NGOs 1, Trump EPA 0: The First Skirmish in the Great Environmental Rollback War Goes to the Greens

Posted on July 11, 2017 by Seth Jaffe

Last week, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals handed environmentalists at least a temporary win in what I think was the first case to reach judicial decision in Scott Pruitt’s great environmental roll-back tour of 2017.  The Court rejected EPA’s effort to stay the effective date of the New Source Performance Standards for fugitive emissions from oil and natural gas operations, pending EPA’s reconsideration of certain aspects of the Obama-era rule.

Notwithstanding Judge Brown’s dissent, EPA’s position on the merits seemed barely credible.  I understand the argument that the stay was not final agency action and thus not judiciable.  It just doesn’t seem compelling to me.  If EPA had amended to rule to extend the compliance deadlines, that clearly would have been subject to judicial review.  Why should the answer be different because EPA styles its action as a stay, rather than a revision to the regulations?  The impact is exactly the same.

As to EPA’s position that the four issues which it was reconsidering could not have been addressed during the original rulemaking by the industry groups now seeking reconsideration, EPA’s position was almost embarrassing.  As the Court repeatedly demonstrated, not only could the industry groups have addressed the issues during the original rulemaking, but they actually did so.  Moreover, EPA did consider those comments and, at least in parts, adopted them in the final rule.  My favorite example is the court’s discussion regarding the criteria for exemption for well-site pneumatic pumps.  As the Court noted:

[The American Petroleum Institute] … proposed precisely the technical infeasibility language EPA adopted in the final rule, suggested that an engineer certify technical infeasibility, and justified its proposed exemption based on a lengthy description of why existing sites were not designed to “handle” EPA’s proposal.

The record thus belies EPA’s claim that no industry group had an opportunity to comment on the “scope and parameters” of the pneumatic pump exemption.

The real question at this point is whether this decision is any kind of harbinger.  Practitioners know that the record of the Bush EPA in rolling back Clinton rules was shockingly poor, given Chevron deference.  Are we going to see the same again?  The Court threw EPA what could prove to be a rather large fig leaf by noting that the decision does not prevent EPA from reconsidering the methane rule.  The Court also quoted FCC v. Fox Television Stations – the same case on which EPA is relying in its rollback of the WOTUS rule:

[EPA] is free to [reconsider the rule] as long as “the new policy is permissible under the statute.., there are good reasons for it, and … the agency believes it to be better.”

This is where the battles are going to be fought over the next several years.

Trump's "2 for 1" EO: Can You Say "Arbitrary and Capricious"?

Posted on June 6, 2017 by Seth Jaffe

Last month, Mark Walker posted about Executive Order 13771.  Mark’s post was generally favorable, noting that a number of other countries have implemented some version of what is known as a “regulatory budget.”  This post provides something of a counterpoint to Mark’s. 

Put simply, I think that the Order is indefensible.  It’s not about regulatory reform.  It’s a transparent attempt to halt environmental regulation in its tracks, without regard to the benefit those regulations provide.

This week, on behalf of our client, the Union of Concerned Scientists, Foley Hoag filed an amicus brief in support of the plaintiffs in the case challenging the EO.  One paragraph from the brief pretty much summarizes the argument:

It is important to note, as Executive Order 13771 acknowledges, that agencies are already required, where not prohibited by law, to ensure that the benefits of regulations exceed their costs. Thus, the only impact of the Executive Order is to prohibit agencies from promulgating regulations whose benefits exceed their costs, unless they eliminate two other regulations whose benefits also exceed their costs. This is the definition of unreasoned decisionmaking. It is also a thumb in the eye of Congress, which enacted public health and environmental statutes in order to benefit the public.

It is a bitter irony that the government is defending the EO in part on the basis that it is just another in a long line of regulatory reform EOs, even though the EO is in fact a repudiation of those prior orders, not an extension of them.  This order is not about cost-benefit analysis; it is about cost-only analysis.  By definition this approach ignores the public benefits that the underlying statutes are intended to provide.  Thus, the “savings clause” cannot save the EO, because there is nothing left to save.

Perhaps It Should Be Renamed the “Really, Really, Endangered Species Act”

Posted on May 1, 2017 by Seth Jaffe

Last Friday, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a District Court decision ruling that the Fish & Wildlife Service decision that listing of the whitebark pine as endangered or threatened was “warranted, but precluded” was not arbitrary and capricious.  The decision seems correct, but as the frustration of the Court reflects, it’s only because the ESA is designed to fail.

The procedural history is lengthy and not really necessary to repeat here.  Suffice it to say that the whitebark pine is both an important species and in significant distress, if not dire straits.  In response to a listing petition, the FWS issued a finding that listing the whitebark pine is “warranted, but precluded.”  Thus, the FWS instead added the whitebark pine to the list of “candidate species.”

A candidate species is one for which [FWS has] on file sufficient information on biological vulnerability and threats to support a proposal for listing as endangered or threatened, but for which preparation and publication of a proposal is precluded by higher priority listing actions.

The particular issue here was whether the FWS has any authority to base listing decisions on anything other than the Listing Priority Number assigned to the species.  As the Court noted, however, the ESA provides only that the ranking system is intended to “assist” in the identification of species for listing.  There is nothing that makes the LPN determinative.

That’s all well and good, but it does nothing for the whitebark pine.  As the Court stated:

When pending actions outstrip available resources, the Secretary must make its choices and live with its priorities, even though that means leaving factually (if not listed) threatened or endangered species without the protections of the ESA.

In other words, to paraphrase Eddie Cochran, “I’d like to help you tree, but you’re too inanimate to vote."

Does Chevron Ever Permit EPA to Rewrite a Statute? EPA’s Release Reporting Exemptions Are Struck Down

Posted on April 13, 2017 by Seth Jaffe

On Tuesday, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia vacated EPA’s final rule governing reporting of air releases from animal feeding operations.  The Court found that EPA had no statutory authority to exempt AFOs from the reporting regulations.

The decision is also important because it is another in a recent line of cases regarding the extent of agency authority to interpret statutes.  The issue was whether EPA had authority to exempt smaller AFOs from reporting requirements, on the ground that it could not:

foresee a situation where [it] would take any future response action as a result of such notification[s].

Although EPA did not explicitly justify its rule on de minimis grounds, the Court understood EPA to be making a de minimis argument and analyzed the rule in that context.  The Court concluded that EPA had not justified a de minimis exception, because:

an agency can’t use it to create an exception where application of the literal terms would “provide benefits, in the sense of furthering the regulatory objectives, but the agency concludes that the acknowledged benefits are exceeded by the costs.”

Here, the Court found that there were benefits to requiring reporting without a de minimis exception.  That was enough to vacate the rule.

It is worth noting the concurrence from Judge Janice Rogers Brown, who agreed that EPA had overstepped, but was concerned about the panel opinion’s summary of Chevron as being focused on whether the agency’s interpretation is “reasonable.”  Stoking the anti-Chevron flames, Judge Brown wrote to make clear that the “reasonableness” inquiry does not apply at step one of Chevron.  Ever-vigilant, she wants to be certain that courts do not abdicate their duty to state what the unambiguous language of a statute means.

I don’t have any problem with that.  Phase I of Chevron is an important bedrock principle.  If there’s no ambiguity, there’s no deference.  However, it’s worth noting that Judge Brown also stated that:

an Article III renaissance is emerging against the judicial abdication performed in Chevron’s name.

Notwithstanding the congressional discussion of this issue, I remain skeptical that any such “Article III renaissance” is occurring.  One concurrence from one appellate judge who happens to be named Gorsuch does not a renaissance make.

Of course, the really important part of Judge Brown’s concurrence was her citation to Luck Be a Lady, from Guys and Dolls, the greatest musical of all time.

The NSR Regulations Still Make No Sense: The 6th Circuit Reverses the DTE Decision Based on a 1-Judge Minority Opinion

Posted on January 17, 2017 by Seth Jaffe

Last week, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed – for the second time – a District Court decision granting summary judgment to DTE Energy in the United States’ case alleging that DTE Energy had violated EPA’s NSR regulations.  According to the 6th Circuit, EPA has authority to bring an enforcement action against DTE Energy, notwithstanding that the regulations don’t provide for EPA review of DTE Energy’s emissions projections prior to construction and also notwithstanding that the project did not in fact result in a significant net emissions increase.

One might well be surprised by the result, but the result itself is not the most surprising part of the case at this point.  What’s really surprising is that the United States won the case even though only one of the three judges on the panel agreed with EPA’s position.

How could such a thing happen, you might ask?  Here’s the best I can do.  Judge Daughtrey, author of the panel opinion, believes that EPA has the authority to second-guess DTE’s estimates if they are not adequately explained.  Judge Rogers disagreed and dissented.  Judge Batchelder also disagreed with Judge Daughtrey’s views, pretty much in their entirety.  However, Judge Batchelder concluded that she had already been outvoted once, in the first 6th Circuit review of this case and she felt bound to follow the decision in DTE 1.  The law remains an ass.  

Even were Donald Trump not about to nominate a Supreme Court justice, I’d say that this case is ripe for an appeal to the Supreme Court and, if I were DTE, I’d pursue that appeal vigorously and with a fairly optimistic view of my chances.

And once again, I’ll suggest that the very fact that the NSR program can repeatedly thrust such incomprehensible cases upon us is itself reason to conclude that the entire program is ripe for a thorough overhaul – or perhaps elimination.

FWS Goes Back to Square One On Listing the Wolverine. It’s Not Going to Be Any Easier This Time Around.

Posted on October 27, 2016 by Seth Jaffe

In April, Judge Dana Christensen vacated the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to withdraw its proposed listing of a distinct population segment of the North American wolverine WolverineSnowas threatened under the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”).  Bowing to the inevitable, the Fish and Wildlife Service ("FWS") has published in the Federal Register a formal acknowledgement that the Court’s vacatur of the withdrawal of the proposed listing returns the situation to the status quo.

In other words, the proposed rule that would have listed the wolverine distinct population segment ("DPS") is back in play.  Specifically, the FWS announced that

"we will be initiating an entirely new status review of the North American wolverine,hugh-jackman-wolverineto determine whether this DPS meets the definition of an endangered or threatened species under the Act, or whether the species is not warranted for listing.

FWS also reopened the comment period on the proposed listing and invited the public to provide comment, identifying nine specific areas in which it sought comments, including

"Information on the projected and reasonably likely impacts of climate change on the wolverine and its habitat, including the loss of snowpack and impacts to wolverine denning habitat.

This is all well and good and certainly required under Judge Christensen’s order, but neither Judge Christensen nor FWS has the tools necessary to address the core issue here, i.e., the unwieldy nature of the ESA.  It simply wasn’t designed to solve all of the ecological problems resulting from climate change.

It would be nice if Congress weren’t completely dysfunctional.

Minnesota May Not Prohibit Power Sales That Would Increase Statewide CO2 Emissions. Why Not? Pick Your Reason.

Posted on June 17, 2016 by Seth Jaffe

If you needed any further proof that energyelec_mag_fieldlaw is very complicated, Wednesday’s decision in North Dakota v. Heydinger should convince you.  The judgment is simple – the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a Minnesota statute which provides in part that:

"no person shall . . . (2) import or commit to import from outside the state power from a new large energy facility that would contribute to statewide power sector carbon dioxide emissions; or (3) enter into a new long-term power purchase agreement that would increase statewide power sector carbon dioxide emissions."

Why, you ask?

  • The panel opinion, by Judge Loken, stated that the Minnesota statute violates the dormant Commerce Clause, by regulating purely “extraterritorial” economic activity.
  • Judge Murphy, in the first concurrence, disagreed with Judge Loken’s conclusion that the statute violates the dormant Commerce Clause, but joined the judgment, because she concluded that the statute is preempted by the Federal Power Act.
  • Judge Colloton, in the second concurrence, agreed with Judge Murphy that the statute does not violate the dormant clause, but also concurred in the judgment. Judge Colloton concluded that, to the extent that the “statute bans wholesale sales of electric energy in interstate commerce,” it is preempted by the Federal Power Act.  However, Judge Colloton wrote separately, because he at least partially disagrees with Judge Murphy (as well as with Judge Loken) and does not believe that the Minnesota statute constitutes a complete ban on wholesale sales of energy that increase CO2 emissions.  However, Judge Colloton concluded that, to the extent that the statute is not preempted by the Federal Power Act, it is preempted by the Clean Air Act.

Is that sufficiently clear?

I do feel compelled to add two final notes.  First, I don’t understand why Judge Loken wrote the panel opinion, when his rationale did not command a majority.  Indeed, as Judge Colloton pointed out, the Court should not even have reached the constitutional issue, since a panel majority existed that was prepared to strike down the Minnesota statute on statutory grounds.  (Preemption is considered a statutory, not a constitutional, rationale.)

Second, don’t analogize the electric energy transmission to the flow of water in a pipe, at least before Judge Murphy.  Here’s your electricity and magnetism primer for the day, courtesy of the Judge.

"In the electricity transmission system, individual electrons do not actually “flow” in the same sense as water in a pipe. Rather, the electrons oscillate in place, and it is electric energy which is transmitted through the propagation of an electromagnetic wave.

Certainly brought me back to course 8.02 at MIT.  Not one of my favorites.

Children’s Crusade to Combat Climate Change Continues

Posted on April 18, 2016 by Rick Glick

As reported by Seth Jaffe in this space, a federal magistrate judge in Oregon has kept alive the dreams of a group of young plaintiffs—aided by environmental advocacy groups—to compel government action against climate change.  Like a similar case brought by the same plaintiffs a few years ago in state court, discussed below, the federal case seeks a declaration that government inaction violates the public trust.  But in the federal case, plaintiffs added claims that their constitutional rights to life, liberty and property also are being violated.

The judge denied the government’s motion to dismiss on the basis that the matter is a political question better left to Congress.  Magistrate Judge Thomas M. Coffin reasoned that the pleadings were adequate on their face and that the substantive issues raised by the defendants should await motions for summary judgment or trial.  Still, the judge gave hope to the plaintiffs, which, I think will be short lived.  Climate change is simply too big, diffuse and complex an issue for the courts to try to fashion a remedy around.

This same group of plaintiffs has had mixed success in pursuing its objectives at the state level.  In June 2014 I posted about the Oregon Court of Appeals reversing and remanding a trial court’s dismissal of a similar claim against the state.  The appellate court concluded that the plaintiffs were entitled to a determination whether the atmosphere is a public trust resource and whether Oregon state government had breached its fiduciary responsibility by not adequately protecting it.  On remand, Lane County Circuit Court Judge Karsten H. Rasmussen granted the state summary judgment and dismissed the suit with prejudice.  The case is now again pending before the Court of Appeals.

In his 19-page opinion, Judge Rasmussen concluded that the public trust does not extend to the atmosphere.  The contours of the public trust are a matter of state common law, and Oregon law ties the public trust to title and restraints on alienation.  The court concluded that there could be no title in the atmosphere and therefore public trust fiduciary obligations do not exist.  The court also noted that traditional public trust resources, such as submerged lands, are exhaustible, which under Oregon law confers a fiduciary responsibility on the state.  While the atmosphere may be altered or even damaged, the court found that it is not exhaustible.

The court added the following thought, which I think will guide the U.S. District Court when it hears the current case:

The Plaintiffs effectively ask the Court to do away with the Legislature entirely on the issue of GHG emissions on the theory that the Legislature is not doing enough. If "not doing enough" were the standard for judicial action, individual judges would regularly be asked to substitute their individual judgment for the collective judgment of the Legislature, which strikes this Court as a singularly bad and undemocratic idea.

            Watch this space for further developments in Oregon state and federal courts.

A Substantive Due Process Right to Climate Change Regulation? What’s a Lonely Apostle of Judicial Restraint To Do?

Posted on April 13, 2016 by Seth Jaffe

Late last week, Magistrate Judge Thomas Coffin concluded that the most recent public trust Mosaic_of_Justinianus_I_-_Basilica_San_Vitale_(Ravenna) (1)case, which seeks an injunction requiring the United States to take actions to reduce atmospheric CO2 concentrations to 350 parts per million by 2100, should not be dismissed.

The complaint here is similar to, but broader than, others of its ilk.  As we noted previously, at least one federal court has already held that there is no public trust in the atmosphere.  Perhaps in response to that case, the plaintiffs here appear to have focused their arguments on the government’s public trust responsibilities with respect to various waters of the United States, though the opinion does not make clear precisely what the complaint alleges to be the subject of the public trust obligation.

The plaintiffs not only allege that the United States has violated its public trust obligations, but that that violation in turn constitutes a violation of the plaintiffs’ substantive due process rights.  Magistrate Judge Coffin takes pains to make clear that this is only about a motion to dismiss, but I still think he got it wrong.

Indeed, I think that Magistrate Judge Coffin ignored that well known latin maxim:  “Oportet te quasi ludens loqui.” (Which is how the on-line translator I used translated “You must be joking.”  I hereby disclaim any warranty that this is even close to correct.)

Call me old-fashioned, but I believe in judicial restraint.  And that applies to everyone.  Traditionally, conservatives have accused liberals of judicial activism.  To my totally objective mind, in recent years at least, it is the conservative judges who could more fairly be called activist.  For one case, at least, the shoe seems to be back on its original foot.  I just cannot see this decision standing.  The District Judge should reject Magistrate Judge Coffin’s Findings and Recommendation.  If he or she doesn’t, this case is sufficiently novel and important to warrant interlocutory appeal, and the 9th Circuit should reverse.  And if that doesn’t happen, it will be up to the eight (oops, I meant nine) members of the Supreme Court to get it right.  One of them surely will.