Barrasso, Murkowski tell Politico Morning Energy of some GOP plans for energy, environmental policies

A Congressional attack on President Barack Obama’s recent use of the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act to block oil exploration in the Arctic and on the Atlantic seaboard is coming. So are Congressional Review Act efforts to nullify sundry other Obama administration environmental protection rules.

Senator Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, told Politico Morning Energy Friday that “her team” is examining methods to overturn Obama’s Dec. 20 OCSLA decision.

“We think we can make the argument that it does fall within review, but again that’s what the smart legal teams are doing,” she told the online publication.

Senator John Barrasso, R-Wyo., also spoke to Politico Morning Energy. He was quoted as saying that the GOP Congress would take an “opposite approach” when it comes to environmental policy and that the CRA would be deployed to go after at least a few regulations.

Barrasso is the new chair of the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee.

Murkowski told the magazine that her staff at the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which she chairs, have built a “laundry list” of possible regulations for which CRA nullification would be attempted.

House of Representatives clears REINS Act

air-pollution
The Republican-dominated 115th Congress has launched an assault on the federal government’s system of regulation. A bill passed by the House of Representatives on Jan. 5 would require Congress to approve all administrative rules, including those that limit pollution. Image courtesy Wikimedia.

Republicans eager to take a wrecking ball to the system of administrative law in place for seven decades have moved the second of three bills central to that effort through the U.S. House of Representatives.

The majority GOP pushed through the proposed “Regulations From the Executive in Need of Scrutiny Act” Thursday on a 237-187 vote.

Before doing so legislators adopted several amendments, including one by Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, that subjects all existing regulations to the requirements that would be imposed by the bill and another by Rep. Luke Messer, R-Ind., that would require agencies to offset the costs of new regulations by repealing or amending those already in effect.

The House rejected Democratic amendments that would exempt regulations that affect children’s health, protect public health and safety, reduce the concentration of lead in drinking water, and assure the safety of children’s toys.

Affecting most regulations issued by federal agencies that might cost business at least $100 million per year in compliance costs, and establishing a 70-day period in which Congress either approves the rule or renders it void, the bill flips on its head the system by which Presidents and their appointees have administered statutes since the 1940s.

Under current law a regulation is valid unless Congress nullifies it, something that is possible to do but rarely accomplished.The existing system of law that governs the way in which all agencies write regulations also provides safeguards to assure that public opinion and appropriate commercial, scientific, or technical information is considered by agencies. The Administrative Procedure Act of 1946, provides for comment periods and required time intervals between proposed and final regulations. Judicial review of regulations is also available in most cases.

By delegating rulemaking to agencies staffed by professional civil service members, Congress has traditionally recognized that those federal government institutions and employees are better suited to write regulations that can often be technical in nature and involve extensive development of a factual record.

H.R. 26 reverses that longstanding approach and instead mandates that Congress, the most politically attuned entity of the federal government, deliberate and decide on the appropriateness or necessity of a regulation.

The bill would also severely limit the time available to Congress to accomplish the task. Aside from the 70-day approval limit, H.R. 26 would also limit the time of debate for any rule under consideration.

Given that it is not unusual for an administration to propose more regulations than there are legislative days in a Congressional session, it is likely that Congress would not be able to keep up with the flow of requests to approve new regulations.

Some critics say that H.R. 26 also sets up a potential constitutional crisis.

First, the measure might constitute an invasion by Congress of the President’s authority to “faithfully execute the laws,” as demanded by Article 2 of the Constitution.

Second, H.R. 26 would establish a form of a legal device called the legislative veto, which the Supreme Court has twice ruled unconstitutional. As explained by Professor Ronald M. Levin of Washington University in St. Louis, an expert on administrative law:

“The problem with the REINS Act is that, with regard to major rules, it would accomplish virtually the same result as the “traditional” one-house veto—namely, it would enable a single house of Congress to nullify an agency rule, regardless of the wishes of the other house, let alone the President. The question, then, is whether the Supreme Court would accept what amounts to a 180 degree change of direction if the one-house veto were repackaged in a different format, even though the risks of unchecked action by the legislative branch would be as great in the later version as in the earlier one. My suggestion is that it would not.”
Other constitutional law scholars have disagreed with this perspective, but at minimum the issue of the validity of the REINS Act would set off a long litigation battle that might pit a current or future President against Congress.

Finally, as David Goldston, a historian and former Congressional staff member now affiliated with Natural Resources Defense Council, wrote Jan. 4, it is possible a federal court would order a regulation to be issued by an agency even as Congress refuses to approve that regulation.

Under the Constitution, a court presumably can’t require Congress to act, so the statute could not be enforced,” Goldston wrote. “But it also would not actually have been repealed.”

The GOP’s first assault on the regulatory system during the 115th Congress came Jan. 4 as H.R. 21, the so-called Midnight Rules Relief Act, cleared the House of Representatives. That bill would give Congress the power to revoke, in one fell swoop, most regulations finalized by the Obama administration since May 2016.

A Senate version of the “Midnight Rules Relief Act” has been referred to that chamber’s Government Affairs and Homeland Security Committee. A militant regulation skeptic, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, chairs that committee.

Legislators in the U.S. Senate will also consider the proposed REINS Act. S.21 was introduced on Jan. 4 and is sponsored by Republican Rand Paul of Kentucky and 27 other senators.

President-elect Donald J. Trump has said that he will sign the proposed REINS Act if it reaches his desk.

The last bill in the Republicans’ anti-regulatory triumvirate is H.R. 5, which is styled as the “Regulatory Accountability Act of 2017.”

That measure would increase the procedural hurdles to rulemaking and forbid federal judges from deferring, in some circumstances, to agency interpretations of statutes.

House clears “midnight rules” bill; would allow wholesale rejection of all regs issued in last year of presidency

The Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives has passed a bill that would allow Congress to reject all federal regulations finalized since January in one fell swoop.

Labeled the Midnight Rules Relief Act of 2016, H.R. 5982 would allow the 115th Congress to sidestep the current requirement that each regulation that is the subject of an override attempt be the subject of a separate resolution.

So-called “midnight rules” are regulations that an administration completes during the time between a presidential election in November and the inauguration of a new President on the following January 20.

Sometimes these late regulations are used by an outgoing administration to assure that its policy initiatives can endure for a time. The Administrative Procedure Act requires that agencies develop a new factual record before they may repeal or significantly modify existing rules.

Most midnight rules are not controversial, though. A 2012 study by the Administrative Conference of the United States concluded that are “relatively routine matters not implicating new policy initiatives by incumbent administrations” and that the “majority of the rules appear to be the result of finishing tasks that were initiated before the Presidential transition period or the result of deadlines outside the agency’s control (such as year-end statutory or court-ordered deadlines).”

The Congressional Review Act, enacted into law in 1996, permits Congress to reject regulations in a process that bypasses the usual risks of legislative gamesmanship in the U.S. Senate.

Under the CRA, amendments to a resolution that rejects a “major” federal regulation are not permitted. No holds by individual senators, and no filibusters by opponents of a resolution that would eliminate a federal regulation, are allowed.

Congress has 60 days following the date on which both chambers of Congress have received a notice that a regulation has been issued in which to pass a CRA resolution that disapproves it. The 60 day-long clock resets at the beginning of a new Congress if the regulation was issued during the final 60 “session” days, in the case of the Senate, or the final 60 “legislative” days in the case of the House of Representatives, of the preceding Congress.

Although opponents of various regulations have introduced dozens of CRA resolutions in the 20 years since enactment of that statute, it has been invoked only one time. An Occupational Health & Safety Administration rule that addressed ergonomics, which the Clinton administration had finalized in November 2000, was turned away in 2001.

H.R. 5982 would need to pass the Senate and be signed by the President to become law. The Senate has not yet taken up the measure. Moreover, President Barack Obama has threatened to veto H.R. 5982, which cleared the House Nov. 17 by a 240-179 vote.

“[P]roviding for an arbitrary packaging of rules for an up-or-down vote, as this bill does, is unnecessary,” a statement issued by the Executive Office of the President on Nov. 12 said.

Three House Democrats voted with the majority GOP to pass the bill.

Justices will not hear dispute over Tongass exemption to national forest roadless area protection

View from Deer Mountain Trail
This photo shows a portion of the Tongass National Forest. Image courtesy USDA Forest Service.

The U.S. Supreme Court will not take up a long-running dispute over preserving large areas of Alaska’s Tongass National Forest from logging.

The justices declined Monday to grant a petition for certiorari in the case, which involves an exemption from the landmark 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule, and allowed a lower court decision that bans regulatory changes based solely on political considerations to stand.

“Today’s court order is great news for southeast Alaska and for all those who visit this spectacular place,” Tom Waldo, an attorney at Earthjustice who represented environmental groups in the case, said.

Encompassing nearly 17 million acres, the Tongass is the world’s largest intact temperate rainforest. It extends along the coast of southeast Alaska for about 500 miles, with a variety of bays, coves, fjords, and glaciers within the national forest boundaries, and constitutes about seven percent of Alaska’s land. Wildlife found in the forest include salmon, wolves, brown and black bears, bald eagles, and the Arctic tern.

RACR was adopted by the administration of President William J. Clinton in January 2001, just days before the inauguration of a new President.  It did not initially exempt the Tongass. The U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service decided, during the process leading to RACR’s establishment, that the “long-term ecological benefits to the nation of conserving these inventoried roadless areas outweigh the potential economic loss to [southeast Alaska] communities.”

In 2003 the agency reversed itself. The agency, which had come under the leadership of President George W. Bush’s appointees, reached a conclusion exactly opposite to the one it had in 2001. This time, USDA Forest Service decided that “the social and economic hardships to Southeast Alaska outweigh the potential long-term ecological benefits” of RACR.

The Bush administration granted the RACR exemption to the Tongass as part of a settlement of a legal challenge to RACR filed by Alaska.

Environmental groups, an Alaskan native village, and a non-profit boat touring company challenged the exemption under the federal law that governs agency rulemaking. A divided panel of 11 judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled in July 2015 that the agency had not adequately explained its change of mind.

Alaska asked the justices to review that decision on grounds that the San Francisco-based appeals court had read a 2009 opinion of the Supreme Court too broadly by assuming that it forbids changes in policy that are dictated by ideology.

That 2009 decision held that agencies must demonstrate “good reasons” for a change in policy direction indicated by a final regulation and that an explanation of that change has to include a “reasoned explanation . . . for disregarding the facts and circumstances that underlay or were engendered by the prior policy.”

USDA Forest Service is considering changes to the existing management plan for the Tongass that would permit continued old-growth logging for another 15 years. The agency released its proposed amendment to the Tongass National Forest Management Plan in Nov. 2015; it is likely to be adopted late this year.

President Barack Obama’s secretary of agriculture,  Tom Vilsack, directed the Forest Service in 2013 to shift timber production on the Tongass away from old-growth stands and toward young trees.

The case in which the Supreme Court declined to grant review is Alaska v. Organized Village of Kake, No. 15-467.

What does Justice Scalia’s passing mean for environmental cases at Supreme Court?

The death Saturday of Justice Antonin Scalia at age 79 is likely to have a significant impact on the environmental law docket at the U.S. Supreme Court.

First, the significance of the stay against the part of the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan that deals with existing coal-fired electric plants, issued by a 5-4 vote that had Scalia supporting the request by utilities and a coalition of anti-regulation states to block the rule, is reduced. With a presumed 4-4 tie on the question whether the Clean Power Plan is consistent with the Clean Air Act and the Administrative Procedure Act (and the U.S. Constitution, to the extent a Tenth Amendment argument is mounted by challengers), any decision in the litigation by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit is likely to be affirmed. The D.C. Circuit has to be assumed inclined to uphold the carbon dioxide rules; a significant majority of the judges on that bench were appointed by Democratic Presidents and the assigned panel previously rejected the stay application.

Should President Obama obtain Senate confirmation of a nominee to replace Scalia before his term expires next January, it’s at least somewhat likely that appointee would uphold the rule. Should the Republican-dominated Senate succeed in blocking any replacement until after the next President’s term starts, as the chamber’s majority leader has said the GOP will try to do, the outcome would likely depend on the party affiliation of the election winner. A Republican President would likely withdraw the Clean Power Plan, or settle the litigation on terms favorable to the states and industrial interests contesting it in the D.C. Circuit, even before the litigation challenging it arrived at the Supreme Court. Failing that, a Republican-appointed justice could be expected to take a skeptical perspective on the Clean Power Plan.

Two other significant environmental cases await the Supreme Court’s decision on whether to grant petitions for certiorari. The question whether to accept both is probably impacted by the vacancy created by Scalia’s death.

Scalia, early in his career as a Supreme Court justice, defended the iconic Chevron rule that requires courts to defer to agency interpretations of ambiguous language in statutes. But that willingness to defer to agencies seems to have lessened as the justice’s time on the bench proceeded. As Professor Dan Farber wrote Feb. 15 on Legal Planet:

“There are only three cases in which the Supreme Court has ever held that a statute’s interpretation of an ambiguous statute was unreasonable, all three written by Scalia: Whitman v. American Trucking, UARG v. EPA, and Michigan v. EPA.  In all three cases, the ‘unreasonable’ agency was EPA.”

Scalia was the author of all three.

Moreover, Scalia had shown a willingness to look harshly on law that tended to favor environmental protection. He wrote several opinions that reduced the ability of environmental groups to file lawsuits challenging federal policy, for example, and he also was the author of a plurality opinion in a 2006 decision that would have, absent a moderating concurrence by his colleague Anthony Kennedy, drastically reduced the U.S. government’s regulatory power over wetlands and streams.

It seems plausible, then, to suppose that Scalia had developed a greater willingness to reject the ways in which agencies, especially those tasked with enforcing environmental laws, read federal statutes. In the two cases that are now subjects of cert petitions, that perspective may have made a difference in whether the court grants review and in the outcome.

Chesapeake Bay
Chesapeake Bay is shown in this image obtained by the LANDSAT satellite.

The first of these two cases involves efforts to clean up the  64,299 square-mile large Chesapeake Bay drainage basin. In a July 2015 decision the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit rejected attacks on the Total Maximum Daily Load designations for the bay. The Obama administration issued the pollution limits in 2010 under an agreement with environmental organizations who had sued the agency for failure to finalize them.

The TMDLs, which apply to nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment loading into the beleaguered bay, are a tool made available by the Clean Water Act. They are imposed by EPA as a supplement to point source emission limits after the agency approves water quality standards created by a state for an affected water body or, if it rejects the state-based pollution limit, imposes its own.

On Nov. 6 the American Farm Bureau Federation and several other agriculture organizations asked the Supreme Court to hear the dispute. In their cert petition the groups argued that EPA’s decision to issue the TMDLs for Chesapeake Bay sets a precedent that could allow expanded federal power over land use all over the country. The groups base this assault on the TMDLs on a claim that EPA’s interpretation of the Clean Water Act is inconsistent with Congress’ intent. In particular, the agriculture groups argue that EPA cannot allocate responsibility to comply with the TMDLs for nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment among multiple sources of those pollutants and must, instead, limit itself to specifying the maximum amount of those pollutants that can enter the bay.

As a member of the Supreme Court’s politically conservative bloc and as a jurist who has shown a willingness to rigorously scrutinize EPA’s reading of environmental laws, Scalia might have been inclined to find this argument convincing enough throw out the TMDLs. While there may still be four votes to grant the cert petition, his absence probably means there are not five votes to reverse the Third Circuit decision.

The case is American Farm Bureau Federation v. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, No. 15-599.

Tongass National Forest - photo by Mark Brennan
Tongass National Forest – photo by Mark Brennan

Another dispute, this one involving Alaska’s 16.8 million acre Tongass National Forest, may also be affected by Scalia’s death. There, Alaska has asked the justices to review a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit that invalidated a George W. Bush administration regulation exempting the Tongass from the Roadless Area Conservation Rule.

RACR is a regulation imposed by the administration of President William Jefferson Clinton that limits development, especially logging and road construction, in wilderness-quality areas of national forests. The Clinton-era U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service decided that the importance of preserving roadless tracts in the Tongass outweighed the economic consequences that followed from selling less timber from that forest in the future.The agency thus foreclosed about 90 percent of future planned timber harvests on the Tongass.

In December 2003, the Forest Service reversed that finding and decided that the economic value of timber in the Tongass exceeded the environmental value of the roadless areas. The Bush administration acted after Alaska had challenged RACR on the merits but before the validity of RACR was ultimately upheld by the federal courts of appeals based in San Francisco and Denver.

The Ninth Circuit decided that the Bush administration’s Forest Service changed its perspective on the relative value of roadless areas in the Tongass without providing a sufficient justification. Relying on the Supreme Court’s decision in a case called Federal Communications Commission v. Fox Television Stations, Inc., in which Scalia wrote the majority opinion, the en banc panel held that the agency had disregarded its earlier factual findings about the importance of roadless area conservation without enough explanation.

Alaska’s cert petition argues that a change in political philosophy that occurs when an administration of a different party assumes power is enough justification for it, a point the Ninth Circuit panel acknowledged, and that no other reason is needed to support a change in a regulation.

Alaska’s attorneys may have hoped that Scalia’s vote, along with that of the other four conservative justices, would be enough to save the Tongass National Forest exemption from RACR. Without Scalia’s vote, it is less likely that five justices will agree that the Ninth Circuit got it wrong and, therefore, possibly less likely that the requisite four justices will vote to grant review.

The case is Alaska v. Organized Village of Kake, No. 15-467.

Supreme Court poised to decide fate of mercury emission limits

The fate of a contentious U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rule limiting mercury emissions from electric power plants will be decided by the nation’s highest court sometime in the next few days in a case that could force EPA to factor in regulatory compliance costs when deciding if an air pollutant is harmful to human health.

The case turns on the question when EPA must consider industry’s compliance costs in the process of imposing emission limits on the category of air pollutants that are considered hazardous to human health and the environment.

Section 112 of the Clean Air Act imposes the requirement of a so-called “air toxics determination” before the agency can set limits on the discharge of those toxic pollutants to the atmosphere.

The statute provides that EPA must “list” all sources of air pollutants that  “present[] a threat of adverse effects to human health or the environment” that “warrant[] regulation under this section.” Once EPA lists a source of such a hazardous air pollutant, the agency is required to set standards that achieve the “maximum degree of reduction in emissions,” considering factors including compliance costs, energy requirements, and non-emission related health and environmental impacts.

The administration of former President Bill Clinton decided in Dec. 2000 that regulation of mercury, particulates, and toxic gases from electric  power plants is necessary to protect public health and the environment. The subsequent administration sought to alter that determination, but its effort to do so was rejected by a federal appeals court in 2008.

The Obama administration proceeded with development of a so-called Mercury Air Toxics rule and finalized it in Feb. 2012.

According to a fact sheet prepared by EPA, the rule would likely save up to 11,000 lives per year. About 1,400 coal-and oil-fired power plants would be affected.

During the process of finalizing the MACT rule, EPA evaluated the costs that electric utilities may incur in order to comply with the 2012 emission limits. The agency determined that the total annual costs of compliance would be about $9.6 billion. That compares to yearly public health benefits that range from $37 billion to $90 billion.

Lawyers for industry and some state governments challenged the rule in court, arguing that EPA must consider industry’s costs of compliance with emission limits before deciding that regulation of those emissions is necessary.

They lost before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which ruled in 2014 that EPA had properly considered costs at the stage of the process at which the emission limits were set.

Only one member of the three-judge panel that heard the case at the appeals court level, an appointee of former President George W. Bush, agreed with the industry lawyers’ argument.

“It’s just kind of inconceivable that Congress meant for EPA to do a cost-benefit analysis at the decision-to-regulate stage,” Karl S. Coplan, a professor of law at Pace University Law School, said. “It’s a technology-based limitation, not a health-based limit. EPA must consider costs at the stage of what the limit must be. There’s no point in making EPA consider costs at the should-we-regulate stage and then again at the what-the-limit-should-be stage.”

The Supreme Court has generally required federal courts to defer to agency interpretations of the statutes they administer if the language at issue is ambiguous and the agency’s reading is reasonable. This approach to deciding cases involving challenges to agency action, known as the Chevron doctrine, is a cornerstone of administrative law.

Coplan does not think that the MACT case before is likely to induce a majority of the justices to abandon the doctrine altogether.

“I think there are some justices that are uncomfortable with it,” he said. “But their discomfort seems to depend on which side it comes up. It’s fair to say that Justice Scalia is one of those who has expressed skepticism about it in the past.”

If the Court does not turn away from the Chevron doctrine, then the only rationale it would have to reject the MACT rule would be would be that the text of the Clean Air Act that appear to foreclose consideration of costs at the stage of deciding whether a pollutant is dangerous to human health and the environment actually does require the agency to consider such costs then.

“The finding by EPA that regulation of electrical utility industry emissions is appropriate was made many years ago and the practical effect of this decision, depending on how it comes out, could be a real setback for EPA’s regulation of coal-fired power plants and for cleaning them up,” Coplan said.

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case on March 25.

EPA effort to block Pebble Mine in Alaska hits judicial bump

A federal judge in Alaska has temporarily barred the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from exercising a veto of a permit needed to build the largest open pit mine ever proposed in North America.

The decision by U.S. district judge Russel Holland came in a lawsuit that alleges EPA violated the Federal Advisory Committee Act by working with opponents of the copper mine project.

Holland did not release a written opinion. He instead issued a verbal temporary restraining order from the bench.

The lawsuit is part of an effort by Pebble Limited Partnership, the developer of the mine, to bypass EPA’s opposition to its project, which would take up more land in the rugged and fecund Bristol Bay region than the entirety of Manhattan and obliterate the world-class salmon fishery there.

EPA had announced last summer that it would use its authority under section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act to reject a permit that would allow PLP to deposit fill into the bay. The agency plans to finalize that decision early in 2015.

Wednesday’s order by Judge Holland does not indicate that the court agrees with the merits of PLP’s allegations against EPA.