Local “Fracking” Bans Face Constitutional Takings Challenges

sboxermanFeatured Expert Column – Environmental Law and Policy

by Samuel B. Boxerman, Sidley Austin LLP with Ben Tannen, Sidley Austin LLP

Recently, the citizens of Denton, Texas voted to ban hydraulic fracturing within the city limits, becoming the first municipality in the state to do so. One day later, the Texas Oil and Gas Association filed suit, arguing the ordinance was unconstitutional and preempted by state law. N1 In enacting a ban, Denton joined the list of municipalities that have adopted limits on hydraulic fracturing, N2 including a number of outright bans. N3 The bans reflect the ongoing battle between state and local interests over the value and risks of oil and gas development. The legality of local bans is being hotly disputed in the courts, with two common challenges being that the bans are preempted by state law or constitute an unconstitutional taking.

Preemption

Plaintiffs have challenged local bans as expressly preempted by or in direct conflict with a comprehensive state oil and gas statute—quite simply, the argument goes, municipalities and other local governments cannot prohibit what has already been expressly authorized by the state. Moreover, as a policy matter, allowing local governments to restrict or otherwise regulate oil and gas development would create a patchwork of regulation within a state—or even within a single county. To date, several courts have found preemption, but others have deferred to local land use authority. N4

Takings

Plaintiffs have also challenged local bans on constitutional grounds, N5 asserting a range of claims, including a Takings claim under the Fifth Amendment (and state analogs). N6 Although as of yet no courts have ruled on the issue, here are a few of the basics:

Of course a traditional “taking” occurs when the government actually causes a “permanent physical occupation” of an individual’s property. N7 A regulation, however, can be a taking when it affects or limits the use of private property to a sufficient degree. N8 According to the Supreme Court, a “regulatory” taking occurs if the regulation deprives the property holder of all economically beneficial use of their property, Lucas v. South Carolina Coastal Council, 505 U.S. 1003 (1992), or satisfies a three-part balancing test set out by the Court in Penn Central Transportation Co. v. New York City, 438 U.S. 104 (1978). Continue reading

Nutrition Nannies Win Only 1 of 4 High-Profile Ballot Initiatives

election2014The 2014 election featured four high-profile attempts by the national food nanny movement to impose its agenda through municipal and state ballot initiatives. Voters in Oregon and Colorado rejected mandatory “genetically-modified organism” (GMO) food-labeling measures, while voters in two California cities split on sin taxes for “sugary” drinks.

Food Labeling. Exactly 2/3 of Colorado voters said “no” to the Colorado Right to Know Act. The vote on Oregon’s Measure 92 was considerably closer, with the “no’s” outnumbering the “yes’s” 50.7% to 49.3%. Each initiative trumpeted the superficial appeal of  consumers’ “right-to-know,” and both made the oft-repeated misleading or false claims in their legislative “findings” sections that GMOs in food are unregulated, unsafe, and unhealthy. Much like California’s unsuccessful Proposition 37 initiative, the Oregon and Colorado proposals were riddled with labeling exemptions, including food served at restaurants and alcoholic beverages. Oregon’s proposal would have also unleashed the plaintiffs’ bar on food processors through a “private attorney general” enforcement provision.

Thin Taxes? Two California municipalities, San Francisco and Berkeley, held votes on soda excise taxes. The Berkeley measure, which passed by a large margin, imposes a one-cent-per-fluid-ounce tax on all soda, energy drinks, coffee syrups, sweetened tea, and other packaged “sugary” drinks, while exempting milk and diet soda. The failed San Francisco initiative would have imposed a two-cent-per-fluid-ounce tax on sodas and other sugar-sweetened drinks, including some juices, coffees and flavored waters. It garnered 55% at the polls, but fell short of the 66% “yes” votes needed for measures whose revenues are aimed at a specific purpose. The initiative would have funded children’s nutrition and physical education programs. The revenues from Berkeley’s tax measure will go into the city’s general fund.

The Bigger Picture. Mandatory GMO-labeling proponents have now lost each of their four initiative campaigns. And they have failed in states where one might think voters would overwhelmingly support such progressive measures: California, Washington, Oregon, and Colorado. With 2015 being a slow year for elections, activists will likely turn their attention now to state legislatures. The negative opinions of hundreds of thousands of voters in the aforementioned states should speak volumes to politicians in other states about mandatory GMO labeling. In addition, as several WLF publications have explained (i.e. here and here)—and a suit against Vermont’s labeling mandate argues—such mandates infringe on federal authority to regulate food labels and tread on food producers’ constitutional rights. Policy makers should bear these points in mind, and keep a watchful eye on the legal challenge to Vermont’s law, when they are urged to embrace mandated labeling.

Nutrition nannies such as former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg have trumpeted the Berkeley vote as a watershed moment. Given the Berkeley electorate’s historical affinity for fringe movements and big government, the outcome is more likely an aberration than a harbinger. The result also should be considered counterproductive for the fight against obesity. It advances the entirely baseless notion that regressive taxes on soda and other disfavored beverages will benefit taxpayers’ health. Reliance on such taxes also detracts attention and energy from actual solutions to America’s expanding waistline. But considering the financial largesse of benefactors like Mr. Bloomberg and the zeal of his activist allies, the fight over manipulative sin taxes is likely to continue.

Also published by Forbes.com on WLF’s contributor page

Federal Court “Shall” Hear Challenge on EPA’s Failure to Assess Job-Loss Impact of its Rules

EPA-LogoSection 321(a) of the federal Clean Air Act (CAA), titled “Continuous Evaluation of Potential Loss or Shifts of Employment,” states plainly:

The Administrator shall conduct continuing evaluations of potential loss or shifts of employment which may result from the administration or enforcement of the provisions of this chapter and applicable implementation plans, including where appropriate, investigating threatened plant closures or reductions in employment allegedly resulting from such administration or enforcement.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has long treated this as yet another optional duty, which it may or may not perform at its discretion. Murray Energy Corporation and a number of other coal companies that have suffered substantial job losses due to environmental regulations disagree. The word “shall” in § 321(a), they argue, reflects that Congress required EPA to do this. Last March, these companies filed suit in the Northern District of West Virginia, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief. A June 6 WLF Legal Backgrounder by Vermont Law School Professor Mark Latham and Shook, Hardy & Bacon L.L.P. attorneys Victor Schwartz and Chris Appel, Is EPA Ignoring Clean Air Act Mandate to Analyze Impact of Regulations on Jobs?, described the suit and its arguments.

On September 16, Chief Judge John Preston Bailey rejected EPA’s specious argument that the agency is protected by sovereign immunity and allowed the suit to proceed. The plaintiffs sued under a section of the CAA which permits actions if EPA has failed to perform a non-discretionary duty. The court thus had to determine whether EPA had discretion to ignore § 321(a).

As Chief Judge Bailey noted, courts need not defer to federal agencies’ positions when determining jurisdiction. And Chief Judge Bailey certainly offered no deference. He cited extensive case law that supported Murray Energy’s argument that “shall” reflects a mandatory duty. As one court stated, “The word ‘shall’ does not convey discretion. It is not a leeway word, but a word of command.” EPA argued that § 321(a)’s lack of a “date-certain deadline” renders the provision discretionary. Chief Judge Bailey found that while that issue “was open to question,” relevant precedent dictated that the lack of a deadline was not “fatal to plaintiffs’ case.”  He added, “While EPA may have discretion as to the timing of such evaluations, it does not have the discretion to categorically refuse to conduct any such evaluations.”

In addition, Chief Judge Bailey refused to strike the plaintiffs’ request for injunctive relief.

Given the enormous implications of this case for EPA and for regulated entities, this decision marks, as the saying goes, merely the end of the beginning for Murray Energy Corp. v. McCarthy.

Also published by Forbes.com at WLF’s contributor site

Federal Appeals Courts Reject Clean Water Act “Permit Shield” Defense

sboxermanFeatured Expert Column – Environmental Law and Policy

by Samuel B. Boxerman, Sidley Austin LLP with Katharine Falahee Newman, Sidley Austin LLP

In the past two months, two federal circuit courts examined the extent of the Clean Water Act’s (“CWA”) “permit shield” defense and reached similar conclusions—the defense cannot be used by a party that does not completely fulfil certain National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit, or permit application, obligations. Permit holders and applicants should be wary of the risk presented by this emerging case law, as the decisions could open the door to increased enforcement, unless an applicant has provided to the permitting authority a wide range of data regarding its discharge during the application process.

Generally, the CWA shields a permit holder from liability if the party possesses or has applied for an NPDES permit through the appropriate federal and state regulatory framework. The permit shield states that “compliance with a permit issued pursuant to this section shall be deemed compliance,” see 33 U.S.C. § 1342(k). The shield protects permit holders from challenges that their permits are not sufficiently stringent as well as actions to compel the permit holder to change its operations following changes to CWA regulations. Continue reading

Fifth Circuit Decides Texas Water Agencies Can Leave Crystal Ball at Home: Aransas Project v. Shaw

Guest Commentary

by John Eisler, a 2014 Judge K.K. Legett Fellow at the Washington Legal Foundation and a student at Texas Tech University School of Law.

Photo by NaturesFan1226

Photo by NaturesFan1226

“[B]ecause of convenience, of public policy, of a rough sense of justice, the law arbitrarily declines to trace a series of events beyond a certain point.”[1] That “certain point” is proximate cause and many times the line drawn can seem arbitrary. Consider last year’s opinion from a U.S. District Court in South Texas that held the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) liable for “taking” whooping cranes under Section 9 of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The taking occurred—in the court’s view—from the TCEQ’s failure to “properly manage” the inflows of freshwater into the San Antonio and Guadalupe bays over the winter of 2008-2009.[2] The court acknowledged that “[o]rdinary requirements of causation apply to ESA cases.” The very next sentence concluded that “[p]roximate causation exists where a defendant government agency authorized the activity that caused the take.”[3] Out of a 124-page opinion, that phrase marked the extent of the court’s proximate cause analysis. The court also enjoined the TCEQ from issuing any new water permits in the area until the State could provide “reasonable assurances” the permits would no longer take whooping cranes and ordered the TCEQ to “seek an Incidental Take Permit that will lead to development of a Habitat Conservation Plan.”[4]

The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, in a per curiam opinion, emphatically reversed, concluding, “the district court’s opinion misapplies proximate cause analysis and further, even if proximate cause had been proven, the injunction is an abuse of discretion.” Aransas Project v. Shaw, — F.3d —-, 13-40317, 2014 WL 2932514 (5th Cir. June 30, 2014). The Fifth Circuit’s welcome reversal restores proximate cause to its rightful place.

Continue reading

Seventh Circuit Ruling Exposes Federal Regulators to Public Nuisance Claims

sboxermanFeatured Expert Column – Environmental Law and Policy

by Samuel B. Boxerman, Sidley Austin LLP with Katharine Falahee Newman, Sidley Austin LLP

In recent years, plaintiffs have increasingly asserted public and private nuisance theories in cases seeking damages and remedies to address alleged environmental harms, despite the fact that the defendant was in compliance with relevant federal law—and in particular, the Clean Air Act (CAA). Defendants have opposed these suits on multiple grounds, including arguing the CAA preempts these common law claims. Most prominently, in American Elec. Power Co., Inc. v. Connecticut, 131 S. Ct. 2527 (2011), the Supreme Court held the CAA displaced public nuisance claims under federal common law, but left open the question whether the Act would similarly limit state common law tort claims. Last year, in Bell v. Cheswick Generating Station, 734 F. 3d 188 (3rd Cir. 2013), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit addressed the issue, holding the CAA did not preempt state common law claims of the source state. It now appears that the Sixth Circuit will get into the act, as the district court certified an interlocutory appeal in Merrick v. Diageo Americas Supply, (W.D. Ky. June 12, 2014), where, like Cheswick, the court had held the CAA does not preempt source state common law tort claims.

Recently, a unanimous panel of the Seventh Circuit weighed in on a similar but somewhat different variation on the theme of claims for public and private nuisance in Michigan, et al. v. United States Army Corps of Engineers, et al. (No. 12-3800). There, the court determined that governmental agencies may be subject to public nuisance suits despite maintaining a waterway as authorized by federal statute, but ultimately dismissed the suit after finding that Asian Carp are not an imminent threat to the Great Lakes. Continue reading

EPA’s “Waters of the U.S.” Proposal: Coming Soon to a Back Yard Near You?

 wetlandGuest Commentary

by Scott McFadin, a 2014 Judge K.K. Legett Fellow at the Washington Legal Foundation and a student at Texas Tech School of Law.

On April 21, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the United States Army Corps of Engineers issued proposed regulations that would increase their regulatory jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act (CWA). The Act gives EPA authority to regulate “waters of the United States.” Over the past two decades, federal courts have (pardon the pun) muddied the waters on agencies’ authority. The most recent Supreme Court pronouncement on federal regulators’ jurisdiction, Rapanos v. U.S., held that the agencies only have jurisdiction over waters or wetlands with a “significant nexus” to traditional navigable waters. EPA has taken advantage of this unclear legal guidance, proposing a stunningly broad definition of “waters of the United States.” EPA claims its definition merely clarifies existing guidance on “waters,” and will in fact reduce the scope of its jurisdictions. When one considers EPA’s own proposed definitional language, testimony from respected trade groups, and social scientists, however, the truly expansive reach of the new rule becomes quite clear. In classic bureaucratic fashion, EPA has proposed a regulation that is long enough to deter it being read and far-reaching enough to arguably provide jurisdiction over a dry ditch in your backyard.

Much like Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass, EPA is quite masterful at using words in just the way they choose them to mean.1 Continue reading