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April 8, 2021 Does Novel “Greenwashing” Enforcement Action Portend a New Trend?

 

By: Todd C. Toral and PJ M. Novack

GreenLawsuits over alleged misleading environmental marketing claims, or “greenwashing,” are nothing new. It has been nearly 30 years since the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) released its first version of the “Green Guides,” which are intended to help marketers avoid the practice. Since then, there have been many greenwashing actions before the FTC. More broadly, the FTC has pursued a number of suits in federal court, such as false advertising claims over the terms “clean diesel” and “100% organic.” But last month, in a first, several environmental groups petitioned the FTC to use its Green Guides offensively against a fossil fuel company for “misleading consumers on the climate and environmental impact of its operations.”

On March 16, 2021, Earthworks, Global Witness, and Greenpeace USA filed a complaint against Chevron for misleading consumers through advertisements that exaggerate the company’s investment in renewable energy and its commitment to reducing fossil fuel pollution. The action comes on the heels of Chevron’s new “Climate Change Resilience” report, where Chevron outlined its contributions against climate change. The environmental groups argue that Chevron misrepresents its image to appear climate-friendly and racial-justice oriented, while actually doing more harm than good. In support of their claims, the environmental groups point out that Chevron is the second most polluting company in the world and had spent only 0.2% of its capital expenditures on low-carbon energy sources between 2010-2018.

Considering the recent change in administrations, this action may represent a new trend where consumer and environmental groups are willing to take on major oil companies by petitioning a potentially more consumer-friendly FTC. President Biden currently has an opportunity to fill the vacant FTC seat and tip the balance of power toward Democrats. Moreover, President Biden has signaled his personal support for environmental causes by halting oil and gas sales and canceling the Keystone XL crude pipeline. Given the shifting sands, companies should be prepared for new and perhaps more creative enforcement actions.

Resources:

https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-03-16/chevron-greenwashing-targeted-in-complaint-filed-with-u-s-ftc

https://www.law360.com/articles/1365529

https://www.earthworks.org/media-releases/accountability-groups-file-first-of-its-kind-ftc-complaint-against-chevron-for-misleading-consumers-on-climate-action/#:~:text=March%2016%2C%202021%20%E2%80%94%20Earthworks%2C,to%20reducing%20fossil%20fuel%20pollution.

https://www.popsci.com/story/environment/chevron-greenwashing-ftc-complaint/

https://www.chevron.com/-/media/chevron/sustainability/documents/climate-change-resilience-report.pdf

https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/media-resources/truth-advertising/green-guides

https://apnews.com/article/why-is-biden-halting-federal-oil-and-gas-sales-b8f03552c2c2fa7ec0dfc5debeb3f882

https://www.ftc.gov/system/files/documents/cases/160329volkswagen_cmpt.pdf

https://www.ftc.gov/system/files/documents/cases/truly_organic_complaint.pdf

CATEGORIES: Climate Change, Consumer Law and Environment, Sustainability

PEOPLE: Steven R. Englund

April 5, 2021 Oil Industry Scores Big Win in Second Circuit Greenhouse Gas Litigation

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BSteven M. Siros, Co-Chair, Environmental and Workplace Health & Safety Law Practice

Oil and gasBreaking from the pack and potentially creating a circuit split, the Second Circuit’s decision in City of New York v. Chevron, et al. dismissing New York’s City’s climate change lawsuit is a significant victory for the oil and gas industry.  The unanimous ruling from the Second Circuit affirmed a district’s court decision dismissing New York’s common law claims, finding that issues such as global warming and greenhouse gas emissions invoked questions of federal law that are not well suited to the application of state law.

Taking a slightly different tact than state and local plaintiffs in other climate change lawsuits, the State of New York sued five oil producers in federal court asserting causes of action for (1) public nuisance, (2) private nuisance, and (3) trespass under New York law stemming from the defendants’ production, promotion and sale of fossil fuels.  New York sought both compensatory damages as well as a possible injunction that would require defendants to abate the public nuisance and trespass.  Defendants filed motions to dismiss that were granted.  The district court determined that New York’s state-law claims were displaced by federal common law and that those federal common law claims were in turn displaced by the Clean Air Act.  The district court also concluded that judicial caution counseled against permitting New York to bring federal common law claims against defendants for foreign greenhouse gas emissions. 

The Second Circuit agreed with the district court, noting that the problems facing New York can’t be attributed solely to greenhouse gas emissions in the state nor the emissions of the five defendants. Rather, the greenhouse gas emissions that New York alleges required the City to launch a “$20 billion-plus multilayered investment program in climate resiliency across all five boroughs” are a byproduct of emissions around the world for the past several hundred years. 

As the Second Circuit noted, “[t]he question before it is whether municipalities may utilize state tort law to hold multinational oil companies liable for the damages caused by greenhouse gas emissions.  Given the nature of the harm and the existence of a complex web of federal and international environmental law regulating such emissions, we hold that the answer is ‘no.’” 

Finding that New York’s state common law claims were displaced by federal common law, the Second Circuit then considered whether the Clean Air Act displaced these federal common law claims.  The Second Circuit noted that the Supreme Court in Am. Elec. Power Co. v. Connecticut (AEP) (2011) had previously held that the “’Clean Air Act and the EPA actions it authorizes displace any federal common-law right to seek abatement’ of greenhouse gas emissions.”    As to the State’s damage claims, the Second Circuit agreed with the Ninth Circuit’s reasoning in Native Vill. Of Kivalina v. Exxonmobil Corp. (9th Cir. 2012) that the “displacement of federal common law does not turn on the nature of the remedy but rather on the cause of action.”  As such, the Second Circuit held that “whether styled as an action for injunctive relief against the Producers to stop them from producing fossil fuels, or an action for damages that would have the same practical effect, the City’s claims are clearly barred by the Clean Air Act. 

The Second Circuit was careful to distinguish its holding from the holdings reached by the First, Fourth, Ninth and Tenth circuits in prior climate change cases, noting that in those other cases, the plaintiffs had brought state-law claims in state court and defendants then sought to remove the cases to federal courts.  The single issue in those cases was whether defendants’ federal preemption defenses singlehandedly created federal question jurisdiction.   Here, because New York elected to file in federal as opposed to state court, the Second Circuit was free to consider defendants’ preemption defense on its own terms and not under the heightened standard applicable to a removal inquiry. 

Whether the Second Circuit’s decision has any impact on BP PLC, et al. v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore, a case that has now been fully briefed and argued before the Supreme Court remains to be seen.  The Baltimore case was one of the state court cases discussed above that was removed to federal court.  The defendants had alleged a number of different grounds for removal, one of which is known as the “federal officer removal statute” that allows removal to federal court of any lawsuit filed against an officer or person acting under that office of the United States or an agency thereof.  The limited issue before the Supreme Court was whether the appellate court could only consider the federal-officer removal ground or whether it could instead review any of the grounds relied upon in defendants’ removal petition. 

Some commenters have noted that the Second Circuit’s decision creates a circuit split that may embolden the Supreme Court to address these climate change cases in one fell swoop.  The more likely scenario, however, is that the Supreme Court limits its opinion to the narrow issue before it and leaves resolution of whether state law climate change nuisance actions are preempted by federal law for another day. 

CATEGORIES: Air, Climate Change, Consumer Law and Environment, Greenhouse Gas, Sustainability

PEOPLE: Steven R. Englund, Steven M. Siros

March 26, 2021 Congressional Review Act Resolution Introduced to Revoke EPA Methane Rule—Does this Open the CRA Floodgates?

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BSteven M. Siros, Co-Chair, Environmental and Workplace Health & Safety Law Practice

PipelineOn March 25, 2021, Democrats in the Senate and House of Representatives introduced joint resolutions pursuant to the Congressional Review Act (CRA) that if approved by Congress and signed by President Biden would rescind the Trump-era rollback of Obama-era regulations that (1) imposed methane-specific emission limits on “production and processing” segments of the oil and gas industry and (2) required that transmission lines and storage equipment be inspected for methane leaks and repaired in a timely manner in accordance with the New Source Performance Standards for the Oil and Natural Gas Industry.  The CRA resolution, if approved by Congress and signed by President Biden, would reinstate these Obama-era regulations for the oil and gas industry.

The CRA, which was enacted in 1996, is a tool that allows Congress to disapprove a range of regulatory rules issued by federal agencies by first approving a joint resolution of disapproval that then goes to the President for signature. If signed by the President, the disapproved rule either does not take effect or does not continue.  In addition, once a joint resolution of disapproval is enacted, the CRA provides that a new rule may not be issued in “substantially the same form” as the disapproved rule.  Congress has a limited window to act—the CRA requires that a joint resolution of disapproval must be introduced within 60 legislative working days of the date that the rule was submitted to Congress.

The CRA had not been widely used prior to the Trump administration and the Democrats had widely criticized President Trump's prior use of the CRA to rescind Obama-era regulations.  As such, there had been some uncertainty as to whether the Democrats would embrace this tool in light of their prior opposition and hostility to the use of the CRA by many environmental groups.  However, with this joint resolution and another March 23rd CRA resolution to disapprove of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s conciliation rule, the CRA floodgates may have opened.  The resulting deluge will likely be of short duration, however, as the window for CRA disapprovals for Trump-era actions is expected to close on April 4th

CATEGORIES: Climate Change, Sustainability

PEOPLE: Steven R. Englund, Steven M. Siros

February 24, 2021 Biden Administration Takes New Action to Ensure Increased Consideration of Climate Change Impacts by the Federal Government

HeadshotBy Matthew G. Lawson CEQ


On Friday, February 19, 2021, the Council on Environmental Quality (“CEQ”) rescinded prior draft guidance issued under the Trump Administration in 2019 (the “2019 Draft CEQ Guidance”), which had limited the degree to which federal agencies needed to consider and quantify climate change impacts under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).  The rescission of the 2019 Draft CEQ Guidance is the latest step by the federal government to implement President Biden’s Executive Order 13990, which was signed on President Biden’s first day in office (the “Day 1 EO”).  In addition to directing CEQ to rescind its prior guidance, President Biden’s Day 1 EO set forth numerous directives implementing the administration’s new climate change policy, including an order reinstating the Interagency Working Group (IWG) and directing the IWG to develop an updated “Social Cost of Carbon” (“SCC”) valuation to  better quantify the economic harms associated with the emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses (“GHGs”).  Under the Day 1 EO, the IWG was directed to publish its new interim SCC value within 30 days of the Order and publish a final SCC value by January 2022.  Together, the Day 1 EO’s rescission of the 2019 Draft CEQ Guidance and reinstatement of the IWG signal a clear intent from the Biden Administration to significantly increase the degree to which federal agencies must consider and account for climate change impacts when enacting future regulation or taking other agency actions.

Background

The origins of the SCC metric can be traced back to President Clinton’s 1993 Executive Order 12866, which required that federal agencies, to the extent permitted by law, “assess both the costs and the benefits of [their] intended regulation and…propose or adopt a regulation only upon a reasoned determination that the benefits of the intended regulation justify its costs.”  Compliance with Executive Order 12866 poses a unique challenge for federal agencies where a proposed regulation is expected to cause a significant increase or decrease of carbon dioxide or other GHG emissions, as the benefits or costs associated with these emissions cannot easily be quantified or compared to other metrics used in the agency’s cost-benefit analysis.

To assist federal agencies with this inherent challenge, the Obama Administration in 2010 convened the IWG with the goal of identifying a metric grounded in data that represents the long-term net economic damages associated with an incremental increase in carbon dioxide or other GHG emissions in a given year (typically measured in dollars per metric ton).  The resulting metric created by the IWG (the “Social Cost of Carbon” or “SCC”), provides an estimated monetary value representing a wide range of anticipated climate impacts resulting from CO2 emissions, such as net changes in agricultural productivity and human health, property damage from increased flood risk, and changes in energy system costs.  Although the IWG acknowledged a range of possible SCC values, the IWG set a mid-range SCC value of $21 per ton of CO2 emitted in 2010.  The IWG subsequently revised and modified its SCC value on several occasions, and most recently in 2016 when IWG revised the value of SCC to $42 per ton of CO2 emitted in 2020.

In August 2016, the Obama-era CEQ sought to promote the use of SCC beyond its original application (i.e., cost-benefit analyses of proposed regulations) by recommending use of the metric in applicable NEPA analyses.  To that end, the Obama CEQ issued final NEPA guidance  (the “2016 CEQ Guidance”) recommending that federal agencies utilize the IWG’s SCC valuation to quantify the environmental impact of increased GHG emissions resulting from their proposed actions.  As a result of the 2016 CEQ Guidance, federal agencies were advised for the first time to consider applying the SCC not only to weigh the costs and benefits of proposed regulations, but also to quantify the costs of increased GHG emissions associated with their proposed actions where such actions trigger the requirements of NEPA.  

Following the 2016 election of President Trump, the use and impact of SCC as a decision-making tool significantly declined.   In March 2017, pursuant to Executive Order 13783, the Trump Administration disbanded the IWG and withdrew its existing SCC valuation “as no longer representative of governmental policy.”  As a result, federal agencies under the Trump Administration set their own SCC values, which resulted in an average value between $1 and $7 per ton of CO2 emitted in 2020.  The Trump Administration also rescinded the 2016 CEQ Guidance and published its own draft guidance (the “2019 Draft CEQ Guidance”) rejecting the application of SCC to quantify the impacts GHG emissions in NEPA reviews.  Finally, while not directly addressing SCC, the Trump Administration issued a regulatory overhaul to NEPA that aimed to reduce the type of environmental impacts that a federal agency must consider during a NEPA review.  

Impact of the Biden Administration’s Recent Actions

The Day 1 EO and subsequent rescission of the 2019 Draft CEQ Guidance signal a strong intention by the Biden Administration to reverse the climate change policies enacted by the Trump Administration.  Under the Day 1 EO, the IWG has been instructed to set a SCC value that “capture[s] the full cost of greenhouse gas emissions as accurately as possible, including by taking global damages into account.”  Based on these instructions, experts have predicted that the IWG’s interim SCC  value is likely to be set at $125 per ton or higher.    

While federal agencies await the imminent release of IWG’s interim SCC value, federal agencies may—at least in the context of NEPA reviews—look to the most recent 2016 SCC value set by the IWG prior to its disbandment.  In the published rescission of the 2019 Draft CEQ Guidance, CEQ advises that until new guidance is provided, federal agencies “should consider all available tools and resources in assessing GHG emissions and climate change effects of their proposed actions, including, as appropriate and relevant, the 2016 [CEQ] Guidance.”  Of course, the 2016 CEQ Guidance itself recommends that federal agencies rely on the 2016 SCC valuation to quantify climate change impacts associated with agency actions.

The Biden Administration’s decision to resurrect the IWG and revoke the 2019 Draft CEQ Guidance is expected to have a significant impact on a wide scope of federal agency actions with the potential to increase or decrease GHG emissions.  Upon the enactment of the new SCC value, federal agencies will be required to afford greater weight to potential climate change impacts during their decision-making process.  As a result, industry may expect an increase in new regulations aimed at reducing GHG emissions, as well as greater challenges in securing federal approval to engage in GHG-intensive activities, such as oil, gas or coal mining.  

CATEGORIES: Climate Change, NEPA, Sustainability

PEOPLE: Matthew G. Lawson

February 10, 2021 OSHA Issues Proposed Update to Hazard Communication Standard

HeadshotBy Matthew G. Lawson Osha

On February 5, 2021, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued a proposed rule updating its Hazard Communication (“Haz Com”) Standard to align its rules with those in the seventh version of the United Nation’s Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS), published in 2017.  OSHA’s proposed regulatory update is being issued as the United States’ major international trading partners, including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and those in Europe, similarly prepare to align their own hazard communications rules with the seventh version of the GHS.

Originally established in 1983, OSHA’s Haz Com Standard provides a systematized approach to communicating workplace hazards associated with exposure to hazardous chemicals.  Under the Haz Com Standard, chemical manufacturers and/or importers are required to classify the hazards of chemicals which they produce or import into the United States, and all employers are required to provide information to their employees about the hazardous chemicals to which they are exposed, by means of a hazard communication program, labels and other forms of warning, safety data sheets, and information and training.  At an international level, the GHS provides a universally harmonized approach to classifying chemicals and communicating hazard information.  Core tenants of the GHS include universal standards for hazard testing criteria, warning pictograms, and safety data sheets for hazardous chemicals.

In a pre-published version of the proposed rule, OSHA’s proposed modifications to the Haz Com Standard include codifying enforcement policies currently in OSHA’s compliance directive, clarifying requirements related to the transport of hazardous chemicals, adding alternative labeling provisions for small containers and adopting new requirements related to preparation of Safety Data Sheets.  Key modifications included in the proposed rule, include:

  • New flexibility for labeling bulk shipments of hazardous chemicals, including allowing labels to be placed on the immediate container or transmitted with shipping papers, bills of lading, or by other technological or electronic means that are immediately available to workers in printed form on the receiving end of the shipment;
  • New alternative labeling options where a manufacturer or importer can demonstrate that it is not feasible to use traditional pull-out labels, fold-back labels, or tags containing the full label information normally required under the Haz Com Standard, including specific alternative requirements for containers less than or equal to 100ml capacity and for containers less than or equal to 3ml capacity; and
  • New requirements to update the labels on individual containers that have been released for shipment but are awaiting future distribution where the manufacturer, importer or distributer becomes aware of new significant information regarding the hazards of the chemical.  

OSHA last updated its Haz Com Standard in 2012, to align the standard with the then recently published third version of GHS.  In its newly proposed rule, OSHA clarifies that it is “not proposing to change the fundamental structure” of its Haz Com Standard, but instead seeking to “address specific issues that have arisen since the 2012 rulemaking” and to provide better alignment with international trading partners.  According to OSHA, its proposed modifications to the Haz Com Standard “will increase worker protections, and reduce the incidence of chemical-related occupational illnesses and injuries by further improving the information on the labels and Safety Data Sheets for hazardous chemicals.” 

OSHA is currently accepting comments on its proposed rule until April 19, 2021.  Comments may be submitted electronically to Docket No. OSHA-2019-0001at http://www.regulations.gov, which is the Federal e-Rulemaking Portal.

CATEGORIES: Climate Change, Contamination, Emerging Contaminants, Hazmat, OSHA, Sustainability

PEOPLE: Matthew G. Lawson

February 5, 2021 DOJ Rescinds Nine Trump Environmental Policies

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US Department of Justice

 

BSteven M. Siros, Co-Chair, Environmental and Workplace Health & Safety Law Practice

On February 4, 2021, in accordance with President Biden’s Executive Order 13,990 (Protecting Public Health and the Environment and Restoring Science to Tackle the Climate Crisis), DOJ directed its ENRD Section and Deputy Section Chiefs to withdraw nine environmental policies that were put in place by the Trump Administration.  The February 4th memorandum identifies the following nine withdrawn policies:

  1. “Enforcement Principles and Priorities,” January 14, 2021;
  2. “Additional Recommendations on Enforcement Discretion,” January 14, 2021;
  3. “Guidance Regarding Newly Promulgated Rule Restricting Third-Party Payments, 28 C.F.R. § 50.28,” January 13, 2021;
  4. “Equitable Mitigation in Civil Environmental Enforcement Cases,” January 12, 2021;
  5. “Civil Enforcement Discretion in Certain Clean Water Act Matters Involving Prior State Proceedings,” July 27, 2020;
  6. “Supplemental Environmental Projects (“SEPs”) in Civil Settlements with Private Defendants,” March 12, 2020;
  7. “Using Supplemental Environmental Projects (“SEPs”) in Settlements with State and Local Governments,” August 21, 2019;
  8. “Enforcement Principles and Priorities,” March 12, 2018; and
  9. “Settlement Payments to Third Parties in ENRD Cases,” January 9, 2018.

In support of rescission of these policies, DOJ’s Deputy Assistant Attorney General noted that these policies were inconsistent with longstanding DOJ policy and practice and inappropriately impeded DOJ’s exercise of its enforcement discretion.  Two of the more controversial policies rescinded by DOJ’s February 4th memorandum related to the prohibition on the use of supplemental environmental projects (SEPs) in settlement agreements.  Under the Trump Administration, DOJ had argued that the use of SEPS violated the Miscellaneous Receipts Act which requires that monies paid to the Government be deposited into the Treasury so that Congress could decide how the monies would be appropriated.  

DOJ noted that it would continue to assess the matters addressed by the withdrawn policies and might elect to issue new guidance on these matters in the future.  We will continue to track efforts by the Biden Administration the environmental policies of the Trump Administration at the Corporate Environmental Lawyer

CATEGORIES: Climate Change, Sustainability, Water

PEOPLE: Steven R. Englund, Steven M. Siros

January 20, 2021 U.S. EPA Issues Final Guidance on PFAS SNUR

Linkedin_Steven_Siros_3130 EpaBy Steven M. Siros, Co-Chair, Environmental and Workplace Health and Safety Law Practice

On January 19, 2021, four days after the close of the comment period, U.S. EPA issued its final guidance document to aid in implementation of its Significant New Use Rule (SNUR) for long-chain perfluoroalkyl carboxylate and perfluoroalkyl sulfonate chemical substances (PFAS). Not surprisingly, in light of the short time between the close of comments and issuance of the guidance, the final guidance remained largely unchanged from the draft version. 

In July 2020, U.S. EPA finalized its PFAS SNUR that requires notice and U.S. EPA review before manufacturing and processing for use certain long-chain PFAS that have been phased out in the United States. In addition, articles containing these long-chain PFAS as part of a surface coating cannot be imported into the United States without submission of a Significant New Use Notice (SNUN).

The guidance provides examples of what would and would not be articles subject to the SNUR as well as clarification on what is meant as a “surface coatings.” Although U.S. EPA declined to provide a regulatory definition of “surface coating” in the PFAS SNUR, the guidance indicates that any long-chain PFAS meeting one of the following two criteria would be a surface coating covered by the SNUR:

  • Coating on any surface of an article that is in direct contact with humans or the environment during the article’s normal use or reuse, whether the coating is oriented towards the interior or exterior of the article; or
  • Coating on any internal component, even if facing the interior of the article, if that component is in contact with humans or the environment during the article’s normal use or reuse.

Many environmental groups noted that the “direct contact” standard and the refusal to consider potential exposures associated with the disposal and/or misuse of these articles was contrary to the provisions of the PFAS SNUR and these groups are urging the Biden Administration to revisit the guidance. Because the new guidance is not labeled as “significant”, it did not need to follow the formal notice-and-comment process but this would also arguably allow the incoming Biden administration to quickly rework and issue its own guidance for implementing the PFAS SNUR. 

We will continue to provide updates on efforts by the Biden Administration to implement the PFAS SNUR on the Corporate Environmental Lawyer blog.

CATEGORIES: Air, Cercla, Climate Change, Emerging Contaminants, Sustainability, Water

PEOPLE: Steven R. Englund, Steven M. Siros

December 4, 2020 DOE Final Rule Seeks to Streamline NEPA Review of LNG Projects

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By Steven M. Siros, Co-Chair, Environmental and Workplace Health and Safety Law Practice

LNG_tanker_ship ela.govThe Trump administration continues its efforts to issue new regulations in advance of January 20, 2021, with the Department of Energy (DOE) issuing a final rule that will exempt certain liquefied natural gas (LNG) projects from National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) review.  The final rule, published in the Federal Register on December 4, updates DOE’s NEPA implementing procedures with respect to authorizations issued under the Natural Gas Act in accordance with the recent revisions to the NEPA regulations as further described below.

According to DOE, the focus of the new rule is to clarify the scope of DOE’s NEPA obligations with respect to LNG projects and more specifically, to eliminate from the scope of DOE’s NEPA review potential environmental effects that the agency has no authority to prevent.  Because DOE’s discretionary authority under Section 3 of the Natural Gas Act is limited to the authorization of exports of natural gas to non-free trade agreement countries, the rule limits the scope of environmental impacts that DOE must consider to the impacts associated with the marine transport of the LNG commencing at the point of export.    

To that end, the final rule revises DOE’s existing Categorical Exclusions (CATEX) to reflect that the only elements of LNG projects subject to NEPA review is the following:

B5.7 Export of natural gas and associated transportation by marine vessel.

Approvals or disapprovals of new authorizations or amendments of existing authorizations to export natural gas under section 3 of the Natural Gas Act and any associated transportation of natural gas by marine vessel.

Based on prior NEPA reviews and technical reports, DOE has determined that the transport of natural gas by marine vessel normally does not pose the potential for significant environmental impacts and therefore qualifies for a CATEX.  As such, the only reason that DOE would be obligated to engage in a NEPA review of a LNG project would be if “extraordinary circumstances” were deemed to be present that could not be mitigated and therefore would preclude DOE's reliance on this CATEX.

The revised CATEX also removes the reference to import authorizations from CATEX B5.7 because DOE has no discretion with respect to such approvals.  Finally, the final rule also removes and reserves CATEX B5.8 and classes of actions C13, D8, D9 because these actions are outside of the scope of DOE’s authority or are covered by the revised CATEX B5.7.

Interestingly, although the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has responsibility for approving the construction of LNG export terminals, it has previously declined to analyze the greenhouse emissions associated with such projects, noting that DOE is the appropriate agency to consider such impacts.  However, with DOE now concluding that these projects are categorically excluded from such reviews, it remains to be seen if FERC will reconsider its approach to these operations.

The final rule is scheduled to take effect on January 4, 2021 and it remains to be seen what if any action a new Biden administration might take in response to this rule.  Assuming that the Republicans retain control of the Congress, DOE would be required to go through the formal withdrawal process.  Alternatively, if the Democrats take control of the Senate, the regulation could be repealed pursuant to the Congressional Review Act. 

We will continue to track the Trump administration’s ongoing effort to finalize regulations in advance of January 20th as well as efforts by any new administration to rollback these regulations on the Corporate Environmental Lawyer.

CATEGORIES: Air, Climate Change, Contamination, Hazmat, NEPA, Sustainability, Water

PEOPLE: Steven R. Englund, Steven M. Siros

October 11, 2020 Lawsuit Filed Challenging DOJ’s Policy on Supplemental Environmental Projects

Linkedin_Steven_Siros_3130By Steven M. Siros

On October 8, 2020, the Conservation Law Foundation filed a lawsuit challenging a DOJ policy that barred the use of supplemental environmental projects (SEPs) in federal enforcement settlements with private parties.  SEPs have been used since the 1980s and typically involve a project intended to provide some tangible environmental or public health benefit that could not necessarily be compelled by U.S. EPA. 

DOJ, in a March 12, 2020 memorandum, announced that it was terminating its policy of allowing companies to agree to perform SEPs in exchange for reductions in civil penalties in environmental enforcement settlements.  According to DOJ, the practice of using SEPs in lieu of civil penalties violates the Miscellaneous Receipts Act, a statute that prevents cash from legal settlements being diverted from the Treasury to third parties.  As further described in the March 2020 DOJ memorandum, DOJ claims that the SEPs basically substitute payments to third parties for payments to the Treasury, circumventing Congress’ Constitutional power of the purse. 

The lawsuit claims that DOJ’s conclusion that the use of SEPs violates the Miscellaneous Receipts Act is arbitrary and capricious and otherwise lacks reasoned decision-making.  The lawsuit highlights U.S. EPA’s history of using SEPs and its various guidance documents encouraging the use of SEPs in environmental enforcement matters.  The lawsuit asks that the Court declare that DOJ’s March 2020 memo violates the Administrative Procedures Act, vacate the memo, and enjoin DOJ from implementing or relying on the memo in the future. . 

We will continue to provide updates on this lawsuit as well as other important environmental, health and safety issues on Jenner & Block’s Corporate Environmental Lawyer Blog.

CATEGORIES: Climate Change, Consumer Law and Environment, Sustainability

PEOPLE: Steven R. Englund, Steven M. Siros

October 2, 2020 Supreme Court Grants Review on Key Climate Change Case

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By Matthew G. Lawson

US Supreme CourtOn Friday, October 2, 2020, the United States Supreme Court granted a writ of certiorari to review of a decision by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals holding that climate change litigation brought against various fossil fuel were not subject to federal court subject matter jurisdiction.  While the Supreme Court’s review is limited to a somewhat narrow, jurisdictional question regarding the ability of an appellate court to review a district court’s order remanding a case to state court, the decision will likely have far reaching impacts on whether the growing number of climate changes cases in the United States will be litigated in state or federal courts. 

As previously discussed by the Corporate Environmental Lawyer, the underlying litigation involves claims asserted in Maryland state court by the City of Baltimore against various fossil-fuel companies for damages associated with Climate Change.  In its complaint, Baltimore asserted claims against the industry for public nuisance, private nuisance, strict liability failure to warn, strict liability design defect, negligent design defect, negligent failure to warn, trespass, and violations of Maryland’s Consumer Protection Act. 

In response, the fossil fuel companies sought to remove the action to federal court.  However, the district court remanded the case back to state court after finding that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the asserted claims following the lead of several other district courts that have decided similar issues.  On March 6, 2020, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s remand order.  Importantly, the Fourth Circuit found that its appellate jurisdiction was limited to reviewing the district court’s conclusion that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction under the Federal-Officer Removal Statute pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1447(d) and 28 U.S.C. § 1442 notwithstanding that the fossil fuel companies had raised and the district court ruled on additional arguments in support of the removal petition.  The Fourth Circuit found that it lacked jurisdiction to consider whether the district court should have granted removal to federal court on these alternative grounds. 

With respect to the Federal Officer Removal Statute, the Fourth Circuit rejected the companies’ arguments that the case belonged in federal court because the companies had entered into fuel supply and strategic petroleum reserve agreements with the federal government.  The court concluded that these contractual agreements failed to establish that the companies were “acting under” the direction of a federal officer and were “insufficiently related” to Baltimore’s claims.  On March 31, 2020, the fossil-fuel companies filed a petition for a writ of certiorari in the United States Supreme Court, seeking review of the question of whether the statutory provision prescribing the scope of appellate review of remand orders “permits a court of appeals to review any issue encompassed in a district court’s order remanding a removed case to state court…”  The companies argued that the Fourth Circuit had improperly ignored several alternative grounds justifying removal of the case to federal court, including that federal common law governs claims of interstate air pollution.

While the Supreme Court’s review of the case will be limited to the appellate jurisdictional question, the decision will undoubtedly influence the growing trend of climate change litigation.  At present, twenty-one U.S. States and numerous municipalities have brought lawsuits in state court against the fossil fuel industry for damages related to climate change.  In nearly all such cases, the industry has sought to remove the case to federal court where it is believed the companies have a better chance of successfully securing dismissals on the grounds that such claims are preempted by the Clean Air Act and/or addresses a “political question” which is better left to the discretion of Congress.  Thus, the Supreme Court’s decision will likely impact the ability of the fossil fuel industry to seek appellate review of unfavorable district court remand orders.  

CATEGORIES: Air, Climate Change, Sustainability

PEOPLE: Matthew G. Lawson

August 25, 2020 EPA Finalizes Rollback of Obama-Era Methane Regulations for the Oil and Natural Gas Industry

Torrence_jpgBy Allison A. Torrence

PipelineOn August 13, 2020, EPA issued two final rules that will have a significant impact on methane emissions, a potent greenhouse gas. The final rules were issued under the Clean Air Act’s New Source Performance Standards (“NSPS”) for the oil and natural gas industry and rescind Obama-era rules issued in 2012 and 2016. EPA categorized the two new rules as (1) Policy Amendments and (2) Technical Amendments.

Key provisions from these two rules include the following:

  • Policy Amendments:
    • Removes the natural gas transmission and storage segment of the oil and natural gas industry from regulation.
    • Rescinds methane and volatile organic compounds (“VOCs”) emissions standards for the natural gas transmission and storage segment of the oil and natural gas industry.
    • Rescinds methane emissions standards for the production and processing segments of the oil and natural gas industry and finds that EPA is no longer required or authorized to issue emission guidelines for methane from existing sources in the industry’s production and processing segments.
    • Finds that the Clean Air Act requires, or authorizes, EPA to make a “significant contribution finding” as a predicate to regulating any air pollutant that was not considered when EPA first listed or regulated an industry “source category.”
  • Technical Amendments:
    • Reduces the frequency of required fugitive emissions monitoring for gathering and boosting compressor stations from quarterly to twice a year and exempts low-production wells from fugitive monitoring requirements altogether.
    • Reduces the recordkeeping and reporting requirements of the fugitive emissions program.
      • Changes include allowing owners and operators to determine the best means to ensure all components are monitored, rather than having to include a site map and an observation path in the monitoring plan.
    • Updates fugitive emissions repair requirements.
    • Provides additional technical updates covering fugitive emissions monitoring and repairs, alternative means of emissions limitations, pneumatic pumps, engineer certifications for closed vent systems, and storage vessels.

As we discussed on this Blog previously, these rules were originally proposed on August 28, 2019. EPA held public hearings on the proposed amendments, and received nearly 300,000 written comments on the Policy Amendments and more than 500,000 written comments on the Technical Amendments.

According to EPA’s analysis:

The Regulatory Impact Analysis (RIA) for the two rules estimates that, combined, the two actions will yield $750 to $850 million in net benefits over the period from 2021-2030, (7 percent and 3 percent discount rates, respectively), the annualized equivalent of nearly $100 million in net benefits a year.

EPA also estimates that from 2021-2030, the combined rules will result in an increase in 850,000 short tons of Methane emissions and 140,000 tons of VOC emissions.

Environmental groups, liberal states and other interest groups are all but certain to sue to try to block implementation of the new rules, with Earthjustice staff attorney Tim Ballo recently making the following statement:

The Trump administration is once again putting industry interests over people and public health by gutting these common-sense emission standards. The rollback would only further exacerbate a climate crisis that is already near a point of no return. We cannot afford to go back. We’ve successfully sued the Trump administration in their attempt to dismantle methane emission standards in the past, and we’ll sue again to keep these standards in place.

More information about these rules is available at EPA’s website. The rules will take effect 60 days after they are published in the Federal Register.

CATEGORIES: Air, Climate Change, Greenhouse Gas

PEOPLE: Allison A. Torrence

July 16, 2020 Trump Administration Issues Final Rule Substantially Modifying NEPA Regulations

Lawson Headshot By Matthew G. Lawson

SealOn Wednesday, July 15, 2020, the Trump Administration announced the publication of comprehensive updates to federal regulations governing the implementation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).  The updated regulations—issued by the Center on Environmental Quality (“CEQ”)—are provided in the agency’s final rule titled “Update to the Regulations Implementing the Procedural Provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act” (the “Final Rule”), which is expected to be published in a forthcoming Federal Register publication.  The Final Rule significantly overhauls the responsibilities of federal agencies under NEPA, and represents the first major overhaul to NEPA’s regulations in over 30 years.  During his announcement, President Trump promised that the overhaul would remove “mountains and mountains of bureaucratic red tape in Washington, D.C.” and speed up the approval and construction of major projects such as interstate highways and pipelines. 

NEPA requires federal agencies to quantify and consider the environmental impacts of proposed actions “with effects that may be major and which are potentially subject to Federal control and responsibility.” The federal agency must conduct its NEPA review prior to “any irreversible and irretrievable commitments of resources” towards the proposed action.  To fulfill its obligations under NEPA, federal agencies much first complete an “Environmental Assessment” (“EA”) that analyzes whether a proposed action will have a significant impact on the environment.  If the EA concludes that an action could have significant environmental impacts, the agency is obligated to take the next step under NEPA and prepare a detailed “Environmental Impact Assessment” (“EIS”) that describes and quantifies the anticipated impacts.  Federal agencies are required to undertake an EA and potentially an EIS before commencing public infrastructure projects such as roads, bridges and ports, or before issuing permits to certain private actions that require federal approval, such as the construction of pipelines or commencement of mining operations. 

The Trump Administration has repeatedly voiced displeasure with the existing NEPA process, which the President has characterized as “increasingly complex and difficult to manage.”  Legal challenges initiated under the existing NEPA regulations have also stalled a number of energy projects publicly supported by the administration, including the Keystone XL, the Dakota Access pipelines.  The administration's new regulations are expected to reduce the obligations imposed on federal agencies under NEPA through a variety of measures, including reducing the types of environmental impacts that must be considered during a NEPA review; shortening the permitted time period for reviews; and exempting certain types of actions from the review requirements.

While the Final Rule provides numerous modifications to the language of the existing regulations, three changes expected to have substantial impact on the NEPA process include:

  • Narrowing of “Effects” that Agencies Must Consider: The Final Rule seeks to narrow the scope of the environmental consequences that must be considered during an agency’s NEPA review by striking from NEPA’s definition of “effects” references to “direct”, “indirect”, and “cumulative” effects. Instead, the new definition provides that federal agencies must only consider environmental “effects” that “are reasonably foreseeable and have a reasonably close casual relational to the proposed action…” According to CEQ, NEPA’s existing definition of “effects” “had been interpreted so expansively as to undermine informed decision making, and led agencies to conduct analyses to include effects that are not reasonably foreseeable or do not have a reasonably close causal relationship to the proposed action or alternatives.”  Under the Final Rule’s definition of “effects”, it is unclear whether agencies are ever required to consider a proposed project’s incremental contribution to “global” environment effects, such as Climate Change. Since global effects arguably do not have a “close causal relationship” with any single action, these impacts may now fall outside of NEPA’s purview.

By eliminating the reference to “indirect” emissions and requiring a “close causal relationship” between a project and its environmental effects, the Final Rule also appears to limit federal agencies’ obligation to consider indirect “upstream” and/or “downstream” impacts associated with a project. This issue is of particular significance to the ongoing legal debate regarding the scope of greenhouse gas (“GHG”) emissions that must be considered in NEPA reviews of interstate pipeline projects. Because the volume of GHG emissions caused by the burning of fossil fuels transported by a pipeline often far exceed the emissions directly associated with the pipeline’s construction, litigation can often arise as to whether these subsequent “downstream” emissions must be considered during the pipeline’s NEPA review. Under the Final Rule, it appears that upstream / downstream GHG emissions will often be excluded from NEPA’s requirements unless the emissions have a close relationship with the specific project. Ultimately, the manner in which federal agencies and courts interpret “close causal relationship” in the Final Rule has the potential to significantly reduce the scope of federal agencies’ evaluation of climate change impacts associated with federal projects.

  • Limitations on Review Period and Report Length: The Final Rule seeks to expedite the NEPA review process by requiring federal agencies to limit all NEPA reviews to a maximum of two years.  In addition, the final EIS issued by an agency may not exceed 150 pages of text or, for proposals of unusual scope of and complexity, 300 pages of text.  Exceptions from the review period and/or EIS page limitations may only be granted through specific written approval from a senior agency official.  The limitations imposed by the Final Rule appear to represent a significant departure from the existing NEPA process.  According to a CEQ Report issued on June 12, 2020, the average final EIS is currently 661 pages in length and takes approximately 4.5 years to complete.
  • Directive for Agencies to Expand Categorical Exclusions of NEPA Requirements for Certain Types of Projects: The Final Rule requires federal agencies to develop a list of actions that the agency does not expect to have a significant effect on the environment.  Outside of “extraordinary circumstances,” agencies will not be required to conduct an EA for any projects falling within these categorical exclusions.  Furthermore, the Final Rule clarifies that a NEPA review is not required where a proposed action would only have “minimal Federal funding or minimal Federal involvement,” such that the agency cannot control the outcome of the project.

The updated regulations are set to take effect 60 days after the publication of the Final Rule in the Federal Register.  CEQ has further clarified that federal agencies may apply the updated regulations to any ongoing NEPA reviews, including environmental reviews started before the effective date of the regulations.  However, environmental groups have already publicly stated that they intend to challenge the new rule, claiming at least in part that CEQ failed to respond to the more than one million comments that were submitted in response to the proposed new rules.

 

CATEGORIES: Air, Climate Change, Greenhouse Gas

PEOPLE: Matthew G. Lawson

July 13, 2020 Lawsuits Challenging EPA’s Temporary Enforcement Discretion Policy for COVID‑19 Pandemic Hit Dead End

Song

By Leah M. Song

Covid-19As an update to our July 1st blog regarding EPA’s notice that its COVID-19 Temporary Enforcement Policy will end on August 31, 2020, there have been some new developments in the lawsuits filed challenging that policy.

On July 8, 2020, Judge McMahon of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York ruled that the Natural Resources Defense Counsel and other environmental organizations (“Plaintiffs”) failed to show that they were injured by EPA’s purported “unreasonable delay” in responding to the petition. The Plaintiffs had petitioned EPA to publish an emergency rule requiring an entity to provide written notice if they were suspending monitoring and reporting because of COVID-19.

The court held that the Plaintiffs failed to establish the standing requirements. The Plaintiffs did not establish that they were “legally entitled to the information they seek” and lacked association standing as well. The Plaintiffs did not demonstrate that they “suffered a sufficiently concrete injury nor that that alleged injury is fairly traceable to EPA’s purported delay in responding to the Petition.”

The court said it was “perfectly obvious that, at the time Plaintiffs brought this lawsuit, the EPA had not ‘unreasonably’ delayed its response to the Petition.” Judge McMahon said that “the real litigation – over the legality of the [Enforcement Policy] itself – is presently being briefed in an action brought by nine State Attorneys General. That is where the action will – and should – take place.” Accordingly, the court granted summary judgment in favor of the EPA.

One day later on July 9, the State Attorneys General indicated that they will drop their lawsuit against EPA given the upcoming Enforcement Policy deadline. “EPA does not intend to extend the [Enforcement] Policy beyond August 31 and, should the policy terminate on (or before) August 31, Plaintiffs currently intend to voluntarily dismiss the Complaint without prejudice.” The parties prepared a “contingent, expedited briefing schedule” should EPA not terminate the Enforcement Policy by that date. This announcement this lawsuit will be is unlikely to cause Judge McMahon to revisit the summary judgment ruling since this decision doesn’t change that Plaintiffs lacked standing to bring the claims.

Jenner & Block’s Corporate Environmental Lawyer will continue to update on these matters, as well as other important COVID‑19 related guidance, as they unfold.

CATEGORIES: Climate Change, COVID-19, Sustainability

PEOPLE: Leah M. Song

June 26, 2020 Trends in Climate Change Lawsuits: State Common Law Issues

Song

By Leah M. Song

EarthAs we have discussed in our previous blog posts, a growing form of climate change litigation in the United States consists of lawsuits filed by states or municipalities against private industry, and more specifically, the fossil-fuel industry. States, cities and other units of local government have filed lawsuits alleging state common law theories, including nuisance, trespass, failure to warn of the known impacts of climate change, and unjust enrichment.

The following cases are the primary cases that are currently ongoing: Rhode Island, Baltimore, Oakland, and San Mateo.

Defendants in these cases have universally tried to remove these cases to federal court where defendants presumably believe that they stand a much greater chance of getting the litigation dismissed. Generally, plaintiffs (including states, units of local government, and non-governmental organizations) asserting climate change claims against corporations prefer to be in state court where they can take advantage of perceived plaintiff-friendly common law or state statutes. On the other hand, defendants inevitably seek to remove such cases to federal court where they have had a higher level of success securing dismissals on the grounds that the issue is preempted by the Clean Air Act and/or addresses a “political question” which is better left to the discretion of Congress. See City of N.Y. v. BP P.L.C.. 325 F. Supp. 3d 466 (S.D.N.Y. 2018).

As further discussed below, in most of these cases, the district courts have remanded the cases back to state court and those decision have been appealed to the appellate courts. At the same time, defendants have sought to stay the court’s remand orders while the appeals proceed in federal court. These efforts to stay these remand orders have universally been unsuccessful, with the U.S. Supreme Court refusing to stay these orders, as seen here.

The following provides a brief overview and status update on each of these cases:   

  • In Mayor and City Council of Baltimore v. BP PLC, Baltimore brought action against various fossil-fuel companies for public nuisance, private nuisance, strict liability failure to warn, strict liability design defect, negligent design defect, negligent failure to warn, trespass, and violations of Maryland’s Consumer Protection Act. As noted above, defendants sought to remove the case to federal court but the district court remanded the case back to the state court.

On March 6, 2020, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s order remanding the case back to state court. The district court rejected each of the fossil-fuel companies’ stated grounds for removal, but the Fourth Circuit held that its appellate jurisdiction was limited to a review of the district court’s conclusion that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction under the federal-officer removal statute pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1447(d) and 28 U.S.C. § 1442. The Fourth Circuit found none of the three contractual relationships on which the fossil-fuel companies based their claims for federal officer removal were sufficient to justify removal from state court, either because the relationships failed to satisfy the requirement that the fossil-fuel companies were “acting under” the direction of a federal officer or because the contractual relationships were “insufficiently related” to Baltimore’s claims for purposes of the nexus prong.

On March 31, 2020, the fossil-fuel companies filed a petition for a writ of certiorari in the Supreme Court, seeking review of the question of whether the statutory provision prescribing the scope of appellate review of remand orders “permits a court of appeals to review any issue encompassed in a district court’s order remanding a removed case to state court where the removing defendant premised removal in part on the federal officer removal statute… or the civil-rights removal statute.” Baltimore’s response was due by April 30, 2020, but has been extended to June 29, 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • Rhode Island v. Chevron Corp. et al. was the first climate change damages case to be brought by a In this case, Rhode Island brought action against 21 different fossil-fuel companies for nuisance, strict liability, failure to warn, design defect, trespass, impairment of public trust resources, and violations of the Rhode Island Environmental Rights Act. Rhode Island’s lawsuit asserts that the state’s extensive coastline will be damaged through rising sea levels, increased frequency and severity of flooding and ocean acidification. The fossil-fuel companies had removed to federal court and Rhode Island tried to remand back to state court. On July 22, 2019, the federal court ordered the litigation to be remanded back to Rhode Island state court. While acknowledging that at least two federal courts had reached opposite conclusions, the court held that Rhode Island’s climate change claims were not preempted by the Clean Air Act and did not implicate a substantial federal question such that removal to federal court was appropriate. With respect to the Clean Air Act, the court found that the statute did not act to preempt all state-law causes of action for air pollution, including Rhode Island’s claims against defendants for releases of greenhouse gases. In addition, the court held that Rhode Island’s claims did not implicate a substantial federal question because “[t]he rights, duties, and rules of decision implicated by the complaint are all supplied by state law, without reference to anything federal.”

Rhode Island promptly notified the First Circuit of the Fourth Circuit’s decision in Baltimore, noting that that the Fourth Circuit’s decision “rejects the exact arguments raised … as to the proper scope of … appeal” as well as the fossil-fuel companies’ “tenuous justification for federal officer removal.” In response, Chevron filed a letter seeking to distinguish the Baltimore decision on the grounds that the Fourth Circuit “considered itself bound by [c]ircuit precedent” and had based its holding that federal officer removal was inapplicable on an incorrect characterization of plaintiffs’ claims in that case.

  • On May 26, 2020, the Ninth Circuit joined the Fourth Circuit in Baltimore in concluding that these climate change cases alleging only state-common law claims (County of San Mateo v. Chevron Corp. et al. and City of Oakland v. BP p.l.c. et al.) belonged in state court. In County of San Mateo v. Chevron Corp. et al., six California municipalities and counties sued more than 30 fossil-fuel companies in California state court. The plaintiffs brought a variety of claims under state common law including nuisance, negligence, failure to warn, and trespass. In City of Oakland v. BP p.l.c. et al., the cities of Oakland and San Francisco sued five fossil-fuel companies in state court under a theory of nuisance. Defendants sought to remove both cases to federal court. The San Mateo district court remanded the case back to state court while the Oakland district court refused to remand its case, finding instead that plaintiffs’ public nuisance claims were governed by federal common law, but then proceeding to dismiss the lawsuit for failure to state a claim. Both cases were appealed to the Ninth Circuit.

The Ninth Circuit agreed with plaintiffs that two climate change lawsuits had been improperly removed to the federal courts, continuing courts’ recent trend of remanding these types of cases back to state court. These cases were recently analyzed on Jenner & Block’s Corporate Environmental Lawyer here.

Shortly after these rulings, both Rhode Island and Boulder filed letters informing the respective courts of the Ninth Circuit’s San Mateo and Oakland decisions.

Although San Mateo and Oakland did not address the merits of plaintiffs’ common-law claims, these cases will certainly pose challenges for defendants seeking to remove these types of cases to federal court, and will likely affect plaintiffs’ and defendants’ strategies in climate change litigation moving forward.

Jenner & Block’s Corporate Environmental Lawyer will continue to update on climate change litigation cases as they unfold.

CATEGORIES: Climate Change

PEOPLE: Leah M. Song

May 28, 2020 The Ninth Circuit Sends Climate Change Cases Back to State Court

Song

By Leah M. Song

EarthOn May 26, 2020, the Ninth Circuit agreed with plaintiffs that two climate change lawsuits—County of San Mateo v. Chevron Corp. et al. and City of Oakland v. BP p.l.c. et al.—had been improperly removed to the federal courts, continuing courts’ recent trend of remanding these types of cases back to state court.

A growing form of climate change litigation in the United States consists of lawsuits filed by states or municipalities against private industry, and more specifically, the fossil-fuel industry. States, cities and other units of local government have filed lawsuits alleging state common law theories, including nuisance, trespass, failure to warn of the known impacts of climate change, and unjust enrichment. The outcome of these cases thus far has hinged on whether or not the fossil fuel companies are able to successfully remove the litigation to federal court where they stand a much greater chance of getting the litigation dismissed. Generally, plaintiffs (including states, units of local government, and non-governmental organizations) asserting climate change claims against corporations prefer to be in state court where they can take advantage of perceived plaintiff-friendly common law or state statutes. On the other hand, defendants inevitably seek to remove such cases to federal court where they have had a higher level of success securing dismissals on the grounds that the issue is preempted by the Clean Air Act and/or addresses a “political question” which is better left to the discretion of Congress. See City of N.Y. v. BP P.L.C.. 325 F. Supp. 3d 466 (S.D.N.Y. 2018).

In County of San Mateo v. Chevron Corp. et al., six California municipalities and counties sued more than 30 fossil-fuel companies in California state court. The plaintiffs brought a variety of claims under state common law including nuisance, negligence, failure to warn, and trespass. In City of Oakland v. BP p.l.c. et al., the Cities of Oakland and San Francisco sued five fossil-fuel companies in state court under a theory of nuisance. The fossil-fuel companies removed both cases to federal court. The San Mateo district court remanded the case back to state court while the Oakland district court refused to remand the case back to state court, finding that plaintiffs’ public nuisance claims were governed by federal common law, but then proceeding to dismiss the lawsuit. Both cases were appealed to the Ninth Circuit.

On May 26th, the Ninth Circuit joined the Fourth Circuit (Mayor and City Council of Baltimore v. BP P.L.C., et al., No. 19-1644 (4th Cir. Mar. 6, 2020)) in concluding that these climate change cases alleging only state-common law claim belonged in state court. In County of San Mateo v. Chevron Corp. et al., the Ninth Circuit emphasized its limited authority to review an order remanding a case back to state court under 28 U.S.C. § 1447(d). The Ninth Circuit therefore limited its review to determining whether the district court erred in holding that the federal court lacked subject matter jurisdiction under the federal-officer removal statute.

In order to determine whether the district court erred in holding that it did not have subject matter jurisdiction, the Ninth Circuit examined whether the companies were “acting under” a federal officer’s directions. The companies argued that they were “persons acting under” a federal officer based on several agreements with the government. However, the Ninth Circuit concluded that the companies’ activities under these agreements did not give rise to a relationship where they were “acting under” a federal officer. Accordingly, the Ninth Circuit court held that the fossil fuel companies failed to meet their burden for federal-officer removal and therefore affirmed the district court’s remand order.

In City of Oakland v. BP p.l.c. et al., the Ninth Circuit considered whether “the district court erred in determining that it had federal-question jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1331” and ultimately held that plaintiffs’ state common-law public nuisance claims did not arise under federal common law. The court acknowledged that there are exceptions to the well-pleaded complaint rule for claims that arise under federal law, but concluded that none of those exceptions applied here.

The court reasoned that “[t]he question whether the Energy Companies can be held liable for public nuisance based on production and promotion of the use of fossil fuels and be required to spend billions of dollars on abatement is no doubt an important policy question, but it does not raise a substantial question of federal law for the purpose of determining whether there is jurisdiction under § 1331.” Furthermore, evaluation of the public nuisance claim would require factual determinations which are “not the type of claim for which federal-question lies.” The fossil fuel companies argued that the plaintiffs’ public nuisance claim was completely preempted by the Clean Air Act, but the court was not persuaded.

In response to defendants’ argument that by amending their complaint to assert a federal common law claim, the district court properly had subject matter jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1331, the Ninth Circuit noted that plaintiffs only amended their complaint in response to the district court’s statements that plaintiffs’ claims were governed by federal common law. Moreover, the Ninth Circuit noted that since a party violates § 1441(a) “if it removes a cases that is not fit for federal adjudication, a district court must remand the case to state court, even if subsequent action conferred subject-matter jurisdiction on the district court.”

Notwithstanding these conclusions, the Ninth Circuit noted that the district court had not addressed alternative bases for removal raised by defendants and therefore remanded the case back to the district court. However, the Ninth Circuit specifically noted that if the district court concludes that there are no valid bases for federal jurisdiction, the case should be remanded back to state court.

Although these rulings did not address the merits of plaintiffs’ common-law claims, these cases will certainly pose challenges for defendants seeking to remove these types of cases to federal court, and will likely affect plaintiffs’ and defendants’ strategies in climate change litigation moving forward. Jenner & Block’s Corporate Environmental Lawyer will continue to update on those matters, as well as other important climate change litigation cases, as they unfold.

 

CATEGORIES: Air, Climate Change, Greenhouse Gas, Sustainability, Water

PEOPLE: Leah M. Song