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.

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COMMENTARY: Supreme Court’s Clean Power Plan order is partisan and a betrayal of the law and science

partisans

Tuesday’s shocking (and unexplained) decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to block implementation of the Obama administration’s signature program to reduce the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions is more than legally questionable. It indicates that the willingness of the five justices who supported the order to march in lockstep with the party of the Presidents that appointed them is so determined that even the growing evidence that anthropogenic climate change threatens this planet’s ability to support life, and the stability of human civilizations, does not deter them from their partisan, extra-legal loyalties.

It is not easy to get a stay of a challenged government action pending resolution of a lawsuit on its merits. In fact, until yesterday, it was thought by most legal scholars to be darn near impossible to get such an order without a clear showing that the party requesting it had suffered and would continue to suffer harm. U.S. solicitor general Donald Verrilli made this clear in the government’s response to the request for a stay. “Applicants identify no case in which this Court has granted a stay of a generally-applicable regulation pending initial judicial review in the court of appeals,” he wrote.

Texas and the other states that have petulantly objected to the necessary task of reducing reliance on coal for electricity generation have suffered none. The Clean Power Plan requires no actual changes in the make-up of the power mix for several years, at minimum, and the plan does not require states even to adopt a plan. They could choose to defer to the federal government. Nor has the coal or utility industries, since the Clean Power Plan allows the prospect of as much as six years before any changes to the generation mix are mandated and, in any case, the demands of the market are causing a shift from coal.

Apparently, the Supreme Court’s own direction, given in 2007, to regulate carbon dioxide emissions under the Clean Air Act also was thought by ideologues John Roberts, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito to be irrelevant, even though the Court has previously and frequently held that a party seeking a stay must demonstrate a likelihood that they will win their argument on the merits.

So, too, did the five Republican justices, in thrall to their party’s utter refusal to acknowledge that human combustion of fossil fuels is changing our atmosphere and oceans, ignore the reality that mankind has a limited window in which to reduce and eliminate carbon pollution before the impacts of greenhouse gas accumulations become so potent that society will effectively lose the ability to control the outcome. Thus they twisted or ignored yet another requirement for a stay: that the public interest must be served by one.

Then, too, the Supreme Court’s ill-advised intervention has undermined the most significant achievement of international negotiators in all the years since the phenomenon of climate change has been understood – last December’s Paris accord. How long will it be before China and India, the world’s two other leading emitters, decide that there is no point in their nations undergoing the expense and turmoil associated with transforming the way electricity is produced and transportation is provided if the United States of America cannot keep its word?

So what’s next?

The Obama administration should, first, invoke section 115 of the Clean Air Act and re-issue the Clean Power Plan under the aegis of that provision. As a recent report indicates, section 115 provides a virtually unassailable basis for emission reduction mandates when international agreements dictate them.

Of course, yesterday’s action by the Republican five, unaccompanied by any statement of the reasons that Messrs. Roberts et al. think justify their choice, indicates that not even a clear-cut statutory foundation of a regulation will be enough to sustain it if their partisan ideology and loyalty to the bottom line of oil and coal companies and the ideology of this country’s most politically backward states dictates they stand against it.

The real solution is going to have involve a replacement of at least one of the five Republican justices. Sure, given that Scalia and Kennedy are close to eighty years old, nature may provide an opportunity for that replacement sooner rather than later. But that’s hardly a sure thing and, in any event, even the contempt the Republican five has so richly earned does not impel a wish for personal bad fortune. No, wishing for a vacancy on the Court is not the right response.

Instead, the administration should start to play hard ball.

The U.S. Department of Justice should ask at least one of the Republican justices to recuse themselves from future involvement in the Clean Power Plan litigation on grounds that partisan loyalty and bias precludes them from making a fair decision. If that request is denied, the administration should use whatever legal tools that even remotely offer the prospect of a compelled recusal to force the issue.

Of course, that tactic has only uncertain prospects for success and so the administration should determine to step up the fight in the legislative branch, too. President Obama should explain to the grandees of Congress that none of the GOP’s priorities will be enacted into law, at least with his signature on any bills that reflect them, unless and until both chambers send him a bill that explicitly clarifies that the Clean Air Act authorizes the Clean Power Plan.

And, of course, the administration should be making the case to voters very clearly that the outcome of this fall’s election will, quite plainly, dictate whether humanity acts in response to the plain and overwhelming evidence that our addiction to fossil fuels is endangering our economic and social foundations. Famine, rapid and widespread transmission of tropical disease, and drought are, after all, no picnic. Mr. Obama should not hesitate to mention – often – the risks to Earth’s biodiversity and ability to sustain life.

As for the people of this country, they should take note. The future quite literally depends on their choice this autumn. If ever there was a time to learn about climate change, and to take seriously the most awesome environmental challenge of modern history, that time is now.

Environmental groups challenge Forest Service permit authorizing helicopter use in wilderness

Gray Wolf - courtesy USFWS, photo by Gary Kramer
The gray wolf (Canis lupus) is hunted in several western states. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, photo by Gary Kramer.

The Obama administration is taking heat over a decision to allow the use of helicopters in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness.

Attorneys representing a coalition of environmental advocacy organizations filed a lawsuit in federal court in Boise, arguing that the plan violates the Wilderness Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

It is the second time the agency has become enmeshed in controversy over the issue of helicopter use by the state of Idaho. The earlier go-round involved the state of Idaho’s effort to support the federal government’s re-introduction of gray wolves to the wilderness area. U.S. district judge B. Lynn Winmill ruled in a Feb. 2010 decision that the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service could permit the state’s Fish and Game Department to carry out helicopter monitoring of the wolves, but also made clear that its permission indicated a rare exception to the Wilderness Act’s general prohibition of machinery in protected reserves.

This time, the Forest Service has granted a permit to the Idaho Department of Fish & Game so that it can tag elk within the wilderness area. A Jan. 6 notice by the Forest Service said that IDFG would be allowed to make as many as 120 helicopter landings inside the preserve.

The state agency wants to tag the elk as part of its obligation to facilitate hunting.

“Our goal is to manage those [elk] populations in a way that there will be a surplus for hunting and to reduce impacts and instances where, perhaps, predation by wolves, bears, or mountain lions may also be impacting that potential surplus,” Michael Keckler, a spokesperson for IDFG, explained.

IDFG has said that it wants to kill sixty percent of the wolves in the Frank Church-River of No Return wilderness.

The Idaho fish and wildlife agency argued in a 2014 document that the number of elk in the 1.7 million-acre Middle Fork Zone of the wilderness area declined by more than 40 percent between 2002 and 2011. “It’s been five years since we were in there and really been able to see what’s going on,” Keckler said. “We’re pretty sure those declines have continued.”

IDFG has indicated that it believes predation is a major cause of elk population declines in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. “Based on population modeling, the MFZ elk population is expected to continue to decline at [three] to [seven percent] annually if predation rates are not reduced,” the agency said in its Predation Management Plan for the Middle Fork Elk Zone. The IDFG plan also specifically blamed wolves for a significant portion of the decline.

Opponents of the state fish and wildlife agency’s plan disagree that predators are the culprit for any decline in the number of elk inhabiting the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness.

“I think, historically, elk populations, they weren’t that high in these areas,” Ken Cole, a biologist with Western Watersheds Project, said. “It’s not what you would consider high quality elk habitat. It was more of a bighorn sheep-mule deer habitat. The reason that elk populations got so high in the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, and early 90s is because they eradicated the wolf population and the grizzly population. You would expect the population of elk to decline once the native predators were reestablished.”

The Wilderness Act, which was enacted into law in 1964, includes broad language indicating that helicopters are, for the most part, forbidden in wilderness areas. Section 4(c) of the Wilderness Act provides:

“Except as specifically provided for in this Act, and subject to existing private rights, there shall be no commercial enterprise and no permanent road within any wilderness area designated by this Act and except as necessary to meet minimum requirements for the administration of the area for the purpose of this Act (including measures required in emergencies involving the health and safety of persons within the area), there shall be no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport, and no structure or installation within any such area.”

Federal courts have interpreted the phrase “administration of the area” to authorize only those activities that advance a protected preserve’s “wilderness character.”

Winmill’s 2010 decision in Wolf Recovery Foundation v. U.S. Forest Service indicates that he may be skeptical of the Forest Service’s effort to extend helicopter use beyond monitoring of wolves to monitoring of wolf prey. “[H]elicopter use in a wilderness area is antithetical to a wilderness experience, and that the approval of the single project at issue [in that case] — based on unique facts — is unlikely to be repeated,” he wrote in her opinion.

A USDA Forest Service regional forester in Arizona reached a similar conclusion last year.

Salmon-Challis National Forest supervisor Chuck Mark authorized the IDFG plan without requiring USDA Forest Service personnel to complete an environmental impact statement. He wrote in a Jan. 6 Record of Decision that the agency’s authorization of helicopter landings is “very restrictive” and that the aircraft will be permitted to land only in a “mere fraction” of the Middle Fork Zone. Mark did not specify the exact amount of the wilderness area’s acreage that would be directly impacted by helicopter landings or by helicopter flights overhead.

“The map that we’ve seen shows it to be a fairly significant area,” Cole said. “I’d say probably 20 to 30 percent of it.”

The landings would occur on one or more of USDA Forest Service’s eight airstrips within the wilderness area.

According to an editorial column published by Mark in the Jan. 7 edition of the Idaho Statesman, IDFG plans to land helicopters in the Middle Fork Zone on five days between mid-January and March 31.

The Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness encompasses more than 2.3 million acres and is the largest forested designated wilderness area in the country. During 2014 observers noted the presence of 119 wolf packs in Idaho. IDFG thinks the wolf population might be a little lower than that.

“Last year we documented 104 packs within the state,” Keckler said.

About eight of those packs are resident to the Middle Fork Zone of the wilderness area.

Wolves in the northern Rockies were protected by the Endangered Species Act from 1973 until April 2011, when President Barack Obama signed a budget bill that included a rider that forced the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to remove Canis lupus in Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Utah, and Washington from the list of threatened and endangered species.

The plaintiffs in the Idaho case include Friends of the Clearwater, Western Watersheds Project, and Wilderness Watch. They seek an injunction to prevent the helicopter landings from going forward.

Winmill has been assigned to hear the case for the Idaho federal court, Cole said.

States challenge Clean Power Plan

Two dozen states asked a federal court Friday to invalidate the Obama administration’s signature effort to address climate disruption and to temporarily block it from going into effect while litigation proceeds.

The coalition, led by the coal-dependent state of West Virginia and its Republican attorney general Patrick Morrisey, filed a petition for review of the Clean Power Plan and a motion to stay the regulation in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

“The Clean Power Plan is one of the most far-reaching energy regulations in this nation’s history,” Morrisey said in a statement. “West Virginia is proud to be leading the charge against this administration’s blatant and unprecedented attack on coal.”

The recalcitrant states’ motion to stay indicates that one of the main pillars of the attack on the Clean Power Plan will be that it is not authorized by the Clean Air Act:

“EPA has exceeded its authority under Section 111(d), especially in light of the clear-statement rule set forth in [a 2014 U.S. Supreme Court decision]. In [that case], the Supreme Court rejected an expansive EPA regulation of carbon dioxide emissions, holding that ‘[w]hen an agency claims to discover in a long-extant statute an unheralded power to regulate a significant portion of the American economy, we typically greet its announcement with a measure of skepticism.’ Congress, the Court explained, is expected to ‘speak clearly if it wishes to assign to an agency decisions of vast ‘economic and political significance.’ EPA now claims to have found in Section 111(d), a long-extant provision, the power to transform the nation’s energy grid. But the text of Section 111(d) does not begin to suggest that EPA may make such ‘decisions of vast economic and political significance,’ much less ‘clearly’ authorize it to do so.”

Patrick A. Parenteau, a professor at Vermont Law School and an expert on environmental law, said that another argument likely to be made in the case, and similarly outlined in the request to prevent the regulation from taking effect, is that EPA cannot regulate carbon dioxide emissions from power plants under section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act because it has already chosen to regulate mercury emissions from them under section 112 of the law.

Parenteau labeled this argument as “a loser.”

“It is a killer argument, of course, and if it wins then the Clean Power Plan is dead,” he said. “If they get a really conservative panel that’s looking to do real harm to EPA, ten percent is about what I give that.”

Parenteau explained that another likely statutory argument, which focuses on whether EPA can mandate greater use of renewable energy resources by power plants and more production of energy from natural gas combined cycle power plants, may have a better chance of success.

“The ‘beyond the fence line’ argument is a much closer call,” he said. “There’s going to be a close question on whether the renewable build block survives intact.”

Another argument by opponents of the Clean Power Plan previewed by the motion to stay filed Friday is that it violates the U.S. Constitution’s Tenth Amendment. They claim that the regulation unlawfully forces states to expend financial resources to achieve a federal policy goal.

But Parenteau pointed out that the Clean Power Plan’s provision allowing states to opt-out, and instead allow EPA to impose a federal implementation plan within the state, probably renders this argument weak.

A 1992 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court held that a similar approach mandated by another section of the Clean Air Act does not violate the Tenth Amendment.

The states that joined West Virginia in challenging the Clean Power Plan in court Friday are Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

A number of business organizations and trade groups also plan to file a petition for review seeking invalidation of the regulation, including the National Federation of Independent Business, National Association of Manufacturers, American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, American Chemistry Council, American Coke and Coal Chemicals Institute, American Foundry Society, American Forest and Paper Association, American Iron and Steel Institute, American Wood Council, Brick Industry Association, Electricity Consumers Resource Council, Lignite Energy Council, National Lime Association, National Oilseed Processors Association and Portland Cement Association.

At least 15 states and two cities will join the Obama administration in defense of the Clean Power Plan.

“My office is prepared to join with our partners to aggressively defend EPA’s Clean Power Plan – rules that will significantly reduce climate change pollution nationally,” New York’s Democratic attorney general Eric T. Schneiderman said in a statement. “These rules have a sound foundation in both science and the law, and build upon strategies New York and other states have used to successfully cut power plant emissions.”

Efforts to delay or block regulation of greenhouse gas emissions from power plants are not limited to the courts. Two resolutions that would invalidate the Clean Power Plan will be introduced in the U.S. Senate next week by legislators representing states with economies that are heavily reliant on fossil fuel extraction.

According to a report Friday in The Hill newspaper, Sens. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Shelly Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), and Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) will file two Congressional Review Act resolutions.

Under the CRA Congress can effectively veto a regulation. However, a CRA resolution requires the signature of the President to be effective. President Barack Obama has already made clear that he will not sign measures that aim to interfere with implementation of the Clean Power Plan.

The Clean Power Plan became a legally effective regulation on Friday when it was published in the Federal Register.

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.

GAO report finds little impact on environmental rules from deadline cases

A federal watchdog agency has found that citizen suits that aim to force the Environmental Protection Agency to meet deadlines specified by federal environmental laws not have much impact on the substance of regulations.

The conclusion debunks an argument advanced by some right-wing politicians, including Republican members of the U.S. House of Representatives, that the agencies are improperly collaborating with environmental advocates to reach lawsuit settlements. For example, a 2013 report by the House Committee on the Judiciary concluded that citizen suit settlements are frequently used “to bind executive discretion under judicial authority, including to bind executive discretion over successive administrations.”

That House committee report went on to hypothesize at length about the impact of so-called “sue and settle” cases, surmising that they cause the agency to inappropriately adjust regulatory priorities.

“In sue-and-settle litigation, defendant regulatory agencies, such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, typically have failed to meet mandatory statutory deadlines for new regulations or allegedly have unreasonably delayed discretionary action,” the House  committee report said. “Political and practical concerns in sue-and-settle cases frequently give rise to perverse agency incentives to cooperate with actual or threatened litigation and negotiate a consent decree or settlement agreement to resolve it. This is because, once a decree or agreement is in place, the defendant agency has a litigation-based excuse to expedite action that helps to diminish political costs, reorder agency funding priorities, or serve other pro-regulatory ends.”

The cases studied by the Government Accountability Office for an audit report released last month do not support this claim.

GAO reviewed 32 “major” rules that EPA finalized between May 31, 2008 and June 1, 2013. Nine of them were issued by the agency after settlements of Clean Air Act lawsuits brought to enforce statutory deadlines.

“[N]one of the settlements we reviewed included terms that required EPA to take an otherwise discretionary action or prescribed a specific substantive outcome of the final rule,” GAO wrote in the report.

The report  explained that citizen suit settlements do not affect the substance of rules because a federal regulation that dates back more than 20 years prevents the government from agreeing to settlements that create mandatory duties. That regulation had its genesis in a procedure for approving settlements of lawsuits against government agencies instituted by Reagan administration attorney general Edwin Meese in 1986.

“[I]n general, this policy restricts [the Department of Justice] from entering into a settlement if it commits EPA to take an otherwise discretionary action, such as including specific substantive content in a final rule unless an exception to this restriction is granted by the [d]eputy [a]ttorney [g]eneral or [a]ssociate [a]ttorney [g]eneral of the United States,” the report said.

That limitation does not apply to consent decrees, which are essentially negotiated court orders approved by a federal judge.

Citizen suits are authorized by all seven of the nation’s principal anti-pollution laws.

 

BLM pulls back from Idaho hunting contest

The Bureau of Land Management reversed course Tuesday on its previous authorization of a contest to kill gray wolves, coyotes, and other wildlife on Idaho public lands.

Gray wolves were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act until a bill passed by Congress and signed into law by President Barack Obama in April 2011 compelled an end to their protection.

The agency revoked a five-year permit that had been granted on Nov. 13 to organizers of a “predator derby” to be held on BLM and Forest Service lands near Salmon.

Idaho Falls district manager Joe Kraayenbrink explained that elimination of entry fees for killing contest participants and confusion as to the nature or extent of prizes to be awarded were “factual uncertainties” that prevented BLM from deciding appropriate conditions for the permit.

“As IFW plans have more fully developed over time, our analyses did not fully appreciate and capture important aspects of how IFW envisions or ultimately intends the Derby to actually take place,” Kraayenbrink wrote in an announcement of the permit rescission.

Kraayenbrink referred to Idaho for Wildlife, the organizer of the predator hunt.

Environmental advocacy organizations had challenged the issuance of the permit in federal court. A lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court in Boise on the same day BLM had issued the permit authorizing mass killing of wildlife alleged that BLM and its sister agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service, violated the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to prepare a study of environmental impacts resulting from the participation in the planned massacre of up to 500 hunters.

The extent of BLM’s NEPA compliance with regard to the hunt had been a Finding of No Significant Impact, which is a conclusion that an activity planned for the public lands will have no significant environmental consequence.

During last year’s version of the event, which was apparently the first wolf-killing contest in the United States in 40 years, participants killed 21 coyotes and no gray wolves.

Organizers had made available prizes to the hunters who killed the largest gray wolf and the most coyotes.

They also explicitly encouraged the participation of children and gave unique awards to hunters who were not adults.

The plaintiffs in the Nov. 13 lawsuit also suggested that both agencies violated their own regulations by allowing the event to proceed.

The killing contest, which is set for Jan. 2-4, 2015, is still authorized on the Salmon-Challis National Forest. USDA Forest Service did not require hunt organizers to obtain any permit at all.