The Annual Texas Environmental Superconference—Austin in August?

Posted on June 26, 2017 by Jeff Civins

The Texas Environmental Superconference is one of a kind. Held each year in Austin in sweltering early August, this conference consistently sells out, attracting over 500 participants from the public and private sectors.Indeed, now in its 29th year, it was the winner of the first American Bar Association Section of Environment, Energy & Resources (ABA SEER) award for Best State or Local Bar Environment, Energy and Resources Program of the Year.

The key to the conference’s popularity is its unabashed willingness to integrate humor into content--with annual themes, skits, quizzes, prizes, and, for the past several years, even a conference song.Past themes have included Yogi Berra quotes (“It’s like déjà vu all over again”); Clichés (“The best thing since sliced bread”); Shakespeare (“Much Ado About Pollution”); “Star Wars (“May the farce be with you”); and Willie Nelson songs (“On the Road Again”).Dwarfing all other past conferences, though, was the Disney movie-themed conference, which featured the song “SuperconferenceAustinTexasExpialidocious” and is the subject of 2 You Tube videos. (introductory remarks and conference song).

Speakers generally weave the conference themes into their presentations and, on occasion, even appear in costume.For example, an EPA chief of enforcement appeared as Harry Truman in the politically-themed conference, “Join the Party,” and as Darth Vader, in the Star Wars-themed program. And an EPA General Counsel appeared as a tiara-wearing Wonder Woman in the super hero-themed program.A former EPA Regional Administrator and TCEQ Chairman appeared variously as the Beatles, the Odd Couple, Game Show contestants, and Yoda and Luke Skywalker.

This year’s conference – to be held on Thursday-Friday, August 4-5, 2017 – has as its theme board games and is entitled “Let the Games Begin.”The Wednesday evening session on enforcement is entitled “Trouble.”Registration is at Environmental Superconference-2017.

Participants look forward to attending each year for the chance not only to experience a fun and informative program, but also to network and to informally discuss issues of concern with other environmental professionals representing diverse perspectives, e.g., private and public sectors; regulators, regulated community, and environmental organizations; legal and technical professionals; and local, state, and federal governments.

The conference is organized by the Environmental and Natural Resources Law Section of the State Bar of Texas, in conjunction with other environmental professional organizations, including ABA SEER, the Air & Waste Management Association—Southwest Section, the Water Environment Association of Texas, the Texas Association of Environmental Professionals, and the Environmental Health and Safety Audit Center.Proceeds from the conference are used to fund environmental internships, student writing awards, and section outreach programs.

Thanks to a generous contribution from Supporter, EARTHx (formerly Earth Day Texas), the Superconference this year is offering –and last year offered--scholarships for employees of non-profit organizations with environmental matters as a significant focus.

The Annual Texas Environmental Superconference is the answer to the question, why come to Austin in early August?

The Cuyahoga River Makes News Again

Posted on May 11, 2017 by Michael Hardy

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

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

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

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

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

Jordan Cove LNG Project Scores Legal Victory

Posted on April 10, 2017 by Rick Glick

The Jordan Cove LNG project in Coos Bay, Oregon, prevailed in a legal challenge to a key permit.  The permit, issued by the Oregon Department of State Lands, allows dredge and fill work for a deep water ship channel.  In Coos Waterkeeper v. Port of Coos Bay, the Court of Appeals rejected that challenge and upheld the permit.

Petitioners’ main argument on appeal was that DSL’s permitting decision should have applied statutory environmental standards not only to the dredge and fill work, but also terminal operations after construction.  The court found this argument to lack merit, finding that DSL’s authority is limited to the “project,” defined in the statute and its legislative history as the dredge and fill work only. 

Petitioners also argued that DSL should have asserted permitting jurisdiction over complementary uplands excavation.  This work would initially be separated from the bay by a 40-foot berm, and then the berm would be removed to create the channel.  The court concluded that DSL jurisdiction would not apply to uplands work (i.e. above the high tide line), and that removal of the berm and flooding the affected uplands are within scope of the permit.

The politics of LNG development in Oregon are highly charged.  The Oregon LNG project was abandoned following election of a new county board of commissioners made up of project opponents.  Local opposition slowed down state regulatory review and the project never was tested against objective legal standards.  It is heartening to see that for the Jordan Cove project, which also is controversial, both the state agency and the court assessed the project as they would any other.  The politics are still there, but the rule of law in this instance rose above.

The outcome of this case highlights an anomaly in green Oregon.  Unlike our neighbors to the north and south, we have no mini-NEPA law.  If we did, the environmental effects of the Jordan Cove project taken as a whole would certainly have been part of the state permitting calculus.  Many bills to create a comprehensive environmental impact review process have been proposed, but none have taken hold.  With a Democratic controlled legislature and state house, it seems only a matter of time.

Earth Day Texas—People, Planet, and Profit—Key Legal Issues for a Protective and Productive Future

Posted on March 27, 2017 by Jeff Civins

On March 16th, Reuters reported that President Trump’s administration has proposed a 31 % cut to EPA’s budget, explaining: “Consistent with the President’s America’s First Energy Plan, the budget reorients the EPA’s air program to protect the air we breathe without unduly burdening the American economy.”  In this time of change and uncertainty, perhaps more than ever, there is a need for a measured dialog among diverse viewpoints. 

With over 130,000 participants attending last year’s  Earth Day Texas celebration in Dallas, its organizers decided a Legal Symposium of prominent representatives from environmental organizations, business, academia and the government might help policy makers grapple with fundamental environmental issues such as how best to balance economic development with environmental protection.  Several members of the College assisted the organizers in the development of that symposium.

On April 20-21, that Symposium will bring together those thought leaders to discuss: (1) how to integrate science into regulatory decision making; (2) how to reconcile energy and economic development with protection of public health and the environment; (3) how to facilitate environmental dispute resolution; and (4) how to integrate sustainability and ethical considerations into corporate decision-making. 

Consistent with the objective of having diverse viewpoints represented, the Thursday evening keynote speaker will be General Wesley K. Clark, discussing Climate Change as a Major Security Concern, and the Friday luncheon keynote speaker will be EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, discussing the new administration’s objectives and goals.  For further information and to register, go to http://earthdaytx.org/legal-symposium/.

Energy Storage and Transforming The Grid in New York

Posted on March 21, 2017 by Virginia C. Robbins

For those who support national and international climate change initiatives like the Clean Power Plan and the Paris Agreement, the news out of Washington is gut-wrenching.  Disengaging from these initiatives is harmful on geo-political, economic, and moral grounds.  Despite these expected actions by the current administration, there is good news in the renewables sector:  battery storage technology has the potential to be a strong contender in the fight against climate change. 

In October 2015, a leak at the Aliso Canyon gas storage facility outside Los Angeles caused it to shut down.  The leak reduced fuel supplies for area power plants.  In response, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) mandated mitigation measures, including the expedited procurement of about 100 megawatts (MW) of local energy storage resources in the Southern California Edison (SCE) and San Diego Gas & Electric (SDGE) service territories.  Renewable and other types of energy stored during the day would be available when electricity demand increased in the evening, thereby avoiding the need for increased fossil fuel generation to serve that peak need. 

The CPUC order directed utilities in Southern California to identify storage projects that could be sited, constructed, and put into operation providing electricity to the grid in only a few months.  Within 6 months after the CPUC issued its order, two battery storage facilities were completed.  SDGE contracted for the installation of two energy storage projects totaling 37.5 MW.  The larger 30 MW project in Escondido is said to be the biggest lithium ion battery storage facility in service on a utility grid in the world and is capable of serving 20,000 customers for four hours.  Also, Tesla completed a battery storage facility for SCE at the Mira Loma substation capable of powering about 15,000 homes for four hours.

These California energy storage projects are providing valuable “lessons learned” about the efficiency of battery technology, its benefits and limitations.  For example, building on these lessons, New York has established aggressive goals for meeting its electricity needs through renewable sources.  New York’s Governor Cuomo established a goal for 50 percent of the state’s electric needs to be met by renewable sources by 2030.  The strategy is to transform New York’s electric industry by building a cleaner, more resilient and affordable energy system through investment in clean technologies like solar, wind and energy efficiency.  And because wind and solar sources cannot always generate power during times of high electricity demand, energy storage must be a key component of the state’s energy future and more needs to be done for system operators to understand it and to develop the business models that will work.      

In October 2016, the New York Department of Public Service issued a Staff Report and Recommendations in the Value of Distributed Energy Resources Proceeding.  The goal of the proceeding is to develop accurate pricing for clean distributed energy resources (DERs) that reflects the actual value created by technologies that produce power outside of the utility grid (e.g., fuel cells, microturbines, and photovoltaics) and technologies that produce power or store power (e.g., batteries and flywheels) as well as demand-side measures.

The staff report supports including projects that pair any energy storage technology with an eligible generation facility to receive compensation under a proposed tariff.  The report also identifies a utility-driven demonstration project supporting solar-plus-storage.  Consolidated Edison Company of New York is currently pursuing a demonstration project that combines multiple solar plus storage systems to improve grid resiliency and provide a dispatchable “virtual power plant” that Con Edison can control and rely on in real time.  Con Edison is also pursuing grid-scale energy storage through a request for information seeking to demonstrate how large-scale utility storage can improve company operations, and establish how a singular type of energy storage can offer multiple kinds of value.   

Also, at its March 9, 2017 session, New York’s Public Service Commission (PSC) enacted a new compensation structure to value DERs installed in New York.  The order establishes compensation values for the first time in New York for energy storage (battery) systems when combined with certain types of DERs.  In addition, the PSC directed the state’s utilities to significantly increase the scope and speed of their energy storage endeavors.  By the end of 2018, each utility must have deployed and begun operating energy storage projects at no fewer than two separate distribution substations or feeders.  The Commission tasked the utilities with striving to perform at least two types of grid functions with the deployed energy resources, for example, increasing hosting capacity and peak load reduction.  The Commission stated that these actions are both feasible and necessary to promote timely development of a modern grid capable of managing DERs.   

These developments promise good outcomes for the deployment of energy storage, for environmental protection and for consumers.  They may also play a role in the planned shutdown (by 2021) of the Indian Point nuclear power facility, that has the capacity to generate more than 2000 MW of electricity and that serves about 25% of the energy needs of New York City and Westchester.  At a recent legislative hearing on the Indian Point shutdown, state officials discussed making up for the lost energy by efficiency programs and by encouraging opportunities for renewable, non-polluting sources like solar, wind and hydropower.  Their focus on renewables bodes well for further investment in energy storage as a component of reliable service using a resilient distribution system.  The battery storage “lessons learned” in Southern California in resolving the gas leak crisis may be valuable to New York State in planning for the shutdown of Indian Point.