Massachusetts High Court Upholds Environmental Agency’s “Improvement” Of Statute: Will The Us Supreme Court Follow Suit?

Posted on March 17, 2014 by Stephen Leonard

How far can an agency deviate from a statutory scheme in order to achieve what it sees as the goals of that scheme? Can the regulatory structure “improve on” the statute?  These issues are currently playing out in two closely watched cases.

Last year these pages described a then-undecided Massachusetts state court case that had attracted a surprising degree of national attention. Pepin v. Division of Fisheries and Wildlife began as a relatively straightforward challenge to an agency determination that the plaintiffs’ land provided habitat for the Eastern Box Turtle and that construction of their planned retirement home was therefore subject to regulation under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act (MESA). In the course of judicial appeals of the agency decision, the plaintiffs, with new counsel, shifted the focus of their argument to a challenge to the regulations themselves. When the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (Mass SJC), acting sua sponte, transferred the case to its own docket, interest in the case spiked dramatically. Amicus curiae briefs were filed not only by state-based groups, on both sides of the issue (Massachusetts Audubon Society, Development Council of Western Massachusetts, Home Builders Association of Massachusetts), but also by those from farther afield (Pacific Legal Foundation, Defenders of Wildlife, National Association of Homebuilders, The Nature Conservancy). Clearly, something was at stake. And now, just as the Mass SJC has reached a decision in Pepin, very similar arguments are being made, with even more at stake, in this year’s most closely watched environmental case, Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA, the United States Supreme Court’s review of the Obama Administration’s attempt to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from stationary sources. 

To understand these issues, some background on the Massachusetts endangered species regulatory scheme and the challenge to it is necessary. (These are described in more detail in the earlier posting.) The challenged regulations established a process for mapping “priority habitats,” areas that are important for species that fall into any of the three categories established under MESA – in descending order of the peril that they face, endangered species, threatened species, and species of special concern. These Priority Habitat regulations require that before a project is undertaken in such an area, it must be reviewed by the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife to determine whether it will result in a “take” of a species falling into any of the three categories.  (“Take” is very broadly defined in the statute and includes habitat alteration.) If a take will occur, the regulations provide, the project may nevertheless proceed if it can be conditioned in such a way as to avoid that result or, in more difficult cases, if the project proponent takes other steps that will result in “a long-term net benefit to the conservation of the impacted species.”   

In practice, the evidence showed, 75% of projects proposed in Priority Habitat have been approved without conditions, 22% have proceeded with conditions, and 3% have required that other measures, resulting in a “long-term net benefit,” be taken in order to permit the project to proceed. Because of this history, at least parts of the development community in Massachusetts had accepted the Priority Habitat regulations as a reasonable way of accommodating both developers’ interests and the purposes of MESA.  

This acceptance was likely based on something else as well: As a practical matter, the Priority Habitat regulations were promulgated in lieu of regulations under another scheme, specifically set out in the legislation but never put into effect by the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. MESA authorizes the Division to designate as “Significant Habitat” areas that are important to the survival of endangered and threatened species (but not species of special concern). And MESA severely constrains development in areas that the Division has so designated. But, because of the severity of the constraint, the Act also establishes substantial procedural protections before a particular property can be designated as Significant Habitat.  

Rather than designating any Significant Habitat, the Division, relying on a general grant of authority to adopt regulations, created the Priority Habitat scheme, with its less severe restrictions on development and its less burdensome (for the agency) procedural requirements. In short, the Division chose not to adopt regulations specifically contemplated in the enabling legislation and  adopted instead regulations that were easier to administer, less intrusive for those in the regulated community who would have fallen under the legislatively-contemplated scheme and, as a consequence, arguably more effective at protecting at-risk species in Massachusetts. Doing that, though, made the Priority Habitat regulations subject to challenge by those who might prefer that there be no regulation of land use in the interest of protecting at-risk species at all.

The challenge in the Pepin case to the Massachusetts wildlife agency’s rulemaking power is very like the industry challenge to EPA’s rulemaking in Utility Air Regulatory Group. On February 18 of this year, the Mass SJC upheld the validity of the Priority Habitat regulations. On February 24, the United States Supreme Court heard argument on the challenge by industry and certain states to the Environmental Protection Agency greenhouse gas regulations. (Other states intervened in support of the regulations, and there was extensive amicus participation.) At the heart of the challenge in the Supreme Court is an attack on EPA’s determination that it would raise very substantially the threshold at which emitters of greenhouse gases would be regulated; the emission levels specified in the Clean Air Act are much lower, but they were intended for “conventional” pollutants, not greenhouse gases. Using the Congressionally-specified levels would have been an administrative nightmare for EPA. And it would have been enormously burdensome for businesses and even individuals.  EPA therefore determined to use higher thresholds.  This presumably benefits the industry petitioners and the states that support them. But that is not the point. EPA’s action leaves it subject to the accusation leveled at the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife: That it re-wrote a statute in order, in its view, to make it work better, and that an administrative agency may not do that.

The Mass SJC had little difficulty rejecting this claim. The unanimous opinion begins its discussion of the validity of the Priority Habitat regulations by noting that “[d]uly promulgated regulations . . . are presumptively valid and ‘must be accorded all the deference due to a statute.’” And in analyzing whether the plaintiffs had overcome that presumption, the court “look[ed] to the statute as a whole to determine the scope of the agency’s power.” In the recent United States Supreme Court argument, EPA sought to invoke these principles in defense of its greenhouse gas regulations.  And it received some support from the Court. Justice Elena Kagan, according to the New York Times, acknowledged that what the agency did “was true to the law’s larger purpose.” But other Justices were less comfortable: Justice Anthony Kennedy “couldn’t find a single precedent that strongly supports [EPA’s] position.” And Justice Samuel Alito insisted that the agency’s use of its own threshold numbers, rather than those in the Clean Air Act, was unprecedented “in the entire history of federal regulation.”

The two cases are not the same, of course: the statutes are different; the agencies’ actions and choices were different; and the governing administrative law principles may be different in some respects. But it seems likely that the outcomes in the cases turned and will turn less on any of those factors and more on the views of the judges deciding them about the appropriateness of administrative agencies  making their own judgments about how best to accomplish broadly-stated legislative objectives.

One could easily argue that the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife took a more dramatic step, in declining to promulgate regulations that the enabling legislation called for and instead promulgating regulations that were not specifically contemplated by that legislation, than EPA did in adopting the regulatory model that Congress had called for but limiting its reach when it was clear that not doing that would be havoc-making. Perhaps if the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court had reviewed EPA’s actions and the United States Supreme Court had reviewed the Priority Habitat regulations, the results would reflect that distinction. But they didn’t. And what we got, and likely will get, are decisions that reflect as much the views of the members of those courts as they do the substantive nuances of the cases themselves.