Cape Wind Project Suffers Another Blow: Is This The Knock-Out?

Posted on July 13, 2016 by Jeff Thaler

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit on July 5 issued a ruling that the federal government violated the Endangered Species Act and the Administrative Procedure Act in approving the long-running, oft-litigated Cape Wind offshore wind project proposed to be built off the Massachusetts coast.  Senior Judge Randolph, writing for an unanimous panel, confirmed the District Court’s rejections of a number of the claims advanced by Plaintiffs (who included the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, the Town of Barnstable, and the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound), but reversed the District Court on two key points.

The proposed Cape Wind project, which has been the subject of voluminous news coverage and many court cases for well over a decade, sought to construct 130 3.6 MW turbines in shallow waters near Nantucket.  Challenges have included scenic impacts; Native American concerns that the project would will block their sunrise views across the sound, disturb ancestral burial grounds, and perhaps disturb cultural relics; and issuance of submerged land leases required by the project. Financial hurdles seemed to put the project into a death spiral two years ago, but quietly the project developers have continued legal fights to defend the permits and approvals previously issued. They have largely been successful—until this month.

Early on, biologists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (“FWS”) had recommended that the wind turbines be shut off during limited periods of highest risk to two birds listed under the Endangered Species Act-- the piping plover and roseate tern.  However, the FWS ultimately rejected that conservation measure on the grounds that it would impair the financial feasibility of the project. The Court of Appeals held that the FWS’s action was arbitrary and capricious.  The Court further held that the project cannot proceed without compliance with the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and without further analysis of environmental impacts pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act. 

In conclusion, the Court stated:   “We reverse the district court’s judgment that the Bureau’s environmental impact statement complied with NEPA and that the Service’s incidental take statement complied with the Endangered Species Act, and we vacate both statements.” A copy of the ruling is here.

Presidential Directive Mandates Expansive and Likely Unlawful No Net Loss Compensatory Mitigation Requirement for Most Federal Development Permitting

Posted on November 12, 2015 by Jeffrey Lepo

 

On November 3, 2015, President Obama issued a Presidential Memorandum establishing policies that are a significant departure from existing practice regarding compensatory mitigation for effects to natural resources from most federally approved projects.  The Memorandum, entitled “Mitigating Impacts on Natural Resources from Development and Encouraging Private Investment,” applies to all permits and authorizations issued by the Department of Defense (e.g., the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers), the Department of Agriculture (e.g., the Forest Service), the Department of Interior (e.g., BLM, USFWS, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, etc.), EPA and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration  (e.g., National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) ), including actions taken by USFWS and NMFS pursuant to the Endangered Species Act.  Although it cannot be known today how the new policies will ultimately be implemented, the Memorandum is, at least as written, both anti-development and potentially draconian. 

 

The new Memorandum states that it is establishing certain policies premised upon “a moral obligation to the next generation to leave America’s natural resources in better condition than when we inherited them.”  In furtherance of this moral obligation, the President has established it to be the policy of the identified federal bodies (and all bureaus and agencies within them):

 

·         To avoid and to minimize harmful effects to land, water, wildlife and other ecological resources (natural resources), and to require compensatory mitigation for, the projects they approve.

 

·         To establish a net benefit goal or, at a minimum, a no net loss goal for mitigation of the natural resources each agency manages that are important, scarce or sensitive.

 

·         To give preference to advance compensation mechanisms in establishing compensatory mitigation.  “Advance compensation” is defined to mean a form of compensatory mitigation for which measurable environmental benefits (defined by performance standards) are achieved before a given project’s harmful impacts to natural resources occur.  This policy preference appears to somehow contemplate that compensatory mitigation will be achieved before the project is constructed and operated.

 

·         To use large-scale plans to identify areas where development is most appropriate, where natural resource values are irreplaceable and development policies should require avoidance, and where high natural resources values result in the best locations for protection and restoration.

 

The Memorandum also establishes certain deadlines for action, principally by the agencies of the Department of Interior (e.g., one year deadline for BLM to “finalize a mitigation policy that will bring consistency to the . . . application of avoidance, minimization and compensatory actions [f]or development activities and projects impacting public lands and resources.”; one year deadline for USFWS to finalize compensatory mitigation policy applicable to its Endangered Species Act responsibilities).

 

Some federal laws (e.g., Clean Water Act Section 404 permitting for filling of waters of the United States) already have well-developed compensatory mitigation programs; however, most federal permitting schemes have not been interpreted or implemented to authorize or require compensatory mitigation, let alone at no net loss or net benefit levels.  Accordingly, to the extent that the Memorandum is intended to require net benefit or no net loss compensatory mitigation through many/most federal permitting programs, such a directive would be a significant departure from existing practice, of untested legality, and arguably contrary to existing law.

 

Moreover, to demonstrate that compensation has occurred at a net benefit or no net loss, unless the adverse effects are offset through generation or preservation of in-kind resources (e.g., a duck for a duck), the “damage” to affected natural resources must first be valued.  Accordingly, if implemented so that compensatory mitigation is broadly required, the policy could lead to an extensive, time consuming and complicated valuation process.  One worst case scenario would be for this policy to result in some form of new natural resources damages assessment, the time and expense for which would be challenging to rationalize in the context of a development proposal where cost and time are relevant (i.e., for every development project).

 

Unless the Memorandum is rescinded or feebly implemented, or its implementation is held unlawful, it has significant strategic, permitting, legal and financial implications for many, if not most, major development projects.  Of course, it is likely to be difficult or impossible to challenge the new policies established in the Memorandum, except on a project-by-project permit-by-permit basis.  As such, the pressure for project proponents to navigate (rather than litigate) the new policies will be substantial. 

Another Legal Victory for America’s First Offshore Wind Project

Posted on December 5, 2014 by Katherine Kennedy

The 468 megawatt Cape Wind project, slated for construction in federal waters off the coast of Massachusetts in Nantucket Sound, is the first offshore wind project to be proposed and approved in the United States.  The project has strong support from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, many national, state and local environmental groups, organized labor and many others. 

But being the first in an innovative venture is always difficult, and unsuccessful litigation by project opponents – some funded in large part by billionaire Bill Koch – has slowed the pace of the project.  By Cape Wind’s count, thirty-two cases have been filed by project opponents.  Cape Wind has ultimately prevailed in all of these actions.

A recently issued but unheralded district court decision now signals yet another legal victory for Cape Wind.

In April 2010, after a lengthy and comprehensive environmental review and permitting process which included preparation of two environmental impact statements, the U.S. Department of Interior approved the Cape Wind project.  Project opponents then filed three complaints in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia.

The complaints, which were ultimately consolidated, challenged approval of the project by various federal agencies and alleged violations of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Endangered Species Act, the Migratory Birds Treaty Act, the National Historic Preservation Act, the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, and the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Act of 2006. 

Cape Wind intervened in the actions as a defendant-intervenor.  Because of the project’s clean energy significance, NRDC attorneys (including me), joined by the New England-based Conservation Law Foundation and Mass Audubon, the state’s leading wildlife protection organization, filed two “friend of the court” briefs in support of the project.

In March 2014, U.S. District Court Judge Reggie Walton issued an 88-page decision granting summary judgment to the defendants, rejecting the bulk of opponents’ challenges to the federal government’s 2010 approval of the project.  The court dismissed outright a host of claims that related to the government’s environmental review of the project under the National Environmental Policy Act and to the Coast Guard’s review of navigation issues under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act.

The court remanded two limited issues back to the federal agencies. First, it directed the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) to make an independent determination about whether a potential operational adjustment for the project was a “reasonable and prudent measure”.  The court explained that it was unable to tell, based on the record, whether the Fish & Wildlife Service had made an independent determination or had adopted a position taken by a sister agency.

Second, the court directed the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to issue an incidental take permit covering right whales.  While the NMFS biological opinion stated that the project “was not likely to adversely affect right whales” and that “incidental take was not likely to occur,” the court found that the opinion did not state that an incidental take would not occur or determine the volume of any potential take.

After the court’s decision, the two federal agencies complied with the district court’s instructions.  FWS issued its independent determination with respect to the potential operational adjustment.  NMFS amended the incidental take opinion to state that no take of right whales was anticipated, and thus the incidental take amount for this species could be set at zero.

However, that did not end the matter.  As the district court noted in its September 12, 2014 order, “history should have forewarned that any attempt to bring this [protracted] litigation to an expeditious conclusion would prove difficult.”  And as expected, the plaintiffs filed a supplemental complaint challenging the two agencies’ actions on remand.

On November 18, 2014, the district court dismissed the plaintiffs’ supplemental complaint.  The court made short work of the claims, finding them all to be barred – some because they had been previously waived or abandoned and some because the Court had previously considered and rejected them.  Indeed, the court noted that some of the claims were “difficult to understand.” With that decision, this chapter in the long string of legal challenges was concluded, at the district court level at least.  The plaintiffs filed a notice of appeal yesterday.

Meanwhile, the Cape Wind project continues to move forward.  In July, the U.S. Department of Energy issued a conditional loan guarantee commitment for the project, the first step toward securing a $150 million loan guarantee.  In August, the project selected its lead construction contractors.  Construction is expected to proceed in 2015.  

And Cape Wind’s example has spurred forward movement in the U.S. offshore wind industry.  Currently, there are some fourteen offshore wind projects in an advanced stage of development along the East Coast and elsewhere, representing 4.9 gigawatts of potential renewable electricity capacity.  Despite the protracted litigation, it’s my hope that Cape Wind, buoyed by its legal victories, will herald the start of a new renewable energy industry that will fully and sustainably tap into the United States’ huge offshore wind resource.

The Trains Don’t Wait... GHG Permits Leaving the Station

Posted on March 24, 2014 by Catherine R. McCabe

While the world waits for the Supreme Court to decide whether EPA can regulate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from stationary sources under the Clean Air Act, EPA and state permitting authorities have moved ahead to issue GHG permits. Some of those permits are encountering legal challenges. The Sierra Club and citizen activists are challenging permits issued by EPA Regions as insufficiently stringent, and urging EPA to use its Prevention of Significant Deterioration (PSD) permitting authority to require greater use of solar energy and carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) at new facilities.

So far, EPA’s Environmental Appeals Board has rejected two citizen challenges to GHG PSD permits issued by EPA Regions. On March 14, 2014, the Board denied the Sierra Club’s petition for review of a GHG permit issued by Region 6 for a new natural gas-fired power plant in Harlingen, Texas. In re La Paloma Energy Center, LLC. (Those of you who follow events in Texas will recall that EPA is currently running the GHG permitting program in that state, but has proposed to approve the state’s application to assume responsibility for that program.) The Board rejected Sierra Club’s arguments that the permit’s GHG emission limits were not stringent enough to meet BACT standards and that Region 6 should have required La Paloma to consider adding a solar energy component to its power plant. The Board cautioned, however, that there is no “automatic BACT off-ramp” for solar energy alternatives, and emphasized that permitting authorities must consider suggestions for adding solar energy components at new facilities on a case-specific basis.

In 2012 the Board rejected similar arguments by citizen activists who urged Region 9 to use its PSD permitting authority to require a new hybrid (gas-solar) power plant in California to reduce GHG emissions by increasing its planned solar generation capacity. In re City of Palmdale. The proposed plant was to be fueled primarily by natural gas, with a modest (10%) solar power component to satisfy California renewable energy requirements. The decisions in both City of Palmdale and La Paloma relied heavily on the Regions’ findings that there was insufficient space at the project sites to accommodate the solar power generation capacity that the petitioners were advocating. 

The Palmdale decision also upheld Region 9’s rejection of CCS as a BACT requirement for that facility based on cost considerations. The estimated annual cost of CCS would have been twice the project cost (annualized over 20 years) in that case. Sierra Club has renewed the debate over the affordability of CCS in a new PSD permit appeal that is currently pending before the Board. In re ExxonMobil Chemical Company Baytown Olefins Plant. Region 6 rejected the CCS option in this case based on a finding that the cost would be disproportionately high. Stay tuned for a Board decision in the next few months . . . 

*Any views expressed herein are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency or the United States.

Coming Attractions: Sea-Level Rise, New IPCC Reports, and Floating Wind Power Projects

Posted on September 4, 2013 by Jeff Thaler

There has been a flood (no pun of course) of new stories this month about rising sea levels, acidifying oceans, drought-driven wildfires, and extreme weather events in the U.S. and globally. At the same time, with the official release of the eagerly-awaited Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change due in several weeks, leaks of a draft portion of the Report are coming out in the media, indicating increasing confidence in the underlying science and in a substantial human role in warming, primarily as a result of burning fossil fuels. Additionally, as reported in the N.Y. Times, it appears that the draft projects that sea level could rise by only about 10 inches by 2100 under the “most “optimistic” scenario. But “at the other extreme,” with emissions continuing to swiftly increase, “sea-level rise could be expected to rise at least 21 inches and might increase a bit more than three feet” by the end of this century—which “would endanger many of the world’s great cities — among them New York, London, Shanghai, Venice, Sydney, Australia, Miami, and New Orleans.” Some believe that the FAR will still understate the likely forthcoming climate disruptions.

Coincidentally (or not?), those of you who still subscribe to the National Geographic Magazine would have seen in August a cover story entitled “Rising Seas”, which leads off with questions a panel of ACOEL members will (coincidentally?) in part be addressing at our Annual Meeting in Boston: “As the planet warms, the sea rises. Coastlines flood. What will we protect? What will we abandon? How will we face the danger of rising seas?” . And rising sea levels are especially of relevance to any ACOEL member living in a state on the Atlantic coast, because sea levels have been rising three to four times more rapidly off the Atlantic Coast than the global average, according to a recent study. For those of you living between the coasts, the San Francisco water supply and Yosemite National Park are both threatened by an out-of-control wildfire, while the western United States are experiencing significant drought.

And while forests burn and seas warm, acidify, and rise, one good news story was the recent launching in Maine of the first grid-connected floating wind turbine outside of Europe.

It also is the first concrete-composite floating wind turbine in the world, using advanced material systems with a unique floating hull and tower design.  The 65 ft tall turbine prototype is a one-eight-scale version of a 6 MW, 423 ft rotor diameter design.  Currently being developed by the University of Maine and beginning preliminary environmental and permitting work, Maine Aqua Ventus I had been selected by the Department of Energy early this year out of 70 competing proposals as one of 7 winners of $4 million in initial funding.  The project is now a finalist for an additional $46.6 million in funding. This project is critical, because floating offshore wind energy projects have the potential to generate large quantities of pollutant-free electricity near many of the world’s major population centers (but far enough away, in water depths up to 400’, to not be visible from shore), and thus to help reduce the ongoing and projected economic, health, and environmental damages from climate change. Wind speeds over water also are stronger and more consistent than over land, and have a gross potential generating capacity four times greater than the nation’s present electric capacity.

(Full disclosure:  I am legal counsel for the project)

New Frontiers of Environmental Advocacy

Posted on August 21, 2013 by Eugene Smary

Since one of the objectives of the ACOEL blog is to promote thought and discussion, I have decided to plunge in with abandon.  Hopefully the objective of promoting discourse will be met.

We all have reconciled ourselves to the fact that environmental advocacy has become very politicized on all portions of the political spectrum—so much so, that environmental advocacy oftentimes morphs into political/partisan advocacy.  In the last several years we have seen environmental advocacy reach a new level.  I leave it to the reader to decide whether that level is high or low.  I have my point of view, and I suspect the reader will see that soon enough.

Two projects, one proposed, and one still only in the realm of “contemplation” serve as lightning rods for this new form of environmental advocacy:  the Keystone XL Pipeline project and the potential Pebble Mine.  Keystone XL formally has been proposed.  The Pebble Mine has yet to have a permit application submitted but nonetheless is the subject of protracted and unique opposition.

It is becoming increasingly common to witness the advocacy relating to the Keystone XL Pipeline project—unprecedented in both its breadth and emotional intensity--from proponents and opponents alike.  Proponents have tended to follow the more traditional advocacy approach of published opinion pieces and structured meetings and association support.  The opposition has been much less traditional.  Certainly there has been a history of focused opposition to some projects viewed by some as adversely impacting the environment, but those have been very focused locally or at most regionally.  We all recall “tree sitters” opposing harvesting of redwood timber.  Street theatre is not uncommon.  Here in Michigan I have seen an individual dressed up as a skeleton in opposition to use of a school built on an abandoned municipal landfill, or dressed up as a fish in opposition to a proposed hard rock mine.  The call for civil disobedience in opposition to Keystone XL goes well beyond street theatre, however.  It is something that has not been seen, at least in my memory, since the days of the Civil Rights and Vietnam War protests.  Lost in all of the demonizing of the development of hydrocarbons in Alberta, Canada’s northern reaches (called “oil sands” by proponents and “tar sands” by opponents) is the fundamental impact that a denial of the Presidential Permit necessary to construct the pipeline will have on the diplomatic relationship between Canada and the United States.   The failure to issue a permit thus far has contributed substantially to a reconsideration of Canadian policy goals and economic development.  No longer is the Canadian policy as focused and U.S.-centric as it once was.  Canada is reevaluating the degree to which it can continue to trust its southern neighbor.  It is not a stretch of the imagination to read the tone and tenor of the “policy” discussion and advocacy antics as being officious.  An offer to “help” with the evaluation of the climate change risk of the bitumen production and methods of amelioration, while perhaps well-intentioned, certainly is capable of being seen as sanctimonious, or even arrogant.  The old images of the “ugly capitalist”, and the “ugly American” are being supplemented by images of the “ugly environmentalist.”  The increasingly strident nature of the anti-Keystone advocacy ignores or dismisses broader foreign policy considerations.

Now, if that is not enough to get discussion going, I don’t know what is.  But, on the off chance that there is need for more encouragement, let me raise one other advocacy project:  the contemplated Pebble Mine located in the Bristol Bay, Alaska, watershed.  Pebble Mine may not be as well-known nationally as Keystone XL, but some NGOs are trying to make certain that it does become known—and opposed.  If Pebble is known for anything, it is that it is the subject of an environmental assessment being undertaken by U.S. EPA, in advance of any permit application having been filed and without any proposed mining plan having been developed.  Now Pebble has a major mail order retailer using its customer-based mailing list vigorously and bluntly to oppose the Pebble project.  Within the last several weeks I received a “fly fishing” catalogue from this company, a company from which I have purchased products for well over 30 years.  I started seeing full-page advertisements opposed to Pebble in the interior of its catalogues within the last year.  This most recent mailing is the first time I received a catalogue whose cover was emblazoned with the words “Pebble Mine” inside a red circle with a slash through it and the admonition to “JOIN THE FIGHT” at the company’s website.

In an age where social issues are increasingly being highlighted in commercial advertisements, perhaps I have been lulled into thinking that subtlety makes such advertising acceptable.  There is nothing subtle about this fly fishing catalogue’s assault on a mining project. Opposition to mining in sulfide ore bodies appears to have become a focal point for the leadership of this company.

This is a free country and we all enjoy freedom of speech.  The ultimate power, of course, is to take one’s business elsewhere, but I just found this to be a rather unique “in your face” form of environmental advocacy.  If I want to receive environmental advocacy—from any quarter, I will ask for it.  If I wish to purchase goods and get on a mailing list for that purpose, I expect to get future mailings about similar products.  I do not expect—or authorize—use of my name and address to receive decidedly political advertising nor biased social commentary.  I know how and where to get plenty of that in a setting where it is both thoughtful and analytical.  Combining a commercial catalogue with a political advertisement, or rather turning a catalogue into a political advertisement, crosses the line.  Perhaps it is a line that we as a society are willing to tolerate in this age of political intolerance.  We will see.

Now, let the discussion begin.

What Direction Is The Wind Blowing?

Posted on August 16, 2013 by Gregory H. Smith

Ever since the shock of the oil embargo in 1973 we have been a nation in search of a comprehensive, sound energy policy. It was only a year later, in response to the proposal by Aristotle Onassis to locate an oil refinery on the coast of New Hampshire, that the New Hampshire Legislature adopted the first version of the State’s energy facility siting law.

Today, New Hampshire’s siting law, representing a balance of the need to develop new energy facilities with appropriate protection of the environment, preempts local authority and requires each project to undergo a rigorous comprehensive, consolidated evaluation before a  panel of high-ranking State officials from the several different departments having jurisdiction over all the relevant permits. To obtain all State permits and a Certificate from the siting committee, the applicant must be prepared to present the project in a consolidated process, subject to formal discovery, at an adjudicative hearing before the committee. Interested parties and municipalities may intervene and the Attorney General appoints Public Counsel for the case to represent the broad public interest. To take positions in the broad public interest, Public Counsel is charged with the responsibility to represent the interests of the public as a whole, and not simply the narrower positions adopted by intervening parties. To discharge this responsibility, which derives directly from that of the Attorney General in all other cases, the Public Counsel must take positions that balance the public interest in developing new, diversified energy facilities and the need to take into account environmental regulation.

This highly structured, energy facility permitting process is significant regionally and nationally because its standards tend to drive the design of interstate facilities. Current energy policy and its direction may be discerned from trends reflected in the written decisions of the siting committee over time.  Other states may be developing approaches to these issues.

Beginning in the late 1990s, a steady stream of energy projects have been presented to the committee. Until the mid-2000s, the majority of those projects involved fossil fuel generation, and in particular natural gas generating stations and transmission lines. As public policy, driven by concerns for global warming, has put increasing emphasis on renewable energy sources, there has been a significant increase in proposals to construct wind energy facilities. What is most striking from this perspective is that no energy project was rejected until 2013, although some facilities were subject to hundreds of conditions in their certificate.

This year, a proposed 30 megawatt wind farm in Antrim was rejected on its “aesthetics”, an indisputably highly subjective standard in search of criteria that will avoid arbitrary and capricious adjudications. Three previous wind power projects have all been approved with essentially the same characteristics, but for the first time the committee, at the urging of public counsel, has declined to approve the project rather than setting forth criteria and conditions that would bring essential predictability to this important technological advance in energy production.

The region and the nation will be well served by a steady expansion in the number of renewable energy projects, and this opportunity has the attention of large, even international, experienced and capable developers. Does the rejection of the Antrim project, despite public support, on the basis of the objections of special interests actively supported by public counsel risk a slowing down or abandonment by developers to the detriment of the region’s public interest in a diversified energy portfolio? Is it coincidence that a wind energy project was rejected recently in Maine, also on highly subjective grounds of aesthetics, a case that was referenced in the New Hampshire proceedings? And shouldn’t we ask whether advancing wind turbine technology is something we find in most places attractive, when it represents a great benefit to the environment and the public interest?

These cases bear watching. The New Hampshire case appears to be headed to the State Supreme Court. Will it turn out that these developments represent a turning away from favorable conditions promoting wind energy, so that wind energy development will decline in the years ahead? For environmentally sound economic development in this region and elsewhere we should hope not.

New EPA Case Studies on Environmental Justice and Permitting

Posted on June 4, 2013 by Elliott Laws

With the 20th anniversary of Executive Order 12898 soon approaching, EPA has been planning on extensively incorporating “environmental justice” into its permitting processes.  This executive order required all federal agencies to address disproportionately adverse human health or environmental effects of their programs, policies, and activities on minority and low-income populations in the U.S.

To that end, nearly two years ago, EPA issued “Plan EJ 2014” as a roadmap – not as a rule – to implement the executive order throughout the agency.  Specifically, Plan EJ 2014 formally introduced EPA’s priorities of promoting increased public participation in the permitting process and considering more stringent permit conditions.  In February of this year, EPA selected two case studies that highlight the agency’s approach to achieving these permitting priorities.

The first case study involved a recent Prevention of Significant Deterioration (PSD) permit for the Pioneer Valley Energy Center, a power plant expected to generate up to 431 MW in Westfield, Massachusetts.  From the developers’ filing of the permit application in November 2008 through EPA’s issuing of the final permit in April 2012, Region 1 incorporated what it has described as environmental justice into this permitting process by providing enhanced public engagement opportunities and including more stringent conditions in the permit.  These stricter conditions were aimed at limiting the applicant’s ability to burn ultra-low sulfur diesel for testing of its emergency generator when air quality would already be diminished.

The second case study involved a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) general permit for oil and gas exploration in Cook Inlet, Alaska.  Even as this permit has evolved over time, now with federal and state authority split, the subject conditions have been based on environmental justice considerations dating back to 2006-2007.  In the permit’s 2007 iteration, Region 10 incorporated environmental justice into this permitting process by collecting and considering tribal traditional knowledge about the effects of development and by imposing more restrictive permit conditions.  These conditions imposed new monitoring requirements, extended the area where discharges were prohibited for all sources from 1,000 to 4,000 meters from sensitive coastal areas, and explicitly did not authorize several types of drilling discharges for new sources.
 
There are two striking facets of these case studies.  First, even as EPA found no disproportionate adverse effect on minority populations, low-income populations, or tribal populations, EPA still included somewhat more restrictive permit conditions based upon environmental justice considerations.  Second, the imposed conditions do not appear to be particularly onerous – perhaps explaining why the permittees did not challenge the additional restrictions.  Opinions vary as to the impact of these “EJ conditions” on the permitting process, as EPA likely  could have imposed these restrictions under existing statutes and regulations without any reference to environmental justice. 

Nevertheless, EPA seems to be testing the limits of its authority and telegraphing its intent to continue these efforts.  Consequently, practitioners and permit applicants should be wary of EPA seeking to impose potentially unnecessary conditions based upon environmental justice.

Fifth Circuit Shuts Down Climate Tort Plaintiffs Again

Posted on May 21, 2013 by Robert Wyman

Climate tort plaintiffs cannot catch a break in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.  In a May 14, 2013, decision, the Fifth Circuit found—once again—that a group of Mississippi Gulf Coast property owners is barred from suing energy companies for tortiously emitting greenhouse gases (“GHGs”). 

The case, Ned Comer, et al. v. Murphy Oil USA, et al., has a long and twisting history.   At one point the case was widely viewed as in the vanguard of a handful of cases with the potential to radically realign the legal framework under which companies emit GHGs. 

Comer was originally filed in the Southern District of Mississippi in 2005.  Plaintiff coastal property owners alleged that the defendant companies’ emissions exacerbated climate change, which intensified Hurricane Katrina, which in turn damaged the plaintiffs’ property.  Invoking the federal courts’ diversity jurisdiction, the plaintiffs sought compensatory and punitive damages, asserting state law claims of nuisance, trespass, and negligence, among other claims. The district court dismissed the claims on the grounds that the plaintiffs lacked standing and that the matter was not justiciable under the political question doctrine. 

In November 2009, a Fifth Circuit panel reversed, in part, the district court’s dismissal of the claims.  The Fifth Circuit panel found that plaintiffs had standing to bring the state law claims, which the court found did not present political questions. 

The Fifth Circuit panel’s decision came in the wake of the Second Circuit’s precedent-setting September 2009 decision in State of Connecticut, et al. v. American Electric Power Company Inc., et al., in which the Second Circuit recognized the validity of federal common law public nuisance claims challenging the emission of GHGs, found that a number of states and private environmental groups had standing to press such claims, and rejected the argument that the claims are nonjusticiable.  Together, these cases were viewed as potentially ushering in a new era in which companies emitting GHGs would need to contend not just with EPA’s regulations but also with common law climate tort claims seeking injunctive relief or money damages.

The new era was not to be.  As to Comer, before the panel opinion’s mandate issued, a majority of the Fifth Circuit’s active, unrecused judges voted to rehear the case en banc.  Under Fifth Circuit rules at the time, this vacated the panel opinion reversing the district court’s dismissal.  Before the Fifth Circuit reheard the case en banc, however, another Fifth Circuit judge was recused, leaving the court with only eight active, unrecused judges.  Five of the remaining eight judges then determined that, with the additional recusal, the court lacked a quorum to proceed, and the judges issued in May 2010 an order dismissing the plaintiffs’ appeal from the district court’s decision for lack of a quorum. 

Plaintiffs petitioned the Supreme Court, seeking review of the Fifth’s Circuit dismissal of their appeal.  The Supreme Court denied the petition in January 2011, at which point one might have expected the case to be over. 

However, the same group of property owners proceeded to file a new complaint in May 2011 alleging many of the same nuisance, trespass, and negligence claims against the same energy company defendants.  The District Court again dismissed the claims, finding them to be barred by res judicata and the applicable statute of limitations, and also to fail to establish proximate causation and be preempted by the Clean Air Act.  In addition, as it had in Comer I, the court found that the plaintiffs lacked standing and that the claims raised nonjusticiable political questions. 

The Fifth Circuit’s May 2013 decision in Comer II upholds the district court’s dismissal of the climate tort claims.  The Fifth Circuit agreed the case is barred by res judicata, and did not address the district court’s other grounds for dismissal.  Despite the procedural quirks of Comer I, the Fifth Circuit found the district court’s decision in that case to represent a final judgment, never modified on appeal.  In addition, the Fifth Circuit found the district court’s final judgment to be on the merits because it adjudicated the jurisdictional issues of standing and justiciability. 

Fall of 2009 may turn out to have been an apogee of sorts for climate tort claims.  In June 2011, the Supreme Court issued a decision in Connecticut v. American Electric Power, holding that the Clean Air Act and the EPA actions it authorizes displace any federal common law right to seek abatement of GHG emissions.  Climate tort plaintiffs in a third case, Native Village of Kivalina v. Exxon Mobil Corp., et al., were also on the losing end of a September 2012 Ninth Circuit panel decision which found the plaintiffs’ claims that climate change would result in erosion and flooding of the island where they live to be a matter that should be left to the legislative and executive branches of government.  The Kivalina plaintiffs petitioned the Supreme Court in February for a writ of certiorari. 

As GHG levels in the atmosphere approach their highest levels in hundreds of thousands of years or longer, the prospects for new legislative or executive branch action are uncertain.  Although California recently implemented an economy-wide GHG cap and trade scheme, which began imposing compliance obligations earlier this year, that program is being challenged in the courts and there appears to be little appetite for comprehensive federal climate change legislation.  EPA proposed in April 2012 a GHG performance standard for new power plants pursuant to its Clean Air Act authority, but the timing for action with respect to existing power plants and other emitting sectors is unclear.  In light of the uncertainty on the regulatory and legislative fronts, and given the massive alleged harms involved, it may be too early to say if the climate tort is essentially finished or will in the future be resuscitated in a new and more potent guise.

“Whenever”: EPA’s Continuing Power to Withdraw Dredge-and-Fill Permits

Posted on May 1, 2013 by Lisa Heinzerling

On April 23, a panel of the D.C. Circuit unanimously held in Mingo Logan Coal Co. v. EPA that the Clean Water Act gives EPA the authority to withdraw permits previously granted under section 404 of the Act.  The case emerged from EPA’s determination that the discharge of mining waste from the Spruce No. 1 mine in West Virginia into certain streams and tributaries would have an unacceptable adverse effect on environmental resources.  Based on this determination, EPA withdrew the Army Corps of Engineers’ prior specification of these streams and tributaries as disposal sites for the waste from mountaintop removal.

Several features of the case are striking.  First, the decision has obvious – and obviously important – implications for the ongoing debate over mountaintop removal and its irredeemable environmental impacts.  No longer can the argument be made that a permit, once issued, gives the permittee the power, in perpetuity, to blast the tops off of mountains and dump them into streams.

Second, the decision rested, for the most part, on a single word: “whenever.”  The Clean Water Act states that the Administrator of the EPA may withdraw the specification of a disposal site for dredge-and-fill material “whenever” she determines that it will have an “unacceptable adverse impact” on certain environmental resources.  The court took Congress, literally, at its word, and held that “whenever” means whenever – that is, even if EPA finds unacceptable adverse impacts after a permit has issued, the agency has the authority to pull the permit.

Third, as if to make certain its own holding is unambiguous, too, the court five times stated that the Clean Water Act unambiguously authorizes EPA to withdraw permits after they are issued.  EPA’s current interpretation of the Act is thus not changeable by a future administration.

Should permittees fear that “whenever” will become wherever?  It is worth remembering that EPA’s decision on the Spruce No. 1 mine was the first time EPA had – ever! – withdrawn a previously issued permit, in the 40-year history of the Clean Water Act.  Whether EPA will be emboldened by this decision, or will continue to mostly allow existing permits to stand, remains to be seen.

Would You Like Some Unintended Consequences With That Tea?

Posted on February 6, 2013 by Linda Benfield

Wisconsin has a proud tradition of strong political opinions.  Recent Tea-Party backed legislation in Wisconsin limiting the power of government will be interesting to follow as the consequences play out, particularly in the environmental arena. 

In March 2011, Wisconsin’s then-new Republican Governor Scott Walker and the Republican legislature passed the Wisconsin Budget Repair Bill, the state law that famously limits the collective-bargaining rights of public employees. Following that, the legislature passed 2011 Wisconsin Act 21, which includes a “limited government” provision that prohibits any “agency [from] implement[ing] or enforc[ing] any standard, requirement, or threshold, including as a term or condition of any license issued by the agency, unless that standard, requirement, or threshold is explicitly required or explicitly permitted by statute or by a rule that has been promulgated in accordance with [state law].” 

This will play out in a number of ways.  Like other state environmental agencies, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (“WDNR”) relies significantly on guidance documents to implement otherwise complex programs. A number of issues are addressed only in WDNR guidance, not in explicit regulations.  These include sediment cleanup standards; references to “sediment” were intentionally removed from the state soil cleanup standards.  This not only affects state cleanup programs, but also raises issues as to whether the state sediment cleanup standards can be “applicable or relevant and appropriate requirements” under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act.  Similarly, the WDNR’s vapor intrusion sampling, analysis and remediation protocols are contained only in state and federal guidance documents. 

Recently, the U.S. EPA chose language in a proposed SIP denial that adds fuel to some permitting arguments.  In 2008, U.S. EPA required revisions to State Implementation Plans (“SIPs”) with respect to PM2.5 permitting; Wisconsin made regulatory changes, and requested SIP approval in 2011.  On December 18, 2012, the U.S. EPA proposed disapproval of the SIP revision.  77 Fed. Reg. 74817 (2012).  According to U.S. EPA, Wisconsin’s submission is deficient because the Wisconsin regulations do not “explicitly” define the condensable component of PM10 and PM2.5 emissions, and do not “explicitly” identify SO2 and NOx as precursors to PM2.5.  The U.S. EPA’s disapproval language gives the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources the usual additional work to propose and finalize regulatory changes to address the deficiency, but it also gives regulated sources an additional argument that the WDNR lacks the authority to regulate condensable particulate matter and PM2.5  precursors.

MONTANA SUPREME COURT REJECTS CONSTITUTIONAL CHALLENGE TO LARGE STATE COAL LEASE

Posted on January 2, 2013 by Stephen R. Brown

Montana’s state constitution contains what is arguably the most stringent environmental protection clause of any state.  Article II, Section 3 of the Montana Constitution guarantees all persons “the right to a clean and healthful environment.”  This provision is paired with Article IX, Section 1, which says the “state and each person shall maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations.”  Although these clauses have been in the state constitution since 1972, they rarely have been applied by the Montana Supreme Court to invalidate legislation, overturn state action or to provide a private remedy.  In October, 2012, the Montana Supreme Court rejected the latest attempt to apply these provisions.

Montana is a coal-rich state.  The State of Montana owns significant quantities of this coal.  The State Land Board controls the leasing of state-owned coal.  In 2010, the land board approved a massive lease to Arch Coal.  Montana received an $85 million bonus payment for this lease. 

In addition to the environmental-protection provisions of the state constitution, Montana has a state environmental policy act, structured similarly to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).  The Montana Environmental Policy Act (MEPA) contains a number of exemptions from environmental review that would otherwise be required.  One of these provisions exempts the land board from the obligation to undertake environmental review at the leasing stage, so long as a lease contains a provision stating that actual mining is subject to further environmental permitting.  The land board relied on this exemption to issue leases to Arch Coal without first undertaking MEPA review.

Several environmental groups challenged the land board’s leasing action, arguing that the application of the MEPA exemption violated the Montana Constitution on an as applied basis.  They argued that the leasing decision opened the door to the mining and burning of large quantities of coal without environmental review.  A state district court found that mining and burning coal could exacerbate global climate change, which in turn could adversely affect water, air and agriculture in Montana.  Based on this finding, the district court declined to dismiss the case, but it also refused to grant summary judgment to the NGO plaintiffs on the constitutional claim.  The district court concluded that the State retained sufficient environmental protection mechanisms at the mine permitting stage to meet its constitutional obligations.

The NGO plaintiffs appealed the case to the Montana Supreme Court.  In Northern Plains Resource Council v. Montana Board of Land Commissioners,  the Supreme Court upheld the district court and rejected the constitutional challenge.  Although the Supreme Court confirmed the fundamental right to a clean and healthful environment and acknowledged potential global climate change implications of further coal development, the Court held that it was not required to apply a strict scrutiny analysis to the statutory exemption from MEPA.  The Court concluded that “the act of leasing” did not interfere with the exercise of a fundamental right requiring “demonstration of a compelling State interest.”  Instead, the Court applied a “rational basis” test to conclude that the potential for additional environmental review at the permitting stage was sufficient.  On that basis, the Supreme Court held that the exemption from MEPA review did not violate the Montana Constitution.

Getting serious on climate change and reforming regulatory review of clean energy projects

Posted on December 19, 2012 by Jeff Thaler

The attached article will be published in the upcoming issue of the Lewis & Clark Law School Environmental Law Review.  The article is among the first to integrate current climate change science, particularly ongoing impacts and predicted impacts, with a detailed roadmap for substantial reform of our environmental processes for reviewing proposed renewable energy projects.
 
Most existing articles either focus only on climate science or on minor modifications to the regulatory system. Using offshore wind power as a case study, this article demonstrates how, in an increasingly carbon-constrained world, our existing environmental laws and regulatory process no longer achieve their underlying goals of long-term ecosystem conservation. To the contrary, these laws and regulations are supporting a system with increasing greenhouse gas emissions that is annually costing trillions of dollars.

We have little time left to create a practical path to achieving an 80% reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050—with failure resulting in average global temperatures rising more than the internationally-agreed targeted ceiling of 2°C. After examining the obstacles confronting a potential developer of offshore wind, this article clearly lays out why and how the existing regulatory process should be quickly reformed so that offshore wind and other clean renewable energy sources can help us escape the escalating consequences of our carbon-intensive economic system.

Defining a Stationary Source: How Much Aggregation is Too Much Aggregation?

Posted on September 13, 2012 by Theodore Garrett

One company may own a variety of “functionally related” facilities that are located on various contiguous and non-contiguous parcels of land, spread out over many square miles.  May all those “functionally related” facilities be considered “adjacent” and thus deemed to be one single major stationary source for Clean Air Act Title V permitting purposes?

A Court of Appeals recently weighed in on this issue.  On August 7, 2012, the Sixth Circuit vacated EPA’s determination that Summit Petroleum Corporation’s natural gas sweetening plant and gas production wells located in a 43-square mile area near the plant were “adjacent” and thus could be aggregated to determine whether they are a single major stationary source for Title V permit purposes. Summit Petroleum Corp. v. EPA, 2012 WL 3181429 (6th Cir., Aug. 7, 2012). The majority held that EPA’s position that “functionally related” facilities can be considered adjacent is contrary to the plain meaning of the term “adjacent,” which implies a physical and geographical relationship rather than a functional relationship.  The court also found EPA’s interpretation to be inconsistent with the regulatory history of Title V and prior EPA guidance.  The case was remanded to EPA for a reassessment with the instruction that Summit’s activities can be aggregated “only if they are located on physically contiguous or adjacent properties.”

Judicial Activism and Judicial Restraint: The 5th Circuit Vacates EPA's Disapproval of Texas SIP Revisions Concerning Minor Sources

Posted on August 14, 2012 by Seth Jaffe

On Friday, in Texas v. EPA, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals vacated EPA’s decision rejecting Texas’s SIP revisions that would have implemented (and did implement, for 16 years) a Flexible Permit Program for minor NSR sources. While genuflecting at the altar of deference to agency decisionmaking, the Court concluded that EPA’s rejection was not based on either EPA factual determinations or on its interpretation of federal, as opposed to state, law.  The Court also concluded that EPA had not in fact relied on the reasons given in its briefs, and refused to defer to EPA’s “post hoc rationalizations.” The Court thus gave essentially no deference to EPA’s decision.

The interesting part of the decision was the dissent by Judge Patrick Higginbotham, a Reagan appointee. Judge Higginbotham took the majority to task for “not faithfully applying the deferential arbitrary and capricious standard.” He then persuasively demonstrated why the Texas program, as written, did violate the Clean Air Act.

After dismantling the majority’s logic, he then addressed the practical heart of the case – EPA’s 16-year delay in rejecting the SIP revisions. While criticizing EPA for the delay, Judge Higginbotham pointed out that there is a statutory remedy for EPA’s failure to rule on the revisions – a suit under section 7604(a)(2) of the CAA – a remedy never pursued by Texas.

What’s important about this case is that is an excellent example of why judicial restraint is so often “more honor’d in the breach than the observance.” (It’s been a while since I’ve quoted Shakespeare.) When a federal agency unwinds state policy after a sixteen-year delay, it’s very tempting for courts to engage in judicial activism, if that’s what it takes to go upside the agency’s head. The harder course, requiring more discipline, is to remain true the ideal of judicial restraint – that a court is not to substitute its judgment for an agency acting pursuant to an act of Congress. Therefore, Judge Higginbotham’s conclusion seemed worth note:

"As so often with political debate in search of a legal forum, its utility lies largely in pleasure of expression. Angst over perceived federal intrusion into state affairs ought be eased by the reality that laws enacted by Congress are laws of the States. Congress passed the Clean Air Act and made it enforceable by the EPA. The State was represented in that decision by two senators and its thirty-two other elected members of Congress. It also bears mentioning that its former governor was resident in the White House for eight of the years in passage here. The Clean Air Act is not foreign law. I dissent."

Here's a Suprise -- A Cap-and-Trade System For Nutrients Would Substantially Decrease the Cost of Nutrient Reductions in Chesapeake Bay

Posted on May 8, 2012 by Seth Jaffe

Yesterday, the Chesapeake Bay Commission released a study showing that implementation of a nutrient trading system would dramatically reduce the cost to achieve nutrient reductions in Chesapeake Bay. Pardon me if I seem to be posting a lot of dog bites man stories recently.

Although it should not come as a surprise that a trading system would permit nutrient reductions to be attained most cost-effectively, the scope of the benefit is worth noting. If trading were allowed basin-wide, and among both point and agricultural non-point sources, costs are projected to decrease by about 50% of the non-trading compliance costs.

Since I have faced this issue in Massachusetts, I found it even more noteworthy that, if trading were expanded to include regulated urban stormwater sources, compliance costs are expected to be reduced by about 80% over the non-trading scenario. The report’s explanation is both simple and cogent:

Implementing urban stormwater BMPs tends to be a much less cost-effective way of reducing nutrient loads than agricultural BMPs.

To which I say, you could have knocked me over with a feather. I just hope that EPA does not limit its review of this report to the Chesapeake Bay itself, but considers its implications more broadly in the context of stormwater regulation in other areas.

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?)

Should We Go Nuclear - Again?

Posted on November 29, 2010 by Rodney Brown, Jr.

The US hasn't licensed a new nuclear power plant in a quarter-century. Most people have forgotten the plants even exist – but they might be coming back. In the last couple of years, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has received more than twenty new plant applications.

Are we ready to go nuclear again?

 

 

The US has about 100 nuclear plants in operation today, generating around 20% of the nation's electricity. Most plants were built in the 1960s and 1970s, and will need to be replaced before too long. Far more plants have been built abroad, and many of them will need to be replaced too.

 

 

Replacing worn-out nuclear plants with new ones is very controversial, at least in the US. Our colleague, Michael Gerrard, will explore the controversy by hosting a debate on nuclear power at Columbia Law School on Monday, November 29th from 7 to 9 PM. The debate will be webcast live, and a video will be posted on the website of the Center for Climate Change Law. Contact Ashley Rossi at arossi@law.columbia.edu for more info.

 

 

In the meantime, how can we learn what to believe — and what not to? Fortunately, in 2007 the Keystone Center conducted a "joint fact-finding" to identify facts upon which people with different policy goals could absolutely agree. The participants came from all over, ranging from utilities like Exelon and Entergy to environmental groups like Environmental Defense and the Natural Resources Defense Council. They may continue to disagree on the values implicit in their various policy goals. But it turns out that they can agree on a foundation of facts.

 

 

For example, all agreed nuclear power is in fact a low-carbon energy source that can help fight climate change. They also agreed that the global nuclear industry would in fact need to embark on a massive construction program if nuclear power is to provide even 1 gigatonne of carbon reductions (equal to just one "wedge" from the famous Sokolow & Pacala climate stabilization wedges. Here's the specific factual finding:

 

"The NJFF participants agree that to build enough nuclear capacity to achieve the carbon reductions of a Pacala/Socolow wedge (1 GtC/year or 700 net GWe nuclear power; 1,070 total GWe) would require the industry to return immediately to the most rapid period of growth experienced in the past (1981-90) and sustain this rate of growth for 50 years."

 

On another point, the participants agreed that nuclear power probably would cost between 8 and 11 cents per kilowatt/hour (kW/h) delivered to the grid. This compares to current natural gas costs of about 5 to 6 cents per kW/h. (Wind power's costs fall somewhere in between.)

 

 

On the controversial topic of using new technologies to "reprocess" nuclear fuel, participants agreed it wasn’t likely to prove economically viable:

 

"No commercial reprocessing of nuclear fuel is currently undertaken in the U.S. The NJFF group agrees that while reprocessing of commercial spent fuel has been pursued for several decades in Europe, overall fuel cycle economics have not supported a change in the U.S. from a “once-through” fuel cycle. Furthermore, the long-term availability of uranium at reasonable cost suggests that reprocessing of spent fuel will not be cost-effective in the foreseeable future. A closed fuel cycle with any type of separations program will still require a geologic repository for long-term management of waste streams."

 

Agreement on all the true facts might make it easier to resolve the debate over nuclear power's role in our energy future. To learn more about them download the Keystone Center's executive summary or the report in full.

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.

The Deck is Still Stacked in the Government's Favor -- Is This A Good Thing?

Posted on July 22, 2010 by Seth Jaffe

Last week, in City of Pittsfield v. EPA, the First Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed denial of a petition by the City of Pittsfield seeking review of an NPDES permit issued by EPA. The case makes no new law and, by itself, is not particularly remarkable.  Cases on NPDES permit appeals have held for some time that a permittee appealing an NPDES permit must set forth in detail in its petition basically every conceivable claim or argument that they might want to assert. Pretty much no detail is too small. The City of Pittsfield failed to do this, instead relying on their prior comments on the draft permit. Not good enough, said the Court. 

For some reason, reading the decision brought to mind another recent appellate decision, General Electric v. Jackson, in which the D.C. Circuit laid to rest arguments that EPA’s unilateral order authority under § 106 of CERCLA is unconstitutional. As I noted in commenting on that decision, it too was unremarkable by itself and fully consistent with prior case law on the subject.

What do these two cases have in common? To me, they are evidence that, while the government can over-reach and does lose some cases, the deck remains stacked overwhelmingly in the government’s favor. The power of the government as regulator is awesome to behold. Looking at the GE case first, does anyone really deny that EPA’s § 106 order authority is extremely coercive? Looking at the Pittsfield case, doesn’t it seem odd that a party appealing a permit has to identify with particularity every single nit that they might want to pick with the permit? Even after the Supreme Court’s recent decisions tightening pleading standards, the pleading burden on a permit appellant remains much more substantial than on any other type of litigant.

Why should this be so? Why is it that the government doesn’t lose when it’s wrong, but only when it’s crazy wrong? 

Just askin’.

A Combined Superfund and Stormwater Rant

Posted on July 7, 2010 by Seth Jaffe

Sometimes, the practice of environmental law just takes my breath away. A decision issued earlier last month in United States v. Washington DOT was about as stunning as it gets. Ruling on cross-motions for summary judgment, Judge Robert Bryan held that the Washington State Department of Transportation had “arranged” for the disposal of hazardous substances within the meaning of CERCLA by designing state highways with stormwater collection and drainage structures, where those drainage structures ultimately deposited stormwater containing hazardous substances into Commencement Bay -- now, a Superfund site -- in Tacoma, Washington.  

I’m sorry, but if that doesn’t make you sit up and take notice, then you’re just too jaded. Under this logic, isn’t everyone who constructs a parking lot potentially liable for the hazardous substances that run off in stormwater sheet flow? 

For those who aren’t aware, phosphorus, the stormwater contaminant du jour, is a listed hazardous substance under Superfund. Maybe EPA doesn’t need to bother with new stormwater regulatory programs. Instead, it can just issue notices of responsibility to everyone whose discharge of phosphorus has contributed to contamination of a river or lake.

The Court denied both parties’ motions for summary judgment regarding whether the discharges of contaminated stormwater were federally permitted releases. Since the Washington DOT had an NPDES permit, it argued that it was not liable under § 107(j) of CERCLA. However, as the Court noted, even if the DOT might otherwise have a defense, if any of the releases occurred before the permit issued – almost certain, except in the case of newer roads – or if any discharges violated the permit, then the Washington DOT would still be liable and would have the burden of establishing a divisibility defense. 

If one were a conspiracy theorist, one might wonder if EPA were using this case to gently encourage the regulated community to support its recent efforts to expand its stormwater regulatory program. Certainly, few members of the regulated community would rather defend Superfund litigation than comply with a stormwater permit.

You can’t make this stuff up.

EPA's Roll-Back of Bush-Era Rules Appears to Begin in Earnest

Posted on February 13, 2010 by Seth Jaffe

While a lot of attention has been paid to whether EPA would reverse the Bush EPA decision denying California’s petition to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from mobile sources,  it is now clear even outside the climate change arena that life at EPA is going to be substantially different under the current administration.  As if evidence were really needed for that proposition, EPA announced this week that it was putting on hold the NSR aggregation rule that EPA had promulgated on January 15, 2009.

The rule, which had been long sought by industry, would have provided that nominally separate projects would only have to be combined – aggregated for NSR/PSD purposes – if  they are “substantially related.” It also would have created a rebuttable presumption that projects more than three years apart are not substantially related. Responding to a request from NRDC and the OMB memo asking agencies to look closely at rules promulgated before the transition but not yet effective, EPA concluded that the rule raises “substantial questions of law and policy.” Therefore, EPA postponed the effective date of the rule until May 18, 2009 and also announced that it was formally reconsidering the rule in response to the NRDC petition.

To those in industry, the aggregation rule was not a radical anti-environmental roll-back of environmental protection standards.  Rather, it was more of a common-sense approach towards making the NSR program simpler and clearer.  It is one of my pet peeves with the prior administration, however, that it gave regulatory reform a bad name.  

In any case, I feel as though I should open a pool regarding what will be the next Bush-era rule to be tossed overboard.  We surely won’t have to wait long for it to happen.

When Do EPA BACT Requirements "Redesign the Source"? Not When EPA Says They Don't

Posted on January 7, 2010 by Seth Jaffe

Shortly before the holidays, EPA Administrator Jackson issued an Order in response to a challenge to a combined Title V / PSD permit issued by the Kentucky Division for Air Quality to an Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle, or IGCC, plant. The Order upheld the challenge, in part, on the ground that neither the permittee nor KDAQ had adequately justified why the BACT analysis for the facility did not include consideration of full-time use of natural gas notwithstanding that the plant is an IGCC facility. 

The Order may not be shocking in today’s environment – all meanings of that word intended – but the lengths to which the Order goes to avoid its own logical consequences shows just what a departure this decision is from established practice concerning BACT. BACT analyses have traditionally involved the proverbial “top-down” look at technologies that can be used to control emissions from a proposed facility. In other words, EPA takes the proposal as a given, and then asks what the best available control technology is for that facility

In EPA’s own words – from its New Source Review Workshop Manual (long the Bible for BACT analysis):

Historically, EPA has not considered the BACT requirement as a means to redefine the design of the source when considering available control alternatives. For example, applicants proposing to construct a coal-fired electric generator, have not been required by EPA as part of a BACT analysis to consider building a natural gas-fired electric turbine although the turbine may be inherently less polluting per unit product (in this case electricity).

Apt example, don’t you think? (In case you are wondering, EPA’s decision does not discuss or refer to this text from the NSR Manual.)

What was the basis for EPA’s decision here? Largely, it is that the IGCC facility will be designed to burn natural gas as well as syngas and the permittee specifically stated that it planned to combust natural gas during a 6-12 month startup period. On these facts, EPA concluded that the permittee and KDAQ had to do a better job explaining why full-time use of natural gas should be considered “to redefine the design of the source.”

As noted above, EPA went to great lengths to minimize the scope of the decision. It states that the Order:

should in no way be interpreted as EPA expressing a policy preference for construction of natural-gas fired facilities over IGCC facilities.

should not be interpreted to establish or imply an EPA position that PSD permitting authorities should conclude … that BACT for a proposed electricity generating unit is … natural gas.

does not conclude that it is not possible or permissible for the permit applicant … to develop a rationale which shows that firing exclusively with natural gas would “redefine the source.”

EPA does not intend to discourage applicants that propose to construct an IGCC facility from seeking to hedge the risk of investing in … IGCC technology by proposing … utilizing natural gas for some period….

Methinks EPA doth protest too much. If I may say so, this is a freakin’ IGCC facility. Isn’t it obvious that one doesn’t plan or build an IGCC facility if one plans to burn natural gas? Don’t you think that EPA could have taken administrative notice of what IGCC technology is?

All of EPA’s protestations about the Order’s limits may be designed to mollify IGCC supporters, but what does its rationale mean for all of the existing facilities – coal and oil – that are already capable of firing on natural gas? Next time they are subject to NSR/PSD review, must they evaluate the possibility of switching completely to natural gas? As I’ve said here before, yikes!

When Do EPA BACT Requirements "Redesign the Source"? Not When EPA Says They Don't

Posted on January 7, 2010 by Seth Jaffe

Shortly before the holidays, EPA Administrator Jackson issued an Order in response to a challenge to a combined Title V / PSD permit issued by the Kentucky Division for Air Quality to an Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle, or IGCC, plant. The Order upheld the challenge, in part, on the ground that neither the permittee nor KDAQ had adequately justified why the BACT analysis for the facility did not include consideration of full-time use of natural gas notwithstanding that the plant is an IGCC facility. 

The Order may not be shocking in today’s environment – all meanings of that word intended – but the lengths to which the Order goes to avoid its own logical consequences shows just what a departure this decision is from established practice concerning BACT. BACT analyses have traditionally involved the proverbial “top-down” look at technologies that can be used to control emissions from a proposed facility. In other words, EPA takes the proposal as a given, and then asks what the best available control technology is for that facility

In EPA’s own words – from its New Source Review Workshop Manual (long the Bible for BACT analysis):

Historically, EPA has not considered the BACT requirement as a means to redefine the design of the source when considering available control alternatives. For example, applicants proposing to construct a coal-fired electric generator, have not been required by EPA as part of a BACT analysis to consider building a natural gas-fired electric turbine although the turbine may be inherently less polluting per unit product (in this case electricity).

Apt example, don’t you think? (In case you are wondering, EPA’s decision does not discuss or refer to this text from the NSR Manual.)

What was the basis for EPA’s decision here? Largely, it is that the IGCC facility will be designed to burn natural gas as well as syngas and the permittee specifically stated that it planned to combust natural gas during a 6-12 month startup period. On these facts, EPA concluded that the permittee and KDAQ had to do a better job explaining why full-time use of natural gas should be considered “to redefine the design of the source.”

As noted above, EPA went to great lengths to minimize the scope of the decision. It states that the Order:

should in no way be interpreted as EPA expressing a policy preference for construction of natural-gas fired facilities over IGCC facilities.

should not be interpreted to establish or imply an EPA position that PSD permitting authorities should conclude … that BACT for a proposed electricity generating unit is … natural gas.

does not conclude that it is not possible or permissible for the permit applicant … to develop a rationale which shows that firing exclusively with natural gas would “redefine the source.”

EPA does not intend to discourage applicants that propose to construct an IGCC facility from seeking to hedge the risk of investing in … IGCC technology by proposing … utilizing natural gas for some period….

Methinks EPA doth protest too much. If I may say so, this is a freakin’ IGCC facility. Isn’t it obvious that one doesn’t plan or build an IGCC facility if one plans to burn natural gas? Don’t you think that EPA could have taken administrative notice of what IGCC technology is?

All of EPA’s protestations about the Order’s limits may be designed to mollify IGCC supporters, but what does its rationale mean for all of the existing facilities – coal and oil – that are already capable of firing on natural gas? Next time they are subject to NSR/PSD review, must they evaluate the possibility of switching completely to natural gas? As I’ve said here before, yikes!

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.