Friday, July 20, 2012
In the wake of the Supreme Court’s Affordable Care Act (ACA) decision, it’s easy to get lost in debate over the Chief Justice’s stated theory of the commerce power, or what precedential effect it will have under the Marks doctrine (given that his only supporters wrote in dissent). Still, the practical implications for existing governance is likely to be small, at least in the foreseeable future. After all, much of the debate over the individual mandate focused on how unprecedented it was: despite months of trying, nobody produced a satisfying example of this particular Congressional tool used in previous health, environmental, or any other kind of federal law.
By contrast, the most immediately significant portion of the ruling—and one with far more significance for most environmental governance—is the part of the decision limiting the federal spending power that authorizes Medicaid. Congress uses its spending power to persuade states to engage in programs of cooperative federalism all the time, including important environmental programs under the Clean Air Act, Coastal Zone Management Act, and others. Last month’s decision represents the first time the Court has ever invalidated a congressional act for exceeding its power under the Spending Clause, and the decision has important implications for the way that many state-federal regulatory partnerships work.
These partnerships reflect the complex way that the Constitution structures federal power, through both specific and open-ended delegations of authority. Specific congressional powers include the authority to coin money, establish post offices, and declare war. More open-ended grants of federal authority are conferred by the Commerce, Necessary and Proper, and Spending Clauses, about which we have heard so much in recent weeks. Whatever isn’t directly or reasonably indirectly covered by these delegations is considered the realm of state authority. (Of course, there is some overlap between the two, but that’s another story and a previous blog.)
The Spending Clause authorizes Congress to spend money for the general welfare. Congress can fund programs advancing specific federal responsibilities (like post offices or Naval training), but it can also fund state programs regulating beyond Congress’s specifically delegated authority (such as education or domestic violence). Sometimes, Congress just funds state programs that it likes directly. But it can also offer money conditionally—say, to any state willing to adopt a particular rule or program that Congress wants to see. In these examples, Congress is effectively saying, “here is some money, but for use only with this great program we think you should have” (say, health-insuring poor children).
In this way, the spending power enables Congress to bargain with the states for access to policymaking arenas otherwise beyond its reach. A fair amount of interjurisdictional governance takes place within such “spending power deals”—addressing matters of mixed state and federal interest in realms from environmental to public health to national security law. Federal highway funds are administered to the states through a spending deal, as are funds for public education, coastal management, child welfare, the Medicaid insurance program, and countless others.
Congress can’t just compel the states to enact its preferred policies, but spending power partnerships are premised on negotiation rather than compulsion, because states remain free to reject the federally proffered deal. If they don’t like the attached strings, they don’t have to take the money. Members of the Court have sporadically worried about undue federal pressure, but only in dicta and without much elaboration. In 1987, in South Dakota v. Dole, the Court famously upheld the spending bargaining enterprise, so long as the conditions are unambiguous, reasonably related to the federal interest, promote general welfare, and do not induce Constitutional violations. No law has ever run afoul of these broad limits, which have not since been revisited—until now.
In challenging the ACA, 26 states argued that Congress had overstepped its bounds by effectively forcing them to accept a significant expansion of the state-administered Medicaid program, even though Congress would fund most of it. All states participate in the existing Medicaid program, and many feared losing that federal funding (now constituting over 10% of their annual budgets) if they rejected Congress’s new terms. Congress had included a provision in the original law stating that it could modify the program from one year to the next, as it had done nearly fifty times previously. But the plaintiff states argued that this time was different, because the changes were much bigger and because they couldn’t realistically divorce themselves from the programs in which they had become so entangled. Even though they really wanted out, they claimed, now they were stuck. The feds maintained that congressional funds are a conditional gift that states are always free to take or refuse as they please.
In deciding the case, the Court stated a new rule limiting the scope of Congress’s spending power in the context of an ongoing regulatory partnership. Chief Justice Roberts began by upholding the presumption underlying spending power bargaining—that the states aren’t coerced, because they can always walk away from the table if they don’t like the terms of the deal. We mostly dispel concerns about coercion by relying on the states to “just say no” when they don’t like the federal policy. (In a choice rhetorical moment, he offered: “The States are separate and independent sovereigns. Some¬times they have to act like it.”) Accordingly, he concluded that the Medicaid expansion was constitutional in isolation, because states that don’t want to participate don’t have to. No coercion, no constitutional problem.
But then the decision takes a key turn. What would be a problem, he explained, would be if Congress were to penalize states opting out of the Medicaid expansion by cancelling their existing programs. Given how dependent states have grown on the federal partnership to administer these entrenched programs, this would be unconstitutionally coercive. By his analysis, plaintiffs chose the original program willingly, but were being dragooned into the expansion. To make the analysis work, though, he had to construe Medicaid as really being two separate programs: the current model, and the expansion. Congress can condition funding for the expansion on acceptance of its terms, but it can’t procure that acceptance by threatening to defund existing programs (analogizing to gun-point negotiating tactics). The decision requires Congress to allow dissenting states to opt out of the Medicaid expansion while remaining in the older version of the program.
Justice Ginsburg excoriated this logic in dissent, arguing that there was only one program before the Court: Medicaid. For her, the expansion simply adds beneficiaries to what is otherwise the same partnership, same purpose, same means, and same administration: “a single program with a constant aim—to enable poor persons to receive basic health care when they need it.” She criticized the Chief Justice for enforcing a new limitation on coercion without clarifying the point at which permissible persuasion gives way to undue coercion, and she pointed out the myriad ways this inquiry requires “political judgments that defy judicial calculation.”
On these points, Justice Ginsburg is right. The decision offers no limiting principle for future judges or legislators evaluating coercive offers. “I-know-it-when-I-see-it” reasoning won’t do when assessing the labyrinthine political dimensions of intergovernmental bargaining, but neither the decision nor the conservative justices’ dissent provides more than that. Moreover, the rule is utterly unworkable. No present Congress can bind future congressional choices, so every spending power deal is necessarily limited to its budgetary year as matter of constitutional law. But after this decision, Congress can never modify a spending power program without potentially creating two tracks—one for states that like the change and another for those that prefer the original (and with further modifications, three tracks, ad infinitum). The decision fails to distinguish permissible modifications from new-program amendments, leaving every bargain improved by experience vulnerable to legal challenge. And it’s highly dubious for the Court to assume responsibility for determining the overall structure of complex regulatory programs—an enterprise in which legislative capacity apexes while judicial capacity hits its nadir.
Nevertheless, the decision exposes an important problem in spending power bargaining that warrants attention: that is, how the analysis shifts when the states are not opting in or out of a cooperative federalism program from scratch, but after having developed substantial infrastructure around a long-term regulatory partnership. It’s true that the states, like all of us, sometimes have to make uncomfortable choices between two undesirable alternatives, and this alone should not undermine genuine consent. But most of us build the infrastructure of our lives around agreements that will hopefully last longer than one fiscal year (lay-offs notwithstanding). The Chief’s analysis should provoke at least a little sympathy for the occasionally vulnerable position of states that have seriously invested in an ongoing federal partnership that suddenly changes. (Indeed, those sympathetic to the ACA but frustrated with No Child Left Behind’s impositions on dissenting states should consider how to distinguish them.)
It’s important to get these things right, because as I describe in Federalism and the Tug of War Within, an awful lot of American governance really is negotiated between state and federal actors this way. Federalism champions often mistakenly assume a “zero-sum” model of American federalism that emphasizes winner-takes-all competition between state and federal actors for power. But countless real-world examples show that the boundary between state and federal authority is really a project of ongoing negotiation, one that effectively harnesses the regulatory innovation and interjurisdictional synergy that is the hallmark of our federal system. Understanding state-federal relations as heavily mediated by negotiation betrays the growing gap between the rhetoric and reality of American federalism—and it offers hope for moving beyond the paralyzing features of the zero-sum discourse. Still, a core feature making the overall system work is that intergovernmental bargaining must be fairly secured by genuine consent.
Supplanting appropriately legislative judgment with unworkable judicial rules doesn’t seem like the best response, but the political branches can also do more to address the problem. To ensure meaningful consent in long-term spending bargains, perhaps Congress could provide disentangling states a phase-out period to ramp down from a previous partnership without having to simultaneously ramp up to new requirements—effectively creating a COBRA policy for states voluntarily leaving a state-federal partnership. Surely this beats the thicket of confusion the Court creates in endorsing judicial declarations of new congressional programs for the express purpose of judicial federalism review. But in the constitutional dialogue between all three branches in interpreting our federal system, the Court has at least prompted a valuable conversation about taking consent seriously within ongoing intergovernmental bargaining.
Friday, June 22, 2012
Previously, I posted some thoughts on Mingo Logan Coal Co. v. EPA, and in particular, a critique of Judge Jackson's Chevron analysis. For those following the case, it's now on appeal to the D.C. Circuit. EPA's statement of the issues, filed last week, keeps things crisp:
The issue presented is whether Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act, 33 U.S.C. 1344(c), authorizes the United States Environmental Protection Agency to withdraw the specification of a site that is specified for disposal of fill material under a Section 404(a) permit.
EPA's brief is due on July 18.
Thursday, June 21, 2012
In the next few days, the Supreme Court will decide what some believe will be among the most important cases in the history of the institution--the Obamacare decisions. And while they aren't directly about environmental law, they may as well be--because the same issues animate environmental governance conflicts from cross-boundary pollution management to nuclear waste disposal. For that reason, I thought I'd take this opportunity to go deep on the federalism issues at the heart of the long-awaited health reform decisions.
In the “Obamacare” cases, the Court considers whether the Affordable Care Act (“ACA”) exceeds the boundaries of federal authority under the various provisions of the Constitution that establish the relationship between local and national governance. Its response will determine the fate of Congress’s efforts to grapple with the nation’s health care crisis, and perhaps other legislative responses to wicked regulatory problems like climate governance or education policy. Whichever way the gavel falls, the decisions will likely impact the upcoming presidential and congressional elections, and some argue that they may significantly alter public faith in the Court itself. But from the constitutional perspective, they are important because they will speak directly to the interpretive problems of federalism that have ensnared the architects, practitioners, and scholars of American governance since the nation’s first days.
Federalism is the Constitution’s mechanism for dividing authority between the national and local levels. In a nutshell, it assesses which kinds of policy questions should be decided nationally—yielding the same answer throughout the country—and which should be decided locally—enabling different answers in different states. Accordingly, the basic inquiry in all federalism controversies is always the same: who should get to decide? Is it the state or federal government that should make these kinds of health policy choices? And just as important, especially in this case, is who gets to answer that question—the political branches or the judiciary? Should the Court defer to Congress’s choices in enacting the ACA, or is it the responsibility of the Court to substitute its own judgment for the legislature’s on such matters?
To understand the quandaries of American federalism, a little history might help. In the first attempt at structuring the fledgling United States, the drafters erred on the side of localized autonomy in the failed Articles of Confederation, which established a union of powerful states constrained by little centralized authority. But this format offered the new Americans inefficient resources for managing interjurisdictional governance problems like interstate commerce, border-crossing harms, or cooperative projects of infrastructure and defense. Learning from that mistake, the Constitution’s architects sought a better balance—reserving broad authority to the states to regulate for public welfare while delegating a set of specific and open-ended powers to the federal government for resolving the collective action problems that confounded the states.
In service of this balance, the Constitution clearly delegates some responsibilities to one side or the other—for example, the federal government guarantees equal protection of the laws and regulates interstate commerce, while the states manage elections and regulate local land use. But between the easy extremes are realms of governance in which it’s much harder to know what the Constitution really tells us about who should be in charge. Locally regulated land uses become entangled with the protection of navigable waterways that implicate interstate commerce and border-crossing environmental harms. Voting rights cases merge election management with equal protection concerns (e.g., Bush v. Gore). Health care providers are licensed at the state level, but health insurance creates a national market of the sort long regulated by Congress.
As a result, the Constitution creates spheres of state and federal authority that are at once separated and overlapping, at least at the margins. The Constitution anticipates such overlap and provides management tools via the Supremacy Clause, which clarifies that legitimate federal law can always preempt conflicting state law. But even that isn’t the end of the issue, as the feds often share regulatory space with the states even when preemption is clearly possible, especially when state and local government brings useful capacity to the regulatory table.
Throughout American history, the question that keeps coming up—and that hangs in the balance of the Obamacare cases—is just how big we should understand that marginal area of overlap to be. Is that gray area between more clearly exclusive areas of national and local prerogative as big as the ACA proponents contend, or as small as its detractors prefer? The Obamacare cases most directly ask how best to understand the appropriate bounds of federal power, but the flip-side of that question—how to understand the bounds of appropriate state power—is also implicated. This is the issue that underlies the important preemption cases that also plague the Court, such as this Term’s Arizona v. United States immigration-related case.
But here’s the thing. The reason these issues get so complicated—and so controversial—is that the Constitution, beautiful as we may think it, usually doesn’t resolve them. Indeed, the problem that pervades all federalism/preemption controversies is that the Constitution mandates but incompletely describes our system of dual sovereignty, in a way that forces those implementing it to rely on some external theory about what American federalism is for and how it should operate when applying its vague directives to actual controversies. And unsurprisingly, there are multiple competing theories, all consistent with those directives but pushing us in different directions.
Two have especially influenced the Court’s notoriously vacillating approach to understanding federalism. The “dual federalism” approach prefers stricter separation between proper spheres of state and federal power, policed by judicially-enforced constraints that trump legislative determinations. For example, the Court followed dual federalism thinking when it rejected federal remedies under the Violence Against Women Act in United States v. Morrison in 2000, and if it follows that approach in the ACA cases, it would likely strike down Obamacare as the appropriate vindicator of appropriate limits on federal power. Dual federalism thinkers see federalism as a zero-sum game, in which any expansion of federal reach comes at the direct expense of state reach, and vice versa.
By contrast, the “cooperative federalism” approach rejects the zero-sum model and tolerates greater jurisdictional overlap. Cooperative federalism urges judicial deference to federalism-sensitive policymaking, on grounds that “political safeguards” for federalism are already built into legislative decision-making by constitutional design, given that national representatives are elected at the state level. The Court has repeatedly relied on cooperative federalism thinking in upholding Congress’s use of federal funds to bargain for shared regulatory jurisdiction over social programs like Social Security and Medicare, or the regulation of education and health care. If the Court follows that approach in the ACA cases, it might defer to the interpretive choices of the democratically-elected legislature in deciding an issue that falls through the cracks of more clearly articulated constitutional lines.
The battle between these classic contenders of federalism theory was on full display during the ACA oral arguments. For example, the question most vexing Justice Kennedy about the individual mandate was that of federal limits. If the federal government can do this, he asked, then what can’t it do? Does affirming a mandate like this one effectively eviscerate all determinable limits of federal power under the Commerce Clause or any other? Could Congress next order us to eat broccoli, for all the same reasons it can require us to buy health insurance? In this respect, he voiced the dual federalism perspective, suggesting that judicial safeguards might be necessary to police the boundaries of federal authority. (Begging the question: if it were the state government ordering us to eat broccoli, would that be okay?)
Donald Verrilli, the Solicitor General defending the ACA, replied from the cooperative federalism perspective that the effective limits on federal power were located in the democratic process itself. He argued that nobody can seriously imagine a congressional mandate to eat broccoli, because to the extent Americans believe this unreasonable, they will not elect representatives who would create it (and they will replace any who do). In other words, he answered with the political-safeguards refrain that Congress can reliably make gray area regulatory choices, because interpreting that zone of overlap is more amenable to legislative deliberation than bright-line judicial review. (So as long as the Congress that orders us to eat broccoli is duly elected, federalism is satisfied?)
This moment of Supreme Court dialog, reiterating a conversation hallowed by centuries of repetition, reveals the rabbit-hole in which federalism debates have languished for too long—stuck between the dual and cooperative federalism alternatives of jurisdictional separation or overlap, and judicial or legislative interpretive hegemony. The dual federalism approach imagines that the very purpose of federalism is to draw lines between state and federal power (no matter how arbitrary they may be in the gray area), and credits the judiciary as best-poised to interpret such bright-line constitutional crystals. The cooperative federalism approach better understands the unavoidable mud of jurisdictional overlap and appropriately credits political safeguards in circumstances where judicial review is unworkable—but itself lacks a satisfying theoretical answer to the question of who should decide. And neither approach gives us the tools we really need to evaluate the broccoli law, or any other.
A better approach to resolving federalism controversies like Obamacare frames the “who decides” question as neither a quest for bright-line boundaries nor pure faith in the political process, but as an examination of how the challenged governance relates to the values that underlie American federalism in the first place.
Americans invented federalism to help us actualize a set of good-governance goals in operation of the new union. We created checks and balances between local and national power to protect individuals against governmental overreaching or abdication on either side. Federalism fosters local autonomy and interjurisdictional competition, and we hope it will promote governmental accountability that enhances democratic participation throughout the jurisdictional spectrum. Federalism facilitates the problem-solving synergies that arise between the separate strengths of local and national governance for dealing with different parts of interjurisdictional problems. On balance, if governance advances these values, then it is consistent with the Constitution’s federalism directives. If it detracts from them, we have a problem.
The trick, of course, is that while all of these values are independently good things, they are nevertheless suspended in tension with one another, such that you can’t always satisfy all of them at the same time. Sometimes local autonomy pulls in the opposite direction from checks-and-balances, which can alternatively frustrate problem-solving synergy. These tensions expose the values “tug of war” within federalism, highlighting the inevitable tradeoffs in interjurisdictional governance that makes it so difficult. It also reveals why the line-drawing exercises of dual federalism are ultimately unsatisfying—a two dimensional approach for resolving a multi-dimensional problem on a wholly separate plane of analysis.
Federalism’s tug of war suggests that the most robust approach for resolving federalism controversies should be tethered to a more transparent consideration of how challenged governance fails or succeeds in advancing these fundamental values: checks and balances, accountable governance, local autonomy, and interjurisdictional synergy. It should also take advantage of the relative capacities of the different branches of government for considering these factors in different circumstances.
And that’s just what the Court should be doing in analyzing the ACA. Rather than asking whether the law violates some abstract limit on federal power, the Court should ask whether the trade-offs against some federalism values are justified in service to others.
The states submit that the law compromises local autonomy too much, and the federal government maintains that the need for collective-action problem-solving justifies any intrusion, which is limited by the flexibility the law confers on states to create alternative programs and to opt out entirely by declining federal funds. The plaintiffs argue that the individual mandate compromises the very individual rights that checks and balances are designed to protect, while the defendants protest that there is no recognized right to not buy health insurance, especially when the failure to do so externalizes harms to other individuals. They might further argue that both checks and synergy values are served by the use of a regulatory partnership approach to health reform rather than full federal preemption. And so on.
In a new book, Federalism and the Tug of War Within, I offer a theory of Balanced Federalism to facilitate these foundational inquiries. Federalism analysis tethered to underlying constitutional values would help ensure governance that best advances them, and it would defuse the frequent constitutional grandstanding in which federalism is strategically deployed to mask substantive policy disagreements. In the end, the question should not be whether only the state or also the federal government can make us eat broccoli; it is whether there are any constitutionally compelling reasons for either to do so. Either way, one thing remains clear: no matter what the Court decides this month, we are sure to be talking about it for a very long time.
Tuesday, May 15, 2012
In this post, I take a hiatus from chronicling my adventures in China to reflect on the passing of a giant of the American legal system, a friend of the environmental movement since its early days, and a beacon for my own spirit, Judge James R. Browning of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Judge Browning died last week at age 93, and the world is emptier in his wake. A Montana native appointed by President John F. Kennedy, he served over half a century on the Circuit (perhaps the longest serving federal appellate judge in U.S. history), including twelve years as a particularly beloved Chief Judge.
Judge Browning was small in stature and quiet in voice, and his gentle manner moved all with whom he interacted, from members of Congress to the courthouse cleaning staff. In testament to his crusade for justice and kindness through the legal system, the Courthouse where he sat in San Francisco now bears his name. What follows is taken from an essay contributed to a recent issue of the Montana Law Review celebrating his accomplishments (published a few weeks before his death), in which former clerks were asked to describe the man and his influence on their own development within the law:
I began clerking for Judge Browning just as he began his transition from active to senior status after forty years on the bench. I had just graduated from law school, which I had attended after a brief career as a forest ranger near Yosemite National Park. Judge Browning and I shared a love of wilderness and open spaces that somehow bridged his Montana upbringing with mine in New York. Today I am a law professor and at the moment, a Fulbright Scholar in China, studying environmental governance in a system so different from the one in which he first immersed me. To recount the story of his influence since then, there are too many points to begin.
I could share what I learned from him about the art (and artifice) of holding a society together by the rule of law, a lesson especially powerful now that I am living in a society that isn’t.
I could recount the memorable opinions that we worked on. There was the one preserving a modicum of tribal sovereignty despite centuries of the countervailing trend in Federal Indian Law, in which he deftly wielded precedent to both cut and shield, demonstrating the great common law tradition of pursuing justice within consistency. Or the one upholding sensible environmental regulations against an insensible but novel federalism challenge, resolving perplexing questions that kept me alone in chambers with federalism theory texts for unending days and nights (and which would later fuel my own academic research agenda). Or the case in which he found a remedy to assist the septuagenarian inmate at risk of losing nearly all his teeth to callous neglect by prison staff, even after I had resignedly concluded that there was none.
I could recall the simple delights that he took in life, like his ritual mischief of eating a single peanut before reaching the supermarket cash register across from the Pasadena courthouse. He would enjoy the peanut in the aisles but save the empty shell for the cashier, which he politely presented with an impish grin. Then he would insist on jaywalking back to court across the wide boulevard, darting through unsympathetic traffic, even into his 80s.
I could talk about the humble but practical choice to make his San Francisco office not in the hallowed Chief Judge’s central chamber, but in the corner meeting room that was smaller but had better sun (such that generations of clerks would, as I did, crawl out of a law library carrel and into the grandest office we would doubtlessly ever inhabit). I could talk about the treasures and secrets that I found improbably hidden within the very walls of that office, where previous clerks had left them over the years—small notes and totems that would momentarily suspend me in the gossamer margin of present between the ghosts of JRB brethren past and spirits yet to come. It is fitting that the building now bears his name, as well as the spirit of collegiality, wisdom, and mercy that he infused into the conduct of justice within it.
But my favorite "JRB" tale has nothing to do with the Courthouse, or a case, or even the law. It is about the wisdom he shared when he graciously agreed to officiate at my wedding the following year. We were thrilled that he was willing, as he was already the grandfather I never had as an adult, the mentor I never had in law school, and the sage we all hope for in positions of authority. My fiancé regarded him with similar awe and adoration. We could think of no one better to shepherd us into this next, most important phase in our lives.
Judge Browning agreed to marry us, but first we would meet with him to discuss the project. Not of the wedding itself, of course, but the project of our marriage. By that time, he and Mrs. Browning had been married well over half a century, and he clearly had as much wisdom on this issue as anything legal. We met at the Mill Valley Train Station Cafe and dove into the sanctity of the matter over blueberry muffins and hot drinks. He wanted to know why we had chosen to marry, and what we expected of the institution. He needed to know that we were ready, and that we would approach our commitment with the requisite spirit of joy and resolve. This was important to him. He could not preside at a wedding that skewed more toward the flowers and photographs than the sacred bond at its heart. At the end of our meeting, apparently satisfied with our discussion, he gave my husband a wink and the most practical advice of all: “My secret to fifty years of bliss? She is always right!”
There were plenty of flowers and photographs at the wedding, which took place in a Sonoma County garden over Labor Day weekend, with happy friends and relatives gathering from all corners of the country. It made no difference to Judge Browning that my husband’s two mothers had made the same level of commitment we would now undertake. It made no difference that our vows referenced a spirituality that was not his own. It made no difference to him that we had implored him to let us arrange his ride, and so he and Mrs. Browning arrived nail-bitingly late as he slowly but safely navigated to our remote garden setting. The only thing that mattered to Judge Browning was the solemnity and joy of the occasion. He presided with a grace, wisdom, and generosity that helped set transcendental foundations for the marriage he helped bring into being. Through the times of solace and difficulty since, we have always drawn on the strength and faith that he infused into our rite of passage.
In retrospect, Judge Browning’s contributions to our wedding were not that different from those he made to every case that he helped decide, every law clerk that he shepherded, every aspect of justice that he has helped to administer over the years. In each instance, he never lost sight of the ultimate object of his attention: the people before him. Whether interpreting the principles of constitutional federalism, the doctrine of qualified immunity, or the Sherman Antitrust Act, his considerations—though impeccably informed by jurisprudence—always centered on the individuals who would be impacted. The citizens participating in their own governance. The suffering elderly inmate, and his caretakers who will next time rise to the occasion. The consumers that antitrust laws are designed to protect. The bride and groom, immersed in alternating tides of hope and fear.
Judge Browning always saw the human beings at the center of the circle, and he looked them in the eye. He always wielded the judicial power as a tool for realizing justice by advancing human dignity. Because of his example, countless litigants, attorneys, court personnel, and clerks renewed their faith in the legal system, and in a civil society organized around it. I certainly did. This is, perhaps, his greatest gift.
Thursday, April 12, 2012
Last time, I posted some thoughts on Mingo Logan Coal Co. v. EPA, in which the D.C. District Court held that EPA exceeded its statutory authority when, after the Army Corps of Engineers issued a section 404 permit, EPA withdrew the underlying site specification. I considered the administrative-law and civil discourse aspects of the opinion in the previous post, but another interesting aspect of the case is the relationship between EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers.
Throughout the permitting process, EPA expressed concerns about the environmental impacts of Mingo Logan’s mountaintop mining project, but it never exercised its veto authority over the specification of disposal sites. Two years after the Corps issued the permit, however, EPA sent a letter to the Corps requesting that the latter revoke the permit. Only after the Corps refused did EPA take matters into its own hands by withdrawing the site specification—a post-permit step the court held outside the bounds of EPA’s statutory authority.
Mingo Logan involved the Clean Water Act, but environmental law relies on interagency relationships at every turn. Moreover, these relationships exist horizontally between federal agencies as well as vertically between federal and state agencies. Jody Freeman and Jim Rossi document a number of such relationships here, as does Eric Biber here.
Lately I’ve been working on a project that asks how courts should respond when agencies conflict. That circumstance can put the usual reasons for judicial deference—superior political accountability and expertise—in tension with one another so that it’s not immediately obvious which agency ought to prevail. While it’s unusual for two agencies to be opposing parties in court, it does happen occasionally, and it seems to me that there are a number of approaches a court might take to sort out the dispute.
But in most instances, agency conflicts lurk in the background of court cases. That is, the action agency gets sued and its behavior is the focus of judicial review. That’s how the Mingo Logan case worked; although the court described the relationship between the Corps and EPA, that relationship had little, if any, bearing on the court’s analysis. Rather, the court evaluated EPA’s action in the usual way—here, in terms of its conformity to the statutory mandate—with deference accorded as justified. This has also been the approach of the D.C. Circuit faced with the Yucca Mountain controversy, and there are many more examples. Although I’ve concluded that fidelity to statute is the proper approach in such circumstances, I admit that it’s a little unsatisfying. Is there any way to account for another agency’s involvement? Has anyone seen any novel approaches to this issue?
- Emily Meazell
Saturday, April 7, 2012
This is the third in my series of reports from the field about the environmental experiences of an environmental law professor in China. (For the full background on this series, see my introductory post and last month’s reflections on China and the Rocky Mountain Arsenal.) It has been a busy month since my last post, during which I’ve had the pleasure of traveling the country widely. Today I actually write from Japan, where I am visiting Nagoya University to discuss the role of the common law public trust doctrine in balancing economic development and environmental protection.
It is a lecture that I have given frequently in both the U.S. and China, and before arriving, I had carefully considered the differences I could expect in sharing the same ideas with a Japanese audience. In the U.S., law students are fascinated by the role of legal institutions in mediating the conflict, especially demonstrated in the Mono Lake litigation around which I build the presentation. In China, students are more interested the factual content of the story—and dumbstruck by the idea that protecting birds, fish, and wilderness could possibly compete with the water needs of a large metropolis. What would I find here in Japan, a nation with relatively thorough pollution controls but comparatively scarce natural resources?
As it turned out, I needed no academic encounter to see where the Shintoist-inflected Japanese approach would differ from China’s. All the evidence I needed—evidence that nearly knocked me off my feet from the moment I first stepped outside—was in the air. The clean, fresh, sweet-smelling, healthy-feeling air. After eight months of breathing in China, the air was so beautiful that I almost cried. There was no haze, no taste, no grit. You could see the world crisply and clearly ahead of you for miles—even better than I could recall from home in the U.S. I realized in that moment how much I had forced myself to forget what this could be like, in order to just get on with daily life in China. But like an elephant, the lungs never forget. So I guess it’s time to confront the great elephant in the room of Chinese environmental issues and talk about the experience of living with China’s notorious air quality problems.
Everyone knows that air pollution is a serious problem in China. The World Health Organization reports that some 700,000 Chinese people die each year from air-pollution related respiratory diseases. Many of the world’s most polluted cities are in China, and we took serious account of this reality in contemplating our Fulbright voyage. In Beijing, particulate pollution levels regularly exceed the scale that the U.S. government normally uses to monitor it (such that air quality problems are quite literally “off the scale”). Shanghai air is a little better, but still far worse than the worst air quality days in the worst air quality years of Los Angeles’ experience. A friend at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing reports the common wisdom there that a bad day in Los Angeles can get as high as 90 on the PM 2.5 particulate pollution scale, while a bad day in Beijing can exceed 400 (and occasionally even tops 500). He says "if it's less than 150, I'm usually happy, because then I can see the sun." (For full comparison's sake, in 2009, the average PM 2.5 particulate pollution level for the entire U.S. was just under 10, and the average in Los Angeles was just under 15.) The State Department actually pays the American embassy staff in Beijing “hardship compensation”—extra pay for enduring hazardous working conditions, just by virtue of breathing there. [For a good-day/bad day photo comparison, see this follow-up post.]
And foreigners aren’t the only ones concerned. In recent months, the people of Beijing witnessed an important demonstration of their own political power when public unrest ultimately persuaded the Chinese government to change its air quality monitoring norms. For years, China had monitored only airborne particulates measuring at least 10 microns across, even though it is the much smaller particles that can do the most damage—passing through the alveoli in the lungs directly into the blood stream. The U.S. embassy in Beijing monitors particulate matter as small as 2.5 microns (PM 2.5) on an hourly basis, and had been making the data available to the public over the Internet. So the Chinese air quality reports made air quality problems look a lot less serious than the American reports.
But this winter was worse than usual—much worse. The U.S. Embassy data showed sustained levels of seriously hazardous pollution—the kind that could harm any healthy person, not just the especially sensitive young, old, or sick. Air filter sales surged in Beijing, and residents donned surgical masks in (mostly futile) efforts to reduce their inhalation of choking auto exhaust, coal-fired power plant and manufacturing emissions, and dust from the ubiquitous construction projects and nearby Gobi desert. A New York Times report that managed to jump the Great Firewall told of some Party officials who had retrofitted their homes with equipment to cleanse the toxic air, infuriating the 99% who had to breathe it without recourse.
As public agitation mounted, the Chinese government reportedly requested that the U.S. Embassy stop publishing its PM 2.5 monitoring data (likening it to inappropriate meddling in domestic affairs). Beijing residents were enraged by these purported efforts to keep them in the dark about genuine threats to public health. In the Twitter-like microblogs that dominate the Chinese blogosphere, one after another vented their outrage—mothers wanting to keep young children inside when the air was most hazardous, sons wanting to keep aging mothers at home on the days of elevated stroke risk. In a stunning victory for transparency in Chinese governance—and an important signal of how seriously average Chinese people are taking air quality—the government reversed itself and finally began monitoring at the PM 2.5 level.
In fact, I had been graciously offered connections to some of the nation’s leading universities in Beijing when my Fulbright placement was being set. But given Beijing’s air problems (and with memories of my son’s respiratory complications from swine flu still fresh in mind), we pursued a placement in the coastal city of Qingdao instead, as much for the city’s famously clean air as for Ocean University’s vibrant environmental law program. And indeed, when we arrived in August, the wisdom of our choice seemed confirmed. Our introductory week in Beijing—while culturally thrilling—was environmentally chilling. None of my ample armchair research into Beijing’s air quality problems prepared me for the experience of actually breathing air with physical heft. Air with taste and texture. Air that we knew—our bodies as physically as our minds did intellectually—would eventually make us sick. We were elated to finally get to Qingdao, where indeed, the summer air was comparatively pristine.
But even in Qingdao, everything changed in late November, when the heat went on in northern China. In China, the heat (like most else!) is centrally coordinated. So the heat for the entire northern part of the country goes online around November 15th, bringing to life the countless coal-fired power plants that freckle every city landscape, some large but many quite small. One such sleeper turned out to be directly across from my son’s preschool. Its curiously squat smokestack was coupled with a more slender companion, both raised just above the higher floors of the surrounding residential apartments. They seemed old and apparently unused in the fall, so we had assumed it was an old factory abandoned after residential infill. Once we realized that it was really an eye-level conduit for mercury-laden, throat-choking coal dust, we panicked considered our alternatives. But the truth is that these little generators are everywhere. So many, so little, that installing appropriate scrubbers would require the kind of massive financial commitment currently beyond reach for most developing economies.
It’s easy to cite the mind-boggling statistics of how bad the air quality can get here. It’s hard to describe the actual experience of it. Harder still to endure it. There is a kind of low-level panic that sets in when the air begins to go bad. You hope against hope that this time will not last as long as the last time, and you unconcsciously start to breathe more shallowly. Then you assume a bunker mentality and try to keep the bad air out of your home as much as possible. You close all the windows and become extremely careful about closing the doors as fast as possible when you come and go from the apartment. You have to give up the charade when you leave for work, but eventually it doesn't matter because the bad air eventually finds a way into every room. In large enclosed spaces like airports, the haze can even obstruct your view of the far interior wall. At this point, you just have to submit to the situation and try not to think about what's actually in the air. There is nowhere to go, nothing you can do to avoid it. But you still try not to breathe too deeply.
After the winter heat went on, the blue skies of Qingdao disappeared behind a grainy haze of automobile fumes and coal plant smoke. On the worst days the weather report is simply “smoke,” and breathing is like inhaling in the wake of buffed chalkboard erasers that have been tainted with some kind of chemical. We use packing tape to try and seal the faulty window frames and the gaps around our doors. Surfaces in our home are perpetually coated with once airborne dust and particulates. We are no longer so keen to take walks to the lovely mountain behind the university (which we very often can’t even see, as in the prior photo). We avoid strenuous exercise—even running to catch the bus—because deep breathing hurts. On days when we can only hazily see the building fifteen meters from our own (and the others beyond disappear fully into the smoke, as in the photo below), we try to not even leave the apartment.
In the early days of winter, the stress of adjusting to the air pollution was oppressive. We felt sick most of the time, and were always anxious. Eventually, we adapted to the circumstances and we were once again able to find joy and fascination in our new world. But even now, we finish most days by lying down in bed to cough the day's residue out of our lungs. And on many mornings, I wrestle with the decision to send my son to preschool, which requires both him and my mother to troop a half-mile up a steep hill directly toward the belching power plant.
In fact, when the EPA announced the new mercury rule that it finally promulgated in late 2011 after twenty years of trying, I metaphorically jumped for joy and then literally wept with grief when it forced me to connect the primary source of U.S. mercury—coal-fired power plant emissions—with our own experience here. I thought of all the environmental risks to which we are subjecting my little boy, who turned four here this winter. So ironic, after all our fastidious caretaking in his first three years (organic milk, physician-approved sunscreen, no cigarette or pesticide exposure, etc.)! What was the point, when we are now subjecting him to more hazard than he may experience for the rest of his life? Almost every day in January, I questioned whether I did the right thing bringing him here. About every other day, I was pretty sure that I didn’t.
Then again, we take the objectives of our cultural diplomacy here very seriously. Raising a child here has enabled us to access a depth of Chinese culture that most visitors never come close to understanding. We understand China in a way we never could have imagined before now, and we have shared our American ideals just as profoundly. At the moment, my son is a living bridge between our cultures, in a way that fills our neighborhood with joy and hope for the future of our nations’ friendship. So I tell myself that the air pollution is really very temporary for us, and that we will come home in just a few more months. (And then I wrestle with the guilt of knowing that all the people I’ve come to love here will not have the same luxury.)
Seriously folks—I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again—every American bellyaching about the costs of environmental regulation in the United States really needs to spend a year living in China. Especially from this vantage point, the proposition that Americans no longer need so much environmental law because our environment is so clean (thanks, of course, to environmental law…) makes me want to break something. I try to muster some empathy for those making this argument, because they obviously have no perspective on what the lack of meaningful environmental regulation would actually mean for their daily lives. Which is why they should come to China for a while—preferably with their small children and aging parents. (Then we’ll see how much they miss the EPA!)
Here in Qingdao, without the benefit of enforced environmental regulations, we have learned simply to pray for cold weather. The northerly winds from Siberia blow the smoke out to sea and provide a day or two of respite, so bitter cold is our new favorite forecast. In fact, Qingdao’s famously clean air is probably a result of this standard winter weather pattern—but the weather patterns here shifted this year, as they have been doing all over the globe. Whether for reasons of climate change or unknown factors, the winds that once regularly purged Qingdao’s smog barely blew this winter, and air quality plummeted accordingly. In just the first three months, bad air quality days already exceeded the previous year’s by 400%. Qingdao residents have complained bitterly about the problem, even prompting some new local regulations. But as one of my students wryly observed, “would they rather their homes have no heat?”
In fact, northern Chinese winters get very cold, and most of our Chinese friends easily prefer the heat with all of its downsides. But we should also give credit where it is due for the many ways that Chinese people avoid making the problem even worse—by not living the way that most Americans do. For example, the roofs of all Chinese buildings are barnacled with rows and rows of solar water heaters, avoiding the need for yet more coal-fired electricity. The taxi fleets all run exclusively on natural gas, and city public transportation is exceptional—cheap, easy to use, and everywhere. Almost nobody here has an electric clothes dryer, among the most notorious energy hogs in the American household. Some fear this may change for the environmentally worse as 1.4 billion Chinese get richer and more interested in exotic appliances—but Japan has a fully developed economy, and line-drying remains the norm there as well. Finally, China appears to have made a serious national commitment to reducing greenhouse gas production in its Twelfth Five Year Plan, now beginning implementation in the seven largest metropolitan areas. (Perhaps in the meanwhile, they can work on small coal-plant scrubbers.)
Anyway, we are now counting down the days until the heat finally goes off on April 15th. What seemed unendurable in the first few months eventually became routine, such that the days we once barricaded ourselves inside are now days that I will (if reluctantly) take my son outside to play. We say things like, “the air is bad today, but at least the chalk dust doesn’t have too much chemical in it.” For better or worse, we have adjusted to our new environment—fully appreciating that it is still better than most Chinese enjoy. After November 15th, I alternated between horrified, angry, and desperate that I had submerged my family in the very sort of environment that I had pledged my professional career to avoid. I still have all of these feelings at times, but the desperation has mostly given way to determination. What environmentalists do is important. (Indeed, even the Tsingtao Beer Museum includes a display about environmental protection efforts tracing to Rachel Carson's Silent Spring.) What environmental scientists and lawyers do is important. What environmental law professors do is important. Keep doing it, everyone.
April 7, 2012 in Air Quality, Asia, Cases, Climate Change, Current Affairs, Energy, Governance/Management, International, Law, Legislation, Sustainability, Toxic and Hazardous Substances, Travel, Weblogs | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
Friday, March 30, 2012
On March 23, 2012, the D.C. District Court issued an opinion in Mingo Logan Coal Co. v. EPA that raises a host of fascinating environmental and administrative law issues. The facts alone have attracted quite a bit of attention—this case is about mountaintop mining. There is plenty to say about this case, but here are some initial reactions focusing on two aspects of the opinion: the administrative law analysis; and the overall tone of the reasoning.
Mingo Logan, the petitioner in the case, obtained various permits from West Virginia for its mountaintop mining operations (including an NPDES permit that EPA initially opposed). It also applied to the Corps of Engineers for a Clean Water Act (CWA) section 404 permit to discharge material from its mine into nearby streams. EPA expressed concern over this permit and the accompanying EIS, but it didn't exercise its veto authority and the permit was eventually issued in 2007.
Two years later, EPA requested that the Corps withdraw the permit, stating that downstream water quality impacts hadn’t been adequately addressed. The Corps rejected that request, and in 2010, EPA announced its plans to withdraw the specification of most of the streams comprising Mingo Logan’s discharge area. The withdrawal became final in 2011, and Mingo Logan sued.
The Chevron Analysis
In her opinion on cross motions for summary judgment, Judge Amy Berman Jackson treated the issue—whether EPA exceeded its statutory authority under section 404(c) of the CWA by withdrawing the site specification after the Corps had issued the permit—according to the two-step Chevron analysis. The language under consideration: "The Administrator is authorized to prohibit the specification (including the withdrawal of specification) of any defined area as a disposal site . . . ."
The court's Step One analysis set up a few strawmen of possible but unlikely meanings of this provision before knocking them down and turning to the statute as a whole. Here, the court expressed concern about the mechanics of a post-permit withdrawal. It's true that the agencies don't appear to have worked out those particulars, but it's not clear why that undermines the authority of the EPA to withdraw a specification. Aren't there plenty of situations where Congress delegates broad authority and leaves the particulars to the EPA? In any event, the court here created some Brand X ambiguities by not being entirely clear whether the statute unambiguously prohibits a post-permit withdrawal.
But the Step Two analysis is where things got especially interesting. First the court asked whether Chevron applied, given that two different agencies share responsibilities for 404 permitting (some courts and scholars treat this as a Step Zero issue instead). Judge Jackson determined that Chevron was not warranted, but she may have missed an opportunity for deeper analysis. Other courts have examined agencies' responsibilities more closely here and given deference to the agency with expertise. Arguably, the EPA has expertise when it comes to reasons a withdrawal would be warranted. The court decided Skidmore deference would be appropriate in this circumstance (again, slightly unusual to embed that in Chevron Step Two). But then it gave short shrift to the things that matter under Skidmore, like the consistency of the agency's interpretation over time (it's been in place since 1979). An agency's policy rationales also matter under Skidmore, but the court dismissed the EPA's policy statements on the matter while raising its own policy concerns about commerce. Ultimately, the court determined that EPA's interpretation is unreasonable; thus, the agency acted outside its statutory authority.
A Few Words About Tone
But here's what really stood out about the opinion: its tone was disrespectful and at times, caustic. Take this passage:
. . . EPA resorts to magical thinking. It posits a scenario involving automatic self-destruction of a written permit issued by an entirely separate federal agency after years of study and consideration. Poof!
No matter the substantive outcome or administrative law approach, it's disappointing to see a court treat one of the parties disrespectfully. Especially for issues that arouse such passion (jobs, mining, mountains, water), what is the impact on the perceived legitimacy of our system in the long-term when judicial rhetoric takes this kind of turn?
For some great insights, take a look at Dave Markell, Tom Tyler, and Sarah Brosnan’s forthcoming empirical piece on procedural preferences, trust, and the importance of the decisionmaker treating parties in a respectful way. The bottome line: it matters.
Please, let's aim for civil discourse. And let's model respectful behavior for our students.
Monday, March 5, 2012
The BP Oil Spill case settled! Well, part of it. The smaller part. But, still, we must count this a victory for U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier, whose reported 72 million pages of assigned reading will inevitably be shaved down. (Does this man have an iPad?)
On Friday evening the court announced that BP had reached a settlement with the steering committee that represents thousands of private plaintiffs in the case. Judge Barbier postponed the trial indefinitely while the remaining parties, including the federal government, regroup. According to news reports, the settlement would cover claims for economic loss and medical harm. BP estimated that the settlement, which has no firm cap, might total $7.8 billion; the actual number would depend on how many plaintiffs accept the deal and how much they’re ultimately paid. Plaintiffs displeased with the offer could opt out and stay in the litigation. And all private claims against Transocean and other defendant companies remain.
On balance, the settlement appears to be a good thing. But this plate is just the appetizer. The main course—a pepper pot of federal civil claims and criminal charges—has yet to come. And that’s a dish that could really bust a gut.
Before I get to the federal claims, here’s why I like the settlement. The private claims—brought by shrimpers, restaurant owners, injured responders, the families of fallen rig operators and more—were incredibly diverse in factual elements and dogged by the uncertain standard that controls large punitive awards. That not only made their claims hard to value, but insured that any generous verdict would be sent into the deep-‐space of federal appeals, delaying for years the compensation that many families and small businesses need now.
For those, like me, who hope the oil industry will be driven to reduce catastrophic risk offshore, the more powerful lever has always been in the grip of government lawyers. As I explained in my last post, the current litigation also includes federal claims seeking civil fines under the Clean Water Act. If Judge Barbier finds that the spill resulted from gross negligence, the maximum fine for the release could total $21.5 billion ($4,300 assessed for each of 5 million barrels the government estimates was spilled). In addition, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder suggested last week that “within months” his office could announce plans to prosecute. (These actions would not be a part of the current litigation.) Provisions under the Clean Water Act allow for criminal penalties up to twice the total amount of the economic loss resulting from the accident. No one yet knows the extent of economic loss (which would include loss to private claimants, natural resource damages claimed by states and federal agencies, and more), but it doesn’t take much imagination to conceive of criminal penalties in the $30-‐50 billion range. (Take $6 billion in compensation fund pay-‐outs; add $8 billion for the settlement; add another $10 billion for estimated resource damage; double.) Did I mention fines and jail time for individual employees?
To be sure, I am talking about the high end of federal fines and penalties, but even the possibility of such liability must leave BP executives staring at the clouds. Could BP settle with the government? Perhaps, but to contain all liability, the company would almost certainly seek to settle the civil and criminal actions together. That makes Eric Holder the head chef. And for now he’s got these cases on a slow but steady boil.
Sunday, October 23, 2011
Climate change regulation is dead? Not in California, which this week adopted the nation's first economy-wide cap-and-trade program.
The Tenth Circuit, in a 120-page decision, upheld a Clinton-era rule protecting 50 million acres of forestland from logging and roads.
The Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy released its first annual rankings of states; Massachusetts was first, with California second.
An advocacy study observed that FCC standards for cell phones "grossly underestimate the amount" of radiation that "smaller adults and children retain," as reported by Greenwire.
BP received approval for a plan to explore for oil in the Gulf of Mexico, its first such approval since the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
There is a fascinating article this week in The New Yorker about the aftermath of the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear accident in Japan. (hat tip: Joe Tomain)
October 23, 2011 in Asia, Cases, Climate Change, Current Affairs, Energy, Environmental Assessment, Forests/Timber, Governance/Management, Law, Legislation, Science, Sustainability, US | Permalink | TrackBack (0)
Wednesday, April 20, 2011
If the Clean Air Act Displaces Public Nusiance Claims, What Happens if Congress Displaces the Clean Air Act?
During yesterday’s oral argument of AEP v. Connecticut, it seems that things did not go so well for the states attempting to address climate change through public nuisance litigation, see for example here, here, here, and here as representative of typical prognostications of the argument. Because those reading the tea leaves seem to agree the states will lose, the main question up for grabs is how they will go down.
Earlier today, Richard Frank posted a very thoughtful post on this subject. According to Professor Frank, the states will likely lose on the grounds that the Clean Air Act displaces the ability of litigants to bring public nuisance suits arising from greenhouse gas emissions because they are covered by the Act. This is certainly the gist, for example, of the now familiar Justice Ginsburg barb: “Congress told EPA to set the standards [in the Clean Air Act]. You are setting up a District judge as a kind of ‘super EPA.’”
I agree with Prfoessor Frank. However, if this is how the case is resolved, it is interesting to speculate whether or not congressional attempts to strip EPA of its power to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act, if indeed successful, would reopen the door for public nuisance claims. In other words, by displacing the Clean Air Act’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases would Congress also displace a litigant’s ability to argue that the Clean Air Act displaces such public nuisance claims?
Indeed, as the attorneys and the Justices have prepped for AEP’s oral argument over the past few weeks, the news has been filled with the unfolding saga of many of those in Congress attempting to eliminate or cutback the Clean Air Act’s reach to regulate greenhouse gases.
Additionally, as the Justices work into the summer attempting to hammer out an opinion in this case, it also seems likely that further efforts to eliminate or cut back the EPA’s power in this area will continue. In fact, on the heels of the most recent attempt to make EPA’s regulation the ransom necessary to avoid a shutdown of the federal government, Speaker Boehner told us this will not be the last attempt to go after EPA’s regulatory powers. Looking forward, it seems that the question of raising the country’s debt ceiling, which is probably going to be debated within the next few weeks, is a very likely flashpoint in this ongoing congressional battle.
As disturbing as it might be if litigants like those in AEP v. Connecticut ask a district court to act like a Super EPA, one has to question what happens if EPA is forced to act as a Miniature EPA or stripped of its power to act like EPA at all.
-- Brigham Daniels
Thursday, March 10, 2011
Environmental law, by definition, looks forward. But it also pays to look back.
The first, "Lessons from Disasters: What We Are Learning from the BP Deepwater Blowout in the Gulf of Mexico That We Should Have Learned 21 Years Ago in Alaska," draws on Prof. Plater's experience as Chair of the Alaska Oil Spill Commission's Legal Task Force following the Exxon-Valdez disaster. Any examination of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, of course, raises questions not just of environmental degradation but of energy planning, national security, the debate over peak oil, sustainable development, and the direction of our society itself.
The second talk will be delivered as the annual Wallace Stegner Lecture, sponsored by the Wallace Stegner Center for Land, Resources, and the Environment. As counsel for farmers, Cherokees, and environmentalists in the U.S. Supreme Court, Prof. Plater is perhaps better equipped than anyone to comment on what one of the most important cases in the field, TVA v. Hill, has to teach us about where environmental law -- and environmentalism -- is headed today. The title of the lecture is "Classic Lessons from a Little Fish in a Pork Barrel."
Prof. Plater's remarks on the Deepwater Horizon begin at 12:15 p.m. Mountain (2:15 p.m. Eastern; 11:15 a.m. Pacific).
His Wallace Stegner Lecture will begin at 6 p.m. Mountain (8 p.m. Eastern; 5 p.m. Pacific).
If you cannot join live in Salt Lake City, there will be simultaneous webcasts at www.ulaw.tv.
Tuesday, April 28, 2009
Table of Contents - February 23rd - 27th
ENVIRONMENTAL LAW CASES
• US v. Holden
• Sierra Club v. EPA
• Am. Farm Bureau Fed. v. EPA
To view the full-text of cases you must sign in to FindLaw.com.
U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, February 24, 2009
US v. Holden, No. 07-5573, 07-5574
Defendants' conviction for impeding an EPA investigation was affirmed, where the District Court did not abuse its discretion by excluding evidence of a witness's drug use that did not clearly affect his ability to recall events. Read more...
U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, February 26, 2009
Sierra Club v. EPA, No. 07-4485
A petition for review of the EPA's decision not to object to a power plant's air-pollution permit is denied where the EPA may alter its position about a power plant's compliance with the Clean Air Act based on intervening events. Read more...
U.S. D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, February 24, 2009
Am. Farm Bureau Fed. v. EPA, No. 06-1410
Petition for review of EPA air quality standards is granted in part and denied in part, where the EPA failed to adequately explain why its fine particulate matter standard was "requisite to protect the public health" under 42 U.S.C. section 7409(b)(1). Read more...
Table of Contents - February 9-13th
ENVIRONMENTAL LAW CASES
• Ohio Valley Env't Coalition v. Aracoma Coal Co.
• Friends of Milwaukee v. Milwaukee Metro. Sewerage Dist.
• Hill v. Gould
To view the full-text of cases you must sign in to FindLaw.com.[Findlaw registration is free}
U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, February 13, 2009
Ohio Valley Env't Coalition v. Aracoma Coal Co., No. 071355
In challenge to the Army Corps of Engineers' issuance of permits allowing the filling of West Virginia stream waters in conjunction with area surface coal mining operations, grant of judgment in favor of plaintiffs is reversed and remanded where: 1) the Corps did not act arbitrarily or capriciously in determining the scope of its National Environmental Policy Act analysis; 2) findings regarding stream structure and function, mitigation, or cumulative impacts were not an "abuse of discretion" or "not in accordance with law," 5 U.S.C. section 706(2) (2000); 3) Combined Decision Documents issued with each permit included substantial analysis and explanation about the Corps' impact findings which were within the agency's special expertise and were based on Corps staff's best professional judgment; 4) compensatory mitigation plans contained in the CDDs for the challenged permits were sufficient both for purposes of satisfying the Corps' requirements under the Clean Water Act and ! for justifying issuance of a mitigated finding of no significant impact under NEPA; 5) Corps did not act arbitrarily or capriciously in conducting its required cumulative impact analysis; 6) stream segments, together with the sediment ponds to which they connect, are unitary "waste treatment systems," not "waters of the United States," and the Corps' did not exceed its section 404 authority in permitting them; 7) plaintiff's stream segments claim was not barred by principles of res judicata; and 8) Corps' interpretations of its authority was reasonable in light of the CWA and entitled to deference. Read more...
U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, February 13, 2009
Friends of Milwaukee v. Milwaukee Metro. Sewerage Dist., No. 081103
In a citizens' suit against defendant-sewer district under the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (Clean Water Act) alleging that certain sanity sewer overflows that occurred were violations of defendant's CWA permit and of the CWA itself, dismissal of plaintiffs' suit is affirmed over claims that: 1) the district court violated court mandate by not "considering and giving due weight to post-stipulation violations of the Act; 2) had the district court considered post-stipulation events it would have had no choice but to find that the 2002 Stipulation did not constitute diligent prosecution by Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR); and 3) the district court erred by refusing to admit and consider the letter from the EPA to the WDNR. Read more...
U.S. D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, February 13, 2009
Hill v. Gould, No. 07-5026
Denial of an application to recover appellant's attorney's fees and expenses under the Equal Access to Justice Act, brought after she won a lawsuit against the Secretary of the Interior, is affirmed where the Secretary's position at the merits stage was substantially justified. Read more..
Table of Contents - March 16-29th
ENVIRONMENTAL LAW CASES
• Trout Unlimited v. Lohn
• Natural Resources Def. Coun. v. EPA
To view the full-text of cases you must sign in to FindLaw.com. [Findlaw registration is free.]
U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, March 16, 2009
Trout Unlimited v. Lohn, No. 07-35623
In a challenge to a National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) regulation distinguishing between natural and hatchery-spawned salmon and steelhead when determining the level of protection each species should receive under the Endangered Species Act, the majority of District Court's rulings are affirmed where NMFS decisions were not arbitrary, but reversed where summary judgment to Plaintiff was erroneous. Read more...
U.S. D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, March 20, 2009
Natural Resources Def. Coun. v. EPA, No. 07-1151
Petitioner's petition for review of EPA air quality regulations is denied, where: 1) Petitioner failed to object to the EPA's definition of "natural event" during the rulemaking process; and 2) the preamble to the regulations was not a final agency action, and thus was not reviewable under the Clean Air Act. Read more...
Table of Contents - March 9 - 15th
ENVIRONMENTAL LAW CASES
• Am. Bird Conservancy v. Kempthorne
• Dallas v. Hall
• Hempstead County Hunting Club v. Southwestern Electric Power
• Washington v. Chu
• Delaware Dept. of Natural Res. & Envt'l. Ctrl. v. FERC
• Eastern Niagara Pub. Pwr. Alliance & Pub. Pwr. Coal. v. FERC
• State of California v. Allstate Ins. Co.
• People v. Tri-Union Seafoods, LLC
To view the full-text of cases you must sign in to FindLaw.com.[Findlaw registration is free}
U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, March 11, 2009
Am. Bird Conservancy v. Kempthorne, No. 07-4609
In an action involving environmental rulemaking, dismissal of plaintiff's complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction is affirmed where the challenge to the denial by the Fish and Wildlife Service to undertake an emergency rulemaking listing the red knot species of bird endangered, is rendered moot by the publication of the warranted but precluded by higher priority listing in the periodic Candidate Notice of Review. Read more...
U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, March 12, 2009
Dallas v. Hall, No. 08-10890
In an action by a city against the Fish & Wildlife Service based on the agency's establishment of a conservation easement on the city's land, summary judgment for Defendant is affirmed, where the FWS considered a reasonable range of alternatives before creating the easement, and was not required to consider the impact on a potential water source. Read more...
U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, March 12, 2009
Hempstead County Hunting Club v. Southwestern Electric Power , No. 08-2613
In an environmental action, appeal of a denial of a preliminary injunction to halt preconstruction activities for defendant's failure to obtain the permit required by the Clean Air Act is dismissed as moot where defendant has since received the Clean Air Act permit and lawfully begun construction at the site. Read more...
U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, March 10, 2009
Washington v. Chu, No. 06-35227
In an action by the state of Washington against the Department of Energy for violation of hazardous waste management regulations, summary judgment for Plaintiff is affirmed, where the Washington Hazardous Waste Management Act plainly exempts designated nuclear waste from the storage and land-disposal prohibitions "with respect to WIPP" only. Read more...
U.S. D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, March 13, 2009
Delaware Dept. of Natural Res. & Envt'l. Ctrl. v. FERC, No. 07-1007
Petitioner state agency's petition for review of FERC's approval of an application to operate a natural gas site is dismissed, where Petitioner lacked standing to challenge the order because it was expressly conditioned on Petitioner's approval. Read more...
U.S. D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, March 13, 2009
Eastern Niagara Pub. Pwr. Alliance & Pub. Pwr. Coal. v. FERC, No. 07-1472
Petitioner's petition for review of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission's (FERC) approval of a state agency's license to operate a power project is denied, where FERC's decision to issue the license was reasonable and reasonably explained. Read more...
Supreme Court of California, March 09, 2009
State of California v. Allstate Ins. Co. , No. S149988
In an action arising from efforts to obtain insurance coverage for property damage liability imposed in a federal lawsuit as a result of discharges from a hazardous waste disposal facility, grant of defendant's motion for summary judgment is reversed where: 1) triable issues of fact exist as to whether the 1969 overflow fell within the meaning of the absolute pollution exclusion for watercourses contained in the insurance policy; 2) evidence the State should have known flooding was likely is insufficient to prove as an undisputed fact that the waste discharge in 1978 due to flooding was expected and therefore nonaccidental; and 3) there is a triable issue as to whether the cost of repairing the property damage from the 1969 and 1978 discharges can be quantitatively divided among the various causes of contamination. Read more...
California Appellate Districts, March 11, 2009
People v. Tri-Union Seafoods, LLC, No. A116792
In an action involving food warnings, trial court's ruling for the defendant is affirmed where substantial evidence supports the trial courts finding that methylmercury is naturally occurring in canned tuna and thus defendants and other tuna companies are exempt from the warning requirements of Proposition 65. Read more...
Table of Contents - March 2 - 8th
ENVIRONMENTAL LAW CASES
• Summers v. Earth Island Inst.
• Martex Farms, S.E. v. US EPA
• Izaak Walton League of Am., Inc. v. Kimball
• Latino Issues Forum v. EPA
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Summers v. Earth Island Inst., No. 07-463
In an action challenging Forest Service regulations exempting certain land management activities from the agency's review process, an injunction against the regulations is reversed where Plaintiffs lacked standing to challenge the regulations absent a live dispute over a concrete application of those regulations. Read more...
U.S. 1st Circuit Court of Appeals, March 05, 2009
Martex Farms, S.E. v. US EPA, No. 08-1311
Final decision and order of the Environmental Appeals Board holding plaintiff liable for violations of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act is affirmed where: 1) there is no legal basis for plaintiff's argument that the EPA's enforcement action amounted to selective prosecution; 2) plaintiff's claim that it was deprived of a full and fair opportunity to present its case fails as the denial of its motion to depose four witnesses was justified; and 3) there is no evidence that there is any basis for reversal as to the substantive violations committed by plaintiff. Read more...
U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, March 06, 2009
Izaak Walton League of Am., Inc. v. Kimball , No. 07-3689
In an action involving the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act, district court's grant of defendant's motion for summary judgment is affirmed where: 1) plaintiff's claims that the Forest Service violated the Act are time barred by the six year statute of limitations in the Act; and 2) there is no appellate jurisdiction over the appeal of the district court's order remanding the matter to the Forest Service to prepare an environmental impact statement assessing the sound impact of the proposed snowmobile trail. Read more...
U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, March 05, 2009
Latino Issues Forum v. EPA, No. 06-71907
In a petition for review of the EPA's approval of a state air-pollutant reduction program, the petition is denied where the EPA acted lawfully under 42 U.S.C. section 7509(d)(2) by not requiring implementation of "all feasible measures" into the program. Read more...
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April 28, 2009 in Air Quality, Cases, Energy, Environmental Assessment, Forests/Timber, Governance/Management, Land Use, Law, Science, Sustainability, Toxic and Hazardous Substances, US | Permalink | TrackBack (0)
Table of Contents
ENVIRONMENTAL LAW CASES
• Entergy Corp. v. Riverkeeper, Inc.
• New Jersey Dept. of Envtl. Prot. v. US Nuclear Regulatory Comm'n
• Columbia Venture LLC v. S.C. Wildlife Fed.
• Center for Biological Diversity v. Marina Pt. Dev. Co.
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U.S. Supreme Court, April 01, 2009
Entergy Corp. v. Riverkeeper, Inc., No. 07-588
In a petition for review of EPA national performance standards for cooling water intake structures, the grant of the petition is reversed, where the EPA permissibly relied on cost-benefit analysis in setting the national performance standards and in providing for cost-benefit variances from those standards. Read more...
U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, March 31, 2009
New Jersey Dept. of Envtl. Prot. v. US Nuclear Regulatory Comm'n, No. 07-2271
Petition for review of an Nuclear Regulatory Commission decision denying NJ Dept. of Environmental Protection request to intervene in relicensing proceedings for the Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station is denied where in reviewing the application to relicense the nuclear power facility, the Commission is not required to make an environmental impact analysis of a hypothetical terrorist attack on the facility as the relicensing of Oyster Creek does not have a reasonably close causal relationship with the environmental effects that would be caused by a terrorist attack. The NRC also already addressed the environmental impact of such an attack in its Generic Environmental Impact Statement and site-specific Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement. Read more...
U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, April 03, 2009
Columbia Venture LLC v. S.C. Wildlife Fed., No. 05-2398
In a challenge to a FEMA decision regarding certain base flood elevation determinations, the District Court's order vacating those determinations is reversed, where Plaintiffs failed to show that they were prejudiced by FEMA's failure to timely publish notice of the decision in the Federal Register. Read more.
U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, March 30, 2009
Center for Biological Diversity v. Marina Pt. Dev. Co., No. 06-56193
In an action under the Clean Water Act (CWA) and Endangered Species Act (ESA), judgment for Plaintiffs is reversed, where: 1) Plaintiffs did not give sufficiently specific notice of intent to sue under the CWA; and 2) the ESA action was moot because the species at issue had been delisted during the pendency of the appeal. Award of attorney's fees to Plaintiffs is affirmed, where the mootness of the ESA action did not affect the fee award. Read more...
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Here are the Findlaw case summaries from mid-April. No cases of interest were published during the last week.
Table of Contents
ENVIRONMENTAL LAW CASES
• Ecology Center v. Castaneda
• Kane Cty. v. Salazar
• Arizona Pub. Serv. Co. v. EPA
• Hydro Resources, Inc. v. EPA
• Center for Biological Diversity v. U.S. Dep't of Interior
U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, April 17, 2009
Ecology Center v. Castaneda, No. 07-35054
In a challenge to Defendant Forest Service's approval of timber sales, summary judgment for Defendant is affirmed, where: 1) Defendant met the "best available science" requirement in setting the old growth standard; and 2) the guideline language underlying Plaintiff's claim was not mandatory. Read more...
U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, April 13, 2009
Kane Cty. v. Salazar, No. 07-4207
In an action alleging that the Secretary of the Interior's land management plan violated Plaintiff county's water rights, the dismissal of the complaint is affirmed, where Plaintiffs failed to allege that the Secretary failed to take a discrete action that it was required to take, as required by 5 U.S.C. section 706. Read more...
U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, April 14, 2009
Arizona Pub. Serv. Co. v. EPA, No. 07-9546
In a petition for review of an EPA regulation limiting emissions, the petition is granted in part, where the parties agreed to a remand regarding fugitive dust limits, but denied in part, where the Clean Air Act does not prohibit the EPA from relying on current air quality monitoring data. Read more...
U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, April 17, 2009
Hydro Resources, Inc. v. EPA, No. 07-9506
In a petition for review of the EPA's determination that land owned by Plaintiff was "Indian country," the petition is denied, where Congress set aside the land for use by Indians as Indian land, the federal government was actively involved in superintending the land, and there was an "element of cohesiveness" in the community there. Read more...
U.S. D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, April 17, 2009
Center for Biological Diversity v. U.S. Dep't of Interior, No. 07-1247
In a petition for review of a Department of Interior oil and gas leasing program, the petition is granted in part, where the program's environmental sensitivity rankings were irrational, but denied in part, where Petitioners' remaining claims were unripe because there was no allegation that they would be affected by potential climate change. Read more...
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Friday, April 10, 2009
Palmyra Pacific Seafoods, L.L.C. v. U.S., No. 08-5058 (Fed. Cir. April 09, 2009) PDF
Yesterday, the Federal Circuit decided a takings case where the U.S. created a wildlife refuge around an island on which the plaintiff had acquired contractual rights to operate a base and pier for its commercial fishing operation. The refuge regulations prohibited commercial fishing within the refuge and allowed limited sports fishing to facilitate operation of a camp owned by the Nature Conservancy. The Federal Circuit affirmed the Court of Federal Claims' dismissal for failure to state a claim. The Federal Circuit reasoned that the government's regulation of activities in the waters surrounding Palmyra may have adversely affected the value of plaintiff's contract rights, but did not take the contract rights themselves. The plaintiff is left with an ability to fish beyond the 12 mile limit of the refuge. Even if the government regulation targeted plaintiff's contract rights in order to promote the interests of another party, creation of the refuge and its regulations still did not constitute a compensable taking as those actions regulated conduct in which plaintiff had no protected property interest.
Wednesday, March 4, 2009
Wyeth v. Levine, No. 06-1249 (U.S. Mar. 4, 2009) Findlaw Link
Petitioner Wyeth manufactures the antinausea drug Phenergan. After a clinician injected respondent Levine with Phenergan by the "IV-push" method, whereby a drug is injected directly into a patient's vein, the drug entered Levine's artery, she developed gangrene, and doctors amputated her forearm. Levine brought a state-law damages action, alleging, inter alia, that Wyeth had failed to provide an adequate warning about the significant risks of administering Phenergan by the IV-push method. The Vermont jury determined that Levine's injury would not have occurred if Phenergan's label included an adequate warning, and it awarded damages for her pain and suffering, substantial medical expenses, and loss of her livelihood as a professional musician. Declining to overturn the verdict, the trial court rejected Wyeth's argument that Levine's failure-to-warn claims were pre-empted by federal law because Phenergan's labeling had been approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The Vermont Supreme Court affirmed.
Held: Federal law does not pre-empt Levine's claim that Phenergan's label did not contain an adequate warning about the IV-push method of administration. Pp. 6-25.
(a) The argument that Levine's state-law claims are pre-empted because it is impossible for Wyeth to comply with both the state-law duties underlying those claims and its federal labeling duties is rejected. Although a manufacturer generally may change a drug label only after the FDA approves a supplemental application, the agency's "changes being effected" (CBE) regulation permits certain preapproval labeling changes that add or strengthen a warning to improve drug safety. Pursuant to the CBE regulation, Wyeth could have unilaterally added a stronger warning about IV-push administration, and there is no evidence that the FDA would ultimately have rejected such a labeling change. Wyeth's cramped reading of the CBE regulation and its broad assertion that unilaterally changing the Phenergan label would have violated federal law governing unauthorized distribution and misbranding of drugs are based on the fundamental misunderstanding that the FDA, rather than the manufacturer, bears primary responsibility for drug labeling. It is a central premise of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FDCA) and the FDA's regulations that the manufacturer bears responsibility for the content of its label at all times. Pp. 11-16.
(b) Wyeth's argument that requiring it to comply with a state-law duty to provide a stronger warning would interfere with Congress' purpose of entrusting an expert agency with drug labeling decisions is meritless because it relies on an untenable interpretation of congressional intent and an overbroad view of an agency's power to pre-empt state law. The history of the FDCA shows that Congress did not intend to pre-empt state-law failure-to-warn actions. In advancing the argument that the FDA must be presumed to have established a specific labeling standard that leaves no room for different state-law judgments, Wyeth relies not on any statement by Congress but on the preamble to a 2006 FDA regulation declaring that state-law failure-to-warn claims threaten the FDA's statutorily prescribed role. Although an agency regulation with the force of law can pre-empt conflicting state requirements, this case involves no such regulation but merely an agency's assertion that state law is an obstacle to achieving its statutory objectives. Where, as here, Congress has not authorized a federal agency to pre-empt state law directly, the weight this Court accords the agency's explanation of state law's impact on the federal scheme depends on its thoroughness, consistency, and persuasiveness. Cf., e.g., Skidmore v. Swift & Co., 323 U. S. 134. Under this standard, the FDA's 2006 preamble does not merit deference: It is inherently suspect in light of the FDA's failure to offer interested parties notice or opportunity for comment on the pre-emption question; it is at odds with the available evidence of Congress' purposes; and it reverses the FDA's own longstanding position that state law is a complementary form of drug regulation without providing a reasoned explanation. Geier v. American Honda Motor Co., 529 U. S. 861, is distinguished. Pp. 17-25.
Tuesday, March 3, 2009
I'm not a big fan of paying for PDFs, but here's a resource that students of the Columbia River salmon litigation should be aware of. CBB link If you're not familiar with CBB, go take a look. You can sign up for their free weekly newsletter and you can subscribe to their archives.
Salmon and Hydro
An Account of Litigation over Federal Columbia River Power System Biological Opinions for Salmon and Steelhead, 1991-2009
First Edition, February 2009
A NOAA Fisheries "biological opinion" is the federal government's primary guide for recovering13 species of Columbia River Basin salmon and steelhead listed under the Endangered Species Act . A "BiOp" must insure that these ESA-listed fish survive and thrive in the Columbia/Snake River Basin hydropower system . Yet, since the first salmon ESA-listings in 1991, these biological opinions have been the subject of continual litigation. It is in federal court where one sees most clearly the divisions and difficulties of Columbia Basin salmon recovery. This issue summary offers a historical account of this continual litigation since the first ESA listings and summarizes the major issues that have dominated Columbia Basin Salmon recovery since 1991.
Salmon and Hydro: An Account of Litigation over Federal Columbia River Power System Biological Opinions for Salmon and Steelhead, 1991-2009, a 77-page document in an easy-to-read Adobe PDF format, is available for digital download through our secure payment system. Price: $19.95
TABLE OF CONTENTS For Excerpts Click These Links: II.
1995-1998: Reasonable And Prudent Alternatives, Spread The Risk,
Long-Term Configuration, Adaptive Management; River Governance;
Regional Parties Stake Their Positions; A BiOp Finally Passes Legal
TABLE OF CONTENTS
For Excerpts Click These Links:
II. 1995-1998: Reasonable And Prudent Alternatives, Spread The Risk, Long-Term Configuration, Adaptive Management; River Governance; Regional Parties Stake Their Positions; A BiOp Finally Passes Legal Muster
III. 1998-1999: More ESA Listings; A Supplemental Steelhead BiOp Guiding River Operations; Independent Science Advisory Board Weighs In On Smolt Transportation; Appeals Court Upholds 1995 BiOp; Supplemental BiOps On New Listings, Snake Water
V. 2004-2008: A New BiOp Says No Jeopardy From Hydro Operations; A New ‘Environmental Baseline’; Redden Says No Again; Discretionary Actions vs. Non-Discretionary (Dams’ Existence); Court Runs The River; Upper Snake River Gets Own BiOp
VI. 2008-2009: A ‘Collaborative’ BiOp; New Fish Funding Agreements, New BiOp Support; Montana Finally Likes The Reservoir Plan; Earthjustice Says New Approach Inadequate; Oregon Left As Only State Opposed To BiOp; Should Independent Scientists Evaluate BiOp?; Parties To Litigation Grows; Clean Water Act Now An Issue; A New Round Of Briefings
Monday, March 2, 2009
Sometimes its a good idea to stand back and contemplate the universe. Today's early news that the Dow Jones Industrial Index took another header because of AIG's $60+ billion loss prompts me to do that.
What is the vector of our society? What will it look like after all the dust has settled? It is not just the financial crisis that prompts me to contemplate this. Although the phrase is over-used, we are in the midst of a perfect storm -- a global economy that creates and distributes goods and services through the internet, computerized machines and cheap labor virtual collapse of the financial system, the advent of peak oil, and the climate crisis. How will all of these things cumulatively affect our future?
We've lived with the first problem for decades now -- what do people do as they become less and less important to production of goods and services. The science fiction of our times: what happens when people and their primary asset, labor, becomes virtually superfluous. Certainly countries with high labor costs relative to Asia and South America already are beginning to experience the problem. Computerized machines can plant, water, and harvest the fields; robots can make the cars and prefabricated housing; department stores, bank branches, car dealers, even retail grocery stores can be replaced by internet marketing; 100 law professors lecturing to law students and 1000 college professors lecturing to college students is more than enough -- creating the prospect of a British or continental education system, with those professors raised to unseemly heights and the remainder left to do the grunge work of tutors; even more radically, 100 K-12 teachers can teach a nation of students with computer graded exams, if we believe that convergent answers are the goal of education; priests and ministers can be replaced by TV showmen and megachurch performers.
So what do the other 6.95 billion of us do? Now, we consume. Voraciously. If we don't, then the basics can be provided by a very few and the rest of us become unwanted baggage. A non-consumer is a drag on the system. We depend on the velocity of money, excess consumption, and inefficiency to provide each of us with a job and to maintain the current economy.
And what happens when money moves at a crawl, when people stop consuming, when production becomes life-threatening to the planet, and when a key resource for production, oil, reaches the point of no return??? The answer is a new subsistence economy. A new world where a few are need to produce, a few more can consume, and the remainder have no economic role and are left to subsist as best they can.
Admittedly, it will be subsistence at a higher level -- through the internet, computerization, and technology, each of us will have the capacity to do things for ourselves that are beyond the imagination of today's impoverished subsistence farmers. But, relative to those who own all of the means of production, a few entertainers (be they basketball players, lecturers, moviestars, or mega-church leaders), and a few laborers (building the machines, computers, the information infrastructure and doing basic and applied research), we will all be poor. Perhaps only relatively and perhaps only in material terms. But poor, living at a subsistence level, consuming food from our own gardens, building our own houses, wearing clothes for function not fashion, educating our own children through the internet, capturing essential power through distributed energy, and buying very little of goods that are bound to be too expensive for most -- probably just computers. It won't necessarily be bad. Perhaps we can refocus on relationships, family, community, art, music, literature, and life, rather than define ourselves in terms of our job and our things. Perhaps we can refocus on spirituality instead of materialism. Who knows? Maybe the new society won't be such a bad thing after all -- at least if we insist that the few who have the privilege of production have a responsibility to share the wealth with the many.
March 2, 2009 in Africa, Agriculture, Air Quality, Asia, Australia, Biodiversity, Cases, Climate Change, Constitutional Law, Economics, Energy, Environmental Assessment, EU, Forests/Timber, Governance/Management, International, Land Use, Law, Legislation, Mining, North America, Physical Science, Social Science, South America, Sustainability, Toxic and Hazardous Substances, US, Water Quality, Water Resources | Permalink | TrackBack (0)
Wednesday, February 25, 2009
As the President says about the long term investments that are absolutely critical to our economic future:
It begins with energy.
We know the country that harnesses the power of clean, renewable energy will lead the 21st century. And yet, it is China that has launched the largest effort in history to make their economy energy efficient. We invented solar technology, but we’ve fallen behind countries like Germany and Japan in producing it. New plug-in hybrids roll off our assembly lines, but they will run on batteries made in Korea.
Well I do not accept a future where the jobs and industries of tomorrow take root beyond our borders – and I know you don’t either. It is time for America to lead again.
Thanks to our recovery plan, we will double this nation’s supply of renewable energy in the next three years. We have also made the largest investment in basic research funding in American history – an investment that will spur not only new discoveries in energy, but breakthroughs in medicine, science, and technology.
We will soon lay down thousands of miles of power lines that can carry new energy to cities and towns across this country. And we will put Americans to work making our homes and buildings more efficient so that we can save billions of dollars on our energy bills.
But to truly transform our economy, protect our security, and save our planet from the ravages of climate change, we need to ultimately make clean, renewable energy the profitable kind of energy. So I ask this Congress to send me legislation that places a market-based cap on carbon pollution and drives the production of more renewable energy in America. And to support that innovation, we will invest fifteen billion dollars a year to develop technologies like wind power and solar power; advanced biofuels, clean coal, and more fuel-efficient cars and trucks built right here in America.
As for our auto industry, everyone recognizes that years of bad decision-making and a global recession have pushed our automakers to the brink. We should not, and will not, protect them from their own bad practices. But we are committed to the goal of a re-tooled, re-imagined auto industry that can compete and win. Millions of jobs depend on it. Scores of communities depend on it. And I believe the nation that invented the automobile cannot walk away from it.
None of this will come without cost, nor will it be easy. But this is America. We don’t do what’s easy. We do what is necessary to move this country forward.
February 25, 2009 in Africa, Agriculture, Air Quality, Asia, Australia, Biodiversity, Cases, Climate Change, Constitutional Law, Economics, Energy, Environmental Assessment, EU, Forests/Timber, Governance/Management, International, Land Use, Law, Legislation, Mining, North America, Physical Science, Social Science, South America, Sustainability, Toxic and Hazardous Substances, US, Water Quality, Water Resources | Permalink | TrackBack (0)