Environmental Justice, as an urgent priority of the Federal Government, dates back to 1994, and President Clinton’s issuance of Executive Order 12898. This order directed federal agencies to identify and address, as appropriate, the disproportionately high and adverse human health and environment effects of its many programs, policies and procedures on minority populations and low-income populations. The primary legal basis for this order was Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, in particular, Sections 601 and 602, which prohibit discrimination in programs and activities receiving federal financial aid and assistance. Over the years, the Supreme Court has reviewed the scope and importance of Title VI. In Alexander v. Sandoval, decided in 2001, the Court concluded that while private parties could sue to enforce Section 601 or its implementing regulations, as written, Section 601 only prohibits intentional discrimination. Noting that disproportionate impact is not the sole touchstone of invidious racial discrimination. Moreover, the Court also ruled in Sandoval that private parties cannot sue to enforce regulations implementing Section 602. Perhaps as an acknowledgement of these shortcomings, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has established an administrative system to process environmental justice complaints at 40 CFR Part 7. Without strengthening the statutory base of environmental justice, the program may continue to be the subject of countless symposiums and seminars. However, this may change soon.
This is a brief report on new environmental law decisions, regulations and legislation.
THE U.S. SUPREME COURT
Massachusetts Lobsterman’s Association v. Raimondo, Secretary of Commerce
On March 22, 2021, the Supreme Court rejected a petition to review a Presidential decision to invoke the Antiquities Act of 1906 to designate as a monument “an area of submerged land about the size of Connecticut” in the Atlantic Ocean. This action forbids all sorts of economic activity, which compelled the filing of litigation in the First Circuit challenging this designation. Chief Justice Roberts supported the Court’s denial of certiorari, but remarked that a stronger legal case may persuade the Court to review such liberal uses of the Antiquities Act.
The federal courts have issued some significant environmental law rulings in the past few days.
THE U.S. SUPREME COURT
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service v. Sierra Club, Inc.
On March 4, 2021, the court held that the deliberative process privilege of the Freedom of Information Act shields from disclosure in-house draft governmental biological opinions that are both “predecisional” and deliberative. According to the court, these opinions, opining on the Endangered Species Act (ESA) effects on aquatic species of a proposed federal rule affecting cooling water intake structures—which was promulgated in 2019—are exempt from disclosure because they do not reflect a “final” agency opinion. Indeed, these ESA-required opinions reflect a preliminary view, and the Services did not treat them as being the final or last word on the project’s desirability. The Sierra Club, invoking the FOIA, sought many records generated by the rulemaking proceeding, and received thousands of pages. However, the Service declined to release the draft biological opinions that were created in connection with the ESA consultative process.
February saw the usual array of significant environmental decisions and federal regulatory notices.
THE FEDERAL COURTS
U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia
Luminant Generation v. EPA
The court will be grappling with a difficult venue case governed by the Clean Air Act (42 USC Section 7607(b)). In 2013, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit decided the case of Luminant Generation v. EPA (714 F. 3d 841), in which the court upheld the affirmative defenses that were made part of the Texas State Implementation Plan (SIP) and which applied to certain unpermitted emissions from regulated sources during periods of startup, shutdown or malfunction. These defenses were challenged in the Fifth Circuit and were rejected. On the national stage, EPA has been involved in litigation over these affirmative defenses and recently excluded from a “SIP Call” the Texas program, which was carved out. This EPA decision is being challenged in the DC Circuit (see Case number 20-1115),with the State of Texas arguing as an intervenor that any issues involving Texas belong in the Fifth Circuit, and not in the DC Circuit because the Act allows regional issues to be decided in the regional federal courts.
The Climate Mobilization Act constitutes a profound shift in the regulation of commercial real estate in New York City—and all stakeholders including building owners, investors, sellers and purchasers, tenants, and lenders will need to consider how to quantify and allocate the costs of compliance (or non-compliance). In “Sustainable Buildings and Development: Carbon Emissions and the Recent Climate Mobilization Act of New York City“, colleagues Caroline A. Harcourt and Sheila McCafferty Harvey, discuss the potential impact of the newly enacted Climate Mobilization Act (CMA or the Act) for developers and building owners, tenants and lenders operating or underwriting loans in New York City.
This is a brief review of recent significant environmental and administrative law rulings and developments. With the change in presidential administrations, the fate of at least some of the newly promulgated rules is uncertain.
THE FEDERAL APPELLATE COURTS
The U.S. Court of Appeals
On November 23, 2020, the court, in a 2-to-1 vote, rejected the plaintiff’s request for an emergency injunction pending appeal in the case of Manzanita Band of Kumeyaay Nation, et al. v. Wolf. The majority held the requirement for such relief did not meet the requirements set forth in Winter v. NRDC, 555 US 7 (2008). Here, the plaintiffs allege that that the government’s construction of a border wall violates several environmental laws that were illegally waived by the Secretary of the Interior. Judge Millett dissented in part because the plaintiffs demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits. She pointed to the argument that the authority of the Secretary—or Acting Secretary—to take these actions has been successfully challenged in several federal district courts. An expedited pleading schedule was established by the court.
This is a brief review of the recently released “Climate 21 Project” policy memo. It is the work of many former members of the Obama Administration who are deeply concerned about climate change and what steps the new administration can take in the first 100 days to confront a problem. Offering “actionable advice” rather than a policy agenda, the group recognizes that Congress must do its part by providing new statutory authorities within the early days of the new administration, and the President must be prepared to aggressively exercise the powers of his office. As the members of the Group see it, there are four interlocking crises facing the President: (a) the COVID-19 pandemic; (b) the economic devastation visited upon many people by the pandemic; (c) racial injustice; and (d) accelerating threats posed by climate change.
This roundup of recent environmental and regulatory law rulings and rulemakings includes an EPA deadline extended, a NEPA exclusion and PSM application upheld, and an unsuccessful appeal to the federal officer removal doctrine.