On May 18, 2018, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) issued an order denying a rehearing request on FERC’s prior issuance of a certificate of public convenience and necessity for a natural gas pipeline project for Dominion Transmission. An environmental group had challenged that certificate, arguing in part that FERC failed to adequately consider the upstream and downstream impacts of the project. These upstream and downstream impacts, according to the environmental group, included greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. FERC, on a party-line vote, concluded that the upstream and downstream GHG impacts of this particular project were not sufficiently causally connected to and/or the reasonable foreseeable effect of the project and therefore fell outside of the scope of the required NEPA analysis. FERC distinguished its holding with the decision in Sierra Club v. FERC, 867 F.3d 1357 (D.C. Cir. 2017) by noting that in that case, the pipeline project was delivering natural gas to identifiable gas-fired electric generating plants and therefore the downstream use of the gas was foreseeable.
The Delaware Riverkeeper Network sent a letter to FERC asking it to formally rescind its May 18 order, claiming that FERC’s decision was contrary to the requirements of NEPA. This letter, along with similar letters from other environmental groups, are likely precursors to legal challenges to FERC’s interpretation of its obligations under NEPA. Notwithstanding the positions being advanced by these environmental groups, FERC continues to review and approve pipeline projects without requiring a detailed analysis of GHG emissions as evidenced by FERC’s May 31 approval of the Okeechobee Lateral Project.
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 The CRA, which was originally enacted in 1996, allows for Congressional disapproval of rules promulgated by administrative agencies under limited circumstances.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.
Recent decisions from the Fourth and Ninth Circuits—finding that the Clean Water Act (“CWA”) could regulate discharges into groundwater that ultimately migrate into navigable waterways—may prompt U.S. EPA to revisit its position that the CWA applies to discharges from a “point source via ground water that has a direct hydrologic connection to surface water.” On April 12, 2018, the Fourth Circuit concluded that a release from pipeline that impacted groundwater that ultimately discharged to a nearby creek could trigger liability under the CWA. See Upstate Forever v. Kinder Morgan Energy Partners, L.P. (4th Cir. April 12, 2018). This decision follows on the heels of a Ninth Circuit decision affirming a district court's decision allowing a CWA citizen suit to proceed that alleged CWA violations associated with sanitary wastewater discharges through permitted underground injection wells that ultimately discharged into the ocean. See Hawai’i Wildlife Fund v. County of Maui (9th Cir. Feb. 1, 2018). Defendants are likely to seek Supreme Court review of both the Fourth and Ninth Circuit decisions.
Following the Ninth Circuit decision, on February 20, 2018, U.S. EPA issued a notice seeking comment by May 21, 2018 on whether it should review and potentially revise its previous positions on groundwater discharges; specifically, whether it is consistent with the CWA to subject discharges to jurisdictional surface waters via groundwater to CWA permitting. U.S. EPA also is seeking comment on whether some or all of such discharges are addressed adequately through other federal authorities, existing state statutory or regulatory programs, or through other existing federal regulations and permit programs. It will be interesting to see where U.S. EPA ultimately comes out on this issue; U.S. EPA filed an amicus brief urging the Ninth Circuit to affirm the district court's decision that discharges reaching navigable waters through groundwater are covered by the CWA. However, statements in U.S. EPA’s request for comments would seem to suggest that U.S. EPA is rethinking its position on this issue. We will continue to follow and provide updates as this process unfolds.
U.S. EPA Removes Portion of Former Refinery Site from NPL: Precursor to More Expedited CERCLA Cleanups?
After almost 30 years having been listed on the NPL, U.S. EPA has removed the surface portion of the 55-acre Pacific Coast Pipeline site from that distinctive list. Since being added to the NPL in 1989, more than 42,000 cubic yards of contaminated soils have been removed from the site and a multi-layer cap has been installed. The groundwater portion of the site will still remain on the NPL in order to address benzene and protect drinking water and agricultural wells.
One goal of EPA Administrator Pruitt’s Superfund Task Force was to improve and expedite site cleanups and accelerate full and partial deletions for sites that meet all applicable requirements. “The partial de-listing of the Pacific Coast Pipeline site is an example of EPA’s commitment to accelerate the remediation of contaminated sites and transform them into productive assets for the community,” said Pruitt.
Whether this partial NPL deletion is a precursor of U.S. EPA taking a more streamlined approach to CERCLA cleanups remains to be seen, but it would appear to be a step in the right direction.
In a win for the White House, a D.C. federal judge dismissed a complaint filed by several public interest groups that challenged President Trump’s executive order requiring that two federal regulations be repealed for every new regulation that is promulgated. The lawsuit was dismissed on standing grounds, with the court rejecting the public interest groups' argument that they had both “associational” and “organizational” standing.
The district court rejected the public interest groups' claim that they had standing because the executive order would unlawfully force federal agencies to delay or scrap rules that protect the groups' concrete interests. The court also rejected the public interest groups' claim that the executive order impinges on the groups' advocacy efforts by forcing them to choose between advocating for new regulations at the cost of losing other beneficial rules. Instead, the court found that the public interest groups had not sufficiently identified particular members who would be harmed. The court also found that the interest groups had not offered any evidence as to whether they had declined or were imminently likely to decline to advocate for a new rule because of the executive order.
The court is still evaluating whether to give the groups leave to amend their complaint or whether the lawsuits should be dismissed outright. Please click here to read the opinion.
The White House rolled out its 2019 budget, which includes deep cuts to a number of federal agencies, including U.S. EPA. The proposed 2019 budget seeks to cut approximately $2.5 billion, or 23%, from U.S. EPA’s budget, including the elimination of approximately 20% of U.S. EPA’s workforce. The proposed budget also seeks to eliminate a number of programs, including programs that provide money to the Energy Star program and to international organizations and countries to fight climate change. Other programs on the cutting block include assistance to fund water system improvements, with significant reductions to the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and the Chesapeake Bay Program.
The proposed budget places emphasis on the continued elimination of redundant programs and continues to focus on implementing the President’s Executive Order on a Comprehensive Plan for Reorganizing the Executive Branch. The Executive Order seeks to streamline U.S. EPA’s permit review process and reducing unnecessary burden on the regulated community.
The budget plan faces a likely uphill battle in Congress with many of the same proposals that were rejected by Congress last year being recycled in the proposed 2019 budget. Please click here to go to U.S. EPA’s budget website.
In what should be a wake-up call for companies that ship lithium batteries, the U.S. Transportation Department’s Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) recently levied a $1.1 million civil penalty for alleged violations of DOT shipping regulations. According to the FAA, on June 1, 2016, a Florida-based battery distribution company offered four shipments of 24-volt lithium batteries to FedEx for air transport. One of the batteries is alleged to have caught fire while being transported on a FedEx truck after having been shipped on an aircraft, destroying the truck. FAA contends that the shipped batteries failed both UN and U.S. testing standards, were not equipped to prevent reverse current flow, and were improperly packaged. FAA also alleges that the company did not provide proper training to its employees.
Although the $1.1M penalty has not been finalized, companies that ship lithium should ensure that their shipments are in full compliance with all applicable DOT shipping regulations. The transportation of lithium batteries in aircraft is the subject of ongoing evaluation and scrutiny by the FAA and companies that are deemed to be in violation of these requirements are likely to face significant penalties as evidenced by the $1.1M fine referenced above.
On January 15, 2018, the European Chemicals Agency (“ECHA”) added seven chemicals to its Candidate List of “Substances of Very High Concern” (“SVHC”) for Authorization. These seven chemicals are:
- Cadmium nitrate
- Cadmium hydroxide
- Cadmium carbonate
- 1,6,7,8,9,14,15,16,17,17,18,18- Dodecachloropentacyclo[126.96.36.199,9.02,13.05,10]octadeca-7,15-diene (“Dechlorane Plus”TM) [covering any of its individual anti- and syn-isomers or any combination thereof]
- Reaction products of 1,3,4-thiadiazolidine-2,5-dithione, formaldehyde and 4-heptylphenol, branched and linear (RP-HP) [with ≥0.1% w/w 4-heptylphenol, branched and linear].
If you are still with me after having read through those chemical names, here is some more useful information. Once a chemical is listed on ECHA’s Candidate List, it triggers a number of regulatory obligations, including the requirement that importers of products containing one or more SVHC substances above 0.1 percent by weight file notifications with ECHA. In addition, chemicals on the Candidate List may be subsequently targeted by ECHA for phase-out.
According to a statement by ECHA in conjunction with its notice of listing, these specific seven chemicals are not widely used and ECHA does not view this listing as imposing substantive industry-wide regulatory burdens. There are now 181 substances on ECHA’s Candidate List. Please click here to go to the ECHA website for a list of 181 SVHCs.
As 2017 draws to an end, we wanted to thank everyone that follows our Corporate Environmental Lawyer blog. 2017 has been an interesting year and we have enjoyed providing information on critical environmental, health and safety issues for the regulated community. As part of the year in review, we thought it might be interesting to highlight the most popular posts from each of the four quarters in 2017.
- Trump Administration: 2017 Insights
- New State 1,4-Dioxane Drinking Water Standard-New York Threatens to Take Action if U.S. EPA Doesn’t
- World Water Day: Wednesday, March 22, 2017--Jenner & Block Announces Special Water Series
- Trump Administration Issues Freeze on New and Pending Rules – Halting Dozens of Recent EPA Rules
- Great Lakes Compact Council Holds Hearing on Cities Initiative Challenge to Waukesha Diversion of Lake Michigan Water
- Federal Judge Orders Dakota Access Pipeline to Revise Environmental Analysis; Leaves Status of Pipeline Construction Undecided
- Litigation in D.C. Circuit Court Put on Hold While EPA Reconsiders 2015 Ozone Air Quality Standards
- Attorney-Client Privilege Does Not Protect Communications with Environmental Consultants
- News of OECA’s Demise May be Greatly Overstated
- EPA Announces Proposed Rule to Rescind ‘Waters of the United States’ Rule
- Court Decision Remanding FERC’s Evaluation of GHG Emissions May Derail $3.5B Pipeline
- Hurricane Harvey and Act of God Defense—Viable Defense or Futile Prayer
- Who is in Charge of Protecting the Environment—The Role of U.S. EPA and State Environmental Agencies During a Hurricane
- Shell Latest Target of CWA Climate Change Citizen Suit
- New Climate Change Lawsuit: Publicity Stunt or Reasonable Effort to Protect California Property Owners?
- Cities Risk Ratings Downgrade for Failure to Address Climate Change Risks
- Dumpster Diving Results in $9.5M Penalty Recovery for California
- Following Keystone Pipeline Oil Spill, Judge Orders Parties to Prepare Oil Spill Response Plan for Dakota Access Pipeline
- EPA Publishes Proposed Rule on Reporting Requirements for the TSCA Mercury Inventory
- Imagine a Day Without Water
We look forward to continuing to blog on breaking environmental, health and safety issues and we are sure that we will have plenty to blog about in 2018. Warmest wishes for a wonderful holiday season.
Steve Siros and Allison Torrence
On December 4, 2017, I wrote a blog regarding Moody’s Investors Service’s threat to downgrade state and municipal credit ratings if they failed to adequately plan for and attempt to mitigate climate change risks. A day later, in conjunction with the North American Climate Summit, Chicago’s mayor and dozens of other mayors signed the “Chicago Climate Charter,” which calls on mayors to work to achieve a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions that’s equal to or more than that required by the 2015 Paris Agreement. The charter would require participating cities to track and publicly report greenhouse gas emissions and take action to plan for climate change related impacts in local infrastructure and energy planning. While these actions may not have been in direct reaction to Moody’s threat, such forward thinking may minimize the risk for participating cities in future rating downgrades relating to climate change impacts.
In a November 28, 2017 report, Moody’s Investors Service warned cities and states that they faced the risk of a credit rating downgrade if they were not proactive in planning to mitigate the risks of climate change. The Moody’s report listed six indicators that it used to assess the exposure and overall susceptibility of states and municipalities to the physical effects of climate change, including share of economic activity derived from coastal areas, hurricane and weather damage as a share of the economy, and the share of homes in a flood plain. Based on these indicators, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas were the states most at risk from climate change. Although Moody’s couldn’t point to a specific state or municipality whose rating was (or might be) downgraded as a result of a failure to plan for climate change, the Moody’s report clearly sets the stage for such downgrades in the future.
DirecTV recently agreed to pay $9.5 million to settle claims by the State of California that it had illegally shipped hazardous wastes such as batteries and aerosol cans to local landfills across the state. California accused DirecTV of violating California’s Hazardous Waste Control Law and Unfair Competition Law after an investigation of DirecTV dumpsters at 25 facilities throughout the state identified violations at each location. DirecTV agreed to pay $8.9 million in civil penalties, costs, and supplemental environmental projects, and another $580,000 on measures aimed at ensuring future compliance with California’s hazardous waste regulations. The company also agreed to injunctive relief prohibiting future violations.
U.S. EPA’s Office of Superfund Remediation and Technology Innovation (“OSRTI”) recently indicated that it may be looking to the Great Lakes National Program Office’s (“GLNPO”) sediment cleanup program for best practices that might be applicable to Superfund cleanups. OSRTI’s evaluation of GLNPO’s sediment program is consistent with comments submitted by responsible parties and cleanup contractors that U.S. EPA should give more consideration to leveraging public and private funds in Superfund cleanups. The Great Lakes Legacy Act established the GLNPO, which has been working closely with states, local government entities and other stakeholders to address sediment issues at 31 areas of concern in the Great Lakes area. U.S. EPA’s website notes that the Great Lakes Legacy Act program has invested approximately $338 million to address these sediment impacted sites while leveraging an additional $227 million from non-federal parties. Whether this approach can achieve similar results at other Superfund sites remains to be seen, but such flexibility would appear to be consistent with Administrator Pruitt’s priority to more quickly and economically address CERCLA sites.
On Tuesday, November 14, 2017, from 12:30 - 1:30 PM CST. Jenner & Block Partner Steve Siros and Jaana Pietari, PH.D., P.E., Exponent, will present a free webinar titled “What’s Over the Horizon: Emerging Contaminants of Concern.”
Contaminants of Emerging Concern (CECs) fall into many classes, and encompass an evolving number of chemicals from industrial solvents to pharmaceuticals to endocrine disruptors. CECs may be truly “emerging” chemicals that were previously unregulated, or they may be currently regulated chemicals that have been found to be more toxic or persistent and are subject to new or proposed regulations.
In the absence of federal statutes, varying state standards and advisories create a regulatory minefield for the regulated community. Two examples of CECs receiving increased regulatory and public scrutiny are 1,4-dioxane and poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Although its presence has been known for nearly a decade, 1,4-dioxane has recently become a more frequent regulatory driver in groundwater cleanups and resulted in reopening previously closed sites. PFAS, on the other hand, are only recently emerging as CECs as new information about the toxicology, health effects, persistence, and systemic presence of this large group of widely used synthetic chemicals is discovered.
The purpose of this webinar is to describe current legal, scientific, and technical issues concerning CECs with a focus on groundwater remediation.
This webinar will:
- Examine legal issues including potential affected parties, the ability of regulators to reopen previously closed sites, and the potential liabilities that can result in the absence of clear regulatory standards.
- Describe scientific developments regarding human health and environmental effects and advances in detection and monitoring of select CECs.
- Discuss key technical aspects regarding challenges in treatment and source identification.
- Provide case studies highlighting the critical legal, scientific, and technical issues in addition to recommendations on risk mitigation opportunities.
To register for the free webinar, click here.
On November 1, 2017, the United States District Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit rejected the Sierra Club's National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”) challenges to the Department of Energy’s (“DOE”) authorization of export of liquefied natural gas from three facilities in Louisiana, Maryland, and Texas. The court noted that its decision in Sierra Club v. U.S. Department of Energy (Freeport), 867 F.3d 189 (D.C. Cir. 2017) was largely determinative of the Sierra Club’s challenges to the LNG exports from these three facilities. In the Freeport decision, the court agreed that DOE had provided a reasoned explanation as to why DOE believed the indirect effects pertaining to increased gas production were not reasonably foreseeable. The court also found that DOE did not violate NEPA when declining to make specific projections regarding the environmental impacts associated with the increased production. The Freeport court also acknowledged that DOE had adequately considered the downstream greenhouse gas emissions resulting from the indirect effects of the LNG exports.
Notwithstanding the Freeport decision, the Sierra Club continued to challenge DOE’s authorizations for LNG exports for these three facilities, arguing that DOE’s reliance on an Environmental Assessment that found no significant impact (as opposed to an Environmental Impact Statement) is contradicted by evidence in the record. The court rejected this argument, noting that an agency’s finding of no significant impact will only be reversed if the decision was arbitrary, capricious, or an abuse of discretion which the court concluded was not supported by the record evidence. The Sierra Club also argued that DOE failed to consider the distributional impacts when evaluating “public interest” under the Natural Gas Act. However, the court noted that DOE had in fact considered the distributional impacts of the LNG exports.
Following this judgment, the Sierra Club will have lost all four petitions it filed against the DOE relating to NEPA assessments for LNG exports. The Sierra Club also lost all four of its petitions challenging FERC’s approval of these LNG exports. Please click here for a copy of the court’s November 1st decision.
Jenner & Block is pleased to report that Sam Hirsch, former Acting Assistant Attorney General and Principal Deputy at the U.S. Department of Justice’s Environment and Natural Resources Division (ENRD), has returned to the Firm as a Partner in our Washington, DC office. Sam was formerly an attorney with Jenner & Block until 2009 when he moved to the U.S. Department of Justice, where he served as Deputy Associate Attorney General before taking on his most recent role. During his time at ENRD, Sam was primarily responsible for litigation and policy work relating to the prevention and cleanup of pollution, environmental challenges to federal programs, stewardship of public lands and natural resources, property acquisition, wildlife protection, and Indian rights and claims. As Acting Assistant Attorney General and Principal Deputy, he oversaw the drafting of more than 200 briefs, including more than 40 U.S. Supreme Court cert-stage, merits, and amicus briefs, as well as more than 150 appeal-recommendation memos to the Solicitor General. These briefs and memos dealt with cases in all 13 federal circuits and covered nearly the entire range of federal environmental and natural resources statutes, including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA, or Superfund), the Oil Pollution Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and the Lacey Act.
Sam was involved in all phases of the Deepwater Horizon litigation, including helping structure the global settlement, which directed more than $8.1 billion toward restoring damaged natural resources in the Gulf of Mexico. He also drafted portions of the criminal plea agreements that created the National Academy of Sciences' $500 million Gulf Research Program, which funds and conducts studies and projects to enhance oil-system safety, human health, and environmental resources in the Gulf of Mexico and other U.S. outer-continental-shelf regions that support oil and gas production.
Sam may be reached at (202) 637-6335 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Welcome back Sam!
Unless one has been living under a log (and even that might not be an excuse), we all know that Scott Pruitt was confirmed as U.S. EPA Administrator on February 17, 2017. However, the status of President Trump’s other U.S. EPA nominations may not be as front and center. As such, here is a quick cheat sheet for those watching at home (current as of 9/21/2017):
- General Counsel: Matthew Leopold. Mr. Leopold was nominated as General Counsel to U.S EPA in September 2017. Mr. Leopold was an attorney with the Environment and Natural Resources Division of DOJ for approximately six years and then became general counsel for Florida Department of Protection. Upon leaving FDEP in 2015, he joined the Florida-based law firm Carlton Fields. Mr. Leopold’s nomination has been referred to the Senate Environmental and Public Works committee and his nomination (along with the nominations of Dourson, Wehrum and Ross) were to have been considered by the committee yesterday (Sept. 20th) but the hearings were cancelled when the Senate decided it had worked enough and adjourned early for the week.
- Enforcement and Compliance Assurance: Susan Parker Bodine. Ms. Bodine was nominated as Assistant Administrator for the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance in May 2017. Since 2015, Ms. Bodine has been serving as chief counsel on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and previously served as the Assistant Administrator of the Office of Land and Emergency Management. Ms. Bodine’s nomination was approved by the Senate Environmental and Public Works committee on July 12th and she is awaiting full Senate confirmation. Ms. Bodine has over 29 years of environmental law experience, including having worked at two law firms and being the staff director and counsel for the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee’s water panel.
- Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention: Michael Dourson. Mr. Dourson was nominated in July 2017 to become the Assistant Administrator for the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention. Mr. Dourson is a toxicologist who had formerly worked at U.S. EPA. After leaving U.S EPA in the 1990s, Mr. Dourson founded the non-profit group Toxicology Excellence for Risk Assessment which opponents have criticized for being at least partially funded by industry. Mr. Dourson is currently a professor at the University of Cincinnati. His nomination has been referred to the Senate Environmental and Public Works committee but his nomination hearing has been delayed.
- Office of Water: David Ross. Mr. Ross was nominated in September 2017 to become the Assistant Administrator of the Office of Water. Mr. Ross currently serves as Wisconsin’s assistance attorney general and Director of the Environmental Protection Unit for the Wisconsin Department of Justice. Mr. Ross previously served in the Wyoming Attorney General’s Office. Mr. Ross seems generally to have bi-partisan support and his nomination has been referred to the Senate Environmental and Public Works committee but his nomination hearing has been delayed.
- Air and Radiation: William Wehrum. Mr. Wehrum was nominated in September 2017 to become the Assistant Administrator of the Office of Air and Radiation. Mr. Wehrum had previously served as U.S. EPA’s acting assistant administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation from 2005 to 2007. He is currently with the law firm of Hunton & Williams and has over 31 years of experience working in the environmental field. Mr. Wehrum also seems to have some limited bi-partisan support but he was also nominated for this same position by President Bush in 2005 but his nomination was pulled after Democrats accused Mr. Wehrum of working with polluters. This same charge is currently being levied by environmental organizations. Interestingly, Mr. Wehrum is scheduled to argue before the D.C. Circuit on September 26th in a lawsuit challenging OSHA's silica rules pertaining to the construction industry. His nomination has been referred to the Senate Environmental and Public Works committee but his nomination hearing has been delayed.
President Trump has yet to nominate someone for the Deputy Administrator. Potential nominees that had been floated were Jeff Holmsted and Andrew Wheeler, but for now, the position is held by Mike Flynn who had previously been U.S. EPA’s Associate Deputy Administrator.
Who is in Charge of Protecting the Environment--The Role of U.S. EPA and State Environmental Agencies During a Hurricane
Following Hurricane Harvey, and with the pending landfall of Hurricane Irma, the manner and degree to which federal and state agencies coordinate environmental protection duties may seem chaotic and disorganized. However, there is a specific protocol that guides these federal agencies in taking steps to protect the environmental in anticipation of and following a hurricane.
As brief background, in 1988, the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act (the “Stafford Act”) was promulgated in an effort to establish an orderly process pursuant to which the Federal Government provides disaster and emergency assistance to State and local governments. At the request of the Governor of an affected State, the President may declare a major disaster or emergency. For example, on September 4, 2017, Florida Governor Rick Scott declared a state of emergency in anticipation of Hurricane Irma. Shortly thereafter, President Trump declared a major emergency. Upon declaration of such a major disaster or emergency, the President appoints a Federal Coordinating Officer (“FCO”), a FEMA official who is charged with coordination of Federal assistance to the affected State and local governments.
FEMA’s primary focus is protection of human life and the majority of federal resources are obviously directed towards that goal. However, FEMA also works closely with other agencies such as U.S. EPA and state environmental agencies to implement emergency response activities focused on protecting the environment. FEMA has established numerous Emergency Support Functions (ESFs), which provide the structure for coordinating interagency support for a Federal response to declared disasters and emergencies. U.S. EPA has been designated as the ESF Coordinator for Emergency Response # 10—Oil and Hazardous Materials Response.
Here are some key environmental issues that federal and state agencies focus on during a natural disaster such as a hurricane:
Following the disaster that has unfolded in Texas as a result of the unprecedented flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey, affected businesses might be asking whether they might be able to avail themselves of the “Act of God” defense that is embodied in several federal environmental laws and the Texas Health and Safety Code. If ever an event qualified as an “Act of God,” many would likely agree that Hurricane Harvey falls into that category. However, if the experience of Hurricane Katrina provides any guidance, regulated entities are likely to face substantial hurdles triggering the “Act of God” defense for releases attributable to Hurricane Harvey.
Although not defined in the Texas Health and Safety Code, CERCLA defines an “Act of God” as the “unanticipated grave natural disaster or other natural phenomenon of an exceptional, inevitable, and irresistible character, the effects of which could not have been prevented, or avoided by the exercise of due care or foresight.” 42 U.S.C. §9601(1). The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 contains a verbatim definition of “Act of God.” 33 U.S.C. §2701(1).
One might ask how many times the “Act of God” defense has been successfully asserted, and the answer is that there is not a single reported case where that defense has been successful.
On August 28, 2017, Shell Oil Company became the latest target of a Clean Water Act citizen suit lawsuit filed by the Conservation Law Foundation (“CLF”). Coming on the heels of the unfolding disaster in Texas caused by Hurricane Harvey, this most recent lawsuit alleges that Shell’s stormwater pollution prevention plan for its Providence, Rhode Island Terminal is inadequate in that it fails to account for sea level rise, increased precipitation generally, and the increased frequency of storms that CLF alleges will occur due to climate change. This latest lawsuit follows a previously filed citizen suit by CLF against Exxon under both the Clean Water Act and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act relating to Exxon’s Everett Terminal located in Everett, Massachusetts. A hearing on Exxon’s pending motion to dismiss is currently set for September 12, 2017.
Events like Hurricane Harvey will provide continuing fodder for what is likely to be sharp increase in citizen suits being filed by environmental organizations seeking to advance their agendas in light of the current regulatory climate.
On August 22, 2017, a divided D.C. Circuit panel sided with the Sierra Club and other environmental groups by concluding that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ("FERC") didn't adequately analyze the impacts of greenhouse gas ("GHGs") emissions that may result from a $3.5 billion natural gas pipeline to be constructed through Florida. The project in question is an approximately 500-mile long natural gas pipeline scheduled to be completed in 2021 and which is projected to carry over one billion cubic feet of natural gas per day.
Section 7 of the Natural Gas Act vests jurisdiction to approve such a pipeline with FERC. Before such a pipeline can be approved, FERC must grant the developer a certificate of public convenience and necessity (often referred to as a Section 7 certificate). Prior to issuing the Section 7 certificate for this project, FERC prepared an environmental impact statement ("EIS") as required by the National Environmental Policy Act ("NEPA"). Sierra Club and other environmental groups challenged FERC's EIS and subsequent Section 7 certificate on the grounds that it failed to adequately consider the pipeline's contribution to GHG emissions and its impact on low-income and minority communities.
On August 8, 2017, the United States District Court for the District of Columbia issued a decision concluding that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) did not have statutory authority to issue a 2015 rule that restricted the use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) in a variety of products, including aerosols, motor vehicle air conditioners, commercial refrigerators and foams.
Section 612(a) of the Clean Air Act required manufacturers to replace ozone-depleting substances (ODS) with "safe" product substitutes. To that end, U.S. EPA was required to develop lists of "safe" and "prohibited" ODS substitutes. Pursuant to this directive, U.S. EPA placed HFCs on the list of "safe" substitutes and manufacturers began to replace ODS with HFCs.
However, over time, U.S. EPA began to learn that although not an ODS, HFCs were in fact greenhouse gases. As such, in 2015, U.S. EPA promulgated a final rule that moved HFCs off of the "safe" list and onto the "prohibited" list. See 80 Fed. Reg. 42,870 (July 20, 2015). As part of the 2015 final rule, U.S. EPA also then prohibited the use of HFCs in aerosols, motor vehicle air conditioners, commercial refrigerators and foams even if the manufacturers of these products had previously elected to replace the ODS in these products with the previously "safe" HFCs. A lawsuit was subsequently filed by manufacturers of certain HFCs.
The parties to the lawsuit both acknowledged that U.S. EPA had the ability to ban the use of ODS and that U.S. EPA could change or modify the lists of "safe" and "prohibited" ODS substitutes based on U.S. EPA’s assessment of the risks that those substances posed to human and the environment. However, the key dispute was whether U.S. EPA had the authority under Section 612 of the Clean Air Act to prohibit manufacturers from making products that contain HFCs if those manufacturers had previously replaced an ODS with a HFC that at the time was listed as a "safe" substitute.
The D.C. Circuit concluded that U.S.EPA did not have that authority. The court rejected U.S. EPA’s argument that the term “replace” as used in the statute was intended to apply each time a manufacturer uses a substitute substance as opposed to when the manufacturer originally “replaced” the ODS with the HFC finding U.S. EPA's proposed interpretation to “border on the absurd.” As such, the D.C. Circuit vacated the 2015 rule to the extent the rule required manufacturers to replace HFCs with a substitute substance on the "safe" list.
Likely emboldened by the U.S. Court of Appeals decision to vacate U.S. EPA's efforts to stay certain provisions of new source performance standards ("NSPS") relating to fugitive methane emissions, on July 24, 2017, a coalition of 11 Democratic state attorney generals filed a Petition for Review in the D.C. Circuit challenging U.S. EPA's June decision to delay implementation of the Obama administration's amendments to the Clean Air Act Risk Management Program ("RMP") for 20 months. This lawsuit is in addition to a previously filed lawsuit by environmental and labor groups that also challenged U.S. EPA's stay of the RMP amendments.
In support of their petition, the AGs contend that the requirements of Section 307(d)(7)(B) of the CAA were not met which argument proved determinative in the earlier challenge to U.S EPA's stay of the methane NSPS. DOJ has already sought to distinguish U.S. EPA's delay of the methane NSPS from its delay of the RMP rule by noting that U.S. EPA sought public input on its proposed 20-month delay of the RMP rule in its March 30, 2017 federal register notice. We will continue to track both of these lawsuits as they wind the D.C. Circuit.
New Climate Change Lawsuit: Publicity Stunt or Reasonable Effort to Protect California Property Owners?
Answering this question is likely to engender significant debate, depending on which side of the global warming conundrum one finds oneself. However, a recent lawsuit by two California counties and one California city is likely to prompt such a debate which will play out in California state court. On July 17, 2017, Marin County, San Mateo County, and the City of Imperial Beach filed separate but similar environmental lawsuits in California state court claiming that 37 oil, gas, and coal companies caused (or will cause) billions of dollars in climate-change related damages as a result of their extraction and sale of fossil fuels in California. The multi-count complaints allege a variety of state common law claims, including public nuisance, negligent failure to warn, and trespass. The complaints contend that as result of the activities of these defendants, sea levels will rise which will cause billions of dollars in losses to each of the plaintiffs.
These cases represent the latest in what has been to date a series of unsuccessful efforts to hold energy companies responsible for future speculative damages associated with alleged future environmental impacts associated with climate change. These cases will likely be subject to early dispositive motions seeking to have these cases thrown out of court at an early stage. We will continue to follow these cases and provide additional updates.
On July 3, 2017, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia issued an opinion which vacated U.S. EPA’s stay of certain provisions of new source performance standards (“NSPS”) relating to fugitive emissions of methane and other pollutants by the oil and natural gas industries. After U.S. EPA originally published these NSPS rules in 2016, several industry groups sought reconsideration of these rules pursuant to Section 307(d)(7)(B) of the Clean Air Act (“CAA”). On April 18, 2017, U.S. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt found that the petitions raised at least one objection to the rule that warranted reconsideration and on June 5, 2017, just two days prior to the deadline requiring regulated entities to conduct initial methane monitoring in order to identify potential equipment leaks, U.S. EPA agreed to stay the rule for 90 days while the rule was being reconsidered. Then, on June 16, 2017, U.S. EPA published a notice of proposed rulemaking seeking to extend the stay for an additional two years. Several environmental groups filed an emergency motion challenging U.S. EPA’s decision to stay the rules for 90 days.
In a split decision, the D.C. Circuit agreed that a stay pursuant to Section 307(d)(7)(B) of the CAA was only allowed if the following specific requirements of the rule are met: (1) it was impracticable to raise the objections now being raised during the notice and comment period and (2) the objection is of central relevance to the outcome of the rule. The Court found that both requirements were not met, noting that the “administrative record thus makes clear that the industry groups had ample opportunity to comment on all four issues for which EPA granted reconsideration, and indeed, that in several instances the agency incorporated those comments directly into the final rule.” The Court also addressed industries’ argument that U.S. EPA’s decision to reconsider the rule was not a final agency action. The Court agreed, over Judge Brown’s dissent, that although U.S. EPA’s decision to reconsider the rule was not a final agency action, U.S. EPA’s decision to stay the rule was tantamount to amending or revoking the rule and was in fact reviewable. It is important to note that notwithstanding the Court’s decision that U.S. EPA improperly stayed the NSPS rules pursuant to Section 307(d)(B)(7) of the CAA, the Court specifically stated that “nothing in this opinion in any way limits EPA’s authority to reconsider the final rule and to proceed with its June 16 [notice of proposed rulemaking]," which seeks to stay the effective date of the NSPS for two years.
This decision may provide some insight as to how the Court intends to deal with a separate pending lawsuit filed by environmental groups which seeks to challenge U.S. EPA’s decision to stay revisions to the CAA’s risk management program; U.S. EPA relied on Section 307(B)(7) to justify its decision to stay those rules as well.