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.
Environmental Organizations Petition EPA to Expand Enforcement of Clean Air Act’s General Duty Clause
Various environmental organizations, led by the Environmental Integrity Project (“EIP”), are urging the United States Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) to expand enforcement of Section 112(r)(1) of the Clean Air Act (CAA)—commonly known as the General Duty Clause (“GDC”)—in order to more closely regulate the handling of hazardous substances at industrial facilities permitted under the CAA. EIP’s ongoing efforts include petitioning EPA to require that the obligations of the GDC be incorporated in state-issued Title V air emission permits, such that these obligations may be enforced against permit holders by state regulators or through citizen suits. As explained below, efforts to expand enforcement of the GDC were for the most part blocked under the Trump Administration’s EPA, but it remains to be seen whether these efforts may achieve renewed success under the Biden Administration.
The GDC, which was first enacted as part of the 1990 amendments to the CAA, requires that owners and operators of regulated facilities that handle, process, or store “extremely hazardous substances” take certain actions to “prevent the accidental release and … minimize the consequences of any  release” of such substances. Specifically, the GDC requires facility owners and operators to: (i) conduct a hazardous risk assessment to identify potential risks from extremely hazardous substances at their facilities; (ii) design and maintain safe facilities that protect against releases; and (iii) develop and implement protocols to minimize the consequences from any accidental releases. While “extremely hazardous substances” is not defined by the GDC, the Senate Report from the 1990 CAA amendments provides that “extremely hazardous substance” includes any agent “which may as the result of short-term exposures associated with releases to the air cause death, injury or property damage due to its toxicity, reactivity, flammability, volatility, or corrosivity.” Although not necessarily exhaustive, EPA has created a list of extremely hazardous substances in 40 CFR part 68. Jurisdiction for enforcement of the GDC remains an issue of contention between EPA and environmental organizations. While enforcement of the GDC has traditionally been left to the exclusive purview of EPA, environmental groups are increasingly arguing that state air authorities can and should request delegation authority from the EPA to enforce the GDC at permitted facilities within their jurisdiction.
A key example of EIP’s efforts to increase enforcement of the GDC is provided in the organization’s April 14, 2020 Petition Objecting to a Title V Permit issued to Hazlehurst Wood Pellets LLC (“Hazlehurst”), a wood pellet mill operating in the State of Georgia. At the time of the petition, Hazlehurst’s Title V permit had been approved by state authorities, but remained subject to final review by EPA. EIP’s Petition asked EPA to deny Hazlehurst’s air emissions permit on the grounds that the permit failed to recognize or incorporate the requirements of the GDC. According to the Petition, ensuring compliance with the GDC was critical due to the fact that Hazlehurst regularly handles hazardous products, including “copious amount of wood dust,” which had previously caused flash fires at the facility. The Trump Administration EPA’s subsequent Order Denying the Petition rejected EIP’s request, finding that the GDC is not an “applicable requirement” for the purposes of Title V, and as such, “Title V permits need not—and should not—include terms to assure compliance with the [GDC] as it is an independent requirement…” EPA reasoned that if the requirements of the GDC were integrated into a Title V permit, the obligations would ostensibly be enforceable through citizen suits. Concluding that “neither citizens nor state and local air agencies may enforce the [GDC] under the CAA,” EPA rejected the Petition. At the same time, EPA clarified that because the GDC is “self-implementing,” it is independently enforceable by EPA and applies even when it is not expressed as part of a facility’s air permit.
While EPA’s Order denied the environmental organization’s request to expressly require GDC compliance in Title V permits, the Order did make clear that facilities holding Title V permits are still subject to the GDC’s requirements which may be enforced by EPA. According to recently issued EPA Guidance on the GDC, owners and operators who maintain extremely hazardous substances must adhere, at a minimum, to recognized industry standards and any applicable government regulations for handling such substances. While it remains to be seen whether the Biden Administration EPA will continue to resist expressly incorporating the GDC in Title V permits, the Biden Administration’s emphasis on regulatory compliance and environmental justice indicates that future enforcement of the GDC is likely to increase. For this reason, facilities holding air emission permits should review their existing protocols for handling and storing hazardous substances and ensure these protocols are consistent with prevailing industry standards and the requirements of the GDC.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Releases Updated Public Health Guidelines for Vaccinated Individuals, Including Recommendations for the Workplace
On Monday, March 8, 2021, the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention (CDC) released its first set of public health recommendations for individuals fully vaccinated against COVID-19, titled “Interim Public Health Recommendations for Fully Vaccinated People.” The CDC’s newly published guidelines are intended to replace the CDC’s existing public health guidance specifically for those individuals fully vaccinated for COVID-19. By “fully vaccinated”, CDC means ≥2 weeks after an individual has received the second dose in a 2-dose series (Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna), or ≥2 weeks after an individual has received a single-dose vaccine (Johnson and Johnson [J&J]/Janssen). The updated guidance includes specific recommendations for vaccinated individuals in the non-healthcare workplace, public spaces and private and/or family settings. While the CDC guidance is only intended to provide recommended best practices, it is anticipated that the CDC’s newest guidance will be relied on by states, municipalities, school systems, and private employers as these entities continue to update and implement their own respective health guidance and COVID-19 policies and protocols.
According to the updated guidelines, vaccinated persons can now engage in a number of new activities, including:
- Visiting with other fully vaccinated people indoors without wearing masks or physical distancing;
- Visiting with unvaccinated people from a single household who are at low risk for severe COVID-19 disease indoors without wearing masks or physical distancing; and
- Refraining from quarantine and testing following a known exposure to COVID-19 if asymptomatic.
Notably, the new guidelines leave in place many of CDC’s existing recommendations for both vaccinated and non-vaccinated individuals. For example, the CDC recommends that fully vaccinated individuals continue to wear a mask in public, physical distance, avoid crowds and avoid poorly ventilated spaces. In addition, the CDC is continuing to recommend that vaccinated individuals delay domestic and international travel, and, if they do travel, continue to follow all CDC requirements and recommendations when doing so.
CDC’s guidelines for vaccinated individuals include a number of implications for private employers. In the context of non-healthcare workplaces, the CDC is now recommending that fully vaccinated employees do not need to quarantine following a known or suspected exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace unless that the vaccinated individual develops “COVID-like symptoms.” However, the guidelines still recommend that vaccinated persons receive testing “through routine workplace screening programs” following an exposure to COVID-19. Notably, CDC’s no quarantine recommendation does not extend to vaccinated employees working in congregate settings or other high-density workplaces (e.g., meat and poultry processing and manufacturing plants), and as a result vaccinated employees in congregate work environments should continue to adhere to the quarantine requirements following exposure. Employers should therefore evaluate their respective work environment to determine the appropriate quarantine procedures for employees who have received a vaccine. Under the guidelines, vaccinated individuals also need to comply with any existing COVID-19 health and safety rules issued by their employer. Thus, an employee’s vaccination status should not allow the employee to avoid his or her workplaces’ COVID-19 policies and procedures. Finally, CDC’s new guidelines do not update the CDC’s prior recommendation (issued December 30, 2020) regarding business travel. The CDC is continuing to recommend that employers “minimize non-essential travel” for all employees and, if resuming non-essential travel, ensure their employees continue to follow all state and local COVID-19 regulations and guidance regardless of their vaccination status.
In the accompanying scientific brief to its newly released guidance, the CDC cites to existing studies demonstrating the highly effective nature of the approved mRNA COVID-19 vaccines against SARS-CoV-2 infection (including both symptomatic and asymptomatic infections). Despite early evidence of the effectiveness of the approved vaccines, the CDC noted that only “approximately two-thirds of U.S. adults state that they [are] at least somewhat likely to receive a COVID-19 vaccine (or had received one already).” Because maintaining requirements to continue COVID-19 prevention measures after vaccination “may disincentive vaccine uptake,” the CDC explained that its new guidance intends to communicate additional advantages, to the individual and the community, from vaccination. The CDC advised that its guidance for vaccinated individuals will continue to be updated and modified “based on the level of community spread of SARS-CoV-2, the proportion of the population that is fully vaccinated, and the rapidly evolving science on COVID-19 vaccines.”
Biden Administration Takes New Action to Ensure Increased Consideration of Climate Change Impacts by the Federal Government
On Friday, February 19, 2021, the Council on Environmental Quality (“CEQ”) rescinded prior draft guidance issued under the Trump Administration in 2019 (the “2019 Draft CEQ Guidance”), which had limited the degree to which federal agencies needed to consider and quantify climate change impacts under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The rescission of the 2019 Draft CEQ Guidance is the latest step by the federal government to implement President Biden’s Executive Order 13990, which was signed on President Biden’s first day in office (the “Day 1 EO”). In addition to directing CEQ to rescind its prior guidance, President Biden’s Day 1 EO set forth numerous directives implementing the administration’s new climate change policy, including an order reinstating the Interagency Working Group (IWG) and directing the IWG to develop an updated “Social Cost of Carbon” (“SCC”) valuation to better quantify the economic harms associated with the emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses (“GHGs”). Under the Day 1 EO, the IWG was directed to publish its new interim SCC value within 30 days of the Order and publish a final SCC value by January 2022. Together, the Day 1 EO’s rescission of the 2019 Draft CEQ Guidance and reinstatement of the IWG signal a clear intent from the Biden Administration to significantly increase the degree to which federal agencies must consider and account for climate change impacts when enacting future regulation or taking other agency actions.
The origins of the SCC metric can be traced back to President Clinton’s 1993 Executive Order 12866, which required that federal agencies, to the extent permitted by law, “assess both the costs and the benefits of [their] intended regulation and…propose or adopt a regulation only upon a reasoned determination that the benefits of the intended regulation justify its costs.” Compliance with Executive Order 12866 poses a unique challenge for federal agencies where a proposed regulation is expected to cause a significant increase or decrease of carbon dioxide or other GHG emissions, as the benefits or costs associated with these emissions cannot easily be quantified or compared to other metrics used in the agency’s cost-benefit analysis.
On February 5, 2021, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued a proposed rule updating its Hazard Communication (“Haz Com”) Standard to align its rules with those in the seventh version of the United Nation’s Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS), published in 2017. OSHA’s proposed regulatory update is being issued as the United States’ major international trading partners, including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and those in Europe, similarly prepare to align their own hazard communications rules with the seventh version of the GHS.
Originally established in 1983, OSHA’s Haz Com Standard provides a systematized approach to communicating workplace hazards associated with exposure to hazardous chemicals. Under the Haz Com Standard, chemical manufacturers and/or importers are required to classify the hazards of chemicals which they produce or import into the United States, and all employers are required to provide information to their employees about the hazardous chemicals to which they are exposed, by means of a hazard communication program, labels and other forms of warning, safety data sheets, and information and training. At an international level, the GHS provides a universally harmonized approach to classifying chemicals and communicating hazard information. Core tenants of the GHS include universal standards for hazard testing criteria, warning pictograms, and safety data sheets for hazardous chemicals.
In a pre-published version of the proposed rule, OSHA’s proposed modifications to the Haz Com Standard include codifying enforcement policies currently in OSHA’s compliance directive, clarifying requirements related to the transport of hazardous chemicals, adding alternative labeling provisions for small containers and adopting new requirements related to preparation of Safety Data Sheets. Key modifications included in the proposed rule, include:
- New flexibility for labeling bulk shipments of hazardous chemicals, including allowing labels to be placed on the immediate container or transmitted with shipping papers, bills of lading, or by other technological or electronic means that are immediately available to workers in printed form on the receiving end of the shipment;
- New alternative labeling options where a manufacturer or importer can demonstrate that it is not feasible to use traditional pull-out labels, fold-back labels, or tags containing the full label information normally required under the Haz Com Standard, including specific alternative requirements for containers less than or equal to 100ml capacity and for containers less than or equal to 3ml capacity; and
- New requirements to update the labels on individual containers that have been released for shipment but are awaiting future distribution where the manufacturer, importer or distributer becomes aware of new significant information regarding the hazards of the chemical.
OSHA last updated its Haz Com Standard in 2012, to align the standard with the then recently published third version of GHS. In its newly proposed rule, OSHA clarifies that it is “not proposing to change the fundamental structure” of its Haz Com Standard, but instead seeking to “address specific issues that have arisen since the 2012 rulemaking” and to provide better alignment with international trading partners. According to OSHA, its proposed modifications to the Haz Com Standard “will increase worker protections, and reduce the incidence of chemical-related occupational illnesses and injuries by further improving the information on the labels and Safety Data Sheets for hazardous chemicals.”
OSHA is currently accepting comments on its proposed rule until April 19, 2021. Comments may be submitted electronically to Docket No. OSHA-2019-0001at http://www.regulations.gov, which is the Federal e-Rulemaking Portal.
On Friday, October 2, 2020, the United States Supreme Court granted a writ of certiorari to review of a decision by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals holding that climate change litigation brought against various fossil fuel were not subject to federal court subject matter jurisdiction. While the Supreme Court’s review is limited to a somewhat narrow, jurisdictional question regarding the ability of an appellate court to review a district court’s order remanding a case to state court, the decision will likely have far reaching impacts on whether the growing number of climate changes cases in the United States will be litigated in state or federal courts.
As previously discussed by the Corporate Environmental Lawyer, the underlying litigation involves claims asserted in Maryland state court by the City of Baltimore against various fossil-fuel companies for damages associated with Climate Change. In its complaint, Baltimore asserted claims against the industry for public nuisance, private nuisance, strict liability failure to warn, strict liability design defect, negligent design defect, negligent failure to warn, trespass, and violations of Maryland’s Consumer Protection Act.
In response, the fossil fuel companies sought to remove the action to federal court. However, the district court remanded the case back to state court after finding that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the asserted claims following the lead of several other district courts that have decided similar issues. On March 6, 2020, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s remand order. Importantly, the Fourth Circuit found that its appellate jurisdiction was limited to reviewing the district court’s conclusion that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction under the Federal-Officer Removal Statute pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1447(d) and 28 U.S.C. § 1442 notwithstanding that the fossil fuel companies had raised and the district court ruled on additional arguments in support of the removal petition. The Fourth Circuit found that it lacked jurisdiction to consider whether the district court should have granted removal to federal court on these alternative grounds.
With respect to the Federal Officer Removal Statute, the Fourth Circuit rejected the companies’ arguments that the case belonged in federal court because the companies had entered into fuel supply and strategic petroleum reserve agreements with the federal government. The court concluded that these contractual agreements failed to establish that the companies were “acting under” the direction of a federal officer and were “insufficiently related” to Baltimore’s claims. On March 31, 2020, the fossil-fuel companies filed a petition for a writ of certiorari in the United States Supreme Court, seeking review of the question of whether the statutory provision prescribing the scope of appellate review of remand orders “permits a court of appeals to review any issue encompassed in a district court’s order remanding a removed case to state court…” The companies argued that the Fourth Circuit had improperly ignored several alternative grounds justifying removal of the case to federal court, including that federal common law governs claims of interstate air pollution.
While the Supreme Court’s review of the case will be limited to the appellate jurisdictional question, the decision will undoubtedly influence the growing trend of climate change litigation. At present, twenty-one U.S. States and numerous municipalities have brought lawsuits in state court against the fossil fuel industry for damages related to climate change. In nearly all such cases, the industry has sought to remove the case to federal court where it is believed the companies have a better chance of successfully securing dismissals on the grounds that such claims are preempted by the Clean Air Act and/or addresses a “political question” which is better left to the discretion of Congress. Thus, the Supreme Court’s decision will likely impact the ability of the fossil fuel industry to seek appellate review of unfavorable district court remand orders.
OEHHA Proposes Additional Safe Harbor Levels for Cooked or Heat-Processed Foods Containing Proposition 65 Chemicals
On Tuesday, August 4, 2020, the California Environmental Protection Agency Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to adopt amendments to the regulations implementing the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986 (“Proposition 65”). Specifically, OEHHA is proposing to amend Title 27 of the California Code of Regulations, by adopting a new Section 25505, to address listed chemicals formed by cooking or heat processing foods. The proposed amendments, if adopted, would provide new, specific “safe harbor” levels for Proposition 65 listed chemicals that are caused by cooking or heat processing in certain food groups. Manufacturers and sellers of these food products in California could then rely on these levels to demonstrate that their products do not require a consumer warning label under Proposition 65.
In general, Proposition 65 requires that parties manufacturing, distributing, or selling consumer products in California provide a “clear and reasonable warning” to the consumer whenever their product may expose the purchaser to a chemical that OEHHA has identified and listed as a carcinogen or reproductive toxin, unless an exception applies. A key exemption to Proposition 65’s warning requirements includes where a consumer product will not exposure a consumer to a listed chemical in quantities above certain OEHHA-designated Safe Harbor Levels. Safe Harbor Levels, which include No Significant Risk Levels (NSRLs) for cancer-causing chemicals and Maximum Allowable Dose Levels (MADLs) for chemicals causing reproductive toxicity, have been established for many of the chemicals listed under Proposition 65 and represent the maximum level of exposure to a chemical that has been deemed “safe” by OEHHA. Products that expose consumers to chemicals at or below a designated Safe Harbor Level are not required to provide a warning label or otherwise warn consumers about potential exposure to the listed chemical in their product. Critically, Proposition 65’s warning requirements are almost entirely forced through litigation brought by private party plaintiffs. In 2018 alone, defendants paid over $35 million in settlements to private party plaintiffs, with over 75% going to attorneys’ fees.
Of particular significance to OEHHA’s proposed regulatory amendment is the Proposition 65 listed chemical acrylamide, which can often form in certain plant-based foods during high-temperature cooking processes, such as frying, roasting, or baking. Acrylamide was first added as a Proposition 65 listed chemical in 1990 after studies showed it had the potential to produce cancer in laboratory mice. Acrylamide was additionally listed as a reproductive toxin in February 2011, when OEHHA determined that the chemical could cause reproductive effects in mice. Despite the relatively long period of time Acrylamide has been listed as a Proposition 65 regulated chemical, private party enforcement actions over the chemical have spiked heavily in recent years. In response, on October 7, 2019, the California Chamber of Commerce filed suit in federal court against the California Attorney General, Xavier Becerra, seeking to block enforcement of Proposition 65’s warning requirements for foods containing acrylamide as the result of the normal cooking process. The Chamber’s complaint alleged that more than 461 companies have received Proposition 65 notice of violations “in connection with alleged exposures to acrylamide in their food products over the past three years.” The complaint further noted that the creation of acrylamide is an unavoidable effect of cooking many plant-based foods and that “there is a lack of reliable scientific evidence suggesting a causal relationship between acrylamide in food products and cancer risk in humans.”
OEHHA’s proposed regulatory amendment appears aimed at addressing the specific concerns asserted in the Chamber of Commerce litigation. In its Statement of Reasons for the proposed amendments, OEHHA acknowledge that the regulatory amendment was needed because “some degree of formation of listed chemicals in many foods is unavoidable when the foods are cooked or otherwise processed with heat.” In addition, OEHHA noted that the agency would consider adding additional food groups to the proposed regulations at a later date.
The proposed regulations provide that a Proposition 65 “exposure” does not occur where a listed chemical in a food product “was created by cooking or other heat processing” and “the producer, manufacturer, distributor, or holder of the food has utilized quality control measures that reduce the chemical to the lowest level currently feasible.” In conjunction with this amendment, the amended regulations provide new Safe Harbor maximum concentration levels for listed chemicals in certain cooked or heated foods that are deemed by OEHHA to be the “lowest level currently feasible.” Food products containing a listed chemical at or below the listed levels are not required to provide a warning under Proposition 65. Listed food groups with specific new Safe Harbor Levels covered by the regulation include:
- Almonds, roasted, roasted almond butter, and chocolate-covered almonds;
- Bread, wheat and non-wheat-based products including loaves, rolls, buns, and baguettes;
- Cookies, including animal crackers, thin and crispy cookies, and sandwich wafers;
- Potatoes and sweet potato products, including french fried potatoes, sliced chips, and other potato products such as hash browns and potato puffs;
- Prune juice, including made from concentrate and non-concentrate; and
Notwithstanding the new proposed Safe Harbor Levels, the last sentence in new Section 25505(a) could still result in Proposition 65 claims. The sentence provides “[i]f a person does not reduce the level of the chemical in a food to the lowest level currently feasible, the resulting exposure must be calculated without regard to the levels set out in subsection (d).” Although this may not have been the intent of OEHHA, this language could be read to allow a Proposition 65 plaintiff to still claim that a manufacturer failed to utilize control measures that reduce the chemicals to the “lowest level currently feasible” even if below the Safe Harbor Level. Hopefully OEHHA will clear up this potential ambiguity in any final rule.
We also note that while the newly proposed amendments may assist many potential defendants, the updated Safe Harbor Levels explicitly will not apply “to parties to an existing court-ordered settlement or final judgment to the extent that such settlement or judgment establishes a concentration of the chemical in a specific product covered in the settlement or judgment.”
OEHHA is currently accepting written comments concerning its proposed regulatory action and intends to close its comment period no later than October 6, 2020. At present, OEHHA has not announced an intended final publication date for the proposed regulations, but the agency has noted that it anticipated its regulatory process may be delayed “due to the COVID-19 emergency.”
On Wednesday, July 15, 2020, the Trump Administration announced the publication of comprehensive updates to federal regulations governing the implementation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The updated regulations—issued by the Council on Environmental Quality (“CEQ”)—are provided in the agency’s final rule titled “Update to the Regulations Implementing the Procedural Provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act” (the “Final Rule”), which is expected to be published in a forthcoming Federal Register publication. The Final Rule significantly overhauls the responsibilities of federal agencies under NEPA, and represents the first major overhaul to NEPA’s regulations in over 30 years. During his announcement, President Trump promised that the overhaul would remove “mountains and mountains of bureaucratic red tape in Washington, D.C.” and speed up the approval and construction of major projects such as interstate highways and pipelines.
NEPA requires federal agencies to quantify and consider the environmental impacts of proposed actions “with effects that may be major and which are potentially subject to Federal control and responsibility.” The federal agency must conduct its NEPA review prior to “any irreversible and irretrievable commitments of resources” towards the proposed action. To fulfill its obligations under NEPA, federal agencies much first complete an “Environmental Assessment” (“EA”) that analyzes whether a proposed action will have a significant impact on the environment. If the EA concludes that an action could have significant environmental impacts, the agency is obligated to take the next step under NEPA and prepare a detailed “Environmental Impact Assessment” (“EIS”) that describes and quantifies the anticipated impacts. Federal agencies are required to undertake an EA and potentially an EIS before commencing public infrastructure projects such as roads, bridges and ports, or before issuing permits to certain private actions that require federal approval, such as the construction of pipelines or commencement of mining operations.
The Trump Administration has repeatedly voiced displeasure with the existing NEPA process, which the President has characterized as “increasingly complex and difficult to manage.” Legal challenges initiated under the existing NEPA regulations have also stalled a number of energy projects publicly supported by the administration, including the Keystone XL, the Dakota Access pipelines. The administration's new regulations are expected to reduce the obligations imposed on federal agencies under NEPA through a variety of measures, including reducing the types of environmental impacts that must be considered during a NEPA review; shortening the permitted time period for reviews; and exempting certain types of actions from the review requirements.
While the Final Rule provides numerous modifications to the language of the existing regulations, three changes expected to have substantial impact on the NEPA process include:
- Narrowing of “Effects” that Agencies Must Consider: The Final Rule seeks to narrow the scope of the environmental consequences that must be considered during an agency’s NEPA review by striking from NEPA’s definition of “effects” references to “direct”, “indirect”, and “cumulative” effects. Instead, the new definition provides that federal agencies must only consider environmental “effects” that “are reasonably foreseeable and have a reasonably close casual relational to the proposed action…” According to CEQ, NEPA’s existing definition of “effects” “had been interpreted so expansively as to undermine informed decision making, and led agencies to conduct analyses to include effects that are not reasonably foreseeable or do not have a reasonably close causal relationship to the proposed action or alternatives.” Under the Final Rule’s definition of “effects”, it is unclear whether agencies are ever required to consider a proposed project’s incremental contribution to “global” environment effects, such as Climate Change. Since global effects arguably do not have a “close causal relationship” with any single action, these impacts may now fall outside of NEPA’s purview.
By eliminating the reference to “indirect” emissions and requiring a “close causal relationship” between a project and its environmental effects, the Final Rule also appears to limit federal agencies’ obligation to consider indirect “upstream” and/or “downstream” impacts associated with a project. This issue is of particular significance to the ongoing legal debate regarding the scope of greenhouse gas (“GHG”) emissions that must be considered in NEPA reviews of interstate pipeline projects. Because the volume of GHG emissions caused by the burning of fossil fuels transported by a pipeline often far exceed the emissions directly associated with the pipeline’s construction, litigation can often arise as to whether these subsequent “downstream” emissions must be considered during the pipeline’s NEPA review. Under the Final Rule, it appears that upstream / downstream GHG emissions will often be excluded from NEPA’s requirements unless the emissions have a close relationship with the specific project. Ultimately, the manner in which federal agencies and courts interpret “close causal relationship” in the Final Rule has the potential to significantly reduce the scope of federal agencies’ evaluation of climate change impacts associated with federal projects.
- Limitations on Review Period and Report Length: The Final Rule seeks to expedite the NEPA review process by requiring federal agencies to limit all NEPA reviews to a maximum of two years. In addition, the final EIS issued by an agency may not exceed 150 pages of text or, for proposals of unusual scope of and complexity, 300 pages of text. Exceptions from the review period and/or EIS page limitations may only be granted through specific written approval from a senior agency official. The limitations imposed by the Final Rule appear to represent a significant departure from the existing NEPA process. According to a CEQ Report issued on June 12, 2020, the average final EIS is currently 661 pages in length and takes approximately 4.5 years to complete.
- Directive for Agencies to Expand Categorical Exclusions of NEPA Requirements for Certain Types of Projects: The Final Rule requires federal agencies to develop a list of actions that the agency does not expect to have a significant effect on the environment. Outside of “extraordinary circumstances,” agencies will not be required to conduct an EA for any projects falling within these categorical exclusions. Furthermore, the Final Rule clarifies that a NEPA review is not required where a proposed action would only have “minimal Federal funding or minimal Federal involvement,” such that the agency cannot control the outcome of the project.
The updated regulations are set to take effect 60 days after the publication of the Final Rule in the Federal Register. CEQ has further clarified that federal agencies may apply the updated regulations to any ongoing NEPA reviews, including environmental reviews started before the effective date of the regulations. However, environmental groups have already publicly stated that they intend to challenge the new rule, claiming at least in part that CEQ failed to respond to the more than one million comments that were submitted in response to the proposed new rules.
On Monday, April 27, 2020, Illinois Circuit Court Judge Michael McHaney temporarily blocked enforcement of Illinois Governor JB Pritzker's March 20, 2020 stay-at-home order, which had been extended through April 30, by granting a temporary restraining order (“TRO”) sought by Illinois State Representative (R) Darren Bailey. As issued, the judge’s decision prohibits Governor Pritzker from enforcing the pending stay-at home order—or any future executive orders that require home quarantine—against Rep. Bailey.
As background to the lawsuit, on March 9, 2020, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Governor Pritzker issued an Executive Order, declaring all counties within Illinois as disaster areas (the “Disaster Declaration”). Governor Pritzker’s Disaster Declaration was issued pursuant to the Illinois Emergency Management Agency Act, 20 ILCS 3305 et seq. (“Illinois Emergency Act”). On March 20, pursuant to the Governor’s authority under the Illinois Emergency Act, Governor Pritzker issued Executive Order 2020-10, which requires “individuals currently living within the State of Illinois…to stay at home or at their place of residence” (“the March Stay-at-Home Order”). The March Stay-at-Home Order provides an exception allowing individuals to leave the home to engage in an enumerated list of “essential activities,” including tasks essential to health and safety, certain approved outdoor activities, and to perform work for essential businesses. The March Stay-at-Home Order was originally set to end on April 7, 2020, but on April 1, Governor Pritzker issued an extension of the March Stay-at-Home Order through April 30, 2020, and on April 23, the Governor announced his intent to further extend the order through May 30, 2020.
On April 23, 2020, Rep. Bailey—whose district includes Clay County, Illinois—filed a complaint in the Clay County Circuit Court alleging that Governor Pritzker’s April 1 extension of the stay-at-home order exceeded the authority afforded to the Governor under the Illinois Emergency Act. Specifically, the lawsuit alleges that the Illinois Emergency Act grants certain enumerated powers to the Illinois Governor following the proclamation of a “public health emergency,” but that Section 7 of the Illinois Emergency Act limits these authorities to “a period not to exceed 30 days” following the declaration. Thus, Rep. Bailey alleges that any extension of the stay-at-home order beyond April 8, 2020—i.e, more than 30 days beyond the March 9 Disaster Declaration, is void and that the Governor’s publicly announced plan to extend the Executive Order through May 30, 2020 is “void ab initio”. The lawsuit further alleges that Governor Pritzker’s unauthorized use of the Illinois Emergency Act has impermissibly limited Rep. Bailey’s constitutionally protected freedoms to travel within the state of Illinois. The complaint requests a declaratory judgment that Governor Pritzker’s April 1 extension of the March Stay-at-Home Order is void, and seeks a permanent injunction enjoining Governor Pritzker, or anyone under his authority, from enforcing the March Stay-at-Home Order, at any time, against Rep. Bailey.
On the same date that he filed his complaint, Rep. Bailey filed a motion seeking a TRO to enjoin Governor Pritzker from enforcing the March Stay-at-Home Order against him or entering any further executive orders as a result of the Disaster Declaration that would limit Rep. Bailey’s ability to travel within the state. To obtain a TRO, under Illinois law, the movant must establish: (1) a protectable right; (2) irreparable harm; (3) an inadequate remedy at law; and (4) a likelihood of success on the merits. See Smith v. Dep't of Nat. Res., 35 N.E.3d 1281, 1287 (Ill. App. Ct. 5th Dist. 2015). In its order granting the TRO, the circuit court found that Rep. Bailey had “shown he will suffer irreparable harm if the [TRO] is not issued” and had “shown he has no adequate remedy at law or in equity in that absent a [TRO] being entered, plaintiff, will continue to be isolated and quarantined in his home.” The court’s order provided that the TRO will stay in effect until “a date to be agreed upon by the parties, not to exceed 30 days from [April 27] wherein [plaintiff’s motion for] a preliminary injunction will be heard on that date.”
On Tuesday, April 28, 2020, Governor Pritzker filed a notice of interlocutory appeal to the Appellate Court of Illinois, Fifth Judicial District, requesting that the court reverse and vacate Judge McHaney’s decision and dissolve the TRO. Both Bailey and Pritzker will have an opportunity to file briefs before the appellate court. A date for oral argument before the court has not been set. “We are certainly going to act in a swift action to have this ruling overturned,” Pritzker said in a press briefing following the original decision. “Representative Bailey’s decision to go to the courts is an insult to all Illinoisans who have been lost during this COVID-19 crisis. It’s a danger to millions of people who might get ill because of his recklessness.”
While Judge McHaney’s ruling states that it only prohibits enforcement against Rep. Bailey, the lawsuit potentially opens the door for others in Illinois to file similar lawsuits or to resist compliance with the Governor’s Executive Orders issued since April 7, 2020. In addition, the complaint seeks a declaration that the stay-at-home order is void which arguably could have state-wide effect. In a statement concerning the lawsuit, Rep. Bailey said that he filed the complaint “on behalf of myself and my constituents who are ready to go back to work and resume a normal life,” although the TRO and Complaint as written did not state that it applied to any person other than Rep. Bailey. In the meantime, Governor Pritzker vowed to continue issuing new public health directives, as he deemed necessary, while the case remained unresolved.
As discussed in a prior post on Corporate Environmental Lawyer, on January 29, 2020, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (“USEPA”) activated its “Emerging Viral Pathogens Guidance for Antimicrobial Pesticides” (the “Guidance”) to help curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, the cause of COVID-19, in the United States. The Guidance allowed manufacturers of disinfecting/antimicrobial products that are regulated under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) to revise their FIFRA registration and promote their products’ effectiveness against specific “emerging pathogens,” including the Coronavirus. Relying on the Guidance, manufacturers can revise their FIFRA registrations to provide a statement of their products’ efficacy against the pathogen “in technical literature distributed to health care facilities, physicians, nurses, public health officials, non-label-related websites, consumer information services, and social media sites.”
As of April 23, 2020, USEPA’s expedited FIFRA review process has produced a list of nearly 400 different disinfectant products approved by USEPA as being effective against the Coronavirus. “During this pandemic, it’s important that people can easily find the information they’re looking for when choosing and using a surface disinfectant,” said EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler. “With this expanded list, EPA is making sure Americans have greater access to as many effective and approved surface disinfectant products as possible and that they have the information at their fingertips to use them effectively,” Wheeler continued.
In addition to providing the opportunity for an expedited review of disinfectant products, USEPA has taken the additional step of initiating enforcement actions against companies and individuals accused of selling illegal products that claim to protect again the Coronavirus. For example, on March 25, 2020, USEPA announced that it had seized shipments of an illegal health product, “Virus Shut Out,” which claimed to protect users from the Coronavirus. Because no effort was made to secure a proper FIFRA-registration for the product, USEPA stated that the untested product had the potential to be “harmful to human health, cause adverse effects, and may not be effective against the spread of germs.”
On April 23, 2020, USEPA took the additional step of warning numerous e-commerce companies, including Facebook Inc., eBay Inc., Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., and others, that their platforms were being used to sell unregistered disinfectant products that fraudulently claimed to be effective against the Coronavirus. The e-commerce platforms were instructed by USEPA to “take action against these dishonest dealers and immediately take these illegal products off of their sites.” USEPA’s warning indicated that any business failing to properly monitor its platform would be subject to enforcement proceedings under FIFRA. USEPA’s threatened actions would not be the first time the agency brought enforcement actions against online retailers for selling unregistered products in violation of FIFRA. In February 2018, USEPA entered into a settlement agreement with Amazon Services LLC (“Amazon”) for nearly 4,000 violations of FIFRA, dating back to 2013. Under the terms of the agreement, Amazon was required to pay a civil penalty of approximately $1.2 million and implement more stringent controls to ensure unregistered products were not sold on its platform.
Please feel free to contact the author with questions or for further information about the FIFRA registration and recent USEPA warning. For regular updates about the impact of COVID‑19 in the workplace and on business generally, please visit Jenner & Block’s Corporate Environmental Lawyer blog and Jenner & Block’s COVID‑19 Resource Center.
On Monday, March 2, 2020, the United States Supreme Court granted certiorari to a petition from two U.S. federal agencies attempting to block the release of certain agency decision-making documents under the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”). The agencies’ petition followed a determination by the Ninth Circuit that certain “draft” documents created by the agencies pursuant to Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”) were not exempt from public release under FOIA. The Supreme Court’s resolution of the matter is expected to have far reaching impacts on the types of documents that federal agencies may hold back from public release under FOIA.
The case stems from an April 2011 regulatory proposal by U.S. EPA to modify standards related to certain “cooling water intake structures,” used by power plants and manufacturing facilities to dissipate heat. Under Section 7 of the ESA, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (“USFWS”) and National Marine Fisheries Service (“NMFS”) were required to provide U.S. EPA their “biological opinions” as to whether the regulatory proposal was “likely to cause jeopardy” for certain ESA-listed species or negatively impact critical habitat of threatened or endangered species. Pursuant to this obligation, the USFWS and NMFS advised U.S. EPA of their preliminary determination that the proposed regulations would harm currently endangered species. However, the agencies’ preliminary determinations were never published, and following further discussions with U.S. EPA, the agencies ultimately modified their conclusion and announced a finding that the proposed regulations would pose no “no jeopardy” to endangered species. Following this determination, the Sierra Club subsequently issued a FOIA request for documents related to the ESA consultation process, but the agencies refused to turn over documents related to their draft preliminary determination. Specifically, the agencies claimed that the documents were protected under the “deliberate process privilege” exception to the FOIA. Following several years of litigation, the Ninth Circuit held in 2018 that the deliberate process privilege did not extend to block the draft documents created by the USFWS and NMFS and that the agencies were required to turn over the documents to the Sierra Club.
In its petition, the Government urged that the Ninth Circuit’s rulings must be overturned in order to protect the deliberate process privilege of FOIA, which is essential for “promoting a candid exchange within and between agencies before a final decision is made.” In its brief in response to the Government, the Sierra Club argued that the documents “conveyed the Services’ conclusion that a particular action proposed by…EPA would result in jeopardy to species protected by the ESA,” and that the agencies’ attempt to subsequently identify these documents as “drafts” did alter the conclusive nature of the documents.
The Supreme Court’s decision to hear the Government’s petition is likely an ominous indicator for the Sierra Club and other environmental groups supporting the Ninth Circuit’s holding. Since 2007, the Supreme Court has overturned approximately 70% of the federal circuit decisions it agrees to review, and has overturned more than 77% of the decisions arriving from the Ninth Circuit.
On Thursday, February 20, 2020, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) announced a preliminary regulatory determination that the agency will seek to implement regulatory limits for Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) in public drinking water across the United States. The regulatory determination is a key step in the creation of a Maximum Contamination Level (“MCL”) that will act to limit the quantity of PFAS permitted in public drinking water. In its preliminary regulatory determination, EPA proposes setting MCL levels for two PFAS substances, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), which EPA has determined meet the statutory criteria to become regulated contaminants under the Safe Drinking Water Act. To meet this criteria, EPA had to find that: (1) the consumption of PFOS and PFOA may result in adverse health effects; (2) PFOS and PFOA have been identified in public water supplies at frequencies and levels sufficient to cause a public health concern; and (3) that new regulation presents a meaningful opportunity to reduce the health risks posed by PFOS and PFOA.
As part of its announcement, EPA will seek public comments on its preliminary findings for the next 60 days. Critically, the preliminary regulatory determination offers no insight into the regulatory levels EPA anticipates setting for PFOS or PFOA. Through its voluntary Health Advisory Level (“HAL”), EPA currently recommends that municipalities maintain a maximum limit of 70 parts per trillion of PFAS in drinking water served to the public. While the HAL is referenced in EPA’s preliminary regulatory determination, it is unclear whether EPA will look to set PFOS or PFAS’ mandatorily MCL at a similar level. EPA’s election to regulate PFOS and PFOA kicks off a two-year period for the agency to determine an appropriate MCL for the contaminants. Following the formal proposal of an MCL, the agency has another 18 months to set its final drinking water requirements.
The release of a preliminary regulatory determination marks a critical step in EPA’s implementation of its PFAS Action Plan. Under the PFAS Action Plan, EPA has committed to “identifying and understanding PFAS, [ ] addressing current PFAS contamination, preventing future contamination, and effectively communicating with the public about PFAS.” The plan sets forth four overarching goals for regulating PFAS:
- Consider the creation of an MCL for PFOA and PFOA;
- Begin necessary steps to propose designating PFOA and PFOS as “hazardous substances” through available federal statutory mechanisms, including CERCLA, RCRA, TSCA and the CWA;
- Develop and implement groundwater cleanup recommendations for PFOA and PFOS at contaminated sites;
- Develop toxicity values or oral reference doses for various PFAS chemicals.
Under the Trump Administration, the EPA has repeatedly affirmed that addressing the emerging contaminant PFAS is a key and ongoing priority for the agency. As stated in the PFAS Action Plan, “the EPA has heard clearly the public’s desire for immediate action to address potential human health and economic impacts from PFAS in the environment.” In fact, despite proposing large cuts to EPA’s overall budget, the Trump Administration’s proposed budget for 2021 requests an additional $6 million dollars from Congress to carry out EPA’s PFAS Action Plan. “Under President Trump, EPA is continuing to aggressively implement our PFAS Action Plan – the most comprehensive cross-agency plan ever to address an emerging chemical,” stated EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler. “With today’s action, EPA is following through on its commitment in the Action Plan to evaluate PFOA and PFOS under the Safe Drinking Water Act.”
White House Promises to Use “All Available Tools” to Implement Deep Cuts to EPA Funding in Fiscal Year 2021
On Monday, February 10, 2020, the Trump Administration released its proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2021. The proposal calls for sweeping cuts to a number of federal agencies and departments, including deep cuts to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (“USEPA”). If enacted, the proposed budget would grant $6.7 billion in funding to USEPA, a $2.4 billion or 26-percent reduction from the agency’s $9.1 billion budget in 2020. In the budget proposal’s preamble, the Administration promises to “call on the Government to reduce wasteful, unnecessary spending, and to fix mismanagement and redundancy across agencies.”
With respect to USEPA’s budget allocation, the proposal promises to “eliminate almost 50 wasteful programs that are outside of EPA’s core mission or duplicative of other efforts, saving taxpayers over $600 million.” Proposed major cuts include the reduction of nearly 50% of the agency’s research budget, including all funding for grants to independent universities and research institutes conducting air, water, and other environmental and health research. Another target for deep cuts is USEPA’s safe drinking water revolving funds. The revolving funds are used to help fund water infrastructure projects undertaken by state or municipal public water providers. Under the proposed budget, the available funds for such projects would be cut from approximately $2.77 billion down to $2 billion.
While the proposal primarily focuses on proposing cuts to USEPA’s fiscal budget, it does contain a few line item requests for additional funding. In particular, the proposal asks for an additional $6 million to carry out USEPA’s Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) Action Plan. The additional funding is sought to continue research into the risk posed by PFAS compounds, address current contamination issues, and effectively communicate findings to the public. In addition, the budget requests $16 million into new research to help prevent and respond to the rising growth of harmful algal blooms.
The budget proposal is not the first time the Trump Administration has sought to implement deep cuts into USEPA’s budget. In fact, the Trump Administration has now proposed nearly identical cuts to the agency’s budget in each of the last three fiscal years. As previously discussed by the Corporate Environmental Lawyer, the Trump Administration first proposed a $2.7 billion budget reduction for USEPA in fiscal year 2018. However, the proposal was rebuffed by congress and the final spending bill ultimately signed by Trump held the agency’s budget at $8.1 billion, even with its 2017 level. The following year, the Trump Administration again proposed cutting the agency’s budget by more than $2 billion, but ultimately agreed to a spending deal that increased the agency’s budget to $8.8 billion. Finally, during fiscal year 2020, the Trump Administration proposed approximately $2.7 billion in cuts to USEPA’s budget. As before, Congress rejected the proposal and ultimately approved a nearly record high budget for USEPA of $9.1 Billion. Congress’ continued rejection of the spending cuts proposed by the Trump Administration is acknowledged in the Administration’s most recent 2021 budget proposal, which derides Congress for continuing “to reject any efforts to restrain spending” and “greatly contribut[ing] to the continued ballooning of Federal debt and deficits, putting the Nation’s fiscal future at risk.” The proposal promises that the Trump Administration will use “all available tools and levers” to ensure that the spending reductions outlined in the budget are finally implemented.
On January 29, 2020, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (“USEPA”) activated its Emerging Viral Pathogens Guidance for Antimicrobial Pesticides (the “Guidance”) in an attempt to help curb the spread of the Novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) (the “Coronavirus”) in the United States. Drafted pursuant to USEPA’s authority under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), the Guidance sets forth a voluntary process by which companies holding FIFRA registrations for disinfecting/antimicrobial products can promote the use of their products against specific “emerging pathogens,” including the Coronavirus. While the Guidance was finalized in August 2016, it had remained inactive prior to USEPA’s recent announcement.
Under the typical FIFRA registration process, the manufacturer of a disinfecting product that wishes to promote the product’s use against a specific virus or bacteria must first submit testing data to USEPA that demonstrates the product’s efficacy against the microbe. Following USEPA’s approval of the submitted data, the manufacturer is then permitted to update its product’s labeling to include the use of the product against the microbe. However, as noted by USEPA, “[b]ecause the occurrence of emerging viral pathogens is less common and predictable than established pathogens,” it can be difficult “to assess the efficacy of EPA registered disinfectants against such pathogens in a timely manner and to add these viruses to existing product registrations…” For this reason, USEPA’s emergency Guidance allows manufacturers to receive special permission to advertise their products for use against emerging viral pathogens during public health outbreaks. The intent of USEPA’s guidance is to “expedite the process for registrants to provide useful information to the public” regarding products that may be effective against emerging pathogens.
To receive the benefit of the Guidance, a manufacturer must submit a “label amendment request” to USEPA with a statement explaining its product’s effectiveness against an emerging viral pathogen. This step is ideally completed prior to a public health outbreak. So long as the product meets certain eligibility criteria, USEPA will approve the amendment. Next, in the event a public health outbreak occurs and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) “identifie[s] [an] emerging pathogen and recommend[s] environmental surface disinfection to help control its spread,” approved manufacturers are permitted to start advertising the effectiveness of their products for controlling the pathogen. A manufacturer can provide a statement of their product’s efficacy against the pathogen “in technical literature distributed to health care facilities, physicians, nurses, public health officials, non-label-related websites, consumer information services, and social media sites.” However, the efficacy statement may not appear on the actual label of the product.
As of Tuesday, February 4, 2020, more than 20,500 cases of the coronavirus have been confirmed worldwide. While the vast majority of confirmed cases have occurred in mainland China, cases have been confirmed in more than two dozen other countries, including eleven confirmed cases in the United States. The CDC has warned that the Coronavirus poses an “unprecedented threat” to public health in the United States. USEPA’s Guidance notes that the agency will continue working closely with the CDC to identify and address Coronavirus in a timely manner and to monitor developments closely.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
The term “climate change litigation” has become a shorthand for a wide range of different legal proceedings associated with addressing the environmental impacts of climate change. Plaintiffs in climate change lawsuits may include individuals, non-governmental organizations, private companies, state or local level governments, and even company shareholders who, through various legal theories, allege that they have been harmed or will suffer future harm as a direct result of the world’s changing climate. The targets of climate change litigation have included individual public and private companies, government bodies, and even entire industry groups. While there appears to be no shortage of plaintiffs, defendants, or legal theories emerging in climate change litigation, one clear trend is that the number of these lawsuits has grown dramatically in recent years. By one count, more than fifty climate change suits have been filed in the United States every year since 2009, with over one hundred suits being filed in both 2016 and 2017.
In light of the growing trend of climate change litigation, Jenner & Block’s Corporate Environmental Lawyer blog is starting a periodic blog update which will discuss the emerging trends and key cases in this litigation arena. In each update, our blog will focus on a sub-set of climate change cases and discuss recent decisions on the topic. In Part 1 of this series, we will be discussing Citizen-Initiated Litigation Against National Governments.
On Tuesday, November 6th, Colorado voters rejected a highly contested ballot initiative which would have set unprecedented limits on oil and gas drilling in the state. The measure, Proposition 112, would have prohibited drilling new oil or natural gas wells within 2,500 feet of certain occupied buildings—including homes, schools and hospitals; various water sources—including lakes, rivers and creeks; and other areas specifically designated as “vulnerable” by the state. In total, a report from the Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission estimated that the measure would have prohibited new hydraulic fracturing operations on as much as 95% of the land in Colorado’s top oil and gas producing counties.
The proposition received a high degree of pre-election attention, with individuals from politician Bernie Sanders to actor Leonardo DiCaprio encouraging Colorado voters to support the initiative. While early polling indicated Proposition 112 was supported by the majority of Colorado voters, the initiative was ultimately defeated with 57% of the state’s voters opposing it in Tuesday’s elections. In what may have served as a fatal blow, Colorado’s governor-elect, Jared Polis, distanced himself from the ballot initiative in the days leading up to the election. The newly elected Democrat had campaigned as a pro-environment alternative to his Republican opponent, but categorized the ballot initiative as “economically damaging” to the state of Colorado.
At present, New York, Vermont, and Maryland are the only states to have established outright bans on fracking. None of those states, however, has oil and gas reserves approaching the production capacity of Colorado. The state’s oil and gas industry has grown dramatically in the last decade, with the state’s production of crude oil rising from 73,000 barrels per day in 2008 to 477,000 barrels per day in August 2018. As the state’s production of oil and gas continues to grow, it appears likely that legislative battles over fracking regulations will continue to unfold.