White House Cites National Security Concerns as Administration Moves to Save Coal and Nuclear Power Plants
A combination of stagnant power consumption growth and the rise of natural gas and renewable power sources has resulted in the displacement and potential closure of many older coal and nuclear power plants in the United States. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, since 2008, coal and nuclear energy have seen a continuous decline in their percentage of the nation’s total energy generation market. And in 2015, the closure of coal fueled power plants accounted for more than 80% of the nation’s retired energy generating capacity.
In an attempt to reverse these trends, President Donald Trump has ordered Energy Secretary Rick Perry to take “immediate action” to stem the closure of nuclear and coal power plants. In an official White House statement issued on June 1, 2018, the Trump Administration stated that “keeping America's energy grid and infrastructure strong and secure protects our national security… Unfortunately, impending retirements of fuel-secure power facilities are leading to a rapid depletion of a critical part of our nation's energy mix, and impacting the resilience of our power grid.”
The statement is not the first time the Administration has asserted that coal and nuclear plants are critical to national security. In January of this year, Mr. Perry presented a sweeping proposal to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (“FERC”), which requested subsidies for struggling coal and nuclear plants that were no longer able to operate profitably in the current energy markets. In presenting the proposal, Mr. Perry argued that coal and nuclear plants’ unique ability to store at least 90 days of fuel on-site made the energy sources critical to the reliability and stability of the United States’ energy markets. In a 5-0 decision, FERC rejected the Energy Secretary’s proposal, and casted doubt on Mr. Perry’s claims that energy markets would become vulnerable and unreliable without contributions from coal and nuclear power.
It appears the Trump Administration may now be seeking a more direct route to provide assistance to coal and nuclear power plants. According to Bloomberg, a draft memo from the Department of Energy (“DOE”) reveals that the agency is considering using its authority under Section 202(c) of the Federal Power Act and the Defense Production Act of 1950 to force regional grid operators to buy electricity from a list of coal and nuclear plants the department deems crucial to national security. The plan would require suppliers to purchase power from the plants for 24 months in order to starve off closures as the Administration works to provide a long-term solution. If the DOE plan is implemented, it is likely to face legal challenges from both utilities and environmental groups. Regardless of whether the DOE elects to pursue this strategy, it appears that the Trump Administration is focused on working to protect aging coal and nuclear plants.
A recent decision by the U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska rejected efforts by the Center for Biological Diversity (the “Center”) to challenge the constitutionality of the Congressional Review Act (CRA). The CRA, which was originally enacted in 1996, allows for Congressional disapproval of rules promulgated by administrative agencies under limited circumstances. Historically, the CRA had been used sporadically, but the current Congress has relied on the CRA on at least 16 occasions to roll back Obama administration regulations, and more CRA resolutions may be on the horizon.
In Center for Biological Diversity v. Zinke, the Center challenged the use of the CRA to invalidate a Department of Interior (DOI) rule which limited certain hunting and fishing practices on Alaskan National Wildlife Refuges. More specifically, the Center argued that the CRA unconstitutionally allowed Congress to alter DOI’s authority without using bicameralism and presentment to amend the underlying statutes that gave DOI its authority over the National Wildlife Refuges in Alaska. The Center also argued that the CRA’s prohibition on the issuance of a future rule in “substantially the same form” violates the separation of powers doctrine.
The district court dismissed the Center’s lawsuit, finding that “Public Law 115-20 was passed by both the House and the Senate and submitted to the President for approval as required by the CRA—which was also passed by both houses of Congress and signed into law by the President. Thus, the requirements of bicameralism and presentment are met and [the Center’s] separation of powers concerns fail to state a plausible claim for relief.” The court further noted that “[a]ny injury caused by DOI’s inability to promulgate a substantially similar rule, in the absence of any assertion that DOI would otherwise do so, is too speculative to constitute a concrete or imminent injury and is insufficient to confer Article III standing.” The court also noted that even if the Center could establish an “injury in fact,” the Center had not adequately alleged how invalidating the CRA would redress the Center’s alleged injuries.
Although the CRA remains in full force and effect, one might wonder whether it will retreat back into the shadows at least until the next administration. The conventional view had been that Congress only has 60 days after a rule takes effect to pass a CRA resolution disapproving it. However, lawmakers in Congress are advancing a more novel interpretation of the CRA to review (and potentially disapprove) older rules (and guidance). If a rule or guidance was not officially “submitted” to Congress for review (and many apparently have not officially been submitted), then the current administration could now submit them for review which would restart the 60-day clock. For example, in April, the Senate voted to disapprove a 2013 Consumer Financial Protection Bureau guidance on auto loan financing. The House has not yet taken action on the resolution. If, however, the guidance were to be disapproved under the CRA, then the effect of that disapproval is that the agency will be unable to enact a “substantially similar” rule or guidance. That is really the true power of the CRA, and word is that members of Congress are reviewing older rules and guidance that could be the target of a CRA resolution. Whether the CRA remains a powerful tool this far into the Trump administration remains to be seen, but one can expect that the Center’s constitutional challenge to the CRA is unlikely to be the last.
On April 2, 2018, the Pennsylvania Superior Court issued a potentially groundbreaking decision by holding that trespass and conversion claims arising from hydraulic fracturing are not precluded by the rule of capture. In reaching this conclusion, the court found that the Southwestern Energy Production Company (“Southwestern”) may have committed trespass when it extracted natural gas located under neighboring properties by draining the gas through fissures created from hydrofracturing fluid. Such a holding was almost universally thought to be precluded by the rule of capture. The rule of capture, which can be traced back to 18th century fox hunting, has historically been applied to find that oil and gas companies cannot be held liable for “capturing” oil and gas that drain naturally from neighboring land as a result of legal extraction activities. In differentiating hydraulic fracking from traditional oil and gas extraction, the court focused on the fact that hydraulic fracking actually pumps fluid across property lines to open up non-natural fissures that allow the natural gas to seep back across the property to be extracted.
The potential impact of the Pennsylvania court’s decision has spurred high levels of concern from the greater fracking industry. On the same day that Southwestern filed an appeal requesting an en banc rehearing of the decision, seven separate industry trade groups filed leave with the court seeking permission to file amicus briefs urging the court to grant Southwestern the rehearing. One of these groups, the Marcellus Shale Coalition (“MSC”), is a collection of approximately 200 producers, midstream, and local supply-chain companies that produce more than 95% of the natural gas in Pennsylvania. The group has asserted that the April 2nd ruling interrupts well-established law and creates an “unprecedented form of tort liability” that threatens the entire industry. In a similar filing, the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry stressed that the decisions could have devastating effects on the industry and the economy of Pennsylvania. According to the American Petroleum Institute, the hydraulic fracking industry currently provides an estimated 322,600 jobs to Pennsylvania and contributes nearly $44.5 million in revenue to the state’s economy.
In Southwestern’s own appeal, the company echoed many of the concerns proclaimed by the industry. The company stressed that the decision would “unleash a torrent of speculative lawsuits” that could threaten the economic livelihood of the industry throughout the state. The company also characterized the April 2nd ruling as an impractical precedent for future decisions. Southwestern noted that the opinion would require courts and juries to speculate whether hydrofracturing fluid located miles below the surface ever moved onto neighboring property, which is a task the company portrayed as “a fool’s errand.”
The ultimate resolution of the matter has potentially far-reaching impacts on the U.S. energy markets. Behind Texas, Pennsylvania is the United States’ second largest producer of natural gas. The state generated 19 percent of the United States’ total output in 2017 and has seen steady gains in production output since 2010. Further, the decision raises questions about whether other state courts may adopt the logic of the Pennsylvania Superior Court and similarly hold that trespass and conversion claims against hydraulic fracking are not precluded by the historic rule of capture.
We will continue to track this case as it moves through the Pennsylvania courts.
In 2016, the world underwent its largest ever annual increase in renewable power by adding an estimated 161 gigawatts of capacity in renewable power generation. The increase stemmed from a world-wide investment of USD $240 billion in renewable energy, marking the seventh straight year that the world’s investment in renewable power sources topped $200 billion dollars. Despite the world’s growing investment in renewable power, an estimated 1.2 billion people still live without access to electricity. Individuals without electricity must supplement their energy needs through fuel based lighting and heating. Burning these sources is not only more expensive relative to many forms of renewable power, but also results in the release of toxic fumes and black carbon, which are major contributors to local air pollution and climate change.
Recent decisions from the Fourth and Ninth Circuits—finding that the Clean Water Act (“CWA”) could regulate discharges into groundwater that ultimately migrate into navigable waterways—may prompt U.S. EPA to revisit its position that the CWA applies to discharges from a “point source via ground water that has a direct hydrologic connection to surface water.” On April 12, 2018, the Fourth Circuit concluded that a release from pipeline that impacted groundwater that ultimately discharged to a nearby creek could trigger liability under the CWA. See Upstate Forever v. Kinder Morgan Energy Partners, L.P. (4th Cir. April 12, 2018). This decision follows on the heels of a Ninth Circuit decision affirming a district court's decision allowing a CWA citizen suit to proceed that alleged CWA violations associated with sanitary wastewater discharges through permitted underground injection wells that ultimately discharged into the ocean. See Hawai’i Wildlife Fund v. County of Maui (9th Cir. Feb. 1, 2018). Defendants are likely to seek Supreme Court review of both the Fourth and Ninth Circuit decisions.
Following the Ninth Circuit decision, on February 20, 2018, U.S. EPA issued a notice seeking comment by May 21, 2018 on whether it should review and potentially revise its previous positions on groundwater discharges; specifically, whether it is consistent with the CWA to subject discharges to jurisdictional surface waters via groundwater to CWA permitting. U.S. EPA also is seeking comment on whether some or all of such discharges are addressed adequately through other federal authorities, existing state statutory or regulatory programs, or through other existing federal regulations and permit programs. It will be interesting to see where U.S. EPA ultimately comes out on this issue; U.S. EPA filed an amicus brief urging the Ninth Circuit to affirm the district court's decision that discharges reaching navigable waters through groundwater are covered by the CWA. However, statements in U.S. EPA’s request for comments would seem to suggest that U.S. EPA is rethinking its position on this issue. We will continue to follow and provide updates as this process unfolds.
U.S. EPA Removes Portion of Former Refinery Site from NPL: Precursor to More Expedited CERCLA Cleanups?
After almost 30 years having been listed on the NPL, U.S. EPA has removed the surface portion of the 55-acre Pacific Coast Pipeline site from that distinctive list. Since being added to the NPL in 1989, more than 42,000 cubic yards of contaminated soils have been removed from the site and a multi-layer cap has been installed. The groundwater portion of the site will still remain on the NPL in order to address benzene and protect drinking water and agricultural wells.
One goal of EPA Administrator Pruitt’s Superfund Task Force was to improve and expedite site cleanups and accelerate full and partial deletions for sites that meet all applicable requirements. “The partial de-listing of the Pacific Coast Pipeline site is an example of EPA’s commitment to accelerate the remediation of contaminated sites and transform them into productive assets for the community,” said Pruitt.
Whether this partial NPL deletion is a precursor of U.S. EPA taking a more streamlined approach to CERCLA cleanups remains to be seen, but it would appear to be a step in the right direction.
NextEra Energy Resources LLC (“NextEra”), the largest generator of wind energy in North America, is currently locked in legal disputes with local townships over its new wind energy project, the “Tuscola Wind III Energy Center.” NextEra’s subsidiary, Tuscola Wind III LLC (“Tuscola”), plans to construct the 55 turbine wind farm across the Fairgrove, Almer, and Ellington Townships of Tuscola Country, Michigan. The project, if completed, will be the third wind farm constructed by NextEra in Tuscola County. The proposed $200 million dollar wind farm is projected to supply wind energy for up to 50,000 homes.
After reaching agreements with nearly 100 landowners to secure land for the project, Tuscola submitted a Special Land Use Permit (“SLUP”) to the local townships for construction and operation of the wind farm. However, two of the townships, Almer and Ellington, denied the permits and enacted one year moratoriums on the construction of wind farms. According to Tuscola, its permits were blocked by newly elected members of the Townships’ Boards who were affiliated with a regional anti-wind citizens advocacy group. The company alleged that the organization was engaged in a systematic effort to block the Tuscola project and that the group had used “tactics of intimidation, threats of lawsuits, referenda, and recalls . . . in an effort to prevent the development of wind projects.”
The company is now fighting back. In lawsuits filed in the Eastern District of Michigan, NextEra is seeking to have the Board of Trustees’ denial of the SLUP overturned. On November 3, 2017, the district court issued its first decision on the matter, affirming the denial of the SLUP by the Almer Township. The court found that the Township’s Board had properly denied the application after it determined that the purposed wind farm would violate Almer’s noise zoning ordinance. The court noted that although Almer’s noise ordinance was admittedly ambiguous, the Board should be provided deference to interpret the meaning of its own ordinance. Finding that the board’s interpretation of the ordinance was reasonable, the court elected not to overturn the decision.
On March 13, 2018, the district court reached a markedly different result in Tuscola’s parallel suit against the Ellington Township. Here, the District Court overturned the Ellington Township’s denial of the SLUP. Unlike the Almer Township Board, it appears Ellington’s Board refused to even consider the merits of Tuscola’s SLUP, and relied entirely on its newly enacted moratorium to block consideration of the application. The Court concluded that the township’s moratorium was an inappropriate suspension of its zoning ordinance, and was thus void. Therefore, the Board could no longer rely on the moratorium as a reason to refuse to consider the SLUP application. Left open by the decision was whether Ellington could successfully deny the SLUP on other grounds or what timeframe the township had to approve/deny the permit. Interestingly, the Ellington decision arrived exactly one day after the district court reaffirmed its earlier holding in the Almer case (Both decisions were authored by the same Judge).
Finally, in the newest twist, landowners of property proposed for the Tuscola Wind III site have now filed suit in Tuscola County Circuit Court seeking a court order to ouster the newly elected board members alleged to be part of the anti-wind organization. The ultimate resolution of Tuscola’s dispute may end up relying in part on the success of this new suit.
As we previously reported on here, the Trump Administration earlier this month proposed a $2.7 billion budget reduction for U.S. EPA. However, Congress has passed a spending bill that rejects reductions to both U.S. EPA and the Department of Energy. Trump signed the bill today.
As reported here, as to the U.S. EPA, Congress proposed holding the agency’s funding at $8.1 billion, even with the 2017 level.
And, at the DOE:
- $6.2 billion for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, an $868-million jump from the 2017 level. Trump had sought to cut its budget to just under $4.5 billion.
- The omnibus includes an increase of nearly $1.5 billion in DOE clean energy funding, including a 14% increase to the renewable energy and efficiency office, and a 16% increase at the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). Trump had sought to cut the renewables office by 65% and eliminate ARPA-E.
- The Office of Fossil Energy would increase by 10%, the nuclear office by 19%, science office by 16%, and the energy office by 8%. The loan programs office would be preserved, as would funding for carbon capture and storage.
These avoided spending cuts and/or spending increases are an encouraging sign for environmentalists and other clean tech advocates.
In the Absence of Any Federal Movement, States Continue to Attempt to Legislate Carbon Rules or Taxes
As reported in Salon and Law360 (sub. req.), states, the “laboratories of democracy,” continue to attempt to experiment with legislation carbon rules or taxes. Washington and Oregon are the latest examples, although such efforts have so far failed. Washington’s proposal would have taxed carbon emissions, whereas Oregon’s proposal would have established a cap-and-trade program.
After the Washington tax bill failed, a coalition of environmental, community and labor groups filed a proposed citizens’ initiative that would put a price on carbon emissions. The proposal would charge $15 per metric ton of carbon content of fossil fuels and electricity sold or used in the state starting in 2020. It would increase by $2 a year in 2021 until the state meets its carbon emissions reduction goal for 2035.
As of February of this year, as reported in Law360 (sub. req.), 10 states have released bills to combat climate change and raise revenue by using the tax system, with some 30 different bills in play. According to this report, the range of carbon taxes are from $5-35/ton (bills in Vermont set the base rate at $5 per ton of carbon while bills in New York set it at $35 per ton).
These state-level efforts underscore the challenge of convincing the public and a broad base of stakeholders to act on a problem that Congress first tried to address over a decade ago, most famously through the McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act of 2003 and the Waxman-Markey American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009. Interestingly, it may be this patchwork of state-level action that induces Congress to act sometime in the future.
On July 25, 2017, Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) administrator Scott Pruitt’s “Superfund Task Force” issued a final report revealing the Task Force’s recommendations for streamlining the remediation process of over 1,300 Superfund sites currently overseen by the EPA. The Task Force’s recommendations included a strong emphasis on facilitating the redevelopment of Superfund sites by encouraging private sector investment into future use of contaminated sites. The recommendations were subsequently adopted by Mr. Pruitt, who has repeatedly affirmed that a top priority of the administration is revamping the Superfund program. In the recent months, it appears EPA and the Trump administration have taken new steps to further the objective of pushing private redevelopment for Superfund Sites.
On January 17, 2018, EPA posted a “Superfund Redevelopment Focus List” consisting of thirty-one Superfund sites that the agency believes “pose the greatest expected redevelopment and commercial potential.” EPA claims that the identified sites have significant redevelopment potential based on previous outside interest, access to transportation corridors, high land values, and other development drivers. “EPA is more than a collaborative partner to remediate the nation’s most contaminated sites, we’re also working to successfully integrate Superfund sites back into communities across the country,” said EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. “[The] redevelopment list incorporates Superfund sites ready to become catalysts for economic growth and revitalization.”
Along the same lines, President Donald Trump’s sweeping infrastructure proposal, released February 12, 2018, proposed an amendment to the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (“CERCLA”) that would allow Superfund sites to access funding from the EPA’s Brownfield Program, which the administration believes could help stimulate redevelopment of the sites. The proposal further requests Congress pass an amendment to CERCLA that would allow EPA to enter into settlement agreements with potentially responsible parties to clean up and reuse Superfund sites without filing a consent decree or receiving approval from the Attorney General. The proposal claims that CERCLA’s limitations “hinder the cleanup and reuse of Superfund sites and contribute to delays in cleanups due to negotiations.”
Time will tell whether the administration’s strategy will be enough to entice new development into the Superfund sites. To follow the progress of EPA’s Superfund redevelopment efforts, visit EPA’s Superfund Redevelopment Initiative website here.
On Monday, March 5, 2018, EPA issued a report titled EPA Year in Review 2017-2018. The report contains an introductory letter from Administrator Pruitt, who states that he has been “hard at work enacting President Donald Trump’s agenda during [his] first year as EPA Administrator.” The report highlights accomplishments at EPA over the past year, with a focus on the roll back of regulations from the Obama Administration, such as the Clean Power Plan and the Waters of the United States Rule. Administrator Pruitt stated that “[i]n year one, EPA finalized 22 deregulatory actions, saving Americans more than $1 billion in regulatory costs.”
According to the report, Administrator Scott Pruitt set forth a “back-to-basics agenda” with three objectives:
- Refocusing the Agency back to its core mission
- Restoring power to the states through cooperative federalism
- Adhering to the rule of law and improving Agency processes
The report also identifies EPA’s “core mission” as “clean air, land, and water,” and argues that in recent years, “central responsibilities of the Agency took a backseat to ideological crusades, allowing some environmental threats – like cleaning up toxic land – to go unaddressed.” In light of these alleged lapses, EPA states that:
On February 15, 2018, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (“FERC”) unanimously voted to remove barriers for electric storage resources to participate in the capacity, energy, and ancillary services markets operated by regional transmission organizations (“RTOs”) and independent system operators (“ISOs”). FERC’s Final Rule requires each of these RTOs and ISOs to develop a plan for revising its tariff structure that establishes a participation model for various electric storage resources.
Currently, electric storage resources, such as large-scale batteries, pumped hydro systems, and thermal energy storage, play a more limited role in RTO and ISO markets, often participating only in fast-responding frequency regulations markets. FERC’s new rule seeks to expand energy storage’s participation beyond these roles by requiring RTOs and ISOs to develop a participation model that specifically accounts for the unique physical and operational characteristics of electric storage resources.
The Final Rule provides the following criteria for the participation models:
- First, electric storage resources must be “eligible to provide all capacity, energy and ancillary services that it is technically capable of providing.” This criteria will eliminate some wholesale market rules that limit the services electric storage resources may provide.
- Second, the models must ensure that participating systems “can be dispatched and can set the wholesale market clearing price as both a wholesale seller and wholesale buyer consistent with rules that govern the conditions under which a resource can set the wholesale price.” In other words, ISOs and RTOs must develop a participation model that accounts for the unique ability of electric storage resources to both purchase/store energy off the grid and to sell energy back to the grid.
- Third, the models must “account for the physical and operational characteristics of electric storage resources through bidding parameters or other means.” In other words, the markets must take into account electric storage resources’ duration and operating parameters.
- Finally, the models must “establish a minimum size requirement for participation in the RTO and ISO markets that does not exceed 100kw.”
FERC’s Final Rule will go into effect 90 days after publication. After this, each RTO and ISO is required to file its tariff modifications to comply with the Final Rule within 270 days of the publication date, and to implement the modifications within one year of the filing date. This timeframe will allow various stakeholders and interested parties an opportunity to review and comment on the proposed tariff changes submitted by each RTO and ISO.
While pumped-storage hydro is currently the dominate form of electric energy storage in the United States' RTO and ISO markets, other technologies like batteries and flywheels are becoming more commercially viable, and will likely benefit from FERC’s order. In issuing its Final Rule, FERC noted that the United States’ energy storage resource capacity is expected to grow more than sevenfold over the next five years, and FERC hopes to support this growth to enhance competition and promote greater efficiency in the national’s electric wholesale markets.
By Andi Kenney
On January 19, 2018, OSHA issued a citation to Spirit Aerosystems, Inc., alleging one willful and five serious violations of the OSHA hexavalent chromium standard (29 CFR 1910.1026) and assessing $194,006 in penalties.
In the citation, OSHA alleges that the manufacturer of aerostructures (including portions of fuselages) willfully failed to prevent employee exposures to levels above the permissible exposure limit (PEL) of 5.0 ug/m3 8 hour time weighted average (TWA) and to implement feasible engineering and work practice controls “to reduce employee exposure to the lowest achievable level.” The citation notes an employee who was sanding and grinding was exposed to hexavalent chromium at 9.0 ug/m3 on a time weighted average, 1.8 times the PEL.
The citation further alleges that Spirit Aerosystems did not perform periodic monitoring every three months, did not perform monitoring when process changed, did not demarcate a regulated area for hex chrome, allowed employees to leave the hex chrome work area without removing contaminated clothing and equipment, and did not adequately train employees regarding the OSHA hex chrome standard.
The citation is notable for several reasons. First, it is an indication that OSHA is still actively enforcing the hex chrome standard. Second, it underscores OSHA’s position that an increased scheduled work load is a process change that would require additional exposure monitoring. Third, it affirms that the aircraft painting exception, which establishes a 25 ug/m3 exposure limit, does not apply to grinding and sanding operations. Finally, it raises questions about how far an employer has to go to reduce exposures—does the employer’s obligation to implement controls require it to reduce exposure “to the lowest achievable level” as alleged in the citation or does the employer meet its obligation if it reduces exposure to the PEL?
The White House rolled out its 2019 budget, which includes deep cuts to a number of federal agencies, including U.S. EPA. The proposed 2019 budget seeks to cut approximately $2.5 billion, or 23%, from U.S. EPA’s budget, including the elimination of approximately 20% of U.S. EPA’s workforce. The proposed budget also seeks to eliminate a number of programs, including programs that provide money to the Energy Star program and to international organizations and countries to fight climate change. Other programs on the cutting block include assistance to fund water system improvements, with significant reductions to the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and the Chesapeake Bay Program.
The proposed budget places emphasis on the continued elimination of redundant programs and continues to focus on implementing the President’s Executive Order on a Comprehensive Plan for Reorganizing the Executive Branch. The Executive Order seeks to streamline U.S. EPA’s permit review process and reducing unnecessary burden on the regulated community.
The budget plan faces a likely uphill battle in Congress with many of the same proposals that were rejected by Congress last year being recycled in the proposed 2019 budget. Please click here to go to U.S. EPA’s budget website.
On February 7, 2018, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (“FERC”) moved for a last-minute review to save the Sabal Trail natural gas pipeline just hours before it was scheduled to be shut down. In a motion filed on Tuesday in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, FERC asked the court for a 45-day stay of issuance of the court’s mandate to allow the agency to issue an order on remand reauthorizing certificates for the pipeline project.
The request stems from an August 22, 2017 D.C. Circuit opinion concluding that FERC did not adequately analyze the impacts of greenhouse gas (“GHGs”) emissions that would result from the construction and operation of the $3.5 billion pipeline. The court concluded that FERC had failed to comply with the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”) because the agency’s Environmental Impact Statement (“EIS”) did not consider the indirect environmental effects of authorizing the transportation of natural gas to be burned, which in turn generates GHG emissions. The court remanded the matter back to FERC to give a quantitative estimate of the downstream GHG emissions that will stem from the pipeline or explain specifically why it was not able to do so.
On January 31, 2018, the D.C. Circuit court denied FERC’s petition to rehear the issue, setting the stage for a one week countdown to the shutdown of the major gas network, which has been operating since June 2017. On Monday, FERC took a major step to keeping the pipeline in service by issuing a revised supplemental environmental impact statement (“SEIS”), but neglected to state whether it would issue an emergency order to prevent shutdown of the Sabal Trail pipeline. However, it is unclear if FERC has the authority to immediately reissue certificates to the pipeline prior to a thirty day wait period following the issuance of the SEIS. This may explain why the agency elected to request a short stay from the court for it to reauthorize the pipeline.
In its February 7th motion, FERC asserted that “[i]f pipeline service is halted, Florida Power & Light may not be able to meet its customers’ electricity needs efficiently or reliably.” The utility services an estimated 4.9 million households in Florida. FERC’s motion automatically stays the court’s mandate until February 16, which is when responses to the motion are due.
It is also unclear whether the D.C. Circuit will ultimately approve FERC’s SEIS. The document provides an estimate that the pipeline could increase Florida’s GHG emissions by 3.6 to 9.9% over 2015 levels. However, the agency declined to comment on the potential environmental effects from that increase, noting there was no “suitable” scientific method for doing so. We will continue to follow this issue and will provide updates as events warrant.
In what should be a wake-up call for companies that ship lithium batteries, the U.S. Transportation Department’s Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) recently levied a $1.1 million civil penalty for alleged violations of DOT shipping regulations. According to the FAA, on June 1, 2016, a Florida-based battery distribution company offered four shipments of 24-volt lithium batteries to FedEx for air transport. One of the batteries is alleged to have caught fire while being transported on a FedEx truck after having been shipped on an aircraft, destroying the truck. FAA contends that the shipped batteries failed both UN and U.S. testing standards, were not equipped to prevent reverse current flow, and were improperly packaged. FAA also alleges that the company did not provide proper training to its employees.
Although the $1.1M penalty has not been finalized, companies that ship lithium should ensure that their shipments are in full compliance with all applicable DOT shipping regulations. The transportation of lithium batteries in aircraft is the subject of ongoing evaluation and scrutiny by the FAA and companies that are deemed to be in violation of these requirements are likely to face significant penalties as evidenced by the $1.1M fine referenced above.
On January 15, 2018, the European Chemicals Agency (“ECHA”) added seven chemicals to its Candidate List of “Substances of Very High Concern” (“SVHC”) for Authorization. These seven chemicals are:
- Cadmium nitrate
- Cadmium hydroxide
- Cadmium carbonate
- 1,6,7,8,9,14,15,16,17,17,18,18- Dodecachloropentacyclo[188.8.131.52,9.02,13.05,10]octadeca-7,15-diene (“Dechlorane Plus”TM) [covering any of its individual anti- and syn-isomers or any combination thereof]
- Reaction products of 1,3,4-thiadiazolidine-2,5-dithione, formaldehyde and 4-heptylphenol, branched and linear (RP-HP) [with ≥0.1% w/w 4-heptylphenol, branched and linear].
If you are still with me after having read through those chemical names, here is some more useful information. Once a chemical is listed on ECHA’s Candidate List, it triggers a number of regulatory obligations, including the requirement that importers of products containing one or more SVHC substances above 0.1 percent by weight file notifications with ECHA. In addition, chemicals on the Candidate List may be subsequently targeted by ECHA for phase-out.
According to a statement by ECHA in conjunction with its notice of listing, these specific seven chemicals are not widely used and ECHA does not view this listing as imposing substantive industry-wide regulatory burdens. There are now 181 substances on ECHA’s Candidate List. Please click here to go to the ECHA website for a list of 181 SVHCs.
As 2017 draws to an end, we wanted to thank everyone that follows our Corporate Environmental Lawyer blog. 2017 has been an interesting year and we have enjoyed providing information on critical environmental, health and safety issues for the regulated community. As part of the year in review, we thought it might be interesting to highlight the most popular posts from each of the four quarters in 2017.
- Trump Administration: 2017 Insights
- New State 1,4-Dioxane Drinking Water Standard-New York Threatens to Take Action if U.S. EPA Doesn’t
- World Water Day: Wednesday, March 22, 2017--Jenner & Block Announces Special Water Series
- Trump Administration Issues Freeze on New and Pending Rules – Halting Dozens of Recent EPA Rules
- Great Lakes Compact Council Holds Hearing on Cities Initiative Challenge to Waukesha Diversion of Lake Michigan Water
- Federal Judge Orders Dakota Access Pipeline to Revise Environmental Analysis; Leaves Status of Pipeline Construction Undecided
- Litigation in D.C. Circuit Court Put on Hold While EPA Reconsiders 2015 Ozone Air Quality Standards
- Attorney-Client Privilege Does Not Protect Communications with Environmental Consultants
- News of OECA’s Demise May be Greatly Overstated
- EPA Announces Proposed Rule to Rescind ‘Waters of the United States’ Rule
- Court Decision Remanding FERC’s Evaluation of GHG Emissions May Derail $3.5B Pipeline
- Hurricane Harvey and Act of God Defense—Viable Defense or Futile Prayer
- Who is in Charge of Protecting the Environment—The Role of U.S. EPA and State Environmental Agencies During a Hurricane
- Shell Latest Target of CWA Climate Change Citizen Suit
- New Climate Change Lawsuit: Publicity Stunt or Reasonable Effort to Protect California Property Owners?
- Cities Risk Ratings Downgrade for Failure to Address Climate Change Risks
- Dumpster Diving Results in $9.5M Penalty Recovery for California
- Following Keystone Pipeline Oil Spill, Judge Orders Parties to Prepare Oil Spill Response Plan for Dakota Access Pipeline
- EPA Publishes Proposed Rule on Reporting Requirements for the TSCA Mercury Inventory
- Imagine a Day Without Water
We look forward to continuing to blog on breaking environmental, health and safety issues and we are sure that we will have plenty to blog about in 2018. Warmest wishes for a wonderful holiday season.
Steve Siros and Allison Torrence
Following Keystone Pipeline Oil Spill, Judge Orders Parties to Prepare Oil Spill Response Plan for Dakota Access Pipeline
As we previously reported on this blog, in June, Federal District Court Judge James Boasberg found that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (the Corps) did not fully comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) when it granted easements to the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) to cross Lake Oahe, a federally regulated water in North Dakota. Standing Rock Sioux Tribe v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 16-cv-01534 (June 14, 2017). In light of that ruling, Plaintiffs, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe (the Tribes) asked the court to vacate the DAPL’s permits and easements and enjoin further operations until the Corps fully complies with NEPA. In October, Judge Boasberg denied the Tribes’ request and allowed DAPL to continue operations while the Corps completes its supplementary NEPA analysis.
Following the October ruling allowing operations to continue, in November, the TransCanada Keystone Pipeline leaked an estimated 210,000 gallons of crude oil in South Dakota. Following this widely report pipeline oil spill, on December 4, 2017, Jude Boasberg ordered DAPL owner, Dakota Access, LLC, the Corps and the Tribes to “coordinate to finalize an oil-spill response plan affecting Tribal resources and lands at Lake Oahe.” Judge Boasberg also ordered Dakota Access, with input from the Tribes, to hire an independent third-party engineering expert to conduct a compliance audit of the DAPL. Both the oil spill response plan and the compliance audit report must be submitted to the court by April 1, 2018.
In addition, Dakota Access was ordered to submit bi-monthly reports to the court providing detailed information with respect to the segment of the pipeline crossing Lake Oahe. These bi-monthly reports will include:
- Inline-inspection run results or direct-assessment results performed on the pipeline during the reporting period;
- The results of all internal-corrosion management programs and any actions taken in response to findings of internal corrosion;
- Any new encroachment on the right‐of‐way during the reporting period;
- Any new integrity threats identified during the reporting period;
- Any reportable incidents that occurred during the reporting period;
- Any leaks or ruptures that occurred during the reporting period;
- A list of all repairs on the segment made during the reporting period;
- Ongoing damage-prevention initiatives on the pipeline and an evaluation of their success or failure;
- Any changes in procedures used to assess and monitor the segment; and
- Any company mergers, acquisitions, transfers of assets, or other events affecting the management of the segment.
Judge Boasberg explained the reasoning behind his decision as follows:
Recent events have made clear, moreover, that there is a pressing need for such ongoing monitoring. Earlier this month, the Keystone Pipeline leaked 210,000 gallons of oil in Marshall County, South Dakota.…The spill occurred near the boundaries of the Lake Traverse Reservation, home of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate Tribe, thus highlighting the potential impact of pipeline incidents on tribal lands.
Dakota Access must file these detailed reports beginning December 31, 2017, and every 60 days thereafter until the remand is complete. The Corps anticipates completing its supplemental NEPA analysis by April 2018, at which point the court will determine whether the Corps has fully complied with NEPA.
On December 4, 2017, I wrote a blog regarding Moody’s Investors Service’s threat to downgrade state and municipal credit ratings if they failed to adequately plan for and attempt to mitigate climate change risks. A day later, in conjunction with the North American Climate Summit, Chicago’s mayor and dozens of other mayors signed the “Chicago Climate Charter,” which calls on mayors to work to achieve a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions that’s equal to or more than that required by the 2015 Paris Agreement. The charter would require participating cities to track and publicly report greenhouse gas emissions and take action to plan for climate change related impacts in local infrastructure and energy planning. While these actions may not have been in direct reaction to Moody’s threat, such forward thinking may minimize the risk for participating cities in future rating downgrades relating to climate change impacts.
In a November 28, 2017 report, Moody’s Investors Service warned cities and states that they faced the risk of a credit rating downgrade if they were not proactive in planning to mitigate the risks of climate change. The Moody’s report listed six indicators that it used to assess the exposure and overall susceptibility of states and municipalities to the physical effects of climate change, including share of economic activity derived from coastal areas, hurricane and weather damage as a share of the economy, and the share of homes in a flood plain. Based on these indicators, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas were the states most at risk from climate change. Although Moody’s couldn’t point to a specific state or municipality whose rating was (or might be) downgraded as a result of a failure to plan for climate change, the Moody’s report clearly sets the stage for such downgrades in the future.
DirecTV recently agreed to pay $9.5 million to settle claims by the State of California that it had illegally shipped hazardous wastes such as batteries and aerosol cans to local landfills across the state. California accused DirecTV of violating California’s Hazardous Waste Control Law and Unfair Competition Law after an investigation of DirecTV dumpsters at 25 facilities throughout the state identified violations at each location. DirecTV agreed to pay $8.9 million in civil penalties, costs, and supplemental environmental projects, and another $580,000 on measures aimed at ensuring future compliance with California’s hazardous waste regulations. The company also agreed to injunctive relief prohibiting future violations.
U.S. EPA’s Office of Superfund Remediation and Technology Innovation (“OSRTI”) recently indicated that it may be looking to the Great Lakes National Program Office’s (“GLNPO”) sediment cleanup program for best practices that might be applicable to Superfund cleanups. OSRTI’s evaluation of GLNPO’s sediment program is consistent with comments submitted by responsible parties and cleanup contractors that U.S. EPA should give more consideration to leveraging public and private funds in Superfund cleanups. The Great Lakes Legacy Act established the GLNPO, which has been working closely with states, local government entities and other stakeholders to address sediment issues at 31 areas of concern in the Great Lakes area. U.S. EPA’s website notes that the Great Lakes Legacy Act program has invested approximately $338 million to address these sediment impacted sites while leveraging an additional $227 million from non-federal parties. Whether this approach can achieve similar results at other Superfund sites remains to be seen, but such flexibility would appear to be consistent with Administrator Pruitt’s priority to more quickly and economically address CERCLA sites.
A new GAO Report finds that DOD failed to report drinking water-related violations for 16 of its installations and that overall compliance rates were lower for DOD-treated drinking water systems. The Report also noted DOD has made some progress in addressing emerging contaminants in its drinking water, specifically including perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), and perchlorate.
The Report identified different compliance rates between DOD-treated water systems and non-DOD-treated water systems. Just one percent of individuals who received non-DOD-treated water from military installation systems were served by systems with EPA or local health violations. However, 11 percent of individuals who received DOD-treated drinking water were served by systems with such violations. DOD has taken steps to limit individuals’ exposure to some chemicals, including providing alternative water supplies and installing water treatment systems.
The Report recommends the following key actions to improve DOD’s data, reporting, and oversight of drinking water requirements:
- Identify and implement any necessary changes to DOD’s environmental compliance policy to clarify DOD’s reporting requirements for violations of health-based drinking water standards;
- Identify and implement actions to increase understanding at Army, Navy and Air Force installations and commands about DOD’s reporting requirements for violations of health-based drinking water regulations; and
- Review reported compliance data to identify the reasons for any differences in the number of violations of health-based drinking water regulations between DOD’s two types of public water supplies and take action to address the causes of any differences.
DOD concurred with each of these recommendations.
On November 1, 2017, the United States District Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit rejected the Sierra Club's National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”) challenges to the Department of Energy’s (“DOE”) authorization of export of liquefied natural gas from three facilities in Louisiana, Maryland, and Texas. The court noted that its decision in Sierra Club v. U.S. Department of Energy (Freeport), 867 F.3d 189 (D.C. Cir. 2017) was largely determinative of the Sierra Club’s challenges to the LNG exports from these three facilities. In the Freeport decision, the court agreed that DOE had provided a reasoned explanation as to why DOE believed the indirect effects pertaining to increased gas production were not reasonably foreseeable. The court also found that DOE did not violate NEPA when declining to make specific projections regarding the environmental impacts associated with the increased production. The Freeport court also acknowledged that DOE had adequately considered the downstream greenhouse gas emissions resulting from the indirect effects of the LNG exports.
Notwithstanding the Freeport decision, the Sierra Club continued to challenge DOE’s authorizations for LNG exports for these three facilities, arguing that DOE’s reliance on an Environmental Assessment that found no significant impact (as opposed to an Environmental Impact Statement) is contradicted by evidence in the record. The court rejected this argument, noting that an agency’s finding of no significant impact will only be reversed if the decision was arbitrary, capricious, or an abuse of discretion which the court concluded was not supported by the record evidence. The Sierra Club also argued that DOE failed to consider the distributional impacts when evaluating “public interest” under the Natural Gas Act. However, the court noted that DOE had in fact considered the distributional impacts of the LNG exports.
Following this judgment, the Sierra Club will have lost all four petitions it filed against the DOE relating to NEPA assessments for LNG exports. The Sierra Club also lost all four of its petitions challenging FERC’s approval of these LNG exports. Please click here for a copy of the court’s November 1st decision.