Wisconsin continues to be the playground of Tea-Party efforts to minimize the power of government, particularly in the environmental arena. On May 10, 2016, the Wisconsin Attorney General opined that the Department of Natural Resources (“WDNR”) does not have the authority under state law to impose monitoring wells or cumulative impact conditions on high capacity well permits. Insert A.PDF
In 2011, Governor Scott Walker and the Republican legislature passed “Act 21,” which contains a “limited government” provision prohibiting agencies from implementing or enforcing “any standard, requirement, or threshold” in a permit, unless the language “is explicitly required or explicitly permitted by statute or by a rule…” Wis. Stat. § 227.10 (2m) Insert B.PDF
The Attorney General’s Opinion carefully argues that a contrary state Supreme Court opinion issued shortly after the passage of Act 21 is distinguishable. In Lake Beulah Management District v. State of Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Supreme Court found in 2011 that the WDNR had the statutory authority under state law and a general duty to consider the impacts of a high capacity well on the nearby Lake Beulah. The Court also held that the applicable statute constituted a broad legislative grant of the public trust duty to the agency in the context of high capacity well regulation, and upheld the WDNR’s permit.
The Attorney General’s Opinion asserts that Lake Beulah is “no longer controlling.” After the oral argument in the case but before the opinion was released, the parties brought Act 21 to the Court’s attention. The Court noted in a footnote that Act 21 did not change the underlying environmental statute and stated that none of the parties argued that the new law impacted the WDNR’s authority in the Lake Beulah case. The Attorney General has seized on the footnote.
The Attorney General’s Opinion relies on the timing of Act 21’s passage, the footnote, and a difference of opinion. The Attorney General argues that the state Supreme Court relied on implicit statutory authority to allow the WDNR to condition high capacity well permits, and Act 21 now requires explicit authority. Where the underlying environmental statute allows the agency to place conditions on high capacity wells, including “location, depth, pumping capacity, rate of flow, and ultimate use,” it does not state that “monitoring” is an “explicitly permitted condition.” The Attorney General further notes that the legislature has not delegated its public trust duty to the WDNR. The Opinion has been called “a huge step backward for groundwater protection” by environmentalists and “the demise of implied agency authority” by industry.
The expanding application of Act 21 provides a developing opportunity to challenge air and water permitting decisions in Wisconsin. Although the Attorney General’s Opinion is non-binding, it reflects the administration’s push toward limited environmental regulation. It is likely to become increasingly difficult for the agency to resolve complex environmental issues that previously were addressed in negotiated permit decisions, raising the issue of whether it is always in industry’s interest for an environmental agency to be prohibited from making technical and nuanced decisions.