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:

High Court Fails To Act On Major Business Case Cert Petitions

supreme courtCross-posted at Forbes.com’s WLF contributor page

Washington Legal Foundation, along with other organizations, business, and individuals with an interest in the Supreme Court and free enterprise cases before it, watched with great anticipation this morning as the justices issued their first new list of certiorari grants since the Court adjourned last June (the so-called Long Conference). We came away from the big cert grant morning, as likely did many other interested parties, wanting more.

The orders list is here. The grants include a tax case, United States v. Quality Stores  addressing whether severance payments made to employees whose employment was involuntarily terminated are taxable. Two other grants relate to the standard of review the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit uses when assessing a district court’s determination that a case is “exceptional” for purposes of imposing attorneys’ fees and other sanctions. Those cases are Octane Fitness v. Icon Health and Fitness and Highmark Inc. v. Allcare Management Systems Inc.

The final cert grant impacting free enterprise is Petrella v. MGM, which involves the movie Raging Bull and the defense of laches against claims of copyright infringement. Marcia Coyle at National Law Journal discussed the interesting facts of the case in a September 16 story.

The bigger story from the big cert grant morning was which petitions the Court did not act on. WLF filed amicus briefs in support of review in a number of the cases, which we’ll indicate below (all noted on SCOTUSblog’s “Petitions we Are Watching” page).

Failure to act on these and other petitions does not mean that the Court cannot reconsider them in a future “conference,” and it does not mean that they have been denied. The Court will be issuing an order list on First Monday, October 7, but that order traditionally has only contained cert denials.

Regulatory Federalism Eroded: Senior West Virginia Officials Upbraid EPA in New WLF Paper

west vaOn September 13, Washington Legal Foundation released a Legal Backgrounder authored by three senior officials from the state of West Virginia: Patrick Morrisey, Attorney General; Randy Huffman, Cabinet Secretary of the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection; and Elbert Lin, the state’s Solicitor General.

The paper, Last Call For Cooperative Federalism? Why EPA Must Withdraw SIP Call Proposal On Startup, Shutdown & Maintenance, focuses on a proposed Environmental Protection Agency rule which impacts 36 states’ implementation of the federal Clean Air Act. This proposed rule, as the authors explain, reflects two troubling EPA practices: 1) the agency’s retreat from working cooperatively with state environmental regulators and 2) the revision of existing rules or the imposition of new requirements through the settlement of lawsuits brought by private activist groups (aka, “sue and settle”).

The proposed rule involves state regulations that impact emissions occurring during power plant startup, shutdown, and maintenance (“SSM”). Even though EPA formally acknowledges that during SSM, conditions arise that are beyond the plant operators’ control, the proposed rule claims that those 36 states’ rules inadequately address these “excess emissions.” The rule issues what’s known as a “SIP call” (SIP=State Implementation Plan) even though, General Morrisey and his co-authors write, “EPA has not identified any [air quality] violation resulting from an SSM provision in West Virginia’s or any state’s SIP.” The paper goes on to make a compelling legal case why the proposed rule is an unlawful exercise of EPA authority.

The proposal attracted a substantial number of comments, some of which were from state attorneys general and environmental regulators criticizing EPA’s departure from cooperative federalism and its embrace of rulemaking through litigation settlement. West Virginia’s comment can be seen here.

EPA’s sue and settle tactics have been the subject of a recent WLF publication as well as Legal Pulse commentary. In addition, thirteen state attorneys general filed suit against EPA in the Western District of Oklahoma on July 16 seeking information on agency settlements of activist groups’ lawsuits. EPA rejected a February 6 Freedom of Information Act request the attorneys general filed for information on contacts EPA has had with specific activist groups on a specific state-implemented regulation.

Update: 8th Circuit Orders EPA to Pay Attorneys’ Fees to Challenger of Regulatory Guidance

8th CircuitIn an April Featured Expert Contributor post, Appeals Court Rejects EPA Effort to Avoid Judicial Review Through Guidance Documents, Hunton & Williams’ Allison Wood examined a U.S. Court of Appeals For the Eighth Circuit decision, Iowa League of Cities v. EPA. The court ruled that EPA violated the Administrative Procedures Act when it changed two policies for regulating municipal wastewater treatment plants through letters sent to Senator Charles Grassley. Such changes constituted “rules” for which EPA should have engaged in formal notice and comment rulemaking.

In a July 30 order, the court ordered EPA to pay Iowa League of Cities $526,138.41 in attorneys’ fees. The Eighth Circuit panel had initially rejected the League’s request for fees under Clean Water Act Section 509(b)(3) . The League filed a Petition for Partial Rehearing, which EPA opposed.

The court agreed that the League was a “prevailing party” under the Clean Water Act, and that the lawsuit

assisted in the proper implementation of the CWA by upholding ‘the policy of Congress to recognize, preserve, and protect the primary responsibilities and rights of States to prevent, reduce, and eliminate pollution’ and by ensuring public participation in the development of effluent limitations.

We’re pleased to see that the cost, and the risk, of avoiding public accountability have just gone up for EPA and other federal agencies.

9th Circuit Ruling Issued In Midst Of Debate Over Federal Agency “Sue-and-Settle” Tactics

Northwest Forest Plan

Northwest Forest Plan

Cross-posted at WLF’s Forbes.com contributor page

Complying with notice-and-comment and other due process requirements is expensive and time-consuming for federal agencies. Those procedural duties also make agencies accountable to the public and regulated entities. So it’s no surprise that regulators avoid formal rulemaking like the plague. As we’ve spotlighted at The Legal Pulse, agencies instead  issue “guidance” documents or utilize even more perversely creative tactics, such as setting new standards by replying to a U.S. Senator’s inquiry letter. Another evasive maneuver which has drawn the ire of not only affected businesses, but also state attorneys general and Members of Congress, is “sue-and-settle.”

Please Sue Us. Special interest groups, especially those with environmental-oriented missions, routinely sue federal agencies to compel actions, especially in situations where the regulators have missed deadlines, or, for political or other reasons, have stopped short of the most rigorous approach. The agencies are presented with an offer they can’t (and often don’t want to) resist: settle the citizen’s suit in a way that implements new mandates (and expands agency authority) without public input.

Judicial Rejection: Conservation Northwest v. Sherman. As noted above, elected officials are expressing their concern with this and seeking remedies (a bit on that below). In the meantime, however, an April 25 U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit decision reflects that judges can and should very closely scrutinize any friendly settlements between federal agencies and activists. In 2007, a throng of environmental groups sued the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for attempting to eliminate a costly and complex surveying mandate from the management of the Northwest Forest Plan (a land use agreement arising from the 1990s’ spotted owl litigation wars). Continue reading

Appeals Court Rejects EPA Effort to Avoid Judicial Review Through Guidance Documents

wood_allisonFeatured Expert Column

Allison D. Wood, Hunton & Williams LLP

Guidance documents and letters setting forth so-called “agency-policy” present unique challenges to industry, particularly in the context of permitting.  Rather than undergo notice-and-comment rulemaking, which would be subject to judicial review, EPA has instead developed a practice of issuing “guidance”–often in the form of memoranda–that set forth requirements that EPA expects states and EPA regions to follow in issuing permits.  The dilemma arises because courts often find that these documents cannot be challenged, and a permit applicant then faces an unpleasant choice:  agree to permit conditions that may not be required by law to obtain the permit, or have the permit application denied and head into uncertain and expensive litigation.  When the permit is critical for business operations, this really presents a Hobson’s Choice and almost all permit applicants capitulate and accept the terms.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit recently offered some relief to those seeking to challenge guidance documents.  In Iowa League of Cities v. EPA, some cities that owned wastewater treatment facilities challenged two EPA letters that responded to inquiries by Senator Charles Grassley about certain Clean Water Act (CWA) requirements for wastewater treatment facilities involving “bacteria mixing zones” and “blending.”  The cities contended that EPA’s letters were new rules promulgated without notice-and-comment rulemaking in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act.  EPA countered that the letters were merely agency guidance which the court lacked jurisdiction to review.

The court began by examining whether EPA’s act of sending the letters could be considered a “promulgation” of a rule under the CWA.  The court adopted the three factor test set forth in Molycorp, Inc. v. EPA, 197 F.3d 543, 545 (D.C. Cir. 1999), for determining whether an agency action constitutes promulgation of a regulation:  “(1) the Agency’s own characterization of the action; (2) whether the action was published in the Federal Register . . . .; and (3) whether the action has binding effects on private parties or the agency.”  The court said that the third factor “should be the touchstone of our analysis,” because “plac[ing] any great weight on the first two . . . factors potentially could permit an agency to disguise its promulgations through superficial formality, regardless of the brute force of reality.” Continue reading

9th Circuit Refuses to Designate Utility Poles as Solid Waste Polluter

penta-poleWEBCross-posted at WLF’s Forbes.com contributor site

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has certainly earned its reputation as a circuit willing to push out the boundaries of environmental laws and regulations. Consider its June 1, 2012 en banc ruling in Karuk Tribe of Ca. v. U.S. Forest Service, where seven of the sitting eleven judges held that the Forest Service’s decision not to regulate low-level mining activity on public lands constituted an action under the Endangered Species Act, requiring the Service to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service. In a dissent joined by three other judges, Judge Milan Smith began his opinion with an image and quote from Gulliver’s Travels, and wrote “decisions such as this one, and some other environmental cases recently handed down by our court undermine the rule of law, and make poor Gulliver’s situation seem fortunate.” On March 19, the Supreme Court regrettably denied review in Karuk Tribe.

We must, however, give the Ninth Circuit credit on its environmental rulings when it is due, and it’s earned some accolades with its April 3 Ecological Rights Foundation v. Pacific Gas & Elec. ruling. And despite the “citizen’s group” plaintiff’s loss, the decision is one that on this Earth Day, environmental advocates should be applauding as well.

The plaintiffs sued under the citizen suit provisions of the Clean Water Act (CWA) and the Resource Conversation and Recovery Act (RCRA), alleging that poles treated with pentachlorophenol (PCP) contributed “solid waste” to waters of the United States through stormwater runoff. In other words, when it rains, PCP washes off of the poles and enters various bodies of water. As the court noted, EPA has not decided whether to regulate utility poles as “point sources” of pollution under the CWA. Reviewing applicable judicial precedents, the 9th Circuit panel concluded that because neither the poles themselves nor their owners channel or collect the runoff, the plaintiffs had no claim under the CWA. Continue reading