Saturday, April 22, 2017

On Faith, Science, and the Environment

Brigham Daniels, a professor at BYU Law School, spoke today at Salt Lake City's March for Science. We asked for permission to post his remarks, and he agreed.

According to Daniels, it was a challenging speech to give. He said, "I knew that many in the crowd of a few thousand people would not be religious and some would dislike religion, and yet, I was asked to talk about faith and science."

Here are the written remarks he prepared for the speech: 

I am a person of faith. I am going to speak about how I view the connection between science and faith.

I would like to begin with a story. A few years ago, my spouse was diagnosed with cancer. As we waited in the Huntsman Cancer Institute for the doctors to operate on her, I tried to put on a brave face. In my heart though, I prayed with desperation.

The operating team assembled. Each of them were women who had devoted their lives to the study of science. Each had allowed the scientific method, research, and peer review to train their judgment.

I felt this team was an answer to my prayers. As so frequently has been the case, God answered my prayers through the goodness of other people—this time good people guided by cutting edge science. Beyond medicine, science blesses our lives in so many ways. It has given us unparalleled libraries at our fingertips, made it possible to better face the challenge of world hunger, provided vaccinations to deadly diseases, increased our quality of life, made us prosperous, freed up our time, and extended our life span.

As a person of faith, I am embarrassed that others would use their faith to deny empirical findings of science. In some cases, this not only is dishonest, but denying the blessings and findings of science also turns a blind eye to God’s goodness, discounts the prayers and service of others, and reduces our ability to help and love each other. Much of the perceived conflict between faith and science comes from people trying to fit God and empirical findings into a tight box that meshes with our prior understanding of God and Universe.

All of us should approach the many difficult questions posed by both science and religion with humility. There is so much we don’t know. There is no shame in this. Rather, it is the beginning of wonder and the seeds of progress.

I would say that rather than shaking my faith, science has helped shape my faith. Science provides glimpses into the grandeur of the Creation, and thereby the greatness of the Creator. MRI machines, DNA research, computer modeling, satellites, experiments, labs, and statistical analysis all provide lenses to enhance our understanding and can add to our gratitude and awe. Even simple observations can do the same thing. Consider the complexity of your hand or the view into the Universe from the night sky.

While science often provides facts relevant to moral decisions, faith and ethics tells us how to act. My faith tells me that air pollution is more than a public health problem. It is a moral problem. Part of loving my neighbor means loving my neighbor’s lungs. My neighbors are also those who live on the Marshall Islands, who are losing their homes due to sea level rise caused by climate change. If we don’t make significant changes, 100s of millions more—the vast majority of whom are poor—will join their ranks by the end us the century. Once understood, faith tells me to show love by driving less, using green energy, and consuming less.

One of my heroes, John Muir, once said of his most treasured landscape, Yosemite, “Yet this glorious valley might well be called a church, for every lover of the great Creator who comes within the broad overwhelming influences of the place fails not to worship as they never did before. The glory of the Lord is upon all God’s works; it is written plainly upon all the fields of every clime, and upon every sky, but here in this place of surpassing glory the Lord has written in capitals.” Protecting open spaces and wildness—and all parts of the creation—is a way to show gratitude to God. 

I truly believe that protecting the environment is vital for the human soul.

April 22, 2017 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Summer Reading for a soon-to-be Environmental Law Student

At a recent admitted students event, a soon-to-be 1L with an interest in environmental law asked me what she should read this summer.  I thought it was a good question, so I shared it with an environmental law professors’ listserve.  This post takes suggestions I received and turns them into a short summer reading list.

The list comes with a few caveats.  First, I focused on environmental law books.  There are many wonderful books about environmental issues more generally, including classics like A Sand County Almanac and Silent Spring that helped inspire the environmental movement, and thus helped create environmental law.  Many wonderful books have also been written about law more generally.  Those other categories contain enough good books for many summers of happy reading, and perhaps in another post I’ll say more about the general environmental category, but the focus here will be somewhat narrower.

Second, while this list reflects the input of dozens of professors, I didn’t do a formal poll, and any glaring omissions or weird choices can be blamed on me alone.

So, the recommendations:

  1. The Favorite

Three decades ago, industrial solvents contaminated two wells that the City of Woburn used for municipal water supplies.  The awful consequence was a leukemia cluster that killed many Woburn residents.  The tragic story also produced what I think is the greatest environmental law book ever written.  Jonathan Harr’s A Civil Action tells the story of the contamination and the subsequent litigation.  The book is as gripping as a top-notch thriller, rich enough in its legal discussion to be assigned as a companion to first-year civil procedure courses, and deeply humane in its treatment of the human dramas of the tragedy.  If you want to read just one environmental law book, this is it. 

There’s also a movie, but don’t bother.

  1. The Storytellers

There are many great storytellers in the field of environmental law, but among academics, no one spins tales better than Oliver Houck and Zyg Plater.  In The Snail Darter and the Dam: How Pork-Barrel Politics Endangered a Little Fish and Killed a River, Plater (now a professor at Boston College) tells the story that gave rise to (and followed) Tennessee Valley Authority v. Hill, a classic case you’re likely to read in your environmental class, if not before.  And in Taking Back Eden: Eight Environmental Cases that Changed the World, Houck tells the stories behind a series of David v. Goliath environmental cases from around the world—with David sometimes winning.

  1. The Backstories

You’ll read a lot of cases in law school.  And you’ll often wonder about the stories behind the cases.  Some cases—like TVA v. Hill—have whole books devoted to them.  But if you want shorter summaries, as well as an introduction to the lawyering that goes into an environmental case, Environmental Law Stories is a great choice.  Each chapter in the book tells about a major environmental case and the details are sometimes surprising and occasionally even humorous.  For example, Jody Freeman’s account of befuddled, bored, sleepy judges stumbling their way through environmental cases is not to be missed.

  1. The Consolidated History

In 2004, Richard Lazarus, who now teaches environmental law at Harvard, published what is still the most comprehensive historical account of American environmental law.  The Making of Environmental Law is wonderfully accessible—it would make a great companion to an environmental law course, but you would also be able to follow it without prior legal coursework—and it does a great job of explaining the interplay between legal developments and changes in politics and society.

  1. Coal

If you’ve followed environmental controversies recently, you’ve heard about coal.  President Obama’s efforts to tighten environmental regulation of the coal industry were widely cheered by environmentalists (and economists), but Donald Trump has now made a coal revival into a major priority.  But this is nothing really new; coal has been generating environmental controversies, and good writing, for a long time.  In The Buffalo Creek Disaster, Gerald Stern tells the story of a disastrous coal sludge spill in the early 1970s and the litigation that followed.  Like A Civil Action, the book sometimes serves as a companion to first-year law courses; it introduces you to a wide variety of lawyering challenges in the context of a compelling story.  It also is just part of a longer tradition of environmental writing about coal country, with older and more recent examples here and here.

The books I’ve listed here are, of course, just the tip of an iceberg, and if I were to include general environmental writing, the list would grow much, much longer.  The list also leaves off several books (Paul Barrett’s The Law of the Jungle is one example) that colleagues recommended and that are now on my own summer reading list.  In other words, it’s not at all complete.  But sampling some of the works mentioned here would be a great way to introduce yourself to the study of environmental law.

- Dave Owen

April 20, 2017 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Seven Reasons Why Gutting EPA is Bad for Business

The Trump Administration plans massive cuts to EPA’s budgets (the latest numbers suggest a cut of around thirty percent).  For people who care about environmental quality, this is very alarming.  But suppose you don’t personally value blue skies, clear lungs, clean water, or any other environmental amenity, and instead care only about the well-being of American businesses (suppose, also, that you do still acknowledge the reality that other people do value those things).  Would you have any reason share the concerns about the proposed EPA budget cuts?  The answer, I think, is yes, and here are just a few reasons why.

  1. Your business may sell environmental quality. Imagine that you run a beachfront hotel, or sell real estate in an area with natural amenities, or you manufacture clothing or equipment for outdoor recreation, or you’re a rafting or fishing guide, or you own a restaurant near a national park, or you sell bottled or tap water, or you run a ski area threatened by warming temperatures.  Environmental quality is the part of the good you’re selling, but you probably can’t protect it on your own.  For that, you’ll need regulatory oversight, which means you’ll need something like EPA.
  2. Your business may depend upon environmental quality for manufacturing inputs. Many businesses depend upon a quality environment for their raw materials.  Clean water, for example, isn’t just a human health need.  It’s also important for many manufacturing processes.  If your manufacturing plant can’t use tap water because it’s too polluted—which recently happened to a GM factory in Flint, Michigan—replacing that water could cost you a lot of money.  If your city has to pay higher treatment costs because its source water is contaminated, those costs will likely be passed on to businesses.  Similar issues can arise if dirty air damages crops or forests, if lost pollinators lead to damaged crops, or if damaged habitat quality leads to declining fish catches.
  3. Environmental quality may help your business recruit. I used to live in Maine, and quality of life—including environmental quality—was a huge part of Maine employers’ recruiting pitches.  Live here, the argument went, and these beaches and rivers and lakes can be part of your daily life (it was a pretty good pitch).  Companies in many other parts of the country can offer the same argument.  Indeed, in an international recruiting battle with, say, Beijing or New Delhi, any American metropolitan area could offer those arguments, largely because of our history of EPA-led environmental protection.  But if the environmental quality goes away, so too does the recruiting pitch. 
  4. Your employees (or their family members) may drink water and breathe air. You might not think of environmental health problems as a business expense.  But they are; if an employee’s daughter has a pollution-induced asthma attack, that employee is probably staying home for a day, or coming to work with a lot of extra stress.  Either way, productivity drops.  Similarly, if lead exposure does permanent damage to a child’s intelligence, that child’s economic productivity is also likely to drop.  A healthy population provides a major economic asset (among other benefits).  And that’s an asset we ought to grow, not give up.
  5. Your business model may depend upon environmental mandates. The Trump Administration’s rhetoric includes mantra-like accusations that environmental regulations kill jobs.  But there are many jobs that owe some of their value, if not their entire existence, to environmental regulation.  Many companies’ business models revolve around finding ways to reconcile environmental protection and economic activity.  The environmental consulting industry, which helps businesses figure out how to comply with environmental regulations while continuing to make money, is one example.  Wetlands mitigation bankers are another.  Manufacturers and installers of energy efficiency technologies are a third.  The list could go on and on.  Without regulatory oversight from EPA, the incentive to hire these businesses would diminish, if not disappear. 
  6. Your business may want clarity about its environmental obligations. Sometimes businesses need help understanding their environmental obligations.  Businesses will often turn to consultants or lawyers for the answers—thus creating work, and jobs, for the lawyers and consultants—but sometimes they will want a cheaper explanation (and sometimes the consultants and lawyers also have questions).  A well-staffed environmental regulatory agency can answer those questions when people call, or can put out guidance documents that anticipate the questions before they are asked.  In other words, it can provide regulated entities with clarity and predictability, both of which can be very valuable.  But if one-third of the office staff are gone, there may be no one to put out those guidance documents or answer the calls.
  7. Your business may require innovative regulation. Suppose your business model is new, and existing regulations cover its operations—but not very well.  You might want regulatory changes that are responsive to the unique needs of your business while also providing the public (and your employees) with the traditional protections of environmental laws.  That will mean asking government to work with you to come up with new regulations or new permitting approaches.  A well-staffed agency can provide that kind of support.  But an agency with bare-bones staffing—or much less than that—is highly unlikely to take on the labor-intensive task of coming up with new and better ways to regulate.  Instead, your business is likely to remain burdened with rigid, potentially obsolete obligations.

There is a broader point here.  Quite often, we think of relationships between environmental regulators and businesses as adversarial, and sometimes that traditional view is accurate.  But business-regulator relationships are also often collaborative, and those collaborative relationships have played a huge part in improving our environmental quality in many ways at the same time our economy has grown.  Because collaboration requires staff time, gutting EPA means cutting that collaboration.  That will leave many businesses worse off.

- Dave Owen

April 12, 2017 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, April 3, 2017

Calling for a Constitutional Convention!

By: Lesley McAllister

When I teach environmental law, I dislike teaching the material dealing with constitutional law.  I am thinking, for example, of the commerce clause cases challenging the constitutionality of the Endangered Species Act and wetlands regulation, the cases on standing to bring environmental citizen suits, and regulatory takings. Students often enjoy this material, but I am embarrassed by the legal gymnastics that are required for courts to approve of federal action, to hear citizen-initiated environmental cases, and to decide them in a way that favors the broad public interest in environmental protection. 

It shouldn’t be this way. To start with, the commerce clause should have nothing to do with environmental law.  Do most Americans think that our national government should be able to make comprehensive laws to protect human health and the environment? I am pretty sure they do. There are many reasons that we would want the federal government to be the primary actor in environmental protection aside from the fact that economic interests are at stake.  Wetlands are a valuable national resource, as are threatened and endangered species.  State governments often don’t have the expertise to evaluate and protect these resources, and even if they did, would we really want all 50 states to do it themselves?  For its part, standing doctrine was rewritten in the past thirty years by a few Supreme Court justices who were hostile to environmental law who wanted to keep environmental cases out of the courts. The hoops that citizen groups are required to jump through just to stay in court are ridiculous. 

We really need to amend the Constitution. Perhaps the best option would be to create an express right to clean air, safe drinking water and a healthy environment.  The right to a healthy environment is widely recognized in international law and endorsed by an overwhelming proportion of countries. Environmental rights are included in more than 90 national constitutions (see graphic below), and they are having significant impacts, ranging from “stronger environmental laws and landmark court decisions to the cleanup of pollution hot spots and the provision of safe drinking water.”[1]  Many U.S. states also have environmental rights provisions in their state constitutions.[2]

While creating an environmental right seems reasonable and makes good sense to me, I think that many would say that it is out of line with the US’s constitutional tradition.  They may be more open to a more limited, but still useful option: an “environmental responsibility” provision.[3]   Twenty-five years ago, one legal academic suggested the following wording for an amendment: “In all acts of government, the integrity and sustainability of natural systems shall not be impaired except to protect health and safety where no acceptable alternative exists. Maintenance, restoration, and renewability of natural systems, enhancement of environmental quality, and fairness to posterity shall be governing principles of policy.”  With such a statement in the Constitution, the Supreme Court and the federal government generally would have to consider the protection of our environment as their responsibility.   What a difference that could make.

And while we are amending the constitution, let's talk about the electoral college!

[1] D.R. Boyd, The Constitutional Right to a Healthy Environment, Environment Magazine (Jul/Aug 2012) available at http://www.environmentmagazine.org/Archives/Back%20Issues/2012/July-August%202012/constitutional-rights-full.html; See also D. R. Boyd, The Environmental Rights Revolution: A Global Study of Constitutions, Human Rights, and the Environment (VancouverUniversity of British Columbia Press, 2012).

[2] Audrey Wall, State Constitutions and Environmental Bills of Rights (Sept. 1, 2015) at http://knowledgecenter.csg.org/kc/content/state-constitutions-and-environmental-bills-rights 

[3] Lynton K. Caldwell, The Case for an Amendment to the Constitution of the United States for Protection of the Environment, Duke Environmental Law & Policy Forum 1 (1991), available at available at http://scholarship.law.duke.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1198&context=delpf.

Env constit

 

April 3, 2017 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, March 13, 2017

The Puzzle of California’s Climate Leadership

By: Lesley McAllister

Last Friday, UC Davis School of Law’s Environmental Law Society and the Environs journal held their 2017 Symposium, The Future of Climate Change Law & Policy: View to 2030.  It was an excellent event, with many great speakers and terrific attendance -- big congratulations to the student organizers: Sophie Wenzlau, Dane Jones and Jamie Katz!  Panels dealt with California’s new SB32 (which updates AB32 by writing into law California’s 2030 goal of reducing its emissions to 40% below 1990 levels by 2030); climate change and agriculture; zero emissions vehicles; and California’s leadership in international climate law. 

A couple speakers on the final panel about international connections couldn’t come at the last minute, so I and several of my colleagues were asked to step in. The panel went well, but I had one of those experiences that one should not have after more than 10 years of teaching and presenting on panels – I spoke for 9 (out of 10) minutes without getting to the point!  Of course, we all hate when professors do this!  I can only offer the excuse that I am out of practice, and I have been through a ridiculous amount of cancer treatment in the past three and a half years. But it was a shame because I really had some important knowledge that I wanted to convey, and I bombed it.

This blog post is my attempt at a re-do.   The very interesting and timely question that I wanted to address was how and why California has made so many international linkages in climate policy.  Everyone knows that California has been a climate change leader within the United States.  But it may be forgotten that California has also been extremely active internationally, working with other subnational jurisdictions throughout the world.  The map below gives you a clear picture:

  Picture1

An early demonstration of California’s interest and capability to make agreements with other subnational jurisdictions came from California’s leading role in the Western Climate Initiative (WCI) starting in 2007. Other participants included six states (AZ, NM, UT, OR, WA, and MT) and four Canadian provinces (BC, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec). WCI contemplated a cap-and-trade program that would include all the WCI jurisdictions. Why did California try so hard to work with other states and Canadian provinces? Was it to look big and impress?  Well, maybe, but there was an important economic policy reason, too. As WCI recognized, “a broad geographic scope will also reduce overall compliance costs and can help mitigate leakage risks.”  it was in this same timeframe that the US came closest to getting a federal climate law. In June 2009, the House passed the Waxman-Markey Bill in a 219-212 vote.  But then the bill died in summer 2010 without a hearing or a vote in the Senate.  WCI also progressively fell apart in 2009/10 as new state leaders came into office.  By 2011, only California and Quebec were working on establishing cap-and-trade programs. 

They both did, and in January 2014, the two cap-and-trade systems were formally linked.  This meant that compliance instruments from Quebec’s program could be used in California’s program, and vice versa.  This is useful for regulatory compliance because it might be that there are emissions reductions that can be obtained at lower cost in Quebec.  Or more broadly, the overall cost of reducing emissions might be lower in Quebec.  When the two systems are linked (and in the absence of rules that make it otherwise), those lower-cost emissions reductions will happen first, and the joint California-Quebec program will be able to collectively reduce emissions at a lower cost than a California-only program would. 

If you, for whatever reason, wanted to see those emission reductions happen in California, you may not be happy about all this. But for those who are subject to the regulation and want to buy compliance instruments (i.e. tradable permits) rather than reduce emissions themselves, this linkage should reduce their compliance costs. California is now preparing to formally link with the province of Ontario by January 1, 2018.

In large part, it is this pursuit of the lowest cost emissions reductions that has fueled California’s foreign policy on climate change. Aside from linked programs in Canadian provinces, the other international opportunity that California has extensively cultivated is in tropical forestry offsets.  In 2008, California founded the Governors’ Climate and Forests Task Force (GCF) to influence the development of the regulatory architecture to ultimately enable emissions reductions in the tropical forests of several developing countries to serve as compliance instruments in California’s cap-and-trade program.   Currently, GCF includes 29 subnational jurisdictions in eight countries sharing information and best practices. 

A 2010 MOU among California, the Brazilian state of Acre, and the Mexican state of Chiapas contained recommendations for how Acre and Chiapas would be able to generate “REDD offset credits” that could serve as compliance instruments in California’s cap-and-trade program.  Of course, the idea is that reducing deforestation in tropical rainforests has the dual benefits of saving rainforest ecosystems and preventing emissions.  And, at some point, reducing emissions by preventing deforestation is expected to be cheaper than additional emissions reductions within California, Quebec, and Ontario. These credits could enable California and other cap and trade jurisdictions to meet ambitious emissions reduction goals for 2020 and beyond. 

With these efforts, California and its Governor became important players on the international climate stage. The 2014 Rio Branco Declaration was produced at the eighth meeting of the GCF. In this Declarations, governors from 22 states in countries with tropical forests committed to reduce deforestation by 80% by 2020, if they receive a guarantee of “adequate, sufficient, and long-term performance-based funding.”  Enabling REDD credits to be used as compliance instruments in an ongoing, functioning cap and trade program could be a source of long-term funding.  

Also, in the lead-up to the UN climate meeting in Paris in late 2015, California forged the Subnational Global Climate Leadership MOU, known as the Under2 MOU.  Two goals are adopted: (1) limiting warming to below 2° Celsius, which scientists say is needed to avoid dangerous consequences; and (2) limiting greenhouse gas emissions to 2 tons per capita, or 80-95% below 1990 level by 2050.  The MOU included 12 founding jurisdictions in addition to California:  Oregon; Washington; Vermont; Acre, Brazil; Baden-Württemberg, Germany; Baja California, Mexico; Catalonia, Spain; Jalisco, Mexico; Ontario, Canada; British Columbia, Canada; and Wales, United Kingdom. It has grown to 167 jurisdictions from 33 countries, representing 1.09 billion people and $25.9 trillion in GDP, which is 35% of the global economy.  With the arrival of the Trump administration, which is completely abdicating in climate change policy both domestically and internationally, California continues to stand by its climate law commitments.  Long live California’s climate change leadership! 

Okay – so the above is what I should have said last Friday. And I might have been able to say it all in 10 minutes, but instead I started out with some preliminary musings that ate up my time.  These musings mainly focused on how California’s rigorous emissions reduction regulation and its international actions were a puzzle – how and why did California become such a leader?   If we think about the principles of regulatory design, California’s climate change regulation makes little sense.  Certainly, it doesn’t follow the rule that there should be a match between the size of the problem and the size of the jurisdiction addressing it.  And how is it that California seems to simply defy the foundational tragedy-of-the-commons problem? Why is the state willing to invest so much in reducing emissions when almost no other jurisdictions are? And what led to California becoming such a policy leader not just in the US, but internationally? 

There has been some good writing on these questions – indeed we’ve had ten years to think about them – but I don’t feel like I have a good grip on the answers. As I note above, I think that California’s decision to implement a cap-and-trade program motivated its early international linkages.  It has also turned out that emissions reductions have been cheaper than expected, which has helped California’s cap-and-trade program run smoothly. And surely, part of the explanation regards political leadership:  Governor Jerry Brown emerged as a truly inspired leader, effective in bringing not just the state into the fold, but more than a third of the global economy.  What other factors have enabled California’s leadership?  I welcome your thoughts below! 

And as for panel presentations, I hope I have learned not to start a short talk with an idea that puzzles me - next time I hope I can just get the puzzling facts out for all to appreciate and then see if there’s time leftover for additional ramblings!

March 13, 2017 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, March 10, 2017

Implications of the Ninth Circuit’s Agua Caliente Decision

On Tuesday, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals released an important decision in Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians v. United States.  The decision addressed whether the Agua Caliente Tribe, which has a reservation in southern California’s Coachella Valley, could assert a federal reserved right to groundwater.  The Ninth Circuit held that the tribe could assert such rights.

Before I explain some of the potential implications of the case, some background on reserved rights may be helpful.  In general, state law defines water rights, even where the waters in question are found on federal land.  But in Winters v. United States, 207 U.S. 564 (1908), the United States Supreme Court held that when the federal government reserves federal land for a specific use, it also reserves sufficient water rights to accomplish the purpose of the reservation.  Reserved rights doctrine applies to federal reservations in all their forms, but many of the most prominent reserved rights cases have involved Indian reservations.

National_AtlasThe resulting rights can be valuable.  Federal reserved rights date to the time of the reservation, which means they tend to be old.  And the age of a water right can be crucially important, particularly in the American West, where older rights theoretically trump newer ones.  In practice, reserved rights function as the most senior rights in western water allocation systems.  That creates an interesting paradox: Native American tribes, which historically were on the short end (to put it mildly) of most western resource allocation decisions, can hold some of the West’s most valuable water rights.

Until this past week, the tribes had successfully asserted reserved rights only to surface water.  But for the Agua Caliente Tribe, that wasn’t a likely option; their homeland falls within one of the driest deserts in the United States, and surface water is largely absent.  If the tribe was to assert a meaningful reserved right, that right had to be for groundwater.  And in Tuesday’s decision, the Ninth Circuit held that such a reserved groundwater right was possible.

So how important is the case?  It seems safe to predict that other tribes now will assert similar claims.  But there reasons both for and against expecting a more widespread impact.  I’ll start with the reasons why we might expect this case to be consequential. 

First, and at the risk of stating the obvious, the case will support other tribes’ claims to a new kind of water source.  In an area like the Coachella Valley, where surface water is scarce and groundwater rights are contested, the ability to assert old rights to that additional source can give a tribe a trump card in water disputes with its neighbors.  In most of the United States, the climate is not as extreme as it is in the Coachella Valley, and surface water is more abundant.  But there still are many other places where groundwater provides the primary water source.  For that reason alone, the case will likely have ripple effects across the West, and perhaps in eastern states as well.

Additionally, a right to groundwater is sometimes valuable because groundwater is more physically accessible that surface water.  Surface water can be hard to exploit, even if one theoretically has a legal right to that water, because exploitation often requires constructing and operating canals, pipes, intake pumps, and other infrastructure.  For a tribe with very little money to spend (and no offers from the Bureau of Reclamation to subsidize construction, as routinely happened with the tribes’ non-native neighbors), building that infrastructure could be prohibitively difficult.  Because of that difficulty, many tribes have had limited ability to exploit their reserved rights.  Accessing groundwater, by contrast, can be much easier.  A landowner just needs to sink a well and install a pump and a sprinkler system.  That still costs money, but the infrastructure costs are often much lower.

On the other hand, there are reasons to anticipate less impact.  One is that many tribes already have state-law groundwater rights, which they hold by virtue of current landownership rather than past federal reservations.  Reserved groundwater rights could give tribes older priority dates, but in many places, those rights would not conjure legal groundwater access where it had not existed before.  Second, any additional water that some tribes gain through access to groundwater might be lost when their surface water reserved rights are recalculated.  To measure the aggregate scale of tribal reserved rights, courts typically use a practically-irrigable-acreage standard, which—in theory—looks at tribes’ ability to use water, not at water availability or at competing demands.  In other words, measures of demand, not supply, theoretically determine the scope of reserved rights, and the emergence of a new supply therefore might not impact the overall scope of the right.  In practice, things could play out differently; some legal uncertainty hovers over Winters doctrine and Native American claims (for an interesting and still-relevant article, see Andew C. Mergen & Sylvia F. Liu, A Misplaced Sensitivity: The Draft Opinions in Wyoming v. United States, 68 U. Colo. L. Rev. 683 (1997).  But it is at least plausible that a tribe with recognized reserved rights to surface water would see little benefit in also asserting a groundwater claim.

The Agua Caliente litigation is not over, and in subsequent phases (or settlement negotiations), and in cases elsewhere, litigants are likely to address many of these remaining questions.

- Dave Owen

March 10, 2017 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Myths, Realities, and the Clean Water Rule Controversy

On Tuesday, President Trump signed an executive order directing EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers to begin work on a new rule defining the scope of federal jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act.  The rule, if and when it is finalized, would replace the “Clean Water Rule” released by EPA and the Corps during the summer of 2015.  Much of the political rhetoric surrounding the Clean Water Rule has suggested that the 2015 rule was responsible for massive economic impacts and that removing it will be a source of economic relief.  President Trump’s own remarks, for example, were riddled with such complaints.  But for several years, I’ve been researching the implementation of federal stream and wetland protections (the results of those inquiries appear in just-published articles here and here and in an earlier article here).  The truth, I’ve learned, bears little resemblance to President Trump’s claims.

In fact, the 2015 rule has had hardly any impact.  That’s partly because the Sixth Circuit stayed implementation of the rule not long after it was enacted.  But even if the rule had remained in force, its primary consequences would have been minor adjustments in the scope of federal jurisdiction and somewhat heightened levels of consistency and predictability.  Indeed, the scope of federal jurisdiction would have been narrower than it was in 1986, when EPA and the Army Corps—overseen by the Reagan Administration—last promulgated regulations defining Clean Water Act jurisdiction.  The rule, in short, should not have been a big deal.

So why, then, did the rule generate a firestorm, and why has Donald Trump made replacing it such a priority?  One reason is that some regulated entities have never been comfortable with the scope of Clean Water Act jurisdiction (for others, that jurisdictional scope is only a minor concern, or, if the they need clean water, an important benefit).  For those entities, the Obama-and-EPA-are-overregulating story was just a convenient hook upon which to hang forty years of annoyance.  The second reason is that even though jurisdictional boundaries have not expanded in decades, the thoroughness and scope of regulation within those boundaries has.  It used to be fairly easy, in many parts of the country, to fill jurisdictional waters.  As Clean Water Act regulation evolved, some of that ease went away.  Again, this trend was not peculiar to the Obama Administration, or even to the federal government; some of the changes emerged from red states and during the Bush I, Clinton, and Bush II administrations.  Pinning the changes on the Obama Administration is just a convenient rhetorical device.

Because the Clean Water Rule didn’t actually change much, the most important part of the executive order isn’t the language directing EPA and the Army Corps to rescind the old rule.  Instead, it’s language at the end of the order directing EPA and the Army Corps to “consider interpreting the term "navigable waters," as defined in 33 U.S.C. 1362(7), in a manner consistent with the opinion of Justice Antonin Scalia in Rapanos v. United States, 547 U.S. 715 (2006).”  Justice Scalia’s Rapanos standard would eliminate federal jurisdiction for any waterway that lacks a relatively continuous surface connection to navigable-in-fact waterways.  In somewhat plainer English, that means the Clean Water Act would no longer protect ephemeral or intermittent wetlands and streams.  That would be a drastic shift.  Across the nation, a huge percentage of our streams are ephemeral or intermittent, and in drier regions, a continuous-surface-connection standard would eliminate Clean Water Act protections for nearly all aquatic features.

That drastic shift would have terrible implications for water quality.  Ephemeral and intermittent streams and wetlands are not the most charismatic of environmental resources, but they are important.  In recent years—particularly in the years since the Supreme Court’s Rapanos decisions—a growing body of scientific literature has explored the implications of tributary waterways, including intermittent and ephemeral streams, for downstream water quality.  Scientists have discovered that very small tributaries play crucial roles in processing nutrients, and thus protecting downstream waterways from algae blooms and dead zones; limiting floods; recharging groundwater; sustaining steady flows; supporting biodiversity; filtering pollutants; and maintaining fluxes of sediment and debris.  In simpler terms, they protect water quality, water supplies, and public safety; they make the rivers, lakes, and bays that we love places worth loving.  Fill them in, and those benefits will disappear.  Yet that is exactly what the new executive order asks EPA and the Army Corps to do.

(For a very partial sampling of this large body of literature, see here, here, here, or here, and for a synthesis report, see here.)

Beyond water quality, this controversy reflects a larger tension between environmental law’s narratives of conflict and of collaboration.  In their speeches about the Clean Water Rule, Donald Trump and the rules other opponents have emphasized a story of less-than-zero sum conflict, in which EPA (they never mention the Corps) is driving thousands of Americans out of work for little environmental gain.  It isn’t just the latter part of that story that is false.  One of the most striking lessons of my research on stream and wetland protection was the extent to which the Army Corps has found ways to increase regulatory protections for waterways while also finding more efficient, predictable, and low-cost ways to implement those protections.  Stream and wetland protection wasn't stuck in zero-sum conflict.  Instead, the environmental law of stream and wetland protection had been on a decades-long trajectory of improvement.

That trajectory can continue.  I don’t expect the Trump Administration will help; its leaders are screamers, and screamers have no use for narratives of creative compromise or governmental improvement.  But the rest of us do have use for those narratives, particularly when, as is often the case, they are true.  So hopefully cooler heads will eventually prevail, and we will continue finding sensible ways to improve protect our streams and wetlands—and the millions of people who depend upon them.

- Dave Owen

March 2, 2017 | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Regulatory Paralysis by Preemption: GMO Food Labeling and Potentially More

By: Lesley McAllister

Did you know that as of July 2016, we have a new federal law mandating that genetically engineered food be labeled? It is true – see 7 U.S.C. § 1639(b)(2)(D) (Jul. 29, 2016).   So when, you might ask, will you be able to know which of all those foods we buy at the grocery store are produced with GMOs?

It could be a very long wait. For one thing, the law – the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard – didn’t actually mandate a label that directly states that the food is a GE food. Rather, Congress left open the possibility that USDA allow scannable QR codes (pictured below) instead of on-package labeling as the means of disclosure. Congress charged the USDA with completing a study within one year (i.e. by July 2017) regarding whether QR codes would preclude consumer access to the disclosure (and if so, the agency shall provide “additional and comparable options to access the bioengineering disclosure.”)  As of early January, USDA didn’t have the funds to conduct the study

The Disclosure Standard itself is supposed to be established within two years of the passage of the law. But in Trump’s administration, with its strong anti-regulatory ideology, the best guess is that forward motion will be further delayed.  On the campaign trail in Iowa Trump said he opposed efforts to require mandatory labeling of GE food.  Even though mandatory labeling is now the law of the land, it seems very unlikely that the 90% of Americans who have expressed their interest in labeling will be satisfied any time soon. 

Perhaps most significantly, this federal action (and non-action) on GMO labeling has paralyzed all state labeling for the foreseeable future. The federal law was passed (with the  support of industry) just weeks after Vermont’s law went into effect that required on-package labeling.   The federal law expressly preempted Vermont’s law and other state efforts to require labeling.  Indeed preemption was the raison d’etre for the federal law.   So now, all those consumers are left without any option.  States can’t regulate because they are preempted, and the federal government won’t likely regulate because it doesn’t like regulation (despite the existence of the law).  While the courts could intervene, that possibility is still years away.

Such regulatory paralysis by preemption could become a new strategy for delaying and preventing protective regulations in the future. As some states start acting more aggressively to deal with environmental problems that the federal government is not acting on, Congress could simply pass laws that purport to regulate the matter and expressly preempt the states from doing so.  In reality, however, those laws could be so poorly written or designed (as many pro-labeling advocates argued that this law was) that they will never be effectively implemented or enforced.

Qr code

 

March 1, 2017 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Now, about those other dams...

Orovill_dam_spillway_2017-02-11_16730609_10154430795287449_8360716524217440974_nFor several recent days, the eyes of the nation were on the Oroville Dam in Northern California.  A rainstorm atop heavy snowpack threatened to overfill Lake Oroville, and the outflows began to erode the dam’s primary spillway.  Dam managers switched to a backup spillway, which had never been used, but it, too, began to fail within hours.  That led to the evacuation of 200,000 people, and to the California Department of Water Resource’s Facebook page becoming far more popular than the department has ever wanted it to be.  Thankfully, the erosion in the primary spillway has stabilized, and the threat seems to have abated.

(Image from Wikimedia Commons; William Croyle (California DWR), photographer)

But we should not relax too much, because there are tens of thousands of dams across the nation, and many of them would seem like better disaster candidates than Oroville.  Unlike most dams, Oroville Dam gets a lot of attention; it holds back the key water storage reservoir for California’s State Water Project, which provides water to millions of people in the Los Angeles and San Diego metropolitan areas and to smaller but still substantial numbers of people in the San Francisco Bay area.  For urban water users in California, no other dam is more important—and it also is an important source of agricultural water supplies.  Its continued integrity is worth billions of dollars to water users across the much of the state.  It also is important to the Sacramento metropolitan area, much of which sits on low ground and behind aging levees about seventy-five miles downstream.

Oroville Dam’s operations are also subject to higher-than-normal levels of regulatory oversight.  Because the dam generates hydropower, the state of California needs an operating license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and FERC licenses periodically come up for renewal.  FERC’s licensing process provides an opportunity for reconsidering—among many other issues—the safety impacts of continued dam operation, and it also provides participation opportunities for many other government agencies, NGOs, and individual members of the public.  Indeed, it was during the most recent relicensing process, in 2005, that environmental groups warned of the scenario that unfolded over the past week.

Those warnings went unheeded, but at least there was a public forum for them to be offered.  That is more than can be said for most of the United States’ dams.  The vast majority of those dams do not generate hydropower and are not subject to FERC regulation.  Regulatory oversight, to the extent it exists, instead comes from state law.  In a recent study, The Nature Conservancy’s Colin Apse and I described what we learned about those state laws (I’ve taken out the footnotes but linked to several source documents):

[I]n most states, a dam, once built, is grandfathered from the requirements of environmental laws.  Many of those dams were constructed before significant environmental laws existed or, at least, before those laws were acknowledged and enforced. The environmental laws of many states therefore have never really applied to most of those states’ dams. Indeed, in many states, the only way environmental laws would be triggered is if a dam owner proposes to do something different with a dam — like, for example, add hydropower capacity or take the dam out.

On paper, state regulation of dam safety is more robust. Most states have safety standards and laws requiring periodic inspection of dams, and safety reviews ought to present opportunities to reexamine the operations or even existence of dams. But on closer examination, those schemes also often appear — in the words of one leading expert — “pitiful.” Maine, for example, has robust requirements for dam inspections but has never adequately funded the inspection program. Texas recently passed legislation exempting many dams from its inspection program, and Texas law, at least as currently interpreted, also limits the public’s ability to even access information about dam hazards. Many other states face similar circumstances. Dams do age and fail, but because of these oversight gaps, smaller dam owners in many states are all but legally invisible so long as nothing goes drastically wrong. Indeed, there are thousands of state-regulated dams whose owners aren’t even known.

To make matters worse, most dams lack the kind of constituency that the Oroville Dam has.  Many dams produce little economic value, and unless people downstream realize the safety risks the dams pose, no one is likely to demand, let alone offer money for, their continued maintenance and upkeep.  For the non-negligible percentage of the United States’ dams with unknown ownership, maintenance is particularly unlikely.  State-regulated dams are generally small, while the Oroville Dam is the nation’s tallest, so the risks are of different orders of magnitude.  But that does not mean they are non-existent.  Even small dams can cause big problems.

So what should we do about this situation?  At the Oroville Dam, the solution will likely involving pouring a lot more concrete.  Sometimes that will be the appropriate thing to do.  Indeed, as Colin and I argued, there are places where the most sensible thing to do with a dam will be to fix it up and add some turbines.  But for thousands of dams, a more sensible alternative is removal.  If a dam provides only marginal economic benefits—or no benefit at all—to its owners, causes environmental problems, and is a safety risk, it ought to come out.  Similarly, states ought to take a much closer look at their dam safety programs.  If a closely-watched dam like Oroville can turn into a menace, it’s concerning to think about all the aging infrastructure that no one is watching.

People often think of dam removal primarily as a method of environmental restoration, and dam removals are indeed an effective way to restore damaged environments.  But taking out dams, as well as reinvesting in the ones that remain, also can be a good way to keep people safe.

- Dave Owen

February 15, 2017 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

"2-for-1" Marketing Ploy is Bad Policy

By: Lesley McAllister

I’ve been thinking about the ridiculous Executive Order, signed last week, calling for two regulations to be “identified for elimination” for every new one proposed.  Trump's so-called "2-for-1" EO.  Amidst all the other horrible news (e.g., the DeVos and Sessions confirmation hearings), it hasn’t gotten as much publicity and criticism as it deserves. 

Federal regulations pass though many steps before they are promulgated. One of the most time-consuming and sometimes contentious is a cost-benefit analysis.  It is time-consuming because it is complicated – imagine trying to put a dollar value on all the costs and all the benefits of a new traffic safety or air pollution rule. Now that such analyses have been required for so many years, we have experts in the agencies and in the White House (specifically in the WH Office of Management and Budget’s Office of Regulatory Analysis, OIRA) who do all this work.  But it is often contentious because it’s not straightforward how to monetize the value of an avoided traffic accident or a asthma-free childhood.  And, importantly, for a regulation to make it into the Code of Federal Regulations, generally its benefits must be deemed to outweigh its costs.

So, when you revoke that regulation, you are losing all those benefits, not to mention the time and energy (of agency staff, of advocates, and others) that went into putting the regulation in place. And I don’t think there are a lot of costly, dumb regulations just waiting for elimination.  Obama and prior presidents were also sensitive to the issue of regulatory costs, and an Obama issued an Executive Order in 2011 that required agencies to review existing regulations to determine if they need modification or repeal.  My guess is that there’s not much deadwood left. 

The bottom line here is that Trump’s EO doesn’t just mimic a marketing ploy, it IS a marketing ploy. It sells the idea that there’s too much regulation and that regulation doesn’t provide benefits. In fact, the reality is the reverse.  Regulations protect our environment, economy, health and safety, and general welfare.  Trump wants to take away the benefits we get from protective regulation, and prevent new regulations that would further benefit and protect us -- from climate change, financial downturns, and many other pressing problems on the horizon. It's a marketing ploy. Don't buy it!

February 8, 2017 | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, February 6, 2017

Lesley McAllister, David Takacs, and some Moments to Celebrate

For the most part, the past few weeks have not been uplifting.  But I’ve been to a few inspiring events, both involving my fellow professors.

The first was a festschrift for Lesley McAllister, a law professor at UC Davis and one of the key players in the revival, several years ago, of this blog.  Lesley is battling cancer, and her prognosis is not good.  Those are dark circumstances, but the event was a celebration of life.  Hearing about everything Lesley has done for her students, her colleagues, and for our understanding of environmental law—and hearing about her hope to keep doing that work in the time she has left—was a reminder of how much it can mean to live.

The second was a ceremony for my colleague David Takacs, who just received UC Hastings’ most prestigious award for his teaching.  The award was well earned.  David pours everything he has into teaching, and the results—including a standing-room-only crowd of students and alums at the event ceremony—are palpable.  If you’re interested, you can read more about the event here.

Amid all the dark headlines, I’m grateful to David and to Lesley for reminding us how much our daily work can mean.

- Dave Owen

February 6, 2017 | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

"Environmental Policy 101" for Trump Nominee Pruitt

By:  Lesley McAllister

I was very glad to see the news today that Democratic senators boycotted the confirmation hearing of Scott Pruitt, the OK Attorney General nominated to lead the EPA.  When I watched part of his January 18th hearing online, I found myself wondering why we bother. Republicans have the votes to confirm anyone they want, and evasive answers are often easy to give, so what’s the use?

Now it occurs to me that, even if they don't ultimately block the confirmation, the hearings serve the purpose of jolting the nominee out of her/his bubble and making her/him realize that there are a lot of voices that s/he will need to listen to that s/he probably hasn’t been paying any attention to.  In other words, the purpose is to educate. A guy like Pruitt has only dealt with environmental issues in an ideological way – one of the pack of Republican attorney generals that fought selected Obama initiatives on the grounds of federalism or simple anti-regulatory zeal.  He has never had to really think about why we need environmental laws and how to implement them effectively.

So that hearing might be considered "Environmental Policy 101."  Happily, it was seven hours long, a sign (I think) of how much Pruitt needs to learn.  But, it seems that he didn't pass the test.   On Monday, Democratic senators on the Senate Committee and Public Works requested postponement of today's hearing due to Pruitt's lack of substantive responses to some questions, particularly regarding various conflicts of interest arising from his past record of suits against EPA regulations and his ties to the fossil fuel industry.  Democrats are understandably concerned that he will fail to learn the most important lesson of all, that his new job would be to support EPA's mission of environmental protection, not to undermine and weaken the agency as he has in the past. 

So, "Environmental Policy 101" continues, hopefully until Democratic senators are satisfied.  But Republican senators will probably find a way to give Pruitt a pass, as they did today for Trump's nominees to lead Treasury and Health and Human Services: a surprise meeting to suspend committee rules and vote without the Democrats.   Well, I hope Pruitt at least got a glimpse of the vast terrain of environmental policy that he is likely to be in charge of soon.  Soon, it seems, the task of educating him will fall to all of us!

February 1, 2017 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, January 26, 2017

What will Trump do to the EPA?

By Lesley K. McAllister

I’m starting to think that the years I have spent studying environmental agencies in Latin American countries might come in handy. I spent about a year in Brazil in the early 2000, where I got to know several governmental environmental agencies.  I interned with two state environmental agencies: CETESB in the industrialized state of Sao Paulo, and SECTAM, in the Amazonian state of Para.  Along with an environmental agency in each of Brazil’s 28 states, there is also IBAMA, the federal agency.  As you can see, this sounds familiar. 

CETESB gained institutional strength in the early 90s, when Brazil realized that its largest industrial area (located in the most industrialized state, of course) was a big polluted mess. CETESB staffed up to about three thousand employees and took a lot of lessons from the US EPA. It successfully established a pollution permitting systems backed up by inspections and enforcement, and by the early 2000s had become a pretty functional agency, looked to as a model by many developing countries.   SECTAM was a much more typical state agency, vastly underresourced and understaffed - 117 employees to deal with environmental protection throughout Para, which is 2.5 times the size of California. The federal agency, IBAMA, had about 5,000 employees total, and was generally perceived as weak and riddled with corruption.

In other words, CESTEB had developed some “capacity,” whereas SECTAM and IBAMA had not. Not that CETESB was perfect, but it had a degree of competence in both the administrative and technical aspects of environmental protection. I could talk to its inspectors about how they did inspections – because they were equipped enough to do them.  I could talk to its department chiefs about certain policies – because they were equipped enough to develop policies.  In contrast, when I talked to people from SECTAM and even IBAMA, there seemed to be much less to talk about.  Lacking resources, the agencies simply didn’t do as much.  And, in addition to lacking capacity, the lacked independence or “autonomy.”  Agencies with little autonomy are dominated  and steamrolled by the executive power (governor or president)  who almost invariably favors economic development interests.

I recently returned to Brazil.  There have been some good changes in the 2000s. IBAMA hired a lot of  people and it became a functional agency, with more capacity and autonomy.  Para’s state agency, SECTAM, changed its name to SEMAS, and has experienced some increase in capacity. CETESB has continued being CETESB – not perfect, of course, but still made up of a critical mass of knowledgeable and competent people trying to do the work of environmental protection.

And now to bring it all home: I saw a headline this morning announcing that Trump’s advisors recommend steep cuts in the EPA's staffing levels – reducing the workforce from about 15,000 people to 5,000 people. It is easy to see that the Administration has it in for the EPA, what with the gag order that was imposed to prohibit employees from talking with the press or public and the nomination of Scott Pruitt for the top job of Administrator.  Pruitt's most notable environmentally-related deeds as Oklahoma’s Attorney General include establishing a “federalism unit” to fight Obama regulations and suing the EPA multiple times.  

It should be clear what can happen here, because it happens all over the world. Our environmental agencies can be made to lack capacity and autonomy – and then they won’t work.   And let us not forget: they have been functional agencies that have worked well.  This is not the place to recount the many achievements of EPA's work implementing our federal environmental laws over the past 4 decades, but the benefits to our health and welfare FAR outweigh the costs.

January 26, 2017 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Hello again (and a reminder to donate to environmental advocacy groups)!

By: Lesley K. McAllister, UC Davis School of Law

Hello! It’s been a while since I blogged here at Environmental Law Prof Blog, and I feel that I am now being called back to it. I, like many environmental law aficionados, am very worried about how the new administration will work against environmental protection. I have lots of reasons to just check out and be quiet about it. The biggest one is that I probably don’t have long to live. I was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer over three years ago. Aggressive treatment has slowed its course, but the cancer is widely-diffused in my body, and I’ve heard that that means it will kill me.

I have been a “member-scholar” of the Center for Progressive Reform (CPR) for about eight years. Over fifteen years ago, soon after George Bush’s administration began, Professors Rena Steinzor (University of Maryland School of Law), Tom McGarity (University of Texas School of Law), and Sid Shapiro (Wake Forest University School of Law) founded CPR. They did so because they and others in the public interest community perceived a need for a progressive think-tank to focus on environmental, health and safety, and consumer protection. At that time, like today, the White House and both chambers of Congress were controlled by the Republican Party.  Then, like today, they knew they were going to see serious and multifarious attempts to undermine our environmental laws, with the assistance of well-funded think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute.

CPR’s founders aspired to assemble and mobilize voices from legal academia to inform policymakers and the public of the critical importance of effective protective regulation.   As a collective of working scholars joining together to participate in the public debate, CPR is as independent of politics as an organization can be. CPR doesn’t adopt institutional positions on issues, but rather encourages scholars to speak out themselves. 

Since its founding, CPR has consistently aired perspectives and knowledge timed to counter countless anti-regulatory initiatives through op-eds, reports, news alerts, CPRBlog, and various other means. CPR scholars are often invited to give Congressional testimony because of their expertise and independence. Areas of focus have included climate change, food and drug safety, good government, and many others.

But CPR hasn’t yet worked itself out of a job. It now has over 50 member-scholars, and its mission is more relevant and important than ever. Visit www.progressivereform.org if you’d like to support CPR and enable more CPR work to make it into our public policy debates (please see the top right hand corner “DONATE” in small letters). I can assure you that CPR uses every dollar to maximum impact. (Of course, there are other great environmental organizations to donate too, and if you have a different favorite, then donate to them!).  

With this post, I pledge to try to use some of the good time and energy I have left to blog about why we need laws and regulations that protect us, how protective laws and regulations are now under attack, and what we can do about it.

January 25, 2017 | Permalink

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

ELC Essay #13: Juliana v. United States and our Zero-Sum Climate System

By Melissa Powers

On November 10, 2016, federal district court Judge Ann Aiken issued an astonishing decision in the atmospheric trust climate case, Juliana v. United States. The decision holds that the plaintiffs in the case, who include children and young adults ranging from 9 to 21 years old, have a fundamental right “to a climate system capable of sustaining human life.” The decision further recognizes that the federal government has a public trust obligation to protect resources from the consequences of climate change, including ocean acidification and sea level rise. As a result of this decision, the plaintiffs will now be able to go to trial to prove, among other things,

that defendants played a significant role in creating the current climate crisis, that defendants acted with full knowledge of the consequences of their actions, and that defendants have failed to correct or mitigate the harms they helped create in deliberate indifference to the injuries caused by climate change.

If the plaintiffs succeed at trial—as I believe they should—the case should then proceed to the relief stage. Plaintiffs have asked the court to order the federal government to protect the plaintiffs’ fundamental rights and to ensure protection of the trust assets by developing a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Although resolution of the case could take years, and will almost certainly involve appeals to the Ninth Circuit and Supreme Court, the Juliana decision is already a landmark decision. In the context of this blog series, moreover, the Juliana decision illustrates how and when zero-sum framing is a useful environmental and moral device.

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December 20, 2016 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, December 19, 2016

ELC #12: Deconstructing Zero Sum Environmental Games: Bears Ears National Monument as Reparations and Reconciliation

By Sarah Krakoff

Owls versus jobs. Water for farmers versus water for salmon. Big dam versus tiny fish. Environmental disputes are often described in this way, as contests over limited resources that require one side to lose in order for the other to win. Many environmental conflicts may not be zero-sum games according to technical game theoretic definitions, but characterizing them in this way has traction with the media, the public, and the parties themselves. The zero-sum description frames our debates, often hardening positions and limiting the range of options, both practically and conceptually. Indeed, “I win, you lose” views of the world seem to be corroding every aspect of our public and private lives.

Rather than tinker from within this frame, what if we pulled back the lens and viewed natural resource conflicts in their historical and social contexts? Owls-versus-jobs is the snapshot. The long view would describe how federal forest service policies subsidized unsustainable logging, resulting in undiversified and therefore fragile economies. It would also include how efforts to undermine labor organizing in the Pacific Northwest prevented alliances between environmentalists and loggers. Another part of the story would acknowledge that limitations in federal environmental laws lead to over-reliance on single species strategies. The longer view is harder to describe in a bumper sticker. But excavating the historical forces that lead to particular environmental disputes may help us move beyond pat and unhelpful dichotomies. In the heat of the conflict, it may feel like owls are the opposite of jobs, but reifying that feeling is neither historically accurate nor normatively attractive. Who wants to live in a world where we have to choose between those two?

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December 19, 2016 | Permalink

Friday, December 16, 2016

ELC Essay #11: Less than Zero: The Zero-Sum Game that Hurts Local Communities & Ecologies

Jonathan Rosenbloom

Local communities and their ecology suffer hardship from a zero-sum game over governance authority. This game pits communities (and their local governments, including special purpose districts) against state governments in a constant and unwinnable(ish) conflict over the authority to regulate (or, often, not regulate). Although this zero-sum game is a struggle between states and communities over the authority to regulate, the manner in which it is skewed against local communities has dire consequences on the environment and discourages local communities from protecting and investing in their local ecology.

In our federalist form of government, states hold plenary power. Since the mid-nineteenth century, most courts have held that local governments are creatures of and subject to the whim of state legislatures. Two limitations on state legislative control over local communities are state constitutions (see, e.g., Robinson Township v. Commonwealth (holding state’s attempt to preempt local government regulation of fracking was in violation of state constitution)) and state statutes (see, e.g., Virginia Code § 15.2-2280 (authorizing local communities to regulate land uses)).

State and local governments frequently exercise regulatory authority over critical environmental issues, such as those related to fracking, waste management, and water. As a legal matter, local authority to intervene in potentially controversial activities may turn on whether that authority has been preempted by the state or even the federal government. While the preemption analysis varies by state, it typically prohibits local governments from regulating: (1) where the state expressly preempts local action; (2) where the state heavily regulates the field (but does not expressly preempt); and (3) where there is a direct conflict between the state and local regulation (again, in lieu of express preemption).

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December 16, 2016 | Permalink

Thursday, December 15, 2016

ELC Essay #10: Questioning the Value of Solar

Shalanda H. Baker

At last, energy—that elusive thing that exists all around us, sustains myriad plant and animal life, and illuminates our homes—no longer requires massive infrastructure to be harnessed and converted into electricity. Technology now allows individuals and communities to erect solar panels that convert the sun’s rays into electric currents to power homes, hospitals and community centers. This rare moment in the transition of the energy sector from a system in which electricity is generated by burning fossil-fuels in centralized locations managed by public utilities, to a system where a range of electricity generation and management alternatives exists, has spurred a heightened level of regulatory and economic turmoil in jurisdictions around the United States. The disequilibrium created by customer-sited energy generation threatens to destabilize and reinvent our energy system. If only we would let it.

Industry observers attribute the swift rise of rooftop solar adoption over the past decade to progressive policies and rapid technological advancements. Tax incentives have effectively decreased the cost of owning and installing solar panels. Net energy metering policies pay rooftop solar owners at the customer’s retail electricity rate for each kilowatt-hour of electricity generated by the customer. These programs leave some customers with electricity bills totaling zero dollars, effectively turning their electricity meters backwards when solar panels are fully engaged.  

This dramatic increase in customer-sited distributed energy generation has challenged the utility sector and destabilized the so-called “regulatory compact,” whereby utilities receive a regulated reasonable return on electricity infrastructure investments in exchange for providing electricity. The overall dynamic confronting utilities in this transitional moment has led to what some have termed the “utility death spiral.” In the new, distributed-energy paradigm, utilities can no longer rely on the prior revenue levels from their customer bases to recover costs for infrastructure improvements or to recoup their regulated reasonable return on such investments. Further, in an era of increased distributed energy generation, utilities cannot easily predict what types of infrastructure investments are needed. Thus, they face a “death spiral,” a term that reflects an operating environment with rife economic uncertainty.

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December 15, 2016 | Permalink

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

ELC Essay #9: Energy Policy: No Place for Zero-Sum Thinking

By Inara Scott

The popular notion of a zero-sum game is a scenario in which, for one party to gain value, another party must lose it. We can imagine a pie cut into six pieces, with six people standing beside it. For any one individual to get two pieces means someone else must go hungry. One of the key assumptions here, of course, is that the number of slices of pie is fixed. We can’t add to the pie.

Any simplistic metaphor is certain to break down under scrutiny, but in the energy context, this image is particularly inapt. In December 2005, natural gas was trading around $15.39/MMBtu. Today, the price is closer to $2.90. The reason for this precipitous drop? New techniques in fracking and horizontal drilling in shale rock, which allowed developers to shake loose massive stores of natural gas that had previously been inaccessible. The pie suddenly got a whole lot bigger.

Improvements in materials and efficiency have also drastically lowered the cost of renewable energy generation—so much so that current cost projections for 2020 are half what they were about a decade ago. The cost of wind energy alone fell almost 60% from 2009-2015. If we think of the pie as the amount of renewable energy we can generate per dollar, there can be no doubt it continues to grow.

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December 14, 2016 | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, December 12, 2016

ELC Essay #8: Making Economic Development and Job Creation Drivers of Serious Action on Climate Change and Environmental Protection

by John C. Dernbach

We’re fighting for policy changes that will make it possible for us to have better choices; utilities that offer us renewable options, electric trains that make short-haul flights obsolete, public transit. Exxon and its ilk have been fighting for decades to keep these choices out of our reach, and then claim that we are voting with our dollars every time we sit in traffic or heat our homes with fossil fuels supplied by a utility that has a monopoly. They can play gotcha as much as they want, but all it proves is how badly we need better options.

                        Bill McKibben

One of the most longstanding narratives in environmental law and politics is the alleged necessity of choosing between development and environment. The narrative persists in industrial projects, dams, mines, shale-gas development, highways, construction projects, and in a variety of other projects and activities. As Bill McKibben points out, it also persists in the debate about what to do about climate change. In every case, some people win, and some people lose. The narrative, based on conventional development, has a built-in zero-sum game—development or environment. 

A competing narrative, which has been slowly gaining supporters over several decades, is built on the idea of sustainable development—development and environment.  When there are attractive ways of making environmental protection and economic development mutually reinforcing, there is a way of escaping the zero-sum framing of environmental issues, including climate change.  As Bill McKibben says, people want better choices. 

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December 12, 2016 | Permalink