Carbon Dioxide

The Top 6 at 6: A Review of the Most Important Climate Change Legal Stories in the First Half of 2012

June 30, 2012 21:01
by J. Wylie Donald
Arbitrary and capricious.  Familiar words to anyone involved in regulatory activity.  But also applicable to calendars, which willy-nilly cut off a series of events and ascribe them to one solar cycle, as if the sun gave two hoots.  As we perused the various "Climate Change: Year in Review" reviews that crossed our desk last January, we concluded 365 days are arbitrary and one year capricious in assessing what is important to resurrect and re-discuss.  We further concluded that a 12-month look-back is too long.  So, for what it is worth, here is one of six months. 1.  Cap-and-Trade in the U.S. - On January 1 the Western Climate Initiative (WCI) (or what remains of it) initiated its long-anticipated cap-and-trade program for greenhouse gas emissions.  Notwithstanding the lack of support from other WCI members, California and Quebec are moving forward with a cap-and-trade program.  California's and Quebec's mandated reporting rules applied to stationary sources emitting at or above 25,000 metric tons of CO2e per year.  On May 9 coordination between the two programs was announced  initiating the 45-day public comment period.  The first auction will be held in November and then, on January 1, 2013, enforcement begins when covered entities must participate. It is obviously too soon to tell how successful the California program will be, but when the world's eighth largest economy takes an initiative, it is likely to have impact elsewhere, particularly when it is the only program in the nation. 2.  Greenhouse Gas Liabilities and Insurance Coverage - We didn't think there would be anything to say this year about coverage for GHG liabilities.  After all, in the only case in litigation the Virginia Supreme Court issued its opinion in AES Corp. v. Steadfast Insurance Co. in September 2011 and concluded that there was no "occurrence" triggering coverage made in the allegations pleaded by the Native Village of Kivalina against AES Corporation.  But then the Court granted a motion for reconsideration in January and many puzzled as to what was going on.  Apparently nothing as the Court reiterated its previous conclusions in an April 20, 2012 opinion.  The decision will be significant in Virginia because it may have upset coverage in more conventional cases, as the concurring opinion of Justice Mims suggests.  As for the rest of the nation, it is one decision, on one issue, on one set of facts.  The case is important because it is the first, but we will be surprised if it provides guidance anywhere else. As for greenhouse gas liability that is a story unto itself.  Like something out of a Steven King novel, the Comer v. Murphy Oil case refuses to pass quietly into the night.  This is the case that was dismissed by the Southern District of Mississippi, reversed by the 5th Circuit, vacated by the 5th Circuit en banc when it accepted rehearing and then reinstated as dismissed when the 5th Circuit's quorum dissolved.  Following a denial of a request for a writ of mandamus from the U.S. Supreme Court, the Comer plaintiffs re-filed their complaint against over 100 electric utilities, oil companies, chemical companies and coal companies alleging their GHG emissions were responsible for the ferocity of Hurricane Katrina.  And the Southern District of Mississippi dismissed the plaintiffs again on March 20.  And plaintiffs appealed again.  We don't expect the case to be finally at rest until the Supreme Court denies certiorari, or accepts it (perhaps in order to address the Ninth Circuit's much-anticipated decision in Native Village of Kivalina v. ExxonMobil, which has been pending for over six months since oral argument). 3.  Natural Gas:  The Bridge Fuel - With the combining of two technologies, hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, a resource of unprecedented volume is "changing the game" of energy.  "Annual shale gas production in the US increased almost fivefold, from 1.0 to 4.8 trillion cubic feet between 2006 and 2010. The percentage of contribution to the total natural gas supply grew to 23% in 2010; it is expected to increase to 46% by 2035."  Thus reported the Energy Institute at the University of Texas in February in a 400+ page tome entitled Fact-Based Regulation for Environmental Protection in Shale Gas Development.  Momentously, the UT researchers report "there is at present little or no evidence of groundwater contamination from hydraulic fracturing of shales at normal depths."  The reference to "normal depths" acknowledged that in December 2011 the EPA linked contamination in Pavilion, Wyoming to shallow fracking operations. In March 2012, however, EPA agreed to conduct further testing.  And then in May, a personal injury tort case, Strudley v. Antero Resources Corp. et al., No. 2011-CV-2218 (2d Jud. Dist. Ct. Col. May 9, 2012), brought against fracking operators in Colorado was thrown out because plaintiffs could not muster adequate proofs of specific causation. Despite some intense opposition, fracking is moving forward.  What does all of this have to do with climate change?  Natural gas when burned emits half the carbon dioxide of coal.  Accordingly, some argue that natural gas is the bridge to a low-carbon future.  If so, then fracking builds that bridge. 4.  Innovative Climate Change Legal Theories - Last spring the sound and the fury were intense as the environmental organization Our Children's Trust unleashed several dozen regulatory petitions and a dozen lawsuits across the nation.  The goal:  establish the public trust doctrine as applicable to the atmosphere and use it to implement greenhouse gas regulation.  It appears that all of that is signifying nothing. Over two dozen petitions were denied in 2011 and two lawsuits were dismissed (Montana and Colorado).  It did not get any better in 2012.  The first six months of this year delivered only bad news to OCT.  State courts dismissed lawsuits in Alaska, Arizona, Minnesota, Oregon, and Washington.  The federal court in the District of Columbia did the same.   Plaintiffs took a voluntary dismissal in California.  To be sure, OCT has filed appeals (the one in Minnesota is scheduled to be argued on July 18).  Having failed to convince a single court so far, we think we are safe in predicting an uphill battle. 5.  Power Plant Performance Standards - On April 13, 2012, a scant seven months before the presidential election, the EPA published in the Federal Register standards of performance for all new fossil fuel-fired electricity-generating units requiring them to meet an electricity-output-based emission rate of 1,000 lb of carbon dioxide for every megawatt-hour of electricity generated.  The only plants that can meet this standard without implementing costly carbon capture and storage technology are natural gas plants.  Thus, the administration took a strong stand against coal-based generation.  Or it is all smoke and mirrors.  As EPA notes in the proposed rule, because of the glut of natural gas made available by fracking, there is little likelihood of a new coal-powered plant before 2030.  Notwithstanding, industry groups have filed a half-dozen lawsuits seeking to derail the rule. 6.  EPA's Greenhouse Gas Regulatory Program - Less than a week ago USEPA and its GHG program got a firm "thumbs up" from the D.C. Circuit.  Inundated with over two dozen appeals of various USEPA GHG regulations, the Endangerment Finding, the Tailpipe Rule, the Tailoring Rule and the Timing Rule (for citations see The DC Circuit Locks in USEPAs GHG Regulations Sort Of). The court turned away every challenge, sometimes on the merits and sometimes on procedural grounds such as standing.  There is much that deserves comment not the least of which are the differences between the states with California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington, lining up on one side, and Alabama, Florida, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, and Virginia lining up on the other.  To focus more on legal matters, several challenges were turned away on standing.  For example, neither states nor industry groups could challenge the Tailoring Rule as they did not allege the requisite injury.  Because the Tailoring Rule benefits small businesses (who are not required to comply with certain GHG emission requirements), it would appear that the door may remain open for parties who allege competitive injury (i.e., non-regulated entities gain a competitive advantage). In the meantime, do not expect Congress this election year to touch the issue.    

Carbon Dioxide | Climate Change | Climate Change Litigation | Greenhouse Gases | Insurance | Legislation | Regulation | Year in Review

The DC Circuit Locks in USEPA's GHG Regulations - Sort Of

June 26, 2012 20:13
by J. Wylie Donald
It took a little over five years but USEPA's greenhouse gas regulation program is now firmly established - for the moment anyway.  The D.C. Circuit today rejected every challenge by numerous petitioners and intervenors to the whole raft of USEPA rules that followed from the critical Supreme Court decision, Massachusetts v. EPA, in 2007.  In Coalition for Responsible Regulation, Inc. v. Environmental Protection Agency (attached), the D.C. Circuit considered arguments against the validity of The Endangerment Rule, Endangerment and Cause or Contribute Findings for Greenhouse Gases Under Section 202(s) of the Clean Air Act, 74 Fed. Reg. 66,496 (Dec. 15, 2009), The Tailpipe Rule, Light-Duty Vehicle Greenhouse Gas Emission Standards and Corporate Average Fuel Economy Standards, 75 Fed. Reg. 25,324 (May 7, 2010) The Tailoring Rule, Prevention of Significant Deterioration and Title V Greenhouse Gas Tailoring Rule, 75 Fed. Reg. 31, 514 (June 3, 2010), and The Timing Rule, Reconsideration of Interpretation of Regulations That Determine Pollutants Covered by Clean Air Act Permitting Programs, 75 Fed. Reg. 17,004 (Apr. 2, 2010),  as well as a general challenge to the USEPA's implementation of the Clean Air Act.  Each argument was rejected.  The Endangerment and Tailpipe Rules are not arbitrary and capricious, no petitioner (whether from industry or a state) had standing to attack the Timing and Tailoring Rules, and the USEPA's interpretation of the relevant Clean Air Act provisions "is unambiguously correct." The blogosphere is overwhelmed with commentary and analysis.  Rather than repeat what others have already said, we want to focus on just one small segment (pages 45-50) of the 82 page opinion:  standing for the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) and the National Oilseed Processors Association (NOPA).  The court singled out the NAHB and the NOPA because they were the only industry petitioners that had standing to challenge the "result of the Tailpipe Rule, which had the effect of expanding the [Prevention of Significant Deterioration] PSD program to never-regulated sources."  A little background is in order.  Massachusetts v. EPA established that greenhouse gases could be regulated as air pollutants (within the meaning of the Clean Air Act) by USEPA.  The Endangerment Finding concluded that six "well-mixed" greenhouse gases emitted from motor vehicles contributed to the "climate change problem" and thus were "reasonably anticipated to endanger public health and welfare."  As a result, USEPA issued the Tailpipe Rule, which set GHG emission standards for cars and light trucks. Two sections of the Clean Air Act, the PSD program and the state permitting requirements under Title V, are triggered by the emission of "any air pollutant" (which USEPA has interpreted to mean: any regulated air pollutant).  Accordingly, once GHGs were regulated anywhere under the Clean Air Act (such as from tailpipes of motor vehicles), GHGs constituted an "air pollutant" within the meaning of the Act and stationary sources that emitted GHGs became subject to PSD and Title V permitting requirements.  The proverbial camel's nose was in the tent, and the camel followed post-haste. This approach to regulation was long-standing and had been relevant to rules promulgated in 1978, 1980 and 2002.  Since the Act provided for a basis for review only within 60 days of the promulgation of national regulations, challenges to USEPA's approach were very much time-barred, but with one very significant exception: "if such petition is based solely on grounds arising after such sixtieth day, ..." 42 U.S.C. 7607(b)(1). What this means is that an entity whose claim has recently ripened has standing to challenge the USEPA's approach.  Stated differently, entities that did not have standing in 1978, 1980 or 2002 because "their alleged injuries were only speculative" (such as NAHB and NOPA), may subsequently find they do have standing because their facilities are now regulated.  NOPA asserted that "[prior] to promulgation of the Tailpipe Rule, no member's facility had triggered PSD review by virtue of emissions of a non-criteria pollutant.  Now that greenhouse gases are a regulated non-criteria pollutant, many NOPA members will have to obtain PSD permits as [a] result of their facilities' emissions ..."  NAHB members who likewise were not subject to PSD requirements, were now certain to have to obtain PSD permits sometime in the future.  Accordingly, unlike other industry petitioners, NOPA and NAHB were found to have standing to challenge USEPA's "interpretation of the PSD permitting triggers ..."  This result is important.  Absent regulations like the Tailoring Rule, GHG regulation will be far-reaching and will bring in entities not previously subject to regulation.  Those entities will be entitled to challenge the regulation, as well as the methods USEPA uses to implement the regulations, even if those methods have been around for decades.  Thus, even though USEPA's GHG program sailed through this set of challenges, the door certainly is not closed to other challenges as GHG regulation expands.    20120626 Coalition for Responsible Regulation, Inc. v EPA (D.C. Cir.).pdf (188.21 kb)

Carbon Dioxide | Climate Change Litigation | Greenhouse Gases | Legislation

Travails of A123, Fisker and Ener1 Don't UnPlug Nissan CEO Ghosn at New York Auto Show

April 5, 2012 07:05
by J. Wylie Donald
 Imagine an industry.  Let’s make it a high technology industry.  And we’ll make it risky.  It will be a new technology, linked to other new technologies.  We’ll have over a dozen companies in this industry and some of them will partner with their suppliers or their customers, just as established industries do.  And just because it is new technology doesn’t mean that old issues don’t matter.  Each company will still have to satisfy investor expectations, raise money, hope demand stays ahead of supply, beat out their competition (both domestic and overseas) and avoid snafus of all sorts. And if some of the companies in our imagined industry failed, would that surprise any of us?  And if they got sued in shareholder derivative suits alleging misrepresentations in their 10Ks, that would be par for the course in the United States in the early 21st century, right? Now hold those thoughts and transport yourself back to reality and listen to Carlos Ghosn, CEO of Nissan, at the New York Auto Show yesterday. His talk was basically an advertising pitch for Nissan, its turnaround and its increasing presence (with its partner Renault) in the world market.  But if you can get to the question and answer session about halfway through you will get some insight into what the third largest car company alliance in the world is thinking about electric cars, and specifically about the Nissan Leaf.  According to Mr. Ghosn by 2020 the Leaf will have ten percent of the market where it is available because Nissan is moving to local production, which will remove a bottleneck.  It has built a quality product as evidenced by the remote monitoring being done by Nissan on every car:  they have no quality problems.  Consumer surveys show people want low carbon vehicles. And last, as the American and world economies get back on their feet, gas prices will continue to rise and the economic incentive to drive an electric vehicle will only become more powerful. Mr. Ghosn is not alone in his vision.  Nearly every other car company is in, or getting in, to the electric car business. And nearly every bank was making subprime loans and we know how great an idea that was.  And let’s not forget the train wrecks caused by the internet bubble when everyone could make millions off of companies like iVillage and AOL and it was a verity that bricks and mortar were things of the past. And if we look at the electric vehicle segment we see lithium ion battery maker A123 and two of its officers subject to suit on March 2 for false and misleading statements where its stock price tanked after A123 disclosed that it was recalling thousands of batteries because of a manufacturing problem.  In February automobile startup Fisker Automotive was sued by an investor upset that he was being forced to put more money into Fisker, which hadn’t met DOE funding milestones nor sales targets and needed millions more in cash.  And in January  Ener1 (parent to battery maker EnerDel) filed for bankruptcy citing increased competition from Korean and Japanese battery makers.  Some take these as signs of the demise of the industry.  But if we go back to our imaginary industry, we see that none of this is surprising.  Of course there are lawsuits, squabbles over the chase for funding, and bankruptcies.   Wikipedia makes clear, however, that this is a competitive, active industry.  It lists over a dozen battery companies in this new high technology area, joined with another new high technology industry (electric cars).  We list them all below to emphasize the point. The travails of A123, Fisker and Ener1 prove nothing more than that it is a tough marketplace.  1List of Electric Vehicle Battery Manufacturers:  A123Systems, Altairnano, Axeon, Concorde Battery, E-One Moli Energy, Electrovaya, EnerDel, Li-Tec Battery GmbH, NEC, Primearth EV Energy Co., Sanyo, Thunder Sky, XINCHI Li-ion Battery, Valence Technology, LG Chem, SB LiMotive, GS Yuasa. 2 List of Plug-In Electric Vehicle Manufacturers: Audi, BMW, Citroen, Ford, General Motors, Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Mercedes, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Opel, Peugeot, Renault, Rolls-Royce, Saab, Subaru, Suzuki, Toyota, Volkswagen, Volvo.

Carbon Dioxide | Sustainability

A Primer on How Regulation of Greenhouse Gases Coming out of a Tailpipe Led to Regulation of Greenhouse Gases Coming out of a Stack

March 29, 2012 21:38
by J. Wylie Donald
Tuesday EPA issued its proposed rule (see related post) concerning new source performance standards for greenhouse gas emissions for electric power plants.  This all started when EPA refused to address greenhouse gas emissions coming out of cars.  Cars to power plants.  Some may be wondering how the camel got into this tent. The story begins of course with Massachusetts v. EPA, 549 U.S. 497 (2007), where the Supreme Court held that greenhouse gases emitted in automobile exhaust were "air pollutants" within the meaning of the Clean Air Act.  This meant that EPA had to assess whether they caused or contributed to "air pollution which may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health."  42 U.S.C. § 7521(a)(1). That assessment was completed in December 2009 and EPA concluded in the "Endangerment Finding" that "that six greenhouse gases taken in combination endanger both the public health and the public welfare of current and future generations." 74 Fed. Reg. 66,496 (Dec. 15, 2009).  The Endangerment Finding did not impose any requirements, but it set the stage for regulation.  In September 2009 EPA and the US Department of Transportation issued proposed rules to establish greenhouse gas emission standards for certain motor vehicles.  The final rule was published on May 7, 2010 and went into effect on January 2, 2011.  75 Fed. Reg. 25324 (May 7, 2010).  The camel's nose was in the tent. And with that, EPA now had the prerequisite to set greenhouse gas emissions limits elsewhere.  At least that is EPA's position.  In a nutshell, stationary sources that emit 250 tons per year of "pollutants" are subject to the Prevention of Significant Deterioration (PSD) program.  One element of the PSD program is that Best Available Control Technology (BACT) analysis is required for "each pollutant subject to regulation" under the Clean Air Act.  42 U.S.C. 7475(a)(4).  When the motor vehicle greenhouse gas regulation kicked in on January 2, 2011, greenhouse gases were subject to regulation, and therefore electric utilities emitting greenhouse gases were required to conduct a BACT analysis.  All of the camel was in the tent. All of these regulations (and others) were challenged.  Oral argument in those cases was heard before the D.C. Circuit at the end of February.  The regulated community awaits; who knows what the camel is thinking.   

Carbon Dioxide | Carbon Emissions | Regulation

Proposed Rule for Power Plant Greenhouse Gas Emissions: Much Ado About Nothing?

March 29, 2012 21:20
by J. Wylie Donald
Wow!  Whether one likes the president or not, one must concede he's not afraid of leading. Just a little over seven months from the election he has drawn a line in the sand and proposed a rule that may fundamentally alter America's energy mix and takes a big step toward addressing carbon dioxide emissions.  Or it does nothing at all.  We are talking of course of Tuesday's announcement of new source performance standards for electricity plants.   In EPA's words: The EPA is proposing standards of performance that require that all new fossil fuel-fired EGUs meet an electricity-output-based emission rate of 1,000 lbCO2/MWh of electricity generated on a gross basis. This proposed standard is based on the demonstrated performance of natural gas combined cycle (NGCC) units, which are currently in wide use throughout the country, and are likely to be the predominant fossil fuel-fired technology for new generation in the future.  EPA, Standards of Performance for Greenhouse Gas Emissions for New Stationary Sources: Electric Utility Generating Units (proposed rule) at 13 (Mar. 27, 2012) . So natural gas is in.  And what about the other fossil fuels?  New plants using coal or oil and even IGCC (integrated gas combined cycle) can be built but EPA expects that they will need to use carbon capture and storage (CCS) to meet the standards.  Id. What brought about this groundbreaking new rule?  We set forth the legal foundation in a companion post.  Suffice to say here that EPA has moved a long way from the days before Massachusetts v. EPA, 549 U.S. 497 (2007), when greenhouse gases were not Clean Air Act "pollutants."  But the non-regulatory drivers were perhaps even more significant.  All are aware of "fracking".  The use of horizontal drilling with hydraulic fracturing in shales a mile beneath the surface has unleashed a torrent of natural gas.  As Forbes reports this month natural gas prices are half of what they were just a few years ago.  And the glut is not seen to be abating.  EPA has seized on this surfeit:  "technological developments and discoveries of abundant natural gas reserves have caused natural gas prices to decline precipitously in recent years and have secured those relatively low prices for the near-future."  Proposed Rule at 15.  As a result, "energy industry modeling forecasts uniformly predict that few, if any, new coal-fired power plants will be built in the foreseeable future."  Id.  In other words, the proposed regulation will have hardly any effect (even none) on coal-fired generation because no one was going to build those plants anyway.  "Our IPM modeling, using Energy Information Administration (EIA) reference case assumptions, projects that there will be no construction of new coal-fired generation without CCS by 2030. Under these assumptions, the proposed rule will not impose costs by 2030."  Id. at 17. We have read the commentary that this is the death of coal.  The cost of capturing and storing carbon dioxide, which will be the only way for a new coal plant to meet the new standard, is prohibitive. Accordingly, no coal plants will be built. According to EPA, however, coal-fired production was dead anyway because of the glut of natural gas.  Crystal balls are notoriously unreliable.  Some may remember that nuclear power was to make electricity too cheap to meter. But that didn't happen.  America built the largest man-made construction the world has ever seen (the interstate highway system) on the assumption that gasoline would always be abundant.  That was in error.  An oil embargo introduced Americans to long lines at the fuel pump and locking gas caps. Most forget that natural gas production peaked in the early 1970s, not to be exceeded again until over twenty years had passed.  The point is:  smart people took their best science and made plans.  But reality somehow did not get the message.  For what it is worth, here is our crystal ball on the demise of coal.  First, CCS technology is pertinent not only to coal. Combustion of natural gas emits carbon dioxide as well. The regulatory imperative will push natural gas plants to address their CO2, and coal will be able to take advantage of improvements in CCS technology. Second, the United States has been called the Saudi Arabia of coal. To expect that industry to dry up and blow away is naïve. Shale gas went from a vanishingly small fraction of the US energy mix to over 20% in five years or less. Innovation made this possible.  Just as ten years ago we could not imagine today's natural gas industry, we may not be able to recognize our coal resource in another ten years. Third, we thought it was fundamental that energy security depends on a mix of energy sources. It would be foolhardy to rely completely on natural gas.  It will only take one cold winter and a natural gas pipeline calamity to make coal seem like a sensible alternative.  Whether the proposed rule will actually have an impact depends on numerous factors.  All can agree, however, that climate change has been thrust back on the national agenda. 

Carbon Dioxide | Carbon Emissions | Greenhouse Gases | Regulation

Dismissed Means Dismissed: Comer v. Murphy Oil, the First Climate Change Liability Damages Suit, Is Tossed Again

March 22, 2012 19:14
by J. Wylie Donald
In a case of surprising longevity, Comer v Murphy Oil USA, Inc., may finally have been laid to rest. In a decision filed Tuesday, Judge Louis Guirola, Jr., Chief Judge of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi, concluded that the plaintiffs in the first climate change liability damages suit were not entitled to a second bite at the apple. And even if they were, their case still failed. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, numerous parties filed scores of lawsuits seeking to find some source to pay for the awful devastation. One suit, Comer, asserted through various amended complaints that electric utilities, coal companies, chemical companies and oil companies  were responsible for the increased ferocity of Hurricane Katrina because of their emissions of greenhouse gases and their alleged resultant contribution to global warming.   Following various iterations, plaintiffs ultimately alleged:  "Prior to striking the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Hurricane Katrina had developed into a cyclonic storm of unprecedented strength and destruction, fueled and intensified by the warm waters and warm environmental conditions present in the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea, and the Gulf of Mexico.  These high sea surface temperatures, which were a direct and proximate result of the defendants' green house gas emissions, increased the intensity and magnitude of Hurricane Katrina."   Amended Complaint, 1:11-cv-00220-LG-RHW, ¶ 17.  Plaintiffs also alleged risks of future harms as a result of effects of global warming. Motions to dismiss were filed, which ultimately led to judgment in favor of the defendants. Judge Guirola ruled that plaintiffs lacked standing and that the claims were non-justiciable under the political question doctrine.  2007 WL 6942285 (S.D. Miss. Aug. 30, 2007), Plaintiffs appealed and were initially successful before the Fifth Circuit, which reversed the district court and concluded:  "Like the district courts in [Connecticut v.] American Electric [Power Co., 406 F. Supp. 2d 265 (S.D.N.Y. 2005)] and [California v.] General Motors [, 2007 WL 2726871 (N.D. Cal. 2007)], the defendants begin with an assumption they cannot support, viz., that the adjudication of plaintiffs' claims will require the district court to fix and impose future emission standards upon defendants and all other emitters. Then, again in a fashion similar to those district courts, the defendants proclaim that it would be "impossible" for a court to perform such an obviously legislative or regulatory task so that the case must present a nonjusticiable political question. The defendants have failed to show how any of the issues inherent in the plaintiffs' nuisance, trespass, and negligence claims have been committed by the Constitution or federal laws "wholly and indivisibly" to a federal political branch."  Comer v. Murphy Oil USA, 585 F.3d 855, 879 (5th. Cir. 2009). That was the high water mark of the plaintiffs' bar's success in climate change liability cases. With the Second Circuit's decision in Connecticut v. American Electric Power Co., 582 F.3d 309 (2nd Cir. 2009), just one month earlier, the tide crested with the Fifth Circuit's decision in October.  Two federal courts of appeal had found standing for climate change liability plaintiffs, and rejected the political question doctrine.  Concurrently, however, a new climate change liability suit, Native Village of Kivalina v. ExxonMobil Corp., was dismissed at the end of September.  663 F. Supp. 2d 863 (N.D. Cal. 2009).  From the present perspective, Kivalina's dismissal marked the turning of the tide. The next dark moment for the plaintiffs occurred when the Fifth Circuit en banc accepted the appeal of Comer, automatically vacating the panel's decision. Then the en banc court's quorum dissolved, requiring the court to dismiss the appeal.  But with the panel decision already vacated, that meant the controlling law was Judge Guirola's 2007 dismissal. The Supreme Court refused to issue a mandamus order, which meant Comer was over.  It got darker.  The Supreme Court dismissed the plaintiffs' federal common law claims in American Electric Power; the gutted case was remanded to the Second Circuit (and plaintiffs ultimately dismissed voluntarily).  So as of June 2011 all the climate change liability suits had been disposed of. Well, not entirely.  Kivalina was pending on the Ninth Circuit's docket.  And the Comer plaintiffs refused to abandon the field and re-filed their claims, relying on a Mississippi statute purportedly permitting refiling. Judge Guirola, however, did not agree. Plaintiffs' claims were barred because the doctrines of res judicata and collateral estoppel applied. Slip op. at 12.   Plaintiffs had had a previous  opportunity to litigate their claims, which had been decided against them with prejudice.  Moreover, plaintiffs still lacked standing because they could not demonstrate that their alleged injuries were "fairly traceable" to the defendants' activities:  "As this Court stated in the first Comer lawsuit, the parties should not be permitted to engage in discovery that will likely cost millions of dollars, when the tenuous nature of the causation alleged is readily apparent at the pleadings stage of the litigation. The Court finds that the plaintiffs have not alleged injuries that are fairly traceable to the defendants’ conduct, and thus, the plaintiffs do not have standing to pursue this lawsuit."  Slip op. at 23.   In addition, the political question doctrine still applied:  " The Court finds that the claims presented by the plaintiffs constitute non-justiciable political questions, because there are nojudicially discoverable and manageable standards for resolving the issues presented, and because the case would require the Court to make initial policy determinations that have been entrusted to the EPA by Congress."  Slip op. at 29.   And just in case all that was not enough, Judge Guirola also ruled that 1) "the plaintiffs’ entire lawsuit is displaced by the Clean Air Act", slip op. at 30 (relying on American Electric Power); 2) the three-year statute of limitations applied to the Hurricane Katrina-based claims because the Mississippi "savings statute" did not apply, and the alleged continuing torts were not ripe, slip op. at 33; and 3) plaintiffs could not demonstrate proximate cause because "[t]he assertion that the defendants’ emissions combined over a period of decades or centuries with other natural and man-made gases to cause or strengthen a hurricane and damage personal property is precisely the type of remote, improbable, and extraordinary occurrence that is excluded from liability."  Slip op. at 35. Judge Guirola's decision is well-written and thorough.  Will it be enough? We expect so but we cannot be pollyana here.  A Fifth Circuit panel has wrestled with Judge Guirola's standing and political question analysis before, and reversed him.  This time, however, they will also need to avoid his res judicata, collateral estoppel, displacement, statute of limitations and proximate cause analyses.  That seems a tall order.  As for the the Second Circuit, its decision on standing is still valid law because that issue was not resolved by American Electric Power.  Indeed, the Supreme Court split 4-4 on the issue (Justice Sotomayor recused herself because of her participation in argument at the court of appeals).  Should Comer (or Kivalina) make it to the Court, the standing question could come out badly for the defense if Justice Sotomayor is the swing vote needed for a bare majority in favor of broader standing.  Last, we have Kivalina before the Ninth Circuit.  While undoubtedly the court will have read Judge Guirola's opinion, it will also have read the Fifth Circuit panel's decision.  Which will be more influential?  We'll make that decision then.

Carbon Dioxide | Climate Change Litigation

Aronow v. Minnesota is Dismissed: Public Trust Doctrine Not Extended to the Atmosphere in Minnesota

February 4, 2012 18:58
by J. Wylie Donald
We blogged last May and again in December about the tidal wave of litigation set loose by Our Children's Trust (OCT), an Oregon environmental group that had orchestrated the filing of  a dozen suits asserting the defendant States and the United States had an obligation under the public trust doctrine to restrain carbon dioxide emissions, as well as regulatory petitions in about 40 jurisdictions.  One can find OCT on Facebook, Flickr, YouTube and Vimeo. It prepares "backgrounders" for the press (attached). It has even coined its own acronym, ATL (atmospheric trust litigation) for its legal assault.  OCT is media savvy. It has still not established that it is litigation savvy.  The petitions have not fared well.  OCT's website is not up-to-date but petitions have been denied in at least 27 jurisdictions (Arkansas, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia. Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, and Wyoming and Washington, DC).   The denials have  prompted two more lawsuits (appeals) in Iowa and Texas.  On the litigation side, motions to dismiss have been the defendants' responses of choice.  The lawsuit against Montana filed in the Montana Supreme Court was dismissed almost immediately.  Montana has a rule permitting an original action before the Montana Supreme Court where there are no factual issues and the matter is urgent. The court rejected that position:  "This Court is ill equipped to resolve the factual assertions presented by Petitioners. We further conclude that Petitioners have not established urgency or emergency factors that would preclude litigation in a trial court followed by the normal appeal process."  Accordingly, the petition for original jurisdiction was denied. Fast forward to today, the tidal wave is starting to break.  New Mexico and Oregon had oral argument on their motions in January. Decisions have not been issued.  In the Oregon suit it was reported that, after argument, the judge remained undecided about whether to dismiss the case.  This month there are hearings in Alaska, Arizona and Washington.    And last Monday the first merits decision was handed down.  In Aronow v. Minnesota the Minnesota District Court dismissed the case with prejudice. Plaintiff's complaint (attached) lays out the threats posed by climate change in great detail.  It then explains the public trust doctrine, including legal authority for extending it to the atmosphere.  "The Public Trust Doctrine is a foundational aspect of sovereignty; it holds government responsible, as perpetual trustee, for the protection and preservation of resources necessary for the common welfare of all citizens, those living and those yet to be born. ... The atmosphere, because of the climate stability it makes possible, is a necessary resource protected by the public trust."  The doctrine is, according to the complaint, partially codified in the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act (MERA) (Minn. Stat. §§ 116B.01 - 13).  Plaintiff coffered two theories as the basis for relief:  one under the public trust doctrine and the other under MERA.  He sought a declaration that the atmosphere was protected by the public trust doctrine and that the defendants were in violation of the doctrine.  He also sought a declaration that defendants had violated MERA (without identifying what part of MERA was violated).  Last, plaintiff asked the court to "Compel Defendants to take the necessary steps to reduce the State's carbon dioxide output by at least 6% per year, from 2013 to 2050, in order to help stabilize and eventually reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere." The defendants, Minnesota, the governor and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, filed a motion to dismiss.  They succeeded.   In dismissing the claims, the court set down its opinion (attached) in three parts:  1. can the governor be sued (no); 2. does the public trust doctrine apply to the atmosphere (no); and 3) are there viable causes of action under MERA (no). As to the governor, he had no legislative authority or funding "to  implement the policies sought by plaintiff." Accordingly, he was not a proper party to the suit. As to the public trust doctrine, this ruling is arguably the most important part of the decision.  A ruling in OCT's favor would provide it ammunition in the imminent battles in other jurisdictions.  A ruling against it would supplement the arsenals of the defendants in those other cases.  Further, the court's decision was the first merits decision on the central tenet of OCT's raft of cases:  the public trust doctrine applies to the atmosphere.  The court's analysis is brief so we provide it in full:  Minnesota Courts have recognized the Public Trust Doctrine only as it applies to navigable waters. "Navigability and nonnavigability [sic] mark the distinction between public and private waters. The state, in its sovereign capacity, as trustee for the people, holds all navigable waters and the lands under them for public use." Nelson v DeLong, 7 N.W.2d 342, 346 (Minn. 1942) (emphasis added). The Nelson court ultimately held that a private citizen's riparian rights are subordinate to the State's needs as it manages the navigable waters that are held in the public trust. See also Pratt v. State, Dep't of Natural Resources, 309 N.W.2d 767, 771 (Minn. 1981).  In Larson v Sando, 508 N.W.2d 782 (Minn. Ct. App. 1993), rev. denied (Jan. 21, 1994), the court declined to extend the public trust doctrine beyond the state's management of waterways, partly because the cases cited by the parties applied only to waterways. Id. at 787 (declining to extend the doctrine to land). Similarly, this Court cannot locate, nor did counsel for either party supply, a Minnesota case supporting broadening the Public Trust Doctrine to include the atmosphere. This Court has no authority to recognize an entirely new common law cause of action through plaintiff's proposed extension of the Public Trust Doctrine.  That is it.  There is no analysis of whether the public trust doctrine should or should not apply to the atmosphere.  Instead, the court simply ruled it has not been done before in Minnesota and it will not be done by this district court here. Last, are the MERA claims.  The court went out of its way to consider a variety of ways that a MERA suit might be justified. We want to focus on the simplest: the statutory requirements. Under § 116B.03 a resident of Minnesota could bring suit in the name of the State "for the protection of the air ... from pollution impairment or destruction." A problem was that plaintiffs had not complied with the statutory requirements of giving notice, which was "fatal." Another problem was that plaintiff was required to sue on behalf of the State, which he did not.  A final problem was that the required "pollution, impairment or destruction" was defined by statute, and the statutory requirement, according to the court, was not met.  We have trouble with this conclusion, however.  To be sure the statutory definition required "conduct by any person which violates, or is likely to violate, any environmental quality standard, limitation, rule, order, license, stipulation agreement, or permit," but it also alternatively permitted a claimant to challenge "conduct which materially adversely affects or is likely to materially adversely affect the environment."  Minn. Stat. §  116B.02(5).  Plaintiff expansively alleged how carbon dioxide emissions lead to climate change which is causing numerous deleterious effects on humans and the environment.  And he alleged how Minnesota's state government's conduct (inaction) was materially adversely affecting the environment.  These allegations just don't seem to square with the court's conclusion that "the Complaint does not allege anything falling within the definition of 'pollution, impairment or destruction.'"  We wonder why the court ventured into this area when it had established the procedural bars. Alternatively, under Minn. Stat. § 116B.10 a Minnesota resident could "maintain a civil action .... for declaratory or equitable relief against the state ...where the nature of the action is a challenge to an environmental quality standard, limitation, rule, order, license, stipulation, agreement or permit promulgated or issued by the state ... for which the applicable statutory appeal period has lapsed."  Plaintiff's fundamental problem was that his complaint failed to "refer to or challenge a single environmental quality standard, limitation, [etc.]"  In other words, by its terms plaintiff's claim did not meet the statutory requirements. OCT is 0-27 in the regulatory arena.  It is now 0-2 in litigation.  Notwithstanding, we cannot see the future here.  Regulatory agencies cannot move into new areas without legislative authority.  We will not be surprised if OCT is 0-40 in the not too distant future.  But in the courts it may be a different story.   Montana's dismissal simply set the stage for re-filing in the trial court.  In Minnesota the court did not reject the concept of applying the public trust doctrine to the atmosphere; it simply was unwilling to plow new ground.   And the Oregon trial court is reportedly on the fence.  We still await thoughtful jurisprudence on whether the public trust doctrine applies to the atmosphere.  We note, however, that we expect a long wait for this to settle down; whatever happens in the immediate future, there are certain to be appeals. 20120130 Order of Dismissal, Aronow v. Minnesota (Our Children's Trust).pdf (960.57 kb) Aronow v. Minnesota Complaint (Our Children's Trust).pdf (247.79 kb) Our Children's Trust, National Backgrounder (ATL) 12-1-191.pdf (316.65 kb)

Carbon Dioxide | Climate Change | Climate Change Effects | Climate Change Litigation

Just When You Thought It Was Over, Rehearing is Granted in Steadfast v. AES

January 30, 2012 22:10
by J. Wylie Donald
The YogiBerraism "It ain't over till it's over" is overused. But just because it is overused does not mean it is wrong.  AES has stayed up late digesting the insights of one of baseball's greatest. Its homework has paid off. On January 17 the Virginia Supreme Court entered a terse order (attached) granting rehearing in Steadfast Insurance Co v AES Corp. Jump to the next paragraph if you are familiar with the case. For those unfamiliar, AES is a defendant in Native Village of Kivalina v ExxonMobil Corp., a lawsuit alleging that certain carbon dioxide emitters are responsible for global warming, which has melted arctic sea ice resulting in disastrous erosion of the plaintiffs' community.  (For our most recent blog on Kivalina, click here)   AES tendered the claim to Steadfast, who accepted the defense and then filed a declaratory judgment action seeking to avoid coverage. AES lost on summary judgment on whether there was an occurrence and then lost its appeal before the Virginia Supreme Court last September.  Or maybe not.  AES filed a petition for rehearing (attached) asserting that the Court "radically redefined 'accident' to exclude coverage in virtually all negligence cases." Petition at 1. Normally such hyperbole is a sign of weakness. Here, however, it is in large measure accurate. The Court held that "When the insured knows or should have known [as the Kivalina plaintiffs alleged] of the consequences of his actions, there is no occurrence and therefore no coverage." See Petition at 4. It relied on two treatises and an Eighth Circuit decision.  Id. Yet, as AES shows in its petition, each of those authorities requires that the insured should have known to a substantial probability or a substantial certainty. Id. at 4-6. Since plaintiffs made no such allegation, and the chain of causation was attenuated (to say the least, see Petition at 7-8), AES asserts the Court's decision was in error. And this was not something of little consequence. It potentially affected all general liability insurance. The quote from the Eighth Circuit's decision is worth repeating:  To adopt [the policy] that an injury is not caused by accident because the injury is reasonably foreseeable would mean that only in a rare instance would the comprehensive general liability policy be of any benefit to [the insured] .... Under [this] construction of the policy language if the damage was foreseeable then the insured is liable, but there is no coverage, and if the damage is not foreseeable, there is coverage, but the insured is not liable. This is not the law. The function of an insurance company is more than that of premium receiver. Petition at 10, quoting City of Carter Lake v. Aetna Cas. & Sur. Co., 604 F.3d 1052, 1058 (8th Cir. 1979).    What does it all mean?  We conducted an unscientific review of reported cases where the Court granted rehearing in the last 10 years. In all of them, the Court revised its opinion. See Tanner v. State Corp. Comm’n, 266 Va. 170 (2003); Jaynes v. Commonwealth, 276 Va. 443 (2008); Uniwest Const. v. Amtech Elev. Serv., Inc., No. 091495 (Apr. 21, 2011).  All of them.  If we were AES, we would be somewhat optimistic.  Yogi Berra also said: "You can observe a lot by watching."  Oral argument in Richmond in February is likely to demonstrate the truth of that rule as well. 20111017 Petition for Rehearing (by AES), AES Corp. v. Steadfast Ins. Co..pdf (453.91 kb) 20120117 Order (granting petition for rehearing), AES Corp. v. Steadfast Ins. Co..pdf (33.13 kb)

Carbon Dioxide | Climate Change Litigation | Insurance

Soldiering On: The Western Climate Initiative and RGGI in 2012 and Beyond

January 8, 2012 20:47
by J. Wylie Donald
Last week a big step forward was taken by the Western Climate Initiative (WCI). Or what remains of it. On January 1, 2012 members were to establish binding caps on emissions of carbon dioxide from electricity generators and certain industrial sources, issue allowances for those emissions and then permit the trading of those allowances.  At least that was the plan back in September 2008 when  Design Recommendations for the WCI Regional Cap-and-Trade Program was released and when climate change response was popular and states had money in their budgets.  Since then Arizona, Montana New Mexico, Oregon, Washington and Utah have withdrawn from the WCI leaving only California and four Canadian provinces.  As the WCI puts it:  "British Columbia, California, Ontario, Quebec and Manitoba are continuing to work together through the Western Climate Initiative to develop and harmonize their emissions trading program policies."  And of those remaining only two (California and Quebec) are moving forward with a cap-and-trade program. So is this the end of regional greenhouse gas initiatives?  After all, on the East Coast New Jersey has bolted from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, while New Hampshire attempted to bolt and New York faces a lawsuit (attached) aimed at ejecting New York. We think not.  Our reasoning is three fold.  First, climate change is not going away.  We are going to have to do something.  The theory behind regional initiatives -- that they act as a laboratory for experimenting with greenhouse gas regulation -- remains valid.  And until federal legislation takes over (certainly not in 2012), regional initiatives are going to be the only game in town.  Second, organizations exist around the globe to develop manufacturing or construction or laboratory or telecommunications or you-name-it standards.   Companies ignore these organizations at their peril and often join so they can influence the result and at a minimum have inside knowledge of what the standard is and how it came to be.  Regional initiatives operate in a similar manner where the development of the rules and the issues behind them are  critical in effectively implementing the rules.  States and provinces that are out in front on climate change issues are going to have two advantages going forward.  They will have a program in place when federal rules ultimately come along; that primacy will undoubtedly influence the federal program.  And they will have experience implementing the program which likely will translate into a more effective program when compared with newly minted greenhouse gas regulators. And third they are reported to add economic benefit.  In November RGGI released a report by The Analysis Group that analyzed  the effect of RGGI:   "The Economic Impacts of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative on Ten Northeast and Mid-Atlantic States."    To quote the report's authors: Key findings include: ■The regional economy gains more than $1.6 billion in economic value added (reflecting the difference between total revenues in the overall economy, less the cost to produce goods and services)■Customers save nearly $1.1 billion on electricity bills, and an additional $174 million on natural gas and heating oil bills, for a total of $1.3 billion in savings over the next decade through installation of energy efficiency measures using funding from RGGI auction proceeds to date■16,000 jobs are created region wide■Reduced demand for fossil fuels keeps more than $765 million in the local economy■Power plant owners experience $1.6 billion in lower revenue over time, although they overall had higher revenues than costs as a result of RGGI during the 2009-2011 period This is not a surprise.  By limiting the emission of carbon dioxide, RGGI drove up, at least initially, the cost of electricity production.  This had the effect of promoting more efficient use of electricity.  So practitioners would do well to pay attention to California's efforts.  It is likely to be the source of what ultimately happens in Washington. Thrun v. Cuomo (RGGI Complaint).pdf (1.34 mb)

Carbon Dioxide | Carbon Emissions | Greenhouse Gases | Regulation

2011: Notwithstanding Extreme Weather, US Climate Policy Does Not Move Forward

December 30, 2011 22:01
by J. Wylie Donald
NOAA reported that 2011 was one for the record books:  12 weather and climate-related disasters each causing over $1 billion in damage.  One might expect (or hope) that a national climate change policy would be coming into place to prevent repeating or setting a new record.  One would be disappointed.  U.S. climate policy is "uncertain," to quote Michael Morris, CEO of American Electric Power, "dysfunctional" is the word applied by Resources for the Future, "hamstrung" is how the chief UN climate change negotiator and Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC, Christiana Figueres, calls it.   We don't disagree with these viewpoints; they are accurate.  But if a response to climate change is the goal, it is worse than these commenters are acknowledging because not only has Congress shown that it is incapable of getting anything done, other avenues are not delivering either.  As the year expires we thought it might be helpful to sift through the year's detritus and assess  the status of attempts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, distinct from overt attempts like passing laws and adopting regulations. 1. Tax emissions - Some will remember our blog on the federal lawsuit brought by Mirant Corp. against Montgomery County challenging the County's tax on carbon emissions which fell only on Mirant. The County challenged the federal court's jurisdiction and won before the federal district court. In June, however, the Fourth Circuit reversed.  With that Montgomery County folded its tent and abandoned its carbon tax. 2. Favor renewable energy - The inexorable scrutiny of the markets has proved the undoing of several former high-flying renewable energy ventures. Most well-known is the debacle with Solyndra LLC, whose well-publicized collapse generated scrutiny by the FBI and Congress. Others that have failed with less limelight in 2011 include numerous solar companies (Solar Millennium, Stirling Energy Systems, Evergreen Solar, Spectrawatt), as well as ventures in wind (Skycon), energy storage (Beacon Power), and biofulels (Range Fuels). 3. Impose liability for emissions of carbon dioxide - The results here are mixed.  Everyone points to American Electric Power v Connecticut for the principle that for greenhouse gas liability claims the federal common law of nuisance has been displaced by federal regulation. They could equally point to Connecticut v AEP before the Second Circuit for the principle that the political question doctrine does not bar these types of claims or to the Fifth Circuit panel in Comer v Murphy Oil USA that held similarly.  However, even if the cases are permitted to move forward, they face daunting problems in proof of causation. 4. Force state action to regulate carbon dioxide - We blogged last May and just this month about the tidal wave of litigation unleashed by Our Children's Trust, an Oregon environmental group that had orchestrated a dozen suits asserting the defendant States had an obligation under the public trust doctrine to restrain carbon dioxide emissions, as well as regulatory petitions in about 40 jurisdictions.  Time has not been good to OCT. First, its petitions have been denied by at least 23 agencies (Arkansas, Connecticut, Georgia. Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and Wyoming).  Where OCT filed lawsuits, three states (Arkansas, Minnesota and New Mexico) responded with motions to dismiss.  The lawsuit against Montana was dismissed. In the federal lawsuit, the plaintiffs lost a motion to transfer. 5. Reach regional agreements - With great fanfare the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative was launched in 2005. Despite a recent study that claims significant economic benefit to the states in RGGI, its future success is unclear. New Jersey pulled out, New Hampshire tried to leave but the governor vetoed the bill. In New York, there is a court challenge.  6. Voluntarily trade carbon dioxide emissions credits - The only carbon exchange in North America came to an end in 2010 when the Chicago Climate Exchange closed its doors.  A shadow of its former self, the CCX now registers verified emission reductions based on a comprehensive set of established protocols. 7. Develop carbon capture and storage - The most prominent project in the US came to a halt in July when American Electric Power concluded not to build a full-scale CCS plant at its Mountaineer, West Virginia plant. As noted above, AEP explained its decision as based on the uncertainty of US climate policy.  The lack of direction in American climate change response hurts business. AEP walked away from a $300 million Department of Energy match.  It didn't help that the Virginia consumer advocate, in successfully arguing against including CCS costs in the rate base, asserted:  “Any potential benefit is speculative and outweighed by the enormous cost of the pilot project.” Some may think no policy is the best policy.  We think otherwise.  Climate change is happening.  There will be a response.  All will benefit if that response is choreographed over time, rather than rushed into when political consensus ultimately concludes that something must be done NOW.  Maybe in 2012?  Happy New Year. 

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