Update on the Clean Power Plan: The Knowns and Unknowns

Posted on March 2, 2016 by Jody Freeman

This is a reposting – the earlier post incorrectly omitted Prof. Jody Freeman’s name as a co-author. Richard Lazarus is also a co-author.

State Reactions to the Stay 

Now that the Supreme Court has stayed the Clean Power Plan, States are in the process of deciding whether or not to proceed with implementation planning, and if so, at what pace to do so. The situation is still in flux. States like Pennsylvania, Virginia, Washington State, California, and most of the northeastern states that are part of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, have all said they will continue planning. Others, like Texas, Kentucky and West Virginia, have declared they will stop. EPA’s official count shows eighteen States as having halted efforts, with nine still deciding, and thirty still working: http://www.eenews.net/interactive/clean_power_plan#planning_status_chart. Even official statements from the States are somewhat misleading, however: some States that have announced a suspension of compliance planning, like New Jersey, are still sending officials to compliance meetings. 

Still, there is a risk that, on net, momentum will slow, at least until the legal challenge to the CPP is resolved. That process could take more than two years.

Maintaining Momentum Through “No Regrets” Policies

During that time, anything that can be done to maintain momentum on CPP implementation and related policies that will promote clean energy (regardless of whether the rule eventually is upheld) should be supported, with a priority given to helping States pursue “no regrets” policies that will serve their interests whatever the outcome of the litigation. There are a variety of things States and utilities can do now to address shorter term Clean Air Act obligations, such as regional haze, National Ambient Air Quality Standards, or cross-state air pollution, that also would set them up nicely for CPP compliance should the rule be upheld. 

Implications of Justice Scalia’s death

The D.C. Circuit will hear argument on the CPP in June 2016, and is expected to rule on the merits expeditiously, likely by fall of 2016. The panel is viewed as more favorable toward EPA than not, although certainly not a sure thing: Judge Rogers is seen as the most sympathetic to EPA, Judge Srinivasan is seen as at least open to the government’s arguments, while Judge Henderson is seen as hostile to the rule. 

If this panel were to uphold the rule, and the Supreme Court were to remain without a confirmed ninth Justice, it is possible that the Supreme Court could split 4-4, which would normally result in an order affirming the lower court decision. However, there is also a chance that if there were a 4-4 split in a case of this importance and one that would decide the issue once and for all, the Chief Justice would not be content to issue such an order and would instead hold the case over for re-hearing once a ninth Justice is confirmed. If that ninth Justice were appointed by a new Democratic president, the rule’s prospects of being upheld likely would increase; if appointed by a new Republican president, prospects could be the same as they would have been with Justice Scalia on the court. That would require Justice Kennedy, the likely swing vote, to be persuaded by the government to vote to uphold the rule.

There is another interesting wrinkle: the D.C. Circuit panel could change. Judge Srinivasan has been identified as a potential Supreme Court nominee. If he were nominated, he would likely withdraw from pending cases not yet argued in order to prepare for (theoretical) hearings.  But then, of course, a new judge would be lotteried in to fill his place, perhaps changing the balance of the panel. One might think this risk worth taking, since Judge Srinivasan in theory would wind up on the Supreme Court, where he might cast the deciding vote in this (and many other) cases. Yet even if Judge Srinivasan were confirmed, he would be recused from the CPP case because of his earlier participation on the D.C. Circuit panel that denied the stay, so the Court would remain at eight Justices for purposes of this case. Again, this would leave the prospect of a 4-4 tie affirming the decision below (and perhaps affirming a decision to strike down the rule). 

Next Steps and Timing of Litigation

Whatever the composition of the D.C. Circuit panel, however, and whatever it decides, the losing parties might seek en banc review in the D.C. Circuit.  The State and industry challengers would be almost certain to do so, because delay favors their side. This is because the Supreme Court took the unusual step of staying the rule not just until the D.C. Circuit rules on the merits, but for longer: until the Supreme Court either denies certiorari or grants review and decides the case. Delay means the Stay remains in force, which means the deadline for filing compliance plans keeps being pushed off, which means momentum slows, which favors those opposed to the CPP. En banc review is rarely granted, however, and the D.C. Circuit may be reluctant to further delay things by providing it when the Supreme Court has already associated itself with the case (by granting the Stay and making it all but certain review will be granted). 

What all of this means is that the earliest the Supreme Court could decide the case--given the time necessary for the cert petition, briefing, argument and deliberation--is likely to be June 2017, and the latest the Court is likely to decide the case is June 2018. That means the Stay could remain in place for more than two years. 

The fate of the CPP is clearly in the hands of the Supreme Court, which, with an open seat, is clearly in the hands of the President--and most likely the next president. 

Implications for a New Administration

If the Court ultimately upholds the rule, a new president could still withdraw it and replace it with something else, or choose to implement it as-is. A new president might even bargain with a new Congress over suspending the rule in exchange for a more comprehensive economy-wide approach to greenhouse gas regulation, whether a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade approach, or something else. And if the Court, newly constituted, strikes down the Clean Power Plan, a new president would have to decide on Plan B. 

EPA has thus far been mum about possible Plan Bs, but obvious options include a narrower interpretation of “best system” that would regulate power plants within the so-called "fence-line" only, relying exclusively on what the rule refers to as "building block 1.” EPA might be able to set a fairly stringent standard based on this building block alone, although doing so might, ironically, leave utilities far less flexibility to use alternative means of compliance than they would have using the agency’s current approach. EPA might also examine the Clean Air Act for other provisions capable of regulating existing power plant emissions, such as section 115, or even set a NAAQS for greenhouse gases--options that have been discussed before and rejected by the agency, but which could always be revisited. 

Contracting for Original and Renewal of Pipeline Right-of-Ways on Tribal and Allottee Lands

Posted on February 24, 2016 by Tom Sansonetti

The Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) has promulgated new regulations involving the original procurement and renewal of Right-of-Ways (ROW) on tribal and allottee lands which take effect on March 22, 2016. These new rules will replace those in place since 1947, creating a series of significant problems. This post lists the problems and suggests a legislative solution.

1) Majority Consent of Life Estate Heirs is Needed for ROW to be Granted or Renewed

The new rules limit the length of a ROW to 20 years. The ROWs are not subject to state or local laws, and the new rules impose consent and approval requirements that do not appear in the current regulations. Under the current law, voluntary agreements could be struck between tribes, allottees, and a company, so long as the BIA Regional Director approved the deal. The BIA would approve if a majority of the allottee landowners consented and the amounts of money paid for the ROW were not less than the fair market value (FMV) of the allotment parcel. Under the new rules, however, the company must obtain a majority consent for the original ROW or renewal thereof, not only from the living life estate allottees, but from their heirs as well. This presents a huge obstacle, as companies will now have to find each of the heirs and then attempt to bargain with them individually. Under the current rules, if agreement could not be reached, then the company was free to use a 1907 statute to condemn the allottee land but never the tribal land.

2) Life Estate Holders Can Withdraw Previously Granted Consents

In two separate New Mexico ROW cases involving Western Refining’s pipeline and Public Service of New Mexico’s (PNM) overhead wires, the companies both originally obtained the written consent of a majority of the life estate holders who were paid fair market value for their consent. However, upon the BIA Regional Director finding a lack of a majority of heirs consenting, certain life estate holders informed the BIA that they were “unconsenting” in order to hold out for better compensation, even though they had cashed the original checks. Because the BIA allowed the holdouts’ action of “unconsenting” to stand, the companies lost their majority consent of life estate holders. Attorneys for the life estate holders are now suing PNM for trespass in federal court in Albuquerque.

3) Fair Market Value Has Become a Floor in Negotiations Rather Than an Appraisal Standard

Since the 1947 statute came into existence, the fair market value (FMV), as determined by BIA-qualified appraisers, of the allotment acreage to be crossed by the pipeline served as the negotiation basis between the company and individual allottees. The allottees, knowing that their land could be condemned under the 1907 statute dealing with ROWs, often bargained for a payment that was two or three times FMV. However, under the new regulations, FMV is a starting point, non-binding and irrelevant to an allottee who believes that the sky is the limit when dealing with large corporations.

4) The Condemnation Alternative is Under Attack Due to Tribal Ownership of Undivided Interests in Allotments

In the Public Service of New Mexico federal district court litigation, PNM sued the allottees of several allotments under the New Mexico condemnation statutes after failing to obtain the consent of a majority of life estate heirs for a 20-year renewal. The federal judge dismissed the condemnation lawsuit, because recently deceased allottees left their interests to the Navajo Nation. Even though those interests amounted to less than 1% of the entire allotment, the court labeled that interest tribal land, recognized the Navajo Nation’s sovereign immunity from suit, declared the Navajo Nation an indispensable party, and dismissed the lawsuit. PNM is appealing the dismissal to the Tenth Circuit. Without the ability to condemn, pipelines will be left only with choice of either paying ransom under the 1947 statute or facing allottee trespass actions.

Western Refining has also filed a condemnation suit against the unconsenting allottees under the New Mexico condemnation statutes. The case is before a different judge than the PNM case and is currently stayed pending a decision from the Interior Board of Indian Appeals on the majority consent of heirs issue.

The best solution to the four problems above requires the active involvement of the Legislative Branch.

Utilizing its plenary authority concerning tribal issues, Congress should pass amendments to the 1907 and 1947 statutes or create new legislation supplanting the current law that:

  1. Eliminates the need for heirs to consent
  2. Eliminates the ability of consenters to unconsent once consideration is paid
  3. Re-establishes the sufficiency of fair market value as the basis for the compensation to be paid
  4. Guarantees the right of pipeline owners to condemn allottee land regardless of partial tribal ownership

Nothing less than the free flow of energy-oriented interstate commerce is at stake. 

Supreme Court Puts Clean Power Plan on Hold, but Clean Agriculture Can Move Forward

Posted on February 12, 2016 by Peter Lehner

The Supreme Court's unexplained stay of the clean power plan was "one of the most environmentally harmful judicial actions of all time," writes Michael Gerrard of Columbia Law School in a recent, excellent blog. Rather than venting outrage, Gerrard quickly moves on to explain that the Clean Power Plan isn’t the only way to cut carbon pollution.

Ramping up efforts like fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks, and building efficiency standards, he notes, will also help reduce carbon pollution. Gerrard mentions a couple of points about agriculture, but often, this sector is overlooked when it comes to climate solutions. It’s worth taking a closer look at some of the opportunities to reduce climate pollution from our food system.

Food waste is the second largest component of most landfills. As it rots, it releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas. A recent report by the UN Conference on Trade and Development estimates that 2 percent to 4 percent of all manmade climate pollution arises simply from food rotting in landfills.

Keeping food waste out of landfills can help reduce methane pollution. Massachusetts, California, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, and some cities have enacted laws to manage organic waste disposal in landfills. The idea is to create incentives to reduce food waste and divert it to other purposes, such as animal feed or composting. Instead of being thrown away and becoming a source of pollution, this “waste” can be put to good use. Landfill gas collection systems can be further incentivized. And the nascent effort to reduce food waste from businesses and households can be significantly ramped up.

Another major source of greenhouse gases is the over application of fertilizer. Excess nitrogen fertilizer causes two big problems. The first is water pollution. Nitrogen that isn’t taken up by crops runs off farms and enters larger waterways, where it stimulates the growth of algae and creates “dead zones” deprived of oxygen. The second, and less frequently discussed issue, is the volatilization of nitrogen into nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas about 300 times more potent than CO2.  The IPCC estimates that 12 percent of all non-CO2 greenhouse gas emissions come from synthetic fertilizer application.  

A number of techniques can reduce these emissions while also providing a cost benefit to farmers. Farm policies could encourage practices like cover cropping, which reduces the need for fertilizer by making soils more rich and fertile. Crop rotations can do the same, yet current crop insurance programs actually discourage the use of these practices. Precision application technologies for fertilizers are getting ever better, but their uptake on farms is slow.

Manure from animals, and the "enteric emissions" from cattle (more commonly thought of as belching) are two more significant sources of climate pollution. Enteric fermentation alone may account for as much as 40 percent of all non-CO2 greenhouse gas emissions, according to the IPCC. Changes in diet might help with these emissions, but this is an area that needs more research.

Some of the emissions from manure can be captured if manure lagoons were covered and better managed. As it stands, these pits are only slightly regulated and are major sources of water pollution sources as well as odor nuisances. An even better practice is to raise cows on rotating pastures, where their waste can enhance soils and help store carbon. And, of course, if Americans did shift to a diet lower in red meat, as per the recommendation of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, we could further reduce climate pollution from cattle.

Agriculture is one of our nation's most important economic sectors, and is especially vulnerable to the extreme weather impacts of climate change. Its product -- food -- is critical not only for our economy, but is an integral and uniquely personal part of our everyday lives. When we think about how to address climate change, it makes sense to think about food and agriculture. The food we choose to produce, and how we produce it, use it, and dispose of it, all have an impact on climate pollution—and therefore have the potential to become climate solutions. 

Unprecedented Program Leads To Unprecedented Response

Posted on February 11, 2016 by Andrea Field

I am a terrible predictor of what cases the Supreme Court will hear and what the Court will decide on those matters it chooses to hear.  For example, I wrongly predicted that the Supreme Court would never consider reviewing the D.C. Circuit’s decisions in cases involving other recent EPA regulations, but the Supreme Court chose to hear those cases, which led to its decisions in Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA and Michigan v. EPAAnd if asked to guess whether the Court would issue a stay of EPA’s Clean Power Plan under section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act, I might well have said that the odds were greatly against that happening – despite the merits of the arguments being raised by those seeking the stay. 

Perhaps, though, my poor predictive abilities are the result of my looking at each case in isolation instead of looking at them in combination and considering whether the Supreme Court’s February 9, 2016 stay decision is an outgrowth of the combined knowledge gained by the Court in its recent reviews of those other Clean Air Act cases.  Specifically, as pointed out by State Petitioners in their briefs in support of a stay of the Clean Power Plan (see here and here,) EPA has touted its Plan as being one that will completely transform the way energy is created and delivered in this country even though – argued State Petitioners – the plain statutory language (of Clean Air Act section 111(d)) does not authorize such Agency action, and the approach of the Clean Power Plan is at odds with EPA’s 45-year history of implementing section 111(d).  Maybe such claims struck a chord with the Court, which – in UARG – told EPA that the Agency cannot make “decisions of vast ‘economic and political significance’” under a long-extant statute, like the Clean Air Act, without “clear congressional authorization.” 

And then there was Michigan, where the Court determined that EPA had proceeded unlawfully in adopting another extensive and expensive Clean Air Act regulatory program.  State Petitioners in the Clean Power Plan litigation made sure that the Court was aware that by the time the Court issued its decision in Michigan – a case where the underlying rule was not stayed during the pendency of litigation – the affected parties had spent billions of dollars to meet the terms of the underlying, un-stayed rule.  In other words, justice delayed in Michigan was justice denied.

None of this is to say what the Court will or will not do if and when it reviews arguments on the lawfulness of the Clean Power Plan.  I make no predictions on that.  But I believe the Court acted appropriately in calling for the completion of litigation before requiring affected parties to make the massive, unprecedented, costly, and transformative changes to the energy industry that the Clean Power Plan demands.       

EPA and DOJ Cannot Sugarcoat This: SCOTUS Stays the Clean Power Plan

Posted on February 10, 2016 by Seth Jaffe

Yesterday, the Supreme Court stayed EPA’s Clean Power Plan rule.  No matter how much EPA and DOJ proclaim that this says nothing about the ultimate results on the merits, the CPP is on very shaky ground at this point.

Everyone, supporters and opponents alike (and yours truly), thought that there was no possibility that the Court would grant a stay. And it is precisely because a Supreme Court stay of a rule pending judicial review is such an “extraordinary” – to use DOJ’s own word – form of relief that one has to conclude that five justices have decided that the rule must go.

This isn’t just a preliminary injunction; it’s a preliminary injunction on steroids.  First, everyone seems to acknowledge that it’s unprecedented for the Supreme Court to stay a rule pending judicial review.  Second, the standards in DOJ’s own brief make pretty clear that a stay will only issue if the Court is pretty convinced on the merits.  Finally, it’s worth noting that the Court implied that it does not even trust the Court of Appeals, because the stay will remain in force, even if the D.C. Circuit affirms the rule.  The stay will only terminate either:  (1) if the Court of Appeals upholds the CPP and the Supreme Court denies certiorari or (2) if the order is upheld and the Supreme Court also upholds it.

Back to the drawing board for EPA.  Perhaps § 115 of the Clean Air provides a way out!

EPA Has Surprisingly Broad Authority to Regulate GHGs

Posted on January 28, 2016 by Michael Gerrard

Our friend Seth Jaffe wrote a very interesting blog on January 20, “Does the Paris Agreement Provide EPA With Authority Under the CAA to Impose Economy-Wide GHG Controls? Count Me Skeptical.”  It took issue with a paper that I co-authored with several other colleagues in academia in which we argue that Section 115 of the Clean Air Act provides the EPA with broad authority to implement a multi-state, multi-source, multi-gas regulatory system to reduce greenhouse gases.  

The blog post agreed with our paper that it would be great if Section 115 provided this authority because it means EPA could implement an efficient, flexible, cross-sectoral approach to reducing greenhouse gases (GHGs).

However, Seth questioned our conclusion that Section 115 provides such authority because, in his view, courts are likely to conclude the “reciprocity” requirement in Section 115 could not be satisfied by the nonbinding emissions reduction commitments countries made in the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) they submitted for the Paris agreement concluded at the United Nations climate conference in December.  In the words of blog post, “I think most judges would interpret the word ‘reciprocity’ in a statute to mean something that is legally-binding; otherwise, it doesn’t mean anything.”  For several reasons, we disagree.

First, a reviewing court does not need to interpret what the word “reciprocity” means in Section 115, because Congress has explicitly defined it.  Reciprocity is the title of Section 115(c), which provides:

"This section shall apply only to a foreign country which the Administrator determines has given the United States essentially the same rights with respect to the prevention or control of air pollution occurring in that country as is given that country by this section."

The only right given to a foreign country by Section 115 is a provision in Section 115(b) that states a foreign country affected by air pollution originating in the U.S. “shall be invited to appear at any public hearing” associated with the revision of a relevant portion of the state implementation plan to address the pollutant.  In short, Section 115 specifies that reciprocity means the foreign countries in question need to have given the U.S. “essentially the same rights” as are given by Section 115, and the only right provided in Section 115 is the procedural right to appear at a hearing. 

Understanding the legislative history helps explain why the focus of the reciprocity requirement is on a procedural right.  As we explain in detail in the paper, Section 115 was a procedural provision when it was first enacted in 1965:  if pollution from the U.S. was endangering other countries, the other countries had a right to participate in abatement conferences where potential responses would be discussed, not a right to insist on actual emission reductions.  Although Congress amended the provision in the 1977 Clean Air Amendments to replace the abatement conference with federal and state action through the Section 110 state implementation plan process, the reciprocity language in Section 115(c) was not changed, leaving it with its procedural test.     

Second, we note in our paper that the Paris agreement contains a new set of procedures through which countries that join the agreement will be able to review and provide input on each other’s respective emissions reductions plans.  To the extent a court might conclude that such procedural rights must be "legally binding," then the Paris agreement satisfies that test because although the emission reduction targets themselves that were submitted in the INDCs will not be legally enforceable by other countries, the procedural elements of the Paris agreement will be binding international law.  

We note in the paper that although Paris provides a strong basis to satisfy Section 115 reciprocity, that reciprocity could also be satisfied by other international arrangements that the United States has with a variety of countries, particularly Mexico and Canada, the EU, and China.

Third, the blog post does not engage the issue of procedural reciprocity; rather it focuses on a substantive view of reciprocity (i.e. that reciprocity requires that other countries are actually reducing emissions of GHGs) and asserts that substantive reciprocity requirement could not be met by the internationally non-binding commitments made in the INDCs.  Although we believe that the correct reading of Section 115 is that it only requires procedural reciprocity, we recognize that a court could conclude that Section 115 also implicitly includes a substantive reciprocity requirement.  In the first instance, we noted that this requirement might be met by the international law principle sic utere tuo ut alienum non laedus, which directs nations to avoid causing significant injuries to the environment of other nations, most recently explained in the International Court of Justice’s Pulp Mills case.  

The author skips over this element to focus his skepticism that the reciprocity requirement could be satisfied by non-binding commitments in the INDCs.  But actually the U.S. and other countries have made reciprocally non-binding commitments in their INDCs.  That is, the U.S. has made an international political commitment to reduce emissions a certain amount, and has received essentially the same rights in the non-binding international commitments from other countries to reduce emissions.  

Someone could argue that the U.S. INDC may be non-binding, but Section 115 is domestic law in the U.S. and substantive reciprocity cannot exist unless other countries also have domestic laws requiring emission reductions.  If this is the test, however, it can also be met.  In fact, the INDCs submitted by other countries identified the binding domestic laws through which the INDCs would be implemented.  We did not focus on this aspect in our paper, but some examples are: (1) the United States identified the Clean Air Act and other laws and regulations “relevant to implementation” of the U.S. commitment; (2) China identified the measures that had been incorporated into domestic law and regulation through previous five-year plans, and outlined a variety of policies and strategies that would be incorporated into subsequent five-year plans to implement their emissions commitment; and (3) the EU noted that the necessary legislation to implement its target was being introduced to the EU parliament in 2015 and 2016.  Therefore, if “legally binding” domestic laws are required to find reciprocity under Section 115, EPA could reasonably examine the legally binding provisions in other countries’ domestic systems to find that reciprocity.

To summarize, our view is that Section 115 likely requires only procedural reciprocity.  If a court concluded Section 115 required substantive reciprocity, then EPA could reasonably find that requirement met through the reciprocal political commitments that the U.S. and other countries made in Paris as well as through the binding domestic laws and regulations in the U.S. and other countries that will implement the commitments.

We look forward to further dialog on this topic, which we think is an important part of unlocking this powerful, untapped tool that the EPA possesses to design an efficient and flexible system to reduce GHGs.

Does the Paris Agreement Provide EPA With Authority Under the CAA To Impose Economy-Wide GHG Controls? Count Me Skeptical

Posted on January 20, 2016 by Seth Jaffe

In a very interesting article, Michael Burger of the Sabin Center and his co-authors suggest that, following the Paris climate agreement, § 115 of the Clean Air Act provides authority for EPA to develop economy-wide GHG emissions reduction regulations that would be more comprehensive and efficient than EPA’s current industry-specific approach.  And what, you may ask, is § 115?  Even the most dedicated “airhead” has probably never worked with it.

Section 115 provides that, where EPA determines that emissions from the US are endangering public health or welfare in a foreign country, it may require SIP revisions sufficient to eliminate the endangerment – but only so long as there is “reciprocity”, i.e., the foreign country:

"has given the United States essentially the same rights with respect to the prevention or control of air pollution occurring in that country as is given that country by this section."

I love the idea.  An economy-wide regime would be much more efficient.  I wish that the argument made sense to me, but it does not.

The authors state that a global treaty could provide reciprocity, but then argue that “less binding commitments, including political commitments, should also suffice.”  Thus, they conclude, the “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions”, or INDCs, which are the basis of the Paris Agreement, can provide reciprocity.  Can you say “ipse dixit“?

They provide no precedent for this, because, as they acknowledge, § 115 has never been used.  EPA started to use it once, and the authors provide two letters from then-Administrator Costle, suggesting that legally binding reciprocity is not required.  However, EPA dropped the plan and the two letters were not finally agency action and were never subject to judicial review.  Otherwise, the arguments simply seems to be that EPA can cloak itself in Chevron deference and that that is the end of the story.

Sorry, I don’t buy it.  We’re talking about the law here.  I think most judges would interpret the word “reciprocity” in a statute to mean something that is legally-binding; otherwise, it doesn’t mean anything.  I don’t think it’s even a close enough question that Chevron deference will get EPA over the finish line.

The illogic of the authors’ argument seems to me to be demonstrated by their own words, when they argue reciprocity can’t mean a legally binding agreement, because that would mean that the foreign nations would be able to go to court to ensure that the US also meets its commitments under the Paris agreement, and the US would never allow that.  But that’s precisely the point!  Because there is no treaty, and the US would not let other nations try to enforce the US commitments under Paris, we cannot enforce theirs, and there is no reciprocity.

I wish it were otherwise.

ipse dixit

Legal Implications of the Paris Agreement for Fossil Fuels

Posted on January 7, 2016 by Michael Gerrard

           The Paris Agreement on climate change reached on December 12, 2015 has a heavily negotiated sentence that, when closely read, seems to call for the virtual end of fossil fuel use in this century unless there are major advances in carbon sequestration or air capture technology. That, in turn, has important legal implications.

           Article 4 Par. 1 says, “In order to achieve the long-term temperature goal … Parties aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible … and to achieve rapid reductions thereafter in accordance with best available science, so as to achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century.”

           In other words, what goes up should be taken back down: for every ton of greenhouse gases (GHGs) emitted from a smokestack, tailpipe or chopped tree, a ton should be removed.

The Numbers

           According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report (2014), fossil fuel use emits about 32 gigatons of carbon dioxide per year. Other sources, such as methane leakage, cement manufacture, and other industrial processes add another 5-7 gigatons carbon dioxide equivalent. Deforestation and other agriculture, forestry and other land use changes (but subtracting emissions sequestered by forest growth) add yet another 10-12 gigatons a year.  This all adds up to about 49 gigatons. However, global carbon sinks remove only about 18 gigatons per year (8.8 to the oceans, 9.2 to land, not including land use changes). 

           Thus the sinks take up about the equivalent of the non-fossil sources. In order to achieve a “balance” between emissions and sinks, we need to just about end the release of GHGs from fossil fuels, though a radical increase in sinks or reduction on non-fossil fuel emissions would provide some slack.

           Assuming that some kind of balance between emissions and sinks can be achieved, would we actually have until 2099 to decarbonize the economy, as these numbers imply is needed?  Not really. Kelly Levin, Jennifer Morgan and Jiawei Song at the World Resources Institute provide here an illuminating overview of what is required to achieve the long-term temperature goal in Article 2 of the Paris Agreement (“holding the increase in global average temperature to well below 2° C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit temperature increase to 1.5° C”). As the WRI post notes, a recent paper in Nature Climate Change suggests that carbon dioxide from electricity would have to be brought close to zero by 2050, and by then around 25 per cent of energy required for transportation would also need to come from electricity (up from less than one per cent now).

           There seem to be only three ways to continue to use fossil fuels for electricity in the second half of the century (and for transport by the end of the century) and still meet the temperature goal:

  1. Capture the carbon before it escapes into the air, and sequester it 
  2. Devise, and deploy on a massive scale, technologies to remove the carbon from the air, and sequester it
  3. Create new sinks, such as through the immediate halt to deforestation and a worldwide program of tree planting

           All three of these raise a question of how long the carbon will be stored; we do not know how long carbon will stay in reservoirs, and we do know that trees do not live forever, and when they burn or die they release their carbon. Moreover, the technologies of carbon capture and sequestration, and of removing carbon from the ambient air, are developing slowly and are nowhere near large scale deployment. (A price on carbon would create an economic incentive to develop and use these technologies, but politicians in most places are unwilling to impose such a price. A large-scale government-funded research effort, such as the ones that put human beings on the moon, could also produce the necessary innovation, but there has been little visible support for such an effort.) Most of the industrial carbon sequestration that now occurs goes toward “enhanced oil recovery” – squeezing oil out of depleted reservoirs – but extracting more oil is not compatible with stopping fossil fuel use.

           Finding the land for large scale tree planting would face its own challenges in a world where sea level rise, persistent drought, and extreme heat will be rendering much land unsuitable for growing food.

           So meeting the demands of society for energy means a combination of aggressive energy efficiency and conservation programs, the installation of renewable energy (and, perhaps, nuclear), and the substitution of electric or hydrogen vehicles for those using petroleum at an unprecedented pace. The Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project has set forth the colossal amount of new facility construction that would be required worldwide to achieve this.

           Legal Implications

           The Paris Agreement calls on all countries to strengthen their pledges to reduce GHG emissions, and to monitor their progress and report it to the world.  It also says that “all parties should strive to formulate and communicate long-term low greenhouse gas emission development strategies.” (Article 4 Par. 19) That looks like strategies under which every country must show how it is controlling its fossil fuel use.

           These provisions are not legally enforceable. However, many domestic laws are, and they will become a powerful tool to force early planning, or at least disclosures. One key example is the securities disclosure requirements for publicly traded companies.  On January 27, 2010, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission issued guidance for the disclosure of climate-related risks. It specifically calls on companies to “consider, and disclose when material, the impact on their business of treaties or international accords relating to climate change.” The Paris Agreement is clearly such an accord, and (if it is vigorously implemented) it will have material impact on many companies in the business of extracting, processing and using fossil fuels, or making things that rely on fossil fuels (such as motor vehicles, ships and airplanes). The SEC’s guidance makes clear that management’s discussion and analysis should explore known trends and uncertainties concerning climate regulation.  This includes regulation outside the U.S. that can affect the operations abroad of U.S. companies. Therefore, disclosure can be expected of the effect of severe restrictions here or in other countries on fossil fuel use, including the possibility that most fossil fuel reserves will need to stay in the ground.

           Climate disclosures have received increased attention since it was reported in November that New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is investigating ExxonMobil under the New York securities law, the Martin Act, over its statements about climate change, and had reached a settlement with Peabody Energy.

           This is not necessarily limited to U.S.-registered companies. For example, in April 2015 the G20 finance ministers and central bank governors asked the U.K. Financial Stability Board for advice on the financial stability implications of climate change. In November 2015 this Board proposed the establishment of a disclosure task force to develop voluntary disclosures for several climate-related risks, including “the financial risks which could result from the process of adjustment towards a low-carbon economy.”

           Going forward, impact review of energy projects under the National Environmental Policy Act and its counterparts in many states and most other developed countries should consider the phase-out of fossil fuels that is inherent in the Paris Agreement.  For example, a proposal to build or finance a coal mine, a coal-fired power plant, or a coal port should consider whether the facility would need to be closed before the end of its otherwise useful life, and whether the project would be inconsistent with the Agreement. 

           Systematic analysis and disclosure of these risks will lead responsible boards of directors to undertake serious planning to effect an orderly transition to the low-carbon world that 188 countries agreed to in Paris. These disclosures will also help investors decide what companies will thrive in such a world (such as developers of technologies for renewable energy and efficiency), and what companies are failing to prepare for the transition and thus will themselves become fossils.

WHY, WHY DO I LOVE PARIS

Posted on January 5, 2016 by Richard Ottinger

The Paris Agreement resulting from the COP21 Climate Conference was extraordinary, far better than any of the pundit “experts” expected (indeed most were predicting gloom and doom until the very last minute).  That the conference organizers could get 190 countries that had been quarreling with each other through 20 prior unsuccessful conferences, and many of which have little mutual respect, to come together to unanimously support an agreement of substance on a subject as complex, huge, costly and politically difficult as tackling climate change, is nothing less than a miracle.

Christiana Figuerez and the French negotiating team were brilliant in asking only that countries submit voluntary Independently Nationally Determine Contributions (INDCs) rather than a repeat of conference mandated so-called “binding” carbon reductions as required in the unsuccessful Kyoto Protocol, binding only on developed countries that ratified (and even then signatory Canada simply withdrew).  Their pre-conference preparatory work and skillful conference conduct was critical to its success.

The momentum that was built up as virtually all the countries, large and small, rich and poor, made meaningful submissions was such that it would have been very difficult for any of one nation to spoil the broth.

Indeed, the momentum was so great that even previously very reluctant China, India, S. Africa and Brazil agreed to mandatory verification provisions, extremely important to the effectiveness of the Agreement.

That the INDCs were not sufficient to meet the IPCC scientists’ assessment of need to reduce global temperature increases to no more than below a 2.5 Celsius degrees above pre-industrial revolution levels was to be expected.  But that the parties agreed to meet every 5 years to make further contribution pledges, again despite powerful country reluctance, was a vital success.

One little touted success was a provision to have the Agreement recognize the climate mitigation contributions of non-national organizations, states, provinces, cities, businesses and NGOs, a provision on which I and a group from Yale dubbed The Yale Dialogue, worked very hard to get included. Their inclusion is very important since many of them have already achieved much more than their national governments have been able to pledge.  Perhaps most importantly, it is they that ordinarily are the key actors in establishing energy efficiency standards and often renewable energy incentives.  The Paris Agreement doesn’t call for ratification until 2020, and progress before then will fall largely on their shoulders.

While the task before all the countries of the world to achieve the goals sought through the Agreement is daunting, the Paris Agreement has gotten the world off to a wonderfully good start.

May The Force Be With Who?

Posted on December 30, 2015 by Steve McKinney

There’s been a disturbance in The Force.  On December 4, 2015, Environmental Jedi across the galaxy felt that subtle hitch in the harmonious heartbeat of the universe due to some cosmic, regulatory insult.  That sense of loss warned Jedi everywhere that Balance has been tipped, Light has been dimmed, and Nature has been nicked.

On that day, a former Senator, now Galactic Emperor, affixed his signature to a benign sounding decree from the Legislative Houses of the Republic known as the FAST Act (Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, see House Report 114-357).  Buried beneath 550 pages of directives and declarations about everything from intergalactic traffic lights to hyper-space railroad switchyards lay a seed of great detriment that wary but weary policy watchers had not noticed.  While the Jedi have been exposed to this loathsome idea before, their continual resistance to the Dark Side’s alluring arguments about “emergency” and “public need,” must have faded like dim memories of policy battles a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.  For just a single page of text in a section numbered 61002 slipped through seemingly without notice and certainly without ignition of even a single lightsaber.

The Emperor’s executive agency—ominously known in previous days as the “Federal Power Commission”–—has long had authority to declare an “emergency” by reason of “a sudden increase in the demand for electric energy, or a shortage of electric energy or of facilities for the generation or transmission of electric energy, or of fuel or water for generating facilities, or other causes” and then to order electric utilities to take responsive action (16 U.S.C.A. § 824a(c)).  Now, with the authority of a fully-armed and operational FAST Act, electric utility actions or omissions in response to such orders that violate federal, state or local environmental laws or regulations shall not be considered violations, shall not subject the electric utility to civil or criminal penalties, and—for the love of Obi-Wan—shall not subject such a party to “a citizen suit under such environmental law or regulation.”  Electric utilities supplying emergency power to those in need will avoid any Imperial entanglements.  To coin a phrase, “These aren’t the violations we’re looking for. . . .You can go about your business. . . . Move along. . . . Move along.”

What the most destructive hurricanes and sea storms in recent interstellar history could not do, has now been done.  What a lack of power, potable water, sanitation, health care, police protection and basic transportation for entire cities did not justify, has been written into law now, apparently without a fight. Where were the Jedi?  What Imperial plot lies in back of this development? 

Under the previous Emperor, everyone knew such an exculpatory policy was completely unnecessary and would wreck the environment like the Death Star wrecked Alderan.  But now no outcry?  No rescue?  Is the Resistance powerless?  Where is Luke?  Has Leia lost her lightsaber?  Are the Jedi extinct or has their attention simply been frozen in carbon?  Perhaps this is just another reason to anticipate eagerly Episode VIII, where all ambiguities will be explained without need of Chevron Step One.  May The Force be with you in 2016!

Are Obama’s Climate Pledges Really That “Legally Durable”?

Posted on December 21, 2015 by Richard G. Stoll

In his December 16 ACOEL post Professor Robert Percival concludes that President Obama’s Paris GHG reduction pledges are most likely “legally durable.”  Two of his key points:  (1) EPA’s Clean Power Plan (CPP) – from which the bulk of the Obama pledges are comprised – will likely survive judicial review; and (2) any effort by a new President to undo the CPP would require a lengthy rulemaking process that could be rejected on judicial review.  

The CPP may ultimately survive judicial review, and any attempt by a new President to undermine the CPP may ultimately fail.  But with due respect to Professor Percival, I submit the GHG reduction pledges may be far less “legally durable” than he suggests.  

Judicial Review Prospects.

Professor Percival notes that the Supreme Court has “repeatedly upheld EPA’s authority to regulate GHG emissions.”  But EPA’s authority to regulate GHG emissions is not at issue in the challenges now pending in the D.C. Circuit.  (Consolidated under the lead case West Virginia v. EPA.) 

Rather, the issues relate to how far can EPA go with the words of the Clean Air Act (CAA) to regulate GHG emissions.  I think most would agree that EPA seeks to go pretty far with a few words in CAA 111.   One key issue is whether the words authorizing imposition of “best system” emission limits upon “stationary sources” confer authority to require owners of coal-fired stationary sources to replace their plants with solar and wind energy sources.

In my view, whether the CPP will survive in the D.C. Circuit may well depend upon the composition of the 3-judge panel selected by lot.  The 17 active and senior judges on that Court represent an amazingly wide spectrum of philosophies.  But the cases will probably then go to the Supreme Court – and there, I think EPA will have a pretty tough (but maybe not impossible) time.  Last year, the Court rejected parts of EPA’s GHG regulatory scheme in its UARG opinion.  The Court  expressed strong distaste for EPA regulations with questionable grounding in the CAA’s words  – particularly “where an agency claims to discover in a long-extant statute an unheralded power to regulate a significant portion of the American economy.”

A New President’s Prospects.

Virtually every Republican Presidential candidate has vowed to undo most or all of the CPP (assuming it has not been rejected on judicial review).  I take no position on whether he or she should do this.   But I do believe it could be done fairly quickly and in a manner likely to survive judicial review.

I direct your attention to Nat'l Ass'n of Home Builders v. EPA.  Writing for a unanimous panel in an EPA case, Chief Judge Garland (an Obama appointee – joined by Judge Rodgers, a Clinton appointee) quoted extensively from recent Supreme Court opinions.  In Part II(A) of Judge Garland’s opinion (pages 1036-38) and Part IV (page 1043), the following points come through strong and clear:

a.  A new administration is free to reverse rules issued by a prior administration based entirely upon policy preferences, even where there are no new facts or information, so long as the new administration adequately explains the basis for the reversal;

b.  There is no heightened standard of judicial review when an agency reverses course; and an agency need not convince the court that the reasons for the new policy are better than the reasons for the rejected one.

Thus the “lengthy rulemaking process” envisioned by Professor Percival need not be so lengthy.  A new administration would not need to develop a new factual record – it would merely have to carefully explain in its rulemaking the legal and policy reasons why it was undoing parts or all of the CPP.  There is no reason this could not be accomplished within a year or two, and reductions required under the CPP do not begin kicking in until 2022.

Promises, promises: how legally durable are Obama's climate pledges?

Posted on December 16, 2015 by Robert Percival

As part of a global agreement on climate change, the US has pledged, among other things, to reduce its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 26%-28% compared to 2005 levels by the year 2025. But opponents of President Obama argue that he cannot keep his promises made at the Paris climate summit.

The Obama administration is confident that the US can meet its promise based on the regulatory actions already taken by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other federal agencies to reduce GHG emissions, part of a broad Climate Action Plan announced by President Obama in June 2013.

In transportation, US fuel economy standards set by the EPA have been raised dramatically. And earlier this year the EPA issued regulations to control GHG emissions from power plants, which led to a final rule known as the Clean Power Plan.

The Clean Power Plan will require states to reduce GHG emissions from existing power plants by 32% by the year 2030. It is expected to accelerate the retirement of coal-fired power plants as electric utilities increasingly shift to natural gas and renewable sources of energy.

Yet even as US negotiators arrived in Paris for the climate summit, Obama's political foes were questioning his authority to sign an international agreement on climate change.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell argued that the US cannot meet its promises to the global community because the Clean Power Plan is "likely illegal" and will either will be struck down in court or be revoked by a new Republican president.

So how strong is the legal defense of Obama's signature climate initiatives?

Going to the Supreme Court?

Having the Clean Power Plan struck down in court seems unlikely for a number of reasons. These include the fact that the US Supreme Court repeatedly has upheld EPA's authority to regulate GHG emissions under the Clean Air Act, beginning in 2007 with its decision in Massachusetts v EPA.

On the other hand, a new president working with congressional opponents of climate action could undermine the US commitment. Let's consider the legal possibilities.

The Congressional Review Act provides special fast-track procedures that allow Congress to veto regulations issued by federal agencies within 60 legislative days of their issuance. But before such a joint resolution of disapproval can take effect, it requires either presidential approval or the override of a presidential veto by a two-thirds majority in each house of Congress.

The signature policy of Obama's climate strategy is the EPA Clean Power Plan to regulate CO2 from power plants. Opponents are already challenging it in court. haglundc/flickr, CC BY-NC

As a result, the only time this procedure has been used successfully was shortly after a change of administration. In March 2001 new President George W Bush signed a disapproval resolution blocking regulations issued at the end of the Clinton administration to protect workers from repetitive motion injuries.

Congress is trying to use the Congressional Review Act to disapprove EPA's greenhouse gas regulations, but such a vote is entirely symbolic because President Obama has promised to veto the disapproval resolution and the 60 legislative day period will end long before the 2016 election. Thus, as long as a president committed to climate action remains in office, the Congressional Review Act is not a promising option.

Dramatic versus piecemeal attacks

A new president opposed to climate action could direct EPA to repeal its regulations, but this would require the agency to undertake a lengthy rulemaking process to comply with the Administrative Procedure Act that governs how agencies adopt regulations. Any agency decision to revoke the regulations would be challenged in court and could be overturned.

The courts have played a role before in attempts to reverse regulations. When President Reagan's Department of Transportation rescinded its air bag regulations, the Supreme Court held that it had acted arbitrarily and capriciously because the decision was not supported by the factual record showing that air bags save lives.

 

There will be legal challenges to the EPA Clean Power Plan, but the Obama administration thinks it's on solid legal ground. vagueonthehow/flickr, CC BY

And when the Supreme Court in 2011 rejected state efforts to hold electric utilities liable for climate change under the federal common law of nuisance, it pointedly noted that any future EPA decision not to regulate GHG emissions would be subject to judicial review.

Working with a new president sympathetic to opponents of environmental regulation, Congress could repeal or amend the Clean Air Act, the legal foundation for EPA's regulations of GHG emissions. However, the Clean Air Act has been remarkably resistant to past legislative onslaughts. It is, after all, thanks to the Clean Air Act that the "airpocalypses" choking major cities in China and India right now do not happen in the US.

Another option for a future Congress would be to adopt targeted amendments to deprive EPA of authority to implement the Clean Power Plan and other GHG regulations if there are enough votes in the Senate to overcome a filibuster. Congress also could use the power of the purse to withhold funds for actions necessary to implement any Paris agreement, including US promises of financial aid to help poor countries adapt to climate change.

Post-Paris

The Paris climate conference is being conducted pursuant to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, a treaty signed by President George H W Bush in June 1992 and ratified unanimously by the US Senate on October 7 1992. President Obama believes he already has sufficient legal authority to implement any agreement made in Paris and thus he does need not to ask Congress for new approval.

There is precedent for this. In 2013 the US was able to accede to the Minimata Convention on Mercury without congressional approval because existing law already provides the president with sufficient legal authority to implement its requirements.

For decades, the principal argument by opponents of US climate action has been that the US should not act until developing countries agreed to control their GHG emissions. That argument was dramatically undermined in November 2014 when China agreed to control its emissions, in a joint announcement with the White House.

The claim that other countries will not control their emissions has now been laid to rest in Paris with a new global agreement requiring all countries to do so. Now that the entire world has recognized that all nations must act to combat climate change, it would be the height of folly for a new president and Congress to reverse course.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Some Hard Truths About Addressing Climate Change

Posted on December 2, 2015 by Seth Jaffe

Last week, the Boston Globe had an op-ed by Joshua Goldstein and Steven Pinker concerning some “Inconvenient truths for the environmental movement.”  I’m sorry to say that I agree with pretty much every word of it.  Why am I sorry?  Because Goldstein and Pinker make clear – even though they don’t mention his name – that the Pope was completely wrong in his prescription for addressing climate change.  How so?  It’s really pretty straightforward.

People want more economic development, not less.  They want more markets, not less.  It may be that some wealthy societies could still have a relatively smooth transition to renewable fuels without sacrificing economic growth.  Unfortunately, that’s not where we have to address the demand for fossil fuels.  We have to do so in China and India and other developing countries.  I’m sorry, but I’ve seen the projected demand for fossil fuels outside the US and Europe and it’s not pretty.  Anyone who thinks that we can quickly and easily eliminate fossil fuel use in those countries and still allow them the economic growth that their citizens demand is delusional.

Which brings us to Goldstein’s and Pinker’s second inconvenient truth; nuclear power has to be a large part of the solution.  And I’m afraid that’s probably the end of the conversation for many of my environmental friends, so I’ll cut this short.

I’m still an optimist.  I believe that we can still solve climate change.  We can do so however, with more use of markets, not less.  And we must do so with more economic growth, not less, because the rest of the world won’t be satisfied with less.

What Do Opponents of the Clean Power Plan and the Oklahoma Sooners Have In Common?

Posted on October 23, 2015 by Seth Jaffe

So the Clean Power Plan has been published in the Federal Register.  For those who cannot get enough, you can find all of the important materials, including EPA’s Technical Support Documents, on EPA’s web site for the CPP. 

Not surprisingly, given the number of suits brought before the CPP was even finalized, opponents were literally lining up at the courthouse steps to be the first to sue.  West Virginia apparently won the race and is the named plaintiff in the main petition filed so far. 

Perhaps because Oklahoma has been one of the most persistent, and vocal, opponents of the CPP, this called to mind the origin of the Sooner State’s nickname – which seems particularly apt, since Oklahoma was one of the states that couldn’t wait for the rule to be promulgated to sue.

Sooners

Oklahoma is not actually among the plaintiffs in the West Virginia suit.  Oklahoma filed its own petition today.  One wonders whether Oklahoma was banished from playing with the other states as a result of its impatience.  Unlikely, since most of those in the West Virginia suit also filed early, but it did call to mind that other famous event in the history of the west, as recorded in Blazing Saddles.

LOOK AT WHAT JOHN ROCKEFELLER STARTED

Posted on September 15, 2015 by Michael Hardy

Few recognize Ohio’s pivotal role in the development of the oil and gas industry in the United States.  John D. Rockefeller amassed fortunes in Cleveland with his oil refining business (until Uncle Sam broke up the monopoly).  Since then, there have been a number of different oil and gas booms in the state, for example in the mid-1960’s north of Columbus, then again in deeper sandstone formations in suburban areas of Cleveland approximately 10 years ago, and now, the whopping Utica shale play primarily in eight counties in eastern Ohio at depths over 8000 feet below ground surface and horizontal laterals extending a mile or more.  The Ohio Department of Natural Resources (“ODNR”) has issued over  2000 Utica drilling permits, and there are approximately 1000 wells in production or drilling (costing millions to complete).  Hydraulic fracturing (“fracking” its critics pejoratively call it) has been around a long time, but only recently has it been the focus of media and regulatory scrutiny.  All of these historical booms going back to the mid-1960’s have forced the Ohio General Assembly to enact and update  comprehensive statutes that regulate drilling activities.  

Those in the industry were successful in having the General Assembly confer “sole and exclusive authority” to the ODNR “to regulate the permitting, location, and spacing of oil and gas wells and production operations.”  But what about the longstanding, traditional “home rule powers” that the Ohio Constitution conferred on municipalities to take care of health, safety and land-use matters within their jurisdictions?  The juxtaposition of the two came to a head in a case that ironically does not deal with the massive Utica shale wells, but more modest gas wells in a shallower formation in a suburb in Northern Ohio. 

The ODNR had issued a drilling permit to Beck Energy to drill a well in Munroe Falls in 2011.  But Munroe Falls obtained a local trial court injunction prohibiting the permitted drilling until Beck Energy complied with all local ordinances, including the payment of a fee, the posting of a bond, and the holding of a public meeting.    Despite having the state’s authorization to proceed, Munroe Falls prohibited the drilling until it issued its zoning certificate, which it would not do (if at all) for at least one year after Beck met the other pre-conditions.  

The dispute found its way to the Ohio Supreme Court, which issued a “plurality” opinion (4-3) in favor of Beck Energy (and the ODNR).  State ex rel. Morrison v. Beck Energy Corp. The City argued that the state statute regulates the technical aspects of oil and gas drilling while the municipal ordinances address traditional local zoning concerns.  The majority seemed troubled by the scope of the “sole and exclusive” language, but seemed content to defer this policy question to the General Assembly.   Because the traditional  Home Rule powers have enjoyed longstanding and wide ranging judicial respect, the majority in the Beck Energy  case limited the decision to the Munroe Falls ordinances before the Court, presumably leaving open some future role for local zoning ordinances.   

The initial reaction of the bar was to focus on the separate concurring opinion of Justice O’Donnell, who was reluctant to displace local zoning authority in favor of sweeping state regulatory authority.  In his view, the “sole and exclusive” authority was intended to preempt a patchwork of local laws related to the technical and safety aspects of drilling and not to divest local governments of their traditional authority to promulgate zoning regulations that ensure land-use compatibility, preserve property values, and foster long-term community development plans.  The dissenting Justices, along with Justice O’Donnell, noted the troubling omission of the word “zoning” when the General Assembly spoke to “exclusivity.”  That is to say, if the General Assembly really meant to displace local zoning practices, it could have clearly said so, as it has done with other licensing statutes. 

The Ohio Supreme Court’s decision has not put an end to the hotly contested question of the scope of pre-emption.  For example, an activist group in suburban Broadview Heights has filed a putative class action lawsuit claiming that the City’s Community Bill of Rights supersedes state laws.  And recently, the Ohio Secretary of State refused to certify county-wide ballot initiatives that sought to prohibit fracking and/ or drilling in their respective jurisdictions. 

So after I finish this blog tonight, I will drive down Rockefeller Drive, pass the remains of the old Standard Oil refinery, and wonder what John D would have thought of this tension between state preemption and local health and safety regulations. 

Chicken Little Cannot Compare to the Opponents of the Clean Power Plan

Posted on September 10, 2015 by Seth Jaffe

On Wednesday, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the latest effort to stay EPA’s Clean Power Plan before it has even been promulgated in the Federal Register.  The Court simply stated that “petitioners have not satisfied the stringent standards that apply to petitions for extraordinary writs that seek to stay agency action.”

Really?  Tell me something I did not know.

I’m sorry.  The CPP is a far-ranging rule.  There are strong legal arguments against its validity.  Those arguments may prevail.  I see it as about a 50/50 bet.  This I do know, however.  The sky isn’t falling. The sky won’t fall, even for West Virginia, if the rule is affirmed and implemented. Those opposed to regulation have made these arguments from time immemorial – certainly no later than when Caesar tried to regulate the amount of lead in Roman goblets.  And if I’ve got that one wrong, at least no later than Ethyl Corporation v. EPA, when opponents of EPA’s rulemaking on leaded gasoline thought that the rule would mean the end of western civilization.

I’m not naïve.  I understand that these arguments are political as well as legal.  I just think that opponents of EPA rulemaking undermine their own political position in the long run by repeatedly predicting catastrophe, even though catastrophe never arrives.

sky is falling

Ruminations on the Transition to a Low Carbon Economy

Posted on August 24, 2015 by Christopher Davis

Amid the controversy around the just released EPA Clean Power Plan rule, the impacts of climate change are becoming apparent with a proliferation of heat waves, droughts, floods, wildfires and other extreme weather events and trends, both in the U.S. and globally.  While many climate scientists (and world governments in the 2010 Cancun Agreements) have agreed that it is necessary to limit average global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius to avoid potentially catastrophic and irreversible effects of climate change, the impacts we’re now witnessing result from a temperature rise of just under 1 degree C. We are currently on a trajectory toward a 3 to 4 degree (or more) increase, which has sobering implications.

In preparation for the COP 21 negotiations in Paris, world governments are engaged in a “bottom up” process of submitting proposed national emission reduction pledges poetically called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs).  These are not expected to get us to a 2 degree future, but will hopefully form the basis for an international agreement that sets the world on a path toward that target or something close.

The U.S. INDC calls for reducing our emissions by 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, which will require additional measures beyond those currently proposed or in place (including the EPA Clean Power Plan, CAFÉ and truck efficiency standards, methane and HFC controls). All of these measures are controversial and under attack from various quarters. As the world’s second largest emitter, the U.S. must implement credible and effective emission reduction strategies to convince other major emitters in the developing world (China, India, et al) to control their emissions and to help avoid the worst effects of climate change.

Solving climate change clearly poses huge challenges, but it also presents huge economic opportunities. As highlighted in Ceres’ 2014 Clean Trillion report, International Energy Agency analyses show that the world needs an average of more than $1 trillion in additional annual investment in clean energy technologies (renewable energy, energy efficiency, efficient transport, etc.) beyond 2012 levels of about $250 billion. This creates a massive need for capital, and presents a huge economic and investment opportunity to finance the necessary low carbon, clean energy economy.

A global transition to a low carbon economy is in progress and accelerating, but too slowly.  Policies that put a meaningful price on carbon emissions and eliminate fossil fuel subsidies are needed to scale up clean energy investment. Fortunately there is growing business and investor support for such actions, as evidenced by the Global Investor Statement on Climate Change and recent letters from more than 350 companies supporting EPA’s Clean Power Plan. More such voices are needed to make the business and political case for solving climate change, before it is too late.

Can the Majority and the Dissent Both Be Wrong? The Supreme Court Remands the MATS Rule

Posted on June 30, 2015 by Seth Jaffe

In Jonathan Cannon’s excellent post on Monday’s Supreme Court decision in Michigan v. EPA, he noted that the majority and the minority aren’t actually that far apart in their views on whether EPA must consider costs in this rulemaking.  I have a slightly different take:  They may not be that far apart, but they’re both wrong.  

In fact, the issue in Michigan v. EPA seems so simple that the MATS rule could have been affirmed in a two-page opinion.  Judge Scalia notes that the word “appropriate” – on which the entire 44 pages of the majority, concurring, and dissenting opinions focus – is “capacious”.   I agree.  If so, and if Chevron means anything, “appropriate” is surely capacious enough to allow for an interpretation that does not include cost considerations.  That should have been the end of the case.

I do feel compelled to note, however, that Justice Kagan’s dissent also got it wrong, in at least three ways:

  • I think she’s flat wrong to suggest that, because the MATS “floor” is based on the top 12% of facilities already in operation, that means that establishment of the floor already takes cost into account. As Justice Scalia cogently notes, those existing facilities may well have been under their own regulatory duress – a duress that may not have considered cost.
  • Justice Kagan confuses cost-benefit analysis and cost-effectiveness analysis. For any given goal sought by EPA, the various options provided by the MATS rule may allow power generators to attain the goal in the most cost-effective means possible, but if even the most cost-effective approach were to yield $10B in costs and $10M in benefits, that would fail the cost-benefit test for most people.
  • Finally, and most importantly, Justice Kagan got the consequences wrong. Instead of suggesting, as she did, that the majority decision,
 "deprives the American public of the pollution control measures that the responsible Agency, acting well within its delegated authority, found would save many, many lives,"  
she should have made the point that the majority decision will have no impact on EPA or the MATS rule.  The Supreme Court did not vacate the rule; it merely remanded the rule to the Court of Appeals.  Justice Kagan’s position should have been that EPA still has sufficient discretion, even on the existing record, to defend the MATS rule within the confines of the majority opinion.  Instead, Justice Kagan gave ammunition to those who oppose the rule, by suggesting that it cannot be saved.

A pox on both their houses.

USEPA Finds No Systemic Contamination of Drinking Water from Hydraulic Fracturing

Posted on June 23, 2015 by Chester Babst

On June 4, 2015, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a draft “Assessment of the Potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas on Drinking Water Resources,” which finds no evidence that hydraulic fracturing activities have led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water supplies.  According to the draft assessment, between 2000 and 2013, there were an estimated 9.4 million people living within one mile of a well that was hydraulically fractured.  The draft assessment supports the assertion that state agencies, as the primary regulator of oil and gas development in the United States, are effectively governing hydraulic fracturing activities by the industry.  

Initially announced by USEPA in March 2010, the study has a broad scope.  USEPA reviewed each stage of the “hydraulic fracturing water cycle” – including water acquisition, chemical mixing, well injection, flowback and produced water recapture, and wastewater treatment and disposal – to assess for any widespread, systemic impacts on the quality or quantity of drinking water resources.  The agency also used an expanded definition of drinking water resources that includes currently undrinkable saline aquifers that might be desalinated for consumptive use in the future.  

Although the draft assessment acknowledged that hydraulic fracturing could potentially contaminate drinking water resources, USEPA found that the actual occurrences of such impacts were “small compared to the number of hydraulically fractured wells.”  The risks related to hydraulic fracturing activities identified in the draft assessment included:  water withdrawal in times of low availability; spills of fracturing fluids and produced water; fracturing directly into underground drinking water resources; below ground migration of liquids and gases; and inadequate treatment and discharge of wastewater.  

The draft assessment noted that the primary means of disposing of wastewater from hydraulic fracturing activities conducted in the United States is underground injection wells.  However, one notable exception to this finding is in the Marcellus shale play, where USEPA found that most wastewater is reused by industry.  The high percentage of reuse and recycling of wastewater in the Marcellus shale play is a practice that industry has long asserted is a valuable means of reducing the amount of freshwater needed for well development activities.

USEPA is expected to publish a final assessment after the completion of a notice and comment period, which is currently open and concludes on August 28, 2015, and a review of the draft assessment by the Science Advisory Board Hydraulic Fracturing Research Advisory Panel.  The Panel has scheduled a public meeting to conduct a review of the draft assessment from October 28 to October 30, 2015, and teleconferences to discuss the draft assessment on September 30, October 1, and October 19, 2015.

EPA Is Not an Expert in Determining Electric System Reliability

Posted on May 7, 2015 by Seth Jaffe

The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals just reversed and remanded EPA’s rule allowing backup generators to operate for up to 100 hours per year as necessary for demand response. It’s an important decision that could have lessons for EPA and the regulated community across a wide range of circumstances, including eventual challenges to EPA’s proposed GHG rule.

demand response

EPA said that the rule was necessary to allow demand response programs to succeed while maintaining grid reliability.  Commenters had argued that, by encouraging greater use of uncontrolled backup generators, EPA’s rule makes other generators less economic, thus creating a negative feedback loop, with less and less power generated by controlled units, resulting in greater and greater need for uncontrolled backup generators. Here’s what the Court concluded:

  1. EPA failed adequately to respond to the commenters’ arguments. Noting that “an agency must respond sufficiently to “enable [the court] to see what major issues of policy were ventilated,” the Court instead found that EPA “refused to engage with the commenters’ dynamic markets argument."
  2. To the extent EPA did respond, it was “self-contradictory”, arguing that it was not justifying the regulation on reliability grounds, even though the final rule said that it was based on reliability concerns.
  3. The 100-hour rule was based on faulty evidence. EPA relied on evidence that backup sources had to be available at least 60 hours to participate in a PJM “Emergency Load Response Program.”  However, PJM itself noted that this minimum does not apply to individual engines.
  4. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, while EPA justified the rule on reliability grounds, the Court stated that:

grid reliability is not a subject of the Clean Air Act and is not the province of EPA.

This last issue is the part of the opinion that could have some bearing on judicial review of EPA’s GHG rule.  The Court noted that there was no evidence that FERC or NERC had participated in the backup generator rule or provided comments to EPA.  When, during the course of the rulemaking, a commenter suggested that EPA work with FERC, this was EPA’s response:

the rulemaking’s purpose was to address emissions from the emergency engines “and to minimize such pollutants within the Agency’s authority under the CAA. It is not within the scope of this rulemaking to determine which resources are used for grid reliability, nor is it the responsibility of the EPA to decide which type of power is used to address emergency situations.”

This statement did not make the Court happy:

EPA cannot have it both ways it [sic] cannot simultaneously rely on reliability concerns and then brush off comments about those concerns as beyond its purview. EPA’s response to comments suggests that its 100-hour rule, to the extent that it impacts system reliability, is not “the product of agency expertise.”

And why is this relevant for the GHG rule?

First, because EPA had better consult with FERC and NERC, so that it can defend any statements it makes in the GHG rule about its impact, if any, on reliability.  Second, it’s clear that the court will not show deference to EPA’s conclusions about reliability, since that is not within the scope of EPA’s expertise.

Can States Procure Clean Energy through an RFP Process?

Posted on April 1, 2015 by Mark R. Sussman

In February 2015, the states of Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island announced their intent to seek new large-scale clean-energy projects through a multi-state procurement process.  According to the draft Request for Proposal (RFP) the “essential purpose” of this procurement is to “identify any projects that offer the potential for the Procuring States to meet their clean energy goals in a cost-effective manner that brings additional regional benefits.”  The draft RFP seeks bids for the delivery of Class I renewable energy projects (i.e. solar, wind, biomass, fuel cells in Connecticut, and some hydroelectric) through power purchase agreements, combined power purchase agreements and transmission upgrades, or transmission projects with clean energy delivery commitments.  Because each state has different procurement laws and different definitions of “renewable energy”, the draft RFP notes that contracts for any selected projects must be negotiated with the relevant electric distribution companies (EDC) and approved in accordance with applicable state and federal laws.

To encourage the generation of renewable energy, many states have adopted Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) to require electric distribution companies and retail electric suppliers to include an increasing percentage of renewable energy in their mix of generation resources.  Unfortunately, the RPS alone seems insufficient to encourage the development of enough renewable energy resources to address the renewable energy and climate change policies of the states.  Therefore, the three New England states, as well as others, are experimenting with different methods to incentivize renewable energy generation.  Given the substantial capital requirements for constructing new electric generating facilities and the need for an assured revenue stream, long-term power purchase agreements are increasingly being used to encourage the construction of new energy resources.  The RFP to be issued by the three New England states seeks to attract new large scale renewable energy projects by offering successful bidders long-term energy contracts.

One question raised by this new approach to encourage the construction of reasonably-priced renewable energy resources is whether federal law preempts the states from contracting for large wholesale electric generation, despite independent state policies designed to encourage the development of more renewable energy resources.  This issue has been raised in several recent federal lawsuits.  

Last year, both the Fourth and Third Circuit Courts of Appeals concluded that state programs awarding long term contracts to new electric generating facilities were preempted by the Federal Power Act.  In PPL EnergyPlus, LLC v. Nazarian, 753 F.3d 467 (4th Cir. 2014), the Fourth Circuit held that a fixed, twenty-year energy contract for a new Maryland generating facility was preempted by federal law. Using an RFP process, Maryland selected a company to build a power plant and sell its energy and capacity on the federal interstate wholesale market.  Under the approved contract, the winning project was eligible for payments from the local EDC that amounted to the difference between the price paid in the interstate market and the amount approved in its EDC contract.  The Fourth Circuit concluded that the Maryland law was field preempted because it functionally sets the rate that the generator receives for sales in the interstate energy market, an area within the exclusive jurisdiction of FERC. 

Similarly, the Third Circuit, in PPL EnergyPlus, LLC v. Solomon, 766 F.3d 241 (3d Cir. 2014), held that federal law preempted a New Jersey statute under which the state solicited and awarded bids for new electric generating capacity using long-term energy capacity agreements.  The Third Circuit, however, acknowledged that states have a role to play in energy markets, and stated that not every state program that has an effect on interstate electric rates will be preempted.  The court explained that states may utilize measures that subsidize generators without being preempted, as long as such subsidies do not essentially set wholesale prices.   

In 2013, Connecticut solicited proposals for large scale renewable energy through an RFP process.  That solicitation resulted in the selection of a 250 MW wind project in Maine and a 20 MW solar project in Connecticut.  Both projects were awarded long term power purchase agreements for the energy produced by these projects.  A disappointed bidder, Allco Finance Limited, filed suit alleging preemption, following Nazarian and Solomon.  On December 10, 2014, the district court dismissed the case, finding that a disappointed bidder lacks standing. Allco Finance, Ltd. v. Klee. Nevertheless, the court ruled on the merits.  The district court concluded that the state RFP process was not preempted, rejecting Allco’s argument that the state-approved contracts set the wholesale price for energy produced by the successful bidders.  The court ruled that the effect of the Connecticut program on the interstate market was at most indirect and would cause no market distortion.  Allco has appealed the district court’s decision to the Second Circuit.

The use of an RFP process to encourage the development of renewable energy projects through the award of long term energy contracts is an effective way to procure lower cost renewable generation.  The Connecticut Z-REC program, which awards long term Renewable Energy Credit (“REC”) contracts, has proven to be successful in driving down the cost of solar renewable energy credits from small (less than 1 MW) solar projects.  In light of the federal preemption obstacles in awarding long-term wholesale electricity contracts, another approach may be to support large scale renewables by procuring long term contracts for RECs and allowing the energy price to be set by the interstate markets.  Since a REC represents the renewable attribute of electricity, and not the energy itself, such procurement should avoid the preemption issues identified by the Third and Fourth Circuits.  This may provide a path forward for states to pursue their clean energy goals by incentivizing larger scale renewable resources. 

EPA Should End Its Embargo Practice

Posted on March 9, 2015 by Richard G. Stoll

It is popular to grouse about how long it takes EPA to issue a rule these days. When I was at EPA in its formative years, we often went from proposal to final in just a few months. There are many reasons why the trek to final rule signing has now become so time-consuming. To name just one, advocates on all sides increasingly file lengthy comments covering technical, economic, and legal issues. And reviewing courts increasingly require EPA to fully explain its basis and purpose in response to all those comments.

While these types of delays are understandable, another type of delay is not. I am speaking of the lag between the rule’s signing by the Administrator and its publication in the Federal Register. You would think this ministerial act (the Federal Register Director isn’t authorized to re-write EPA’s rules) should be accomplished in four or five days. It almost always was when I was at EPA, and today it often is for other agencies. And sometimes these days, EPA’s signed rules get published in a few days.

But there are many exceptions, and a great example is now before us. Administrator McCarthy signed the RCRA “coal combustion residue” (CCR) final rule on December 19, 2014. It has yet to hit the Federal Register, and EPA staff announced on a recent webconference that they “hoped” it would by late March or early April. Other recent examples come to mind. The signed-to-published lag time for EPA’s 2012 CAA Oil & Gas NSPS/NESHAP rule was 121 days. The lag time for EPA’s 2014 CAA NSPS greenhouse gas (GHG) proposed rule was 110 days. It now looks like the RCRA CCR Rule will break 100.

What in the world is going on during these lengthy lag times? EPA staff will tell you that a document with numerous charts, tables, and graphs bamboozles the Federal Register people – even though the CFR has been replete with charts, tables and graphs for decades. EPA staff will also tell you (as they have for the CCR Rule) that they are fixing “typos.” But with 21st century software, can catching and correcting typos possibly take 100 days or more?

So why grouse about this? I am not suggesting that EPA staff might be making substantive, consequential changes to a final rule after the Administrator signs it. EPA does place the final rule on its Website immediately after the document is signed, so any “corrections” in the Federal Register version can be detected by a careful review. (It would be nice – for transparency’s sake – if EPA would make a practice of releasing a red-line showing exactly which “corrections” were made to the signed version during the 100+ days.)

And I am not grousing about the Federal Register publication delays per se. What bothers me is EPA’s frequent practice of refusing to release critical documents supporting the final rule – for instance, the Response to Comment (RTC) document – until the day the rule hits the Federal Register. It is this embargo – coupled with a long signed-to-published lag time – that hurts. During the recent webconference for the RCRA CCR Rule, for instance, EPA staffers made clear that the RTC and other support documents would not be released until the “hoped for” publication in late March or April.

For an agency (and Administration) that touts “transparency” at every turn, I cannot understand why EPA engages in this embargo practice. And sometimes (but not often enough), EPA does release these support documents before the rule is published in the Federal Register – so there is obviously no legal barrier to such a release.

Why should anyone care about such an embargo? As soon as a final rule is released, regulated entities often need to go into high gear to prepare for compliance. In these preparations, they need to be able to understand and interpret the rule’s provisions, many of which are often unclear or ambiguous. EPA’s RTC often provides interpretations and guidance far more lucidly than the rule’s preamble. One good example: in the RTC to EPA’s 2013 CAA “CISWI” rule, EPA provided a key interpretation of what types of activities would be deemed a “modification” triggering new source status. This interpretation appeared nowhere in the rule’s preamble and could hardly have been divined from the regulatory language. It is plainly unfair and contrary to principles of good government to hide this kind of interpretation from regulated parties for 100+ days when they are preparing for compliance.

Moreover, parties on all sides of a rulemaking (industry and public interest groups) need to begin evaluating judicial review options and theories as soon as they can after a final rule is signed. Why should they have to wait 100+ days for critical documents that are essential to their evaluation?

So dear EPA: PLEASE start releasing your RTC and other supporting documents at the same time you release your signed rule!

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.

IS IT CHECK OR CHECKMATE?

Posted on December 2, 2014 by Annette Kovar

Back in September 2008, TransCanada Keystone Pipeline LP (TransCanada) filed what it probably thought at the time was a straightforward, routine application for a Presidential permit to build its Keystone XL pipeline. As almost everyone knows now, that pipeline would deliver thousands of barrels of Canadian crude oil to refineries on the U.S. gulf coast. The project appeared to be straightforward because the environmental review process required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) has been honed over many years. If not exactly expeditious, the NEPA process is well known and often used.  And the project appeared to be routine because there are many pipelines that already cross U.S. territory.

Yet, six years later, there still is no final decision on a permit. The review process has ballooned into an intricate one, attracting legislative and judicial attention and intervention at both the state and federal levels, not to mention increased public awareness. Normally, one would expect increased public attention and awareness to lead to better decision-making and hopefully that will be the case here. My question, though, is whether this public participation could have been integrated into the NEPA process earlier. A follow-up question might be whether it would have mattered once politics took over.

The delay in completing this project review is undoubtedly frustrating for many and has created a “moving target” conundrum with many other decision-makers now involved. Even with a decision by the Nebraska Supreme Court and a final Presidential decision on the permit, the congressional and federal legal challenges are unlikely to end. Has this project become so politicized that there can be no public confidence in the eventual outcome? Would there have been a better way to encourage public participation earlier?

Nebraska could have gotten involved sooner. The federal NEPA regulations allow a State or local agency “which has jurisdiction by law or special expertise with respect to any environmental impact involved in a [proposed project]” to become a cooperating agency, with the federal lead agency conducting the federal NEPA review.  In 2009, the Department of State invited local governments to weigh in on the permitting process for the Keystone XL pipeline under NEPA by becoming a cooperating agency.

At that time, the pipeline route debate had not yet arisen and Nebraska could still participate in the NEPA process by providing comments. In addition, the federal NEPA regulations normally require a cooperating agency to use its own funds. Nebraska’s ability to fund its own NEPA-like review of the project was severely limited since the state had no similar NEPA-like requirement or source of funding at that time. Given the lack of controversy early on, the extra expense of becoming a cooperating agency seemed unnecessary when the opportunity to offer comment was an option.

Would Nebraska involvement at that earlier time have made a difference?  It’s hard to say.  Opposition to the pipeline route in Nebraska only started to come together when the Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) came out in August of 2011 and TransCanada began contacting local landowners to obtain easements. The growing opposition led to Nebraska legislation essentially creating a cooperating role for Nebraska by providing adequate funding for preparation of a report to supplement the federal EIS. That report was published in January 2013.

In addition to Nebraska’s actions, the U.S. Department of State determined that more information was needed about alternative routes to avoid the environmentally sensitive Sand Hills region of Nebraska.  This prompted Congress to adopt a provision forcing Presidential action on the 2011 EIS within 60 days.

The President then denied the permit for the reason that it didn’t allow sufficient time to review the proposed alternative route through Nebraska.  TransCanada re-applied in May 2012 with a proposed new route through Nebraska. This led to more state legislation, state legal challenges, a supplemental report issued by Nebraska in 2013, and a Final Supplemental EIS issued by the U.S. Department of State. But, there’s still no permit decision, as most parties are awaiting a final decision by the Nebraska Supreme Court on the constitutionality of the state legislation.

This looks more like a schizophrenic chess match than responsible government. Is it just government avoiding a difficult and controversial decision? But, with so many wrenches thrown into this particular NEPA review, how could we expect the process to reach a final resolution in a timely manner? It is rare these days to find any public policy being made in a forthright and timely manner without competing vested interests impeding the administrative process in any number of “legitimate” ways.  Unfortunately, environmental issues are no different in this respect than immigration or health care. The Keystone XL pipeline is only one example where our Constitutional construct has given us lots of “checks” without much balance.  

Texas Railroad Commission finalizes proposal to require seismic surveys

Posted on November 4, 2014 by Jeff Civins

Over 30 earthquakes jolted the area in and around the City of Azle, Texas —20 miles north of Fort Worth—last November through January. In response to citizen concerns, the Texas House Committee on Energy Resources created a Subcommittee on Seismic Activity to investigate whether there was a link between earthquakes and increased oil and gas production and disposal wells.  On August 12, the Railroad Commission of Texas, with support from both  the Texas oil and gas industry and environmental groups, proposed rules that would require companies to do a seismic survey before obtaining permits for new oil and gas disposal wells—so-called Class II injection wells.  On October 28, 2014, the Railroad Commission unanimously voted to finalize that proposal.

Presently, the state has more than 3600 active commercial injection wells used for the disposal of oil and gas wastes. The rules require applicants for new oil and gas disposal wells to provide additional information, including logs, geologic cross-sections, and structure maps for injection well in an area where conditions exist that may increase the risk that fluids will not be confined to the injection interval. Those conditions include, among other things, complex geology, proximity of the base rock to the injection interval, transmissive faults, and a history of seismic events in the area as demonstrated by information available from the USGS. The rules also clarify that the Railroad Commission may modify, suspend, or terminate a permit if fluids are not confined to the injection interval, that is, if it poses a risk of seismic activity. The effect of these rules will be not only to regulate oil and gas disposal activities to address potential seismic effects, but also to generate data that may be useful in determining whether and to what extent to further regulate those activities.  The rules also may serve as a model for other states concerned about the seismic effects of oil and gas waste disposal.