On March 28, 2017, President Trump issued his long-awaited Executive Order that targets the principle climate change related rules and guidance of the Obama Administration. The express rationale and the title of the Executive Order is “promoting energy independence and economic growth”. The linchpin of the Order is to rescind regulations that “unduly burden the development of domestic energy resources beyond the degree necessary to protect the public interest or otherwise comply with the law”.
Notably absent from the Order is any discussion of environmental protection and climate change, other than a passing recognition of the need to protect clean air and clean water, “while also respecting the proper roles of the Congress and the States concerning these matters in our constitutional republic.” It is fairly predictable that this Executive Order will not have an immediate effect on energy independence and economic growth, if that means ‘ending the war on coal’, chiefly because of the reality that the energy sector has moved well beyond coal as a primary fuel for producing electricity because it needs long-term certainty and stability, because the US is more energy independent than it ever was, particularly due to the hydraulic fracking revolution, and because the attempt to rescind the “Clean Power Plan” rules will go on for years.
The Executive Order is sweeping and goes well beyond the Clean Power Plan to include, for example, proposed rescission of the Obama Administration’s regulations on fracking on federal lands, lifting of the ban on coal mine leasing on public lands, disbanding of the Interagency Working Group on Social Cost of Greenhouse Gases (IWG) and withdrawal of all of its technical reports, and revocation of numerous policies, reports and memoranda. Certain actions covered in the Order are immediate, e.g. the rescission of the CEQ Final Climate Change Guidance (NEPA). Other actions may take years to accomplish, e.g. the direction to suspend, revise or rescind both the Clean Power Plan Rule (applicable to existing coal-fired and gas-fired electric generation plants) and the Standards of Performance for Greenhouse Gas Emissions from New, Modified, and Reconstructed Stationary Sources: Electric Utility Generating Units. The reason is the certainty of protracted lawsuits that will be brought by states, cities, renewable energy companies and private citizens against the Administration to challenge its actions. Further, the attempt to rescind such rules will be subject to the standards for judicial review of federal administrative actions: whether or not the action is in compliance with applicable law and whether or not it is arbitrary and capricious.
In light of the Supreme Court opinion in Massachusetts v. EPA (carbon dioxide is an “air pollutant” under the federal Clean Air Act) and EPA’s subsequent Endangerment Finding regarding CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions, it will not be an easy task for the Administration to successfully defend its action. Further, even if the CEQ Final Climate Change Guidance is rescinded, an agency that does not sufficiently analyze the likely greenhouse gas impacts of a proposed major federal action under NEPA will find itself on thin ice in defending that action in court.
Finally, even if this Executive Order is ultimately successful in reversing the federal government’s rules and policies regarding climate change, it cannot prevent the states from enacting and enforcing their own laws and regulations regarding greenhouse gas reductions.
The Executive Order is a bold stroke and will undoubtedly have some significant and immediate consequences. However, the timing of its impact on the Clean Power Plan, the New Source Performance Standards for the electric generation industry and other final climate related regulations is harder to predict because of the expected litigation to come. (Since the Clean Power Plan was stayed by the Supreme Court, further delay due to litigation over its proposed repeal does not change the status quo). Further, in light of the hydraulic fracturing revolution that has led to lower prices for natural gas than coal, because most utilities have already begun moving beyond coal to natural gas, wind, solar and other diverse and less carbon intense resources, and since the U.S. is a net exporter of coal and is increasingly less reliant on imports of oil and gas, the Executive Order’s predicted impacts on energy independence and economic development appear overly optimistic.
Kenneth A. Reich, Esq., founder and principal of Kenneth Reich Law, LLC, is an experienced environmental and energy lawyer who formerly served as a trial attorney, then assistant chief of the Environmental Enforcement Section, US Department of Justice, before re-entering private practice. He writes and speaks frequently on national environmental and energy issues and teaches as a part-time adjunct at the Boston University School of Law.
President-elect Trump Will Face Substantial Obstacles in Attempting to Roll Back Environmental Regulation and Enforcement
Here is a close look at some key environmental programs and the incoming Administration’s likely options and obstacles.
Clean Power Plan
The Clean Power Plan (“CPP”), a final EPA regulation that requires states to reduce existing power plant greenhouse gas air emissions, has been challenged in the federal Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit and stayed by the Supreme Court. It is likely the incoming Administration will look at some of the following options to rescind CPP:
1. It cannot unilaterally rescind or modify CPP since the regulation is final, thus requiring EPA to go through a formal notice and comment process. Such proposal would be vigorously opposed by a significant number of governmental and private parties and the procedural process could take years.
2. It could request the DC Circuit to stay the litigation. However, the state, municipal and other intervenors on EPA’s side would certainly oppose such a move and it is difficult to predict how the DC Circuit would rule.
3. If the DC Circuit issues a decision prior to the inauguration, the losing side would certainly seek review in the Supreme Court and it is not clear if the EPA and DOJ could prevent the Court from taking and hearing the case if other parties in the case sought to pursue the appeal.
4. Defunding the program might succeed, but doesn’t blunt the efforts numerous states are already making to develop their CPP plans.
Clean Water Act Final Rule and Clarifying “Waters of the United States”
Like the Clean Power Plan, this Obama Administration final regulation defining “waters of the United States” that are subject to federal regulation has been challenged and stayed. If the new Administration attempts to repeal this final regulation, it will face the same hurdles discussed above.
Paris Climate Change Agreement
The means by which and the timing of the United States’ possible withdrawal from this Agreement are beyond the scope of this Op Ed, but putting aside major domestic and foreign opposition, one clear response to the United States’ withdrawal could be other countries also seeking to withdraw, which would be a significant blow to achieving necessary progress on slowing climate change. Alternatively, Russia, China and India would remain the biggest players in the realm of climate change, leaving the U.S. out in the cold.
Theoretically the Department of Justice could try to delay enforcing federal environmental laws and regulations, particularly if its enforcement budget were cut, but this would be a clear violation of the President’s mandate to uphold the laws. Moreover, this was not the case under President Reagan where the Department ramped up to enforce the newly enacted Superfund Act, as well as continuing to prosecute pollution cases under other statutes. Priorities with a new Administration may be different, but line lawyers in the DOJ still have a job to do.
Even if the federal government retreats in various areas, a large number of states will continue to enforce or pass their own environmental laws and regulations and will continue to develop carbon emission reduction plans under the now-stayed CPP or state mandates. In general, the federal government cannot legally prevent states from passing and enforcing environmental protection laws that are stricter than federal law-a new manifestation of “states’ rights”.
Most of the significant federal environmental statutes have citizens suit provisions that allow private citizens to sue entities alleged to have violated the law when the federal government or state fail to take timely action and to collect attorneys fees. Look for an abundance of these suits.
Americans have consistently expressed strong support for clean air and water and many power suppliers and alternative energy companies have invested heavily in clean energy. Attempts to roll back environmental laws and retreat from climate change programs could well face substantial legal and political obstacles.
Kenneth A. Reich, Esq.
Kenneth A. Reich, principal of the law firm, Kenneth Reich Law, LLC, is an experienced environmental and energy lawyer with a national practice. He was a trial lawyer, then Assistant Chief of the Environmental Enforcement Section of the U.S. Department of Justice from 1979-86. He speaks and writes frequently on environmental and energy law issues. He is an adjunct faculty at the Boston University School of Law where he teaches environmental law and other courses. He is a trained mediator. He also has a separate strategic consulting services company.
Recent Federal and State Court Decisions Cast Doubt on Whether State Nuisance Claims Are Preempted by the Clean Air Act
Kenneth A. Reich, Esq. Kenneth Reich Law, LLC
Recent Federal and State Court Decisions Hold that Sources with Clean Air Permits Mav Be Subiect to State Nuisance Law Claims
Hiding behind all of the buzz about President Obama’s rejection of the Keystone Pipeline project permit, the multiple appeals to the Clean Power Plan final rule and to the final EPA/ Corps of Engineers Rule defining “waters of the United States” are a series of recent federal and state court decisions that may have far more importance to the regulated community in the long term. These cases hold that state nuisance and other tort claims against power plants and other major sources of air emissions are not preempted by the federal Clean Air Act. This is an issue that the Supreme Court specifically left open in its 2011 decision in American Electric Power v. Conn. (“AEP”).
In AEP the Supreme Court held that the Clean Air Act displaces (preempts) claims under the federal common law of nuisance, but it expressly refused to decide whether state nuisance claims are also preempted. The Federal Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit recently answered this question by holding that state nuisance and tort claims against sources of air emissions are not preempted by the federal Clean Air Act. Little v. Louisville Gas and Electric, decided November 2, 2015, 2015 WL 6646984 and Merrick v. Diageo Americas Supply, Inc., Nov. 2, 2015, 2015 WL 6646818. Little involved a power plant, Merrick involved a whisky distillery. In each case a group of homeowners brought state private and public nuisance actions against the sources alleging that dust and fumes from the plants was coating their properties, reducing the market value, threatening health, etc. The 6th Circuit, relying on the Supreme Court’s decision in Int’l Paper Co. v. Ouellette that source state nuisance remedies (as opposed to claims under the law of an affected state) were not preempted by the federal Clean Water Act and on identical language in each Act preserving state remedies, denied the defendants’ motions to dismiss.
In light of Ouellette and prior decisions by federal appeals courts from the second, third and filth circuits and the supreme court of Iowa that the Clean Air Act does not preempt state nuisance claims, the recent 6th Circuit decision is not surprising. However, as of the date of this blog, the Supreme Court has not answered its own question in AEP.
Another issue that has not been given much attention in the recent caselaw is the effect of the so-called permit shield under the Clean Air Act. The permit shield protects sources with federally enforceable Clean Air permits from suits brought under any federal and state laws that are listed in the permit. See 42 U.S.C. 7661c. It is difficult to reconcile the supposed protection of the permit shield with these recent non-preemption decisions.
The bottom line takeaway: Unless the Supreme Court reverses the recent lower court caselaw trend, sources of air emissions that hold federally enforceable Clean Air permits are not immune from state law nuisance and tort claims based on the law of the source state. However, bringing a suit and winning it are very different things. If the source has good controls to mitigate or eliminate odors, dust and other “nuisances” and/or if the source is located in an industrial area where it is difficult for the plaintiffs to prove that the source caused the alleged nuisance, the suits may ultimately fail. Unfortunately this is modest comfort to sources that have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to comply with their air permits and with new federal regulations.
Kenneth A. Reich of Kenneth Reich Law, LLC concentrates his practice in environmental law and energy law, including both transactions and litigation. He also provides strategic regulatory consulting. For more information, please see his website at www kennethreichlaw com.
Note: This blog is not intended to convey legal advice and the reader should consult a lawyer with the relevant legal experience for specific legal advice. Also, this blog may be considered legal advertising in some jurisdictions.