On Friday, April 30, 2021, the Biden Administration’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced significant steps the agency intends to take under the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) Program to implement expanded reporting requirements for companies that store and utilize hazardous chemicals, including new obligations to report the storage, use and any releases of ethylene oxide, a commonly used industrial chemical and sterilant for medical equipment and supplies. The TRI Program, which was established under Section 313 of the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA), serves as a resource for the public to learn about annual chemical releases, waste management, and pollution prevention activities reported by nearly 22,000 industrial and federal facilities. Under the TRI Program, U.S. facilities operating in various industry sectors must report annually the quantity of certain chemicals they release to the environment and/or manage through recycling, energy recovery and treatment. A “release” of a chemical in the context of the TRI Program means that the chemical is emitted to the air or water, or placed in some type of land disposal.
A major component of EPA’s announcement is the agency’s intent to regulate ethylene oxide. The use and release of ethylene oxide by medical device sterilization companies have prompted a number of recent high-profile lawsuits alleging that releases of the chemical into the environment have caused increased cancer rates in communities adjacent to the facilities. EPA’s announcement notes that many existing sterilization facilities “are located near areas with Environmental Justice concerns,” and that individuals living adjacent to these facilities may be at a heightened risk from exposure to ethylene oxide. “Every person in the United States has a right to know about what chemicals are released into their communities,” EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan stated. “By requiring new and more data on chemical releases from facilities, EPA and its partners will be better equipped to protect the health of every individual, including people of color and low-income communities that are often located near these facilities but have been left out of the conversation for too long.” In the coming months, EPA will provide further details regarding the specific actions the agency intends to take to require sterilization facilities that use ethylene oxide to report under the TRI Program.
In addition to implementing new reporting requirements for companies utilizing ethylene oxide, EPA announced several other steps the agency plans to take that will increase reporting and public access to information under the TRI Program, including:
- Finalizing a longstanding proposed rule that will add natural gas processing facilities to the industry sectors covered under the TRI Program thereby increasing the publicly available information on chemical releases and other waste management activities of TRI-listed chemicals from this sector;
- Continuing to add new per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (“PFAS”) to the list of chemicals that require reporting under the TRI Program, including the addition of perfluorobutane sulfonic acid (PFBS) following EPA’s toxicity assessment of the substance;
- Proposing a new rule to add high-priority substances under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) and chemicals included in the TSCA workplan to the list of chemicals that require reporting under the TRI Program; and
- Increasing public access to TRI data through improved search functionality and improved website interface.
EPA’s announcement marks the most recent step by the agency to implement the Biden Administration’s focus on environmental justice as a top priority of its environmental agenda. On the same day that EPA announced the agency’s updated TRI policy, EPA circulated a memorandum to all EPA-staff, indicating the additional actions the agency intends to take to fulfill its environmental justice commitment. These actions include: (1) increasing inspections of facilities that pose the most serious threats to overburdened communities; (2) focusing on implementing remedies that benefit communities, including through the incorporation of supplemental environmental projects; (3) increasing communications with overburdened communities to develop improved cleanup and non-compliance solutions; and (4) identifying locations where state regulators are not adequately protecting local communities and taking increased enforcement actions to “pick up the slack” if state regulators have not taken appropriate or timely actions.
The Corporate Environmental Blog will continue to follow developments on this issue in the coming months as EPA provides additional details on the specific actions it intends to take to expand the TRI Program.
In a consent decree filed in the United States District Court for the Western District of Michigan, Wolverine World Wide, Inc. (“Wolverine”) has agreed to pay up to $69.5 million to resolve claims that it was responsible for PFAS contamination found in drinking water in the Michigan townships of Plainfield and Algoma. The consent decree alleges that Wolverine’s historical operations utilized PFAS to waterproof clothing and that these operations resulted in PFAS releases that impacted local drinking water supplies in these Michigan townships. Although Wolverine disputes these allegations, in the consent decree, Wolverine agreed that it would (1) remediate the PFAS impacts at its historical operations and (2) provide alternative drinking water supplies for approximately 1,000 properties within the zone of PFAS impacted groundwater.
On January 16, 2020, U.S. EPA added 160 per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) to the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI). The addition of these 160 PFAS compounds to the TRI inventory means that as of January 1, 2020, companies will need to track releases of these compounds, and releases exceeding the threshold, which was set at 100 pounds, must be reported to U.S. EPA. Interestingly, there currently is an open Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPR) that seeks public comment on whether and how to include PFAS on the TRI inventory, but U.S. EPA noted that the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) required it to add these 160 substances to the inventory. Although the NDAA only specified 14 PFAS that needed to be added to the inventory, it did specify that PFAS that were the subject of a significant new use rule on or before December 20, 2019 under the Toxic Substances Control Act also needed to be added to the TRI inventory.
U.S. EPA’s actions have already triggered a number of questions. For example, how is the ANPR (which remains open through February 3, 2020) affected by U.S. EPA’s decision to add these chemicals to the inventory? How does one accurately measure PFAS air emissions since the methodology for measuring these emissions is currently being developed? Hopefully, further clarification on these issues will be forthcoming in the near future.
On January 17, 2020, the State of California filed a new complaint against the United States Bureau of Land Management (“BLM”) seeking to block a BLM-issued resource management plan that proposes to open up more than one million acres of California land to hydraulic fracking and other forms of oil and gas drilling. If enacted, the challenged BLM plan would end a five-year moratorium on leasing land in California to oil and gas development.
The federal lawsuit announced by California Attorney General Xavier Becerra asserts that the BLM’s review of environmental impacts associated with its resource management plan violates the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”) and Administrative Procedure Act (“APA”). Specifically, the lawsuit alleges that the BLM failed to sufficiently consider impacts to people who might live near newly drilled oil and gas wells and that the BLM underestimated the environmental impacts of new fracking wells that would become active as a result of the plan. In a news conference announcing the lawsuit, Becerra stated that “much of the federal oil and gas activity in the state happens near some of our most vulnerable communities, communities [that] are already disproportionately exposed to pollution and its health effects.” Finally, California’ lawsuit asserts that BLM failed “to consider conflicts with state plans and policies, including efforts by California to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and fossil fuel consumption to mitigate the devastating consequences of global climate change.”
The legal challenge is not the first made against the BLM’s resource management plan. In 2012, BLM issued a final environmental review supporting its decision to open up approximately one million acres of federal land in California for mineral leasing. At the time, BLM estimated that approximately 25% of the new wells on this land would be used for hydraulic fracturing. However, in 2016, the California courts set aside the plan finding that the BLM’s environmental review had failed to comply with the full requirements of NEPA. On May 3, 2017, BLM entered into a settlement agreement that required the agency to prepare additional NEPA documentation and issue a new decision amending or superseding its resource management plan, as appropriate. The updated plan is the subject of the most recent lawsuit filed by the State of California. In the current lawsuit, California now asserts that approximately 90% of new wells on the federal land will be utilized for hydraulic fracturing.
The recent lawsuit is only one of more than 65 lawsuits filed by the State of California against the Trump Administration. California’s lawsuits include more than 25 challenges to policies and actions proposed by the United States Environmental Protection Agency and other federal agencies responsible for setting environmental and energy policies.
By Leah M. Song
In our previous blog post, we discussed the case of Kristen Giovanni, et al. v. Navy. As an update, on January 15, 2020, the district court judge said that the Navy did not have to pay to monitor residents for potential health issues linked to PFOS and PFOA exposure.
The court dismissed the suit finding that the regulator's failure to designate the chemicals as hazardous substances precluded the plaintiffs from filing under state law. To qualify for medical monitoring, Section 1115 of Pennsylvania’s Hazardous Sites Cleanup Act (HSCA) stated that citizens must have been exposed to a hazardous substance, a designation that PFOA and PFOS lack under either federal or state law. The judge reasoned that “merely having the essential qualities of a hazardous waste…is not enough to be a hazardous substance under HSCA.”
Another basis for the Court’s ruling was that the state and federal governments are “well on their way to classifying PFAS as hazardous substances.” This may increase efforts to designate PFAS as hazardous substances under the federal Superfund law.
The plaintiffs’ attorney said that the decision would not be appealed but they would see what could be done in the future if the substances are designated as hazardous substances.
The fact that neither perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) nor perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) is classified as a hazardous substance may prove fatal to plaintiffs’ efforts to convince a federal court to allow a novel citizen suit to proceed. In the case of Kristen Giovanni, et al. v. Navy which is pending in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, plaintiffs brought a citizen suit under a Pennsylvania cleanup statute seeking to compel the Navy to monitor residents for potential health issues linked to PFOS and PFOA exposure. In October 2018, the Third Circuit Appellate Court affirmed an earlier ruling from the district court that had rejected plaintiffs’ efforts to compel the Navy to undertake a government-led health assessment, finding that such a request constituted an impermissible challenge to an ongoing CERCLA response action. The Third Circuit concluded that plaintiffs' request for a government-led health study sought injunctive relief that could potentially interfere with the ongoing response action at the site. Plaintiffs’ request for medical monitoring, on the other hand, sought to compel the Navy to fund a trust, which the Third Circuit concluded was not a challenge to ongoing response actions at the site.
During a hearing following remand from the Third Circuit, the district court judge noted that Section 1115 of Pennsylvania’s Hazardous Sites Cleanup Act (HSCA) (which provides for a citizen-suit right of action) only provides relief for HSCA designated “hazardous substances.” Although plaintiffs’ counsel argued that PFOA and PFOS fell within the HSCA’s definition of “hazardous substances,” in fact neither substance has been designated as a “hazardous substance” under CERCLA, nor have they been so designated by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. In what may be foreshadowing of how the court intends to rule, the judge noted that if he were to dismiss plaintiffs’ case, in the event that either the state or U.S. EPA were to designate PFOA and/or PFOS as “hazardous substances,” plaintiffs would be able to file a new lawsuit.
Trump Administration Proposes Landmark Changes to National Environmental Policy Act’s Review Process
Marking the 50th anniversary of the enactment of the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”), on January 1, 2020, the Trump White House published a Presidential Message announcing the imminent release of newly proposed regulations designed to “modernize” the foundational environmental statute. NEPA, which requires federal agencies to quantify and consider environmental impacts before undertaking actions that have the potential to “substantially impact” the environment, has far reaching applications. Under NEPA, federal agencies are often required to complete an Environmental Impact Assessment (“EIS”) prior to starting public infrastructure projects such as roads, bridges and ports, or before permitting certain private actions that require federal approval, such as construction of pipelines or commencement of mining operations. According to the 2018 Annual NEPA Report, EISs drafted by federal agencies between 2010 and 2017 took an average of 4.5 years to complete. The Presidential Message asserts that the existing NEPA review process “has become increasingly complex and difficult to navigate,” while causing “delays that can increase costs, derail important projects, and threaten jobs for American workers and labor union members.” The regulations proposed by the Trump Administration are expected to be released by the Council on Environmental Quality (“CEQ”) later this week.
If enacted, the proposed regulations could mark the first comprehensive update to NEPA’s review process in more than four decades. According to accounts of a draft memo from CEQ outlying the proposed changes, the modifications will bring substantial changes to the NEPA review process, including:
On December 23, 2019, New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo gave conditional approval to a state ban on firefighting foams containing per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (known as “PFAS”). PFAS, commonly referred to as “forever chemicals” due to their ongoing persistence in the environment, are a family of man-made chemicals commonly found in a variety of products, including food packaging, cookware, stain-resistant clothing, and, in the case of perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS), many types of firefighting foams. According to the U.S. EPA, PFAS chemicals are not only “extremely persistent in the environment,” but have also been linked to numerous health conditions including cancer in humans.
The legislation (“A445A”) requires the New York Office of Fire Prevention and Control to promulgate regulations that will provide guidance for state agencies and local government to avoid the purchase of firefighting foams containing PFAS compounds and outright prohibits the manufacture of PFAS containing firefighting foams within two years of the effective date of the bill. As a condition to his approval, Governor Cuomo noted that an amendment to the current legislation was needed to allow discretionary use of firefighting agents containing PFAS where no other viable options exist. On the basis of an agreement with the New York legislature to implement these amendments, the Governor conditionally approved the bill.
With the enactment of the legislation, New York becomes the third U.S. state to ban PFAS chemicals behind Washington and New Hampshire. In addition, six other states have enacted some form of partial prohibitions on the use of foams containing PFAS chemicals. In response to the recent state legislation, the FluoroCouncil has affirmed that use of firefighting foam containing PFAS “is credited with saving lives and property” and that use of such foams may be essential for extinguishing fires caused by flammable liquids.
Regulation of PFAS chemicals is also being considered at the federal level. As noted in a prior blog by the Corporate Environmental Lawyer, a federal bill is currently being considered that would require the U.S. EPA to promulgate drinking water standards for PFOS as well as perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), another common chemical in the PFAS family. According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the estimated cost of implementing these federal standards across the country are likely to exceed “several billion dollars.” The Corporate Environmental Lawyer will continue to update on forthcoming or pending state and federal legislation regarding PFAS chemicals.
In recent years, the global maritime shipping industry has faced pressure to reduce the large quantity of greenhouse gas (“GHG”) emissions associated with international shipping. About 90 percent of the world’s trade goods are transported by ship, and, according to one 2014 study, the shipment of these good via maritime vessels emits approximately 1.9 billion tonnes of GHG annually, or approximately 4% of human-made emissions worldwide. The annual GHG output of the shipping industry has been projected to rise by as much as 250% by 2050 if direct actions are not taken to modify industry practices.
Because of its international nature, global shipping is extremely difficult to regulate on a national basis, and therefore is often addressed through international agreements. To this end, in 2018, the International Maritime Organization (“IMO”), a branch of the United Nations, approved the world’s first broad agreement designed to reduce GHG from worldwide ocean shipping. The agreement reached by the IMO member provides the following target metrics:
(1) Reduce CO2 emissions per “transport work” (product of cargo transmitted and distance sailed) by at least 40% by 2030 and 70% by 2050; and
(2) Reduce total CO2 emissions from shipping by at least 50% by 2050.
The targets were designated to fall in line with the GHG reductions goals set out in the 2015 Paris Climate Accords (the "2015 Paris Agreement"). Though the 2015 Paris Agreement does not include an agreement to reduce GHGs in international shipping, the IMO has stated that it is committed to reducing GHGs in the industry to match the commitment put forward in the agreement.
On December 18, 2019, ship owner associations representing over 90% of the world’s merchant fleets formally presented to IMO their proposed strategy for meeting the international body’s 2018 GHG reduction goals. The industry’s plan proposed the creation of a $5 Billion USD research fund that will be used to research and develop more environmentally friendly fuels and ship propulsion systems. The fund would be fully funded from a $2 per ton tax on marine fuel purchased by shippers over a 10-year period. The associations argued that the fund would be critical to the development of alternative fuels—such as synthetic fuels created by renewable energy sources—which had the potential to drastically reduce the industry’s carbon footprint.
IMO’s environmental goals expand to areas beyond just GHG reduction. For example, in January 2020, the IMO’s new cap on the amount of Sulphur permitted fuel oil will take effect. The effort is aimed at reducing maritime vessel’s emissions of Sulphur oxides (SOx), which are known to be harmful to human health and can lead to acid rain and ocean acidification. on December 10, 2019, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (“USEPA”) enacted a new Final Rule to help refiners comply with the IMO’s new global sulfur standard. As provided by the USEPA, the Final Rule was designed to “ensure that U.S. refiners can permissibly distribute distillate marine fuel up to the 5,000 ppm sulfur limit, which will facilitate smooth implementation of the 2020 global marine fuel standard.”
By Leah M. Song
Following a three-week bench trial, the New York Supreme Court ruled in favor of Exxon Mobil Corp. in the climate fraud case brought by New York’s attorney general, who accused the energy company of deceiving its investors about climate change-related risks to its business. In reaching this holding, Justice Barry Ostrager found that the attorney general “failed to prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that ExxonMobil made any material misstatements or omissions about its practices and procedures that misled any reasonable investor,” which was the threshold for sustaining claims under the Martin Act.
As noted in Jenner & Block’s previous blog post, the attorney general began its investigation into Exxon Mobil in 2015. The attorney general’s investigation was grounded in New York's shareholder-protection statute, the Martin Act, as well as New York’s consumer protection and general business laws. After a three-year investigation, the attorney general’s office sued Exxon on October 24, 2018.
Exxon Mobil’s victory was foreshadowed when the attorney general dropped two of its four claims, one for common law fraud and one for equitable fraud, on the last day of trial. These claims were important to the state’s case because they alleged that Exxon Mobil’s misstatements were part of a scheme to mislead its investors and that Exxon Mobil’s investors had in fact relied on the misstatements when purchasing the company’s stock. Only two Martin Act investor fraud claims remained, which did not require the government to prove fraudulent intent.
An Exxon spokesperson said the ruling affirmed the position Exxon has held throughout the investigation and trial. "The court agreed that the attorney general failed to make a case, even with the extremely low threshold of the Martin Act in its favor," the spokesperson said.
Despite ruling against the attorney general, Judge Ostrager clarified that “nothing in [the] opinion is intended to absolve ExxonMobil from responsibility for contributing to climate change through the emission of greenhouse gases in the production of its fossil fuel products.” The judge continued “ExxonMobil is in the business of producing energy, and this is a securities fraud case, not a climate change case.”
Exxon is battling similar accusations in other state and federal courts. Jenner & Block's Corporate Environmental Lawyer will continue to update on those matters, as well as other important climate change litigation cases, as they unfold.
The Senate in a 70-15 vote confirmed Dan Brouillette this week as the new Secretary of Energy to succeed Secretary Rick Perry. All 47 Republicans who were present for the vote backed confirmation, as did 22 Democrats, including Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, Tom Udall of New Mexico, and Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, and one Independent, Angus King of Maine.
At his confirmation hearing, Mr. Brouillette stressed the role of the DOE in advancing research, including focusing his tenure on pushing direct air capture, carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), nuclear reactors, and the DOE commercialization work that fosters novel technologies in the private sector. He stated he would “absolutely” devote more DOE resources to researching DAC, and praised ongoing work on CCS and demonstrations of the technology in Wyoming in particular, nothing that he is “very excited about the work I see being done in Wyoming and within DOE writ large.”
Wyoming has become a focal point of the tension as to the future of coal under climate change policies or other environmental laws and the potential opportunity for CCS to resolve this tension. (Wyoming supplies 40% of the United States’ coal to 29 states.) The Wyoming Public Service Commission Chair has recently spoke about the need for a hard look at the benefits of CCS before shuttering coal plants. Also this week, the University of Wyoming announced a partnership with DOE to accelerate research on carbon capture technology at two of the state’s coal-fired power plants. In light of Mr. Brouillette’s extensive comments in support of Wyoming and CCS, we can anticipate much more on this front.
As noted by the New York Times, before becoming deputy energy secretary, Mr. Brouillette was chief of staff to the House Energy and Commerce Committee and was assistant secretary of energy for congressional and intergovernmental affairs in the George W. Bush administration. He also worked as an executive at the United Services Automobile Association, a financial services provider to members of the military, and Ford Motor Company. He once was a member of Louisiana’s State Mineral and Energy Board.
PFAS Regulations Projected to Impose Billions of Dollars of Compliance Costs on Drinking Water Systems
A recent report from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that the costs to comply with anticipated drinking water standards for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are likely to exceed “several billion dollars.” The CBO analyzed Senate Bill 1507 which passed out of Senate Environment & Public Works Committee earlier this year. Senate Bill 1507 seeks to require U.S. EPA to promulgate drinking water standards for perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) and imposes monitoring requirements on drinking water systems. The bill could potentially impose fairly stringent requirements on more than 67,000 public water systems.
The CBO estimate comes on the heels of a recent New Hampshire court decision that put on hold New Hampshire’s newly promulgated groundwater standards setting a 12 part per trillion (ppt) limit on PFOA and 15 ppt limit on PFOS. The standards were challenged on the basis that New Hampshire’s Department of Environmental Services (DES) had not conducted an adequate cost-benefit analysis of the new regulatory standards. The court agreed that DES had not conducted the cost-benefit analysis required by New Hampshire statutes and therefore enjoined DES from enforcing the new groundwater standards until such time as the analysis is completed.
On November 22, 2019, the D.C. Circuit rejected a bid by the Trump Administration to fast-track litigation over the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s (“USEPA”) Affordable Clean Energy Rule governing greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. The Order similarly rejected an opposing bid by environmental groups and twenty U.S. States which sought to stall the litigation.
The litigation revolves around the Trump Administration’s implementation of the Affordable Clean Energy Plan, a replacement for the Clean Power Plan enacted by the Obama Administration. The Obama-era Clean Power Plan—which itself was stalled by legal challenges—sought to impose carbon emissions caps on power plants and reduce the United States’ greenhouse gas emissions by 32% from 2005 levels by the year 2030. In contrast, the Trump-era Affordable Clean Energy Plan seeks a more modest reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and provides further latitude for individual U.S. States to design their own plans for paring carbon dioxide emissions at power plants. The challengers to Trump’s rule assert that the Affordable Clean Energy Plan does not meaningfully reduce greenhouse gas emissions and is a violation of USEPA’s duty to address pollution from power plants under the Clean Air Act.
In its response to the challenges, the USEPA asserted that an “[e]xpeditious resolution of the petitions … would provide certain over EPA’s authority under the Clean Air Act, and the validity of the Affordable Clean Energy Rule promulgated under the Act.” The Trump Administration’s attempt to quickly resolve challenges to the Affordable Clean Energy Plan stems from the Administration’s goal to fully implement its final rule prior to any potential administration changes from the 2020 elections. A swift ruling in the Trump Administration’s favor would secure the validity of final rule and limit any future administration’s options for imposing additional regulations of greenhouse gas emissions under Clean Air Act. However, as a result of the D.C. Circuit’s ruling, it is estimated that the court will not hear oral arguments on the case until summer or fall of 2020, likely placing a final ruling after the results of the 2020 presidential election.
On November 25, 2019, U.S. EPA submitted an advance notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPR) for publication in the Federal Register seeking public comment on whether certain per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) should be added to the list of chemicals subject to reporting under Section 313 of the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA). In its ANPR, U.S. EPA seeks comments on which, if any, PFAS compounds should be considered for listing, how to list them, and what would be the appropriate reporting thresholds given their persistence and bioaccumulation potential. U.S. EPA specifically notes that it is considering establishing a reporting threshold for PFAS that is lower than the usual statutory thresholds (25,000 pounds for manufacturing or processing and 10,000 pounds for otherwise using listing chemicals) due to concerns over the compounds environmental persistence and bioaccumulation potential. The ANPR notes that perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) have been the most widely studied PFAS compounds but notes that there are more than 600 PFAS compounds that are being manufactured and/or used in the United States.
If added to the list of chemicals subject to reporting under EPCRA, affected companies would be required to report annually how much of each listed PFAS compound is released into the environment or otherwise managed through energy recovery, recycling or treatment. This information is then publicly available through the Toxic Release Inventory database. The ANPR comes on the heels of action by the House Energy and Commerce Committee that approved legislation (H.R. 535) on November 20th that seeks to add at least 13 PFAS compounds to the list of chemicals subject to EPCRA reporting.
In conjunction with a publicity blitz surrounding the release of “Dark Waters,” a movie targeting alleged environmental and health impacts associated with PFAS releases in Ohio and West Virginia, a group of environmental groups, lawmakers and other advocates of more stringent PFAS regulations launched a public clearinghouse that is intended to provide consumers with information on the adverse health impacts of PFAS and provide recommendations on ways to minimize exposure to these chemical substances. In a November 19, 2019 press conference, Mark Ruffalo (one of the actors in the "Dark Waters" movie) and Rob Bilott (author of the book Exposure), joined by members of Congress and several environmental groups, announced the launch of the clearinghouse, named “Fight Forever Chemicals,” noting that purpose behind the clearinghouse is to bring the fight against forever chemicals from the margins to the mainstream and thereby demand stronger protections from leaders in office.
As has been discussed in previous blog entries, both the States and U.S. EPA are feeling increasing pressure to adopt stringent PFAS regulations. Some states such as California have already adopted screening levels as low as 5 parts per trillion for perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) in drinking water (and suggested that the levels could be as low as 0.1 parts per trillion), even though the science regarding the toxicity of these compounds is still in flux. On November 21, 2019, U.S. EPA released its fall regulatory agenda in which it confirmed its intent to designate PFOA and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) as hazardous substances through one of the available statutory mechanisms in Section 102 of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA).
The publicity surrounding the launch of the clearinghouse and the opening of the movie will only increase the pressure felt by States and U.S. EPA. As such, it is more important than ever for companies to ensure that they have carefully thought-out strategies in place to minimize the risks associated with PFAS impacts in the environment. These strategies need to take into consideration the allocation of PFAS risks in transactional settings, as well as assessing potential liabilities associated with historical manufacturing operations. The PFAS tidal wave seems to building, and companies should be proactive to guard against being caught up in the deluge.
Recent DOJ Directive Marks Continuing Effort to Curb Availability of Supplemental Environmental Projects in Civil Environmental Settlements
On August 21, 2019, the Department of Justice issue a new memorandum reducing state and local governments’ ability to enter into settlement agreements that require the completion of supplemental environmental projects (SEPs) as compensation for alleged environmental violations. While impactful in its own right, the DOJ memo can be viewed as a continuation of an over two-year long effort by the DOJ to reduce the general availability of SEPs in the settlement of civil environmental cases.
As defined by the EPA, “SEPs are projects or activities that go beyond what could legally be required in order for the defendant to return to compliance, and secure environmental and/or public health benefits in addition to those achieved by compliance with applicable laws.” Private parties or municipalities may offer to complete SEPs as part of a settlement with EPA or other environmental regulators. By doing so, the alleged violator effectively replaces a part or all of the penalty owed for an environmental violation with the commitment to develop an environmentally beneficial project.
Despite the widespread and longstanding use of SEPs in settlement agreements, recent actions by the DOJ demonstrate a clear effort by the Department to reduce the use of SEPs in the settlement of alleged environmental violations.
Available Company Defenses to Climate Change Shareholder Activism: Trends in Climate Change Litigation, Part 5
As noted in Jenner & Block’s prior blog post, Shareholder Activism: Trends in Climate Change Litigation, Part 4, an emerging issue for public companies in high greenhouse gas (“GHG”) emitting industries is increased pressure from environmentally focused “activist shareholders.” These shareholders often seek to leverage their ownership shares to influence companies into taking action to decrease GHG emissions and/or increase public disclosure of such emissions. These efforts may be undertaken through negotiations with company management or through the introduction of specific shareholder proposals and proxy materials to be presented and voted on at annual shareholder meetings.
Several recent actions taken by the SEC may now help shield public companies from certain attempts by shareholders to introduce climate change related proposals for consideration at shareholder meetings. Under SEC rule 14a-8(i)(7), public companies may exclude from shareholders’ voting ballots any proposals which seek to “micromanage” the company’s ordinary business operations. In recent months, the SEC has asserted that rule 14a-8(i)(7) may be utilized by companies to block certain types of climate change related proposals. The agency has articulated this position by issuing “no-action” letters to public companies seeking to block climate-change proposals from their shareholders. In effect, these letters act as an assurance that the SEC will not recommend enforcement action against the companies for blocking the respective proposals because the agency agrees that the proposal falls under the purview of rule 14a-8(i)(7). However, the SEC has, in a few instances, refused to issue “no-action” letters to companies seeking to block shareholder climate change proposals.
Whether a shareholder’s climate change proposal is excludable under rule 14a-8(i)(7) therefore appears to be a case-by-case determination which depends on the specific demands of a proposal. As a general rule, the SEC has found that proposals which only seek greater disclosure of a company’s GHG emissions cannot be excluded under rule 14a-8(i)(7), but proposals which impose GHG emission reduction targets on the company or require specific methods for reporting or calculating GHGs may be excluded under rule 14a-8(i)(7). A few instructive examples of these general conclusions are provided below:
- On February 14, 2019, the SEC issued a no-action letter to J.B. Hunt Transport Services, Inc. approving the company’s request to block a shareholder proposal that, if implemented, would require the company to adopt quantitative targets for reducing GHG emissions and issue a report demonstrating its progress towards achieving these targets. The SEC found that the proposal sought to micromanage the business by probing into complex matters that were better left to the informed judgment of management.
- On March 4, 2019, the SEC refused to issue a no-action letter to Anadarko Petroleum Corporation after the company sought to block a proposal requesting that the company describe if, and how, it planned to reduce its total contribution to climate change to fall in line with the global temperature objectives of Paris Agreement.
- On April 2, 2019, the SEC issued a no-action letter to ExxonMobil which affirmed that the company could exclude a shareholder proposal which would require the company to adopt and disclose certain GHG emission reduction targets. The SEC noted that the proposal sought to replace the ongoing judgments of the company’s management with “specific methods” for implementing complex policies.
Of course, the threat of potential governmental enforcement actions is only one reason why a company may hesitate to block shareholder proposals. Beyond the business considerations of such a decision, public companies may also need to consider whether adopting certain types of shareholder proposals—particularly those calling for increased disclosure and transparency of GHG emissions—may be beneficial to protect the company from the risk of future lawsuits by the company’s shareholders.
On August 28, 2019, EPA issued a proposed rule titled Oil and Natural Gas Sector: Emission Standards for New, Reconstructed, and Modified Sources Review (the “Proposed Rule”). The Proposed Rule, if adopted, would rescind certain parts of the New Source Performance Standards (“NSPS”) related to methane and volatile organic compounds (“VOCs”) in the oil and gas industry.
First, EPA is proposing to redefine the operations included in the NSPS source category for the oil and gas industry. The original source category listing for the oil and gas industry, issued in 1979, included the production and processing segments of the industry. In 2012 and 2016, EPA expanded the oil and gas industry source category to include the transmission and storage segment of that industry. The Proposed Rule would remove sources in the transmission and storage segment from the oil and natural gas source category and would rescind the methane and VOC emission limits, adopted in 2012 and 2016, which currently apply to those sources.
Second, EPA is proposing to rescind emissions limits for methane (but keep limits for VOCs) in the production and processing segments of the oil and gas industry.
How Low Will The Regulators Go: California Sets New PFOA/PFOS Drinking Water Notification Guidelines
On August 23, 2019, California’s State Water Resources Control Board (Water Board) announced updated guidelines for local water agencies with respect to perfluorooactanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) in drinking water. The updated guidelines lower the notification levels from 14 parts per trillion (ppt) to 5.1 ppt for PFOA and from 13 ppt to 6.5 ppt for PFOS. Public water supply systems are required to report exceedances of these guidelines to their governing boards and the Water Board.
According to the Water Board, these new guidelines were predicated on updated health recommendations issued by California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA), which published its own recommended notification levels for PFOA and PFOS, albeit at much lower levels. In a recently issued report, OEHHA recommended that the notification levels be set at 0.1 ppt for PFOA and 0.4 ppt for PFOS. However, OEHHA recognized that these levels are lower than what can reasonably be detected in the laboratory and therefore recommended that the Water Board set the notification levels at the lowest reliable detection levels.
In addition to the updated notification levels, the Water Board requested that OEHHA proceed to develop public health goals for both PFOA and PFOS, which is the next step in the process of establishing maximum contaminant levels for these contaminants in drinking water. We will continue to monitor and provide updates with respect to these regulatory efforts.
Exploring the E-Suite with Dr. Shalini Vajjhala, Founder and CEO, re:focus partners (San Diego, CA), and former Deputy Assistant Administrator in the Office of International & Tribal Affairs at the US EPA.
Exploring the E-Suite with Dr. Shalini Vajjhala, Founder and CEO, re:focus partners (San Diego, CA), and former Deputy Assistant Administrator in the Office of International & Tribal Affairs at the US EPA.
- Tell us about re:focus partners, including what the organization does and your role.
re:focus is a design firm that specializes in developing resilient infrastructure solutions for cities and communities around the world and integrating project finance into the design process. Our team brings together expertise in policy, engineering, and risk management to craft integrated projects and develop new public-private partnerships. The goal of every re:focus project is to better align public funds and leverage greater private investment to protect and improve the lives of vulnerable communities.
As Founder and CEO, my role involves setting the strategic direction of the organization and putting together our major initiatives and partnerships. Like most small organizations, everyone on our team does a little bit of everything, and on the day-to-day level, I usually have my sleeves rolled up on various project management, design, and analysis tasks and pieces of writing.
- What is your professional background that led you to become involved in the energy and environmental fields?
I am an architect first and foremost, and I have always loved the field of green design. I went on to do graduate work in engineering and public policy (also at Carnegie Mellon University), which widened my view of the many ways to engage in the energy and environmental fields. My research focused on how community mapping could inform environmental decision-making. When I finished my PhD in 2005, I went on to join Resources for the Future, an economics think-tank in Washington, DC, as one of a handful of non-economists in the organization. Being more of a “methods” rather than domain-specific researcher gave me tremendous freedom to work on issues from infrastructure siting to environmental justice and climate change adaptation, which all have important spatial dimensions and community engagement at their core.
In early 2009, I joined the Obama Administration and spent a few months at the White House Council on Environmental Quality before moving to the US EPA’s Office of International and Tribal Affairs. In my time in the Administration, I worked on a huge range of issues, but one of the common threads was pulling together interesting public-private partnerships to make progress where public-sector resources alone were insufficient.
I stepped down from my position at the EPA in 2012, just before Hurricane Sandy hit the eastern seaboard, and was urged by our various partners to continue the green infrastructure and resilience work I had started at EPA. That’s how re:focus came to be. In hindsight, I feel tremendously fortunate to have had the chance to focus on interesting problems and follow those problems into new career opportunities that allowed me to tackle the same challenges from very different vantage points, from research to policy-making to entrepreneurship.
- What do you think are the emerging issues in the energy and environmental fields, especially your work in sustainable infrastructure?
We all recognize when infrastructure fails, but we rarely invest in new systems to prevent disaster and protect communities. I think the biggest emerging issue in the energy and environmental field is how we create robust and resilient infrastructure systems of all kinds and recognize the value of the “avoided losses” or the successes where something doesn’t happen—a storm hits, but a community isn’t devastated. Just as with preventative healthcare, valuing and capturing the value of these kinds of investments is going to be essential if we are going to successfully transition to more resilient communities and economies over the coming decade.
- What aspects of working in the energy and environmental fields have you enjoyed most?
My favorite part of working in a field that is so broad is learning from the experiences and perspectives of colleagues from very different backgrounds and disciplines, and finding new lenses through which to see old and stubborn problems.
- What do you find are some of the most challenging aspects of your work in the energy and environmental fields?
Change is hard. Change in the public sector is even harder. One of the best strategies I have found to making real and persistent change is to gradually create space for something new by starting where an existing system is failing. It is much easier to talk someone from a sinking ship onto a lifeboat than it is to get someone to shift course if they don’t know their boat is taking on water. Too often we cling to a system that we know isn’t working for us today to avoid the unfamiliar tomorrow. Finding gentle ways to bring up existing problems and look for better solutions is the most reliable approach I have found to make something new seem like the preferred alternative to the status quo.
One important thing I try to avoid is making a future problem or benefit more important than what is happening now. Lots of experts from behavioral economics to psychology know that people everywhere struggle to make decisions that have benefits in the distant future. Instead, we look for where stakeholders in a system are losing money or value today—for example, talking about the costs of current local flooding instead of only talking about future climate changes—since these same systems are likely to be the first to fail or worst off in future.
- How did you make the transition from several high-profile energy and environmental policy positions in Washington, DC to becoming a sustainable-infrastructure startup founder?
I launched re:focus in 2012 after spending several years in multiple positions at CEQ and EPA. My roles at EPA gave me the opportunity to work with many incredibly dedicated civil servants across the federal government. One of the initiatives that I created and that our team at the Office of International and Tribal Affairs was instrumental in developing was the US-Brazil Joint Initiative on Urban Sustainability (JIUS). The program was an experiment to see how government agencies could build new public-private partnerships to leverage funding for green infrastructure. Based on its early success in bringing together non-traditional partners, it quickly grew into a binational presidential initiative, announced by President Obama and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, to catalyze investment in sustainability in cities around the world. This collaboration brought together federal, state and local government officials with a whole bunch of unconventional private sector companies to find new ways to develop and finance green infrastructure in the cities of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and Philadelphia, PA. Despite their many differences, these two cities still face many similar challenges when it comes to designing and financing new water, energy, and transportation systems. We turned the role of government on its head and found new ways for government agencies to tackle age-old problems. For example, in Rio, we explored how the local civil defense authorities could help fund water infrastructure in slums to reduce landslide risks and save money in their own disaster response budget.
Thanks to the leadership of both of these cities, the lessons from the JIUS (pronounced: juice) were successfully highlighted at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development or Rio+20 in June 2012. Through the JIUS, it became clear that we were playing a unique role in designing and brokering new types of public-private partnerships for sustainable infrastructure, and re:focus was born to continue this unusual work.
Because I got nudged (by our many philanthropic, NGO, and corporate partners) into starting a social business to continue work that I was already doing, the transition to entrepreneurship was a bit more natural than it might have been otherwise.
- As a former policymaker turned startup founder that operates in the sustainable infrastructure space, what can today’s policymakers learn from your challenges and successes?
I love this question. It’s something we think (and write!) a lot about, and most of our team has worked inside government at some point. We work hard to remember the constraints we faced and the things that were barriers for us when we were in their shoes. We also make an effort to share where and when we get stuck so our government collaborators can see things from “the other side.” As one example, over the past two years we’ve dedicated a significant amount of time to tackling procurement barriers to help both local governments and innovative companies struggling to find new solutions for their highest-priority challenges.
The most important lessons we’ve learned are that designing major infrastructure projects takes time and investing in predevelopment (all the things you need to do before construction) is essential, so you don’t just build another version of what you had, but you genuinely get to a solution that will serve your community well into the future.
- What and/or who have helped you succeed as a startup founder?
I have to credit my colleagues for every success we’ve had at re:focus. We are a tiny but mighty team, and working with good people who can laugh and persevere together through the daily ups and downs of any start-up is what makes the work worth doing. A couple of years ago, we realized that one of our major initiatives was worth spinning out into a sister company. My colleagues Elle Hempen and Ellory Monks launched The Atlas Marketplace and did an amazing job turning a spreadsheet into a social business to help cities find, source, and procure innovative solutions for everything from stormwater management to urban mobility systems. Having other female founders to celebrate the wins with and empathize when things are bumpy is one of my greatest sources of support.
- What advice would you give a young person today who is considering starting out in the energy and environmental fields?
Follow interesting problems. Careers are no longer linear progressions within a single firm. Many of the biggest opportunities in energy, environment and sustainability are at the “seams” of existing sectors and fields. At re:focus we work hard to serve as ambassadors between traditional silos. Often our work involves finding other connectors and helping everyone see a problem in the same way. For example, in talking with both transportation and water experts about greening urban stormwater systems, we try to find simple illustrations—like turning the city from a funnel into a sponge—so we avoid jargon and create the space for collaborative problem solving. Often our most successful work will involve someone saying, “Well, we've never done this before, but it looks like a little bit of x and y with a dash of z thrown in.” No one can be an expert in everything but even someone just starting out can learn how to break through jargon, learn from lots of different kinds of people, and see problems from different angles. I think the energy and environment fields offer some of the most exciting opportunities to make real and meaningful change over the coming years, and I’m incredibly optimistic about our next generation of innovators!Dr. Vajjhala was interviewed by Alexander J. Bandza, Associate, Energy and Environmental and Workplace Health and Safety Law Practices, Jenner & Block LLP
Exploring the E-Suite with Jonah Greenberger, Co-founder and President, Bright, Inc. (San Francisco, CA, and Mexico City, Mexico)
Exploring the E-Suite with Jonah Greenberger, Co-founder and President, Bright, Inc. (San Francisco, CA, and Mexico City, Mexico)
- Tell us about Bright, including what the organization does and your role.
Bright is the leading rooftop solar company in Mexico. We provide the financing and software that enable thousands of ambassadors to offer cheaper electricity to millions of homes, at no upfront cost, and we work with our network of hundreds of local installers and distributors to satisfy the resulting demand. Our first market is Mexico, which has more sun, higher electricity rates, and lower labor costs than the US. Bright's investors include First Round Capital, Y Combinator, and other top Silicon Valley firms.
- What is your professional background that led you to become involved in the clean energy and international fields?
I studied thermodynamics at Stanford and found energy fascinating - it felt like magic that a fuel could be converted into the motion of a car. I wanted to learn more and see how I could advance such a fascinating (and important) field.
- What do you think are the emerging issues in the energy field, especially clean energy and/or in the international context?
The largest topic is around how projects are allowed to use the existing grid, or the utility wires that move electricity from one place to another. It makes sense to only have one set of grids (vs telecom where you have many), but this means innovation is stifled unless there’s an easy way to access and use this grid.
- What aspects of working in the energy field have you enjoyed most?
I love how international energy is - everyone needs energy and it’s a national priority in almost every country to become more sustainable. Energy is an amazing way to see how the world works across borders.
- What do you find are some of the most challenging aspects of your work in the energy field?
Similar to what I mentioned earlier about connecting to the grid, innovation is largely at the whim of what the utilities will or have to allow in terms of connecting to the grid. Figuring out how to navigate these nuances is tricky but incredibly important.
- How did you make the transition from working for one of the world’s largest energy firms (Chevron) to becoming a clean energy startup founder?
Chevron taught me how the world consumes and produces energy and how to run a large international business. However, given how slow decisions were and career advancement as well, starting a company allowed me to release all of this pent up energy that I had to move fast and build.
- As a startup founder that operates in the clean energy and international spaces, what can policymakers learn from your challenges and successes?
One of the largest learnings we’ve had is that the platform has to be opened to create real innovation and impact. The internet, for instance, is a place anyone can build a webpage, create a company etc. But the grid in many countries is still the equivalent of if the internet required a DMV in person visit if you wanted to connect. Policy to free up the ability to connect to this platform could enable incredible value.
- What and/or who have helped you succeed as a clean energy startup founder?
YCombinator’s network has been incredibly helpful as has First Rounds to connect me to any expert I could need on any topic.
- What advice would you give a young person today who is considering starting out in the energy field?
I would advise to think about scalability from the start. Many energy projects are highly customized and so take forever and a vast amount of capital to have an impact. Solutions that will transform the way we use energy will be those that are far more standardized and can be repeated over and over again.
Mr. Greenberger was interviewed by Alexander J. Bandza, Associate, Energy and Environmental and Workplace Health and Safety Law Practices, Jenner & Block LLP
In the fourth installment of the Corporate Environmental Lawyer's discussion of emerging trends in Climate Change Litigation, we are highlighting the growing trend of Climate Change Shareholder Activism. While not active litigation, pressure from activist shareholders who wish to influence the environmental policy of public companies is another powerful force in the climate change litigation arena.
One notable example of this activism is the investor group Climate Action 100+. Climate Action 100+ is an investor organization consisting of over 300 institution investors who collectively manage more than $33 trillion in assets of some of the largest carbon emitting companies in the world. The organization’s stated objective is to “engag[e] companies on improving governance, curbing emissions and strengthening climate-related financial disclosures.”
While the organization was recently formed in 2017, Climate Action 100+ has already secured several victories in its attempt to influence public companies in carbon intensive industries.
- In late 2018, following negotiations with Climate Action 100+, Royal Dutch Shell announced new short-term carbon emission reduction goals in order to ensure the company stays in step with the global emissions goals set out in the Paris Accords. Shell has agreed to reduce its net emissions around 20% by 2035 and around 50% by 2015.
- In February 2019, Australia’s largest coal miner, Glencore, succumbed to shareholder pressure mounted by Climate Action 100+ and agreed to freeze its coal production at current levels. The company further announced it would take steps to increase disclosure of its emissions and environmental impacts.
Climate Change Lawsuits Brought by Coastal Municipalities and States Against the Fossil Fuel Industry: Trends in Climate Change Litigation, Part 3
In the third installment of Jenner & Block’s Corporate Environmental Lawyer's discussion of emerging trends in Climate Change Litigation, we are discussing a quickly proliferating form of litigation—lawsuits filed by U.S. states and municipalities against companies that operate in industry sectors which have historically had high levels of greenhouse gas emissions.
At present, the most common target for this litigation in the United States has been the oil and gas industry. In these cases, plaintiff cities or states will often bring suit against a large number of oil and gas companies as members of the collective industry. These claims are usually brought in state court, where the plaintiffs can take advantage of potentially favorable state common law. Using this strategy, plaintiffs have asserted claims against the fossil-fuel industry under state law theories such as nuisance, failure to warn of the known impacts of climate change, and unjust enrichment. Of course, as a counter to this strategy and in hopes of demonstrating preemption under the Clean Air Act, defendants will often look to remove climate change cases to federal court.
In order to satisfy Article III Standing requirements, Plaintiffs in these cases have generally been coastal communities which allege that they have suffered harm or are uniquely at risk of suffering harm from rising sea levels as a result of climate change.
Several examples of this ongoing litigation includes:
- County of San Mateo v. Chevron Corp. et al. (2018): claims brought by six California municipalities and counties against 37 fossil-fuel companies in California state court. The plaintiffs, alleging they will be damaged by the effects of climate change, brought a variety of claims under state common law including nuisance, negligence, failure to warn, and trespass. Following defendants’ removal of the case to federal court, plaintiffs successfully remanded back to state court on the grounds that their claims did not implicate a federal question or raise preemption issues. Defendants have filed an interlocutory appeal in the Ninth Circuit which is currently being briefed by the parties.
- City of Oakland v. BP p.l.c. et al. (2018): claims brought by the City of Oakland and San Francisco against fossil-fuel companies under California common and statutory law. Plaintiffs asserted that the industry’s GHG emissions amounted to a “public nuisance” under California law. However, unlike San Mateo, the defendants in City of Oakland were able to successfully remove and ultimately retain the matter in federal court. The Northern District of California court denied plaintiff’s motion to remand the case back to state court based on its finding that federal common law necessarily governed the nuisance claims. The district court subsequently dismissed the suits on the grounds that the plaintiffs’ claims raised a “Political Question” best addressed by the legislature as opposed to judicial branch. This dismissal has also been appealed to the Ninth Circuit.
- Rhode Island v. Chevron Corp. et al. (2018): The first such case to be brought by a U.S. State, Rhode Island asserted claims for nuisance, strict liability, failure to warn, design defect, trespass, impairment of public trust resources, and violations of the Environmental Rights Act against 21 fossil-fuel companies. Rhode Island’s lawsuit asserts that the state’s extensive coastline will be damaged through rising sea levels, increased frequency and severity of flooding, extreme precipitation events, and ocean warming and acidification. Defendants have removed the case to federal court, and the parties are currently briefing Rhode Island’s attempt to remand the case back to state court.
Exploring the E-Suite with Joel Brammeier, President and CEO, Alliance for the Great Lakes
- Tell us about Alliance for Great Lakes, including what the organization does and your role.
The Alliance drives the local, state and federal policy reforms and implementation necessary to create a healthy Great Lakes for all people and wildlife, forever. We do this by communicating our thought leadership on issues, building powerful networks of influencers, and educating and activating tens of thousands of volunteers, advocates and donors each year who bring their voices to our priorities.
As President and CEO of the Alliance, I concentrate on three principal responsibilities. The first is making sure that the Alliance is focused on the most significant issues affecting clean water in the Great Lakes. That involves a lot of listening, reading, and prioritizing our work. Second, I focus on the financial viability of the Alliance. Fundraising is is my time to listen to what is important to our supporters and communicate to them how their investment in clean water is impacting the Great Lakes. Finally, I work to support the core components of the Alliance—our staff, our volunteers, and the Board of Directors. Everyone needs to be fully engaged, informed, and moving forward to advance the Alliance’s mission.
- What is your professional background that you led you to become involved in policy issues concerning protection of fresh water assets and related environmental issues?
After undergrad at Valparaiso University and grad school at University of Michigan, I moved to Chicago in the late 1990s to follow the person who eventually became my spouse. At that time, I began volunteering with a number of NGOs in the Chicago area in order to build my network of relationships and assess how I could become professionally involved. I carried a deep values commitment to non-profit service, mostly due to observing the work of my parents as a teacher and member of the clergy. I had decided on focusing on environmental work in high school after a variety of positive outdoor experiences with my family. After about a year volunteering in various capacities in Chicago, an entry-level position opened up with a group called the Lake Michigan Federation. The combination of my personal value for the Great Lakes that was imprinted on me in childhood, along with my expertise from my education and volunteering, was enough to get me the job. Since that time, I have advanced through the growth and expansion of the organization to become the president of the Alliance for the Great Lakes.
- What do you think are the emerging policy issues regarding fresh water assets and the environment of the Great Lakes and how do you think they should be addressed?
It is still all about clean water, but in a much more inclusive and equitable way than is traditional for the mainstream environmental movement. The greatest emerging challenge is how to ensure Great Lakes water is protected and restored in a way that matters personally to all the people of the Great Lakes. For example, drinking water protection is commonly a top reason the public cites as a reason to protect the Great Lakes. The Great Lakes Water Resources Compact & Agreement is a monumental agreement among the states and provinces to ensure water is not diverted to far-flung locations, and that the natural hydrology of the lakes is protected. But this policy doesn’t ensure people can actually access safe, clean and affordable drinking water. It is not credible to say a large natural source of drinking water is truly protected if millions of people who rely on that water cannot safely or reliably use it. And this is today’s unfortunate reality, from manure contamination in northeast Wisconsin, to toxic algae in Lake Erie, to lead and PFAS contamination across the region. Often those harms are falling on people who are already suffering an outsize burden in other parts of their lives.
On specific issues, I think the greatest challenges are 1) changing how we grow food so the agricultural economy does not pollute our water 2) restoring the vital water infrastructure that is the basis of people’s health and the Great Lakes regional economy and 3) preventing the continued influx of invasive species that threaten to torpedo our way of life. Solving these challenges depends on a broad and engaged public that is motivated to action to protect the Great Lakes.
- What do you enjoy most about your work at the Alliance for the Great Lakes?
The people I work with, the ability to protect something that is personally important to me and the fact that clean water for all people and wildlife is a hard cause to argue against.
- What do you find to be the most challenging aspect of your work?
Environmental advocacy works on big problems with many deeply embedded interests and motivations. Changing that system takes time and can be frustrating. The flip side of that is when you are successful, you are changing a system in a lasting way and you know it will benefit people now and well into the future.
- What or who helped you succeed as a policy maker and advocate?
I’m not the kind of person who needs or wants to be in the spotlight taking credit, I just want to work smart and get the result I’m looking for. I’ve relied on so many people because this work is by nature collaborative and I would miss many if I named names. But I will mention one. Cameron Davis, who is now a commissioner at Chicago’s Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, gave me my first real shot at being an environmental professional. I’m sure I screwed up plenty while working for him, but he still let me follow him around and listen to him for years. This was fundamental to me learning how environmental policy change happens. I’m truly thankful for that time. I’ve had five Board of Directors chairs in my time leading the Alliance, without whom I never would have been able to figure out how to run an organization. School does not train you for that and board leadership is vital. The Alliance is fortunate to have a large and diverse base of financial supporters, and I reflect constantly on my obligation to them to make sure our work is addressing their desire for clean and safe water.
- Describe those projects as an environmental policy advocate of which you are the proudest.
I’ve done some transformative work in invasive species prevention where I can look back at policies and decisions by elected officials and know that I was one of the people at the center of making those things happen. If you get to be part of one thing like that in a lifetime, it’s pretty great. I’ve been a core part of, though definitely not the leader, of a successful movement to make the Great Lakes a national priority in the United States. I’m also quite proud of dramatically expanding the reach of my organization and becoming a leader in engaging people in advocacy, as public support is critical for success.
- What advice would you give a young person today who is considering starting out in your field?
Looking back, I realize today that I received a privileged opportunity when I joined the Lake Michigan Federation. It was a relatively small group rebounding from a tough time in the right way, and I was fortunate to get that job. Today, the green & blue movement is pervasive in our economy and culture in a way that just did not exist twenty years ago. Young professionals can and should seek out careers with environmental organizations, but also remember that there are opportunities to shape systems change throughout the private sector. They should ask their future bosses to communicate their personal vision for change. Look for somewhere in your work where you can take the lead on at least one thing that is important to you and your career. Listen to understand how environmental choices affect the daily lives of people and build your work around that knowledge. And consider spending some time in politics early on – understanding what motivates our decision makers is absolutely critical to devising strategies to make sure the right decisions are made.
In the second installation of Jenner & Block’s Corporate Environmental Lawyer's discussion of emerging trends in Climate Change Litigation, we are highlighting recent investigations brought by US state attorneys general against private companies for allegedly misleading the public and/or company shareholders regarding the potential climate impacts of their operations.
In recent years, several major state investigations were launched following investigative journalism reports of private companies’ failures to disclose the causes and effects of climate change. One such example is the Los Angeles Times 2015 exposé into Exxon Mobil Corp.’s historic in-house research on climate change.
Approximately one month after the publication of the Los Angeles Times’ article, the New York Attorney General subpoenaed Exxon, seeking documents related to the company’s research on the causes and effects of climate change; the integration of its research findings into business decisions; and the company's disclosures of this information to shareholders and the Securities and Exchange Commission. The attorney general’s investigation was grounded in New York's shareholder-protection statute, the Martin Act, as well as New York’s consumer protection and general business laws.
In 2016, New York’s investigation was publically supported by a coalition of top state enforcement officials from Vermont, Virginia, Massachusetts, Maryland, Connecticut, and the Virgin Islands, all of which agreed to share information and strategies in similar climate change investigations and future litigation. Exxon responded by filing its own lawsuit seeking to block New York and Massachusetts’ investigations.
After a three-year contentious investigation, the New York Attorney General's office sued Exxon on October 24, 2018, alleging that Exxon engaged in “a longstanding fraudulent scheme” to deceive investors by providing false and misleading information about the financial risks the company faced from its contributions to climate change.
Jenner & Block’s Corporate Environmental Lawyer will continue to update on this matter, as well as other important climate change litigation cases, as they unfold.
On Tuesday, April 16th, from 12:00 - 1:00 pm CST, Jenner & Block is hosting an interactive webinar that will discuss how environmental claims can arise in many different contexts and how high costs can be avoided. One way to manage the cost of environmental claims associated with historical operations is to pursue coverage under historical (and often pre-pollution exclusion) occurrence-based commercial general liability insurance policies. Our panelists will discuss the nuances and pitfalls that can arise in environmental insurance litigation and creative strategies to maximize recovery. In addition, companies facing environmental risks in their current operations or transactions can also manage environmental risk through a variety of current insurance products. Our panelists will identify current options available to manage environmental risks going forward and provide insight into the costs and benefits of those insurance products.
Jenner & Block Partners Allison Torrence and Brian Scarbrough will be panelists, along with Richard Reich, Managing Director at Aon Risk Services Central, Inc. Jenner & Block Associate Alex Bandza will moderate the webinar.
Please click here to RSVP for this webinar.