Perhaps as soon as this week, according to media reports, the Army Corps of Engineers and EPA will release a final "Waters of the United States" rule clarifying the scope of federal regulatory jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act. Simultaneously, Congress is considering multiple bills that would block the new rule and undo portions of the Clean Water Act. There are many reasons for the opposition, but one key argument is grounded in federalism. According to the Wyoming Senator John Barrasso, chief author of the Senate bill (as quoted in Saturday’s New York Times):
"This rule is not designed to protect the traditional waters of the United States. It is designed to expand the power of Washington bureaucrats."
This is a familiar refrain. Politicians say similar things to oppose all sorts of governmental initiatives, ranging from the Common Core educational standards to the Affordable Care Act. On environmental issues, this kind of rhetoric is particularly prevalent. And in this circumstance--and, I suspect, many others--it's just not true.Full text
Last week, E&E News reported a breakdown in talks over EPA’s long- delayed stormwater rule. In 2009, in a settlement with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, EPA promised a new rule by November, 2012. That deadline has long since passed, and apparently EPA and environmental groups are at an impasse in their negotiations over a new timeline.
The causes for the delay, which have been thoroughly covered here, are many, but all they boil down to a central problem: urban stormwater is hard to regulate, and EPA is struggling to figure out how to improve the existing system. There are several key reasons for those challenges.
First, urban stormwater problems generally arise from the combined runoff of very large numbers of properties. That makes an individual permitting approach, which has been quite successful for discharges of industrial and wastewater treatment plant effluent, hard to use; writing permits for millions of landowners probably isn’t administratively or politically feasible. Urban stormwater therefore requires alternative regulatory structures, but coming up with effective ones hasn’t been easy.Full text
For years, environmental activists have worried that emissions trading systems will create “hot spots.” The fear, in a nutshell, is that even if the trading system succeeds in reducing overall levels of pollutants, pollution levels in areas with lots of emissions purchasers will rise. It seems quite plausible to anticipate that the areas seeing increases will contain concentrations of older industrial facilities, and it seems equally plausible, based on years of environmental justice studies, to anticipate that those older facilities are more likely to be located in minority communities. Trading systems therefore seem to threaten environmental justice.
Those fears played a central role in recent litigation over AB 32, California’s landmark climate change law. Environmental justice groups challenged the law, arguing that its trading system would concentrate greenhouse gas emissions in lower-income minority communities. While most GHG emissions are not toxic, and hot spots of GHG emissions would not themselves be a health issue, the activists feared spikes in associated emissions of toxic pollutants.
A recent article by David Adelman ought to allay those concerns. Adelman analyzed several national EPA databases on toxic emissions, and he discovered that even if industrial facilities do operate primarily as buyers in GHG emissions trading markets, they aren’t likely to create toxic hot spots. The basic reason is straightforward: industrial facilities actually emit a relatively small share of toxic emissions, and the real driver of hot spot formation is the distribution and activity of mobile sources. In other words, it’s the tailpipes, not the smokestacks that matter most. Here’s a key passage that summarizes the findings and their implications:
The secondary status of industrial facilities as sources of toxic emissions has particular relevance to concerns about GHG-trading regimes. A simple calculation illustrates this point: If industrial sources account for roughly ten percent of cancer risks from air toxics, as they do in many industrialized census tracts in Los Angeles, then a drop of twenty percent in toxic emissions from industrial sources would cause at most a two percent decline in cumulative cancer risks. This ten-fold factor limits the potential for inequities to arise at the scale of a census tract or county. Other factors, both economic and technical, reinforce this limit on inequities originating from GHG trading by industrial facilities. These findings suggest that a tradeoff often presumed between efficiency and equity will rarely exist for GHG-trading regimes in the United States, and that, where inequities are a potential concern, targeted policies could be adopted to mitigate them without compromising market efficiency.
And in closing:
It is my hope that the EPA data and preceding analysis will assuage concerns that toxic hotspots will be an unavoidable and substantial byproduct of implementing a national GHG trading regime. More broadly, I hope that this work will lower health-equity concerns about market-based regulations generally-including taxes.
Adelman’s article is filled with careful discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of the databases he uses and the limitations of his methodology. Nevertheless, his conclusions seem powerful. The article is well worth reading.
Last week, the Court of Appeals of Texas, Fourth District handed down Bragg v. Edwards Aquifer Authority, a decision that anyone interested in takings or water law ought to read (the Lexis cite is 2013 Tex. App. LEXIS 10838). The Braggs had brought a takings claim alleging that the Edwards Aquifer Authority’s regulatory restrictions on the Braggs’ groundwater use amounted to a regulatory taking. The appellate court agreed and remanded for an assessment of damages. But I suspect—and hope—the case will first be appealed to the Texas Supreme Court. It is a deeply flawed and harmful decision with mistakes that additional appellate review hopefully will fix.
Understanding those problems requires a little bit of factual context. The Edwards Aquifer is a large and highly productive aquifer in central Texas. It provides an important source of water for municipal and agricultural users, and its discharges support vibrant ecosystems, several of which contain unique and threatened or endangered species. But those competing uses came into stark conflict, and in the mid-1990s the Texas Legislature responded by creating the Edwards Aquifer Authority and charging it with regulating water withdrawals (for articles on that history, see here and here).
In 1979 and 1983, years before the Edwards Aquifer Authority’s regulatory scheme went into effect, the Braggs bought two parcels of land with the intention of growing pecans. Initially, their water needs were modest; young pecan trees are small and do not require much water. But as the trees grew, the Braggs sought regulatory authorization to increase their water use. The Edwards Aquifer Authority authorized a lower level of use than the Braggs wanted (according to the Braggs, the limits rendered their farming operation economically inoperable), and the Braggs sued, alleging a taking. The trial court ruled in their favor, and the current appeal followed.
Before getting to the problems with the court’s decision, it’s worth noting a few things the court did right. First, the court analyzed the Bragg’s claims using the regulatory takings analytical framework set forth in Penn Central Transportation Co. v. New York City, 438 U.S. 104 (1978). The appropriateness of that analytical framework for this case might seem obvious, but in recent years some takings advocates have argued—on rare occasions successfully—that regulatory restrictions on water rights should be analyzed as potential physical takings. The Bragg court appropriately avoided that path. Additionally, I have no quibble with the court’s application of the nature-of-the-government-action prong of the Penn Central analysis. The court wrote that “[g]iven the importance of ‘protecting terrestrial and aquatic life, domestic and municipal water suppliers, the operation of existing industries, and economic development of the state,’ we conclude this factor weighs heavily against a finding of a compensable taking.” That seems rather sensible.Full text
Last week brought big news in the water quality world. On July 10, American Rivers, the Conservation Law Foundation, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and several other environmental groups filed “residual designation authority” petitions for stormwater discharges across EPA Regions 1 (New England), 3 (mid-Atlantic), and 9 (southwestern states and California). That may sound like an obscure and technical act, but here’s why it’s actually a very big deal.
For years, urban stormwater runoff has been one of the United States’ greatest unsolved water quality challenges. Urban runoff is second only to agricultural runoff as a source of water quality impairment, and on a per-acre basis, urban development is generally more damaging to water quality than agricultural use. But EPA has struggled to regulate urban stormwater runoff. For years, EPA barely regulated urban stormwater runoff at all. The 1987 Clean Water Act amendments compelled EPA to act, but even today, many point sources of urban stormwater runoff escape coverage under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System. The gaps are particularly salient for areas that are highly developed but lightly populated (shopping malls, for example). These areas generate a lot of polluted runoff, but they generally aren’t industrial and therefore escape coverage under the industrial program. They also often lack sufficient population to be included in the municipal permitting program (which covers census tracts based on their population density). Those gaps—and the weak coverage of the many sources that are subject to permitting—have real costs. Water quality impairment now is a pervasive feature of our urban and suburban landscapes.
Several years ago, the Conservation Law Foundation (one of the organizations that filed yesterday’s petitions) discovered a potential legal remedy for this issue. Buried in the depths of Clean Water Act section 402 is a provision requiring EPA (or a state with delegated permitting authority) to require permits for any stormwater discharge that EPA or the state administrator determines “contributes to a violation of a water quality standard or is a significant contributor of pollutants to waters of the United States.” For years, no one had paid any attention to that provision; one industry lawyer later referred to it as “the sleeping giant.” But CLF filed RDA petitions in Vermont, Massachusetts, and Maine. Each petition led to major expansions—albeit over relatively small geographic areas—in the scope of Clean Water Act permitting coverage.
A few images illustrate the impact of the change. The three images below show the Long Creek watershed in Maine.Full text
A standard environmental history of American dams unfolds something like this: As a nation, we had a long love affair with dams. And while they helped our nation grow into an industrial power, the environmental side-effects were immense: lost forests and farmland, drowned canyons, and, perhaps most importantly, devastated fisheries. Yet even after some of those consequences became apparent, the story goes, dam-building marched on, powered by bureaucratic inertia and the seemingly unstoppable engine of pork-barrel politics. Finally, in the 1980s, we stopped, but by then we had built approximately one dam for every day of our national existence. As former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt once put it, “we overdosed.” We’re now starting to take dams out, and those dam removals often lead to dramatic environmental improvements. But, in the standard narrative, the removals aren’t coming nearly fast enough.
I agree with this story, and most of the underlying facts aren’t really in dispute. But another narrative of dams lingers on, particularly — but not exclusively — in the reports of the government agencies that manage much of our hydropower. In this story, hydropower remains an essential part of our energy mix. Hydropower still comprises approximately 7 percent of our national energy-generating capacity (globally, the percentage is higher). While that number may seem small, it dwarfs the contributions of wind, solar, geothermal, and other renewables. For a few key reasons, that 7 percent is also particularly useful. First, the greenhouse gas emissions of existing hydropower are minimal, at least in the United States. Second, both solar and wind power are somewhat intermittent in their availability, and studies finding that we can rely much more heavily on renewable energy (like this one here, which Lesley McAllister recently blogged about) generally assume that hydropower will even out some of the dips in the supply curve.
Hydropower’s share also could grow. Some recent studies have identified huge amounts of untapped hydropower capacity, much of it at sites where we already have dams (the United States has approximately 80,000 non-hydropower dams). How much of that capacity is economically available, given a reasonable set of environmental constraints, is a hotly debated question. But at least some capacity for expansion exists, and renewable portfolio standards or—dare we hope—a price on carbon could make expanded hydro look much more economically appealing. In this alternative narrative, then, hydro occupies a crucial and potentially dynamic role in our energy future. And this narrative is not just idle storytelling. In multiple bills, including, most recently, the Water Resources Development Act recently passed by the Senate, Congress has signaled its continuing enthusiasm for hydropower.Full text
Two months ago, a federal district court in Alaska set aside the Department of the Interior’s designation of critical habitat for the polar bear. This had been the most geographically extensive critical habitat designation ever under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), but it provoked adamant opposition from the petroleum industry and the state of Alaska. That isn’t atypical; critical habitat designations often generate controversy. But one might wonder why.
The ESA’s only provision directly targeted at critical habitat protection is the so-called adverse modification prohibition. Specifically, section 7 of the ESA prohibits federal agencies from taking any action “likely to… result in the destruction or adverse modification of habitat of such species which is determined by the Secretary, after consultation as appropriate with affected States, to be critical.” In environmental law casebooks, academic literature, and, sometimes, in practice, that prohibition can seem like the forgotten step-child of the ESA. Almost all the attention instead goes to section 7’s prohibition on federal actions likely to “jeopardize” listed species and to section 9’s take prohibition. On paper, the adverse modification prohibition looks powerful, but discussion of it is rare enough that one might ask why anyone cares about critical habitat at all.
Several years ago, I started a research project that tried to make sense of this conundrum. My goal was to figure out the extent to which the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service are actually using the adverse modification prohibition to protect species. I also wanted to understand how else habitat does, or doesn’t, receive regulatory protection under the ESA, and what actually happens in section 7 consultations. This Friday, at a conference on Capitol Hill co-sponsored by the Environmental Law Institute and the Vanderbilt Law Review, I’ll be talking about the results. Three experienced ESA attorneys—Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes, Defenders of Wildlife Vice President for Conservation Law Michael Senatore, and Hunton and Williams Counsel Andrew Turner—will then comment on the paper.
In addition to my talk, the conference features two other papers. One, co-authored by Ian Duncan and fellow CPR scholar David Adelman (both at the University of Texas), addresses liability issues associated with carbon sequestration. The other, by Stanford’s Buzz Thompson, considers whether the Coastal Zone Management Act could provide a useful model for federal legislation promoting integrated water resource management. If you’ll be in DC on Friday, I hope you’ll check it out (RSVP). The proceedings also will be viewable online.Full text
In the 2005 Energy Policy Act, Congress recognized that energy and water supply issues are deeply intertwined, and required the Department of Energy (DOE) to report on their nexus and make recommendations for future action within two years. (42 USC 16319). DOE started this important work, but never finished it.
DOE’s initial report, issued in 2007, hinted at the complexity and seriousness of the energy-water nexus. It discussed both how supplying energy requires water and supplying water requires energy. For example, thermoelectric power plants (primarily coal-fired, natural gas-fired and nuclear plants) account for about 40% of all freshwater withdrawals in the United States, roughly equal to the amount of freshwater withdrawn for irrigated agriculture. For its part, water supply and treatment consume about 4% of the electricity generated domestically, and activities associated with water use (irrigation, water heating, clothes washing and drying) consume even more.
Yet our energy policies give scant attention to issues of water supply, and our water policies give scant attention to energy. Arguably, our law- and policy-making institutions are poorly suited to dealing with this extensive interconnectedness. Jurisdiction over water and energy issues is spread across more than two dozen House and Senate committees, well over a dozen federal agencies, 50 state legislatures, and countless state and local agencies.
Moreover, neither our energy policies nor our water policies are giving serious enough attention to the problem of climate disruption. Climate disruption will dramatically affect water supply, as the timing, type, and amount of precipitation all change. The impacts – from drought in some areas to flooding in others – will have many consequences for energy supply and use. Power plants that use huge amounts of freshwater for cooling are likely to confront new legal and economic constraints. Hydroelectric facilities built for old stream flow regimes will have to contend with new ones. The energy demands of the water supply sector will likely grow as desalination plants are built and water is pumped into dry areas from distant places. In these ways and many others, climate disruption is likely to bring many changes to the energy and water sectors. Yet law and policy are reacting slowly, and in some contexts not at all, to those changes.Full text
Cross-posted from Environmental Law Prof Blog.
Last week, a federal district court in Virginia decided an urban stormwater case that may ultimately have far more significance than the Supreme Court’s more widely-watched decision in Los Angeles County Flood Control District v. Natural Resources Defense Council. The case is Virginia Department of Transportation v. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and it involves a challenge to a proxy TMDL for Accotink Creek, a Potomac River tributary in northern Virginia. On its face, that statement may not sound particularly intriguing or important, but it is, and a little background is in order.
Section 303 of the Clean Water Act requires states to identify waterways that do not meet water quality standards, and to develop “total maximum daily loads,” or TMDLS, for those waterways. In essence, TMDLs are pollution budgets. They usually identify which pollutants are causing impairment, and they then specify how much of a “load” of each offending pollutant the waterway could handle without being impaired. What happens next is largely up to the states. While EPA must step in to prepare a TMDL if the state fails to do so, states have broad discretion to decide whether and how to translate the TMDL into controls on individual sources.
The Accotink Creek TMDL used an innovative approach. A traditional TMDL would specify a daily load for each offending pollutant, and would express that load as a mass. For waterways impaired by urban stormwater runoff, however, that traditional approach doesn’t work very well, largely because saying exactly how much mass of each pollutant a waterway can accommodate each day is often quite difficult. Watershed scientists often have a much better sense of how much stormwater runoff a waterway can accommodate without being impaired, or even how much impervious cover in a watershed will trigger impairment. Consequently, the Accotink TMDL and several recent TMDLs developed in other states have used proxy measures of pollutant loading. For Accotink Creek, the proxy was the volume of stormwater runoff, and several TMDLs in Vermont have used similar approaches. In Maine and Connecticut, the proxy of choice has been impervious cover.Full text