A recent decision by the U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska rejected efforts by the Center for Biological Diversity (the “Center”) to challenge the constitutionality of the Congressional Review Act (CRA). The CRA, which was originally enacted in 1996, allows for Congressional disapproval of rules promulgated by administrative agencies under limited circumstances. Historically, the CRA had been used sporadically, but the current Congress has relied on the CRA on at least 16 occasions to roll back Obama administration regulations, and more CRA resolutions may be on the horizon.
In Center for Biological Diversity v. Zinke, the Center challenged the use of the CRA to invalidate a Department of Interior (DOI) rule which limited certain hunting and fishing practices on Alaskan National Wildlife Refuges. More specifically, the Center argued that the CRA unconstitutionally allowed Congress to alter DOI’s authority without using bicameralism and presentment to amend the underlying statutes that gave DOI its authority over the National Wildlife Refuges in Alaska. The Center also argued that the CRA’s prohibition on the issuance of a future rule in “substantially the same form” violates the separation of powers doctrine.
The district court dismissed the Center’s lawsuit, finding that “Public Law 115-20 was passed by both the House and the Senate and submitted to the President for approval as required by the CRA—which was also passed by both houses of Congress and signed into law by the President. Thus, the requirements of bicameralism and presentment are met and [the Center’s] separation of powers concerns fail to state a plausible claim for relief.” The court further noted that “[a]ny injury caused by DOI’s inability to promulgate a substantially similar rule, in the absence of any assertion that DOI would otherwise do so, is too speculative to constitute a concrete or imminent injury and is insufficient to confer Article III standing.” The court also noted that even if the Center could establish an “injury in fact,” the Center had not adequately alleged how invalidating the CRA would redress the Center’s alleged injuries.
Although the CRA remains in full force and effect, one might wonder whether it will retreat back into the shadows at least until the next administration. The conventional view had been that Congress only has 60 days after a rule takes effect to pass a CRA resolution disapproving it. However, lawmakers in Congress are advancing a more novel interpretation of the CRA to review (and potentially disapprove) older rules (and guidance). If a rule or guidance was not officially “submitted” to Congress for review (and many apparently have not officially been submitted), then the current administration could now submit them for review which would restart the 60-day clock. For example, in April, the Senate voted to disapprove a 2013 Consumer Financial Protection Bureau guidance on auto loan financing. The House has not yet taken action on the resolution. If, however, the guidance were to be disapproved under the CRA, then the effect of that disapproval is that the agency will be unable to enact a “substantially similar” rule or guidance. That is really the true power of the CRA, and word is that members of Congress are reviewing older rules and guidance that could be the target of a CRA resolution. Whether the CRA remains a powerful tool this far into the Trump administration remains to be seen, but one can expect that the Center’s constitutional challenge to the CRA is unlikely to be the last.
Congressman Morgan Griffith (R-VA) has introduced a discussion draft of a bill that proposes to revise the definition of “modification” in the Clean Air Act (CAA) to “clarify when a physical change in, or change in the method of operation of, a stationary source constitutes a modification or construction.”
Under current law, EPA determines whether a change at an existing facility is a “modification” that requires new source review (NSR) by looking at whether the change increases the annual emission rate of an air pollutant. Under Congressman Griffith’s proposal, a change at an existing facility will only be a “modification” if it results in an increase to the hourly emission rate of an air pollutant. This change is significant because it would enable facilities to make changes that would allow them to operate for longer hours, thus increasing annual emissions, as long as the hourly emissions don’t increase.
The proposed bill also makes clear that the term “modification” does not include changes to an existing stationary source that reduce the amount of any air pollutant or that are designed to restore, maintain, or improve the reliability or safety of the source.
At the May 16, 2018, Energy and Commerce Committee Subcommittee on the Environment hearing, William Wehrum, EPA Assistant Administrator for Air and Radiation, told the subcommittee that he strongly supported the proposed bill. The Democrats on the subcommittee opposed the proposal and ranking member Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ) made a statement critical of the proposed bill:
On April 2, 2018, the Pennsylvania Superior Court issued a potentially groundbreaking decision by holding that trespass and conversion claims arising from hydraulic fracturing are not precluded by the rule of capture. In reaching this conclusion, the court found that the Southwestern Energy Production Company (“Southwestern”) may have committed trespass when it extracted natural gas located under neighboring properties by draining the gas through fissures created from hydrofracturing fluid. Such a holding was almost universally thought to be precluded by the rule of capture. The rule of capture, which can be traced back to 18th century fox hunting, has historically been applied to find that oil and gas companies cannot be held liable for “capturing” oil and gas that drain naturally from neighboring land as a result of legal extraction activities. In differentiating hydraulic fracking from traditional oil and gas extraction, the court focused on the fact that hydraulic fracking actually pumps fluid across property lines to open up non-natural fissures that allow the natural gas to seep back across the property to be extracted.
The potential impact of the Pennsylvania court’s decision has spurred high levels of concern from the greater fracking industry. On the same day that Southwestern filed an appeal requesting an en banc rehearing of the decision, seven separate industry trade groups filed leave with the court seeking permission to file amicus briefs urging the court to grant Southwestern the rehearing. One of these groups, the Marcellus Shale Coalition (“MSC”), is a collection of approximately 200 producers, midstream, and local supply-chain companies that produce more than 95% of the natural gas in Pennsylvania. The group has asserted that the April 2nd ruling interrupts well-established law and creates an “unprecedented form of tort liability” that threatens the entire industry. In a similar filing, the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry stressed that the decisions could have devastating effects on the industry and the economy of Pennsylvania. According to the American Petroleum Institute, the hydraulic fracking industry currently provides an estimated 322,600 jobs to Pennsylvania and contributes nearly $44.5 million in revenue to the state’s economy.
In Southwestern’s own appeal, the company echoed many of the concerns proclaimed by the industry. The company stressed that the decision would “unleash a torrent of speculative lawsuits” that could threaten the economic livelihood of the industry throughout the state. The company also characterized the April 2nd ruling as an impractical precedent for future decisions. Southwestern noted that the opinion would require courts and juries to speculate whether hydrofracturing fluid located miles below the surface ever moved onto neighboring property, which is a task the company portrayed as “a fool’s errand.”
The ultimate resolution of the matter has potentially far-reaching impacts on the U.S. energy markets. Behind Texas, Pennsylvania is the United States’ second largest producer of natural gas. The state generated 19 percent of the United States’ total output in 2017 and has seen steady gains in production output since 2010. Further, the decision raises questions about whether other state courts may adopt the logic of the Pennsylvania Superior Court and similarly hold that trespass and conversion claims against hydraulic fracking are not precluded by the historic rule of capture.
We will continue to track this case as it moves through the Pennsylvania courts.