It is clear that these have been busy months for federal environmental regulators, especially those working at EPA, the federal departments and the Council on Environmental Quality. Even the Department of Agriculture has found itself coping with greenhouse gases (GHG) issues in its administration of the laws applicable to agriculture and the national forests. The ambitious scope of the current “all of government” approach may be discerned after learning how many disparate federal agencies are employed in implementing this policy. So many actions have been proposed or completed that some state officials are experiencing “comment fatigue” because they are being overwhelmed by the scope, size, and complexity of these federal initiatives. The Environmental Protection Agency is, of course, at the forefront of these actions and activities, as described below.
This is a brief roundup of recent federal court environmental and regulatory law decisions from the federal courts over the past few months, including the much anticipated ruling in Sackett, et ux., v, Environmental Protection Agency.
The first quarter of 2022 has yielded a number of decisions, reversals and agency adjustments worth note.
U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit – Food & Water Watch v. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission
On March 11, 2022, the court decided the FERC case. On December 19, 2019, the Commission issued a Certificate to Tennessee Gas Pipeline and determined that a “modest expansion” and upgrade of the existing 11,000-mile natural gas pipeline would have no significant environmental impact. However, one of the Commissioners filed a partial dissent, arguing that the Commission’s treatment of the climate change impacts was inadequate. A petition for review was filed, and now the court has decided that the Commission erred in not accounting for the indirect effects of the expansion, namely the downstream emissions of greenhouse gas generated by the pipeline’s delivery of the gas to its customers. Consequently, NEPA’s requirement that a rigorous environmental assessment be made before the authorization was granted was violated. However, the court decided against vacating the Commission’s orders, which would have had a “disruptive effect” on the project which is, or soon will be, operational.
On December 7, 2021, the most recent proposed revision to the Clean Water Act’s term, “Waters of the United States” was published in the Federal Register. (See 86 FR 69372.) Comments on this proposal must be submitted by February 7, 2022. This term controls the scope of federal regulatory powers in such programs as the development of water quality standards, impaired waters, total maximum daily loads, oil spill prevention, preparedness and response plans, state and tribal water quality certification programs, the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit program, and the Corps of Engineers’ dredge and fill program. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Corps of Engineers have jointly drafted this comprehensive proposed rule, which also responds to President Biden’s Executive Order 13990, issued in January 2021.
On August 16, 2021, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the lower court’s ruling that the Idaho property of Michael and Chantell Sackett was a regulated wetlands under the then-controlling 1977 EPA rules defining “waters of the United States,” and that the Sacketts dredging and filling of their property was subject to regulation by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers or EPA. EPA’s case, as it has been for many years, was based on 2008 EPA and Corps inspection reports and Justice Kennedy’s “significant nexus” test as the controlling opinion in the 2006 Supreme Court case, Rapanos v. United States. The Sacketts’ argument was that the text of the Clean Water Act, as interpreted by Justice Scalia and three other Justices, was controlling, but for several years, the Ninth Circuit has relied on Justice Kennedy’s opinion in these CWA controversies. The court’s opinion expressed considerable sympathy for the Sacketts as they negotiated the thicket of EPA’s regulatory processes, but it could not disregard circuit precedent. A few years ago, the Supreme Court ruled, in a unanimous decision, that EPA’s then extant administrative compliance orders were arbitrary and capricious. (See Sackett v. US, 566 US 120 (2015).) After that decision, the case was remanded to the federal district court, where it lingered for several more years.
It will be interesting to see if there will be another Supreme Court challenge to the Ninth Circuit’s disposition of the Sacketts’ Clean Water Act jurisdictional arguments.
This is a brief account of some of the important environmental and administrative law cases recently decided.
THE U.S. SUPREME COURT
BP PLC, et al. v Mayor and City of Baltimore
The issue the court confronted was a procedural matter: Can the defendant energy companies use the federal removal statutes (see 28 USC Section 1442) to remove a state law climate change lawsuit to federal court? Here, a group of energy companies were sued by the mayor and city council of Baltimore in state court, where they alleged that the defendants had concealed the adverse environmental effects of the fossil fuel products they promoted and sold in Baltimore City. Several similar lawsuits have been filed in many state courts, where typically it is alleged that the defendants can be sued on various common law theories. Rather than defend these cases in state court, the defendants have sought to remove these cases to federal court because climate change liability appears to be an issue that should be settled at the federal level. These efforts have been unsuccessful, with most federal trial and appellate courts holding that the reasons cited for removal (oftentimes the federal officer removal statute) have not been persuasive. In this case, both the Maryland federal district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals held they had no jurisdiction to authorize removal, and thus returned the case to the state court. Noting that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled that a removal action could be countenanced under Section 1442, thus creating a circuit split, the Supreme Court held that a straightforward reading of the removal statute empowers the reviewing court to examine all theories for removal that a district court has rejected. Consequently, the Court remanded the case to the Fourth Circuit where it can decide, “in the first instance,” whether there actually exist grounds to remove this case to federal court.
This is a brief review of some of the significant environmental (and administrative law decisions) released the past few weeks.
THE U.S. SUPREME COURT
On April 22, 2021, the Court decided two important administrative law cases: Carr, et al. v. Saul and AMG Capital Management v. Federal Trade Commission.
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.