Trumping Trump on Climate Change

Posted on July 25, 2017 by Dan Esty

President Donald Trump’s decision to back away from the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan and other policies to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in fulfillment of America’s commitment to the 2015 Paris Climate Change Agreement might be seen as bad news for the global environment.  And it is.  But the news is not quite as bad as many fear.  Even if the President’s actions slow progress toward the U.S. “nationally determined contribution” to the emissions reduction goals of the Paris Agreement – a cut of 26-28 percent by 2030 – that will not stop the overall downward trend in GHG emissions for several important reasons. 

First, American Presidents have limited executive authority, meaning that a number of the climate change policies put in place by President Obama cannot be reversed with a stroke of President Trump’s pen.  Second, the shift away from coal as America’s electricity generation fuel of choice will continue – driven by prior regulatory requirements and the economics of the energy marketplace.  Third, many critical decisions that shape the carbon footprint of a society are made not by presidents and prime ministers but by mayors, governors (or other sub-national elected officials), and corporate leaders.

President Trump’s March 28 Executive Order directs his EPA Administrator to “review” the prior administration’s Clean Power Plan and “as soon as practicable, suspend, revise, or rescind” it.  But this is not a simple process.  The Clean Power Plan represents a regulatory strategy for implementing a Clean Air Act obligation to control emissions from any air pollutant found to “endanger public health and public welfare.”  The Supreme Court confirmed in Massachusetts v. EPA (2007) that this obligation is not discretionary with regard to greenhouse gas emissions. 

Thus, the Trump EPA can change the strategy for responding to greenhouse gases but cannot walk away from its obligation to control them unless it reverses the “endangerment” finding issued by former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson in 2009.  To undo this prior conclusion, current EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt would need to establish a new scientific foundation that would justify a different policy conclusion.  Given the overwhelming scientific consensus that the build-up of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere threatens to produce various harmful effects – including sea level rise, increased frequency and intensity of hurricanes and other windstorms, changed rainfall patterns, as well as more frequent droughts, floods, and forest fires – such an effort would be quickly challenged in any number of courts and almost certainly overturned.  Indeed, in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence that the build-up of GHG emissions in the atmosphere is a problem, a “non-endangerment” conclusion would be an almost paradigmatic example of an “arbitrary and capricious” regulatory action.  EPA will, therefore, almost certainly choose to revise the Clean Power Plan rather than dump it altogether. 

In introducing his climate change executive order, President Trump promised that his actions would bring back American coal production and power generation.  No such thing will happen.  Hundreds of U.S. coal-fired power plants have been shut down in the past decade – most in response to the Obama Administration’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards.  These plants will not be reopening.

Not only have coal-burning power plants been the target of numerous regulatory restrictions, they also now face stiff competition from cleaner-burning and cheaper natural gas power generation as well as rapidly expanding renewable power production.  Nothing President Trump has done will reverse these trends.  Indeed, given the momentum toward a clean energy future and the prospects that a future president will redirect the Trump climate change policies and restore the U.S. commitment to lower greenhouse gas emissions, no utility is going to invest in new coal-fired power plants, and many power generators will proceed with planned retirements of existing coal units.  Simply put, the President’s shifting of gears on climate change policy does not over-ride the broader economic logic for movement toward cleaner and cheaper energy options.

In the face of the President’s disinterest in the Paris Agreement in particular and his hostility toward environmental regulation more broadly, leadership and political support for climate change action in the United States has shifted out of Washington.  Of particular note, more than 200 mayors, 10 governors, and nearly 1700 business leaders have formed a coalition called America’s Pledge that aims to ensure that the U.S. emissions reduction commitment is fulfilled.  Led by California Governor Jerry Brown and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the participants in America’s Pledge are pushing forward with climate action plans at the city, state, and corporate scales. 

Some of these leaders, moreover, have expressed interest in formally “signing” the 2015 Paris Agreement if the United States ends up withdrawing.  While there are constitutional limits to what sub-national jurisdictions can do in the international realm, legal work is underway to find a mechanism that would allow these mayors, governors, and CEOs to make a commitment to the goals of the Paris Agreement “to the full extent of their authority.”

The breadth and depth of these non-federal-government climate change initiatives means that American greenhouse gas emissions will continue to decrease regardless of what energy policies the Trump Administration puts forward.  In fact, one of the critical features of the climate change strategy that the world community agreed upon in Paris in 2015 was a shift from a top-down approach that relied upon national government actions to a bottom-up game plan for emissions reductions that called upon a much wider array of actors to join the effort to promote energy efficiency and a shift toward renewable power.

As it turns out, presidents and prime ministers don’t have that much say over the day-to-day decisions that determine the carbon footprints of their societies.  Mayors, governors, and CEOs are really the ones who make the critical choices about transportation options, housing and development patterns, product and production strategies, technology and infrastructure investments, and other decisions that determine the trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions.

Thus, while President Trump can take the United States out of a leadership role in the global effort to combat climate change, he will not be able to reverse the domestic momentum for action on climate change.  His policies may slow the pace of U.S. emissions reductions, but movement toward a decarbonized energy future will continue.

The Cuyahoga River Makes News Again

Posted on May 11, 2017 by Michael Hardy

To many environmental law veterans, the name of the Cuyahoga River triggers memories.   The 1969 fire on that River galvanized major reforms to the water pollution laws of the United States.

As I sit in my 36th floor office and look out the windows in several directions, I can see most of the upper Cuyahoga River course through the “Industrial Flats” as it winds from the Cleveland Harbor north on Lake Erie to the large Arcelor Mittal steel plant nearly six miles downriver.  Known as the “crooked river” by Indian lore, it has many oxbows and switchbacks with colorful names like “Collision Bend” and “Irishtown Flats”.  Home to rowing teams, large tugs, iron ore freighters, and sand and gravel barges, it is a busy river requiring constant upkeep through dredging.

The Cuyahoga River has made remarkable progress since the 1969 fire, with many targeting the fifty-year anniversary of the fire for the removal of its “impaired” classification.  But the River still suffers from years of industrial and municipal sewage disposal.  Although a variety of fish have returned, it should not be surprising to know that slightly elevated PCBs remain in the sediments, a fact that complicates the dredging and disposal of the spoils.  Therein lies the newest chapter in the River’s history.

Congress has funded the dredging of the Cuyahoga River for nearly 40 years and, in 2015, allocated resources to the Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) for that year.  Accordingly, the Corps filed an application with the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (OEPA) for a water quality certification under Section 401 of the Clean Water Act before commencement of the dredging project.  The OEPA, concerned over elevated levels of PCBs in some of the dredging spoils, authorized the dredging to proceed, provided the Corps disposed of all the dredged material in on-site “confined disposal facilities” (CDFs).  Based on sampling and analysis it conducted, the Corps agreed to utilize a CDF for the sediments dredged from the Cleveland Harbor, but objected to the required use of a CDF for the spoils coming from the “Upper Channel” of the River.  Calculating what it called a “Federal Standard” to identify less costly alternatives, the Corps proposed instead to use “open lake disposal” for those materials, which immediately drew the opposition of the OEPA and Ohio Department of Natural Resources.  The Corps argued that the use of a CDF for those spoils would add nearly $1,300,000 to the cost of the project.  The Court wanted the “Federal Standard” to override Ohio’s anti-degradation water quality rules and other initiatives designed to improve the health of Lake Erie.  Instead of an administrative appeal of the OEPA conditional certification, the Corps gave the State an ultimatum – either find a “non-federal source” for the added costs or forfeit the Congressionally authorized dredging.  Because of the potential dire economic consequences to the steel mill and other businesses, the State sued the Corps and obtained a preliminary injunction.  The District Court sided with the State and ordered the dredging to commence, with the responsibility for the incremental costs to be determined in subsequent proceedings.

On May 5, 2017, the District Court issued a 52-page Opinion finding that the Corps’ actions were “arbitrary and capricious” under the Administrative Procedure Act. State of Ohio v. The United States Army Corps of Engineers, U.S.D.C. N.D.Ohio Case No. 1:15 – CV 629.  Among other things, the Court found that the Corps’ elevation of its so-called “Federal Standard” to supersede duly promulgated water quality standards of Ohio exceeded the Corps’ authority. The Corps could not make up its own rules to evade its obligations to comply with properly adopted environmental standards or to fulfill Congressional mandates to dredge the entirety of the Cuyahoga navigation channel and use a CDF to manage the spoils.  Accordingly, the District Court ruled that the Corps must absorb the added costs of the on-land CDF disposal.

Trump’s “Tortured” Maneuvering Can Be Legal Maneuvering

Posted on April 11, 2017 by Richard G. Stoll

Bob Sussman is a former high-ranking Obama and Clinton EPA official with a stellar academic and professional background.  He recently published in Inside EPA a thought-provoking piece entitled “Trump’s Tortured Maneuvering on Climate Change.”

No matter what your views on climate, Bob’s piece is worth reading.  I find much to agree with in Bob’s observations, but would respectfully disagree with one. 

Focusing on the president’s March 28 Executive Order (EO), Bob raises the valid question of why Mr. Trump touted it on job-saving, energy independence grounds.  Bob makes a strong case (as if he really needed to) that coal mining jobs are dwindling due to market forces and that the U.S. energy outlook is just fine. 

Bob posits that Trump’s job-energy independence focus reveals a divide and major discomfort within the Administration on whether and how much to deny that humans are involved with climate change.  He notes that the March 28 Order side-steps any position on both the “Endangerment Finding” and the Paris Accords.   

So far so good.  My respectful disagreement relates to Bob’s argument that the Trump EPA would have a difficult time sustaining major cutbacks to the Obama Clean Power Plan (CPP) on judicial review.  He speculates that a new Trump CPP might simply retain “building block 1” (plant efficiency improvements) from the 3-block “beyond-the-fenceline” Obama CPP.  He argues that “the courts may well balk at this approach as a contrived effort to duck the challenge of climate change by taking refuge in narrow legal arguments.”

Here is why I disagree:

a.  Following the 2007 Supreme Court Massachusetts ruling and EPA’s subsequent Endangerment Finding, EPA is not required by the Clean Air Act (CAA) to issue GHG rules with any particular degree of stringency – EPA must just issue rules.

b.  The “beyond-the-fenceline” features of the Obama CPP are based upon truly adventurous interpretations of the words of the CAA.  There is certainly nothing in the CAA that requires those interpretations.  (Recall the U.S. Supreme Court has taken the unprecedented step of staying the Obama CPP throughout the entire judicial review process.)  Even if the D.C. Circuit were to uphold these interpretations, it would only be upholding the Obama EPA’s discretion to adopt them; the Court could not rule that such interpretations were mandated by the CAA.

c.  The Supreme Court and D.C. Circuit case law are clear on the following points:

i.  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;

ii.  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.

See my recent ACOEL blog for the citations to the cases.

d.  Because the statutory interpretations supporting beyond-the-fenceline requirements are so adventurous (and stayed by the Supreme Court), it should be easy for the Trump EPA to defend a new CPP as a matter of policy based on CAA interpretations that are far less adventurous.

e.  If and when the new CPP reaches the Supreme Court, it is difficult to see the Court departing from the precedents of the cases cited in my ACOEL blog, particularly with Justice Gorsuch filling Justice Scalia’s seat.

Rifle Shots – Unleashing the Power of the Tweak

Posted on February 24, 2017 by JB Ruhl

Here’s a thought exercise: I’ll give you a budget of 25 words (including conjunctions, articles, and all the other little ones). You use up a word by either deleting, adding, or replacing one in an existing federal environmental or natural resources statute. How much could you transform the field of practice with just those 25 word edits? The answer is, quite a lot.

When we think of statutory reform, we usually think big, right on up to “repeal and replace.” But after more than 25 years of very little legislative action on federal environmental and natural resources statutes—the National Wildlife Refuge Improvement Act, Sustainable Fishing Act, and the recent Toxic Substances Control Act reforms are a few exceptions since the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments—much rides on the accumulations of judicial and agency interpretations of the meaning of a word here and a phrase there. As we enter a period of potential legislative volatility in this field, therefore, the rifle shot may be just as much in play as the nuclear bomb.

Like any statutory reform, rifle shots can make regulatory statutes either more or less regulatory. For example, one could add “including carbon dioxide” or “excluding carbon dioxide” in just the right place in the Clean Air Act and with those three words put an end to a lot of debate and litigation. Given the current political climate, however, it’s reasonable to assume any rifle shot would be aimed at reducing regulatory impacts. But even with just 25 words in the clip, one could transform the impact of several regulatory programs before running out.

For example, delete the words “harm” and “harass” from the statutory definition of “take” in the Endangered Species Act (ESA) (16 U.S.C. 1532(19)) [LINK 1] and you have a very different regulatory program. Much if not most of the land use regulation impact under the ESA stems from the inclusion of those two words; without them, the ESA’s prohibition of unpermitted take would restrict actions like hunting, killing, shooting, and wounding, but could not reach indirect “harming” from habitat modification.   Of course, the interagency consultation program under Section 7 (16 U.S.C. 1536(a)(2)) [LINK 2] would still be in place, prohibiting federal agencies from taking actions that “jeopardize” the continued existence of species. But just add “substantially” before “jeopardize” and the practical effect of that prohibition is greatly reduced.

I’ve managed to transform the ESA, vastly reducing its regulatory impact, with just three word tweaks. Twenty-two to go. Here are some more examples.  I’ll let readers evaluate the impacts.

·         Speaking of evaluating impacts, the environmental impact review process of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) can really slow things down (42 U.S.C. 4332(B)). [LINK 3] To “streamline” the process, add the word “direct” before “environmental impact” in subpart (C)(1), which would eliminate the current practice of requiring analysis of indirect and cumulative impacts, and delete subpart (C)(iii), which requires agencies to evaluate “alternatives to the proposed action,” to remove a factor that bogs down much NEPA litigation. (Six more words down, sixteen to go.)

·         Heard all the commotion about which “waters” are subject to the Clean Water Act? Clear that up by changing the statutory definition of “navigable waters” (33 U.S.C. 1362(7)) [LINK 4] to read “waters of the United States subject to navigation.” That would be pretty extreme—it would remove most wetlands from jurisdiction—so one could control how far jurisdiction extends over wetlands by adding and their adjacent wetlands.” This would draw the line much closer to navigable water bodies than current interpretations reflected in Supreme Court opinions and agency regulations—Rapanos and the Water of the United States Rule become history. (Seven more words down, nine to go.)

·         And if you also want to put to rest the question whether the Clean Water Act applies to groundwater, edit the front end of the definition to read “surface waters.” (Another word down, eight to go.)

·         The Circuits are split over whether the Migratory Bird Treaty Act’s list of prohibited activities (16 U.S.C. 703(a)), [LINK 5] which includes to “take” or “kill,” sweeps within the statute’s reach any “incidental” taking or killing—injury or mortality that is not the direct purpose of the activity, such as strikes by wind turbines. Easy to solve! Add the word “purposeful” before the list of prohibited activities. (Another word down, seven to go.)

·         And, while we’re at it, let’s go ahead and add “excluding carbon dioxide” to the Clean Air Act definition of “air pollutant” (42 U.S.C. 7602(g)). [LINK 6] Adios, Clean Power Plan. (Three more words down, leaving just four to go.)

I’ll leave it to readers to think about how to use the last four words. The point here is that the system of environmental and natural resources law has become quite fragile. With Congress out of the picture for so long, courts and agencies have built up an interpretation infrastructure under which a single word or phrase often carries a tremendous burden of substantive and procedural program implementation. As a consequence, a mere tweak here and there can have dramatic effects on the program.

Granted, anyone who closely follows the statutes tweaked above will quickly appreciate the impact of any of the tweaks, and I’ve chosen some powerful examples unlikely to slip by any such experts. But subtler tweaks buried deep in a larger bill could more easily fly below the radar.

It remains to be seen whether Congress takes this rifle shot approach or goes bigger.  Rifle shots don’t eliminate or “gut” entire programs, which may be the current congressional appetite, but the above examples show the potency of this approach. I for one will be keeping my eyes out for rifle shots in bills every bit as much as I will be following the big bomb reform efforts. Do not underestimate the power of the tweak!

Trump Greenlights Keystone and Dakota Access Pipelines, but the Battle is Far From Over

Posted on January 26, 2017 by Patrick A. Parenteau

President Trump wasted no time making good on his promise to reverse President Obama’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and move U.S. energy policy towards cleaner energy sources.  On January 24 Trump signed two executive memoranda, one inviting TransCanada to resubmit its application to build the 800,000 barrel a day Keystone XL pipeline from the Canadian oil sands to the Gulf Coast; the other directing the Army Corps of Engineers to expedite the review and approval of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) to carry approximately 500,000 barrels per day of crude oil from the Bakken shale in North Dakota to oil markets in the United States. But a close reading raises some sticky legal and economic issues that will have to be resolved before the oil starts flowing.  [LINKS to Keystone and DAPL Memos]

In announcing the Keystone Memo, Trump said that approval was contingent on TransCanada’s  willingness to “renegotiate some of the terms” – including perhaps a commitment to use US steel and a share in any profits. The problem is that tar sands oil is not only the dirtiest fuel on the planet, it’s also the most expensive to extract. To be profitable oil prices need to be above $80 per barrel; today they sit around $52, and it is unlikely they will rise much higher in the foreseeable future given the competition from shale oil and the fracking boom that is flooding the market in the US. The break-even point for Bakken shale oil is $29 per barrel. Seventeen major oil sands projects were canceled after oil prices crashed in 2014, as companies took major losses. Major investors in the oil sands have begun to leave, including Norway-based Statoil, which pulled out of the oil sands in December 2016. So cutting a deal to the President’s liking may be harder than it looks.

Assuming the deal goes down, the Keystone Memo issues several directives to clear the way for the project. It directs the State Department to make a final decision within 60 days of the date TransCanada re-submits its application, and it further specifies that “to the maximum extent permitted by law” the final supplemental EIS issued in 2014 shall satisfy the requirements of NEPA as well as the consultation requirements of the Endangered Species Act, and “any other provision of law that requires executive department consultation or review.” The Keystone Memo also directs the Corps of Engineers to use Nationwide Permit 12 to summarily authorize the stream crossings needed to complete the project. These fast track measures are sure to be tested in court by the opponents who are not about to let their hard won victory be snatched away without a furious fight—in the courts as well as in the streets. While courts have ruled that the presidential permit itself is not reviewable, there is presumably no bar to challenging the decisions of the Corps and the Department of Interior that are necessary to complete the project.

The DAPL Memo directs the Secretary of the Army and the Chief of the Corps of Engineers to “review and approve in an expedited manner, to the extent permitted by law and as warranted, and with such conditions as are necessary or appropriate, requests for approvals to construct and operate the DAPL, including easements or rights-of-way to cross Federal areas under section 28 of the Mineral Leasing Act.” The Memo also instructs the Secretary to consider whether to rescind the memorandum issued by the Obama administration requiring preparation of an EIS on DAPL’s   request for an easement to cross Lake Oahe, and to deem the previously-issued Environmental Assessment sufficient to satisfy NEPA.

The Standing Rock protest over DAPL has become an historic confrontation that has united an Indigenous land-and-water movement and climate activism to confront a fossil-fuel corporation protected by a militarized police force.  At one point in December thousands of veterans arrived to provide a safe space for the protesters who call themselves “water protectors.” Litigation filed by the Standing Rock Tribe and other tribes challenging the Corps’ issuance of permits under the Clean Water Act and Rivers and Harbors Act is pending in federal district court in the District of Columbia.  Judge Boasberg denied a preliminary injunction but has yet to rule on the merits of the case. At the moment, the court is considering DAPL’s motion for summary judgment to declare that the project already has all of the approvals it needs and the Corps should not be able to reverse its earlier decision that an EIS was not required. Though the Justice Department has vigorously opposed this move, it will be interesting to see whether the Trump administration adopts a different posture. In any event, the Tribe has raised serious questions about whether the Corps properly evaluated threats to its water supply intake and alternative routes that would lessen the risk. One of the allegations invokes environmental justice concerns arguing that the project was re-routed away from Bismarck in response to concerns about threats to its water supply. The Tribe has also raised novel questions about whether granting the easement would violate treaty rights under the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie.

At the hearing on DAPL’s motion for summary judgment, Judge Boasberg acknowledged the uncertainty about what the new administration might do but observed that “It’s not my business to guess.” For now the rest of us will have to guess at what the final outcome of this epic confrontation that has galvanized indigenous peoples from all over the world will be.