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

The Supreme Court’s NOT Top 10: October 2013 Term Cases the Justices Wrongly Passed Over

supreme courtThe Supreme Court press and other court observers have spilled a lot of ink this past month discussing the cases the Supreme Court took and decided during October Term 2013. Relatively little was said about the cases the court chose not to decide—and it passed over some doozies. But as Rush drummer and lyricist Neil Peart put it so eloquently, “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”

Pro-Business? Journalists like to portray the Roberts Court as particularly business friendly (see, e.g., here , here, and here; but see here), but businesses asked the Court to take plenty of cases this past term that it instead declined. When the Court denies cert in cases of such importance to business at the same time that it has a historically light docket, it can hardly be said to be pro-business. Companies crave legal certainty, so even if the Court took these cases and decided them against business interests, many times simply settling contested questions would be better than leaving them up in the air.

Wanted: More Business Cases. The Court needs to hear more business cases than it currently is, for at least two reasons. First, the unprecedented proliferation of new regulations by this administration has given rise to many more conflicts of the kind that produce Supreme Court cases. Second, to the extent the Clinton-and-Obama-appointee-dominated lower courts are predisposed against business litigants (or, more charitably, deciding close questions consistently against them), businesses will appeal more cases to the Supreme Court when they believe a lower court has denied them justice. Of course the Supreme Court justices take neither of these criteria into consideration when assessing individual cases, but surely these factors matter when assessing whether the Court leans in favor of business in forming its docket. Continue reading

Supreme Court Observations: Don’t Buy the Spin, EPA Lost the Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA Case

peterglaserGuest Commentary

by Peter S. Glaser, Troutman Sanders LLP

*Editor’s note: On June 23, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its opinion in Utility Air Regulatory Group v. Environmental Protection Agency. The author of this commentary represented Washington Legal Foundation pro bono in the case for our amicus briefs at both the petition for certiorari and merits stages.

EPA lost; it didn’t win 

Although you wouldn’t know it from the way EPA and environmental NGOs are portraying the decision.  Industry opposed EPA’s Tailoring Rule with essentially two alternative arguments.  Industry’s maximum position was that EPA could not regulate greenhouse gasses ( GHGs) at all under the Prevention of Significant Deterioration (PSD) or Title V permit programs.  Industry’s alternative position was essentially that if a source is subject to PSD because of its non-GHG emissions (with some caveats), it could be required to do best available control technology (BACT) for both its non-GHG and its GHG emissions.  The Court adopted a variant of industry’s alternative argument.  During briefing, EPA resisted both of industry’s positions.  So it’s a little much for EPA to be claiming victory.

We don’t need to relitigate whether industry should have presented alternative positions or whether industry should have presented the Court with an all-or-nothing position:  either uphold the Tailoring Rule, which we know you don’t want to do, or rule that GHGs cannot be regulated under PSD or Title V at all.  Certainly, a maximum victory would have been preferable to the victory we got, where large facilities triggering PSD for their non-GHG emissions must undertake GHG BACT—a result that is not too far off from at least steps one and two of the Tailoring Rule.  In the end, only two justices (Alito and Thomas) expressed a preference for industry’s maximum position even when presented with the alternative argument.  Whether the other three justices in the majority would have endorsed industry’s maximum position if there had been no alternative position—or whether not presenting an alternative would have resulted in losing the case—is something we will never know. Continue reading

WLF Webcast on Effective Advocacy at EPA, TODAY 1:00 p.m. EDT

PodiumPic1To effectively shape rulemaking at today’s Environmental Protection Agency, lawyers must go well beyond the filing of expertly crafted comments. It’s no surprise, then, that the Center for Responsive Politics recently found that the Environmental Protection Agency is the second most lobbied administrative body in the federal government.

Join us TODAY, 1:00-2:00 p.m. EDT for a free WLF Web Seminar program entitled Don’t Rest on Your Written Comments: Pursuit of Successful EPA Advocacy. Our presenter is Foley & Lardner LLP partner Richard Stoll

Viewers will benefit from Mr. Stoll’s three decades of EPA advocacy and learn how to adroitly advance their interests both before and after official comments have been filed.  He will also discuss “sub-regulatory” guidance from the agency, how to pursue it, and how to put it to good use.

Registration is required for the program. Please click HERE to register. Go to our home page, http://www.wlf.org, to view the program at 1:00.

 

New Hampshire Union Leader Publishes WLF Op-Ed on State’s MTBE Lawsuit

scalesNew Hampshire likes to be first. It boasts America’s first modern state-run lottery, the first ski school, and even the world’s first paintball game.  And Dixville Notch, NH residents enter the first votes in each presidential election.

Thanks to a recent $236 million verdict in a state-sponsored lawsuit, New Hampshire may be gunning for first in the hearts and minds of America’s plaintiffs’ bar too—a distinction, Washington Legal Foundation’s General Counsel Mark Chenoweth argues in a June 11 New Hampshire Union Leader op-ed, that the state should not proudly embrace.

New Hampshire hired private, contingent-fee attorneys to sue oil companies for groundwater contamination. As Mark explains:

They alleged that leaking underground storage tanks contaminated local groundwater with the chemical MTBE. But rather than sue gas stations that owned the leaking tanks (and violated EPA rules), the state’s hired guns went after deep-pocketed oil companies (that were following EPA rules). The lawyers calculated that they could win a large payday, regardless of those companies’ actual responsibility, by putting deep pockets and pollution claims in front of a jury.

In compliance with a statutory mandate, EPA allowed the addition of MTBE to gasoline to improve air quality. Congress anticipated that leaks might occur, so it created a fund states could tap for clean-up. New Hampshire did not seek money from the fund, perhaps, the Union Leader op-ed notes, because the state would have to use those funds for groundwater clean-up. Not wanting to be limited, the state filed suit instead, even though it could not show physical harm to any person or destruction of any property.

New Hampshire now could have a $236 million slush fund courtesy of a jackpot justice verdict, and as Mark writes, “Attorney General Joseph Foster has staunchly opposed placing the money in a state-managed trust devoted to testing and clean-up.”

New Hampshire’s “success” has inspired neighboring Vermont to jump on the MTBE lawsuit bandwagon. Dallas law firm Baron & Budd and New York firm Weitz & Luxenberg will be joining up with New Hampshire’s local counsel, the Pawa Law Group, to represent Vermont and its litigious attorney-general, William Sorrell.

EPA Right on Principle, Wrong on Approach with Clean Air Act Affirmative Defense for Malfunctions

DC CircuitGuest Commentary

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

In his recent dissenting opinion in EPA v. EME Homer City Generation, LP, Justice Scalia lamented, “Too many important decisions of the Federal Government are made nowadays by unelected agency officials exercising broad lawmaking authority, rather than by the people’s representatives in Congress.” He’s right. All too often, American businesses like EME Homer City Generation bear the cost of the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulatory overreach, and the courts’ failure to rein it in. It is quite ironic, then, that one of the few times EPA has lost a court battle lately, it was actually attempting to cut businesses a break.

In that case, Natural Resources Defense Council v. EPA, an environmental activist group asked the D.C. Circuit to strike down a 2013 national emissions standard for cement manufacturers. Judge Kavanaugh, writing for the unanimous panel, upheld all but one part of the standard, rejecting only EPA’s attempt to create an affirmative defense against certain citizen suits under the Clean Air Act (CAA). As we will discuss below, however, the ruling did leave the door open for EPA to authorize such an affirmative defense by approving State Implementation Plans (SIP).

Recognizing the realities of an industrialized America, EPA sought to create an affirmative defense for unavoidable malfunctions that cause a facility to be temporarily out of compliance. While EPA requires facilities to be in continuous compliance with the CAA, it recognizes this expectation is not always possible to meet. Malfunctions happen, and may lead to excess pollution. EPA tried to protect facilities from overzealous environmental groups’ citizen suits in such situations, while retaining its own enforcement capability. Continue reading

EPA and the Army Corps’ “Waters of the U.S.” Proposal: Will it Initiate Regulatory Overflow?

sboxermanFeatured Expert Column – Environmental Law and Policy

by Samuel B. Boxerman, Sidley Austin LLP with Lisa Jones, Sidley Austin LLP

On March 25, 2014, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the United States Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) (“the Agencies”), released a long-awaited Proposed Rule defining the scope of “waters of the United States” governed by the Clean Water Act (CWA or Act). Since its release, the proposal has been praised by some, questioned by many others, and already was the subject of hearings on Capitol Hill. If finalized, the proposal will most likely end up in court—and if it were allowed to stand as is, would most certainly cause significant impacts across multiple sectors of our economy, from agriculture to housing to energy.

Decades in the making, the Proposed Rule would supersede existing agency guidance, and replaces the Obama Administration’s previous effort to issue its own “waters of the United States” guidance. The 370-page notice proposes to define “waters of the United States” by regulation, after allowing agency guidance documents and various Supreme Court decisions* to define the phrase on a case-by-case basis since 1975. The definition is critical, because the scope of the “waters of the United States” is the cornerstone of the Clean Water Act; it sets the parameters of the jurisdiction Congress established in the Act. Thus, the breadth of this definition will determine when EPA and the Corps may regulate all manner of development under the Act. Continue reading

Department of Energy Task Force Issues Report on FracFocus

sboxermanFeatured Expert Column – Environmental Law and Policy

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

The scope and extent of disclosure of hydraulic fracturing fluids continues to be an issue with which regulators are wrestling on both the state and federal levels.  In the most recent addition to the discussion, on February 24, 2014, the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Secretary of Energy Advisory Board (SEAB) N1 released its Task Force Report on FracFocus 2.0 (“Report”).  This Report makes recommendations related to FracFocus, the web-based, publicly available national hydraulic fracturing chemical constituent registry, on topics ranging from trade secret claims to future funding.  The Report was developed in response to a November 2013 request by Secretary of Energy Ernest J. Moniz asking SEAB to create a task force to focus on seven discrete issues related to FracFocus.  N2  In 2011, a SEAB subcommittee had previously studied the potential environmental impacts of unconventional gas production.  N3

FracFocus, operated by the Ground Water Protection Council and Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, started in April 2011.  N4  In its first year of operation, it publicized information on over 14,000 wells from 231 companies.  N5  Since then, the number of wells registered on the website has more than quadrupled, to over 62,000.  N6  By the end of 2013, 14 states required some sort of disclosure on FracFocus, while companies located in other states voluntarily disclosed information on the site.  N7  According to the Report, “FracFocus has greatly improved public disclosure quickly and with a significant degree of uniformity.”  N8

The issue the Report examines most closely is the extent to which companies rely on the trade secret exemption in making disclosures on FracFocus.  The current FracFocus disclosure exemption is based on an OSHA regulation.  N9  The task force asserted its belief that, as a general principle, “full disclosure of all known constituents added to fracturing fluids is desirable.”  N10 Continue reading

EPA Releases Final Guidance for the Use of Diesel Fuels in Hydraulic Fracturing

sboxermanFeatured Expert Column – Environmental Law and Policy

by Samuel B. Boxerman, Sidley Austin LLP

On February 12, 2014 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published a notice that the agency was releasing an interpretive memorandum and technical recommendations for the use of “diesel fuels” in hydraulic fracturing.  N1 The guidance is another step in the direction of increased EPA regulation of oil and gas development, a regulatory area long the province of state governments.

In the Energy Policy Act of 2005, Congress had largely exempted hydraulic fracturing from the Underground Injection Control (UIC) program of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act (“SDWA”).  EPA did retain some authority to regulate, however, as Congress amended the SDWA to provide that “underground injection … means the subsurface emplacement of fluids by well injection;” but excludes “the underground injection of fluids or propping agents (other than diesel fuels) pursuant to hydraulic fracturing operations related to oil, gas, or geothermal production activities.” (emphasis added). N2

EPA’s “Diesel Guidance” N3 has been in the works at the agency since well before it was first proposed in May 2012.  N4  EPA has claimed, but not exercised, a right to regulate hydraulic fracturing fluids that included diesel fuels, in part because as industry pointed out, Congress did not define the phrase “diesel fuels” in the SDWA.  EPA first sought to pursue this authority by quietly publishing a change in policy on its website, but that effort was challenged and the agency withdrew that posting.  Instead, EPA proposed the draft guidance and allowed public comment. N5 The documents were before the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for many months, before OMB released them shortly after President Obama’s State of the Union.

The Diesel Guidance consists of three separate documents: EPA’s “Permitting Guidance for Oil and Gas Hydraulic Fracturing Activities Using Diesel Fuels: Underground Injection Control Program Guidance #84 (Feb. 2014) (“EPA Guidance #84), a Memorandum to the agency’s Regional Administrators and State/Tribal UIC program directors, N6 and a response to public comments. N7  In these documents, EPA essentially does three things: Continue reading

WLF Briefing Focuses on U.S. Supreme Court at its Mid-Term Point

One of our speakers, Troutman Sanders’ Peter Glaser, and his authoring of WLF’s amicus brief in Utility Air Group v. EPA, were referenced in a New York Times story on the case.

Attendees of the briefing received printouts of the following WLF Supreme Court-related resources: