Thursday, November 21, 2013

USFWS offers reward for information on shooting of fifth endangered red wolf in North Carolina in past month

The federal governments' principal fish and wildlife agency is offering a reward for information about the shooting of another red wolf in North Carolina.

Five of the critically endangered mammals have been gunned down in the state just within the last month. The latest victim, shot on or about Nov. 18, was the eighth at the hands of a gunman this year.

Canis rufus was once a common mammal in the American southeast. Efforts to eradicate predators and loss of habitat sent the population plummeting to less than two dozen individuals by the late 1960s. Captive breeding began in 1977 and, in 1980, the species was declared extinct in the wild.

USFWS re-introduced the red wolf to the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge and, later, to several other sites. There are now about 100 individuals in the wild.

An adult Canis rufus is larger than an adult coyote, but smaller than a full-grown gray wolf (Canis lupus).

Informants are urged to contact USFWS resident agent-in-charge John Elofson at (404) 763-7959, USFWS refuge officer Frank Simms at (252) 216-7504, or North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission officer Robert Wayne at (252) 216-8225.

Killing an endangered animal is a violation of the Endangered Species Act. Conviction could result in one year's imprisonment and a maximum fine of $100,000.

The reward could total up to $26,000.

Photos courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The lower photograph shows the red wolf killed by gunfire in North Carolina on Nov. 18.

Commentary: Senate rules action allows respite in partisan tug-of-war over DC Circuit ideology

When U.S. Senate Democrats moved Thursday to alter the right of the chamber's minority party to block executive and some judicial nominees, it made a decision that, on the surface, promises an easier path for all of President Barack Obama's judge candidates.

From an environmental law perspective, the changes to the Senate's filibuster rule are likely to mean that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit will soon have all of the judges authorized by law.

Right now, there are three vacancies on the 11-seat court. Of the eight sitting judges, four were appointed by Democratic presidents and four were appointed by Republican presidents. However, the court also has six senior judges, five of which are GOP appointees. Those senior judges do sit on panels and decide cases. As a result, the real partisan divide on the court is 9-5 in favor of Republicans.

This divide has significant implications for environmental law. For example, the Congressional GOP, and many of the party's governors, have opposed the Obama administration's efforts to use the Clean Air Act to combat climate change. One of those efforts - the recently proposed and critical regulation that would cap the greenhouse gas emissions of new power plants - is likely to be challenged in the DC Circuit.

Having a full complement of active judges will mean two things: first, that the mostly-Republican senior judges will not be as likely to play the central role they now occupy in the court's deliberations and, second, that the far-reaching decisions on regulatory matters, including those indicating the administration's policy response to climate change, that come before the court will be more likely to get an even-handed evaluation.

This is to be applauded, but it is not the only benefit of today's landmark Senate action. There are 93 vacancies in the federal judiciary, including dozens in the U.S. district courts. It is those federal district judges who decide everything from criminal cases to huge commercial disputes. They also handle citizen suits to enforce the country's bedrock environmental laws. Now that President Obama will not face the seemingly perpetual Republican blockade of his judicial nominees, perhaps those seats can be filled in short order, which will lead to faster, and maybe fairer, resolution of critical environmental cases.

New study casts doubt on effectiveness of nature preserves in Latin America

A new study indicates that protection of nature preserves may not be enough to conserve ecosystems.

Researchers studied all preserves that are larger than 500 hectares and that were designated or known before 2004. They concluded that more than 1 million hectares of reserves in 19 nations of Central and South America were degraded during a five-year period:  
In Latin America, the rate of land and forest degradation inside protected areas more than doubled from 2004 to 2009, increasing from 0.04% to 0.10% per year. This is a small fraction but of a large number. Thus, in 2004 there were 81,975 hectares of land and forest degradation inside protected areas in Latin America, while in 2009, there were 247,056 hectares—an increase of approximately 165,000 hectares. Assuming each land and forest degradation event was unique (i.e., no change, regrowth and change again during the six years) and considering only the negative changes in land cover, the 2004–2009 land and forest degradation in our protected area data set was 1,097,618 hectares—an area the size of Jamaica.
French Guiana and Guatemala experienced the most loss of natural characteristics in the studied preserves. Costa Rica, Mexico, Argentina, and Nicaragua suffered the least damage.

The researchers also examined potential causes for degradation of the region's preserves and found that only the degree of funding provided to operate them has a statistically significant relationship with the amount of damaged land. However, they also decided that the relationship is "tenuous."

Growth of a nation's gross domestic product did not have a statistically significant relationship with degradation within the preserves. That was also the case with per capita GDP and rural population growth. 

Instead, the authors posited that a variety of human economic activities accounts for the failure of the reserves to protect the  natural systems within them. "Moving away from the data and results, we hypothesize that agricultural expansion, grazing expansion, intentional burning, infrastructure development, and increased accessibility could all be causal factors driving protected area land and forest degradation in Latin America and are potential future areas of research," they wrote.

Terra-i, a remote-sensing system that monitors changes in land use, was used by the researchers to complete the study.

The paper appears in the journal Diversity.

The above graphic shows the percentage of protected land in each of the Latin American region's countries that was affected by degradation of ecosystems during the study period, 2004-2009.

Environmental groups, scientists urge opposition to bills that would expand National Forest logging

Opposition to efforts by some members of Congress to mandate more logging on federal forests is on the rise, with environmental organizations and scientists recently circulating strong statements.

The letters relate to two forestry bills pending in Washington: H.R. 1526 and S. 1479.

The scientists' communique, which is signed by 250 individuals, urges Congress to avoid any requirement to increase logging in forest stands that have been damaged by fire.

"Both bills ignore the current state of scientific knowledge, which indicates that such activity would seriously undermine the ecological integrity of forest ecosystems on federal lands," the scientists' letter argues.

The scientists explained that snags, which are the standing remains of incinerated trees, are important habitat for a variety of bird species and that the wild flowers that grow in burned areas encourage re-population of the area by pollinators. They also point out a variety of other ecosystem benefits of burned forest stand areas that the legislation would compromise:
Numerous studies also document the cumulative impacts of post-fire logging on natural ecosystems, including the elimination of bird species that are most dependent on such conditions, compaction of soils, elimination of biological legacies (snags and downed logs) that are essential in supporting new forest growth, spread of invasive species, accumulation of logging slash that can add to future fire risks, increased mortality of conifer seedlings and other important re-establishing vegetation (from logs dragged uphill in logging operations), and increased chronic sedimentation in streams due to the extensive road network and runoff from logging operations.
The environmentalists' letter, which is signed by 20, mostly West coast, advocacy organizations and is addressed to U.S. secretary of agriculture Tom Vilsack and U.S. secretary of interior Sally Jewell, highlights the likelihood that increased logging in disturbed areas of federal forests would contradict a recovery plan for the endangered northern spotted owl.

"Plans to boost post-fire logging in spotted owl habitat ignore the best available science and would cause harm to old-growth forests,” Steve Holmer, a senior policy advisor at American Bird Conservancy, said. “Government scientists have concluded that in order to recover the rapidly declining northern spotted owl population, protection is needed for forest structures created by fires such as large standing dead trees that are used by the owls to nest in.”

The impact of the bills on forest landscapes impacted by wildfire is not the only criticism aimed at them.

Several environmental groups have loudly objected to the House bill's waivers of laws that currently apply to logging operations.

"H.R. 1526 would carve gaping loopholes in the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and other bedrock environmental laws," The Wilderness Society president Jamie Williams said in a statement. "This would lead to dirty water and air, and destroy recreational opportunities."

The House bill would set a statutory floor on the amount of logging undertaken in federal forests, doubling the amount that now occurs.

It would also prevent judicial review of most decisions to cut trees within designated "forest reserve revenue areas" that, for the first time, would require Washington to comply with a "fiduciary" obligation to provide revenues from logging to counties in which federal forests are located.

H.R. 1526, the proposed Restoring Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act, cleared the U.S. House of Representatives on Sept. 20. It is now pending in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee along with a similar bill, S. 1479.

President Obama warned on Sept. 18 that he would veto H.R. 1526, or similar legislation, if it reaches his desk.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Proposed new air quality regulations in Colorado draw acclaim

Colorado has proposed revisions to the state's air quality regulations that aim to crack down on pollution by oil and gas operations, including first-in-the-nation provisions that would limit methane emissions from the industry's infrastructure.

Gov. John Hickenlooper announced the changes Monday.

"The rules will help Colorado prepare for anticipated growth in energy development, while protecting public health and the environment," Hickenlooper said. "They represent a significant step forward in addressing a wider range of emissions that before now have not been directly regulated."

Methane is among the most potent of greenhouse gases. The second-most prevalent warming air pollutant in the U.S., after carbon dioxide, it has 20 times the impact of CO2 over a century.

It constitutes as much as 90 percent of natural gas and is emitted during all stages of the process to extract the booming energy source from subterranean chambers and caverns.

A January 2013 study published in the journal Nature concluded that as much as nine percent of the methane extracted from the ground during hydraulic fracturing operations in Colorado and Utah escapes to the atmosphere. 

Unlike federal air quality rules, the Colorado proposal would impose specific limits on discharges of the gas to the atmosphere.

The proposal would also require oil and gas producers, who in Colorado are primarily engaged in hydraulic fracturing, to detect leaks from storage tanks, pipelines, and other facilities, repair any such leaks on a specified timeline, and to conduct regular inspections of potential air pollutant sources.

The rules would cover volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions in addition to being the first in the nation to specifically limit methane discharges to the air.

A prominent spokesperson for the environmental community lauded the Colorado proposal, as did representatives of the energy industry in the state.

"If this package is adopted, Coloradans will breathe easier, knowing they have the best rules in the country for controlling air pollution from oil and gas activities,” Fred Krupp, the president of Environmental Defense Fund, said.

A joint statement by energy companies Anadarko, Encana, and Noble promised support for the regulations.

"This collaboration is a good model for developing effective regulations and activities to monitor, control and reduce methane leaks and VOCs," the statement said. "The process and increased accountability established by the proposal will provide transparency and build public trust."

The new rules will not be finalized until after the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission conducts hearings.

The Hickenlooper administration's proposal for increased regulation of the air pollution caused by the state's burgeoning oil and gas industry follows indications that the state's residents are becoming restive over the presence of extraction activities.

Four communities along the northern Front Range voted earlier this month to ban, either permanently or for several years, fracking operations within their municipal boundaries. 

California holds fifth cap-and-trade auction

California continued its pioneering program of auctioning allowances that authorize polluters to emit greenhouse gases to the atmosphere this week, holding the fifth auction in the past year on Tuesday.

Results of the auction will not be available until Friday. However, given that all the allowances for both the current year and for 2016 were sold at the last auction in August, there is reason to surmise a that Tuesday's event showcased a similar level of interest from the regulated community.

"We’re expecting participation to have been strong and that the futures are going to sell," Emily Reyna, a manager with the U.S. climate and energy program operated by Environmental Defense Fund, said. "I think that, like a lot of other folks have been saying, the price might come down a bit. That’s probably because it’s the end of the year and companies at this point know their emissions levels for 2013 and have a better sense of what their compliance obligations are going to be."

The latest auction comes on the heels of a California superior court decision that rejected a two-pronged legal attack on the state's cap-and-trade program. The plaintiffs in that case argued that it is not authorized by A.B. 32, the state's landmark 2006 climate change law, and that the auction proceeds are a tax that was not approved by a constitutionally required super-majority of state legislators.

Judge Timothy Frawley ruled on Nov. 14 that the state legislature authorized the California Air Resources Board to conduct the cap-and-trade auctions and collect money from regulated entities for emission allowances and did not violate the state constitution's taxation procedures.

"I think this case further injects confidence for participants that the market and the program is here to stay," Reyna said.

The nascent market will soon grow larger, as California regulators recently announced that the state's cap-and-trade program will be integrated with one run by Quebec authorities.

Implementation of that expansion will occur on Jan. 1, 2014.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Supreme Court asked to weigh in on EPA's power to veto wetlands fill permits

A coal mining company fighting a decision by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to effectively veto a permit allowing disposal of mining waste in the streams of Appalachia has asked the Supreme Court to review the case.

The petition for certiorari in Mingo Logan Coal Co. v. United States Environmental Protection Agency was filed Nov. 13.

"Granting EPA this unprecedented power will chill private investment in critical sectors of the economy, where some $220 billion each year is contingent upon section 404 permits," the petition argues.

The issue is of high importance to advocates working to prevent mountaintop removal mining.

Scientific studies show that the practice, which involves extensive deforestation in a region that contains a high degree of terrestrial biodiversity, also causes damage to aquatic ecosystems that is practically irreparable.

Human health impacts, including increased risk of cancer and heart, lung, and kidney disease, have been documented in areas where mountaintop removal mining occurs. A relatively higher frequency of birth defects in areas impacted by the practice has also been confirmed.

In 2007 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued Mingo a permit to fill waterways with overburden from its Spruce Mine No. 1 in Logan County, W. Va.

In 2011 EPA demanded changes to the permit that were extensive enough to amount to an outright rejection of it.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, in an opinion written by Judge Karen L. Henderson - an appointee of former President George H.W. Bush - unanimously upheld EPA's action. The other two judges that signed on to the panel's opinion were Thomas B. Griffith and Brett Kavanagh, both appointed by George W. Bush.

The focus of the legal dispute is section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act. That provision of the CWA appears to give EPA authority to revoke a permit to fill a stream with mining debris (or any wetland with any other sort of fill material), even if the polluting activity has already commenced:
The Administrator is authorized to prohibit the specification (including the withdrawal of specification) of any defined area as a disposal site, and he is authorized to deny or restrict the use of any defined area for specification (including the withdrawal of specification) as a disposal site, whenever he determines, after notice and opportunity for public hearings, that the discharge of such materials into such area will have an unacceptable adverse effect on municipal water supplies, shellfish beds and fishery areas (including spawning and breeding areas), wildlife, or recreational areas.
Referring to this section of the CWA, upon which EPA relied in forcing changes to the Mingo permit, the D.C. Circuit wrote:
Section 404 imposes no temporal limit on the Administrator's authority to withdraw the Corps' specification but instead expressly empowers him to prohibit, restrict, or withdraw the specification 'whenever' he makes a determination that the statutory 'unacceptable adverse effect' will result. . . [T]he Congress made plain its intent to grant the the Administrator authority to  prohibit/deny/restrict/withdraw a specification at any time.
Mingo Logan Coal Co. is represented by former  U.S. solicitor general Paul D. Clement in its effort to obtain Supreme Court review of the D.C. Circuit decision.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Fish and Wildlife Service crushes ivory

Six tons of confiscated ivory were destroyed in a rock-crusher near Denver on Thursday as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service signaled a renewed focus on stopping the ongoing slaughter of African elephants.

The operation, which involved the nation's entire stock of confiscated ivory, occurred at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge and was witnessed by representatives of African nations.

"Rising demand for ivory is fueling a renewed and horrific slaughter of elephants in Africa, threatening remaining populations across the continent,” secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said. “We will continue to work aggressively with the Department of Justice and law enforcement agencies around the world to investigate, arrest and prosecute criminals who traffic in ivory. We encourage other nations to join us in destroying confiscated ivory stockpiles and taking other actions to combat wildlife crime.”

The Obama administration's move follows the establishment of the White House Advisory Council on Wildlife Trafficking. President Barack Obama included the creation of the panel in a July 1 executive order focused on increasing federal efforts to stop the trade in imperiled wildlife species.

The ivory that was crushed on Thursday represented the remains of thousands of elephants, according to a Department of Interior press release.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director Dan Ashe explained that rising demand for ivory around the world, especially in Asia, threatens a return to "devastating declines" in elephant populations experienced in earlier decades.

"The United States is part of the problem, because much of the world’s trade in wild animal and plant species – both legal and illegal – is driven by U.S. consumers or passes through our ports on the way to other nations. We have to be part of the solution,” Ashe said.

An estimated 35,000 elephants per year are killed to support the ivory trade.

Loxodonta africana was once ubiquitous in Africa, ranging across as many as 37 of the continent's countries. Numbering 3-5 million during the 19th century, the species is now estimated to total about 700,000 individuals and their distribution is increasingly fragmented.

The population is growing in eastern and southern Africa, but falling fast in central and western Africa.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists the African elephant as a vulnerable species.

Image courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Obama nominates Kornze to lead BLM

President Barack Obama has nominated a senior Bureau of Land Management administrator to become the next director of the agency.

Neil G. Kornze, a native Nevadan, got the nod Nov. 7.

"Neil has helped implement forward-looking reforms at the BLM to promote energy development in areas of minimal conflict, drive landscape-level planning efforts, and dramatically expand the agency’s use of technology to speed up the process for energy permitting,” Interior secretary Sally Jewell said.

Kornze, 34, has been at BLM since 2011, when he joined the agency as a senior advisor to the director. He has been serving as acting director since March of this year.

BLM has not had a permanent director since March 2012, when Bob Abbey retired.

Before joining the agency Kornze worked for Senate majority leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

He has a masters degree in international relations from the London School of Economics, in addition to a B.A. in politics from Whitman College.

Kornze's family has a long history of work in the mining industry in the Elko, Nev. region.

Notwithstanding the possibility that the nominee will be sympathetic to mining interests, which rely on BLM lands throughout the West, environmental organizations generally welcomed the nomination.

"As a westerner, he knows first-hand the importance of careful stewardship of our public lands," Alex Taurel, the deputy legislative director of the League of Conservation Voters, said. "He's the right choice for the job, and the Senate should act quickly on his nomination."

Trout Unlimited touted Kornze's consensus-building skills.

"During his time on Capitol Hill and in recent years at the BLM, Neil has demonstrated a pragmatic, solutions-oriented approach to public lands challenges,” TU president and chief executive officer Chris Wood said.

Photo courtesy U.S. Department of Interior

California court upholds cap-and-trade program against industry attack

California's pioneering cap-and-trade greenhouse gas reduction program got a long-awaited and vital legal thumbs-up from a state judge this week.

Judge Timothy M. Frawley of the state's superior court in Sacramento County rejected arguments that the state legislature did not authorize the sale of emission allowances in California's 2006 comprehensive climate change legislation, AB 32.

Frawley also held that the revenues raised by the California Air Resources Board as a result of the allowance sales are not taxes subject to the super-majority requirement of the state constitution.

"The court sent a strong signal today, thoroughly affirming California’s innovative climate protection program—including the vital safeguards to ensure that polluters are held accountable for their harmful emissions” Erica Morehouse, an attorney with the Environmental Defense Fund, said in a statement.

Frawley's opinion explained that the language of AB 32 gave CARB the authority to develop and implement a system for distributing emission allowances:
Although AB 32 does not explicitly authorize the sale of allowances, it specifically delegates to [the California Air Resources Board] the discretion to adopt a cap-and-trade program and to 'design' a system of distribution of emissions allowances. The breadth of the delegation of authority to ARB supports, rather than undermines, ARB's construction of AB 32.
The court noted that a statutory phrase referring to "distribution of emissions allowances" was likely understood by legislators to include an auction system because a state research panel had provided the legislature with a report that recommended it.

On the tax issue, the plaintiffs - the California Chamber of Commerce, Morning Star Packing Company, and the National Association of Manufacturers - strenuously argued that the sale of emissions allowances is covered by California's 35-year old tax limitation law, Proposition 13.

Frawley decided the revenues amount to a fee, not a tax, and are therefore not required to have been adopted by a two-thirds majority of each legislative chamber.

"[T]he charges have some traditional attributes of a tax and some traditional attributes of a regulatory fee, but, on balance, the court finds the charges to be more like a regulatory fee/charge than a traditional tax," Frawley wrote.

Based on that holding, Frawley analyzed whether the revenues collected by CARB fit within the state's framework for "police power" fees and held that Proposition 13 is not "subverted" when the fees assessed for the privilege of polluting the atmosphere are imposed as a means of lessening that environmental damage. 

He also rejected an argument that a fee should be treated as a tax if it aims to change the fee payer's behavior.

"[A] fee is not any less a fee because it raises revenue, and a tax is not any less a tax because it has a regulatory effect," Frawley wrote. 

He went on to rule that the revenues paid to CARB are regulatory fees related to the program's goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions and that a requisite reasonable relationship exists between the "covered entities' (collective) responsibility for the harmful effects of [greenhouse gas] emissions" and the charge for emissions allowances.

Pacific Legal Foundation, the property-rights advocacy law firm that represented the plaintiffs, said Thursday that it will appeal Frawley's decision.

Image courtesy Wikimedia.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Ninth Circuit considering whether to grant en banc review in Drakes Bay Oyster case

The San Francisco-based federal appeals court that upheld an Obama administration decision not to renew a permit allowing oyster farming at Point Reyes National Seashore is considering whether to re-hear the case.

In an order released Tuesday, the judges who wrote the Sept. 3 opinion asked the U.S. Department of Justice to inform the court whether it thinks en banc review is appropriate. The court set a Dec. 2 deadline for the Obama administration's brief.

The case involves a clash between a 1970s decision by Congress to designate an estuary called Drakes Estero, the likely site of the first landing by Europeans in California in 1579, as a potential addition to the National Wilderness Preservation System and a shellfish farm that has been in operation for about eight decades. 

Former secretary of the interior Ken Salazar announced in Nov. 2012 that a 40-year lease allowing use of about 1,100 acres located in the western half of the estuary for shellfish harvesting would not be renewed.

If the Interior Department's decision not to renew the lease and accompanying special use permit is upheld, then the Drakes Estero acreage used by Drakes Bay Oyster Co., as well as about 1,600 additional acres, will become part of the first marine wilderness area on the west coast.

En banc review, or reconsideration of a three-judge panel's opinion by a larger group of judges, is conducted in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit by 11 judges. According to the court's rules, the judges who would sit on such a panel are chosen at random by a member of the clerk of court's staff.

Federal law authorizes appeals courts to grant en banc review if the case is of "exceptional importance" or if the decision by the panel of three circuit judges is in conflict with a decision by another three-judge panel.

In the Drakes Bay case, the permit holder argues that an amendment to a 2009 law authorizes perpetual operation of the oyster farm, despite the 1976 statute.

The case is Drakes Bay Oyster Co. v. Jewell, No. 13-15227.

Booker gets seat on environment committee

U.S. Sen. Cory A. Booker, elected last month to represent New Jersey, has joined the chamber's Environment and Public Works Committee.

The announcement was made on Oct. 31.

Booker, 44, defeated Republican Steve Lonegan on Oct. 16 in the race to complete the term of the late Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J. He previously served as the mayor of Newark.

The newest senator will also serve on the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation and  the Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship.

Booker will have to face the voters again in Nov. 2014 if he decides to seek a full term in the Senate.

Ninth Circuit says enviros have no standing to compel state regulation of GHG emissions from oil refineries

A panel of Republican-appointed judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled Oct. 17 that environmentalists lack standing to challenge a state's failure to invoke the Clean Air Act to regulate oil refinery greenhouse gas emissions.

The case involves an effort by environmentalists to force Washington to develop and implement technology standards that would result in the reduced GHG pollution. Washington's state implementation plan, the program for air pollution control required by the Clean Air Act, does not reach greenhouse gases.

The environmentalists won in the federal district court.

The appeals court panel's holding rests on an assertion that the plaintiffs were unable to show a link between the harm they suffer from the emissions and the industrial activities, and consequent emissions, by the regulated entities. In other words, the panel decided that there is no legally recognizable connection between the conceded emissions and the generally accepted environmental damage they do.

"[A]ttempting to establish a causal nexus in this case may be a particularly challenging task," wrote the opinion's author, Judge Milan D. Smith.
This is so because there is a natural disjunction between [p]laintiffs’ localized injuries and the greenhouse effect. Greenhouse gases, once emitted from a specific source, quickly mix and disperse in the global atmosphere and have a long atmospheric lifetime. Current research on how greenhouse gases influence global climate change has focused on the cumulative environmental effects from aggregate regional or global sources. But there is limited scientific capability in assessing, detecting, or measuring the relationship between a certain GHG emission source and localized climate impacts in a given region.
Smith cited a May 2008 memorandum from the director of the U.S. Geological Survey to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for this conclusion.

Richard Frank, a professor of law at the University of California at Davis and an expert on environmental law, said that Smith’s point is a departure from the traditional way in which courts approach pollution problems.

The courts have pretty easily and readily dismissed the notion that one of the polluters should not be held responsible and the party could not go after one bad actor in court because of the idea that everyone is doing it,” he explained.

Janette Brimmer, an Earthjustice lawyer who represented the environmental group plaintiffs in the case, said she thought the opinion will make it harder for public interest plaintiffs to challenge regulatory inaction in court.

“There’s no doubt this decision raises the bar, and raises it pretty darn high,” she said.

Smith’s opinion relied on a narrow reading of a 2007 holding of the U.S. Supreme Court. In that case, called Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency, the justices held that Massachusetts had standing to challenge EPA's failure to regulate greenhouse gases.

Smith wrote that the ability of the states in the Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency case to secure standing in a challenge focused on failure to regulate rested solely on those states' status as sovereigns, a status environmentalists do not have.

This reading of the Massachusetts case, Frank said, is too narrow.

There were a lot of people that, when the Massachusetts decision was issued in 2007, thought this opened the courthouse door at least a little bit to a lot of different parties who sought to bring climate change actions,” he said.

The Supreme Court’s opinion in Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency may not have even been solely premised on a state’s status as a sovereign entity within the union. The court did not hold in that case that Massachusetts’ co-plaintiffs lacked standing to challenge the Bush administration’s refusal to use the tools provided by the Clean Air Act to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

In fact, the court said that Congress’ decision to include a citizen suit provision in the Clean Air Act meant that sovereign entities are not the only parties who can sue under the law.

When a litigant is vested with a procedural right, that litigant has standing if there is some possibility that the requested relief will prompt the injury-causing party to reconsider the decision that allegedly harmed the litigant," he wrote.

Nor is the other pillar of Smith’s rejection of standing for the environmental plaintiffs necessarily well-grounded in the guidance offered by the justices. Smith’s opinion for the Ninth Circuit panel also asserted that, in contrast to the higher percentage of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions at issue in the Massachusetts case, the Washington refineries account for only five percent of warming pollution emanating from the sources just in that single state.

Stevens’ opinion in the Massachusetts case dismissed a similar argument against standing.

“[The] argument rests on the erroneous assumption that a small incremental step, because it is incremental, can never be attacked in a federal judicial forum," Stevens wrote. "Yet accepting that premise would doom most challenges to regulatory action. Agencies, like legislatures, do not generally resolve massive problems in one fell regulatory swoop.

In fact, Frank said, another federal appeals court has applied the Massachusetts decision to a question of standing very similar to that in the Washington case and come out exactly opposite to the Ninth Circuit panel.

“There’s a decision in the Second Circuit, based in New York, in American Electric Power v. Connecticut that I think is pretty diametrically opposed to this,” he said.

One explanation for the Ninth Circuit decision may be judicial discomfort with the notion that courts should help fashion a societal response to climate change.

At oral argument in the Washington case, one of the judges on the panel indicated that he believed that the courts should discourage litigation as a method for dealing with it.

"Perhaps carbon dioxide causes harm, we know poverty causes harm, so why shouldn't it be a policy question decided Congressionally rather than an inch-by-inch incremental series of injunctions by district courts, each of which has no practical effect, but in your theory incrementally adds up to an effect?," Judge Andrew Kleinfeld, an Alaska-based member of the panel that decided the case, asked at oral argument July 10.

Frank explained that this response may be based on a view that climate change is too complex for courts.

“You’re talking about a global problem,” he said. “One unit of pollution emitted in Anacortes, Washington does not have more or less effect than a unit of pollution discharged in Beijing, Paris, or Johannesburg.”

The federal appeals court also held that, even if the plaintiffs had shown causality between the refinery emissions and environmental damage to Washington lands and waters and the atmosphere, a RACT requirement would not make any difference.

"Because the effect of collective emissions from the [o]il [r]efineries on global climate change is 'scientifically indiscernible,' [p]laintiffs' injuries are likely to continue unabated even if the [o]il [r]efineries have RACT controls," Smith wrote.

Smith's opinion was joined by Kleinfeld and circuit judge N. Randy Smith.

Smith was appointed to the bench by former President George W. Bush in 2006, while Smith was appointed by Bush in 2007. Kleinfeld was appointed by President George H.W. Bush in 1991.

The case is Washington Environmental Council v. Bellon, No. 12-35323.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Federal judge gives EPA 60 days to decide when to revise coal ash disposal regulations

A federal judge in Washington has ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to set a deadline, within sixty days, by which it will review and revise, if necessary, regulations for coal ash disposal.

The memorandum opinion by U.S. district judge Reggie Walton followed an order released last month indicating that he would rule in favor of the environmentalist plaintiffs in the case.

The Oct. 29 order is here.

EPA announced a lengthy proposed coal ash disposal rule in June 2010 but has not acted to finalize it during the ensuing three-plus years.

The agency has not reviewed existing coal ash disposal regulations, or formally revised them, since 2000. The nation's principal hazardous waste law, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, requires it do so every three years.

In 2009 Public Integrity published an investigative story that examined the damage caused by existing coal ash disposal methods. The piece provides excellent background on the issue.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Congressional Research Service report on carbon capture is released

The Congressional Research Service recently published a report that assesses progress in developing viable carbon capture technologies.

The report, which is dated Oct. 21, does not focus on carbon sequestration.

Carbon capture and sequestration is the idea at the core of the Obama administration's proposed regulations limiting greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants. The approach to lowering emission of warming pollutants to the atmosphere may also be central to the administration's future effort to limit greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants.

The report, Carbon Capture: A Technology Assessment, concludes that, while carbon capture systems may be technically feasible, cost considerations dictate that "aggressive and sustained efforts" to develop them are necessary.

Pacific coast states, British Columbia agree on climate change cooperation

The three mainland Pacific coast states and the Canadian province of British Columbia have agreed on a framework for cooperative efforts to reduce greenhouse gas pollution.

The deal, which was signed Monday in San Francisco, is not binding and does not commit California, Oregon, Washington, or British Columbia to spend any public money in attempts to limit emissions of pollutants that warm the atmosphere.

Labeled the Pacific Coast Action Plan on Climate and Energy, the agreement covers three policy priorities: leading the U.S. and international responses to climate change, transition the signatory states and B.C. to transportation systems that rely on cleaner forms of energy, and invest in renewable energy infrastructure.

"California isn't waiting for the rest of the world before it takes action on climate change,” the Golden State's governor, Edmund G. Brown, said. “Today, California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia are all joining together to reduce greenhouse gases.”

The particular steps the parties agreed to undertake are wide-ranging. For example, the first policy commitment is to "account for the costs of carbon pollution in each jurisdiction." The agreement says that Oregon will continue its effort to impose a price on carbon emissions, while Washington will "set binding limits on carbon emissions and deploy market mechanisms to meet those limits." Thus, the language seems to indicate that Oregon will begin to collect a carbon tax, while Washington will install a cap-and-trade system of greenhouse gas regulation, as California has done.

California and British Columbia agreed to continue their existing programs aimed at forcing polluters to internalize the social costs of carbon pollution.

The agreement also contemplates that the parties will link their carbon emission pricing programs: "Where possible, California, British Columbia, Oregon and Washington will link programs for consistency and predictability and to expand opportunities to grow the region's low-carbon economy."

Brown, Oregon Gov. John A. Kitzhaber, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, and British Columbia premier Christy Clark also agreed to "[h]armonize 2050 targets for greenhouse gas reductions."

Washington already has GHG emission targets for the years 2035 and 2050. The 2008 statute that set them does not include specific programs to be used in the Evergreen State as tools for reaching the targets.

The agreement goes on to include a commitment of each state and province to implement low-carbon fuel standards, expand the use of zero-emission vehicles, and build high-speed rail systems. The parties also committed to a consistent system of appliance energy standards and integrate electricity distribution grids.

The PCACE follows an earlier attempt to coordinate policy responses to climate change among a greater number of western states and Canadian provinces. In 2007 the Western Climate Initiative, which eventually included California, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Washington, along with British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario, and Quebec, was formed. That cooperative effort has struggled to achieve consensus among its parties, with some dropping out in following years.

Together, the three U.S. states and the Canadian province that signed the PCACE have a population of 53 million people and an economy with a yearly GDP of $2.8 trillion.

Implementation of at least some of the specific steps called for in the agreement will require enactment of legislation by each of the parties' legislatures.

That will not likely pose much of a problem in California, where Democrats dominate both chambers of the state's General Assembly. However, in the Pacific Northwest there may be political obstacles to full execution of the agreement.

In Oregon, the state senate recently blocked a bill to extend the sunset date on a low-carbon fuel standard authorized in 2009. That program is set to expire in 2015, even though it has not yet been implemented. Two Democrats, including one who represents Portland, joined with the chamber's 14 Republicans to kill the measure that would have extended the sunset date.

In Washington, at least until another election affords the possibility of change, implementation bills could be held up in the state senate, which is controlled by a coalition of a few Democrats and the chamber's Republican members.

Kerry McHugh, a spokesperson for Washington Environmental Council, said that a bipartisan advisory panel required by the 2008 law that set the state's GHG emission targets is examining ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the state. Inslee, along with four legislators, comprise the Climate Legislative and Executive Workgroup.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Supreme Court to take up narrow question related to EPA's greenhouse gas regulatory authority

The U.S. Supreme Court announced Oct. 15 that it will review a narrow question related to the scope of the Environmental Protection Agency's authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

In its order, the court took the unusual step of crafting its own question on which certiorari was granted. The justices asked the parties to brief "whether EPA permissibly determined that its regulation of greenhouse gas emissions from new motor vehicles triggered permitting requirements under the Clean Air Act for stationary sources that emit greenhouse gases.”

"Everybody's scratching their head about the question they took," Patrick Parenteau, a professor and senior counsel to the Natural Resources Law Clinic at Vermont Law School, said.

That question appears to be one that is well-settled. It arises from two regulations issued by EPA in the aftermath of the 2007 decision in Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency.

In that case the court ruled that EPA must decide whether carbon dioxide is a pollutant subject to regulation under the Clean Air Act. The administration of former President George W. Bush had argued that EPA lacked the authority to regulate carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere.

Following the decision, EPA issued four rules. The first was a decision that carbon dioxide does pose a threat to public health. This endangerment finding set the stage for more specific regulations aimed at limiting emission of the greenhouse gas to the atmosphere by both mobile and stationary sources.

In June 2012, in a case called Coalition for Responsible Regulation v. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit held that the agency had the authority to issue the endangerment finding for carbon dioxide.

The second post-Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency rule limited motor vehicle emissions. This tailpipe rule was finalized in 2010 and was also upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in the same case that involved an attack on the carbon dioxide endangerment finding.

The Supreme Court declined to grant review of either of those two aspects of the decision in the Coalition for Responsible Regulation case.

Following the finalization of the tailpipe rule, EPA next moved to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from stationary sources. To do this, the agency first announced a timing rule that specified the chronological conditions under which sources of carbon dioxide would become subject to regulation, making clear that stationary sources of carbon dioxide pollution would not be subject to emission limits until a specific rule focused on that subject was finalized, and then issued a tailoring rule that enunciated the statutory basis of that regulation.

That basis is section 202 of the Clean Air Act, which was also the foundation for the tailpipe rule. It is that linkage that prompted the attack on this part of the Obama administration's climate change regulatory program that is now under review by the justices.

Under an interpretation of the statute that is several decades old, EPA concluded that, since carbon dioxide emissions are subject to regulation under section 202 of the Clean Air Act, stationary sources of the pollutant are likewise prone to regulation under two separate provisions of the law.

One, called the Prevention of Significant Deterioration of Air Quality program, requires state-issued permits for some stationary sources, such as steel mills and iron foundries, that discharge to the atmosphere more than 100 tons per year of "any pollutant" and other stationary sources that discharge "any pollutant" in an amount exceeding 250 tons per year.

The other is an entire section of the law that also applies to "any pollutant" and similarly imposes the 100 ton-per-year threshold.

The Coalition for Responsible Regulation court upheld this interpretation of the Clean Air Act and it is that interpretation that will now be reviewed by the Supreme Court.

"The crux of the case is going to come down to this question: Are the only sources that are covered by section 165, the requirement of a PSD permit, those that emit NAAQS pollutants?," Parenteau said.

He was referring to the statutory section of the Clean Air Act that sets forth the prevention of significant deterioration of air quality requirements and the law's classification of certain pollutants for which a particular kind of permit to discharge is required.

"That's the industry's argument," Parenteau explained. "They say that carbon dioxide is not a NAAQS pollutant and, because they are not a hazardous air pollutant, the sources that emit carbon dioxide are simply not covered by section 165. Well, if you actually look at the text of section 165, you'll see two things. One, it refers to 'any air pollutant.' Many years ago, EPA interpreted that phrase to mean 'any air pollutant regulated under the Clean Air Act.' That's a long-standing interpretation. That's not new."

In 1980 EPA said that a stationary source would be subjected to review under the Clean Air Act's PSD program if it "emit[s] any pollutant in major amounts . . . and [is] located in an area designated attainment or unclassifiable for that or any other pollutant.” The agency explained that “'any pollutant'” means “both criteria pollutants, for which national ambient air quality standards have been promulgated, and non-criteria pollutants subject to regulation under the Act.”

In 2002, during the George W. Bush administration, the agency reiterated this understanding of the Clean Air Act's reach.

The tailoring rule recognizes that, because the agency's interpretation of the statutory language could extend EPA's regulatory reach to thousands of stationary sources, a limit on the size of affected sources is necessary. The rule is limited to new sources that emit at least 100,000 tons of carbon dioxide each year and existing sources that undergo a modification that would cause at least 75,000 tons per year to be discharged to the air.

Industry advocates have argued that EPA lacks the authority to limit the reach of its regulatory program under the Clean Air Act and, moreover, that the PSD provisions of the law on which that program is based are available only if the agency has first decided that the pollutant in question - in this case, carbon dioxide - is part of the National Ambient Air Quality System. The NAAQS, in turn, is limited to the pollutants, like those that make up the components of smog, that pose a danger to an individual's health when breathed.

Parenteau thinks this argument is not likely to go very far because the language of the Clean Air Act does not limit EPA's discretion in the way industry asserts it does.

"If you drive down further into section 165, you’ll see in (a)(3), there are three subsets referred to there," he said. "One is NAAQS, but then it says 'or' any other emission standard under the act. My view is that the disjunctive gives EPA the authority."

The relevant language of section 165(a)(3) of the Clean Air Act provides that
No major emitting facility on which construction is commenced after August 7, 1977, may be constructed in any area to which this part applies unless -

. . .

(3) the owner or operator of such facility demonstrates, as required pursuant to section 7410 (j) of this title, that emissions from construction or operation of such facility will not cause, or contribute to, air pollution in excess of any

(A) maximum allowable increase or maximum allowable concentration for any pollutant in any area to which this part applies more than one time per year,

(B) national ambient air quality standard in any air quality control region, or

(C) any other applicable emission standard or standard of performance under this chapter[.]

. . .
"I think EPA’s interpretation is reasonable," Parenteau said. "I don’t see how the court can rule, as a matter of law, that this interpretation is not open to EPA as a matter of law."

Given the views of at least two of the court's conservative justices on the question whether to disregard clear statutory language in the face of contradictory or ambiguous legislative history, Parenteau's point may be well-taken.

Justice Antonin Scalia, for example, has long eschewed the practice of looking to legislative history as a tool for understanding the meaning of a statute. He has, instead, asserted in opinions and books that a record of the debate by legislators on a bill offers no assistance to a judge at all.

For example, in one 2006 case Scalia wrote a concurring opinion in which he asserted that "[t]he use of legislative history is illegitimate and ill advised in the interpretation of any statute."

Among the justices, Scalia is the most adamantly opposed to going beyond the text of a statute to decipher Congressional intent. Others, however, have also expressed caution about doing so.

For example, Justice Samuel Alito, while a circuit judge, wrote opinions on several occasions in which he explained his view that indicia of legislative intent found in committee reports and the like cannot override the plain language of a statute.

In one 1999 case, he made his view on the issue clear, writing that "even if I were convinced that Congress harbored some general purpose that was inconsistent with those specific provisions, I would follow the specific language that Congress duly enacted."

Justice Anthony Kennedy was part of the majority in Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency. He also signed on to the majority opinion in the 2011 case of American Electric Power v. Connecticut, which re-affirmed EPA's authority to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act.

Given that Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia M. Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan have generally supported federal regulatory efforts relating to environmental protection, and that Ginsburg and Breyer agreed to the Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency majority opinion, few, if any, observers of the court expect them to hold that EPA exceeded its authority in issuing the tailoring rule.

Parenteau suggested that it is possible the Supreme Court acted hastily in deciding whether to review the question of EPA's authority to link regulation of stationary carbon dioxide pollution sources to the Clean Air Act's provisions relating to motor vehicle emissions.

"It’s entirely possible that they’ll look at this case, see what EPA has done, and say it’s fine," he said. "They might also say that EPA should have made a separate determination for stationary sources. To me, that’s a silly way to spend your time, to say you needed to be more clear about this."

The cases are Utility Air Regulatory Group v. Environmental Protection Agency, No. 12-1146; American Chemistry Council v. Environmental Protection Agency, No.12-1248; Energy-Intensive Manufacturers Working Group on Greenhouse Gas Regulation v. Environmental Protection Agency, No. 12-1254; Southeastern Legal Foundation v. Environmental Protection Agency, No. 12-1268; Texas v. Environmental Protection Agency, No. 12-1269; and Chamber of Commerce of the United States v. Environmental Protection Agency, No. 12-1272.

A decision by the Supreme Court is expected by July 2014.

Image courtesy Wikimedia.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

AP: Nearly 300 oil spills in ND in two years, none reported to public

The Associated Press reports that, in North Dakota, nearly 300 oil spills occurred during the last two years and the public was not notified of any of them.

North Dakota is the second-largest producer of oil in the United States.

Attention to the ubiquity of oil spills in the northern Great Plains state was drawn by a significant leak in its northwestern region earlier this month. That spill, which exceeded 20,000 barrels, was not announced to the public for 11 days after it commenced.

Steller sea lion population to be removed from threatened species list

For only the second time in the history of the Endangered Species Act, the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration has removed a species from the list of threatened and endangered species.

The agency announced Wednesday that the eastern population of Steller sea lions, which roams the Pacific Ocean close to shores from northern California to southeast Alaska, will lose ESA protection.

"We're delighted to see the recovery of the eastern population of Steller sea lions," Jim Balsiger, administrator of NOAA Fisheries' Alaska Region, said. "We'll be working with the states and other partners to monitor this population to ensure its continued health."

According to a March 2008 recovery plan, de-listing of the eastern population would occur if it grew at an average annual rate of three percent for 30 years. That recovery plan asserted a pace of growth equal or greater to that rate since the 1970s.

NOAA said in a statement that, as of 2010, there were more than 70,000 individuals in the eastern population of Steller sea lions.The endangered western population has not only failed to experience anything approaching consistent growth in size, but lost about three-quarters of its size between the late 1970s and the late 1990s.

The estimated census of the combined populations exceeded 250,000 during the 1950s.

De-listing of the population of Eumetopias jubatus nearest to the historic spawning grounds of imperiled Pacific salmonid species will give federal and state agencies more flexibility to kill the animals, which are especially prone to eat salmon migrating up the Columbia River.

The population will remain protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act. However, a federal appeals court ruled Sept. 27 that the MMPA would not be violated if slightly fewer than 100 sea lions per year are killed below Bonneville Dam as a way of protecting migrating anadromous fish.

Steller sea lions were first listed under the ESA in Nov. 1990. The eastern population and its western counterpart, which is found roughly from central and southwestern Alaska west to Russia, was recognized in May 1997.

Graphic courtesy NOAA Fisheries.

De-listing of the eastern population of Steller sea lions takes effect Nov. 22.

NOAA removed a population of gray whales from the list of threatened and endangered species in 1994.

Photo courtesy NOAA Fisheries.

Friday, October 25, 2013

States join to increase number of electric vehicles

A group of U.S. states has agreed on measures to facilitate an increase in the number of electric cars, hybrid vehicles, and hydrogen-fueled machines traveling their roads during the next 12 years.

The pact, which involves eight states, does not detail the specific steps that will be taken to encourage more purchases and use of the low-pollution vehicles. Instead, the agreement commits the states to decide on those actions within six months.

"This initiative will help states reduce transportation-related air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, enhance energy diversity, save consumers money, and promote economic growth,” Gov. John Kitzhaber, D-Ore., said.

Motor vehicles that are not dependent on petroleum are becoming more common in the United States, although they represent only a small fraction of all vehicles in operation.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, more plug-in electric vehicles were sold in the nation during the first eight months of this year than were sold within the United States during all of 2012.

The interstate accord announced Thursday could increase the number of zero-emission vehicles on American roads to more than 3 million.

Signatory states include California, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Vermont.