Hoping All Your Consequences Are Happy Ones

Posted on May 3, 2018 by Kenneth Warren

Those of us who remember Bob Barker’s years as host of the game show Truth or Consequences recognize the title of this blog as his customary closing line.  His desire to limit the ramifications of bad decisions has a corollary in Pennsylvania law.  As the Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently held, statutory provisions may be construed narrowly “substantially in consideration of the consequences of a particular interpretation.” 

In EQT Production Co. v. Pa. Dep’t. of Envtl. Prot., an energy company operated an impoundment to contain hydraulic fracturing wastewater.  Wastewater leaked through holes in the impoundment’s liner into the underlying base layers, soils and “waters of the Commonwealth” which include “underground waters, or parts thereof.”    

The release from the impoundment into groundwater clearly violated the prohibition in the Pennsylvania Clean Streams Law on discharging or permitting the discharge of industrial wastes into the waters of the Commonwealth.  Anticipating that the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP) would seek a penalty for each day that contaminants remained present in the environment, EQT sought a judicial declaration that civil penalties may be imposed only for days that pollutants were actually discharged from the impoundment.   

As the declaratory judgment action progressed, PADEP acknowledged that the mere presence of contaminants in groundwater would not alone support the imposition of penalties.  But it contended that a violation occurred on each day that the contaminants initially released from the impoundment passively migrated from soil to groundwater (the “soil-to-groundwater” theory) or moved from one part of the waters of the Commonwealth to another (the “water-to-water” theory).   

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court concluded that the language of the Clean Streams Law, which prohibits any discharge of an industrial waste “into” a water of the Commonwealth, is ambiguous.  The language could be interpreted to cover only movement of a pollutant from outside the waters of the Commonwealth into these waters, but could also be read to include movement of a previously released contaminant from one part of the Commonwealth’s waters into another part.   

In resolving the ambiguity, the Court noted that even after remediation occurs, a small quantity of contaminants may remain present in groundwater and continue to migrate.  If each day constitutes a violation, massive civil penalties would result.  Principally because it believed this consequence to be unreasonable, the Court rejected the water-to-water theory.  By excluding water-to-water mitigation from the ambit of the Clean Streams Law’s prohibitions, the Court created Pennsylvania’s version of the “unified waters” approach.  At least in this context, it makes good sense.    

But EQT still suffered serious liabilities.  It was required to remediate the contamination that it caused.  And the soil-to-groundwater theory remains in play; the Court chose not to rule on its validity because EQT’s pleadings and application for summary relief did not raise that challenge.  Penalties in excess of $1 million were assessed against EQT and will be reviewed on appeal.  In a fictional game show world, all consequences are happy ones.  In real life, even a solicitous state Supreme Court will not guarantee an entirely happy ending for a party who has violated environmental laws.

How Much Deference Will EPA Get On Its CAFE Standards Decision?

Posted on April 30, 2018 by Seth Jaffe

There’s been a lot of discussion regarding EPA’s decision to withdraw EPA’s Mid-term Evaluation of Greenhouse Gas Emissions for Model Year 2022-2025 Light-duty Vehicles. After pondering for a while, my question is how much deference courts will give to EPA’s decision.

I’ve previously speculated about whether the typical deference to agency decisions might eventually lose its luster, not because conservative judges hate Chevron, but simply because courts might get tired of agencies under this Administration abusing their discretion.

Contrary to the statements in the withdrawal decision, the Obama Mid-term Evaluation was exhaustive.  The withdrawal decision itself, on the other hand, was, as far as I can tell, based largely just on what scientists might objectively describe in jargon as “bitching and moaning” by the auto industry. 

I’ve also previously noted that, in the history of major environmental rules going back to the 1970s, the evidence shows that every single rule has cost less than estimated prior to implementation.  And that’s less than EPA’s estimates of compliance, not just less than industry’s estimates, which have routinely been wildly high.  The reason is that compliance cost estimates never fully account for the ability of the market to respond efficiently to the new standards.

There is some question as to whether the recent withdrawal decision even constitutes final agency action, but the courts will get a crack at this at some point and I am waiting with bated breath to see how they respond.

Federal Common Law Controls California Climate Actions: Never a Dull Moment

Posted on March 12, 2018 by Seth Jaffe

Earlier this week, Judge William Alsup denied a motion by Oakland and San Francisco to remand their public nuisance claims against some of the world’s largest fossil fuel producers to state court.  However, I’m not sure that this is a victory for the oil companies.  This might be more of a “be careful what you wish for” scenario.

After the Supreme Court decision in AEP v. Connecticut and subsequent decisions, such as Native Village of Kivalina, it seemed pretty clear that the federal Clean Air Act had displaced federal common law, leaving only potential state law claims in its place.

Judge Alsup had a different idea.  The cities’ claims were only brought against fossil fuel producers, not electric generators.  The claims were based on the allegations concerning the companies’ conduct in selling fossil fuels into the stream of commerce, while at the same time allegedly making misrepresentations concerning the risks of climate change.

Judge Alsup concluded that this was a distinction with a difference.  The Clean Air Act displaces federal common law regulating operations that emit GHGs.  The Clean Air Act, however, does not regulate the sale of fossil fuels.  Thus, it does not displace the type of public nuisance action at issue in this case.  (Of course, this leads to the odd result that the companies’ sale of fossil fuels is subject to public nuisance claims, even though methane emissions from oil wells and refineries are not, because those are subject to regulation under the CAA!)

Having made this critical distinction, the rest of the decision was relatively easy.  As Judge Alsup noted:

If ever a problem cried out for a uniform and comprehensive solution, it is the geophysical problem described by the complaints, a problem centuries in the making. The range of consequences is likewise universal. Taking the complaints at face value, the scope of the worldwide predicament demands the most comprehensive view available, which in our American court system means our federal courts and our federal common law. A patchwork of fifty different answers to the same fundamental global issue would be unworkable. This is not to say that the ultimate answer under our federal common law will favor judicial relief. But it is to say that the extent of any judicial relief should be uniform across our nation.

I’m not sure that Judge Alsup is right, though I appreciate his creativity.  And if appellate courts decide he is right, the defendants may come to regret removing the action from state courts.

Takings Math for Dummies: When 1+1=1

Posted on March 7, 2018 by Mary K. Ryan

One benefit of preparing an annual review of last year’s important cases, as I just did for MCLE, is that you may have missed a significant case when it came out. That’s why I’m writing now about Murr v. Wisconsin, 137 S. Ct. 1645, decided on June 5, 2017. Murr, which incorporates the mathematical conundrum in the title, expands the Supreme Court’s regulatory takings jurisprudence by asking a preliminary question—what parcel or parcels of land are at issue? The Court held that this question must be answered before reaching the ad hoc case-by-case analysis established by Penn Central Transportation Co. v. New York City, Lucas v. South Carolina Coastal Council, and Palazzolo v. Rhode Island which examines the economic impact of the challenged regulation, the investment-backed expectations of the landowner, and the character of the government action.

Murr involved the owners of two adjacent waterfront properties on the St. Croix River in Wisconsin which, given their location, were subject to numerous regulations, including a one acre buildable lot requirement. The properties lost their original grandfathered protection from that regulation when they were put into common ownership. The county denied requests for variances and the owners filed a regulatory takings claim, which they lost at the state level.

In a 5-3 opinion written by Justice Kennedy, the Court developed a new, three-factor test for determining the “denominator” in the regulatory takings analysis—in other words, the unit of property against which a court must assess the effects of the challenged governmental action. First, courts must assess the treatment of the land under state and local law, in particular how state law bounds and divides the land. Second, courts must look at the physical characteristics of the landowner’s property, e.g., whether the land is subject to further environmental or land use regulations due to the nature of the land or adjacent natural resources. Third, courts must consider the value of the property under the challenged regulation. Under this test, there was no regulatory taking. The Court rejected the bright line tests offered by the state (state law controls) and the landowners (lot lines define the relevant parcel) as too easily subject to manipulation. The Court defined the relevant parcel as a single combined lot based on several factors:  (1) that merger as a result of common ownership is a reasonable and usual zoning and land use control and there was a voluntary merger; (2) riverside property is often subject to restrictions on development; and (3) treatment as one lot did not substantially diminish the value of the land without the regulation.    

Murr may be an example where the “no harm, no foul” rule led to the right result. But generally speaking, the government’s defenses just got better, and the landowner’s burden tougher, in regulatory takings cases. And while there were three dissenters (Justice Gorsuch did not participate in the case), without two more votes, Murr will be the law for the foreseeable future.

More Guidance on Guidance: DOJ Will Not Enforce “Improper” Agency Guidance Documents

Posted on February 21, 2018 by Seth Jaffe

In November, Attorney General Sessions issued a memorandum prohibiting DOJ from issuing regulations disguised as guidance.

Folders with the label Regulations and Guidelines

Now, DOJ has taken the prohibition a step further.  It will no longer rely on guidance issued by other agencies when taking civil enforcement action.  The memorandum has made the regulated community and the NGO community sit up and take notice.

I am sympathetic to the concerns raised in the Sessions memo.  I hate circumvention of notice and comment rulemaking by guidance.  However, as I noted when the memo was released, the problem with guidance documents is not how they are drafted; it’s how they are implemented.

For example, the new memorandum states that:

The Department may continue to use agency guidance documents for proper purposes in such cases.  For instance, some guidance documents simply explain or paraphrase legal mandates from existing statutes or regulations.

Well, but in the first instance, who decides whether a guidance document “simply explains or paraphrases legal mandates” or whether it instead “purports to create rights or obligations binding on persons or entities outside the Executive Branch”?

The agency does, of course – perhaps aided by its counsel, DOJ.

This will particularly be an issue where guidance has been in place for many years and has been relied on by both an agency and the regulated community as accurately describing what the law actually is.  Take, for example, the New Source Review Workshop Manual.  The Manual is not only not a regulation; it’s been in draft for 28 years.  Nonetheless, it’s been relied on as the bible for practitioners since then.  It might be exempt from this policy, which makes clear that it does not apply to internal training materials.  However, when internal training materials are used to say what the law is, that sounds like regulation masquerading as guidance to me.

Here’s another issue.  What are the implications of this guidance memorandum for cooperative federalism?  In a delegated program, what happens if states continue to rely on guidance documents in enforcing federal obligations?  Are we going to have one interpretation under federal law and another interpretation under state law?  Can you say “forum shopping”?!

Finally, I cannot resist pointing out the irony inherent in the AG issuing two separate guidance documents on the proper – and improper – use of guidance documents.

Statutory Deadlines Matter—EPA Gets Taken to the Woodshed

Posted on February 14, 2018 by Seth Jaffe

Last week, EPA was ordered to take final action on a Clean Air Act § 126(b) petition filed by the State of Connecticut, which asserted that emissions from the Brunner Island Steam Electric Station in Pennsylvania contribute to nonattainment in Connecticut.  

EPA did not dispute liability; it had clearly missed the original statutory deadline. The case was all about the remedy. EPA asked to be given until December 31, 2018 to respond. Plaintiffs said EPA could respond within 60 days.

Noting the “heavy burden” EPA bears in trying to demonstrate that it cannot comply with the congressionally mandated timeline, the Court ordered a response within 60 days, concluding that:

Defendants’ proposed schedule contravenes the congressional intent that EPA “act quickly on a Section 126(b) petition.”

I noted last spring that we are likely to see more of these cases. And I think we’re also going to see increasing judicial impatience with agency delay. I also wonder if this case might be the first bit of evidence that Scott Pruitt’s order precluding the notorious—if mythical—practice of “sue and settle” may have come back to bite EPA.

EPA had to know it was going to lose this case. In bygone days—meaning 2016—EPA would have negotiated for the best schedule it could have gotten. If EPA had told the plaintiffs it would respond to the petition within 90 or even 120 days, my guess is that the plaintiffs would have accepted such a proposal. Given the Pruitt memorandum, that was not possible. The outcome? The worst possible result for EPA.

Just wonderin’.

(Full disclosure: Foley Hoag has represented Talen Energy, owner of Brunner Island, on matters unrelated to Brunner Island. We take no position on the merits of the underlying § 126(b) petition.)

One Brief Shining Moment of WOTUS Clarity

Posted on January 24, 2018 by Rick Glick

In a rare moment of clarity in the benighted history of the Waters of the United States or WOTUS rule, a unanimous Supreme Court declared that jurisdiction to review the WOTUS rule lies in the District Courts and not the Courts of Appeal.  The immediate effect of the January 22 ruling in National Assn. of Manufacturers v. Dept. of Defense  is to lift the nationwide stay of the rule imposed by the Sixth Circuit—which held that the appellate courts have original jurisdiction over the rule—thus reigniting a lot of dormant trial court challenges. 

The Clean Water Act applies to “navigable” waters, which is defined simply as “waters of the United States, including the territorial seas.”  EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers administer the CWA, and have tried without much success to refine this vague definition.  The latest attempt is the WOTUS rule, adopted by the Obama EPA in 2015.  The issue in National Assn. of Manufacturers is not whether that attempt hits the mark, but in which court should challenges be heard.

As noted in Bob Brubaker’s take on this case, the Court looked to the plain language of the statute, and to context when further explanation is needed.   The CWA extends original jurisdiction to the Circuits for EPA “approving or promulgating any effluent limitation or other limitation.”  The government argued that the WOTUS rule falls within “any . . . other limitation.”  The Supreme Court rejected that argument, holding that such other limitations must be related to effluent limitations, and the WOTUS rule just establishes a definition that would apply generally to the scope of CWA.  The Court also rejected applicability of another CWA basis for Circuit Court jurisdiction advanced by the government, “issuing or denying any [NPDES] permit,” concluding simply that the WOTUS rule is not the same as permit issuance.

So what difference does it make if a trial judge or an appellate judge makes the initial decision on WOTUS?  WOTUS has drawn a multitude of challenges in both the District Courts and Courts of Appeals, including some in which plaintiffs filed in both courts to be on the safe side.  The case will end up at the Supreme Court anyway, right? 

True, but consider that the Sixth Circuit consolidated all the challenges in other Circuits and issued a decision that applied across the country.  The district court litigation has not been consolidated, and some cases have come to different conclusions, with many remaining to be litigated.  So, we can expect years of litigation in many different courts, followed by years of appeals heard by the Circuits, and finally to the Supreme Court . . . again.

But wait, Scott Pruitt’s EPA has initiated a rulemaking process to rescind and replace the WOTUS rule, so wouldn’t that moot the pending challenges to the rule?  It would not.  EPA has announced it is delaying the effective date of the 2015 rule for two more years to allow the Agency to develop its replacement.  But, in the meantime, the 2015 WOTUS rule remains in place.

The practical result is that the current round of cases in the District Courts will continue, followed -- if not accompanied -- by a new round of litigation challenging the proposed change of effective date, and the proposed rescission and replacement rules.  Safe to say there will be no certainty on the definition of WOTUS and the scope of Clean Water Act jurisdiction for many years to come.

Are RCRA Endangerment Claims Becoming The Preferred Way for Third-Parties To Regulate Point Source Discharges?

Posted on December 18, 2017 by Edward F. McTiernan

In 1972, Congress adopted the Clean Water Act (CWA) prohibiting discharges of pollutants from point sources without a permit.  Four years later, when Congress enacted the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), it included two notable provisions.  First, Congress excluded from the definition of “solid waste”—and thereby from regulation under RCRA—“industrial discharges which are point sources subject to permits under” CWA Section 402 (i.e., NPDES permits).  Second, Congress barred RCRA from applying to “any activity or substance which is subject to” various environmental statutes (including the CWA), “except to the extent that such application (or regulation) is not inconsistent with the requirements of such” other environmental statutes.  The net effect of these two RCRA “anti-duplication” provisions prevents RCRA from encroaching upon activities regulated by the CWA.  While much of this year’s Clean Water Act action seemed to focus on the WOTUS rule, 2017 may ultimately be remembered as the year in which plaintiffs were able to break through RCRA’s anti-duplication provisions and use endangerment claims to regulate point source discharges.

In Tennessee Riverkeeper, Inc. v. 3M Co., plaintiffs convinced a district court that they were entitled to pursue RCRA endangerment claims to regulate discharges of perfluorinated chemicals.  The court  refused to dismiss the case because, in its view, the defendants had failed to provide ‘‘any authority stating that a citizen cannot bring an RCRA claim to try to impose stricter limits on the disposal of hazardous waste than those imposed by an EPA-approved State permit or to supplement the terms of such a permit.”  Slip Op. at 20.  On November 2, the Ninth Circuit reached a similar result.  Ecological Rights Foundation v. Pacific Gas & Electric Company, (“ERF”).  Following an extensive (and largely unnecessary) analysis of RCRA’s non-duplication provisions, the Ninth Circuit stated: “RCRA’s anti-duplication provision does not bar RCRA’s application unless the specific application would conflict with identifiable legal requirements promulgated under the CWA or another listed statute.” Slip op. at 25.  In other words, plaintiffs may use RCRA to impose discharge limits on any substance not specifically named in a Clean Water Act permit, and perhaps to lower the discharge limits of substances that are.

By encouraging exactly the sort of dual regulation of a single discharge under both the CWA and RCRA that the RCRA non-duplication provisions appear intended to prevent, these decisions appear to be inconsistent with a proper reading of RCRA’s non-duplication provisions.  They may allow a judge to set discharge limits, displacing the limits (or the lack thereof) established by agency scientists following a public process.  This is problematic for several reasons.  A CWA permitted discharge may contain tens or hundreds of pollutants, but the permit typically regulates only those of most concern.  According to the Ninth Circuit,  however, the rest can now be regulated by RCRA.  Indeed, these recent decisions may open the door to using RCRA to cover pollutants  already regulated under the permit, as long RCRA imposes “stricter limits” (in the words of the Tennessee Riverkeeper court) than the CWA permit.  If the sole criterion is that RCRA endangerment claims must impose “stricter limits” than the CWA permit, plaintiffs may now have a legal basis for rewriting permits to contain whatever regulatory standards, technology requirements or procedural measures they can convince a court to impose.

Oh, Well, Some Folks Don’t Like Oysters, Anyway….

Posted on December 12, 2017 by James I. Palmer, Jr.

As a kid growing up in the hills of North Mississippi, I was introduced to oysters by my maternal Grandmother in Biloxi, down on our Coast.  I wasn’t particularly impressed with the slimy mollusks then, but my tastes changed over many years and I now enjoy them, especially in po’boys and on the half shell.

For the longest, I have considered oysters from Apalachicola Bay, Florida, to be the best along the Gulf Coast.  Large, plump, salty, everything an oyster fan likes.  But, today the oyster industry in the Bay has declined dramatically, and many Floridians believe that the ultimate fate of this historic mainstay of the economy of the area will soon be determined by the Justices of the United States Supreme Court.

The “Tri-State Water Wars” among Alabama, Georgia, and Florida are now several decades long, and never more intense.  Two interstate compacts, covering six river basins in the three states, failed to yield an “equitable apportionment” of the flows from these basins, and expired by their terms.  Follow-on negotiations fared no better.  So, in 2013 Florida sued Georgia in the Original Jurisdiction of the Supreme Court, but didn’t join Alabama.  The case was tried before the Special Master from October 31, 2016 through December 1, 2016.

At the core of Florida’s claims is the ever-growing demand for water in Georgia, principally (but not only) in metropolitan Atlanta.  Even the definition of “metropolitan Atlanta” differs among websites, so the data showing the population trends over the last 50 years also differs somewhat, but the numbers I will use for general reference show that the population of metropolitan Atlanta was 3,317,000 in 1990, 4,548,000 in 2000, 5,034,000 in 2004, and the 2010 U.S. Census recorded 5,800,000.  I’ve seen one projection of 8,000,000 by 2020.  Using these statistics purely for the sake of argument, the population of metropolitan Atlanta in 2020 – just over two years away – could have grown by over 240% in 30 years.  

Too, production agriculture in southwestern Georgia, heavily dependent upon surface water and groundwater supplies for irrigation, has also burgeoned during this same time period.  Groundwater levels in the Flint River basin have declined significantly because of what one of Georgia’s own witnesses at trial attributed to essentially lax regulatory management at the State level.  No surprise, these declines in groundwater availability have ratcheted up pressures on surface water resources in the Flint River watershed.

Thus, given these twin realities of seemingly insatiable urban and agricultural demands for water in Georgia, it’s no wonder that folks down in the Apalachicola Bay area staunchly believe that this is the principal cause of declining freshwater flows into the Bay, and, inevitably, will lead to the irrecoverable loss of the Bay ecosystem, itself.

The Special Master rendered his Report on February 14, 2017, and it was filed on March 20, 2017.  The Special Master found, as a matter of fact and law, that Florida had failed to prove its case by clear and convincing evidence, and recommended that the Supreme Court deny Florida’s claims.

Florida filed its Exceptions to the Report of the Special Master on May 31, 2017.  Georgia filed its Reply opposing Florida’s objections on July 31, 2017, and Florida filed its Sur-reply on August 30, 2017.  Amicus briefs supporting Georgia’s position have been filed by the United States (on behalf of the Corps of Engineers), the State of Colorado, and the Atlanta Regional Commission, et al.  The case has been set for oral argument before the Supreme Court on Monday, January 8, 2018.

Of the several issues before the Court, the two major ones are the “clear and convincing evidence”  burden of proof standard the Special Master imposed upon Florida and the general issue of “redressability,” which turns on the obligation of Florida to prove both substantial (some would say “irreparable”) injury and that the relief sought (a consumption cap on Georgia water use, primarily in the Flint River Basin) would, in fact, provide additional flows into Apalachicola Bay sufficient to save the ecosystem and the oyster industry.  Understandably, Georgia strongly rejects Florida’s contentions.

The cases relied upon by Georgia and the amici are, in the main, decisions in litigation between and among western states whose organic water resources laws are grounded in the doctrine of prior appropriation.  Here, the dispute is between two states whose organic water resources laws arise under the common law doctrine of riparianism (or, in modern times, regulated riparianism).  Interestingly, because the Supreme Court departed from pure riparian principles in early cases involving interstate fights over the water needs of huge urban areas like New York City, Florida contends that it is appropriate in this case for the Court to apply traditional equitable principles in addition to equitable apportionment principles that have evolved over many years of case law.  While not dismissing the argument out of hand, I think it could be a real challenge for Florida to make it stick.

Ultimately, the Court will either accept the Report and recommendations of the Special Master and dismiss Florida’s case outright, or decline to accept the Report and remand the case to the Special Master for further proceedings.  Given the deference the Supreme Court generally accords Special Masters in Original Jurisdiction cases, I think Florida, figuratively, now has to push a very heavy anchor chain up a very steep hill to stay in the fight it started.  If the State fails, locals say that the loss will likely result in a knockout blow to the oyster industry in Apalachicola Bay, which is already on the ropes.  Maybe, yes.  Maybe, no.  Maybe, not yet.  Time will tell.  Oh, well, some folks don’t like oysters, anyway….

The Truth about Sue and Settle that Scott Pruitt Ignores

Posted on December 4, 2017 by Jonathan Z. Cannon

Seth Jaffe’s post about EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s sue and settle directive is right on. As he notes, the Administrator punts on the question at the core of his holy war against sue and settle: that is, what is the evidence that sue and settle has been abused in the way he presumes?  In particular, was sue and settle systematically used during the Obama administration as a vehicle of collusion between environmental groups and sympathetic agency officials, catering to the greens through rulemaking in secret? That was the characterization advanced by the Chamber of Commerce and other pro-business and anti-regulatory groups that made sue and settle a battle cry in their war against Obama’s environmental policies. Without citing any evidence, Pruitt has proceeded as if that characterization is correct.

A careful, fact-based, analytically disciplined examination of the practice of sue and settle during the Obama administration shows that this characterization is not correct.  That examination appeared in a law review note by a former law student of mine, Ben Tyson, who went on to clerk for Chief Justice Roberts on the Supreme Court.  I recommend that anyone who is interested in this issue -- and who delights in careful research and analysis – read the entire article. But here’s a brief summary for those who don’t have the time.

Tyson’s analysis is based on eighty-eight sue and settle cases arising under the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and the Endangered species act during the Obama administration.  This data set includes twenty-eight cases that were missed by the Chamber of Commerce in its 2013 report, Sue and Settle: Regulating Behind Closed Doors.  In his analysis Tyson is careful to distinguish between decision-forcing consent decrees, which simply require the agency to do what it is statutorily required to do and do not have a potentially adverse effect on public participation in rulemaking, and substantive consent degrees, in which the agency agrees to propose a particular regulatory change, with dismissal of the litigation dependent upon adoption of that change after public notice and comment. Of the total eighty-eight sue and settle suits, seventy-nine were brought by environmental groups.  But all but four of these suits by environmentalists sought decision-forcing consent decrees, not substantive outcomes. And in three of those four cases, there was at least one industry intervenor that had a right to be heard on the proposed decree.  Tyson concludes: “Sue-and-settle, when used by environmental group plaintiffs, is not principally about secret, backdoor rulemaking.” Instead, overwhelmingly, environmental groups used litigation to enforce existing statutory requirements. 

Ironically, although industry brought far fewer sue and settle suits overall (only nine compared to the environmental groups’ 79), five of those suits resulted in consent decrees with substantive terms. And there was no environmental intervenor in any of those cases to contest entry of the consent decree. Based on the data, industry used sue and settle to achieve substantive outcomes more often than environmental groups. And the total number of substantive sue and settle suits by industry and environmental groups was relatively small (9, or 10% of the 88 cases). Improving public participation is always worth attention, but one wonders what all the fuss was about.

Pruitt Banishes “Sue and Settle” – A Solution In Search of a Problem?

Posted on November 27, 2017 by Seth Jaffe

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt earlier this month issued a Directive prohibiting the practice of “sue and settle.”  He also issued a Memorandum to senior staff explaining in more detail some of the concerns about “sue and settle.”  They are two very strange documents.

As to the substance of how EPA will handle future citizen suit claims, there are some specific concrete steps which individuals and groups across the political spectrum actually can support.  These include:  (1) making more information available to the public about notices of intent to sue and filed complaints; (2) involvement of affected states; (3) maintenance of a data base of citizen suits; and (4) providing a public explanation and rationale for settlement of citizen suits; and (5) providing opportunities for public comment, even where not otherwise required by law.

So far, so good.  However, at a certain point, the Administrator seems to have gone off the rails.  First, one final substantive point – the Directive purports to forbid the payment of attorneys’ fees in any settlement, on the ground that, in a settlement, there is no “prevailing party.”  Of course, if a citizen’s group has a meritorious claim, why would it give up its claims to attorneys’ fees?

What’s really strange about the documents, though, is that they make no effort to demonstrate that there has been such a thing as “sue and settle.”  Instead, the Directive merely states that:

"It has been reported, however, that EPA has previously sought to resolve lawsuits filed against it through consent decrees and settlement agreements that appeared to be the result of collusion with outside groups."

The Administrator pledges that the “days of this regulation through litigation, or ‘sue and settle’ are terminated.”

The Memorandum is even better, citing to the Federalist Papers and the correspondence of Thomas Jefferson.  I’m almost persuaded that this is the greatest threat to the American Way of Life since the fluoridation of water.  Far be it from me to compare the Administrator to General Jack D. Ripper, but this is what first came to my mind after reading these documents.

AN UNDERGROUND RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT

Posted on November 8, 2017 by Andrew Goddard

Environmental groups have for years sought greater regulation of coal ash waste from coal-fired power plants.  It turns out an old-fashioned Clean Water Act (CWA) citizen suit is sometimes a more effective tool.

In August, Judge Waverly Crenshaw, of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee, ordered the Tennessee Valley Authority to “wholly excavate the ash waste disposal areas” at the Gallatin Steam Plant and “relocate the excavated coal ash to a lined impoundment with no significant risk of discharge to waters of the United States.”  TVA estimates that this will take 24 years at a cost of $2 billion.  The least surprising aspect of this case: TVA has filed a notice of appeal.

How?  In 2015, the Tennessee Clean Water Network and the Tennessee Scenic Rivers Association filed a CWA citizen suit claiming that groundwater flowed through two ash pond areas and then to the nearby Cumberland River was an unpermitted point source.  Judge Crenshaw’s 125-page opinion in support of the Order includes this diagram showing one zone of earth penetrated only vertically (by storm water) and one penetrated both vertically and laterally (by storm water and groundwater):

 

This pretty much sums up the central issue in the case:  Is the groundwater flow through the lower part of coal ash landfill, picking up contaminants and transmitting them laterally to the Cumberland River, regulated by the CWA?

In his lengthy opinion, Judge Crenshaw found that the CWA does regulate groundwater where there is a direct and immediate hydrologic connection if plaintiffs are able to “prove a link between contaminated groundwaters and navigable waters.”  TVA argued that the CWA cannot reach discharges enabled by infiltration of rainwater that was not channeled by human act because they are not point sources, but Judge Crenshaw found that the ultimate question regarding point source is whether the pollutants were discharged from a discernable, combined, and discreet conveyance by any means.  He found that the entire ash dewatering complex was a discernible, combined and discreet manmade concentration of waste and that it was a “conveyance” because it is “unlined and leaking pollutants,” and thus is by definition “conveying pollutants.”

It takes a lot for a judge to impose $2 billion of costs on a public utility.  His displeasure with how the problem had been addressed over the past several decades was palpable.  He wrote that the older of the two coal ash sites

“…offers a grim preview of what it means to leave an abandoned unlined coal ash waste pond in place next to a river.  [It] has not been a waste treatment facility for over forty-five years. It has been ‘closed’ for almost twenty years.  Still, water infiltrates it.  Still, it leaks pollutants.  Still, counsel for TVA and counsel for environmental groups are locked in conflict about what can and should be done about it. … As long as the ash remains where it is in either site, there is every reason to think that the dangers, uncertainties and conflicts giving rise to this case will survive another 20 years, 45 years or more.  While the process of closure by removal would not be swift, it would, at least, end.” 

With that, he ordered that TVA remove the coal ash to an appropriate lined site that will not discharge into waters of the United States.

There was one bit of good news for TVA: because of the cost of the chosen remedy, Judge Crenshaw decided not to assess penalties. 

Not every argument was about such large costs.  TVA’s objection to the plaintiffs’ request for attorney’s fees and costs included an objection to caviar included in a claim for $200 for food and snack items purchased from Kroger before and during the trial.  The plaintiff’s response included a receipt showing the “caviar” purchase was $16.24 of “Texas Caviar,” and attached Kroger’s recipe therefor.  It is devoid of fish eggs but does include chopped cilantro.  The recipe is available through PACER here.

Court Rejects BLM’s Efforts to Unbalance the Scales of Justice

Posted on November 6, 2017 by Seth Jaffe

Last month, Magistrate Judge Elizabeth Laporte granted summary judgment to plaintiffs and vacated the Bureau of Land Management’s notice that it was postponing certain compliance dates contained in the Obama BLM rule governing methane emissions on federal lands.  If you’re a DOJ lawyer, it’s pretty clear your case is a dog when the Court enters summary judgment against you before you’ve even answered the complaint.

The case is pretty simple and the outcome should not be a surprise.  BLM based its postponement of the compliance deadlines on § 705 of the APA, which authorizes agencies to “postpone the effective date” of regulations “when justice so requires.”  However, every court that has looked at the issue has concluded that the plain words of the APA apply only to the “effective date” of a regulation and not to any “compliance date” contained within the regulation.

It seems clearly right to me.  For Chevron geeks out there, I’ll note that the Court stated that, because the APA is a procedural statute as to which BLM has no particular expertise, its interpretation of the APA is not entitled to Chevron deference – a conclusion which also seems right to me.

What particularly caught my eye about the decision was the Court’s discussion of the phrase, “when justice so requires.”  In a belt and suspenders bit of analysis, the Court also made findings that justice did not require postponement.  BLM’s argument was that justice required the postponement because otherwise the regulated community would have to incur compliance costs.  However, as the Court noted, “the Bureau entirely failed to consider the benefits of the Rule, such as decreased resource waste, air pollution, and enhanced public revenues.”  Indeed:  

If the words “justice so requires” are to mean anything, they must satisfy the fundamental understanding of justice: that it requires an impartial look at the balance struck between the two sides of the scale, as the iconic statue of the blindfolded goddess of justice holding the scales aloft depicts. Merely to look at only one side of the scales, whether solely the costs or solely the benefits, flunks this basic requirement. As the Supreme Court squarely held, an agency cannot ignore “an important aspect of the problem.” Without considering both the costs and the benefits of postponement of the compliance dates, the Bureau’s decision failed to take this “important aspect” of the problem into account and was therefore arbitrary.

I think I detect a theme here.  Some of you will remember that Foley Hoag filed an amicus brief on behalf of the Union of Concerned Scientists, supporting the challenge to President Trump’s “2-for-1” Executive Order.  We made pretty much the same arguments in that case that Magistrate Judge Laporte made here – minus the reference to the scales of justice.

Unless SCOTUS gets rid of all agency deference, the Trump Administration is going to get some deference as it tries to eliminate environmental regulations wherever it can find them.  However, if it continues to do so while looking solely at the costs of the regulations to the business community, while ignoring the benefits of the regulations, it’s still going to have an uphill battle on its hands.

Cooperative Federalism – 1; State Defendants in the Flint Water Crisis – 0

Posted on September 26, 2017 by Jeffrey Haynes

In a case of first impression, a divided Sixth Circuit held that the state agency defendants in the Flint water crisis cannot remove state-law tort claims against them under the federal officer removal statute.  Mays v. City of Flint, No. 16-2484 (Sixth Cir., Sept.11, 2017).  The ruling affirmed a remand to the Genesee County Circuit Court, where, the court acknowledged—emphasizing the obvious—the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality staffers are likely to be “unpopular figures.”

Residents of Flint sued, among others, several present and former MDEQ staff members for gross negligence, fraud, assault and battery, and intentional infliction of emotional distress, based upon MDEQ’s failure to control corrosion of aging water pipes, which caused lead to leach into Flint’s water supply.  The MDEQ defendants removed the action under the federal officer removal statute, 42 U.S.C. §1442(a)(1), which allows “any officer (or person acting under that officer) of the United States” to remove a state-law action to federal court.  The purpose of the statute is to insulate federal officers from local bias against unpopular federal laws.  Examples of customs agents in the War of 1812, revenue agents during Prohibition, and border agents come to mind.  The MDEQ defendants argued they were enforcing the Safe Drinking Water Act for USEPA, and therefore were acting under federal officers.

The court held that the MDEQ was enforcing Michigan law under a delegation of federal authority voluntarily accepted by the state.  The state officers were not contractors, employees, or agents of federal officers.  The cooperative federalism of the SDWA was more like a partnership than a principal-agent relationship.  EPA oversight, reporting requirements, and federal funding were not enough to bring the MDEQ defendants within the removal statute.  The dissent believed, on the other hand, that the state agency defendants’ removal petition satisfied their burden of demonstrating that their actions brought them under the statute’s protection. 

The court kept the floodgates closed.  It noted that many other environmental statutes come within the cooperative federalism model, and that allowing removal would cause garden-variety state-law tort claims against state officers for enforcing state law to be litigated in federal courts.

So, states’ rights advocates, take heart.  Even though your state enforces federal environmental standards with federal funds and oversight, you are on your own.  Regardless of citizen anger with the distant federal government, your state officials can still be tried by local jurors angry with your state government.

Trump’s 2-For-1 Order: Still Arbitrary and Capricious After All These Months

Posted on September 15, 2017 by Seth Jaffe

In June, I posted about Foley Hoag's brief in support of those challenging Executive Order 13771, the so-called “2 for 1” EO.  By ignoring the benefits of existing and proposed regulations, the Order ignores the purposes behind the legislation pursuant to which regulations are promulgated.  The Order is thus the definition of arbitrary and capricious.

Late last week, OMB issued a memorandum to executive agencies, requiring them to develop “Regulatory Cost Allowances” for FY 2018.  The memorandum is only one page.  In that one page, it uses the word “cost” 11 times.  The word “benefit” does not appear.

The memorandum notes that the purpose of the Order is to “lower regulatory burdens” and “to be prudent and financially responsible in the expenditure of funds, from both public and private sources.”

I hate to beat a dead horse, but one would have thought that the absolute size of the “regulatory burden” is not what’s relevant; what’s relevant is whether that regulatory burden is exceeded by the benefits of proposed regulations.  One would also have thought that requiring expenditures of private funds for regulatory compliance would be seen as “prudent” if those compliance costs are exceeded by the benefits.

Indeed, one would have thought – and I do still think – that seeking to lower regulatory compliance costs without regard to the benefits provided by government regulations is just plain crazy.

Silly me.

A Win for Appropriative Water Rights

Posted on August 25, 2017 by Rick Glick

In an unpublished opinion released August 24th, the Ninth Circuit rejected a long waged effort to upend the City of Bend’s water planning by forcing it to abandon its vested surface water rights in favor of an all-groundwater supply.  As is often the case, plaintiffs chose a somewhat oblique attack on the City’s water planning, relying on NEPA and forest planning laws to force a change of direction.

Central Oregon LandWatch v. Connaughton was a challenge to a Special Use Permit issued by the U. S. Forest Service to the City to construct a new pipeline and to upgrade water diversion facilities on Tumalo Creek, within the Deschutes National Forest.  The existing pipeline also was previously constructed within the national forest under a SUP, but needs replacement.  The project drew controversy. 

Plaintiffs contended that cessation of water withdrawals by the City is necessary to preserve Tumalo Falls, whereas the City argued that the project would enhance Tumalo Creek.  To maintain pressure, the old pipeline needed to be kept full, resulting in constant diversions and discharge of surplus water downstream.  The new pipeline allows the City to withdraw water on demand, which will keep more water in the stream.  In addition, the City is working closely with the Tumalo Irrigation District to further protect the creek.

An amici group comprised of municipal and agricultural water users, intervened on behalf of the Forest Service and the City.  (Disclosure:  Our firm represents the amici, and serves as water counsel to the City, though we did not represent the City in this case).  The Oregon Water Resources Department separately intervened as an amicus.

The central concern for amici was the integrity of Oregon’s appropriative water rights law, which follows the first in time, first in right principle of other Western states.  Plaintiffs sought to upend that principle by elevating federal minimum flows in the forest planning context over state water law.  Oregon law allows the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to apply for instream water rights, which would have priority from the date of application and would be treated like any other water right.  The purpose of the instream right is to prevent future appropriations, and so the “minimum” flows in the water right usually comprise or exceed the entire flow of the stream.

Plaintiffs argued that the Forest Service should have imposed minimum flows for the creek in the SUP, which they contended should be derived from the instream water established for Tumalo Creek.  The problem is that the instream water right is junior in priority to the City’s water rights.  Imposing the instream water right flows as a condition of the SUP would effectively turn appropriative water rights law on its head.  The instream right—with its aspirational flow regime—would then take precedent over the City’s right.

The court below rejected that outcome, as did the Ninth Circuit but on the basis that establishment of minimum flows are not required by rule or case law.  Further, doing so would not benefit Tumalo Creek because the City’s project would “positively impact stream flows” in one reach of the creek and “have no or minimal impact” in two other reaches, one of which is subject to Tumalo Irrigation District diversions that are not subject to the SUP.

The court also found that the Forest Service did not violate NEPA by limiting the alternatives analysis in the Environmental Assessment to just two: (1) implementation of the project and (2) a “no action” alternative based on the existing SUP.  In other words, the court was not troubled by the Forest Service assuming that continuing exercise of the City’s surface water rights represents the status quo.   The court rejected plaintiffs’ argument that the Forest Service needed to additionally evaluate an alternative scenario where the City reduces or ceases withdrawals from Tumalo Creek.  The court found that the discussion in the Environmental Assessment was adequate, and relied on language in the EA that fully supports the City’s water planning:

The Forest Service determined that the surface water formed a “critical component of the City’s dual-source [water] supply.” . . . The EA explained that groundwater-only options would “compromise the City’s ability to provide a safe and reliable water supply,” reduce water flows in other parts of the Deschutes River, be costly, and be less reliable than a dual-source system. The EA also flagged possible environmental concerns posed by the groundwater-only option, including reduced surface stream flows (which are fed by groundwater) and increased energy consumption caused by pumping groundwater. This discussion was sufficient.

A dual source water system is the dream of every municipal water planner.  That redundancy is insurance against natural or human-caused catastrophes that could disable one source.  And all water users need to be able to rely on the priority of water rights under the law.  That the Forest Service and the Ninth Circuit declined to upset the City’s long-term water planning is a victory for municipal water planners everywhere.

Reports of the Death of the SEP Have Not Been Greatly Exaggerated

Posted on July 21, 2017 by Seth Jaffe

Last month, Attorney General Sessions barred DOJ from entering into settlements that provide for payments to non-governmental persons not a party to the dispute.  At the time, I peered into my crystal ball and proclaimed that the practice of incorporating supplemental environmental projects into environmental settlements was “hanging by a thread.” For once, my speculation was accurate.

Yesterday, DOJ notified the District Court for the District of Columbia that the United States and Harley-Davidson had jointly agreed to modify a consent decree that had already been lodged with the Court.  The original decree provided for a $3 million SEP, to replace old woodstoves.  Notwithstanding that SEPs have traditionally been used to mitigate penalty amounts, the modified decree did not increase the penalty to Harley-Davidson; it merely eliminated the SEP.  Well done, Harley-Davidson lawyers!

In modifying the decree, DOJ explicitly cited to the Sessions memorandum, noting simply that:

Questions exist as to whether this mitigation project is consistent with the new policy.

Ya’ think?

The only question remaining at this point is whether other defendants will be able, like Harley-Davidson, simply to pay smaller penalties or whether, going forward, penalties will increase where SEPs are unavailable as mitigation.  I know where this administration’s proclivities lie, but I’m going to stop speculating while I’m ahead of the game.

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

Posted on July 11, 2017 by Seth Jaffe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted on June 6, 2017 by Seth Jaffe

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted on May 1, 2017 by Seth Jaffe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted on April 13, 2017 by Seth Jaffe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Should Courts Defer to EPA’s Scientific Expertise if EPA Gets Rid of Its Expertise?

Posted on April 6, 2017 by Seth Jaffe

Earlier this week, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected challenges to the Federal Implementation Plan EPA promulgated after finding that Arizona’s regional haze State Implementation Plan was inadequate.  I think that the result is both correct and unsurprising.

However, one part of the opinion – a recitation of black-letter law – caught my eye.  In discussing the standard of review, the court noted that the arbitrary and capricious standard is “highly deferential.”  No surprise there.  It also noted that courts are particularly deferential when reviewing agency scientific determinations.  Also no surprise.

And yet….

What happens if EPA eliminates all of its climate science expertise, and then eliminates the Endangerment Finding?  Certainly, a court could still recite the traditional level of deference, but then note that “deference is not abdication” and rule that EPA’s decision must be reversed even under the deferential threshold.

And yet….

What happens if the Trump administration repeatedly makes regulatory decisions based on a “scientific” viewpoint that is so broadly rejected by the scientific community that “scientific” must be put in quotation marks?  Might courts at some point conclude that EPA has forfeited the deference normally given to agency scientific decisions?

Just asking.  It’s purely a hypothetical, of course.

The Conservative Case for Chevron Deference: Chapter 2

Posted on March 22, 2017 by Seth Jaffe

In January, I argued that conservative opposition to the Chevron doctrine seemed inconsistent with conservative ideology and I noted, at a practical level, that opposition to Chevron does not always yield the results conservative want.

gray wolf, Canis lupus, Gary Kramer, USFWS

Earlier this month, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia provided more evidence supporting my thesis.  The Court affirmed the decision of the Fish and Wildlife Service to delist the gray wolf as endangered in Wyoming, reversing a district court decision in so doing.  Part of the case turned on whether the FWS service could approve Wyoming’s management plan, even though the plan relied on non-regulatory provisions.  The Court of Appeals noted that the:

ESA provides no definition of “regulatory mechanisms,” and neither the district court nor appellees suggests why the Secretary’s interpretation is unreasonable.

Sounds like a case for Chevron deference to me – and it sounded that way to the Court as well.  When the Court combined Chevron deference to agency interpretation of the statutory language with traditional arbitrary and capricious review regarding the FWS’s scientific judgment – another area where deference to the agency is obviously not a left-wing plot – affirmance of the FWS delisting decision was the result.

Maybe I’ll make this a regular feature of this blog.  If I miss other cases making the conservative argument for Chevron, let me know.

POTUS, SCOTUS & WOTUS: What Do They Have in Common With Michael Stipe and Jack Black?

Posted on March 15, 2017 by Jeff Thaler

Then-candidate Donald Trump’s unauthorized use of REM’s 1987 song, “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”, during a 2015 campaign rally sparked a sharp objection by the band’s Michael Stipe. Flash forward to 2017 and now-President Trump has been flexing his executive powers in a number of legal fields; for many environmental, energy or immigration lawyers it’s the end of the regulatory world as we knew it for decades, and they are not feeling so fine.

Executive Orders (EOs) raise classic constitutional law issues of the separation of powers, in that they often are used for “executive legislating” even though there is no explicit constitutional authority for them. EOs also blur traditional regulating lines, because they are not issued with public notice or comment, and usually state that they do not “create any right or benefit enforceable at law or in equity by any party against the United States.”

An EO can have the force of law, however, if the EO is based on either the Constitution or a statute, per the Supreme Court’s 1954 Youngstown decision. That is why one must carefully read each EO to determine the grounds of its authority, and then whether it is possibly contrary to a) existing laws or b) constitutional provisions such as due process or equal protection.

Facing an uncooperative Congress, POTUS Obama came to rely on EOs in his last two years in office (see this prophetic 2015 School House Rock episode). POTUS Trump took to EOs right out of the gate. The two Trump EOs that have garnered the most publicity and outcry deal with immigration restrictions The first EO was challenged in numerous courts, and the 9th Circuit issued on February 9 the first appellate decision on a Trump EO. Interestingly, and instructive for future litigants and legal counsel, the first issue addressed by the 9th Circuit, and the one they discussed the most, was . . . standing. The court then moved on to reviewability, and only briefly due process and equal protection. The complaint’s count on violating the Administrative Procedure Act for not following proper rulemaking proceedings was not even discussed in the ruling.

Trump issued two EOs of more relevance to environmental and energy lawyers. First was the January 30, 2017 EO entitled “Reducing Regulation and Controlling Regulatory Costs”, aka the add-one-subtract-two, no-increase-in-incremental-costs [undefined]- of-regulations EO. That was followed by the February 2, 2017 Interim Guidance of the OMB implementing (and implicitly amending) the EO by limiting it to “significant regulatory actions”—i.e. those of $100 million or more of annual effect on the economy. A week later the EO and IG were both challenged in federal court in D.C. as violating the APA, separation of powers, the Constitution’s “Take Care Clause”, and as being ultra vires. Plaintiffs referenced in part OSHA, TSCA, the ESA and CAA, and other energy/environmental laws as being inconsistent with the EO’s requirement that a new rule can only be promulgated if its cost is offset by the elimination of two existing rules. The EO ironically signals the possible demise of cost-benefit analysis —first mandated by then POTUS Ronald Reagan by an EO in 1981—by disallowing consideration of the economic benefits of a regulation when weighing its costs.

Many more EOs are promised in the coming weeks concerning a variety of environmental and energy laws and regulations. Early in the wave was the February 28, 2017 EO with the majestic name of “Restoring the Rule of Law, Federalism, and Economic Growth by Reviewing the ‘Waters of the United States’ [aka WOTUS] Rule”. This EO directs the EPA to review the WOTUS Rule while keeping in mind the national interest of “promoting economic growth, minimizing regulatory uncertainty, and showing due regard for the roles of the Congress and the States under the Constitution.” Since WOTUS was a final rule published in the Federal Register, it can only be repealed and replaced by a new rule that goes through full notice-and-comment rulemaking, not simply by a non-legislative guidance or policy statement.

One who lives by the EO sword can slowly die from it too. POTUS Obama did not submit for approval to Congress the Paris Climate Change Agreement of 2016, calling it an “executive agreement”, thus POTUS Trump does not need Congressional approval to undo it. The Agreement terms do not allow withdrawal by a party before November 2019. However, the U.S. could withdraw from the overarching United Nations Framework on Climate Change with one year notice, if the Senate approves, and that in effect would undo our Paris “commitments”. And as a practical matter, the current Administration could also just choose not to implement the Paris obligations, because there is no binding duty to hit the emission reduction targets.

In sum, we live in interesting times.   Although Jack Black has said of this Administration that “It’s the end of the world”, for College members and their clients it’s the start of some fascinating new adventures in regulation and litigation. Stay tuned. 

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!