The Sackett Effect

Posted on April 6, 2012 by Paul Seals

On Friday, March 30, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) announced that the agency was withdrawing its December 7, 2010 Imminent and Substantial Endangerment Administrative Order (“AO ”) issued unilaterally to Range Resources Corporation and Range Resources Production Company (“Range”).  With much fanfare and national media attention, EPA issued the AO to address the contamination of two water wells in North Central Texas.  EPA alleged that the source of the contamination was from Range’s oil and gas activities, including hydraulic fracturing, in the Barnett Shale Formation.  Range has challenged EPA’s action with pending litigation in the Northern District of Texas and in the Fifth Circuit.  Was EPA’s decision to withdraw its AO an outgrowth of the recent unanimous Supreme Court decision in Sackett v. EPA?

In addition to ordering replacement water supplies to the recipients of water from the affected water well, the AO included the requirements that Range study a twenty-county aquifer, identify gas flow pathways anywhere within that aquifer regardless of their source, and prepare a plan to eliminate those flows and remediate any area of the aquifer that has been impacted by gas from any source.  Range was to identify and sample all private water wells within 3,000 feet of their two suspect gas wells, as well as all the water wells serving a subdivision in Parker County.  Range informed EPA that it disputed the validity of the AO and would not comply with some of its terms.

In addition to Range’s challenge to the AO, the Railroad Commission Texas, the state agency with sole jurisdiction and responsibility for the control and disposition of waste and the abatement and prevention of pollution of surface and subsurface water resulting from oil and gas activities, called a hearing to consider whether Range’s operations caused or contributed to the contamination of the water wells in question.  Based on the evidence presented at the hearing, conducted on January 19-20, 2011, the Railroad Commission found that the contamination of the water wells came from the shallower Strawn gas field, which begins about 200 to 400 feet below the surface.  Geochemical gas testing demonstrated that the natural gas seeping into the water wells did not match the gas produced by Range from the much deeper Barnett Shale field, which is more than 5.000 feet below the surface in that area of Parker County.  The evidence showed that hydraulic fracturing of gas wells in the area could not result in communication between the Barnett Shale gas field and the shallow aquifers from which water wells in the area produce.  EPA chose not to participate in the state hearing process.

EPA brought a civil enforcement action in the Northern District of Texas against Range on January 18, 2011, Case No. 3:11-cv-00116-F, seeking injunctive relief and civil penalties for Range’s failure to comply with the AO.  Range filed a petition for review on the AO with the 5th Circuit on January 20, 2011, Case No. 11-60040, challenging the AO and the constitutionality of the AO statutory scheme as interpreted and applied by EPA.

The district court in its Order Denying Without Prejudice Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss and Staying Case, 2011 WL 2469731 (N.D.Tex.), struggled with EPA’s claim that it only has to prove noncompliance with the AO and the Court has no jurisdiction to review the factual and legal basis of the AO. The Court found that the AO was a final agency action, but stayed the case pending the 5th Circuit decision.

The issues before the 5th Circuit included whether the AO was final agency action and, if so, has Range been provided due process. Oral argument was considered on October 3, 2011.

On March 21, 2012, a unanimous Supreme Court held in the Sackett case that AOs issued under the Clean Water Act constitute final agency action. Under the Administrative Procedure Act, Respondents, like Chantell and Michael Sackett, are afforded pre-enforcement review of the factual and legal basis of the AO and may bring a civil action under the APA to challenge the AO.

Given the opinion for a unanimous Supreme Court in the Sackett case, EPA must have felt less than enthusiastic about its prospects in the pending Range cases. On Friday afternoon, March 30 with no fanfare and limited media attention, EPA announced the withdrawal of the Range AO. In a letter to EPA on the same date, Range confirmed the withdrawal of the AO and a related joint stipulation to dismiss EPA’s enforcement action and committed to sample twenty private water wells located in southern Parker County on a quarterly basis for one year, a substantial reduction in the scope and magnitude of the terms in the AO.

EPA’s hasty dismissal of the Range case raises some interesting questions. Did EPA agree to withdraw the Range AO in order to minimize the litigation risk of establishing pre-enforcement review rights of respondents to unilateral AOs under the Safe Drinking Water Act?  How extensive will the Sackett case be applied to unilateral AOs authorized under other non-Clean Water Act statutes administered by EPA and other federal agencies? What are the implications to EPA’s ability to react quickly to bonified public health emergencies? Will Congress need to overhaul statutory AO provisions to avoid the problem confronted in Sackett?

Shallow Victory In Sackett Highlights Morass Caused by Murky Jurisdictional Waters

Posted on March 29, 2012 by Zach C. Miller

As Ted Garrett reported in his recent blog, the Supreme Court has issued its long-awaited decision in Sackett v. EPA.  Not surprisingly (based on the questions asked at oral argument), the Court unanimously reversed the Ninth Circuit and ruled that the recipient of an administrative compliance order to restore wetlands under Section 404 of the federal Clean Water Act (CWA) can challenge that order in court under the APA.  The Court soundly rejected the Government’s argument and the Ninth Circuit’s conclusion that the CWA implicitly precludes “pre enforcement” judicial review of such orders. 

In addition to that important ruling, this decision is noteworthy for what it did not do.  Even more pointedly, the decision highlights the enormous underlying problem of uncertainty about the scope of waters regulated by the CWA, which remains untouched and unfixed by this opinion. 

One of the important issues not addressed by the Sackett decision is the constitutional due process argument made by the plaintiffs that precluding judicial review of such orders is unfair and unlawful.  The decision simply says that the CWA itself does not preclude judicial review, so the right to review of this final agency action is presumed under the APA.  As a result, it left for another day whether other statutes (like CERCLA § 113(h)) that expressly preclude pre-enforcement judicial review would pass constitutional muster. 

Second, it did not expressly address whether a party can judicially challenge any aspect of an administrative order, or can only make the basic “jurisdictional challenge” regarding whether the agency in fact has regulatory authority over the subject property or persons.  Justice Ginsburg, in her concurring opinion, states that the decision only addresses the jurisdictional issue and leaves the question of whether other types of challenges can be brought “open for another day and case.”  It remains to be seen whether EPA and the lower courts will adopt this narrow reading of the decision. 

Third, the opinion emphasizes the clear finality of the administrative order at issue in the Sackett case as a basis for APA judicial review.  It remains to be seen whether an agency order or ruling subject to some additional agency appeal, review or deliberative process, no matter how futile or fore-ordained, would be considered a “final agency action”.  It also remains to be seen whether EPA and other agencies will attempt to address and undercut this “finality” factor by creating post-order administrative processes that delay or frustrate judicial review.
 
Finally, while some will trumpet this as a great victory for the regulated community, Justice Alito’s concurring opinion got it right in saying that this “decision provides a modest measure of relief”, but the huge underlying problem reflected by this dispute is the “hopelessly indeterminate” scope of “waters of the United States” regulated under the CWA, which this decision does nothing to alleviate or address.  As a result, while a tiny fraction of regulated persons may now choose to challenge an administrative compliance order in court, the very significant cost of doing so, and the low chance of success combined with the draconian and mounting penalties resulting from a failed challenge, will still leave nearly all regulated persons (in Justice Alito’s words) “with little practical alternative but to dance to the EPA’s tune.” 

The bottom-line is that allowing regulated persons to sue in these circumstances (again in Justice Alito’s words) is “better than nothing,” but the underlying regulatory morass will not be fixed unless and until Congress or EPA and the Corps develop a clear, appropriate and formal delineation of waters regulated by the CWA.  The informal “Jurisdictional Guidance” floated last year by EPA and reportedly now parked at the White House, if adopted, would worsen rather than resolve this uncertainty.  After 40 years, it’s time to fix this mess and pass a clear law or rule on the reach of the Clean Water Act.