Posted on September 21, 2016
On Monday, EPA promulgated amendments to its “Exceptional Events” Rule. The rule is important, particularly in the Western states, and most particularly in connection with EPA’s latest iteration of the ozone NAAQS. EPA’s most significant revision was to eliminate the requirement that state air agencies demonstrate that, “but for” the exceptional event, the state or relevant area would have complied with the applicable NAAQS. The change is important for two reasons. First, on the merits, EPA noted that:
"the “but for” criterion has often been interpreted as implying the need for a strict quantitative analysis to show a single value … of the estimated air quality impact from the event. As a result, some air agencies began using burdensome approaches to provide quantitative analyses in their exceptional events demonstrations to show that the event in question was a “but for” cause of a NAAQS exceedance or violation in the sense that without the event, the exceedance or violation would not have occurred. In many cases, the “but for” role of a single source or event is difficult to determine with certainty and it is more often the case that the impact of emissions from events and other sources cannot be separately quantified and distinguished."
I think that EPA got this exactly right. As tort professors have always known, how a burden of proof is allocated is often outcome-determinative.
Which brings me to the second reason why the change is important – at least to me. Just hearing the words “but for” causation triggers an uncontrollable wave of nostalgia. In 1996, my client, New England Telephone, was awarded summary judgment in a CERCLA contribution case. It was then the first – and may still be the only – case in which a defendant who admittedly sent hazardous substances to a site was awarded summary judgment on the ground that its wastes had not caused the incurrence of any response costs.
I like to think that NET prevailed due to the fine lawyering of its counsel, but I have always known in my heart of hearts that the identity of the judge may have had something to do with the result. The case was heard by Robert Keeton, distinguished judge, Harvard Law professor and – importantly – one of the authors of Prosser and Keeton on Torts.
At the summary judgment hearing, Judge Keeton did not want to hear from me, even though it was my motion. He did not really even want to hear from the plaintiffs’ counsel. Instead, he launched into an approximately 30-minute lecture on the role of causation in tort law, including, of course, a discussion of “but for” causation. When he finished the discussion from Prosser and Keeton about the so-called “Minnesota fire cases”, Judge Keeton paused, looked up, smiled broadly, and said: “I wrote that part.”
It was the best summary judgment argument I ever gave. I never said a word.
Posted on September 8, 2016
Ever since EPA began considering how BACT analysis would be applied to greenhouse gas emissions, there has been concern that EPA would use its BACT authority to “redefine the source” – with the particular concern that BACT for a coal plant would now be to burn natural gas instead. In Helping Hands Tools v. EPA, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals this week gave some protection to biomass plants from such redefinition of the source. However, other types of facilities will get no comfort from the decision.
Helping Hands Tools involved a challenge to a PSD permit issued to Sierra Pacific for a cogeneration plant to be located at one of its existing lumber mills. Under EPA’s BACT Guidance, Sierra Pacific stated that the purpose of the CoGen plant was to use wood waste from the mill and nearby facilities to generate electricity and heat. Relying in part on the 7th Circuit decision in Sierra Club v. EPA, which held that it would impermissibly redefine the source to require a mine-mouth coal generating plant to consider different fuels in its BACT analysis, the 9th Circuit found that EPA was reasonable in determining that, because a fundamental purpose of the CoGen plant was to burn wood waste, it would impermissibly redefine the source to require Sierra Pacific to consider solar power as part of its BACT analysis.
Importantly, the Court also rejected the plaintiffs’ request that Sierra Pacific consider greater use of natural gas. The Court concluded that very limited use of natural gas for the purposes of startup, shutdown, and flame stabilization did not undermine the fundamental purpose to burn wood waste. This is critical to source-located biomass facilities, because EPA’s GHG Permitting Guidance specifically says that greater use of an existing fuel should be considered in the BACT analysis:
"unless it can be demonstrated that such an option would disrupt the applicant’s basic business purpose for the proposed facility."
Unfortunately, the language of the decision appears to me to give EPA substantial leeway in future BACT analyses to redefine the source in other cases. It seems to me that, building on the 7th Circuit decision, the Court has simply created an exception to potential source redefinition in circumstances where the location of the facility justifies a very narrow fuel selection. If a coal plant intends to burn coal from the mine next door, ok. If a lumber mill intends to burn its own wood waste, ok. Otherwise, however, all bets are off.
What is particularly troubling was the Court’s acknowledgement that the GHG BACT guidance is vague, and its deference to EPA’s application of its own vague guidance. This is precisely the concern I noted when the Guidance was first issued. Time will tell, but I foresee some fairly extreme BACT determinations being blessed by some very deferential courts.
Posted on August 2, 2016
On Friday, the D.C. Circuit largely upheld EPA’s Boiler MACT rule. The industry challenges were a complete washout. The environmental petitioners won one significant victory and a number of smaller ones.
The environmental petitioners’ one significant victory is important. EPA included within relevant subcategories any source that burns a fuel containing at least 10% of the “subcategory-defining fuel.” However, for defining MACT, EPA included only those sources that burn fuel containing at 90% of the subcategory-defining fuel for existing sources, and 100% for new sources. The Court rejected this approach.
"The CAA, however, demands that source subcategories take the bitter with the sweet. Section 7412 mandates, without ambiguity, that the EPA set the MACT floor at the level achieved by the best performing source, or the average of the best performing sources, in a subcategory. It thus follows that if the EPA includes a source in a subcategory, it must take into account that source’s emissions levels in setting the MACT floor."
Which brings me to my big take-away from this decision. Chevron lives. By my count, The Court cited Chevron 30 times. Chevron pervades the decision. Even in the one big issue that EPA lost, the Court’s decision was based not on a rejection of EPA’s interpretation of an ambiguous provision under step 2 of Chevron, but on a plain meaning interpretation of § 112. EPA defined what a source is, but it then refused to calculate MACT based upon the performance of all of the sources in a given subcategory. The statute simply did not allow EPA that leeway.
Other than EPA’s attempt to avoid taking “the bitter with the sweet”, however, the Court’s deference – by three Republican appointees – to EPA’s technical decisions was notable. Not every case is the Clean Power Plan. Where EPA is not really pushing the boundaries, I don’t see the Supreme Court weakening Chevron any time soon.
Posted on July 5, 2016
Administrative lawyers, especially environmental lawyers, are well familiar with the doctrine of Chevron deference as applied to agency interpretations of statutes. In the 1984 Clean Air Act case of Chevron U.S.A. Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, the U.S. Supreme Court announced a 2-step approach: (1) the court must determine whether Congress has directly spoken to the precise question at issue and, if so, that ends the matter—the Court, as well the agency, must give effect to that intent; and (2) if not, the court must defer to the agency’s interpretation if it is “reasonable,” the presumption being that Congress intended to leave its resolution to the agency. In a more recent Clean Air Act case, Michigan v. EPA, the Court, although determining EPA acted unreasonably in failing to consider costs in its regulation of hazardous air pollutants from power plants, applied the Chevron doctrine, but Justice Thomas, in his concurring opinion, challenged the doctrine’s legal underpinnings, causing some to question the continued vitality of the doctrine. In Encino Motorcars v, Navarro, decided on June 20, 2016, the Supreme Court, although deciding that the agency’s interpretation was not entitled to deference, provided assurance that the Chevron doctrine is alive and well.
The case involved the issue of whether service advisors at car dealerships were exempt from overtime pay under the Fair Labor Standards Act. In 2008, the Department of Labor had proposed a rule confirming a long-standing practice that they were exempt, but in its final rulemaking--in 2011--it reversed course, without explanation. The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit had applied Chevron deference in upholding the rule, but the Supreme Court reversed. It held that, although the Department could change its policy, its interpretation was not entitled to Chevron deference because it did not provide a reasoned explanation for doing so. The Court therefore remanded to the Ninth Circuit to determine the rule’s validity in the first instance. In her concurring opinion, Justice Ginsburg, joined by Justice Sotomayor, noted: “’[U]nexplained inconsistency’ in agency policy is ‘a reason for holding an interpretation to be an arbitrary and capricious change from agency practice.’” In his dissent, Justice Thomas, joined by Justice Alito, agreed with the majority--that the Court “need not wade into the murky waters of Chevron deference,” but disagreed that the Court should have reversed and argued that the rule change was simply invalid.
So, Chevron deference lives, but it does not apply to unexplained rule changes.
Posted on June 17, 2016
If you needed any further proof that energylaw is very complicated, Wednesday’s decision in North Dakota v. Heydinger should convince you. The judgment is simple – the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a Minnesota statute which provides in part that:
"no person shall . . . (2) import or commit to import from outside the state power from a new large energy facility that would contribute to statewide power sector carbon dioxide emissions; or (3) enter into a new long-term power purchase agreement that would increase statewide power sector carbon dioxide emissions."
Why, you ask?
- The panel opinion, by Judge Loken, stated that the Minnesota statute violates the dormant Commerce Clause, by regulating purely “extraterritorial” economic activity.
- Judge Murphy, in the first concurrence, disagreed with Judge Loken’s conclusion that the statute violates the dormant Commerce Clause, but joined the judgment, because she concluded that the statute is preempted by the Federal Power Act.
- Judge Colloton, in the second concurrence, agreed with Judge Murphy that the statute does not violate the dormant clause, but also concurred in the judgment. Judge Colloton concluded that, to the extent that the “statute bans wholesale sales of electric energy in interstate commerce,” it is preempted by the Federal Power Act. However, Judge Colloton wrote separately, because he at least partially disagrees with Judge Murphy (as well as with Judge Loken) and does not believe that the Minnesota statute constitutes a complete ban on wholesale sales of energy that increase CO2 emissions. However, Judge Colloton concluded that, to the extent that the statute is not preempted by the Federal Power Act, it is preempted by the Clean Air Act.
Is that sufficiently clear?
I do feel compelled to add two final notes. First, I don’t understand why Judge Loken wrote the panel opinion, when his rationale did not command a majority. Indeed, as Judge Colloton pointed out, the Court should not even have reached the constitutional issue, since a panel majority existed that was prepared to strike down the Minnesota statute on statutory grounds. (Preemption is considered a statutory, not a constitutional, rationale.)
Second, don’t analogize the electric energy transmission to the flow of water in a pipe, at least before Judge Murphy. Here’s your electricity and magnetism primer for the day, courtesy of the Judge.
"In the electricity transmission system, individual electrons do not actually “flow” in the same sense as water in a pipe. Rather, the electrons oscillate in place, and it is electric energy which is transmitted through the propagation of an electromagnetic wave.
Certainly brought me back to course 8.02 at MIT. Not one of my favorites.
Posted on May 23, 2016
On Tuesday, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts (SJC) ruled that MassDEP had violated the Global Warming Solutions Act by failing
"To promulgate regulations that address multiple sources or categories of sources of greenhouse gas emissions, impose a limit on emissions that may be released, limit the aggregate emissions released from each group of regulated sources or categories of sources, set emissions limits for each year, and set limits that decline on an annual basis."
The SJC gets the final word, so I won’t spend much time explaining why the SJC got it wrong, though I will note that to suggest that the legislature’s use of the phrase “desired level” of GHG emissions unambiguously requires MassDEP to establish hard targets was at best overenthusiastic.
The bigger question at this point is what the decision means. First, it’s clear that MassDEP must establish hard declining emissions limits for more than one, but less than all, categories of GHG emitting sources.
Second, MassDEP must promulgate regulations that limit total emissions – not emission rates.
Third, the regulations must truly control Massachusetts sources. The SJC specifically found that RGGI doesn’t satisfy the GWSA requirement, in part because Massachusetts sources can purchase allowances from out of state facilities.
But where does this leave MassDEP? In a deep hole, for sure. Unless it wants to ditch RGGI, it can’t regulate power generation, because the type of program that the SJC said is required would simply be incompatible with RGGI.
How about mobile sources? They are the largest growing source of GHG emissions. Unfortunately, we come back to the SJC’s injunction that MassDEP must regulate total emissions, not emission rates. You tell me how MassDEP is going to issue regulations setting a cap on mobile source emissions.
The only obvious candidates I see are buildings and industrial sources other than power generation.
I don’t envy MassDEP – and the nature of the task only emphasizes the extent of the SJC’s overreach here – but I said I wouldn’t get into that.
Posted on May 20, 2016
August 25, 2016 is the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. The many planned celebrations and observances provide an opportunity for everyone to become reacquainted with these great outdoor spaces and reflect on the world around us. As your summer plans take shape, be sure to visit FindYourPark.com and try to visit at least one national park. I invite you to share photos of your travels in the comments section of this post, and perhaps ACOEL can find a place for the collection of images of its members enjoying these national treasures.
As I reflect on the Park Service’s anniversary, I observe that it presents a chance for me – and for all environmental lawyers – to take stock of where we have been as a profession. Why – and how – we do what we do? What challenges will the next 100 years hold?
I issue this charge, in part, to carry on the conservation legacy of Henry L. Diamond. Henry was a founder of my firm, Beveridge & Diamond, and a great environmental lawyer and mentor to many (including myself). Sadly, we lost Henry earlier this year.
Henry and many others like him paved the way for our generation to be stewards of the planet and the environmental laws that govern our interactions with it. We have made progress, but new challenges have emerged. Easy answers, if they ever existed, are fewer and farther between. So what, then, does the future hold for the next generation of environmental lawyers?
Future generations of lawyers would do well to focus on the funding mechanisms that are critical but often overlooked components to achieving our most important environmental and sustainability goals. As an example, we can look to the past. Early in his career, Henry Diamond assisted the Chairman of the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission, Laurance Rockefeller, in editing the Commission’s seminal report, Outdoor Recreation for America, that was delivered to President John F. Kennedy in 1962. Among the Commission’s more significant recommendations was the idea to use revenues from oil and gas leasing to pay for the acquisition and conservation of public lands. Congress took action on this recommendation, creating the Land & Water Conservation Fund in 1965 as the primary funding vehicle for acquiring land for parks and national wildlife refuges. While the fund has been by all accounts a success in achieving its goals, much work remains to be done and the fund is regularly the target of budgetary battles and attempts to reallocate its resources to other priorities. Today, the four federal land management agencies estimate the accumulated backlog of deferred federal acquisition needs is around $30 billion.
I expect climate change will dominate the agenda for the young lawyers of our current era. They will need to tackle challenges not only relating to controlling emissions of greenhouse gases, but also adaptation resulting from climate change. Sea level rise, altered agricultural growing seasons, drought and water management, and other issues will increase in prominence for this next generation.
We can expect our infrastructure needs to continue to evolve – not only replacing aging roads, bridges, tunnels, railroads, ports, and airports, but also the move to urban centers and the redevelopment of former industrial properties. Autonomous vehicles and drones also pose novel environmental and land use issues. These trends will require us to apply “old” environmental tools in new ways, and certainly to innovate. As my colleague Fred Wagner recently observed on his EnviroStructure blog, laws often lag developments, with benefits and detractions. Hopefully the environmental lawyers of the future will not see – or be seen – as a discrete area of practice so much as an integrated resource for planners and other professions. Only in this way can the environmental bar forge new solutions to emerging challenges.
The global production and movement of products creates issues throughout the supply chain, some of which are just coming to the fore. From raw material sourcing through product end-of-life considerations, environmental, natural resource, human rights, and cultural issues necessitate an environmental bar that can nimbly balance progress with protection. As sustainability continues its evolution from an abstract ideal to something that is ever more firmly imbedded in every aspect of business, products, services, construction, policymaking and more, environmental lawyers need to stay with their counterparts in other sectors that are setting new standards and definitions. This area in particular is one in which non-governmental organizations and industry leaders often “set the market,” with major consequences for individuals, businesses, and the planet.
Finally, as technology moves ever faster, so do the tools with which to observe our environment, to share information about potential environmental risks, and to mobilize in response. With limited resources, government enforcers are already taking a page from the playbooks of environmental activists, who themselves are bringing new pressures for disclosures and changes to companies worldwide. With every trend noted above, companies must not underestimate the power of individual consumers in the age of instantaneous global communication, when even one or two individuals can alter the plans and policies of government and industry.
Before Henry Diamond passed away, he penned an eloquent call to action that appeared in the March/April edition of the Environmental Law Institute’s Environmental Forum (“Lessons Learned for Today”). I commend that article to you. It shares the story of the 1965 White House Conference on Natural Beauty and how a diverse and committed group of businesspeople, policymakers, and conservationists (some of whom were all of those things) at that event influenced the evolution of environmental law and regulation for the decades to come. Laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and others have their roots in that Conference. In recognition of his lifetime of leadership, Henry received the ELI Environmental Achievement Award in October 2015. The tribute video shown during the award ceremony underscores Henry’s vision and commitment to advancing environmental law. I hope it may inspire ACOEL members and others to follow Henry’s lead.
These are just a few things I think the future holds for environmental lawyers. What trends do you predict? How should the environmental bar and ACOEL respond?
Posted on April 28, 2016
In auto racing, the black flag is the ultimate sanction, signaling that a competitor has been disqualified and has to leave the race. That’s what happened to EPA recently, when it withdrew a controversial proposed rule to “clarify” that the Clean Air Act prohibits converting a certified vehicle for racing.
Merits aside, EPA’s start-and-stop performance is an excellent example of notice-and-comment rulemaking gone wrong. The original proposal appeared last July, a brief passage buried in the middle of a 629-page proposed rule on greenhouse gas emissions for medium- and heavy-duty engines and vehicles – hardly the place where one would look for a rule directed at race cars. See 80 Fed.Reg. 40137, 40527, 40552 (July 13, 2016). As should have been expected, EPA’s pronouncement that the Clean Air Act flatly prohibits converting emission-certified vehicles for competition went unnoticed for months. It wasn’t until late December, nearly three months after the close of the comment period, that SEMA (the Specialty Equipment Market Association, the trade group representing the motor vehicle aftermarket industry) discovered the proposed rule.
That’s when the yellow flag came out. SEMA and its members blasted EPA’s interpretation as reversing a decades-old policy that allowed the race-conversion market to flourish, and for hiding the proposal in an inapplicable rule. EPA’s response was to hold to its interpretation and to post SEMA’s comment letter in a “notice of data availability” so that others could comment – not on EPA’s proposal, but on SEMA’s letter. 81 Fed.Reg. 10822 (March 2, 2016).
SEMA stepped up the pressure with a White House petition that quickly garnered more than 150,000 signatures. Then came a letter to EPA from seven state attorneys general, and bills in both the House and Senate (brilliantly named the Recognizing the Protection of Motorsports Act, or “RPM”) to reverse EPA’s interpretation and codify the race exemption in the Clean Air Act.
On April 15, EPA hit the brakes, announcing that it was withdrawing its proposal. www.epa.gov/otaq/climate/regs-heavy-duty.htm. EPA stated that it never meant to change its policy towards “dedicated competition vehicles,” but admitted that its “attempt to clarify led to confusion.” EPA voiced its support for “motorsports and its contributions to the American economy and communities all across the country.
The checkered flag came out, but EPA had already pulled into the pits.
Posted on April 27, 2016
This week, the Federal Highway Administration issued a Noticed of Proposed Rulemaking to promulgate performance measures to be used in evaluating federal funding of transportation projects. The requirement for performance measures stems from the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, aka MAP-21. MAP-21 requires the FHWA to establish performance standards in 12 categories, one of which is “on-road mobile source emissions.”
The NPRM addresses this criterion, focusing largely on emissions of criteria pollutants. However, buried in the 423-page NPRM is a six-page section labeled “Consideration of a Greenhouse Gas Emissions Measure.”
And thus the FHWA drops a bomb that could revolutionize federal funding of transportation projects. It’s important to note that this may not happen. If the next President is Republican, it certainly won’t. Even if the FHWA goes forward, there would be legal challenges to its authority to use GHG as part of the performance measures.
If it does go forward though, it really would be revolutionary. As the NPRM states, transportation sources are rapidly increasing as a source of GHG emissions:
GHG emissions from on-road sources represent approximately 23 percent of economy-wide GHGs, but have accounted for more than two-thirds of the net increase in total U.S. GHGs since 1990.
The enormity of both the challenges facing the FHWA in attempting to establish a performance measure for GHG emissions and the potential impact implementation of a GHG performance measure would have is reflected in some of the 13 questions that FHWA posed for comment:
- Should the measure be limited to emissions coming from the tailpipe, or should it consider emissions generated upstream in the life cycle of the vehicle operations?
- Should CO2 emissions performance be estimated based on gasoline and diesel fuel sales, system use (vehicle miles traveled), or other surrogates?
- Would a performance measure on CO2 emissions help to improve transparency and to realign incentives such that State DOTs and MPOs are better positioned to meet national climate change goals?
- How long would it take for transportation agencies to implement such a measure?
Welcome to the brave new world of integrated planning to manage GHG emissions in a critical sector of our economy.
Posted on April 18, 2016
As reported by Seth Jaffe in this space, a federal magistrate judge in Oregon has kept alive the dreams of a group of young plaintiffs—aided by environmental advocacy groups—to compel government action against climate change. Like a similar case brought by the same plaintiffs a few years ago in state court, discussed below, the federal case seeks a declaration that government inaction violates the public trust. But in the federal case, plaintiffs added claims that their constitutional rights to life, liberty and property also are being violated.
The judge denied the government’s motion to dismiss on the basis that the matter is a political question better left to Congress. Magistrate Judge Thomas M. Coffin reasoned that the pleadings were adequate on their face and that the substantive issues raised by the defendants should await motions for summary judgment or trial. Still, the judge gave hope to the plaintiffs, which, I think will be short lived. Climate change is simply too big, diffuse and complex an issue for the courts to try to fashion a remedy around.
This same group of plaintiffs has had mixed success in pursuing its objectives at the state level. In June 2014 I posted about the Oregon Court of Appeals reversing and remanding a trial court’s dismissal of a similar claim against the state. The appellate court concluded that the plaintiffs were entitled to a determination whether the atmosphere is a public trust resource and whether Oregon state government had breached its fiduciary responsibility by not adequately protecting it. On remand, Lane County Circuit Court Judge Karsten H. Rasmussen granted the state summary judgment and dismissed the suit with prejudice. The case is now again pending before the Court of Appeals.
In his 19-page opinion, Judge Rasmussen concluded that the public trust does not extend to the atmosphere. The contours of the public trust are a matter of state common law, and Oregon law ties the public trust to title and restraints on alienation. The court concluded that there could be no title in the atmosphere and therefore public trust fiduciary obligations do not exist. The court also noted that traditional public trust resources, such as submerged lands, are exhaustible, which under Oregon law confers a fiduciary responsibility on the state. While the atmosphere may be altered or even damaged, the court found that it is not exhaustible.
The court added the following thought, which I think will guide the U.S. District Court when it hears the current case:
The Plaintiffs effectively ask the Court to do away with the Legislature entirely on the issue of GHG emissions on the theory that the Legislature is not doing enough. If "not doing enough" were the standard for judicial action, individual judges would regularly be asked to substitute their individual judgment for the collective judgment of the Legislature, which strikes this Court as a singularly bad and undemocratic idea.
Watch this space for further developments in Oregon state and federal courts.
Posted on April 13, 2016
Late last week, Magistrate Judge Thomas Coffin concluded that the most recent public trust case, which seeks an injunction requiring the United States to take actions to reduce atmospheric CO2 concentrations to 350 parts per million by 2100, should not be dismissed.
The complaint here is similar to, but broader than, others of its ilk. As we noted previously, at least one federal court has already held that there is no public trust in the atmosphere. Perhaps in response to that case, the plaintiffs here appear to have focused their arguments on the government’s public trust responsibilities with respect to various waters of the United States, though the opinion does not make clear precisely what the complaint alleges to be the subject of the public trust obligation.
The plaintiffs not only allege that the United States has violated its public trust obligations, but that that violation in turn constitutes a violation of the plaintiffs’ substantive due process rights. Magistrate Judge Coffin takes pains to make clear that this is only about a motion to dismiss, but I still think he got it wrong.
Indeed, I think that Magistrate Judge Coffin ignored that well known latin maxim: “Oportet te quasi ludens loqui.” (Which is how the on-line translator I used translated “You must be joking.” I hereby disclaim any warranty that this is even close to correct.)
Call me old-fashioned, but I believe in judicial restraint. And that applies to everyone. Traditionally, conservatives have accused liberals of judicial activism. To my totally objective mind, in recent years at least, it is the conservative judges who could more fairly be called activist. For one case, at least, the shoe seems to be back on its original foot. I just cannot see this decision standing. The District Judge should reject Magistrate Judge Coffin’s Findings and Recommendation. If he or she doesn’t, this case is sufficiently novel and important to warrant interlocutory appeal, and the 9th Circuit should reverse. And if that doesn’t happen, it will be up to the eight (oops, I meant nine) members of the Supreme Court to get it right. One of them surely will.
Posted on February 19, 2016
Amid the finger-pointing, forced resignations, and mea culpas, a question has hovered over the Flint water crisis. What did staff at the Flint water plant say before the switch to Flint River water?
For months, Michigan’s governor Rick Snyder and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality have admitted mistakes but never quite explained why Flint switched from Lake Huron water to Flint River water without prior pilot studies. Critics assailed the saving-costs-at-the-expense-of-the-public-health attitude. Apologists apologized and promised remedial measures. But until last weekend, we did not know what the engineers and technicians who operate the Flint water plant thought of the switch.
On February 13, the Detroit Free Press reported that the Flint water lab supervisor questioned the switch. One week before the grandiose public ceremony celebrating the new era for Flint, the lab supervisor told DEQ he needed time to train staff and update monitoring to be ready to use Flint River water. He complained that higher-ups seemed to have their own agenda.
Like many members of this College, I have spent my career fighting the regulator attitude that “we’re the government experts—trust us” and being dismayed when courts blindly defer to an agency. But when faced with a choice, should we believe agency staff, or politicians and their flappers (see Gulliver’s Travels)? We should start by considering the views of the technical folks who take seriously their jobs to protect publichealth. We might get better policy.
From the Detroit Free Press, February 18, 2016
Posted on February 11, 2016
There is no safe blood lead level in children.
In following the inexplicable regulatory missteps in the Flint public water supply debacle, I could not help but think of the progress that has been made in removing lead from the environment and out of our children’s blood. In spending my professional career addressing environmental issues and problems from a state, federal and private practice perspective, I often have wondered what difference does it make. In the case of lead, we can actually measure our progress and success.
As a teenager, I filled my ‘54 Ford with regular leaded gasoline. Lead was not only in gasoline, it was everywhere. Recognizing the significant and often irreversible health effects of lead, regulatory programs were initiated at the federal, state, and local levels to “get the lead out.” The implementation of these programs reduced or eliminated lead from gasoline, foods and food packaging, house paint, water pipes, plumbing fixtures, and solder used in plumbing and drink cans.
Did these programs work? In 1978, approximately 13.5 million children aged 1-5 had blood lead levels (BLLs) greater than or equal to 10 micrograms per deciliter (ug/dL) of blood, which was until recently the level of concern recommended by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The recommended level is now 5 ug/dL. Also, back in the 70s, the average BLL was approximately 15 ug/dL. Black children and children living in low-income families were at greater risk.
We have come a long way from the 70s. The average BLL in children dropped to 1.4 ug/dL by 2008. Below is a table graphically demonstrating this dramatic decrease in BLLs. The table is based on data from National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, United States, 1971 – 2008, taken from a CDC report, Lead in Drinking Water and Human Blood Lead Levels in the United States, August 10, 2012.
As we beat ourselves up over the mistakes in Flint, we should take a moment to reflect on and be re-energized by the demonstrable success of these regulatory programs. What we have done has made a difference! Flint reminds us that more must still be done.
Timeline of lead poisoning prevention policies and blood lead levels in children aged 1–5 years, by year — National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, United States, 1971–2008
Posted on February 4, 2016
With busloads of concerned citizens from Flint and nearby cities gathered around the Rayburn House Office Building on February 3, environmental regulators and science experts appeared before the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform (Committee) to give testimony regarding lead contamination in Flint, Michigan’s public drinking water. As detailed in this recent NPR podcast, well worth the 40 minute listen, between 6,000 and 12,000 children are estimated to have elevated blood lead levels following the City’s drinking water source change from Detroit water to water from the Flint River in 2014.
How could a crisis like this have happened? While at first water policy groups were quick to highlight the nation’s aging water infrastructure and investment gap – EPA’s most recent estimate is that $384 billion is needed to assure safe drinking water from 2013 to 2030 – and certainly lead pipes to homes in older communities is a costly replacement problem – at the root of Flint was classic government dysfunction combined with assessments of safety that make sense to regulators but perhaps not to everyday people. At the hearing Joel Beauvais, acting Assistant Administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Water faced questions from Committee members about the Agency’s delayed response to the situation, while the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s acting Director Keith Creagh was to explain why state officials did not act to address contamination immediately. Both officials attributed the crisis to breakdown in communication between the agencies that inhibited officials’ swift action. What happened in Flint “was avoidable and should have never happened,” according to Beauvais; while Creagh’s testimony stated that “[w]e all share responsibility in the Flint water crisis, whether it’s the city, the state, or the federal government… We all let the citizens of Flint down.”
The hearing ultimately took on a forward look, noting a reaffirmed commitment to protecting public health. “We do have clear standards. We do have clear accountability, so we have a clear path forward, said Creagh. “We are working in conjunction with the city, the state and federal government to ensure it doesn’t happen again.” Beauvais noted “it is imperative that Michigan, other states, EPA and drinking water system owners and operators nationwide work together and take steps to ensure that this never happens again.”
EPA and Michigan state and local officials are now in non-stop mode to ensure that prompt, concerted efforts are taken to address public health hazards. Members of Congress are introducing bills to fund Flint’s systems and to aid the affected citizens. Even philanthropic groups are stepping in. EPA’s Inspector General is doing a deep dive into the Agency’s response, Michigan Governor Snyder is seeking answers, and even the Federal Bureau of Investigation is looking into criminal aspects of the matter. Flint’s drinking water will get better – and yet the affected population may never fully recover from their excessive lead exposures.
The #FlintWaterCrisis is a sober reminder of the need to keep the nexus between environmental quality regulation and public health protection very tight. As professionals in the environmental field, we cannot fear having frank conversations in the open about risks – and the importance of taking precautionary steps – when human health is at issue.
Posted on January 28, 2016
Our friend Seth Jaffe wrote a very interesting blog on January 20, “Does the Paris Agreement Provide EPA With Authority Under the CAA to Impose Economy-Wide GHG Controls? Count Me Skeptical.” It took issue with a paper that I co-authored with several other colleagues in academia in which we argue that Section 115 of the Clean Air Act provides the EPA with broad authority to implement a multi-state, multi-source, multi-gas regulatory system to reduce greenhouse gases.
The blog post agreed with our paper that it would be great if Section 115 provided this authority because it means EPA could implement an efficient, flexible, cross-sectoral approach to reducing greenhouse gases (GHGs).
However, Seth questioned our conclusion that Section 115 provides such authority because, in his view, courts are likely to conclude the “reciprocity” requirement in Section 115 could not be satisfied by the nonbinding emissions reduction commitments countries made in the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) they submitted for the Paris agreement concluded at the United Nations climate conference in December. In the words of blog post, “I think most judges would interpret the word ‘reciprocity’ in a statute to mean something that is legally-binding; otherwise, it doesn’t mean anything.” For several reasons, we disagree.
First, a reviewing court does not need to interpret what the word “reciprocity” means in Section 115, because Congress has explicitly defined it. Reciprocity is the title of Section 115(c), which provides:
"This section shall apply only to a foreign country which the Administrator determines has given the United States essentially the same rights with respect to the prevention or control of air pollution occurring in that country as is given that country by this section."
The only right given to a foreign country by Section 115 is a provision in Section 115(b) that states a foreign country affected by air pollution originating in the U.S. “shall be invited to appear at any public hearing” associated with the revision of a relevant portion of the state implementation plan to address the pollutant. In short, Section 115 specifies that reciprocity means the foreign countries in question need to have given the U.S. “essentially the same rights” as are given by Section 115, and the only right provided in Section 115 is the procedural right to appear at a hearing.
Understanding the legislative history helps explain why the focus of the reciprocity requirement is on a procedural right. As we explain in detail in the paper, Section 115 was a procedural provision when it was first enacted in 1965: if pollution from the U.S. was endangering other countries, the other countries had a right to participate in abatement conferences where potential responses would be discussed, not a right to insist on actual emission reductions. Although Congress amended the provision in the 1977 Clean Air Amendments to replace the abatement conference with federal and state action through the Section 110 state implementation plan process, the reciprocity language in Section 115(c) was not changed, leaving it with its procedural test.
Second, we note in our paper that the Paris agreement contains a new set of procedures through which countries that join the agreement will be able to review and provide input on each other’s respective emissions reductions plans. To the extent a court might conclude that such procedural rights must be "legally binding," then the Paris agreement satisfies that test because although the emission reduction targets themselves that were submitted in the INDCs will not be legally enforceable by other countries, the procedural elements of the Paris agreement will be binding international law.
We note in the paper that although Paris provides a strong basis to satisfy Section 115 reciprocity, that reciprocity could also be satisfied by other international arrangements that the United States has with a variety of countries, particularly Mexico and Canada, the EU, and China.
Third, the blog post does not engage the issue of procedural reciprocity; rather it focuses on a substantive view of reciprocity (i.e. that reciprocity requires that other countries are actually reducing emissions of GHGs) and asserts that substantive reciprocity requirement could not be met by the internationally non-binding commitments made in the INDCs. Although we believe that the correct reading of Section 115 is that it only requires procedural reciprocity, we recognize that a court could conclude that Section 115 also implicitly includes a substantive reciprocity requirement. In the first instance, we noted that this requirement might be met by the international law principle sic utere tuo ut alienum non laedus, which directs nations to avoid causing significant injuries to the environment of other nations, most recently explained in the International Court of Justice’s Pulp Mills case.
The author skips over this element to focus his skepticism that the reciprocity requirement could be satisfied by non-binding commitments in the INDCs. But actually the U.S. and other countries have made reciprocally non-binding commitments in their INDCs. That is, the U.S. has made an international political commitment to reduce emissions a certain amount, and has received essentially the same rights in the non-binding international commitments from other countries to reduce emissions.
Someone could argue that the U.S. INDC may be non-binding, but Section 115 is domestic law in the U.S. and substantive reciprocity cannot exist unless other countries also have domestic laws requiring emission reductions. If this is the test, however, it can also be met. In fact, the INDCs submitted by other countries identified the binding domestic laws through which the INDCs would be implemented. We did not focus on this aspect in our paper, but some examples are: (1) the United States identified the Clean Air Act and other laws and regulations “relevant to implementation” of the U.S. commitment; (2) China identified the measures that had been incorporated into domestic law and regulation through previous five-year plans, and outlined a variety of policies and strategies that would be incorporated into subsequent five-year plans to implement their emissions commitment; and (3) the EU noted that the necessary legislation to implement its target was being introduced to the EU parliament in 2015 and 2016. Therefore, if “legally binding” domestic laws are required to find reciprocity under Section 115, EPA could reasonably examine the legally binding provisions in other countries’ domestic systems to find that reciprocity.
To summarize, our view is that Section 115 likely requires only procedural reciprocity. If a court concluded Section 115 required substantive reciprocity, then EPA could reasonably find that requirement met through the reciprocal political commitments that the U.S. and other countries made in Paris as well as through the binding domestic laws and regulations in the U.S. and other countries that will implement the commitments.
We look forward to further dialog on this topic, which we think is an important part of unlocking this powerful, untapped tool that the EPA possesses to design an efficient and flexible system to reduce GHGs.
Posted on January 27, 2016
In an excellent December 21st blog post (“Are Obama’s Climate Pledges Really that ‘Legally Durable’?”) Richard Stoll questions two of the premises behind my assessment of the legal durability of U.S pledges at the recent Paris climate conference. In particular he challenges my conclusions that EPA’s Clean Power Plan is likely to survive judicial review and that its repeal by a new president would require a lengthy rulemaking process that could be rejected on judicial review.
First, he correctly notes that “EPA’s authority to regulate GHG emissions is not at issue in the challenges now pending in the D.C. Circuit.” But my belief that the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan ultimately will be upheld in the Supreme Court is not founded principally on the Court’s repeated affirmation of Massachusetts v. EPA. My reasons for believing the Clean Power Plan ultimately will be upheld are discussed in detail here. I agree that it will be close, probably 5-4, with Justice Kennedy likely casting the deciding vote.
Second, Stoll argues that a new administration is free to reverse course and that there is no heightened scrutiny from reviewing courts when it seeks to do so. I agree entirely. In fact, that is precisely what the Supreme Court held in Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Ass’n v. State Farm, the case cited in my initial posting. In fact, State Farm is the very case the D.C. Circuit relied on when it applied those long-settled principles in National Association of Home Builders v. EPA, the case Stoll cites.
But the State Farm case also provides a powerful lesson that a new administration must have a good reason for changing course beyond knee-jerk opposition to federal regulation. In State Farm the new Reagan administration sought to rescind a regulation by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) that required passive restraints in new automobiles. Like the Clean Power Plan, the regulation had been the subject of considerable political controversy and it was bitterly opposed by the auto industry. Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca had famously endorsed the notion that air bags were more suited to serve as a method of capital punishment than as safety devices. The Supreme Court later observed that “the automobile industry waged the regulatory equivalent of war against the airbag and lost.”
Less than one month after taking office, the Reagan administration reopened the passive restraint rulemaking. Two months later it postponed the effective date of the passive restraint regulation and proposed its rescission. The White House Press Office announced the decision, describing it as part of a package of “economic recovery” measures. After a six-month rulemaking, NHTSA rescinded the passive restrain regulation, despite the agency’s previous estimate that it would save 12,000 lives per year and prevent more than 100,000 serious injuries annually.
When NHTSA’s decision was challenged in the D.C. Circuit, the prevailing assumption was that “arbitrary and capricious” review was so toothless that it rarely could be used to overturn an agency’s decision. Instead, the D.C. Circuit panel struck down the rescission decision by announcing a new standard of judicial review – that sudden reversals of course by an agency required heightened judicial scrutiny. [State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. v. Department of Transportation, 680 F.2d 206 (D.C. Cir. 1982), affirmed on other grounds 463 U.S. 29 (1983)].
The Supreme Court then granted review. The Justices unanimously rejected the D.C. Circuit’s conclusion that a new administration’s sudden change of course required heightened judiciary scrutiny. But the Court surprised most observers by declaring NHTSA’s rescission of the rule to be arbitrary and capricious. In an opinion by Justice White, the Court held that NHTSA had “failed to present an adequate basis and explanation for rescinding the passive restraint requirement . . .”
What State Farm powerfully illustrates is that a new administration cannot simply impose its ideological preference for less regulation to quickly rescind a rule as the Reagan administration tried to do to eliminate passive restraint requirements. The auto industry then was as vehement in its opposition to air bags as states opposing EPA’s Clean Power Plan are now. But because the record supported the extraordinary life-saving potential of airbags, the Court held that the regulation could not be repealed without the agency coming up with a new record or a better explanation for doing so. Due to this surprising Supreme Court decision hundreds of thousands of lives have been saved and millions of serious injuries prevented.
To be sure, the Supreme Court did not order that air bags be required. Rather it required the agency to offer more than ideological opposition to regulation as a justification for repealing the rule. Archival research I conducted in the papers of the late Justice Thurgood Marshall revealed a memorandum from Justice White stating that for at least one aspect of its decision he doubted that NHTSA on remand “would find it too difficult to cover its tracks based on the present record.” I agree with Stoll that a new administration could repeal the Clean Power Plan. But State Farm cautions that it should not act too hastily if it wishes such a decision to withstand judicial review.
In the wake of the State Farm decision both President Reagan and Lee Iacocca eventually changed their minds about the merits of air bags. The fascinating story of how Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole helped persuade President Reagan that air bags should be required is told in Michael R. Lemov, Car Safety Wars: One Hundred Years of Technology, Politics and Death (2015). Perhaps today’s fierce opponents of EPA’s Clean Power Plan ultimately will have a similar epiphany concerning the merits of the Clean Power Plan and the transition to a greener energy infrastructure.
Posted on January 20, 2016
In a very interesting article, Michael Burger of the Sabin Center and his co-authors suggest that, following the Paris climate agreement, § 115 of the Clean Air Act provides authority for EPA to develop economy-wide GHG emissions reduction regulations that would be more comprehensive and efficient than EPA’s current industry-specific approach. And what, you may ask, is § 115? Even the most dedicated “airhead” has probably never worked with it.
Section 115 provides that, where EPA determines that emissions from the US are endangering public health or welfare in a foreign country, it may require SIP revisions sufficient to eliminate the endangerment – but only so long as there is “reciprocity”, i.e., the foreign country:
"has given the United States essentially the same rights with respect to the prevention or control of air pollution occurring in that country as is given that country by this section."
I love the idea. An economy-wide regime would be much more efficient. I wish that the argument made sense to me, but it does not.
The authors state that a global treaty could provide reciprocity, but then argue that “less binding commitments, including political commitments, should also suffice.” Thus, they conclude, the “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions”, or INDCs, which are the basis of the Paris Agreement, can provide reciprocity. Can you say “ipse dixit“?
They provide no precedent for this, because, as they acknowledge, § 115 has never been used. EPA started to use it once, and the authors provide two letters from then-Administrator Costle, suggesting that legally binding reciprocity is not required. However, EPA dropped the plan and the two letters were not finally agency action and were never subject to judicial review. Otherwise, the arguments simply seems to be that EPA can cloak itself in Chevron deference and that that is the end of the story.
Sorry, I don’t buy it. We’re talking about the law here. I think most judges would interpret the word “reciprocity” in a statute to mean something that is legally-binding; otherwise, it doesn’t mean anything. I don’t think it’s even a close enough question that Chevron deference will get EPA over the finish line.
The illogic of the authors’ argument seems to me to be demonstrated by their own words, when they argue reciprocity can’t mean a legally binding agreement, because that would mean that the foreign nations would be able to go to court to ensure that the US also meets its commitments under the Paris agreement, and the US would never allow that. But that’s precisely the point! Because there is no treaty, and the US would not let other nations try to enforce the US commitments under Paris, we cannot enforce theirs, and there is no reciprocity.
I wish it were otherwise.
Posted on December 4, 2015
Nearly 15 years have passed since the EPA effectively banned the residential use of the pesticide chlorpyrifos (often marketed under the name Dursban), which causes brain damage in children. Kids were exposed at home when they played on pesticide-treated rugs, or hugged pets wearing flea collars containing chlorpyrifos. Yet the agency’s decision left farmworkers and children in rural areas unprotected, as chlorpyrifos was still allowed in agriculture (often marketed under the name Lorsban). This organophosphate pesticide was, and still is, one of the most widely used in agriculture.
Last month, after a decision by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that called the EPA's delay "egregious," the EPA at last proposed to ban most agricultural uses of this toxic pesticide. If the ban on food use applications is finalized -- and it will surely be fought by the agricultural industry-- it will be a major victory for public health and farm communities.
Back in 2007, Earthjustice (which under full disclosure is my employer) began legal action to protect children, farmworkers, and rural communities from chlorpyrifos. Despite the clear evidence of harm, more than five million pounds of toxic chlorpyrifos were still being sprayed every year on soybeans, fruit and nut orchards, and other crops, putting hundreds of thousands of people at risk of exposure. Farmworkers who handled chlorpyrifos, even with safety gear, had been poisoned. (The new farmworker protection standards, which required more vigilant training and monitoring, among other things, should reduce such harms.) Their children risked exposure at home, as chemicals can linger on clothing. Not only farmworker communities, but anyone living downwind of farms could be exposed when the wind carried the toxic spray into their neighborhoods. Community monitoring even found chlorpyrifos in schoolyards.
The EPA was failing to protect children from pesticide drift; nor did the agency recognize the growing body of peer-reviewed, published research that found children exposed to the pesticide in the womb had serious brain impairments, including lower IQs and attention deficit disorder.
Over the next nine years, the EPA repeatedly missed deadlines to respond to the petition, and it relied on a questionable exposure model created by Dow, the manufacturer of the pesticide. (In 1995, Dow was fined $732,000 by the EPA for concealing more than 200 reports of poisoning related to chlorpyrifos.)
Only in response to multiple lawsuits, and a court decision that set a mandatory deadline for response, did the EPA at last take action. The public comment process and the finalization of the rule still remain, but at least the process has started. This is a great step forward. Moreover, the EPA is also reviewing all organophosphate pesticides, which are used in the United States and worldwide on a wide variety of crops from corn to cotton to nuts. The decision on chlorpyrifos should set a strong example.
Posted on December 3, 2015
Now six years old, the New Jersey Site Remediation Reform Act, (“SRRA”) was intended (among other things), to privatize most site remediation in the State. To that end, it empowers private, licensed individuals called “Licensed Site Remediation Professionals” (“LSRPs”), to conduct most site remediations and issue the administrative imprimatur of remediation completion (“Response Action Outcomes” or “RAOs”), without prior New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (“NJDEP” or “DEP”) approval. Before SRRA was enacted, such certification was the exclusive province of the NJDEP.
The SRRA mandates LSRPs “exercise individual professional judgment”, which, in the view of LSRPs, actually empowers them to use such judgment. Underlying DEP regulations, however, require persons responsible for conducting remediations (i.e., the LSRP’s clients) to follow “any available and appropriate technical guidance concerning site remediation issued” by NJDEP, or provide a “written rationale and justification for any deviation from guidance.” In a blog posted June 20, 2013 dealing with a then-newly issued, quite prescriptive vapor instrusion guidance, I raised concerns that that guidance could indicate DEP was seeking to limit the ability of LSRPs to exercise professional judgment, by invoking the regulatory requirement to follow “guidance” (See A Case of the Vapors – Does New Jersey’s Newest Vapor Intrusion Technical Guidance Foreshadow a Return to the “Old Days” of Environmental Regulation in New Jersey?). Although detailed “guidance” is not promulgated by DEP in accordance with the same notice and comment process as are regulations – it can nonetheless constrain LSRPs from following the SRRA’s individual judgment mandate.
Unfortunately, more recent events seem to indicate NJDEP is, in fact, following such a restrictive policy. Whether it is doing so wittingly is open to question.
In fact, the DEP has found new ways to circumscribe the ability of LSRPs to perform remediations that do not follow DEP’s preferred script. For example, many remediated sites in New Jersey are subject to “restricted use” remedies which, most often, bar residential and similar uses of a site, in return for lesser cleanup standards. Such restrictions are most often accompanied by an “Institutional Control” containing a “use” prohibition and, often entail an “Engineering Control”, such as a cap. Both Institutional and Engineering Controls must be embodied in “deed notices” which must be filed in local property records. Ostensibly to ensure continuation of funding for such controls, SRRA established a requirement for obtaining Remedial Action Permits for soil, groundwater, or both, as a pre-condition to issuance of an RAO for the remedial action selected by the LSRP. Recently however, it appears that DEP has adopted a policy which holds that it must examine the entire remedy of a site for which controls are required before such permits will be issued, notwithstanding the fact that such sites will be the subject of an RAO provided by the LSRP. Such a review of remedies selected by the LSRP for RAOs on every site for which a Remedial Action Permit is required is antithetical to both the letter and spirit of the SRRA: it simply reproduces the pre-SRRA DEP way of doing things for such sites.
The LSRP community perceives this course of conduct by DEP as undermining LSRPs’ ability to exercise professional judgment, one of the key aspects (to them) of LSRP rights under the SRRA. Thus, there is talk of seeking the State legislature’s consideration of passage of an SRRA “2.0” that will curb these and other contrary policies initiated by the DEP. But the problem would seem to be one that cannot be addressed by legislation alone. That is, one wonders how any legislation, however mandatory or precise, can negate what is essentially an (understandable) antipathy by DEP personnel to a law that curbs their power and threatens to render many aspects of their programs superfluous.
One of the goals of the SRRA was to ameliorate the injury done to New Jersey’s image by the perception that the DEP was a rigid, unreasonable, and delay-ridden institution, constituting one reason why the State’s business climate has often been annually ranked at or near the bottom when compared to other states. Any return to the DEP’s prior “command and control” site remediation regime is contrary to that goal; but the old system is not going away gently, if it is going away at all.
Posted on December 2, 2015
Last week, the Boston Globe had an op-ed by Joshua Goldstein and Steven Pinker concerning some “Inconvenient truths for the environmental movement.” I’m sorry to say that I agree with pretty much every word of it. Why am I sorry? Because Goldstein and Pinker make clear – even though they don’t mention his name – that the Pope was completely wrong in his prescription for addressing climate change. How so? It’s really pretty straightforward.
People want more economic development, not less. They want more markets, not less. It may be that some wealthy societies could still have a relatively smooth transition to renewable fuels without sacrificing economic growth. Unfortunately, that’s not where we have to address the demand for fossil fuels. We have to do so in China and India and other developing countries. I’m sorry, but I’ve seen the projected demand for fossil fuels outside the US and Europe and it’s not pretty. Anyone who thinks that we can quickly and easily eliminate fossil fuel use in those countries and still allow them the economic growth that their citizens demand is delusional.
Which brings us to Goldstein’s and Pinker’s second inconvenient truth; nuclear power has to be a large part of the solution. And I’m afraid that’s probably the end of the conversation for many of my environmental friends, so I’ll cut this short.
I’m still an optimist. I believe that we can still solve climate change. We can do so however, with more use of markets, not less. And we must do so with more economic growth, not less, because the rest of the world won’t be satisfied with less.
Posted on October 23, 2015
So the Clean Power Plan has been published in the Federal Register. For those who cannot get enough, you can find all of the important materials, including EPA’s Technical Support Documents, on EPA’s web site for the CPP.
Not surprisingly, given the number of suits brought before the CPP was even finalized, opponents were literally lining up at the courthouse steps to be the first to sue. West Virginia apparently won the race and is the named plaintiff in the main petition filed so far.
Perhaps because Oklahoma has been one of the most persistent, and vocal, opponents of the CPP, this called to mind the origin of the Sooner State’s nickname – which seems particularly apt, since Oklahoma was one of the states that couldn’t wait for the rule to be promulgated to sue.
Oklahoma is not actually among the plaintiffs in the West Virginia suit. Oklahoma filed its own petition today. One wonders whether Oklahoma was banished from playing with the other states as a result of its impatience. Unlikely, since most of those in the West Virginia suit also filed early, but it did call to mind that other famous event in the history of the west, as recorded in Blazing Saddles.
Posted on October 9, 2015
Does this make sense to you? Eighteen states petitioned the Sixth Circuit to challenge the new rule adopted by EPA and the Corps of Engineers defining “waters of the United States” under the Clean Water Act. Then the petitioners move the court to dismiss their own petition for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, but at the same time request a stay of the rule. And then, the court acknowledges it may not have jurisdiction but issues the stay anyway! That is exactly what Sixth Circuit did in the case published today.
This case is among many seeking to block the rule. The Clean Water Act confers original jurisdiction upon the circuit courts for challenges to “effluent limitations or other limitations.” But as reported earlier in this space, thirteen states convinced a federal district judge in North Dakota that he had jurisdiction because the WOTUS rule is merely definitional, and neither an effluent nor other limitation.
The court concluded that petitioners have a good chance at prevailing on the merits, that the rule exceeds “guidance” given by the Supreme Court in extending CWA jurisdiction too broadly. The court also indicated that the final rule may have strayed too far from the notice given in the proposed rule in its definitions of jurisdictional waters.
The majority was not troubled by the fact the parties are still briefing subject matter jurisdiction, finding that it had plenty of authority to preserve the status quo pending a jurisdictional determination. The dissent took the view that the proper sequence is to first decide jurisdiction, then decide on a national stay of a rule years in the making. Pants first, then shoes.
Did the majority consider the situation an emergency that required immediate action? No, the court found that petitioners were not persuasive that irreparable harm would occur without a stay, but neither could the court find any harm with freezing implementation of the rule. The reasoning seems to be that we’ve muddled through so far, let’s take a step back and consider all the implications before implementation.
Why do the states prefer to go after the rule in the district courts instead of the circuit courts of appeal? Maybe they believe they can forum shop to find conservative judges and build a favorable body of case law before appealing. Or maybe they believe they can more directly attack the science underlying the rule or otherwise augment the administrative record. Whatever the reasons, the ultimate return of this issue to the Supreme Court will be delayed and the law dealing with regulation of wetland fills will remain as confused as ever.
Posted on September 15, 2015
Few recognize Ohio’s pivotal role in the development of the oil and gas industry in the United States. John D. Rockefeller amassed fortunes in Cleveland with his oil refining business (until Uncle Sam broke up the monopoly). Since then, there have been a number of different oil and gas booms in the state, for example in the mid-1960’s north of Columbus, then again in deeper sandstone formations in suburban areas of Cleveland approximately 10 years ago, and now, the whopping Utica shale play primarily in eight counties in eastern Ohio at depths over 8000 feet below ground surface and horizontal laterals extending a mile or more. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources (“ODNR”) has issued over 2000 Utica drilling permits, and there are approximately 1000 wells in production or drilling (costing millions to complete). Hydraulic fracturing (“fracking” its critics pejoratively call it) has been around a long time, but only recently has it been the focus of media and regulatory scrutiny. All of these historical booms going back to the mid-1960’s have forced the Ohio General Assembly to enact and update comprehensive statutes that regulate drilling activities.
Those in the industry were successful in having the General Assembly confer “sole and exclusive authority” to the ODNR “to regulate the permitting, location, and spacing of oil and gas wells and production operations.” But what about the longstanding, traditional “home rule powers” that the Ohio Constitution conferred on municipalities to take care of health, safety and land-use matters within their jurisdictions? The juxtaposition of the two came to a head in a case that ironically does not deal with the massive Utica shale wells, but more modest gas wells in a shallower formation in a suburb in Northern Ohio.
The ODNR had issued a drilling permit to Beck Energy to drill a well in Munroe Falls in 2011. But Munroe Falls obtained a local trial court injunction prohibiting the permitted drilling until Beck Energy complied with all local ordinances, including the payment of a fee, the posting of a bond, and the holding of a public meeting. Despite having the state’s authorization to proceed, Munroe Falls prohibited the drilling until it issued its zoning certificate, which it would not do (if at all) for at least one year after Beck met the other pre-conditions.
The dispute found its way to the Ohio Supreme Court, which issued a “plurality” opinion (4-3) in favor of Beck Energy (and the ODNR). State ex rel. Morrison v. Beck Energy Corp. The City argued that the state statute regulates the technical aspects of oil and gas drilling while the municipal ordinances address traditional local zoning concerns. The majority seemed troubled by the scope of the “sole and exclusive” language, but seemed content to defer this policy question to the General Assembly. Because the traditional Home Rule powers have enjoyed longstanding and wide ranging judicial respect, the majority in the Beck Energy case limited the decision to the Munroe Falls ordinances before the Court, presumably leaving open some future role for local zoning ordinances.
The initial reaction of the bar was to focus on the separate concurring opinion of Justice O’Donnell, who was reluctant to displace local zoning authority in favor of sweeping state regulatory authority. In his view, the “sole and exclusive” authority was intended to preempt a patchwork of local laws related to the technical and safety aspects of drilling and not to divest local governments of their traditional authority to promulgate zoning regulations that ensure land-use compatibility, preserve property values, and foster long-term community development plans. The dissenting Justices, along with Justice O’Donnell, noted the troubling omission of the word “zoning” when the General Assembly spoke to “exclusivity.” That is to say, if the General Assembly really meant to displace local zoning practices, it could have clearly said so, as it has done with other licensing statutes.
The Ohio Supreme Court’s decision has not put an end to the hotly contested question of the scope of pre-emption. For example, an activist group in suburban Broadview Heights has filed a putative class action lawsuit claiming that the City’s Community Bill of Rights supersedes state laws. And recently, the Ohio Secretary of State refused to certify county-wide ballot initiatives that sought to prohibit fracking and/ or drilling in their respective jurisdictions.
So after I finish this blog tonight, I will drive down Rockefeller Drive, pass the remains of the old Standard Oil refinery, and wonder what John D would have thought of this tension between state preemption and local health and safety regulations.
Posted on September 10, 2015
On Wednesday, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the latest effort to stay EPA’s Clean Power Plan before it has even been promulgated in the Federal Register. The Court simply stated that “petitioners have not satisfied the stringent standards that apply to petitions for extraordinary writs that seek to stay agency action.”
Really? Tell me something I did not know.
I’m sorry. The CPP is a far-ranging rule. There are strong legal arguments against its validity. Those arguments may prevail. I see it as about a 50/50 bet. This I do know, however. The sky isn’t falling. The sky won’t fall, even for West Virginia, if the rule is affirmed and implemented. Those opposed to regulation have made these arguments from time immemorial – certainly no later than when Caesar tried to regulate the amount of lead in Roman goblets. And if I’ve got that one wrong, at least no later than Ethyl Corporation v. EPA, when opponents of EPA’s rulemaking on leaded gasoline thought that the rule would mean the end of western civilization.
I’m not naïve. I understand that these arguments are political as well as legal. I just think that opponents of EPA rulemaking undermine their own political position in the long run by repeatedly predicting catastrophe, even though catastrophe never arrives.
Posted on September 9, 2015
California’s “Proposition 65” warning requirements have long been a major concern for businesses that want their products offered for sale in the State’s large marketplace. Businesses whose products contain even a detectable amount of any one of more than 900 chemicals often face enforcement lawsuits brought by for-profit plaintiffs unless their products contain a “clear and reasonable” Proposition 65 warning. Short of eliminating the chemical entirely, the only way for businesses to immunize themselves from such claims has been for companies to label or display their products with a generic warning based on language set forth in the original Proposition 65 regulations. It usually states: “WARNING: This product contains chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm.”
Three new developments threaten to make Proposition 65 less predictable and more difficult.
1) New Proposition 65 Warning Regulations Proposed for Adoption: Earlier this year, the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (“OEHHA”) formally proposed an extensive set of new rules concerning the requirements for Proposition 65 warnings to be deemed “clear and reasonable.” While Proposition 65’s current regulations allow for compliance with its warning requirements through the type of generic, one sentence statement appearing above, the proposed regulations will, among other things, require:
a. use of a yellow triangle pictogram containing an exclamation point;
b. a more unequivocal warning statement indicating that the product “can expose” a user to chemicals known to the State to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm;
c. listing particular chemicals if they are among a group of twelve which are the most frequent targets of Proposition 65 litigation;
d. adding a URL to all warnings linking a public website that OEHHA will operate to provide information supplementing the warning for those so interested (see below); and
e. presentation of the warning in languages in addition to English if the product label otherwise uses languages other than English.
The proposed new Proposition 65 warning regulations specify alternative and additional requirements for certain types of products, including for food, restaurants, and several products or facilities that have previously been the subject of enforcement litigation. They also adopt revised and more onerous requirements for warnings for “environmental exposures,” such as for air emissions that arise from the operation of facilities or equipment within the State. As proposed, businesses will have two years from the adoption of a final rule to transition their warnings to meet the requirements of the new regulation, after which they can face enforcement actions and citizen’s suits for products in the California market that still bear the old (or no) warnings.
2) New Proposition 65 Website-Related Requirements Proposed for Adoption: Although not contemplated by the voters when they approved Proposition 65 over twenty-five years ago, OEHHA is also proposing that it operate a website to provide information to the public to supplement and explain the basis for the Proposition 65 warnings given by businesses. Information to be provided on this website may include the routes or pathways by which exposure to a chemical from a product may occur, OEHHA’s quantification of the level of exposure to a chemical presented by a product, and other information that may be of interest to plaintiffs as well as to sensitive consumers and other members of the public.
Significantly, in addition to its potential public education function, the proposed website regulations also empower OEHHA to require that manufacturers, importers, and distributors of products bearing a Proposition 65 warning provide the agency with information if so requested. Such information may include the identities of the chemicals in the product for which a warning is being given, the location or components of a product in which such chemicals are present, the concentration of those chemicals, and “any other information the lead agency deems necessary.” While trade secret protection may be asserted in some circumstances, the requirement to provide information to OEHHA will be enforceable by public prosecutors, including the California Attorney General and District Attorneys.
3) Potential Changes Relative to Proposition 65’s “Safe Harbor” Levels for Chemicals Listed for Reproductive Effects: Lead has been the focus of the vast majority of all Proposition 65 enforcement actions to date and resulted in hundreds, if not thousands, of settlements with national and international implications over the past two decades. Cases have included those concerning trace levels of lead in ceramic tableware, water faucets, candy, mini-blinds, toys, and a wide array of other consumer products and foods. However, in 2013, a trial concerning lead in 100% fruit juices, packaged fruits, and baby foods resulted in a highly significant Proposition 65 defense verdict based on a judge’s finding that the trace levels of lead exposure presented by each of these products was less that the State’s published “safe harbor” warning threshold for lead of 0.5 “micrograms/day.” A California Court of Appeal decision published earlier this year sustained, among other things, the trial court’s finding that it was permissible for defendants’ experts to construct a daily average level of exposure based on real world data concerning the frequency of the consumption of the products at issue over a fourteen day time period. Environmental Law Foundation v. Beech-Nut Corporation, et al., 325 Cal.App.4th 307 (2015).
In anticipation of this type of appellate decision, earlier this year, one of the most historically active Proposition 65 plaintiff’s groups, the Mateel Environmental Justice Foundation, filed a lawsuit seeking a writ of mandate and declaratory relief challenging the 0.5 microgram/day “safe harbor” for lead. Mateel contends that California’s published threshold for lead was not set consistently with Proposition 65’s 1,000-fold safety factor requirement for reproductive toxicants. It therefore argues that this longstanding Proposition 65 safe harbor threshold should be declared illegal and inoperative despite it having been published more than 25 years ago and relied on for thousands of settlements and warning decisions. Mateel further argues in its case that OEHHA should be ordered to promptly establish a dramatically more stringent safe harbor level for lead based on updated science concerning trace level exposures to lead. It also seeks to have OEHHA ordered to adopt a rule precluding the averaging of exposure across multiple days in relation to the lead safe harbor level. A second prominent citizen’s group, the Center for Environmental Health, which also focuses on Proposition 65 enforcement, submitted an administrative petition to OEHHA in early July seeking relief parallel to that sought by Mateel, regardless of the outcome of the lawsuit.
OEHHA has just announced that, in response to this petition, it will soon initiate a rulemaking to update the existing Proposition 65 safe harbor for lead and several related Proposition 65 regulations. The proposals include several major changes in the way the extent of exposure is calculated and how Proposition 65’s regulatory exemption for “naturally occurring” exemption for foods is determined. OEHHA’s new proposals essentially seek to nullify the important Beech-Nut precedents and will likely make it even more difficult for businesses to defend Proposition 65 claims about lead and the nearly 300 other chemicals listed for reproductive effects, especially those that may be present as trace contaminants in food products. OEHHA’s proposals include the following four elements:
A. Revised Safe Harbor for Lead and Other Chemicals. OEHHA proposes to repeal the current safe harbor level for lead (the Maximum Allowable Dose Level or MADL). In its place, OEHHA proposes multiple levels that depend on the frequency of exposure, from exposure once per day to once every 116 or more days. OEHHA asserts that the once-per-day figure should be reduced from 0.5 to 0.2 micrograms/day and that the existing 0.5 microgram/day level should instead apply only to exposures that occur no more than once every third day. For exposures that would occur only once every 6 to 9 days, the lead safe harbor figure would rise to 1.0 microgram/day and to higher amounts as exposure intervals become more infrequent. Plaintiffs’ groups contend that the lead safe harbor should be an order of magnitude lower at 0.03 micrograms per single day and do not want any alternative levels based on frequency of exposure over time. Despite its proposal for lead, as to all other chemicals listed for reproductive effects OEHHA proposes to eliminate any consideration of the frequency of exposure when safe harbor levels are applied.
B. Naturally Occurring Allowances for Lead and Arsenic in Some Foods. OEHHA also proposes to adopt specific naturally occurring allowances for lead and arsenic (but not other chemicals such as cadmium) in some specific types of food ingredients/products. The allowances for arsenic are 60 ppb and 130 ppb for white and brown rice respectively. For lead, they are 8.8 ppb for raw leafy vegetables and 6.2 ppb for raw non-leafy vegetables, fruit, meat, seafood, eggs, and fresh milk. The agency bases its proposal on data regarding background levels of lead in soil in California as well as rates of uptake by relevant plants.
C. Averaging of Product Samples. OEHHA further proposes to expressly prohibit averaging lead or other contaminant levels across different lots of a food product in the final form it will be purchased by a consumer. It would instead require that the level of a contaminant in a lot of food be determined by “representative sampling” from within a particular lot. OEHHA also would define a “lot” on a production basis, apparently by reference to date or production codes, which could significantly increase the amount of testing required. Testing on this scale may be infeasible for most businesses.
D. Average Rate of Exposure. Finally, OEHHA proposes to dictate that, as to any Proposition 65-listed chemical (lead or otherwise), the “average rate of exposure” must always be calculated based on the arithmetic mean and not a geometric mean or some other measure of the central tendency of a data set. OEHHA’s proposal flies directly in the face of the scientific testimony that prevailed in Beech-Nut and the prior position of the California Attorney General’s office on this issue.
OEHHA has scheduled public hearings to further discuss its new proposals on October 14 and 19, 2015. It is also inviting written public comment on the lead safe harbor issue until October 28, 2015, and on the averaging issues until November 2, 2015.