With the Stroke of a Pen…or a Tweet?

Posted on February 1, 2018 by JB Ruhl

John Milner’s recent post on executive orders, memorandums, and proclamations taps into something that is quite new and different for environmental lawyers—a president who uses these and other “direct actions” to shape environmental policy from day one, and who is doing so largely by undoing his predecessor’s direct actions.  

I’ve recently completed two empirical studies of presidential direct actions from FDR through the first year of the Trump Administration. In one paper we look at what topics presidents have focused on overall through time and then drill down on environmental (and energy) policies. In the other paper we examine the practice of presidents revoking predecessor direct actions (through yet another direct action).

Despite what you may read in the media, President Trump is by no means unlike other presidents in using direct actions, and lots of them, to steer policy early in his term, or in revoking predecessor direct actions to get the job done. What sets him apart is how early in his term he focused on environmental and energy policy, and how aggressive he has been in revoking President Obama’s direct actions in those fields. And then there’s…the tweets. Let’s take these one at a time.

Direct Actions and the Environment: There is a rich history of presidents using the big four direct actions—executive orders, memorandums, proclamations, and determinations—to shape policy straight from the White House, but environmental policy has not played a big role. Once you take out public lands policy, including the Antiquities Act, environmental policy has been a small component of direct action activity. Energy policy has been more prominent, however, and to the extent the two fields are increasingly merging, one does see more presidential attention going their way, but not usually concentrated at the beginning of a term. President Trump is quite different in this respect, using direct actions to dramatically change environmental and energy policy right out of the gate. 

Revoking Direct Actions: Presidents have revoked predecessor direct actions throughout history, and with great frequency. Here President Trump is no different, except that he is the first to bear down so much on environmental and energy policy. Part of the reason, of course, is that President Obama used direct actions to shape much of his administration’s environmental and energy policy, meaning President Trump could not advance his policies without negating President Obama’s actions. But he has gone further than that. For example, while not completely unprecedented, his orders “shrinking” existing national monuments established by Presidents Clinton and Obama have, for the first time, called into question whether a president has the power to do so.  

Tweets as Direct Actions: The rising use by politicians of social media as a channel of communication has raised questions regarding the status of President Trump’s frequent “tweets” as official policy. If the pen is mightier than the sword, is a tweet from the President even mightier?

Until recently, no one could be blamed for thinking a tweet is just a tweet—but they warrant their own treatment (tweetment?) given how important a role they have come to play in the Trump Administration. For example, former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer somewhat circularly explained the status of President Trump’s tweets, stating that “The President is the President of the United States, so they're considered official statements by the President of the United States.” CNNPolitics, White House: Trump’s Tweets are “Official Statements." Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals apparently took him at his word when ruling on the so-called “travel ban,” pointing to a Trump tweet as tantamount to an official presidential “assessment.” Hawaii v. Trump, No. 17-15589, n. 14 (9th Cir., June 12, 2017). Indeed, the Department of Justice recently declared in litigation that Trump’s tweets are “official statements of the President of the United States.” James Madison Project v. Dep’t of Justice.  It’s not entirely clear where we are supposed to go with that—are tweets truly direct actions, or just official statements, and what’s the difference?

Presidents through time have shaped policy through direct actions, revoked predecessor direct actions, and, more recently, tweeted. For environmental lawyers, though, President Trump has done all three in ways that seem to be changing the rules of the game. Stay tuned for more?  How can you not?

The Packers, Beer, Cheese Curds and …Regulatory Reform?

Posted on January 30, 2018 by Todd E. Palmer

If states are the crucible of policy experimentation, Wisconsin’s regulatory reform efforts deserve attention as the Trump Administration implements its federal deregulatory agenda.   Wisconsin has been pushing an aggressive deregulatory agenda for the last five years and its experiences might better inform the federal debate in this area.

The cornerstone of Wisconsin’s regulatory reform effort has been Act 21.  Enacted in 2011 during a Special Session of the Legislature, Act 21 prohibits a state agency from implementing or enforcing any requirement, standard or permit term unless it is explicitly required or authorized by statute or administrative rule. Although largely ignored for its first five years, Act 21 has become a significant force in the state.  A previous ACOEL blog post highlights a Wisconsin Attorney General opinion that interprets Act 21 as restricting the Wisconsin DNR’s authority to regulated high capacity wells.  That issue is working its way through state courts.  More recently, Act 21 has been the legal predicate for further limiting state agency regulation in other areas, including:

-          A decision issued by the Wisconsin DNR Secretary concluding that her department lacks explicit authority to impose a limit on the number of animals at large livestock operations or to require that monitoring wells be installed around such operations. The Secretary’s decision reversed an ALJ’s opinion to the contrary.

-          A State Attorney General opinion that animal unit limits in WPDES permits are unlawful because they are not explicitly authorized by a statute or rule.

-          A judicial settlement agreement executed by the State of Wisconsin agreeing to refrain from enforcing any standards applicable to feed storage leachate or runoff management unless promulgated as a rule.  The state further agreed to withdraw and not enforce draft program guidance that sought to impose such requirements. 

-          A State Attorney General opinion that state agencies cannot enforce rules that are not explicitly authorized by statute, even if those rules were promulgated before enactment of Act 21.

-          A State Attorney General opinion that state agencies do not possess “any” inherent or implied authority to promulgate rules or enforce standards, requirements or thresholds.  The general statements of legislative intent, purpose or policy that are often found in statutory provisions do not confer or augment agency rulemaking authority.  

In the wake of these developments, the State Attorney General recently observed that “Act 21 completely and fundamentally altered the balance [of government administrative power], moving discretion away from agencies and to the Legislature.” 

As Act 21 forces Wisconsin agencies to create rules to implement their regulatory programs, the State Legislature is turning its attention to the rulemaking process. The Legislature passed its own version of the Reins Act (Regulatory Executives in Need of Scrutiny) which, in the most general of terms, increases the procedural requirements and legislative oversight of the state’s rulemaking process.  It now takes roughly three years to pass an administrative rule in Wisconsin.   

Having added procedures that delay the rulemaking process, the Legislature is debating bills that would expedite the rule repeal process. These bills would establish an expedited process requiring agencies to inventory and petition the Legislature for repeal of certain rules. For example, one bill would require the repeal of state rules concerning air pollutants that are not regulated under the federal Clean Air Act.  Another bill would automatically repeal certain environmental regulations ten years after they take effect. Although the Wisconsin DNR could attempt to readopt an expiring rule, that effort could not commence any sooner than one year before a rule’s expiration. 

In the Judicial Branch, the Wisconsin Supreme Court will soon decide whether the state’s practice of deferring to agency interpretations of statutes comports with the Wisconsin Constitution.  Recent decisions suggest that the majority of Justices will answer in the negative.  A decision should be issued this summer and could impose additional restrictions on agency authority.  

Not surprisingly these reforms have been controversial.  ENGOs have filed lawsuits challenging permits that fail to include terms and conditions due to the restrictions of Act 21.   The regulated community has taken the opposite view, challenging permit terms and conditions that are not explicitly authorized by rule or statute.  At some point these roles are likely to reverse since the regulated community often relies upon implicit agency authority to establish permit conditions which it finds favorable. 

Much like the federal initiative, Wisconsin’s reforms have been wrapped in the trope of reducing the regulatory burdens placed on state businesses and thereby improve the state economy. So far the state’s economy is doing quite well.  These efforts warrant continued monitoring to gauge how the economy and environmental concerns have been balanced while implementing these reforms.   

It Ain’t Over ‘til It’s Over -- The Congressional Review Act & the Search for Zombie Regulations

Posted on December 7, 2017 by Allan Gates

Enacted in 1996, the Congressional Review Act (CRA) affords Congress the opportunity to review and disapprove final rules of federal agencies.  In the first 20 years of its existence, only one regulation was disapproved using the CRA.  In the first 100 days of the Trump administration, however, Congress invoked the CRA to disapprove thirteen separate regulations.  The White House advertised the CRA disapproval resolutions as the top legislative accomplishment of the administration’s first 100 days, proudly claiming that President Trump had signed more CRA resolutions than any other President in history.

By mid-summer most observers assumed the push to roll back Obama-era regulations using the CRA was over because the statute provides a narrow window of time for introducing resolutions of disapproval (generally 60 legislative days from the date the regulation is received by Congress), and it similarly limits the time within which expedited legislative procedures – including passage by simple majority vote in the Senate – can be used.

But wait, there’s more  – 

The window of time for introducing a disapproval resolution under the CRA begins to run on the day a regulation is submitted to Congress.  And it turns out agencies have not always been careful about sending their rules to Congress.   According to a 2014 report, hundreds of final regulations published in the Federal Register each year have never been reported to Congress.  Moreover, since the rules subject to review under the CRA are not limited to those published in the Federal Register, the report suggests there may be thousands of unreported interpretive rules, guidance documents, “Dear Colleague letters,” and the like.

Conservative activists aware of the inconsistent agency filing practices have begun to argue that all older regulations that were not reported to Congress are still subject to CRA review.  One conservative group has established a separate website, RedTapeRollback.com, proclaiming that:

“Powerful new ideas to use the CRA for older rules not reported to Congress are causing great excitement. This is a regulatory game changer!”

The website includes a database of rules it claims were not reported; and the website urges its visitors to, “Help us find and report more rules that were never submitted to Congress.”

The activists promoting use of the CRA to attack older, unreported regulations offer three rollback strategies.  First, private parties who are subject to the requirements of an older, unreported regulation could argue the regulation has never taken effect. There is certainly language in the CRA to support such an argument:

“Before a rule can take effect, the Federal agency promulgating such rule shall submit to each House of the Congress [a report containing a copy of the rule.]”

Another provision of the CRA, however, has language that may preclude a private party’s ability to obtain judicial review of claims based on the CRA:

“No determination, finding, action, or omission under this chapter shall be subject to judicial review.”

The second strategy calls for the Trump administration to identify undesirable rules that were never reported to Congress, state that the rules have never taken effect because of the agency’s failure to report them, and abandon or vacate the rules.  Under this scenario, the Trump administration would roll back undesirable rules immediately without the necessity of going through notice and comment rulemaking procedures otherwise required to repeal the rules.

The third strategy suggests the Trump administration could identify undesirable rules that were never reported, report them to Congress, and encourage Congress to adopt resolutions of disapproval.  If this occurs, Section 801(b)(2) of the CRA precludes reissuance of a disapproved rule in the same or similar form unless Congress affirmatively adopts legislation authorizing the promulgation.

It may well be that the activists’ frothy enthusiasm for expanded use of the CRA will come to very little.  It is possible, perhaps even likely, that most of the unreported rules were insignificant, unobjectionable, or even exempt from reporting and review under the CRA.  Moreover, as a practical matter it is unlikely that Congress would be willing to devote significant amounts of floor time to debate the disapproval of a large number of older, unreported regulations.  Nevertheless, a cursory examination of RedTapeRollback’s database of supposedly unreported rules cannot help but give one pause.   Think the 2010 Chesapeake Bay TMDL and EPA’s 2008 Rapanos Guidance.

Interest in use of the CRA did not end with the flurry of disapproval resolutions in the first one hundred days of the Trump administration.  At a September House Subcommittee on Regulatory Reform oversight hearing focused on agency compliance with the CRA, witnesses urged Congress to attack older regulations that were never reported to Congress.  In late October, Congress passed and the President signed a disapproval resolution invalidating an arbitration regulation adopted by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an independent agency whose regulations are not ordinarily subject to Executive review and approval.

The recent surge in use of the CRA has not gone without opposition.  The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) has filed suit to vacate a CRA resolution that nullified an Interior Department regulation limiting the methods used to hunt wolves and bears in Alaska wildlife refuges.  Among other things, CBD argues that the CRA limitation on issuance of future regulations without express approval of Congress infringes on the constitutionally protected separation of powers.  The court’s decision in the CBD case is likely to provide guidance on the reach of the language quoted above that limits judicial review of claims arising under the CRA.

Against this background it is safe to say that we have not seen the last of the CRA in the Trump administration.  As Yogi Berra once said, “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.”

The Intersection of Environmental Justice and Climate Change

Posted on September 20, 2017 by Lisa C. Goodheart

Media images of the recent devastation from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma provide vivid illustration of the direct link between climate change and environmental justice (“EJ”) concerns.  For those who live in the path of tropical storms, the impacts of severe storm damage often have a disproportionately harsh effect upon low-income, minority, non-native English-speaking communities.  Members of these communities are often the least able to get out of harm’s way and find temporary living accommodations in a safer place.  They tend to live in sub-standard housing stock that is the least able to withstand the impacts of storm surges and extreme wind forces.  Frequently, their homes are disproportionately located in close proximity to clusters of known environmental hazards such as Superfund sites, hazardous waste TSDFs, chemical and power plants, other locally undesirable land uses (“LULUs”), and a range of industrial facilities which are associated with adverse health impacts.  Hurricanes, tornadoes, and other extreme weather events may cause catastrophic damage and failures of routine safety systems, resulting in unexpected and uncontrolled releases of dangerous chemicals that impose particular risks on neighboring “EJ communities.”

In the early days of the EJ movement, attention and energy was focused primarily on questions of equity with respect to facility siting and the permitting of new LULUs in close proximity to already overburdened neighborhoods populated by EJ communities.  For many years now, concerns about the inequitable distribution of environmental burdens have been used to rally opposition to the siting and permitting of new LULUs that would likely increase existing environmental risks.  Naturally, this approach has tended to focus attention on the adverse health impacts associated with long-term exposures to the environmental contaminants that proposed new facilities would or could release to air, soil and water in the course of their routine operations.

Increasingly, however, the most serious environmental risks facing EJ communities – especially in or near industrialized urban waterfront zones – are those associated with the catastrophic weather-related impacts of climate change on existing facilities and established infrastructure.  It is doubtful that the existing paradigms for thinking about environmental justice have grasped and evolved to account for this fundamental fact as quickly or as fully as they should and must.

At the state level, approaches to EJ vary considerably.  Some states, like California, were early adopters of legislation that codified EJ and have established EJ programs with responsibility vested in a coordinating body and various required legal processes.  Other states, like Massachusetts, have executive orders and state policies aimed at proactively integrating EJ considerations into the decision-making of environmental and energy agencies, and perhaps an occasional statutory nod in the direction of EJ.  Some have programs (e.g., the Texas Environmental Equity Program) or study centers (e.g., the Center for Environmental Equity and Justice at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University) that pertain to environmental equity but do not explicitly compel the government to go beyond the avoidance of invidious discrimination.  In general, it remains the case that EJ laws, policies and programs have tended not to focus a great deal of attention on climate change impacts.  That is, they have not tackled with sufficient rigor and depth the unfortunate synergies that occur when the worst effects of climate change are felt by the most vulnerable EJ communities.  This is beginning to change, but the change cannot come too quickly.

By way of example, Massachusetts’ original EJ policy, which was issued in 2002, focused primarily on the equitable protection of parks and open space, on brownfields redevelopment, on fairness in environmental grant-making, and on procedural protections aimed at enhancing the ability of all to have a voice in environmental decision-making.  Its scope was limited to environmental agencies, and it contained no mention of climate change.  Today, the updated Massachusetts EJ policy (revised as of January 31, 2017) applies to energy as well as environmental agencies, and it expressly affirms the need to enhance meaningful participation by traditionally underserved and under-represented EJ communities in climate change decision-making, as well as in energy and environmental decision-making.  In addition, the updated Massachusetts EJ policy expressly points to the need to ensure that all residents “are prepared for and resilient to the effects of climate change.”  This link between climate change and EJ is also now reflected in the Massachusetts Climate Protection and Green Economy Act, codified at G.L. c. 21N.  Specifically, § 5 of that statute expressly requires the Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs to determine “whether activities undertaken to comply with state regulations and efforts disproportionately impact low-income communities.”

The importance of strengthening the developing linkage of climate change to EJ concerns cannot be overstated.  The most pressing EJ problems today go far beyond matters of equity with respect to parklands, brownfields, grants, and opportunities for participation in environmental decision-making.  The most urgent current EJ needs include planning and providing for robust, effective, fair responses to the environmental disasters associated with climate change, as they affect vulnerable low-income, minority, non-native English-speaking communities.  States, counties, and municipalities will need to step up and provide the necessary leadership to address these needs.  This will require creating, strengthening, and fulfilling the promise of state and local EJ laws, policies, and programs, so as to address the current gaps in our legal system that all too often leave the most vulnerable among us “up the creek without a canoe paddle” in the wake of an environmental disaster.  As we face the future, whether and how we will choose to involve, consider, and respond to those who are at the greatest risk of being the most severely victimized, at the intersection of climate change and environmental justice, will be a test of our collective will and values.

With Litigation Guaranteed, the fate of national monuments will be uncertain for some time

Posted on September 1, 2017 by Brenda Mallory

At the end of August as the last days of summer pass, the Conservation community waits with bated-breath to learn what the Trump Administration will do to twenty-one significant national monuments and the century-old tradition they reflect. The consensus—among those who have dedicated their lives to protecting special places, the local communities whose economies have been bolstered by their presence, and a broad swath of Americans who simply enjoy having extraordinary places to visit—is that it won’t be good. The further consensus is that what the Administration is considering likely exceeds the President’s legal authority under the Antiquities Act. Both progressive and conservative voices have recently argued that the president lacks the authority to diminish or revoke National Monuments. While the motivations for making this argument may be different, the basic statutory and constitutional arguments are the same, and the significance of the president taking this uncharted path to diminishing national monument protections is recognized (in either a positive or negative light) even by the few who argue he does have the authority to do so.

The legal question begins where many of our most controversial issues today start –the scope of a law. Yet, at its foundation, a history of simmering tensions over the extent of Federal lands in the west and the Federal government’s control over those lands has fueled passions around this issue. For over 110 years, the Antiquities Act has stood as one of the most powerful tools for the protection of cultural, historic, and scientific resources. Some have described it as the first statute with an exclusively protective purpose.  The statute gives a President the discretion to “declare by public proclamation historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated on land owned or controlled by the Federal Government to be national monuments.” A key question is what does “other objects of historic or scientific interest” mean? This Administration appears poised to take on the longstanding, judicially endorsed conclusion that this phrase includes large landscapes like the Grand Canyon, and to bring to the fore the threshold question of whether a subsequent President can change the monument designation of a predecessor.

In April, President Trump signed an Executive Order instructing Interior Secretary Zinke to undertake a review of Antiquities Act monument designations since 1996. Secretary Zinke then launched the review process identifying 27 monuments that fit the EO criteria: 26 because they were over 100,000 acres and one for the purpose of determining whether stakeholder engagement had been adequate. Recommendations were submitted to the President on August 24, 2017, but have not been made public. The Commerce Secretary received a similar presidential directive and is undertaking a separate process for marine monuments and national marine sanctuaries.

Over its history, monument designations under the Antiquities Act have been challenged as inconsistent with the statute and have always been upheld. See, e.g., Cameron v. United States, 252 U.S. 450 (1920), Cappaert v. United States, 426 U.S. 128 (1976). However, no President has attempted to revoke a prior designation and there has been no judicial challenge in the previous circumstances where a President has modified the boundaries of a designation. All signs are suggesting that we are about to see both for the first time: the President is expected to revoke or substantially reduce one or more monuments and, if he does, a challenge is inevitable. While this will be a case of first impression, the overwhelming view of scholars, which I share, is that the President does not have the authority to take these actions because Congress has not delegated him the authority to undo a designation. See, e.g., a collection of articles submitted to the Department of Interior by 121 scholars and similar analysis for marine monuments. Of course, there is an alternate view.

Putting the law aside, the atmospherics associated with this early battle by the Administration are noteworthy. First, like many of its other actions, the unprecedented nature and scope of the attack is striking. While it was immediately obvious after the election that there would be some effort to challenge then-President Obama’s most controversial monument designations, with Bears Ears National Monument in Utah at the top of the list, few expected that designations completed decades ago, by three different Presidents would be under threat. Businesses and communities have grown and developed because of and in reliance on these monuments, inseparable from the benefits they bring to their local areas. Upending years of investment and expectation is stunning. Nor was it expected that the attack would include so many monuments, land and sea, or that Marine Sanctuaries, which are completed over many years and with considerable process, would be thrown brazenly into the mix.  

Second, like the Administration’s attack in other areas, the stated narrative driving the challenge to national monuments – alleged abuse of executive power, failure to consult or listen to stakeholders, ignoring elected officials, restoring balance to the use of Federal land – is at odds with the Administration’s own behavior in the process.  As noted in the above-referenced articles, revoking or substantially reducing the size of a monument is beyond the scope of the President’s authority, a clear abuse of executive power. Even conservative leaning scholars and publications have joined the ranks of those condemning the anticipated executive action as beyond the President’s authority. Moreover, Secretary Zinke has unapologetically spent his “review process” meeting primarily with opponents of the monuments and the summary of his report released last week dismisses as part of a “well-orchestrated national campaign” the 2.7 million comments generated during the review process that overwhelmingly support retention or expansion of national monuments. Next, while the Republican elected officials are getting Zinke’s attention, it is not clear that the views of their Democratic colleagues are being given the same weight. Finally, talk of balance in federal land use is in direct conflict with the newly ascribed goals of “energy dominance” and the expedited efforts to open unspoiled areas to oil and gas drilling, and other extractive activities. Taken together, it is clear that this battle is less about correcting “unlawful” designations by previous Presidents and more about aggressively shifting the policy focus on Federal lands to exploiting the natural resources. For monuments designated under the Antiquities Act, only Congress has the authority to change the designation; and Congress is the appropriate body to consider whether policy shifts warrant such changes.

Finally, the attack on national monuments is not occurring in isolation. Many other efforts to eliminate or impair environmental and conservation protections on Public lands are underway.  They encompass repealing protective measures such as the stream protection rule, withdrawing the rule regulating hydraulic fracturing; repealing the Clean Water Act Rule; eliminating the ban on drilling in the Arctic; and rescinding the Executive Order directing federal agencies to consider rising sea levels when building public infrastructure in flood prone areas. They also include process initiatives that appear designed to undermine the fact based decision-making necessary to ensure the protection of environmental and conservation measures. These initiatives include Zinke’s Order to streamline onshore oil and gas permits, his regulatory reform initiative to eliminate “unnecessary regulatory burdens,” and his Order jumpstarting Alaska Energy focused on opening the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge and the National Petroleum Reserve Area to oil and gas drilling.

With this backdrop, there is a sense of foreboding as the Administration’s monuments review process comes to an end. One thing is clear, whatever is in the upcoming announcement by the Administration, it will likely take years of litigation before these issues are resolved and this century-old law will be put to the test.         

H.R. 23: A VERY BAD FEDERAL WATER LAW BILL—AND A WORSE PRECEDENT

Posted on August 24, 2017 by Richard M. Frank

H.R. 23 is an important and most unfortunate environmental bill currently working its way through the U.S. Congress.  Sponsored by California Republican Congressman David Valadeo—with a strong assist from House Republican Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy—H.R. 23 passed the House of Representatives last month on what was largely a party-line vote, 230-190.  It has now moved to the U.S. Senate.

This California-specific legislation would “reform” federal and California state water and environmental laws in order to provide more water from federal and state water projects in California to state agricultural interests in the state’s Central Valley.  H.R. 23 would do so at the expense of environmental values.  (That’s not mere interpretation or speculation on the part of this observer—it’s the express intent of the bill.)

Why, exactly, is H.R. 23--which has largely evaded public and media attention to date--such a flawed legislative proposal?  Let me count the ways:

First, it would reverse an over century-long tradition of federal deference to state water law regarding the construction and operation of federal water projects.  Congress made that commitment in the Reclamation Act of 1902, which transformed the settlement and economy of the American West.  Congress has reiterated this commitment to cooperative federalism in numerous subsequent federal statutes.  But H.R. 23 reneges on that promise, expressly preventing California state water regulators from imposing any restrictions on the federal Central Valley Project that would protect environmental values.

Doubling down on its preemptive effect, H.R. 23 expressly exempts the CVP (and those who obtain water from it) from application of California’s public trust doctrine, which—as is true of many other states—operates as a longstanding, cornerstone principle of California natural resources law.

Additionally, H.R. 23 brazenly exempts operation of the CVP and other California water projects from the federal Endangered Species Act “or any other law” pertaining to those operations.

H.R. 23 thus is terrible news for California’s environment.  But why should environmental attorneys from other states be concerned about the bill?

The answer is again multifaceted.  H.R. 23 represents the first serious Congressional effort of 2017 to weaken application of the Endangered Species Act.  The broad ESA exemption contained in H.R. 23 could easily be replicated in future federal legislation affecting federal, state or local projects in other parts of the country.

Similarly, if the longstanding tradition of federal deference to application of state water law is breached by passage of H.R. 23, rest assured that similar attempts will be made concerning similar projects in other states as well.

H.R. 23 is opposed by both of California’s U.S. Senators, along with California Governor Jerry Brown.  Even more notably, California’s largest water district—the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California—has signaled its opposition to the bill, declaring that it “goes too far” in elevating agricultural water interests over California’s environment.

H.R. 23: an awful bill for California, and a terrible precedent for the nation as a whole.

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!

Be Vewy, Vewy Quiet – EPA’s Noise Program Might Be Coming Back!

Posted on August 30, 2016 by Samuel I. Gutter

Many, many years ago, when I was a staff lawyer at EPA headquarters, my duties included advising the program that implemented and enforced the Noise Control Act of 1972.  My last involvement, though, was to help dismantle the program.  In one of the more curious footnotes to the deregulatory wave that swept EPA in the early years of the Reagan administration, EPA axed the program – sort of.  Leaving behind a regulatory ghost town, EPA revised its noise regulations to leave standing the bare structure of federally preemptive rules, while clearing the building of its regulatory and enforcement staff.  In effect, EPA took itself out of the picture, morphing the noise regulations into a self-certification program for manufacturers. 

And there, in 40 CFR Parts 201 through 211, the rules have resided (quietly) for the last 34 years – noise standards for rail equipment, trucks, and portable air compressors, as well as labeling requirements for hearing protectors.  (But not garbage trucks.  EPA promulgated final noise standards for those, but revoked the regulations on the eve of the DC Circuit argument in which EPA was to defend the rule.  Think about that next time you hear the hydraulics whining outside your bedroom window at 5:00 a.m.) 

Ah, but did the noise program really end?  As one of my EPA supervisors quipped at the time, the noise program is like a spider you’ve stepped on: you think it’s dead, but then its leg starts twitching.  Today’s twitch comes from the New York congressional delegation, specifically Congresswoman Grace Meng (D-NY), whose district lies in the flight path of LaGuardia Airport, and New York’s democratic senators, Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand.  Together, they have introduced “The Quiet Communities Act of 2016.”  The bills (H.R.3384 and S.3197) would bring back EPA’s Office of Noise Abatement and Control.  The legislation focuses on aircraft noise (regulation of which has, since the early 1980s, rested solely in the hands of the FAA), and it’s fairly modest in scope, authorizing a program of studies and grants, not a return to command-and-control regulatory efforts.  However, both bills include a charge to EPA to “assess the effectiveness of the Noise Control Act of 1972” – kind of like checking on the Betamax hiding in your garage closet.

Let’s not get carried away by the imminent descent of the “cone of silence” over our nation, though:  www.govtrack.us gives the legislation a 2 percent chance of being enacted.  But hey, you never know.  All eyes on the spider!

Wyoming Prohibits Trespassing For Resource Data Collection: Might Massachusetts Follow?

Posted on July 14, 2016 by Seth Jaffe

In a fascinating case, Judge Scott Skavdahl (who recently struck down BLM’s fracking regulations) last week dismissed challenges from NRDC and PETA, among others, to a Wyoming law that prohibits trespassing on private land for the purpose of “collecting resource data”.

An image of a "No Trespassing" sign on a tree.

In addition to subjecting violators to civil and criminal enforcement, the law also prohibits use of any data collected as a result of the trespass for any purpose other than enforcement of the statute.

The plaintiffs alleged that the statutes violated the free speech of “whistleblowers” and “citizen scientists”.  Judge Skavdahl wasn’t having any of it.

"Plaintiffs’ First Amendment right to create speech does not carry with it an exemption from other principles of law, or the legal rights of others.  Plaintiffs’ desire to access certain information, no matter how important or sacrosanct they believe the information to be, does not compel a private landowner to yield his property rights and right to privacy."

Plaintiffs argued that, in Wyoming, it is often difficult to determine where public lands end and private lands begin.  The Judge was not sympathetic here, either.

"The ability to pinpoint and record the location of alleged environmental violations is essential to Plaintiffs’ mission and goals. Coincidentally, the same information would be essential to a successful prosecution or civil action brought under these statutes."

The Court also rejected the equal protection claim.  Since Judge Skavdahl had concluded that there was no First Amendment violation, the equal protection claim was not subject to strict scrutiny.  The Court found a rational basis in discouraging trespassing.

Finally, the Judge addressed the issue most significant from my point of view:  May information gathered as a result of a trespass be used in enforcement proceedings?  The statute requires “expungement” of such data.  The Court held that the Supreme Court has largely rejected facial challenges to such provisions.  Since there was no as-applied challenge here, the Court declined to consider the expungement provisions.

Why does this matter?  Because, even in the liberal Commonwealth of Massachusetts, property owners have been concerned that “citizen scientists” may trespass in order to gather endangered species data from private property.  Indeed, there have been occasions where such citizen scientists have found endangered species on private property where the species had not previously been mapped.  Cynical observers have often wondered whether the citizen scientists might have had something to do with the presence of the endangered species on the property!

I don’t really expect Massachusetts to follow Wyoming’s lead – but this is an issue that is much broader than some wild-eyed property rights activists in Wyoming.