavy investment in renewable energy, regulatory compliance, and clean technology, they face difficult hurdles. High deficits and the global financial crisis challenge the ability of the federal government to spend, the capacity of private markets to invest, and the resilience of the U.S. economy and industry to weather increased costs of regulation. Great investment would be required for meeting goals for clean coal technology, biofuel development, renewable energy, and energy efficiency.


Other Environmental Issues

            Here are some of the other environmental issues to watch.


            CERCLA issues have not received great attention so far. However, Obama has suggested reinstitution of the tax on industry to pay for orphaned sites and has emphasized the concept of "polluter pays".


            For many years, changes to the General Mining Law of 1872 to impose royalty and/or additional regulation have been proposed and defeated. Although mining law reform has not been a significant part of the presidential campaign, the chances for its passage in the more Democratic congress has increased.


            Obama's past opposition to offshore drilling weakened a bit this year in the Senate as a result of a compromised effort. Obama would support offshore exploration in areas already set aside for it, but his opposition to ANWAR remains firm.


            It is unclear what priority the Obama administration will place on biodiversity and the Endangered Species Act. Biodiversity has received little attention in the campaign, but the campaign has opposed lessening of ESA consultation requirements.