On August 8, 2017 a ruling by the DC Court of Appeals was hailed by me as a “gamechanger”, since the text was the most sensible thinking from judges I have seen regarding the climate issue. More on that decision later on. Then yesterday we get a ruling from the same court coming down on the opposite, “same old, same old” side. Looking at the two rulings reveals how the judiciary is struggling with claims of global warming/climate change. Let’s look at the most recent decision first.
Overview of the August 22 Ruling on Sabal Trail Florida Pipeline Project
Activists won a huge victory when a Washington, D.C. appellate court panel sided with the Sierra Club, saying the federal agency that reviewed the project had made a huge error. In the narrow 2-1 decision, U.S. Circuit Judge Thomas B. Griffith wrote that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) should have considered the impact of the pipeline’s added greenhouse gas emissions.
Though the D.C. judges said there was nothing wrong with FERC’s consideration of the poor, minority residents who live along the pipeline, they did agree the agency failed to estimate the amount of carbon emissions that would be generated by Sabal Trail. (Celebratory language from thinkprogress)
Synopsis of Ruling and Dissenting Opinion
The court document is On Petitions for Review of Orders of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission heard by Circuit Judges Rogers, Brown, and Griffith. Opinion for the Court filed by Circuit Judge GRIFFITH. Opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part filed by Circuit Judge BROWN. (Excerpts below provide a synopsis, my bolds)
The Case and the Ruling
The three segments of the project have different owners,1 but they share a common purpose: to serve Florida’s growing demand for natural gas and the electric power that natural gas can generate. At present, only two major natural-gas pipelines serve the state, and both are almost at capacity. Two major utilities, Florida Power & Light and Duke Energy Florida, have already committed to buying nearly all the gas the project will be able to transport. Florida Power & Light claims that without this new project, its gas needs will begin to exceed its supply this year. But the project’s developers also indicate that the increased transport of natural gas will make it possible for utilities to retire older, dirtier coal-fired power plants.
Despite these optimistic predictions, the project has drawn opposition from several quarters. Environmental groups fear that increased burning of natural gas will hasten climate change and its potentially catastrophic consequences. Landowners in the pipelines’ path object to the seizure of their property by eminent domain. And communities on the project’s route are concerned that pipeline facilities will be built in low-income and predominantly minority areas already overburdened by industrial polluters.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission FERC launched an environmental review of the proposed project in the fall of 2013. The agency understood that it would need to prepare an environmental impact statement (EIS) before approving the project, as the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) requires for each “major Federal action significantly affecting the quality of the human environment.” See 42 U.S.C. § 4332(2)(C). FERC solicited public comment and held thirteen public meetings on the project’s environmental effects, and made limited modifications to the project plan in response to public concerns, before releasing a draft impact statement in September 2015 and a final impact statement in December 2015.
The role of the courts in reviewing agency compliance with NEPA is accordingly limited. Furthermore, because NEPA does not create a private right of action, we can entertain NEPA-based challenges only under the Administrative Procedure Act and its deferential standard of review. See Theodore Roosevelt Conservation P’ship v. Salazar, 616 F.3d 497, 507 (D.C. Cir. 2010). That is, our mandate “is ‘simply to ensure that the agency has adequately considered and disclosed the environmental impact of its actions and that its decision is not arbitrary or capricious.’”
To sum up, the EIS acknowledged and considered the substance of all the concerns Sierra Club now raises: the fact that the Southeast Market Pipelines Project will travel primarily through low-income and minority communities, and the impact of the pipeline on the city of Albany and Dougherty County in particular. The EIS also laid out a variety of alternative approaches with potential to address those concerns, including those proposed by petitioners, and explained why, in FERC’s view, they would do more harm than good. The EIS also gave the public and agency decisionmakers the qualitative and quantitative tools they needed to make an informed choice for themselves. NEPA requires nothing more.
It’s not just the journey, though, it’s also the destination. All the natural gas that will travel through these pipelines will be going somewhere: specifically, to power plants in Florida, some of which already exist, others of which are in the planning stages. Those power plants will burn the gas, generating both electricity and carbon dioxide. And once in the atmosphere, that carbon dioxide will add to the greenhouse effect, which the EIS describes as “the primary contributing factor” in global climate change. J.A. 915. The next question before us is whether, and to what extent, the EIS for this pipeline project needed to discuss these “downstream” effects of the pipelines and their cargo. We conclude that at a minimum, FERC should have estimated the amount of power-plant carbon emissions that the pipelines will make possible.
BROWN, Circuit Judge, concurring in part and dissenting in part:
I join today’s opinion on all issues save the Court’s decision to vacate and remand the pipeline certificates on the issue of downstream greenhouse emissions. Case law is clear: When an agency “‘has no ability to prevent a certain effect due to’ [its] ‘limited statutory authority over the relevant action,’ then that action ‘cannot be considered a legally relevant cause’” of an indirect environmental effect under the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”).
Here, FERC declined to engage in an in-depth examination of downstream greenhouse gas emissions because there is no causal relationship between approval of the proposed pipelines and the downstream greenhouse emissions; and, even if a causal relationship exists, any additional analysis would not meaningfully contribute to its decision making. Both determinations were reasonable and entitled to deference.
Regarding causation, the Court is correct that NEPA requires an environmental analysis to include indirect effects that are “reasonably foreseeable,” Freeport, 827 F.3d at 46, but it misunderstands what qualifies as reasonably foreseeable. The Court blithely asserts it is “not just the journey,” it is “also the destination.” Maj. Op. at 18. In fact, NEPA is a procedural statute that is all about the journey. It compels agencies to consider all environmental effects likely to result from the project under review, but it “does not dictate particular decisional outcomes.”
While the Court concludes FERC’s approval of the proposed pipelines will be the cause of greenhouse gas emissions because a significant portion of the natural gas transported through the pipeline will be burned at power plants, see Maj. Op. at 19, the truth is that FERC has no control over whether the power plants that will emit these greenhouse gases will come into existence or remain in operation.
Even if the Court is correct that the Commission has the power to deny pipeline certificates based on indirect environmental concerns, such a denial represents the limit of the Commission’s statutory power. Nothing would prevent the Florida Board from independently approving the construction or expansion of the power plants at issue. In fact, the record shows the Board has already approved some of these projects prior to the Commission reaching a decision on the proposed pipelines. JA 910–11. Moreover, there is also nothing preventing the Intervenors from pursuing an alternative method of delivery to account for the same amount of natural gas. Practical considerations point in the opposite direction. Both the Board and the Commission have concluded Florida has a need for additional natural gas, and nothing in today’s opinion takes issue with those holdings.
Thus, just as FERC in the DOE cases and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration in Public Citizen did not have the legal power to prevent certain environmental effects, the Commission here has no authority to prevent the emission of greenhouse gases through newly-constructed or expanded power plants approved by the Board.
The DC Appeals Court Decision August 8, 2017
A major clarification came today from the DC Court of Appeals ordering EPA (and thus the Executive Branch Bureaucracy) to defer to Congress regarding regulation of substances claimed to cause climate change. While the issue and arguments are somewhat obscure, the clarity of the ruling is welcome. Basically, the EPA under Obama attempted to use ozone-depleting authority to regulate HFCs, claiming them as greenhouse gases. The judges decided that was a stretch too far.
The EPA enacted the rule in question in 2015, responding to research showing hydroflourocarbons, or HFCs, contribute to climate change.
The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals’ 2-1 decision said EPA does not have the authority to enact a 2015 rule-making ending the use of hydrofluorocarbons commonly found in spray cans, automobile air conditioners and refrigerators. The three-judge panel said that because HFCs are not ozone-depleting substances, the EPA could not use a section of the Clean Air Act targeting those chemicals to ban HFCs.
“Indeed, before 2015, EPA itself maintained that Section 612 did not grant authority to require replacement of non ozone-depleting substances such as HFCs,” the court wrote.
“EPA’s novel reading of Section 612 is inconsistent with the statute as written. Section 612 does not require (or give EPA authority to require) manufacturers to replace non ozone-depleting substances such as HFCs,” said the opinion, written by Judge Brett Kavanaugh, joined by Judge Janice Brown.
Contextual Background from the Court Document On Petitions for Review of Final Action by the United States Environmental Protection Agency Excerpts below (my bolds)
In 1987, the United States signed the Montreal Protocol. The Montreal Protocol is an international agreement that has been ratified by every nation that is a member of the United Nations. The Protocol requires nations to regulate the production and use of certain ozone-depleting substances.
As a result, in the 1990s and 2000s, many businesses stopped using ozone-depleting substances in their products. Many businesses replaced those ozone-depleting substances with HFCs. HFCs became prevalent in many products. HFCs have served as propellants in aerosol spray cans, as refrigerants in air conditioners and refrigerators, and as blowing agents that create bubbles in foams.
In 2013, President Obama announced that EPA would seek to reduce emissions of HFCs because HFCs contribute to climate change.
Consistent with the Climate Action Plan, EPA promulgated a Final Rule in 2015 that moved certain HFCs from the list of safe substitutes to the list of prohibited substitutes. . .In doing so, EPA prohibited the use of certain HFCs in aerosols, motor vehicle air conditioners, commercial refrigerators, and foams – even if manufacturers of those products had long since replaced ozonedepleting substances with HFCs. Id. at 42,872-73.
Therefore, under the 2015 Rule, manufacturers that used those HFCs in their products are no longer allowed to do so. Those manufacturers must replace the HFCs with other substances that are on the revised list of safe substitutes.
In the 2015 Rule, EPA relied on Section 612 of the Clean Air Act as its source of statutory authority. EPA said that Section 612 allows EPA to “change the listing status of a particular substitute” based on “new information.” Id. at 42,876. EPA indicated that it had new information about HFCs: Emerging research demonstrated that HFCs were greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. See id. at 42,879. EPA therefore concluded that it had statutory authority to move HFCs from the list of safe substitutes to the list of prohibited substitutes. Because HFCs are now prohibited substitutes, EPA claimed that it could also require the replacement of HFCs under Section 612(c) of the Clean Air Act even though HFCs are not ozone-depleting substances.
EPA’s current reading stretches the word “replace” beyond its ordinary meaning. . .
Under EPA’s current interpretation of the word “replace,” manufacturers would continue to “replace” an ozone-depleting substance with a substitute even 100 years or more from now. EPA would thereby have indefinite authority to regulate a manufacturer’s use of that substitute. That boundless interpretation of EPA’s authority under Section 612(c) borders on the absurd.
In any event, the legislative history strongly supports our conclusion that Section 612(c) does not grant EPA continuing authority to require replacement of non-ozone-depleting substitutes.. . In short, although Congress contemplated giving EPA broad authority under Title VI to regulate the replacement of substances that contribute to climate change, Congress ultimately declined.
However, EPA’s authority to regulate ozone-depleting substances under Section 612 and other statutes does not give EPA authority to order the replacement of substances that are not ozone depleting but that contribute to climate change. Congress has not yet enacted general climate change legislation. Although we understand and respect EPA’s overarching effort to fill that legislative void and regulate HFCs, EPA may act only as authorized by Congress. Here, EPA has tried to jam a square peg (regulating non-ozone depleting substances that may contribute to climate change) into a round hole (the existing statutory landscape).
The Supreme Court cases that have dealt with EPA’s efforts to address climate change have taught us two lessons that are worth repeating here. See, e.g., Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA, 134 S. Ct. 2427 (2014). First, EPA’s well intentioned policy objectives with respect to climate change do not on their own authorize the agency to regulate. The agency must have statutory authority for the regulations it wants to issue. Second, Congress’s failure to enact general climate change legislation does not authorize EPA to act. Under the Constitution, congressional inaction does not license an agency to take matters into its own hands, even to solve a pressing policy issue such as climate change.
As the August 6 ruling makes clear, judges are making decisions in a legislative vacuum. The law of the land regarding “greenhouse gases” has yet to be enacted. Congress could put on their big boy pants and pass a declaration that CO2 can not be considered a “pollutant” as classified by the Clean Air Act. Failing that, rulings will come down on all sides, unless and until the Supreme Court takes up the issue. I suppose then Judge Kennedy will make the call.
Judges are not experts in the fields of knowledge involved in cases that come before them. Instead, they make decisions as “reasonable people”, nominated in fact as the most reasonable people we can find in our society. How disappointing it is to see many of them accepting social proof instead of weighing the evidence undermining the notion of CO2 as the climate control knob. How frustrating to see some of them twisting and stretching to kowtow to an hypothetical “consensus” rather than apply the law as written.
Footnote: It appears that in July Judge Janice Brown announced her future retirement before taking the position of reason in both these rulings.
Notes from the Judicial Climate Battleground
Flashes of lucidity from the bench in recent proceedings Climate Case: Judge Defends Rule of Law
On lawsuits fronted by children Climate War Human Shields
Legal entanglements for corporations How Climate Law Relies on Paris
On the legal case exonerating fossil fuels Claim: Fossil Fuels Cause Global Warming