In a Choose Your Own Adventure - Approach, EPA Proposes Greenhouse Gas Emissions Standards for New and Existing Power Plants
Today, the US Environmental Protection Agency released its long-awaited proposal for New Source Performance Standards for Greenhouse Gas Emissions from New, Modified, and Reconstructed Fossil Fuel-Fired Electric Generating Units; Emission Guidelines for Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Existing Fossil Fuel-Fired Electric Generating Units; and Repeal of the Affordable Clean Energy Rule (Proposed GHG Rule). This article provides an overview of the Proposed GHG Rule and identifies some issues that may lie ahead.
I. Basic Architecture of the Proposed GHG Rule
The Proposed GHG Rule includes four parts. First, as a matter of housekeeping, the proposed rule officially rescinds the Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) Rule. The ACE Rule would have set emissions guidelines for states to incorporate into measures to address greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from existing coal-fired power plants and focused on efficiency improvements. The ACE Rule was promulgated in 2019 to replace the 2015 Clean Power Plan. In 2022, the Supreme Court issued its landmark decision in West Virginia v. EPA, which ruled that the Clean Power Plan exceeded EPA’s authority to regulate GHGs pursuant to the Major Questions Doctrine, an assessment of which can be found in our article West Virginia v. EPA: The Major Questions Doctrine Arrives to Rein in Administrative Power, published in Pratt’s Law Report.
The Proposed GHG Rule then outlines standards of performance and emissions requirements based on the Agency's determination of the best system of emissions reduction (BSER), as required by Section 111 of the Clean Air Act (CAA), for three types of generating units: (A) existing coal-fired power plants, (B) new gas-fired power plants, and (C) existing gas-fired power plants. For each of these categories of generating units, EPA establishes stratified emissions standards and compliance dates dictated by the unit’s anticipated lifespan and capacity factor. Observers may recognize that the targets and dates proposed in the rules are consistent with climate goals already set by many power generators.
II. Operation of the Fuel-Type Subcategory Approach
Within the basic categories of existing coal plants, existing gas plants, and new gas plants, the Proposed GHG Rule applies a schedule for compliance and emissions reduction targets based on an individual plant’s capacity and anticipated lifespan. These standards and subcategories are guided by EPA’s determination of what constitutes the most cost effective and demonstrated technology available, thereby meeting BSER.
- Existing Coal-Fired Generating Unit GHG Emissions Standards
For existing coal plants, EPA created four subcategories based on the projected lifespan of the individual operating unit. They include coal plants that have not committed to a date certain by which to cease operations, coal plants that have voluntarily committed to cease operations by 2040, coal plants that will retire by 2035, and coal plants that will retire by 2032.
(1) Coal Plants Anticipating Ongoing Operations
If a coal steam unit has not committed to ceasing operations, EPA will require it to meet a standard consistent with carbon capture and sequestration at a 90% capture rate.
(2) Coal Plants with a Voluntary Commitment to Cease Operations by 2040
For a coal plant that has committed to voluntary retirement before 2040, the plant must meet a standard consistent with co-firing 40% natural gas.
(3) Coal Plants Retiring By 2035
With respect to a coal plant retiring in the near term, i.e., it plans to discontinue operations by 2035, EPA proposes a more relaxed standard. The more relaxed standard requires, in addition to routine operation and maintenance activities, the plant to accept a capacity limitation of 20% by 2030 and each year of operation thereafter.
(4) Coal Plants Retiring By 2032
For coal plants with an imminent retirement schedule, which means a coal plant that commits to ceasing operations by 2032, no capacity limitations must be taken. The plant need only continue to fulfill routine operation and maintenance requirements.
The underlying message for coal plants is that if retirement looms near on the horizon, then there is not an expectation for significant investments to be made in the plant.
- New Gas-Fired Electric Generating Units
In setting a BSER for GHG emissions from new gas-fired power plants, EPA also uses subcategories to stratify the BSER analysis. In doing so, EPA appears to be striving to strike a balance between a requirement that plants install demonstrated and achievable technology and the observation that infrastructure must exist to support the technology that would make it possible to meet the standards.
The subcategories thus include standards for peaker plants or plants that have a capacity factor of 20% or less, intermediate plants, which include plants with a 20 to an approximately 50% capacity factor (used over a certain amount of time per annum), and baseload plants, which constitute plants with a capacity factor over 50%. The standards are set based on the usage of the plant – the greater the annual operation of the plant, the greater controls and stricter emissions standards required.
(1) New Gas-Fired Peaker Plants / Plants with an Annual Capacity Factor of 20% or Less
Peaker plants include natural gas-fired power plants with a capacity factor of 20% or less. The Proposed GHG Rule would require peaker plants to use clean fuels, which include natural gas, with no other requirements.
(2) New Gas-Fired Intermediate Plants / Plants with an Annual Capacity Factor between 20% and 50%
The intermediate category includes plants with a capacity factor ranging from 20% to approximately 50%. This category generally includes the most efficient simple-cycle plants. By 2032, intermediate plants will be required to meet an emissions standard equal to blending 30% hydrogen by volume into the plant’s fuel stream. The hydrogen must qualify as low GHG hydrogen, which is a standard borrowed from the Inflation Reduction Act’s hydrogen tax credit and is defined in the Inflation Reduction Act as hydrogen generated via a process that results in a lifecycle GHG emissions rate of no more than 4 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) per kilogram of hydrogen. In the Proposed GHG Rule, EPA identifies the low hydrogen standard but defers the determination of what constitutes low hydrogen to the Department of Treasury. The Treasury Department is currently developing guidance on the implementation of the production tax credit for clean hydrogen, which includes a decision on how to account for GHG emissions as part of the hydrogen production lifecycle analysis.
(3) New Baseload Gas-Fired Electric Generating Units / Plants with an Annual Capacity Over 50%
For natural gas-fired power plants with an annual capacity factor over 50%, EPA plans to require those plants to employ efficient combined cycle technology in the first phase of operation. This means that when the plant is built, it must implement the most efficient combined cycle technology and meet an emissions standard of 770 lb CO2/MWh-gross standard. Over time, the standard becomes stricter, seemingly to match the anticipated increased availability and advancements in technology in future years, with a choice of one of two pathways. The first pathway requires the increasing use of hydrogen, or an equivalent emissions outcome, and the second pathway would require carbon capture and storage (CCS) or an equivalent emissions outcome.
(3)(a) Hydrogen Pathway for New Baseload Gas-Fired Electric Generating Units
If a baseload plant were to choose to use hydrogen as its path for reducing its GHG emissions, it can anticipate a stepwise timeline. By 2032, the plant will have to reach a level that represents a 30% hydrogen blend by volume or reduce its emissions to an equivalent extent. Then, by 2038, the same plant will need to achieve a 96% blend of hydrogen by volume or reduce its emissions to an equivalent extent. In all instances, the source of hydrogen must meet the standards set for the lowest carbon-emitting hydrogen tax credits, which will be defined by the Department of Treasury.
(3)(b) Carbon Capture and Storage Pathway for New Baseload Gas-Fired Electric Generating Units
If a plant operator were to choose to employ CCS as a means of reducing its GHG emissions, the Proposed GHG Rule would require the plant to reach a 90% capture rate by 2035 or reduce its emissions to an equivalent extent. Note that the 90% capture rate achieves emissions reductions equivalent to a 96% blend of hydrogen in the fuel stream.
- Existing Gas-Fired Generating Units
Finally, the Proposed GHG Rule not only sets standards for new gas-fired generating units, but also for the largest and most frequently used of the existing gas-fired power plants. These plants include those that generate 300 megawatts or more of electricity per year and operate at a 50% or greater capacity factor. Under the proposal, these plants will be required to meet the 2038 hydrogen pathway standard, the 2035 CCS pathway standard, or achieve the equivalent thereof. For existing gas-fired generating units that do not meet the 300MW and 50% annual capacity factor thresholds, EPA is seeking comment on how it should regulate such units.
III. Anticipated Questions and Challenges
In addition to the obvious legal challenges regarding whether the proposed rule implicates the Major Questions Doctrine and whether the technologies and timelines constitute BSER, there remain questions regarding the definition of what constitutes clean or green hydrogen. Are hydrogen and CCS as achievable as EPA contends? Are the target dates correct? Also, the proposed rule’s new gas turbine standards will apply to any plant for which construction commences after the date of publication of the Proposed GHG Rule. This CAA provision is intended to prevent a rush to commence construction on new plants to lock in the old standards. This may lead to an early challenge of this mechanism because it becomes controlling upon the publication of the proposal and prior to the rule’s finalization.
Another question is how will states, which have two years to develop state plans to incorporate the existing source standards, go about implementing the proposed rule. Will states be able to cooperate to achieve emissions reductions, such as through emissions trading regimes, particularly if such cooperative approaches allow states to achieve equivalent or better results? Why has EPA overlooked other significant emissions reduction options, such as renewable natural gas? How will plant operators pay for these upgrades? EPA has considered the Inflation Reduction Act’s many tax incentives and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law’s incentives and payments in determining what is economically achievable, but how easy will it be to access such funds, and how can those funds be leveraged?
- Immediate Takeaways
An initial review of the Proposed GHG Rule indicates EPA has been careful not to step outside the proverbial fenceline. EPA appears to be taking into account the implied guidance provided by the Supreme Court in West Virginia v. EPA that the Agency’s authority under the CAA to regulate power plants should focus on facilities on a unit-by-unit basis rather than an approach that relies on generation-shifting, which the Court determined exceeded EPA’s statutory authority. The rules also appear to be designed in a way and timed to align with other regulatory requirements for the power sector, such as regulations governing wastewater discharges and ozone and mercury emissions, which may streamline investments made in specific plants as well as across the power generation fleet.
Details on the findings that underlie the emissions standards and timing within the proposal will be well litigated. The ultimate question, however, will be whether the overall approach, which entails setting standards for individual plants while still providing options and flexibility by which plant operators can achieve those standards, can thread the judicial scrutiny needle. As you work through these issues, Jenner’s Transitions in Energy and Climate Solutions Practice and Environmental and Workplace Health and Safety Practice are here to help.
The Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers recently announced a revised and final rule amending the definition of Waters of the United States (WOTUS) following the Supreme Court decision in Sackett v. EPA that invalidated the agencies’ previous definition. The revised rule took effect immediately upon its publication in the Federal Register on September 8.
The definition of “waters of the United States” is significant because it sets the jurisdictional limits of the Clean Water Act (CWA). Under the CWA, EPA and the Army Corps have the power to regulate, among other things, the discharge of pollutants to navigable water from a point source (33 U.S.C. § 1362(12)) and the discharge of dredged or fill material into navigable waters (33 U.S.C. § 1344). “Navigable waters” are defined in the CWA as “the waters of the United States, including the territorial seas.” 33 U.S.C. §1362(7). “Waters of the United States” is not defined further under the CWA, so the agencies have been left to try to craft a definition.
Since the Supreme Court’s 2006 decision in Rapanos v. United States, the agencies have relied on a “significant nexus” standard to include nearby wetlands and ephemeral waterways in the WOTUS definition. A “significant nexus” was established if the body of water “either alone or in combination with similarly situated wetlands in the region, significantly affect the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of other covered waters more readily understood as navigable.”
In January of this year, the agencies published a “Revised Definition of ‘Waters of the United States’”, which incorporated both a “relatively permanent” standard and a “significant nexus” standard. However, in May 2023, the Supreme Court decision in Sackett v. EPA rejected the “significant nexus” test, instead holding that bodies of water must have a “continuous surface connection” to a traditional navigable water to be a covered wetland (read our analysis of the Sackett decision here).
In consideration of the Sackett ruling, the agencies have again revised their final rule to conform with the Supreme Court’s decision. Under the new rule, “interstate wetlands” are no longer covered, and the “significant nexus” standard is no longer applicable in defining WOTUS. Instead, to be jurisdictional water, a wetland must be “relatively permanent, standing or continuously flowing…” and must have “a continuous surface connection” to a traditional navigable water.
On July 21, 2023, the Environmental Protection Agency published a final rule eliminating an affirmative defense for Clean Air Act permit emissions violations caused by
“Major sources” (i.e. sources with actual or potential emissions above certain emission thresholds) are required under Title V of the Clean Air Act to obtain operating permits. When the EPA originally promulgated rules implementing Title V, the proposed rules did not include an emergency affirmative defense provision. However, the EPA included the provisions in its final rule following requests from commenters. Specifically, 40 C.F.R. Parts 70.6(g) (state operating permit program) and 71.6(g) (federal operating permit program) contained identical affirmative defense provisions whereby a source could avoid liability for an emission violation if the violation was caused by an emergency “arising from sudden and reasonably unforeseeable events beyond the control of the source.” This included “acts of God, which situation requires immediate corrective action to restore normal operation, and that causes the source to exceed a technology-based emission limitation under the permit, due to unavoidable increases in emissions attributable to the emergency.” In such circumstances, a source could demonstrate an emergency affirmative defense by providing evidence that:
- An emergency occurred and the cause was identified;
- The facility was at the time being properly operated;
- The facility took all reasonable steps to minimize emission level exceedances and permit requirements during the emergency; and
- The permittee submitted notice of the emergency to the permitting authority within two working days.
The EPA’s attempt to remove the Title V emergency affirmative defense has been around since an initial rule proposal in 2016. However, later administrations did not pursue the proposal until a revised version was introduced in 2022. According to the EPA, the affirmative defense is “inconsistent with the EPA’s interpretation of the enforcement structure of the Clean Air Act in light of prior court decisions.” In one of those court decisions, Natural Resources Defense Council v. EPA, 749 F.3d 1055 (D.C. Cir. 2014), the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals vacated a Title V permit provision that specified an affirmative defense for unavoidable malfunctions. The court held that the EPA exceeded its authority, as only the courts have the authority to decide whether to assess penalties for civil suit violations. The 2014 ruling was upheld in 2016, when the D.C. Circuit in U.S. Sugar Corp. v. EPA, 830 F.3d 579 (D.C. Cir. 2016), reaffirmed that the EPA’s affirmative defense provision at issue intruded on the judiciary’s role in determining Title V permit violation penalties. Similarly, the D.C. Circuit in a 2008 case, Sierra Club v. EPA, 551 F.3d 1019 (D.C. Cir. 2008), vacated an EPA rule exempting emission standards requirements during startup, shutdown or malfunction, finding such exemption in violation of Clean Air Act requirements. These decisions led EPA to revisit similar affirmative defense provisions, resulting in the latest rule.
The EPA states that the provisions’ removal is consistent with other EPA actions, specifically referencing removal or omission of similar affirmative defenses for New Source Performance Standards, emission guidelines for existing sources, and regulations for National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP). According to the EPA, the latest action “would harmonize the EPA’s treatment of affirmative defenses across different [Clean Air Act] programs.”
As described in the rule summary, “any impermissible affirmative defense provisions within individual operating permits that are based on a Title V authority and that apply to federally-enforceable requirements will need to be removed.” The EPA has therefore instructed “any states that have adopted similar affirmative defense provisions” in operating permit programs to remove those provisions from their programs within twelve months of the rule’s August 21, 2023 effective date. The EPA expects the same revisions by local and tribal permit programs. Existing Title V operating permits “will eventually need to be revised” to remove language regarding affirmative defense provisions. These changes will likely occur during permit renewals or revisions.
The EPA does not believe the revisions will have a significant impact on sources, noting in the final rule that the Title V emergency defense provisions “have rarely, if ever, been asserted in enforcement proceedings.” Instead, sources more often assert affirmative defenses based on malfunctions, which were not addressed in this rule. In response to the potential chilling effect the rule may have on sources operating to provide vital services during an emergency, the EPA emphasized the enforcement discretion of oversight authorities, as well as accounting for emergency situations in determining remedies. The EPA further stated that the revisions will not restrict a source’s “ability to defend itself in an enforcement action” and that sources will still be able to seek the reduction or elimination of monetary penalties “based on the specific facts and circumstances of the emergency event.”
The proposed rule received significant comments, and legal challenges are likely to be forthcoming. We will continue to track this and other Clean Air Act developments on the Corporate Environmental Lawyer.
The U.S. Supreme Court has issued its opinion in the landmark Clean Water Act (“CWA”) case of Sackett v. EPA, No. 21-454 (May 25, 2023). This decision delivers a significant change in terms of the reach and jurisdiction of the CWA, and supplies some harsh critiques between the Justices that all agreed in the judgement but were fiercely divided on how to get there.
The question presented to the Court was, seemingly, straightforward: “Whether the Ninth Circuit set forth the proper test for determining whether wetlands are 'waters of the United States' under the Clean Water Act, 33 U.S.C. § 1362(7).” But, this question has wide-reaching implications. The definition of “waters of the United States” (“WOTUS”) sets the jurisdictional limits of the CWA. Under the CWA, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (“Army Corps”) have the power to regulate, among other things, the discharge of pollutants to navigable water from a point source (33 U.S.C. § 1362(12)) and the discharge of dredged or fill material into navigable waters (33 U.S.C. § 1344). “Navigable waters” are defined in the CWA as “the waters of the United States, including the territorial seas.” 33 U.S.C. §1362(7). “Waters of the United States” is not defined further under the Act, so the agencies have been left to try to craft a definition.
The Army Corps and EPA first proposed a WOTUS definition in 1977 and it has faced revisions and legal challenges ever since. The most controversial aspect of the WOTUS definition throughout its history has been the inclusion of wetlands and other non-navigable waters. The WOTUS definition has faced Supreme Court review in three previous cases:
- U.S. v. Riverside Bayview, 474 U.S. 121 (1985)
- Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 531 U.S. 159 (2001)
- Rapanos v. U.S., 547 U.S. 715 (2006)
Which brings us to the Sackett case. Justice Alito authored the majority opinion for the Court, joined by Chief Justice Roberts, and Justices Gorsuch and Barrett. All of the other Justices also concurred in the judgment, but joined in separate concurring opinions. The case involved a residential property owned by the Sacketts located near Priest Lake in Idaho. The property was designated by EPA as a wetland, and when the Sacketts started backfilling their property to begin constructing a house, they received a compliance order from EPA. EPA determined that the Sackett’s wetlands were WOTUS because they were adjacent to a tributary to Priest Lake and they were part of a larger wetland that had a significant effect on Priest Lake.
In evaluating this case, Justice Alito discussed the history of the CWA and the WOTUS definition. Alito acknowledged that the statutory context of the CWA shows that some wetlands qualify as WOTUS. That is because in 1977, Congress amended the CWA to add §1344(g)(1), which includes language that refers to navigable waters “including wetlands adjacent thereto”. Thus, Alito saw the Court’s task as “harmoniz[ing] the reference to wetlands in §1344(g)(1) with ‘the waters of the United States’”. (Slip Op. at 19.) Ultimately, the Court held that:
the CWA extends only to those wetlands that are as a practical matter indistinguishable from waters of the United States….This requires the party asserting jurisdiction over adjacent wetlands to establish first that the adjacent body of water constitutes waters of the United States (i.e., a relatively permanent body of water connected to traditional interstate navigable waters); and second, that the wetland has a continuous surface connection with that water, making it difficult to determine where the ‘water’ ends and the ‘wetland’ begins.
Slip Op. at 22 (internal citations omitted).
Interestingly, Justices Kagan, Sotomayor, Kavanaugh and Jackson all concurred in the judgment—they all agreed the ruling of the lower court should be reversed—but they strongly disagreed with the majority’s adoption of the “continuous surface connection” test for wetlands. Thus, the concurring opinions written by Justice Kagan and Justice Kavanaugh read like dissents and sharply criticized Justice Alito’s majority opinion. Both Justices argued that the majority’s test disregards the ordinary meaning of “adjacent” and narrows the CWA to exclude wetlands the Act has covered since 1977. That is because “adjacent” does not mean adjoining or contiguous; it can mean nearby. Thus, these concurring Justices would have adopted a test, consistent with agency practice, that “a wetland is “adjacent” to a covered water (i) if the wetland is adjoining—that is, contiguous to or bordering—a covered water—or (ii) if the wetland is separated from a covered water only by a man-made dike or barrier, natural river berm, beach dune or the like.” (Kavanaugh Concurring Op. at 4.)
Justice Thomas also concurred with the majority opinion, but wrote a separate opinion, with which Justice Gorsuch joined. Justice Thomas’s concurrence did not address the textual arguments that were the focus of the other opinions; instead he provided a detailed history of water regulation and stated that the CWA jurisdiction should be limited to truly navigable waters. He also included a section discussing his views on the court’s Commerce Clause jurisprudence and his belief that many environmental laws are not sufficiently related to interstate commerce to pass Constitutional muster.
While there was strong debate between the Justices, the definition of WOTUS appears to be settled at long last. A wetland will NOT be considered a WOTUS (and therefore not under the jurisdiction of the CWA) unless it has a continuous surface connection with a traditional navigable water. As we previously reported, EPA and the Army Corps recently updated the WOTUS rule in early 2023. That definition is not consistent with the Sackett ruling, and will likely be further revised by the agencies. EPA has not indicated yet how or when it will be revising the rule, or whether it will have enforcement guidance or leniency in the interim. We will be monitoring those developments and provide the latest updates on the Corporate Environmental Lawyer Blog.
On Earth Day and every day, companies face increasing pressure to “go green” or be more “sustainable.” When companies heed this call—whether it’s by reducing GHG emissions, investing in renewable energy, or making their products recyclable or compostable—they understandably want to let people know about the positive actions they are taking. But, when a company touts their supposed good deeds, it must carefully craft any public communications. That is because companies—particularly consumer goods companies—face increasing scrutiny and potential litigation liability for “greenwashing” and related false advertising and consumer fraud claims.
At the heart of greenwashing claims is the assertion that a company is making false or misleading statements about its environmental performance in order to engender goodwill and increase sales or support for the company. But sometimes a company may believe that it is making truthful statements and still face greenwashing claims. Terms that might be used, like “sustainable,” are highly subjective and hard to quantify or support. A product might be technically able to be recycled, but recycling facilities may not accept that type of material for recycling. A company might think it is “leading the way” in its green initiatives, while environmental groups are less than impressed. All of these examples could lead to push back from environmental groups or regulators in a variety of forums. There could be public media campaigns, regulatory fines, and/or consumer fraud lawsuits, all around what a company thought was inspirational marketing about its sustainable practices.
So what is a company to do? Communicating a company’s sustainability goals and accomplishments may be important to leadership and investors, and can be a crucial part of finding partners willing and able to help the company achieve those sustainability goals. There is no magic formula that will avoid the pitfalls of greenwashing; but there are some best practices that should be considered.
First, follow the FTC’s Green Guides. The FTC has provided guidance on green advertising statements for decades. For example, according to the Green Guides, “a product or package should not be marketed as recyclable unless it can be collected, separated, or otherwise recovered from the waste stream through an established recycling program for reuse or use in manufacturing or assembling another item.” Companies should qualify recycling claims unless recycling facilities are available to at lease 60% of consumers or communities where the item is sold. As another example, according to the Green Guides, companies “should not make unqualified renewable energy claims, directly or by implication, if fossil fuel, or electricity derived from fossil fuel, is used to manufacture any part of the advertised item or is used to power any part of the advertised service, unless the marketer has matched such non-renewable energy use with renewable energy certificates.”
Notably, in December 2022, FTC announced that is was seeking public comments on potential updates to the Green Guides. FTC is seeking general guidance on the Green Guides, as well as on specific topics, including:
- Carbon offsets and climate change,
- The term “Recyclable”,
- The term “Recycled Content”, and
- The need for additional guidance regarding claims such as “compostable,” “degradable,” ozone-friendly,” “organic,” and “sustainable”, as well as those regarding energy use and energy efficiency.
The comment period remains open until April 24, 2023.
Additionally, while the Green Guides are a great resource, they are not the final word on greenwashing. Courts faced with greenwashing litigation may impose higher or lower standards, depending on the laws of the jurisdiction at issue. Moreover, many greenwashing claims will turn on whether a reasonable consumer was mislead by a company’s statement. As the FTC acknowledged in its recent announcement on the Green Guides, “consumers are increasingly conscious of how the products they buy affect the environment…” These sophisticated consumers are informed about environmental and sustainability issues, and not so easily confused or deceived. Thus companies that advertise to and communicate with sophisticated consumers should provide facts that are supportable and have sufficient context. Avoid broad, sweeping statements that will be hard to substantiate. And while setting goals are often a key part of a company’s sustainability plan, know that environmental groups are watching and holding companies accountable. Down the road, un-met goals may be framed as misleading statements. So, when setting environmental goals, understand how they will be achieved; and if they ultimately aren’t achieved be prepared to explain why.
Companies around the world will be embracing the spirit of Earth Day and talking about the ways they are reducing their environmental impact. If they also want to reduce their likelihood of greenwashing litigation, they need to make sure those communications are thoughtful, supported and provide the appropriate context. With the right planning, companies and go green and talk about it too.
On April 12, 2023, a federal district court judge in North Dakota issued a temporary injunction blocking implementation of the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers regulations redefining Waters of the United States (“WOTUS”) under the Clean Water Act (“CWA”) (the “2023 WOTUS Rule”). The injunction was issued in a challenge brought by 24 states, and will take effect in those states: Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wyoming.
The WOTUS definition is one of the most controversial and highly-litigated aspects of the CWA, if not all environmental law, because it has wide-ranging implications. The definition of “waters of the United States” is so important because it sets the jurisdictional limits of the CWA. Under the CWA, EPA and the Army Corps have the power to regulate, among other things, the discharge of pollutants to navigable waters from a point source (33 U.S.C. § 1362(12)) and the discharge of dredged or fill material into navigable waters (33 U.S.C. § 1344). “Navigable waters” are defined in the CWA as “the waters of the United States, including the territorial seas.” 33 U.S.C. §1362(7). “Waters of the United States” is not defined further under the CWA, so the agencies have been left to try to craft a definition.
The Army Corps and EPA first proposed a WOTUS definition in 1977 and it has faced revisions and legal challenges ever since. The WOTUS definition has faced Supreme Court review in three previous cases, and is currently pending review in a fourth Supreme Court case, Sackett v. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 19-35469, on appeal from the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
On March 15, 2023, EPA finalized its Good Neighbor Plan under the Clean Air Act (“CAA”), a rule designed to reduce smog-forming nitrogen oxide ("NOx") pollution from power plants and other industrial facilities in 23 upwind states that impact compliance with ambient air quality standards in downwind states. This rule will have a significant impact on power plants emissions in 22 states beginning in 2023, and will impose additional emission limits on certain industries, such as cement manufacturing, mining and solid waste combustion, in 20 states beginning in 2026.
The CAA requires each state to submit State Implementation Plans (“SIPs”) that contain rules, plans and programs that will lead to compliance with the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (“NAAQS”). In these SIPs, states are required to ensure that air pollution sources in the state do not contribute to nonattainment of the NAAQS in other states. This requirement is known as the “Good Neighbor” provision of the CAA. On January 31, 2023, EPA determined that 21 states failed to meet the Good Neighbor requirements by failing to address interstate transport of ozone-creating NOx pollution in their SIPs. That action paved the way for EPA to institute Federal Implementation Plans (“FIPs”) in a total of 23 states to ensure that the Good Neighbor provisions were being addressed.
EPA will ensure that NOx emissions reductions are achieved by issuing FIP requirements for 23 states: Alabama, Arkansas, California, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.
On January 6, 2023, EPA announced that is was issuing a proposed rule to lower the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (“NAAQS”) for fine particulate matter (“PM2.5”), also referred to as soot. The current primary annual NAAQS for PM2.5 is 12 micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m3). EPA’s proposal will accept comments on reducing that annual NAAQS to a level between 9 and 10 µg/m3. EPA is proposing to keep in place the existing secondary annual standard for PM2.5, the primary and secondary 24-hour standards for PM2.5, and the primary and secondary standards for PM10.
The current standards have been in place since 2012, and were most recently reaffirmed by EPA in 2020. Then, in June of 2021, EPA announced it was reconsidering that 2020 decision, starting the process that lead to the current proposed rule. The NAAQS are national air quality goals set by EPA for criteria air pollutants (like particulate matter), at levels that will that will protect the public health with an adequate margin of safety (primary NAAQS) and protect the public welfare (secondary NAAQS). Notably, the NAAQS are set without consideration of cost or technical feasibility of compliance. Section 109(d)(1) of the Clean Air Act requires EPA to review existing NAAQS at 5-year intervals.
Particulate matter emissions come from a variety of sources, including power plants, unpaved roads, construction sites, mobile sources, and other industrial sites. Particulate matter pollution can cause significant health effects, primarily lung and other respiratory disease. Particulate matter also has environmental impacts, including as the primary cause of haze. EPA estimates that if finalized, a lowered primary annual PM2.5 standard at a level of 9 µg/m3, the lower end of the proposed range, would prevent:
- Up to 4,200 premature deaths per year;
- 270,000 lost workdays per year; and
- Result in as much as $43 billion in net health benefits in 2032.
Currently, most of the country is in attainment of the annual PM2.5 NAAQS, with the exception of several counties in California and one county in Pennsylvania. However, that attainment status may change drastically if the standard is lowered by up to 25%. Once the new PM2.5 NAAQS is set, states will have to determine what areas are in attainment or nonattainment, and then update their State Implementation Plans with rules or other plans that will allow the states to maintain attainment or reduce PM2.5 emissions and achieve attainment for any areas that are above the new standards.
The proposed rule will be published in the Federal Register in the next few weeks, and EPA will accept public comment for 60 days after publication. EPA also plans to conduct a virtual public hearing on the proposed rulemaking over several days, but the exact timing has not been determined yet. EPA plans to review the public comments and issue a final rulemaking later this year. Additional information about the proposed rule is available on EPA’s website.
On December 30, 2022, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (“Army Corps”) announced they had finalized the rule establishing the definition of “waters of the United States” (“WOTUS”) under the Clean Water Act (“CWA”) (the “WOTUS Rule”). This definition is one of the most controversial and highly-litigated aspects of the CWA, if not all environmental law, because it has wide-ranging implications.
The definition of “waters of the United States” is so important because it sets the jurisdictional limits of the CWA. Under the CWA, EPA and the Army Corps have the power to regulate, among other things, the discharge of pollutants to navigable waters from a point source (33 U.S.C. § 1362(12)) and the discharge of dredged or fill material into navigable waters (33 U.S.C. § 1344). “Navigable waters” are defined in the CWA as “the waters of the United States, including the territorial seas.” 33 U.S.C. §1362(7). “Waters of the United States” is not defined further under the CWA, so the agencies have been left to try to craft a definition.
The Army Corps and EPA first proposed a WOTUS definition in 1977 and it has faced revisions and legal challenges ever since. The WOTUS definition has faced Supreme Court review in three previous cases, and is currently pending review in the case of Sackett v. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 19-35469, on appeal from the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
The WOTUS definition was revised in 2015 by the Obama Administration to expand the definition and then in 2020 by the Trump Administration to narrow the definition; with both definitions facing swift legal challenges, including vacatur of the Trump rule in 2021. At issue in all of these rules is how to treat non-traditional navigable waters, like ephemeral bodies of water and wetlands.
The current WOTUS Rule goes back to re-establish the pre-2015 definition of WOTUS, and also incorporates guidance from the most recent Supreme Court case, the 2006 case of Rapanos v. U.S., 547 U.S. 715. In Rapanos, the Court did not reach a majority opinion. Justice Scalia authored a plurality opinion, Justice Kennedy wrote a concurring opinion, and Justice Stevens wrote a dissenting opinion. EPA and the Army Corps are incorporating Justice Kennedy’s opinion, which provided that wetlands and other bodies of water that have a “significant nexus” to more traditional navigable waters should be included in WOTUS. Id. at 759. This was in contrast to Justice Scalia’s opinion, which limited WOTUS to “only those wetlands with a continuous surface connection to bodies that are "waters of the United States" in their own right…” Id. at 739-42.
Thus, the new WOTUS Rule includes the following categories of waterbodies: (1) traditional navigable waters (e.g., certain large rivers and lakes); (2) territorial seas; (3) interstate waters; (4) impoundments; (5) tributaries; (6) adjacent wetlands; (7) and additional waters. To determine jurisdiction for tributaries, adjacent wetlands, and additional waters, the WOTUS Rule looks at whether the body of water meets either the “relatively permanent standard” or “significant nexus standard”, as follows:
- Relatively Permanent Standard is a test that readily identifies a subset of waters that will virtually always significantly affect traditional navigable waters, the territorial seas, or interstate waters. To meet the relatively permanent standard, the waterbodies must be relatively permanent, standing, or continuously flowing waters connected to traditional navigable waters or waters with a continuous surface connection to such relatively permanent waters or to traditional navigable waters, the territorial seas, or interstate waters.
- Significant Nexus Standard is a test that clarifies if certain waterbodies, such as tributaries and wetlands, are subject to the Clean Water Act based on their connection to and effect on larger downstream waters that Congress fundamentally sought to protect. A significant nexus exists if the waterbody (alone or in combination) significantly affects the chemical, physical, or biological integrity of traditional navigable waters, the territorial seas, or interstate waters.
The WOTUS rule will be published in the Federal Register in the next few days, and will be effective 60 days after publication. Legal challenges will surely follow, and its future longevity will likely be determined by the Supreme Court in the Sackett case. EPA had tried to avoid Supreme Court review based on the fact that it was working on a revised rule, but that argument was not successful. Therefore, it is likely that the Court will go forward and make a ruling on WOTUS, potentially undermining the basis for the current WOTUS rule. As always, we will keep you updated on key developments in the Corporate Environmental Lawyer Blog.
More information about the new WOTUS Rule is available on EPA’s website.
Jenner & Block Wishes Bon Voyage to Gay Sigel as She Starts Her Next Adventure with the City of Chicago
As Gay Sigel walked through the doors at One IBM Plaza in Chicago, fresh out of law school and ready to launch her career as an attorney at Jenner & Block, she could not have envisioned the tremendous impact she would have on her clients, her colleagues, and her community over the next 39 years. Gay started her legal career as a general litigator, but Gay and Bob Graham were quick to realize how the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) was creating a new and exciting area of the law that was increasingly important for the firm’s clients: Environmental Law. Gay and Bob saw an opportunity to specialize in that area and founded Jenner & Block’s Environmental Health and Safety Practice. Gay has been an ever-present force in the EHS community ever since.
Over her 39-year career at Jenner & Block, Gay has worked on some of the most significant environmental cases in the country for clients ranging from global Fortune 50 corporations to environmental organizations to individuals. For more than a decade, she taught environmental law at Northwestern University, helping shape the next generation of environmental lawyers. She has worked on issues of global impact, like those affecting climate change, issues of local impact like those related to combined sewer overflows to the Chicago River, and issues of individual impact like those involving employee safety and health. No matter the subject, Gay has always been a tireless advocate for her clients. We often describe her as the Energizer Bunny of environmental lawyers: she is the hardest working attorney we have ever met.
Gay’s true passion is to make this world a better, more just place for others. So, throughout her career as an environmental, health, and safety lawyer, Gay has devoted her time, energy, and emotional resources to innumerable pro bono cases and charitable and advocacy organizations. Her pro bono work includes successfully protecting asylum applicants, defending criminal cases, asserting parental rights, and defending arts organizations in OSHA matters. Among her many civic endeavors, Gay was a founding member of the AIDS Legal Council of Chicago (n/k/a as the Legal Council for Health Justice); she was the Secretary and active member of the Board of Directors for the Chicago Foundation for Women; and she was on the Board of the New Israel Fund. Gay continues to promote justice wherever she sees injustice, including as an advocate for women’s rights, particularly for women’s reproductive rights.
In both her environmental, health, and safety practice as well as her pro bono and charitable work, Gay is a tremendous mentor to younger (and even older) attorneys. She is curious, committed, exacting, fearless, and demanding (though more of herself than of others). We all give Gay much credit for making us the lawyers we are today.
Gay is leaving Jenner & Block to embark on her next adventure. She is returning to public service as Assistant Corporation Counsel Supervisor with the City of Chicago's Department of Law where she will be focusing on environmental issues. The City and its residents will be well served as Gay will bring her vast experience and unparalleled energy to work tirelessly to protect the City and its environment. We will miss working with and learning from Gay on a daily basis, but we look forward to seeing the great things she will accomplish for the City of Chicago. We know we speak for the entire firm as we wish Gay bon voyage—we will miss you!
In a compromise move many months in the making, on August 7, 2022, the Senate passed a spending bill dubbed the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, which contains provisions aimed at lowering drug prices and health care premiums, reducing inflation, and most notably for our readers, investing approximately $369 billion in energy security and climate change programs over the next ten years. The Inflation Reduction Act, which is the Fiscal Year 2022 Budget Reconciliation bill, passed on entirely partisan lines in the Senate, with all 50 Democratic senators voting in favor, all 50 Republicans voting against, and Vice President Harris breaking the tie in favor of the Democrats. The bill is currently pending before the House of Representatives, where it is expected to be hotly contested but ultimately pass.
According to Senate Democrats, the Inflation Reduction Act “would put the U.S. on a path to roughly 40% emissions reduction [below 2005 levels] by 2030, and would represent the single biggest climate investment in U.S. history, by far.” There are a wide variety of programs in this bill aimed at achieving these lofty goals, including:
- Clean Building and Vehicle Incentives
- Consumer home energy rebate programs and tax credits, to electrify home appliances, for energy efficient retrofits, and make homes more energy efficient.
- Tax credits for purchasing new and used “clean” vehicles.
- Grants to make affordable housing more energy efficient.
- Clean Energy Investment
- Tax credits to accelerate manufacturing and build new manufacturing plants for clean energy like electric vehicles, wind turbines, and solar panels.
- Grants and loans to retool or build new vehicle manufacturing plants to manufacture clean vehicles.
- Funding for EPA, DOE and NOAA to facilitate faster siting and permitting of new energy generation and transmission projects.
- Investment in the National Labs to accelerate breakthrough energy research.
- Reducing Carbon Emissions Throughout the Economy
- Tax credits for states and electric utilities to accelerate the transition to clean electricity.
- Grants and tax credits to reduce emissions from industrial manufacturing processes like chemical, steel and cement plants.
- Funding for Federal procurement of American-made clean technologies to create a stable market for clean products—including purchasing zero-emission postal vehicles.
- Environmental Justice
- Investment in community led projects in disadvantaged communities, including projects aimed at affordable transportation access.
- Grants to support the purchase of zero-emission equipment and technology at ports.
- Grants for clean heavy-duty trucks, like busses and garbage trucks.
- Farm and Rural Investment
- Funding to support climate-smart agriculture practices and forest conservation.
- Tax credits and grants to support the domestic production of biofuels.
- Grants to conserve and restore coastal habitats.
- Requires sale of 60 million acres to oil and gas industry for offshore wind lease issuance.
Drilling down on some of these many provisions, the clean vehicle consumer tax credit has already sparked controversy due to the requirement that certain manufacturing or components be sourced in North America. The Inflation Reduction Act would maintain the existing $7,500 consumer tax credit for the purchase of a qualified new clean vehicle. The Act would get rid of the previous limit that a single manufacturer could only offer up to 200,000 clean vehicle tax credits—a limit that many manufacturers were hitting. However, under the new bill, that tax credit is reduced or eliminated for electric vehicles if the vehicle is not assembled in North America or if the majority of battery components are sourced outside of North America and if a certain percentage of the critical minerals utilized in battery components are not extracted or processed in a Free Trade Agreement country or recycled in North America. Manufacturers have indicated these battery sourcing requirements are currently difficult to meet, and may result in many electric vehicles being ineligible for this tax credit in the near term.
Another controversial point in the Act is the handling of oil and gas rights vis-à-vis wind farm projects. The Act would allow the sale of tens of millions of acres of public waters to the oil and gas industry as part of an overall plan to require offshore oil and gas projects to allow installation of wind turbines. A group of 350 climate groups, including Senator Bernie Sanders, criticized this and other provisions they saw as favorable to the oil and gas industry in the Act. Despite his criticism of certain aspects of the Inflation Reduction Act, Senator Sanders ultimately voted for the bill.
The House is expect to vote on the Inflation Reduction Act very soon and if it is passed by the House, President Biden will sign it into law. We will continue to track the Act’s progress and its impact on the regulated community. You can follow the Corporate Environmental Lawyer Blog for all of the latest developments.
On the final day of its 2022 term, the Supreme Court issued its highly-anticipated opinion in the case of West Virginia v. EPA, 579 U.S. __ (2022), addressing EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases (“GHGs”) under the Clean Air Act (“CAA”), but having much broader implications for the authority of all administrative agencies. The opinion signals a significant shift in the standards used to review administrative actions. Chief Justice Roberts wrote the opinion for the Court, joined by Justices Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh and Barrett. Justice Gorsuch filed a concurring opinion, in which Justice Alito joined, and Justice Kagan filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justices Breyer and Sotomayor joined.
Major Questions Doctrine Has its Day in the Sun
In a significant yet long-predicted move, the six-to-three opinion rejected EPA’s approach to regulating GHG emissions under the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan (“CPP”), under which EPA intended to regulate existing coal-and natural-gas-fired power plants pursuant to Section 111(d) of the CAA. Of greater significance, however, the Court took the opportunity to fully embrace the “major questions doctrine,” a standard several Justices had endorsed but which had not yet been fully unveiled by the Court. The doctrine now requires agencies, in instances in which a regulation will have major economic and political consequences, to point to clear statutory language showing congressional authorization for the power claimed by the agency. In particular, in “extraordinary cases” in which “the history and the breadth of the authority that the agency has asserted and the economic and political significance of that assertion” is significant or major, courts have “a reason to hesitate before concluding that Congress meant to confer such authority.” Slip op. at 17. In such extraordinary cases, the Court will not read into ambiguous statutory text authority that is not clearly spelled out. Instead, “something more than a merely plausible textual basis for the agency action is necessary”; specifically, “[t]he agency instead must point to clear congressional authorization for the power it claims.” Slip op. at 19.
As support for the adoption and application of the major questions doctrine, the Court cited numerous cases in which agency authority was curtailed because of extraordinary circumstances that it determined required a clear congressional directive. The cases included the FDA’s attempt to regulate tobacco (FDA v. Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., 529 U.S. 120 (2000), the CDC’s effort to issue an eviction moratorium during the COVID-19 pandemic (Alabama Assn. of Realtors v. Dept. of Health & Human Servs., 594 U.S. __ (2021)), EPA’s assertion of permitting authority over millions of small sources like hotels and office buildings (Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA, 573 U.S. 302 (2014)), and OSHA’s endeavor to require 84 million Americans either obtain a COVID-19 vaccine or undergo weekly testing (National Federation of Independent Business v. OSHA, 595 U.S. __ (2021)), all of which, according to the Court, involved an agency overstepping its authority to act in situations not dissimilar from the extraordinary circumstances presented in West Virginia v. EPA. The dissent, on the other hand, regarded the majority’s use of the major questions doctrine to be without precedent, observing that “[t]he Court has never even used the term ‘major questions doctrine’ before.” Dissent at 15.
As discussed below, when the Court determines that the major questions doctrine applies, even if the administrative action arguably fits within what may seem like a broad grant of statutory authority, it is not necessarily enough to authorize the agency to act. Rather, if the court finds that the administrative rule is an “extraordinary case”, i.e., will have a significant economic or political impact, the agency must base its action on very clear congressional authorization to justify the power it is attempting to assert.
Clean Power Plan is Out But Regulating GHGs Still OK
Turning back to the regulation at issue in West Virginia, the Court reviewed the Clean Power Plan, which dates back to the Obama Administration’s EPA. At that time, EPA promulgated the CPP pursuant to its authority under the New Source Performance Standards (“NSPS”) in Section 111(d) of the CAA. The Court’s review thus centered on Section 111(d), which gives EPA authority to select the “best system of emission reduction” for existing sources of pollution, like power plants. 42 U.S.C. § 7411(d). Under the CPP, the Obama Administration’s EPA used the NSPS to set GHG emission standards for existing power plants which would require many operators to shut down older coal-fired units and/or shift generation to lower-emitting natural gas units or renewable sources of electricity. The Court viewed EPA’s CPP, which would have required power producers to significantly change the generation mix, as an “extraordinary case” because it would have a major impact on the economy and was a “transformative expansion in [EPA’s] regulatory authority” based on “vague language” in the CAA. Slip op. at 20. In addition, the Court noted that EPA was using an “ancillary provision” in the CAA to regulate GHGs and stated that “the Agency’s discovery [of Section 111(d)]”—which the Court described as a “gap filler”—"allowed it to adopt a regulatory program that Congress had conspicuously and repeatedly declined to enact itself.” Slip op. at 20.
Best System of Emission Reduction
Notably, the Court acknowledged that “as a matter of definitional possibilities, generation shifting can be described as a system” (and thus a “best system of emission reduction”), but nevertheless determined that the CAA’s grant of authority was too vague. Slip op. at 28. According to the Court, almost anything could be described as a “system”, and therefore the CPP was based on a vague grant of authority and did not pass the major questions doctrine test. Slip op. at 28. The majority found such a broad grant of authority questionable, particularly because climate change legislation has been debated in Congress for years with no action, signaling that EPA could not exercise such broad authority when Congress had clearly declined to take such action itself.
By contrast and contrary to the majority’s narrow reading of “best system of emission reduction,” the dissent argued that the generation shifting prescribed by the CPP was precisely the type of “system” of emission reduction permitted under the CAA. In particular, the dissent contended that the term “system” is not vague (which Justice Kagan defined as unclear, ambiguous or hazy) but intentionally expansive to allow for such system-wide programs. Thus, the crux of the disagreement between the majority and dissent is that the dissent saw the CAA as having bestowed broad authority on EPA to regulate complex and important issues of air pollution—including and especially climate change, particularly considering the severity of the problem—in the manner that EPA determines is most appropriate, while the majority required further scrutiny for large-scale administrative endeavors like the CPP, which it held require very clear and specific authorization.
In terms of the implications of West Virginia, what is clear is that the major questions doctrine is here to stay and EPA’s ability to regulate GHG’s under Section 111(d) of the CAA may be curtailed but has not been rejected. In fact, the Court specifically endorsed EPA’s authority to regulate GHGs. So, what does this mean, not only for GHG regulation but also for agency rulemaking in general?
First, while the ruling marks a significant setback for EPA, it does not shut the door on the agency’s ability to regulate GHGs. The CPP rules at issue raised the specter of the major questions doctrine because the regulation would have required generation shifting across the entire energy industry—an action viewed by the Court as having a significant impact on the national economy. The Court, however, declined to opine on “how far our opinion constrains EPA,” indicating that EPA’s authority had not been disallowed. Slip op. at 31, fn5. In fact, the opinion unequivocally states that it is within EPA’s purview to set a specific limit on GHG emissions. Slip op. at 6 (“Although the States set the actual rules governing existing power plants, EPA itself still retains the primary regulatory role in Section 111(d). The Agency, not the States, decides the amount of pollution reduction that must ultimately be achieved.”) Nothing in the opinion suggests that EPA cannot choose to regulate GHGs at power plants with more traditional technology-based requirements. Indeed, an inside-the-fence-line regulation that requires technology like carbon-capture would likely be within EPA’s traditional expertise and less likely to implicate large swaths of the economy like generation switching, and hence not be struck down.
Looking beyond EPA and GHG regulation, additional fallout from the Court’s embrace of the major questions doctrine is sure to occur. In addition to the Court’s explicit adoption of the major questions doctrine, Justice Gorsuch—a longstanding proponent of the doctrine—used his concurring opinion to lay out what he saw as the appropriate elements to consider when evaluating administrative rules under the doctrine. While Justice Gorsuch’s concurrence is not binding, future courts and administrative agencies likely will look to both the Court’s majority opinion and the Gorsuch concurrence for guidance. Administrative regulations will face increased challenges and heightened judicial scrutiny thanks to the major questions doctrine, and we can expect to see not only the number of challenges increase but also the number of successful challenges rise. Additionally, administrative agencies may proactively rein in regulatory actions they were planning to promulgate—keeping the rules more modest or tailored in an attempt to avoid challenges based on the major questions doctrine.
Undoubtedly, this will not be the last word on EPA regulation of GHGs or the use of the major questions doctrine. EPA will issue new GHG regulations, which certainly will invite future litigation. The decision will also certainly trigger many more challenges of agency authority under the newly minted major questions doctrine.
 Notably, the CPP was revoked by the Trump EPA, and the Biden EPA has stated that it intends to promulgate new GHG regulations different from the previous rules under past administrations. Nevertheless, the Court held that the parties had standing to proceed and the case was not moot. Slip op. at 14, 16.
As we near Earth Day 2022, the United States may be headed toward a profound change in the way EPA and similar administrative agencies regulate the complex areas of environmental law. EPA began operating more than 50 years ago in 1970, and has been tasked with promulgating and enforcing some of the most complex regulations on the books. From the Clean Air Act to the Clean Water Act; to CERCLA and RCRA and TSCA; and everything in between.
EPA has penned voluminous regulations over the past 50 years to implement vital environmental policies handed down from Congress—to remarkable effect. While there is certainly progress left to be done, improvements in air and water quality in the United States, along with hazardous waste management, has been impressive. For example, according to EPA data, from 1970 to 2020, a period in which gross domestic product rose 272% and US population rose 61%, aggregate emissions of the six criteria pollutants decreased by 78%.
For the past 50 years the environmental administrative law process has worked mostly the same way: First, Congress passes a law covering a certain environmental subject matter (e.g., water quality), which provides policy objectives and a framework of restrictions, prohibitions and affirmative obligations. Second, EPA, the administrative agency tasked with implementing the environmental law, promulgates detailed regulations defining terms used in the law and explaining in a more comprehensive fashion how to comply with the obligations outlined in the statute. Depending on the subject matter being addressed, Congress may leave more details up to EPA, as the subject matter expert, to fill in via regulation. In some instances, there is a third step, where additional authority is delegated to the states and tribes to implement environmental regulations at the state-level based on the framework established by Congress and EPA. Occasionally someone thinks EPA overstepped its authority under a given statute, or failed to act when it was supposed to, and litigation follows to correct the over or under action.
Currently, this system of administrative law is facing challenges from parties that believe administrative agencies like EPA have moved from implementing Congress’s policy to setting their own. The most significant such challenge has come in the consolidated Clean Air Act (“CAA”) cases pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, West Virginia v. EPA, Nos. 20-1530, 20-1531, 20-1778, 20-1780. In West Virginia v. EPA, challengers object to the Obama-EPA’s Clean Power Plan (“CPP”), which used a provision in the New Source Performance Standards (“NSPS”) section of the CAA to set greenhouse gas emission standards for existing power plants. The biggest issue with the CPP, according to challengers, is that the new standards would require many operators to shut down older coal-fired units and shift generation to lower-emitting natural gas or renewable units. Challengers, which include several states, power companies and coal companies, argue the CPP implicates the “major questions doctrine” or “non-delegation doctrine”. These doctrines provide that large-scale initiatives that have broad impacts can't be based on vague, minor, or obscure provisions of law. Challengers argue that the NSPS provision used as the basis for the CPP is a minor provision of law that is being used by EPA to create a large-scale shift in energy policy. EPA argues that, although it is currently revising its greenhouse gas regulations, the actions taken in the CPP were authorized by Congress in the CAA, are consistent with with the text of the CAA as written, and do not raise the specter of the major questions or non-delegations doctrines.
While this case will certainly dictate how EPA is permitted to regulate greenhouse gases under the CAA, it will likely have broader impacts on administrative law. On the one hand, the Court may issue a narrow opinion that evaluates the CPP based on the regulations being inconsistent with the text or intent of the CAA. On the other hand, the Supreme Court may issue a broader opinion that invokes the major questions or non-delegation doctrines to hold that based on the significant-impacts of the regulation, it is an area that should be governed by Congress, not an administrative agency. If the Supreme Court takes the latter route, it could set more limits on Congress’s ability to delegate regulatory authority to administrative agencies like EPA.
Indeed, in the Supreme Court’s recent decision on the OSHA emergency temporary standard on employer vaccine or test mandate (“the OSHA ETS”), Ohio v. Dept. of Labor, et al., 595 U.S. ____ (2022), the Court struck down an administrative regulation in a preview of what might be coming in the EPA CAA case. As everyone knows by now, the Supreme Court struck down the OSHA ETS, holding it was an overstep of the agency’s authority to regulate safety issues in the workplace. The Court’s opinion focused on the impact of the OSHA ETS—that it will impact 84 million employees and it went beyond the workplace—instead of the statutory language. The Court stated, “[i]t is telling that OSHA, in its half century of existence, has never before adopted a broad public health regulation of this kind—addressing a threat that is untethered, in any causal sense, from the workplace.” Slip op. at 8.
Justices Thomas, Alito and Gorsuch invoked the major questions doctrine in their concurring opinion, stating that Congress must speak clearly if it wishes to delegate to an administrative agency decisions of vast economic and political import. In the case of OSHA and COVID-19, the Justices maintained that Congress did not clearly assign to OSHA the power to deal with COVID-19 because it had not done so over the past two years of the pandemic. Notably, the fact that when Congress passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act, it authorized OSHA to issue emergency regulations upon determining that “employees are exposed to grave danger from exposure to substances or agents determined to be toxic or physically harmful” and “that such emergency standard[s] [are] necessary to protect employees from such danger[s]”, was not a sufficient basis for the Court or the three consenting Justices. In their view, in order to authorize OSHA to issue this vaccine or test mandate, Congress had to do more than delegate to OSHA general emergency powers 50 years ago, but instead would have had to delegate authority specific to the current pandemic.
Applying this logic to EPA and the currently-pending CAA case, Justices Thomas, Alito and Gorsuch may conclude that provisions of the CAA written 50 or 30 years ago, before climate change was fully on Congress’s radar, should not be used to as the basis for regulations that impact important climate and energy policy. Of course, many questions remain: Will a majority of the court adopt this view, and how far they will take it? If Congress can’t delegate climate change and energy policy, what else is off the table—water rights? Hazardous waste? Chemical management? If Congress can’t delegate to EPA and other administrative agencies at the same frequency as in the past, how will Congress manage passing laws dealing with complex and technical areas of law?
All of these questions and more may arise, depending on how the Supreme Court rules in West Virginia v. EPA. For now, we are waiting to see what will happen, in anticipation of some potentially significant changes on the horizon.
 Jenner & Block filed an Amicus Curiae brief in this case on behalf of Former Power Industry Executives in support of EPA.
EPA Proposes Hazardous Substance Facility Response Plan Regulations; Includes Climate Change and Environmental Justice Considerations
On March 11, 2022, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) announced it was proposing new regulations that would require certain facilities located close to navigable waters create and submit Facility Response Plans for worst case discharges of hazardous substances. These regulations would add to EPA’s existing regulations of worst case discharges of oil, which have been in place since 1994. Adding a new twist in these proposed regulations, EPA would grant Regional Administrators wide discretion to make the Facility Response Plan requirements mandatory at facilities that, in the Regional Administrator’s judgment, were vulnerable to climate change or potentially impacting an environmental justice community, even if the facilities are not near a navigable water.
The Clean Water Act (“CWA”) contains general spill response plan requirements, which require EPA to establish rules “to prevent discharges of oil and hazardous substances from vessels and from onshore facilities and offshore facilities, and to contain such discharges…” 42 U.S.C. § 1321(j)(1)(C). In response to this requirement of the CWA, EPA promulgated its Spill Prevention, Control, and Countermeasure (“SPCC”) Regulations, found at 40 C.F.R. part 112.
The proposed hazardous substance Facility Response Plan rules are being promulgated pursuant to Section 311(j)(5) of the Clean Water Act (CWA), a slightly more specific provision that was added to the CWA in 1990. Section 311(j)(5)(A) directs EPA to issue regulations that require certain facilities to prepare and submit to EPA “a plan for responding, to the maximum extent practicable, a worst case discharge, and to a substantial threat of such a discharge, of oil or a hazardous substance.” 42 U.S.C. § 1321(j)(5)(A)(i). Specifically, the CWA states that facilities covered by this requirement include, a facility “that, because of its location, could reasonably be expected to cause substantial harm to the environment by discharging into or on the navigable waters, adjoining shorelines, or the exclusive economic zone.” 42 U.S.C. § 1321(j)(5)(C)(iv).
In 1994, EPA promulgated regulations that require certain facilities that store and use oil to prepare and submit a Facility Response Plan. See 40 C.F.R. §§ 112.20-112.21. However, EPA never issued regulations requiring similar response plans for facilities storing hazardous substances. On March 21, 2019, several environmental groups (the Natural Resources Defense Council, Clean Water Action, and the Environmental Justice Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform) sued EPA alleging violations of the CWA and the Administrative Procedures Act for its failure to issue those regulations. The environmental groups and EPA entered into a consent decree on March 12, 2020, that resolved the lawsuit and required EPA promulgate hazardous substance response plan regulations by March 12, 2022.
On January 24, 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a case on the scope and authority of the Clean Water Act (“CWA”). The Court granted certiorari in the case of Sackett v. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 19-35469, on appeal from the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
The question presented to the Court is, seemingly, straightforward: “Whether the Ninth Circuit set forth the proper test for determining whether wetlands are 'waters of the United States' under the Clean Water Act, 33 U.S.C. § 1362(7).” But, this question has wide-reaching implications. The definition of “waters of the United States” (“WOTUS”) sets the jurisdictional limits of the CWA. Under the CWA, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (“Army Corps”) have the power to regulate, among other things, the discharge of pollutants to navigable water from a point source (33 U.S.C. § 1362(12)) and the discharge of dredged or fill material into navigable waters (33 U.S.C. § 1344). “Navigable waters” are defined in the CWA as “the waters of the United States, including the territorial seas.” 33 U.S.C. §1362(7). “Waters of the United States” is not defined further under the Act, so the agencies have been left to try to craft a definition.
The Army Corps and EPA first proposed a WOTUS definition in 1977 and it has faced revisions and legal challenges ever since. The WOTUS definition has faced Supreme Court review in three previous cases:
- U.S. v. Riverside Bayview, 474 U.S. 121 (1985)
- Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 531 U.S. 159 (2001)
- Rapanos v. U.S., 547 U.S. 715 (2006)
In the most recent Supreme Court treatment, the Court did not reach a majority opinion. Justice Scalia authored a plurality opinion, Justice Kennedy wrote a concurring opinion, and Justice Stevens wrote a dissenting opinion. Following the Rapanos decision, lower courts and the agencies have grappled with whether to follow the framework laid out by Justice Scalia or Justice Kennedy. The primary difference is how they dealt with bodies of waters on the fringe of jurisdiction, like wetlands. Justice Scalia would include in WOTUS: “only those relatively permanent, standing or continuously flowing bodies of water forming geographic features that are described in ordinary parlance as streams, oceans, rivers, and lakes…[and] only those wetlands with a continuous surface connection to bodies that are "waters of the United States" in their own right…” Id. at 739-42. Justice Kennedy went beyond wetlands with a “continuous surface connection” to include wetlands and other bodies of water that have a “significant nexus” to more traditional navigable waters. Id. at 759.
The WOTUS definition was revised in 2015 by the Obama Administration to expand the definition and then in 2020 by the Trump Administration to narrow the definition; with both definitions facing swift legal challenges, including vacatur of the Trump rule in 2021. Just recently, on November 18, 2021, EPA and the Army Corps announced that they were issuing a proposed rule to re-establish the pre-2015 definition of WOTUS. The current proposed rule includes the “significant nexus” standard for non-traditional navigable waters.
In the case currently before the Supreme Court, Petitioners Michael and Chantell Sackett purchased property in Idaho in 2004 intending to build a home. When the Sacketts began filling in the wetlands on the property, EPA issued an administrative compliance order stating the property contained wetlands subject to CWA authority. The Sacketts were ordered to restore the property or face daily penalties. The Sacketts sued EPA, challenging the compliance order. The case has wound through the courts for years, eventually landing in the Ninth Circuit, where that court applied Justice Kennedy's “significant nexus” test and held that “EPA reasonably determined that the Sacketts' property contains wetlands that share a significant nexus with Priest Lake, such that the lot was regulable under the CWA and the relevant regulations.” Sackett v. EPA, 8 F. 4th 1075, 1093 (9th 2021).
In their petition for certiorari, Petitioners asked the Court to take the case to clear up the deep confusion over what standard applies and how it is interpreted by lower courts and the agencies. EPA tried to resist certiorari by arguing that the decision below was correctly decided and not in conflict with any opinion of the Court or other courts of appeals. Now, EPA faces an uphill battle before a Court that is more conservative than in 2006 and, in all likelihood, will be receptive to adopting Justice Scalia’s “continuous surface connection” standard, thereby narrowing the scope of the CWA.
EPA faces continuing pressure to improve the way it protects communities from lead in drinking water. One focus of the current EPA has been the Lead and Copper Drinking Water Rule Revisions (“LCRR”), promulgated under the Trump administration. As it grappled with what to do with the LCRR, the Biden EPA delayed the LCRR’s effective date and compliance deadlines on two occasions, most recently making the LCRR effective on December 16, 2021 and pushing the compliance deadline back nine months, from January 16, 2024 to October 16, 2024. National Primary Drinking Water Regulations: Lead and Copper Rule Revisions; Delay of Effective and Compliance Dates, 86 FR 31939 (June 16, 2021). Then, in conjunction with the LCRR’s effective date, on December 16, 2021, EPA announced its plans to revise and strengthen the LCRR, while leaving the rule in place for now. Review of the National Primary Drinking Water Regulation: Lead and Copper Rule Revisions (LCRR), 86 FR 71574 (Dec. 17, 2021).
In response to the delays of the LCRR’s effective date and compliance deadlines, the states of Arizona, Louisiana, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Texas filed a challenge in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, in the case of Arizona et al. v. U.S. EPA et al., Case No. 21-1159. On January 6, 2022, the states filed their opening brief, explaining that they wanted the court to vacate the recent EPA actions, which were, in their view, unlawful delays of the compliance deadlines in the LCRR.
The Lead and Copper Rule Revisions (“LCRR”)
On October 5, 2021, California Governor Newsom signed SB 343, addressing recyclability claims on products and in advertising. The Act amends existing sections of California’s Business and Professions Code as well as the Public Resource Code relating to environmental advertising. These laws collectively provide California’s version of recyclability consumer protection laws, similar to but going beyond the Federal Trade Commission Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims (“Green Guides”).
Prior to SB 343, existing California law made it unlawful for any person to make any untruthful, deceptive, or misleading environmental marketing claim, and required that environmental marketing claims be substantiated by competent and reliable evidence. Additionally, a person making any recyclability claims was required to maintain written records supporting the validity of those representations, including whether, the claims conform with the Green Guides.
Those requirements are generally left intact, with additional obligations added by SB 343. The first big change made by SB 343 is to specifically add the use of the chasing arrow symbol as a way that a person might make a misleading environmental marketing claim in marketing or on a product label. (Business and Professions Code § 17580(a).) Next, SB 343 requires the Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery, by January 1, 2024, to update regulations requiring disposal facilities to provide information on recycling data. Based on the information published by the department, a product or packaging is considered recyclable only if the product or packaging is collected for recycling by recycling programs for jurisdictions that collectively encompass at least 60% of the population of the state. (Public Resources Code § 42355.51(d)(2).) The new law also provides additional criteria related to curb-side recycling, that grow more stringent over time, and PFAS content of plastic material, among other provisions. (Public Resources Code § 42355.51(d)(3).) A person making recyclability claims must keep written records of whether the consumer good meets all of the criteria for statewide recyclability pursuant to these new provisions. (Business and Professions Code § 17580(a)(6).)
Finally, while existing California law governed what resin identification code could be placed on plastic containers (i.e., #1 PETE, #2 HDPE), SB 343 states that resin identification code numbers cannot be placed inside a chasing arrows symbol unless the rigid plastic bottle or rigid plastic container meets the new statewide recyclability criteria discussed above. (Public Resources Code § 18015(d).)
This new law is another hurdle facing companies making environmental marketing claims. For companies selling products in California, it is not sufficient to simply follow the FTC Green Guides. Instead, companies must be aware of the specific nuances and requirements in California and developments in other states.
As the saying goes, “no good neighbor rule goes unpunished.” Thus, the latest attempt by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) to promulgate a Revised Cross-State Air Pollution Rule (“CSAPR”) Update under the “good neighbor provision” of the Clean Air Act and in response to the D.C. Circuit’s remand of the previous version of the CSAPR Update has been challenged in court. On June 25, 2021, Midwest Ozone Group—an affiliation of companies, trade organizations, and associations created to advance its members interests regarding national ambient air quality programs—filed a petition for review of the final rule of EPA published in the Federal Register at 86 Fed. Reg. 23,054 (April 30, 2021) entitled the “Revised Cross-State Air Pollution Rule Update for the 2008 Ozone NAAQS.” The petition does not provide any details at this point regarding the basis for the group’s challenge to the Revised CSAPR Update.
As we previously reported on this Blog, the Revised CSAPR Update became effective 60 days after it was published (effective on June 29, 2021), and has requirements that begin right away in the 2021 ozone season (the ozone season is May 1 through September 30). The rule requires additional emissions reductions of nitrogen oxides (“NOX”) from power plants in 12 states: Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia. EPA determined that additional emissions reductions were necessary in these 12 states because projected 2021 ozone season NOX emissions from these states were found to significantly contribute to downwind states’ nonattainment and/or maintenance problems for the 2008 ozone National Ambient Air Quality Standards (“NAAQS”). NOX is an ozone precursor, which can react with other ozone precursors in the atmosphere to create ground-level ozone pollution (a/k/a smog). These pollutants can travel great distances, often crossing state lines and making it difficult for downwind states to meet or maintain the ozone NAAQS.
One part of the Revised CSAPR Update that may be of particular interest to the challengers is that EPA issued new or amended Federal Implementation Plans (“FIPs”) for these 12 states that replaces those states’ existing CSAPR emissions budgets for power plants. The revised emission budgets take effect immediately with the 2021 ozone season and will adjust through 2024. The 2021 emission budgets will require power plants in these states to take advantage of existing, already-installed selective catalytic reduction (“SCR”) and selective non-catalytic reduction (“SNCR”) controls. Emissions reductions in the 2022 budgets will require installation or upgrade of state-of-the-art NOX combustion controls at power plants. Emission budgets will continue to be adjusted, through 2024, until air quality projections demonstrate that the upwind states are no longer significantly contributing to downwind states’ nonattainment of the 2008 ozone NAAQS.
Midwest Ozone Group is required to submit a Statement of Issues to be Raised by July 28, 2021, which should shed more light on the strengths or weaknesses of the petitioner’s challenges to this rule. Stay tuned to the Corporate Environmental Lawyer Blog for additional analysis at that time and if any other significant developments arise in the meantime.
EPA to Revise or Replace Trump-Era Clean Water Act Rules, But Will Leave Existing Rules In Place For Now
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”), under Administrator Michael Regan, has begun the process of reviewing and revising two key Clean Water Act (“CWA”) rules: The Navigable Waters Protection Rule and the CWA Section 401 Certification Rule. In recent court filings in cases where litigants have challenged both of these Trump-era rules, EPA has requested those cases be remanded because EPA has commenced new rulemaking processes that will revise or replace the challenged rules. However, if the courts grant EPA’s requests, EPA has requested that the existing rules remain in effect until EPA finalizes replacement rules through the formal notice and comment rulemaking process.
The first of the two key CWA rules at issue is the Navigable Waters Protection Rule, which defines “Waters of the United States”. This is a significant rule and definition because the jurisdiction of the CWA is limited to Waters of the United States. Thus, by setting the definition of Waters of the United States, EPA establishes the reach of the CWA. Due to the significance of this definition, it has been widely contested throughout the years and every attempt by EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to promulgate a definition has faced legal challenges.
In 2019, the Trump Administration rescinded the Obama-era Waters of the United States rule and in 2020, issued the Navigable Waters Protection Rule, narrowing the definition of Waters of the United States. The most significant change in the Trump rule is that the new definition excludes ephemeral waters (those flowing only in direct response to precipitation) and many wetlands that are near other jurisdictional waters but lack a physical or surface connection to them.
In several court filings in June, EPA has stated its plans “to commence a new rulemaking to revise or replace the [Navigable Waters Protection] rule.” Notably, EPA is not requesting vacatur of the existing rule during the rulemaking process.
The second CWA rule facing a similar fate is the CWA Section 401 Certification Rule. Under the CWA, a federal agency may not issue a permit or license for an activity that may result in a discharge into a Water of the United States unless a Section 401 Certification has been issued verifying compliance with water quality requirements. States and authorized tribes are generally responsible for issuing Section 401 Certifications, and they are required to act on a Section 401 Certification request “within a reasonable period of time (which shall not to exceed one year) after receipt” of such a request. 33 U.S.C. § 1341(a)(1).
The Trump EPA issued the final CWA Section 401 Certification Rule on July 13, 2020, with the goal of expediting infrastructure permitting by making the 401 Certification process quicker. The biggest changes made by this rule were limiting the scope of state and tribal certification review and limiting the imposition of conditions in the certifications. Just as with the Navigable Waters Protection Rule, EPA has now indicated in court filings (and on its website) that the Section 401 Certification Rule is under review and will be revised or revoked, but also will not be vacated in the interim.
EPA has a lot of work ahead to propose new versions of these rules for public review and comment. Promulgation of final rules will therefore be many months, if not more than a year away. In the meantime, environmental groups and other challengers have indicated they will continue to challenge the Trump-era rules still in effect. The Corporate Environmental Lawyer blog will keep a close watch and report on all key developments.
In a unanimous decision authored by Justice Thomas, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in the case of Guam v. United States, No. 20-382, 593 U.S. __ (2021), that a party must resolve “CERCLA-specific liability” in order to trigger contribution rights under § 113(f)(3)(B) of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (“CERCLA”).
The question before the Court was whether a settlement between Guam and the United States that resolved claims under the Clean Water Act could be the basis for a contribution claim under § 113(f)(3)(B) of CERCLA. In this case, Guam and the U.S. EPA had entered into a Consent Decree following a Clean Water Act lawsuit, settling the United States’ Clean Water Act claims against Guam and requiring Guam take actions to close and cover a dump site. Thirteen years later Guam sued the United States under CERCLA for cost recovery and contribution, claiming the United States’ earlier use of the dump site exposed it to liability. The district court, in a ruling affirmed by the court of appeals, ruled that Guam had a contribution claim at one point, based on its Clean Water Act Consent Decree because that Decree required remedial measures and provided a conditional release, which sufficiently resolved Guam’s liability for the dump site and triggered a CERCLA contribution claim under § 113(f)(3)(B). However, the Decree also triggered the three-year statute of limitations, which had expired, leaving Guam without any viable claims.
The Supreme Court reversed the lower courts, rejecting the notion that the Clean Water Act Consent Decree was sufficiently similar to a CERCLA settlement to trigger contribution liability. The Court focused on a textual analysis of the statute, which states in relevant part that:
A person who has resolved its liability to the United States or a State for some or all of a response action or for some or all of the costs of such action in an administrative or judicially approved settlement may seek contribution from any person who is not party to a [qualifying] settlement.
42 U.S.C. § 9613(f)(3)(B).
Of particular note to the Court was the reference in § 113(f)(3)(B) to “response action”, which is a term of art in CERCLA, and appears throughout the Act. The Court reasoned that this language “is best ‘understood only with reference’ to the CERCLA regime.” Guam, slip op. at 6, quoting United States v. Atlantic Research Corp., 551 U. S. 128, 135 (2007). Thus, according to the Court’s reasoning, to resolve liability for a “response action,” a party must engage in a CERCLA-specific settlement, not “settle an environmental liability that might have been actionable under CERCLA.” Id. at 7.
In conclusion, the Court held that “[t]he most natural reading of §113(f)(3)(B) is that a party may seek contribution under CERCLA only after settling a CERCLA-specific liability.” Id. at 9.
Like most major CERCLA decisions, the Court’s ruling answers one question but raises many more. We can expect future litigation on the precise bounds of how specific a settlement need be to qualify as “CERCLA-specific” under the Court’s holding. There will also likely be litigation regarding how this ruling may apply to other provision of CERCLA beyond §113(f )(3)(B). As always, the Corporate Environmental Lawyer Blog will be monitoring these important developments and reporting on what you need to know.
As the Corporate Environmental Lawyer Blog celebrates Earth Day, we turn to the important topic of drinking water. Drinking water, like the air we breathe, is an environmental issue that everyone interacts with on a daily basis. But, much like air pollution, contamination of drinking water often has the largest impact on poor communities and communities of color.
In a 2019 report co-authored by environmental organizations Natural Resources Defense Council (“NRDC”), Coming Clean, and Environmental Justice Health Alliance (“EJHA”), the groups analyzed EPA data on community drinking water systems, concluding that there “is unequal access to safe drinking water, based most strongly on race.” The report made several important findings that lead to this conclusion, including:
- Drinking water systems that constantly violated the law for years were 40 percent more likely to occur in places with higher percentages of residents who were people of color.
- Nearly 130 million people in the U.S. got their drinking water from systems that violated federal law during the time period reviewed in the report.
- Small systems – those that serve less than 3,300 people – were responsible for more than 80% of all violations. The EPA has noted many small systems are “likely to serve low-income, vulnerable populations.”
While there are many contaminants that communities monitor for in drinking water, lead is one of the most public and concerning drinking water contaminants of concern. Lead in drinking water is caused by the very pipes and service lines bringing us our water, entering the water when a chemical reaction occurs in plumbing materials that contain lead. As we saw in the Flint, Michigan lead water crisis in 2016, this corrosion of metal from the pipes and fixtures is more severe when water has high acidity or low mineral content.
Lead in drinking water has been a target of environmental activists and agencies for years. Recently, EPA amended its Lead and Copper Drinking Water Rule, under the authority of the Safe Drinking Water Act, to add a new lead trigger level for drinking water monitoring and add more proactive measures to identify upgrades needed to reduce the effects of deteriorating infrastructure. However, this rule was finalized at the end of the Trump Administration and the Biden Administration extended the effective date through June 2021, likely to be pushed back further as Biden’s EPA evaluates whether it wants to make additional changes.
Taking a bolder step, President Biden’s latest proposed legislation under his “Build Back Better” agenda—the American Jobs Plan—includes significant funding and plans to address lead in drinking water. According to the American Jobs Plan Fact Sheet:
“President Biden’s plan will eliminate all lead pipes and service lines in our drinking water systems, improving the health of our country’s children and communities of color.”
The current proposal includes $45 billion to replace every lead water line across the nation. In addition to the lead-specific funding, the American Jobs Plan proposes funding for broader drinking water improvements, including $56 billion to upgrade and modernize drinking water supplies through grants and low-cost flexible loans to states, Tribes, territories, and disadvantaged communities; and $10 billion to provide funding to monitor PFAS substances in drinking water and invest in rural small water systems & household well & wastewater systems.
This drinking water funding is just one small part of the $2.65 trillion plan, but it will likely continue to play an important part of the President’s agenda. The Corporate Environmental Lawyer Blog will stay on top of all relevant developments as negotiations on the American Jobs Plan and other drinking water proposals advance.
EPA Finalizes Revised Cross-State Air Pollution Rule Update: Emissions Reductions Required at Certain Power Plants Beginning in May
On March 15, 2021, EPA finalized the Revised Cross-State Air Pollution Rule (“CSAPR”) Update for the 2008 ozone National Ambient Air Quality Standards (“NAAQS”). This final rule is issued pursuant to the “good neighbor provision” of the Clean Air Act and in response to the D.C. Circuit’s remand of the previous version of the CSAPR Update in Wisconsin v. EPA on September 13, 2019. The previous version of the CSAPR Update was issued in October 2016, and was found to be unlawful because it allowed certain states to continue their significant contributions to downwind ozone problems beyond the statutory dates by which the downwind states were required to be in compliance with the NAAQS. The Revised CSAPR Update attempts to address the deficiencies identified by the D.C. Circuit.
Beginning in the 2021 ozone season (the ozone season is May 1 through September 30), the Revised CSAPR Update will require additional emissions reductions of nitrogen oxides (“NOX”) from power plants in 12 states: Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia. EPA determined that additional emissions reductions were necessary in these 12 states because projected 2021 ozone season NOX emissions from these states were found to significantly contribute to downwind states’ nonattainment and/or maintenance problems for the 2008 ozone NAAQS. NOX is an ozone precursor, which can react with other ozone precursors in the atmosphere to create ground-level ozone pollution (a/k/a smog). These pollutants can travel great distances, often crossing state lines and making it difficult for downwind states to meet or maintain the ozone NAAQS.
On March 2, 2021, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a ruling from the United States District Court for the District of Colorado in the case of Colorado v. EPA, et al., Nos. 20-1238, 20-1262, and 20-1263, that had issued a preliminary injunction blocking implementation of the Trump Administration’s Navigable Waters Protection Rule (“NWPR”) in the State of Colorado. Under the Tenth Circuit ruling, the NWPR was put back into force, and the State of Colorado’s case was remanded back to district court for further proceedings challenging the rule.
The NWPR is the latest attempt by EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers to define “Waters of the United States” and thereby define the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act. The agencies have been grappling with this definition for nearly 50 years, and have faced nearly constant legal challenges along the way. In 2017, the Trump Administration rescinded the definition that had been promulgated under the Obama Administration, and in 2020, offered up its own definition in the NWPR. The NWPR narrows the definition of “Waters of the United States” from past definitions–notably by excluding certain wetlands and ephemeral streams from the definition and thus excluding them from the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act.
A number of lawsuits were filed challenging the NWPR, including Colorado v. EPA. The Colorado case was significant because Colorado sought, and was granted, a preliminary injunction blocking implementation of the NWPR in the State of Colorado. The State had argued that by reducing the reach of the Clean Water Act, the NWPR caused irreparable injury to the State because Colorado would be forced to undertake additional enforcement actions in place of the federal government to protect the quality of its waterways. While the district court had found this to be sufficient injury to support the State’s preliminary injunction, the Tenth Circuit found that it was too speculative and uncertain. Thus, the preliminary injunction was rejected and reversed because the State of Colorado could not show irreparable injury. Notably, the Tenth Circuit did not address the merits of the State’s challenge to the NWPR.
Additionally, prior to the Tenth Circuit’s ruling, EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers had requested the court hold the appeal in abeyance for 60 days in light of the new leadership at the agencies following the election of President Biden. The court denied the request and issued its ruling lifting the preliminary injunction the following day. The Biden Administration has indicated it is reviewing the NWPR and may want to make changes to broaden the definition of “Waters of the United States” once again. If that is the case, the agencies may look to settle the Colorado case and other similar litigation with a promise of changes to come. The Corporate Environmental Lawyer Blog will monitor and report on these matters as they develop.
On December 7, 2020, EPA completed its five-year review of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (“NAAQS”) for Particulate Matter (“PM”), a criteria air pollutant under the Clean Air Act. In a final action set to be published in the Federal Register in the coming days, EPA decided to retain the current NAAQS for PM, which have been in place since 2012.
PM is measured in two categories:
- Fine particles, or PM2.5, which are particles with a diameter of 2.5 micrometers and smaller; and
- Coarse particles, or PM10, which are particles with a diameters between 2.5 and 10 micrometers.
PM2.5, emitted from numerous sources including power plants, vehicle exhaust, and fires, is generally the more significant health concern, as it has been linked to serious respiratory disease, increased mortality rates, and recent studies have even linked a history of PM2.5 exposure to increased COVID-19 mortality rates.
The Clean Air Act requires EPA to set both primary and secondary NAAQS for PM2.5 and PM10. Primary NAAQS must be set at levels that will protect public health and secondary NAAQS must be set at levels that will protect public welfare. All NAAQS must be reviewed by EPA every five years. EPA has regulated PM emissions through the NAAQS since 1971, and revised the PM NAAQS four times since then—in 1987,1997, 2006 and 2012.
The current primary and secondary NAAQS for PM are as follows:
According to EPA data, there are currently 16 counties in the U.S. currently in nonattainment of the primary PM2.5 NAAQS and 23 counties currently in nonattainment of the primary PM10 NAAQS.
EPA’s decision to keep the existing PM NAAQS comes despite warnings from its own scientists. Notably, in the Policy Assessment for the Review of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards for Particulate Matter, one of the technical documents used by EPA in support of its final decision, EPA scientists concluded that:
“When taken together, we reach the conclusion that the available scientific evidence, air quality analyses, and the risk assessment…can reasonably be viewed as calling into question the adequacy of the public health protection afforded by the combination of the current annual and 24-hour primary PM2.5 standards.”
This Policy Assessment also states that under the current PM2.5 standards, long-term PM2.5 exposures are estimated to be associated with as many as 45,000 total deaths per year. However, the Policy Assessment also noted certain uncertainties and limitations in the evidence and risk assessments that could lead the agency to decide to keep the existing standards.
EPA received over 60,000 public comments on the PM NAAQS proposal, which was closely watched by environmentalists and industry alike. Because of this close public interest, this may be an issue that will be reviewed sooner than the normal five-year review once the Biden Administration begins in 2021. As always, we will keep you updated on any further developments at the Corporate Environmental Lawyer.
On August 13, 2020, EPA issued two final rules that will have a significant impact on methane emissions, a potent greenhouse gas. The final rules were issued under the Clean Air Act’s New Source Performance Standards (“NSPS”) for the oil and natural gas industry and rescind Obama-era rules issued in 2012 and 2016. EPA categorized the two new rules as (1) Policy Amendments and (2) Technical Amendments.
Key provisions from these two rules include the following:
- Policy Amendments:
- Removes the natural gas transmission and storage segment of the oil and natural gas industry from regulation.
- Rescinds methane and volatile organic compounds (“VOCs”) emissions standards for the natural gas transmission and storage segment of the oil and natural gas industry.
- Rescinds methane emissions standards for the production and processing segments of the oil and natural gas industry and finds that EPA is no longer required or authorized to issue emission guidelines for methane from existing sources in the industry’s production and processing segments.
- Finds that the Clean Air Act requires, or authorizes, EPA to make a “significant contribution finding” as a predicate to regulating any air pollutant that was not considered when EPA first listed or regulated an industry “source category.”
- Technical Amendments:
- Reduces the frequency of required fugitive emissions monitoring for gathering and boosting compressor stations from quarterly to twice a year and exempts low-production wells from fugitive monitoring requirements altogether.
- Reduces the recordkeeping and reporting requirements of the fugitive emissions program.
- Changes include allowing owners and operators to determine the best means to ensure all components are monitored, rather than having to include a site map and an observation path in the monitoring plan.
- Updates fugitive emissions repair requirements.
- Provides additional technical updates covering fugitive emissions monitoring and repairs, alternative means of emissions limitations, pneumatic pumps, engineer certifications for closed vent systems, and storage vessels.
As we discussed on this Blog previously, these rules were originally proposed on August 28, 2019. EPA held public hearings on the proposed amendments, and received nearly 300,000 written comments on the Policy Amendments and more than 500,000 written comments on the Technical Amendments.
According to EPA’s analysis:
The Regulatory Impact Analysis (RIA) for the two rules estimates that, combined, the two actions will yield $750 to $850 million in net benefits over the period from 2021-2030, (7 percent and 3 percent discount rates, respectively), the annualized equivalent of nearly $100 million in net benefits a year.
EPA also estimates that from 2021-2030, the combined rules will result in an increase in 850,000 short tons of Methane emissions and 140,000 tons of VOC emissions.
Environmental groups, liberal states and other interest groups are all but certain to sue to try to block implementation of the new rules, with Earthjustice staff attorney Tim Ballo recently making the following statement:
The Trump administration is once again putting industry interests over people and public health by gutting these common-sense emission standards. The rollback would only further exacerbate a climate crisis that is already near a point of no return. We cannot afford to go back. We’ve successfully sued the Trump administration in their attempt to dismantle methane emission standards in the past, and we’ll sue again to keep these standards in place.
More information about these rules is available at EPA’s website. The rules will take effect 60 days after they are published in the Federal Register.
On April 23, 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an important decision on the reach of the Clean Water Act (“CWA”). The Court’s decision in County of Maui, Hawaii v. Hawaii Wildlife Fund, Case No. 18–260, addresses whether the CWA requires a permit when pollutants originate from a point source but are conveyed to navigable waters by a nonpoint source such as groundwater. In a 6-3 opinion, the Court held that CWA permitting authority extended to indirect discharges that are the functional equivalent of a direct discharge from a point source into navigable waters. Justice Breyer delivered the opinion of the Court, joined by Justices Roberts, Ginsburg, Sotomayor, Kagan and Kavanaugh. Justice Kavanaugh also wrote a concurring opinion and Justices Thomas, Gorsuch and Alito dissented.
At issue in the case was the County of Maui’s wastewater reclamation facility located on the island of Maui, Hawaii. The County pumps partially treated sewage through four injection wells hundreds of feet underground. After injection, the effluent travels approximately a half mile through groundwater to the Pacific Ocean.
The case came up from the Ninth Circuit, which had ruled that a permit was required when “the pollutants are fairly traceable from the point source to a navigable water such that the discharge is the functional equivalent of a discharge into the navigable water.” Hawaii Wildlife Fund v. County of Maui, 886 F. 3d 737, 749 (9th Cir. 2018) (emphasis added). The Supreme Court took issue with the Ninth Circuit’s fairly traceable standard, explaining that “[v]irtually all water, polluted or not, eventually makes its way to navigable water” and thus, the lower court’s standard would give EPA broad new permitting authority not supported by the CWA’s statutory language or legislative history. Slip Op. at 5.