Rising Sea Levels

Walking on Eggshell Skulls: Louisiana's Levees Take on the Oil and Gas Industry Over Coastal Land Degradation

July 24, 2013 20:20
by J. Wylie Donald
Ground zero for climate change and rising sea levels in the United States is not a status to which any state aspires.  Florida distastefully remembers 2005 when 4 hurricanes – Charley, Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne - roared ashore, all within six weeks.   Delaware worries that 8-11% of the state will be submerged by 2100.  Today we learned that Louisiana’s concerns over rising sea levels and hurricanes have resulted in an enormous lawsuit, Board of Commissioners v. Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co LLC, against 100 oil and gas companies based on their activities in Louisiana’s coastal lands over the last century, and the lands' ongoing demise.  “Unless immediate action is taken to reverse these losses and restore the region’s natural defense, many of Louisiana’s coastal communities will vanish into the sea.“  Complaint at 2. The plaintiff, the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority – East, is a governmental entity whose ”mission is to ensure the physical and operational integrity of the regional flood risk management system.”  To accomplish that end, it concluded that in order for Louisiana's coastal communities to survive into the next century it needed to restore and rejuvenate Louisiana’s coastal lands.  Its complaint explains how the system is supposed to work: 5.2 Coastal lands, including wetlands and marshes, are an integral natural complement to the Authority’s man-made flood protection system.  5.2.1.  Coastal lands are the first line of defense for south Louisiana’s communities against the destructive force of hurricanes.  5.2.2. Those lands form a buffer that reduces the height and energy of hurricane storm surge and waves, thereby aiding the Authority in its mission to protect south Louisiana. 5.2.3. Hurricanes lose intensity as they travel over land.  Hence, the more land that a given hurricane must traverse before reaching Louisiana’s coastal cities, the weaker that hurricane’s impact on those communities, and concomitantly, the more effective the levee system. Notwithstanding the coastal lands’ importance, they had been (allegedly) substantially degraded by the activities of oil and gas companies.  These companies had built a network of canals that was alleged to continue "to introduce increasingly larger volumes of damaging saltwater, at increasingly greater velocity, ever deeper into Louisiana’s coastal landscape and interior wetlands.  The increasing intrusion of saltwater stresses the vegetation that holds wetlands together, weakening – and ultimately killing – that vegetation.  Thus weakened, the remaining soil is washed away even by minor storms.”  Id. ¶¶ 6.7.1-7.2 With the loss of coastal lands, the levees stand to become “de facto sea walls,” a function the levee system is not designed for. Id. ¶ 5.11. The Authority’s complaint sets forth the regulatory framework for commercial work in the coastal lands.  First, there is the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899, which forbids “any person to … in any manner whatever impair the usefulness of any … work built by the Uniteds States for the preservation and improvement of any of its navigable waters or to prevent floods.”  As noted above, the loss of coastal lands would lead to impairment of the levees struggling to serve as seawalls.  Second, Clean Water Act permits impose obligations for the maintenance and abandonment of canals, and for the minimization of environmental harm.  The permits, it was alleged, had not been complied with.  Third, the Louisiana State Land Office granted rights-of-way, which carried with them maximum right-of-way widths and obligations to minimize environmental effects and to indemnify the State for third-party damages.  The defendants' rights-of-way had all allegedly eroded and now exceeded their permitted size.  Last, state and federal Coastal Zone Management Acts imposed additional obligations.  Id. ¶¶ 9.1-9.4.  From that framework, the Authority argues a duty of care arises, breach of which by the energy companies supports a claim for negligence.  That claim is joined with claims for strict liability, public and private nuisance, third-party beneficiary rights, and a local favorite, natural servitude of drain.  Under the last claim it is asserted, damages and injunctive relief are owed because “Parties, such as Defendants, may not take actions that increase the flow of water across another party’s land, as the Defendants’ activities in Louisiana’s coastal lands certainly and demonstrably have done.”  Id. ¶ 23. Commentary already circulating quotes the plaintiff's attorneys on the potential damages at  “many billions of dollars.”  Although the damages are very large, many will look at this as just another wetlands preservation lawsuit.  We take a different perspective.  The destruction alleged took place over a very long time, by hundreds of entities, with the support of the commercial and political establishments of Louisiana.  The status quo in Louisiana was ongoing energy development in conjunction with degradation of coastal lands.  No one asserted that billions of dollars were owed.  What changed?  A fundamental tenet of this blog is that climate change will create winners and losers.  The losers are not going to go quietly; instead, they will look around and see if they can be made whole by someone else.  The first wave of climate change liability cases sought to tag the emitters of greenhouse gases with liability; they were uniformly unsuccessful.  Is Board of Commissioners the vanguard of the next wave targeting for liability those entities whose activities make defending against climate change much harder? There is a theory in tort about the eggshell skull.  As stated by the Seventh Circuit in Schmude v. Tricam Industries:  “If a tortfeasor inflicts a graver loss on his victim than one would have expected because the victim had some pre-existing vulnerability, that is the tortfeasor's bad luck; you take your victim as you find him.”  Here the Authority might not have done anything, or done it much later, had climate change not exacerbated the dire conditions faced by Louisiana.  Will Louisiana’s eggshell skull be a model for others seeking to be made whole for their losses from climate change?  Only time will tell.  In the meantime, visiting practitioners may wish to practice saying coquille d'oeuf.     

Climate Change | Climate Change Effects | Climate Change Litigation | Rising Sea Levels

Maryland Reassesses Local Sea Level Rise: More of Us Are Going to Get Wet

June 26, 2013 19:14
by J. Wylie Donald
We have looked at Delaware's perspective on rising sea levels several times in recent months.  Now it is Maryland's turn.  Today a panel of experts led by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science issued an update to Maryland's 2008 assessment:   Updating Maryland's Sea Level Rise Projections.  The conclusion is disturbing.  In the passage of just five years, the anticipated sea level rise in the mid-Atlantic states now exceeds the previous high range. The origin of the report is  Governor Martin O’Malley’s December 28, 2012 Executive Order on Climate Change and “Coast Smart” Construction, which called for updated sea level rise projections based on "an assessment of the latest climate change science and federal guidance."  Maryland has the fourth longest tidal coastline in the continental United States and loses 580 acres every year  to shore erosion.  Id. "Thirteen Chesapeake Bay islands once mapped on nautical charts have been lost." Id.  The State has 450 facilities and 400 miles of roads within areas likely to be impacted within the next 100 years.  Id.  Hence its interest in rising seas. And the seas are rising, faster than they have before.  More and better data confirm this.  (1) the 20th century experienced the highest rate of sea-level rise in the last 2,000 years; (2) global mean sea level (GMSL) rose at an average rate of 1.7 mm yr-1 during the 20th century based on tide gauge records and an average of 3.2 mm yr-1 from 1993 to the present based on satellite measurements; (3) rates of melting of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets accelerated; and (4) sea level is likely to rise more than estimated by the IPCC 2007 assessment. Update at 3.  With respect to the mid-Atlantic region, "relative sea-level rise of 7-8 mm yr-1 has been measured at Maryland tide gauges between 2002 and 2011", although scientists consider this period too short to identify a trend.  Update at 7. Sea levels are eminently local attributes and affected by much more than the flows from the melting of arctic ice and the warming of the oceans.  The researchers considered, among other things the amount of water being stored behind dams or pumped out of groundwater aquifers (expected to be a net addition over the next century); the weakening gravitational effect of melting arctic ice masses that "counter-intuitively result[] in sea-level decline in nearby polar regions and sea-level increase in tropical regions"; glacial isostatic adjustment, which is the rebound of land once weighed down by the glaciers, as well as the subsidence of the "forebulge" of unglaciated lands at the front of the glacier; the slowing of the Gulf Stream, which has the effect of causing coastal waters to rise; and the increase in tidal ranges and storm surges, which are amplified by rising sea levels in an enclosed body of water like Chesapeake Bay. In case all of that was a little complex, the researchers obligingly "put it all together."  The best estimate of sea level rise in Maryland by 2050 is 1.4 feet, with a range of 0.9 to 2.1 feet; by 2100 it is 3.7 feet with a range of 2.1 to 5.7 feet.  Update at 15.  To put this in perspective, the best estimates in the 2008 Maryland Climate Action Plan (p 53) were by mid-century a range of 0.6 feet to 1.3 feet or by 2100 2.7 to 3.4 feet.   Now the best estimate exceeds the high range of only five years ago. As Governor O'Malley put it in his executive order, "The State of Maryland must take action now to ensure that State infrastructure investments in vulnerable coastal areas are "Coast Smart" - fiscally wise and structurally sound."  We couldn't agree more. In closing, we don't often look far out into the future in this blog because its intended focus is the practical here-and-now impacts of climate change on the practice of law.  But the Update offered a sobering perspective on the unshakeable legacy our action or inaction today leaves to our children and grandchildren: differences in 21st century emissions trajectories begin to have significant consequences for the rate of sea-level rise toward the end of this century and result in even greater differences during the next. In other words, steps taken over the next 30 years to control greenhouse gas emissions and stabilize global temperatures during this century will largely determine how great the sea-level rise challenge is for coastal residents in subsequent centuries. There is not much they could do then to slow sea-level rise because of the inertia of ocean warming and polar ice sheet loss.  Update at 11.

Regulation | Rising Sea Levels

Delaware’s Most Vulnerable County Abstains from Vote on Sea Level Rise Mitigation Options

May 31, 2013 05:47
by J. Wylie Donald
In our continuing our discussion (see here and here) of the Delaware Sea Level Rise Advisory Committee ("DSLRAC"), the efforts of the DSLRAC took an ironic - but perhaps predictable - turn when the delegate for the Delaware county likely to be most directly affected by sea level rise abstained from voting on any of the dozens of options developed by the DSLRAC to address the effects of sea level rise.After developing a list of over 60 "Options for Preparing Delaware for Sea Level Rise" (PDF available here), over the past months the DSLRAC held public engagement sessions in each of Delaware's three counties and solicited public comments on the proposed options. These options fell within four broad types of responses to sea level rise - whether to accommodate, avoid, protect or retreat from the consequences of sea level rise. After consideration of the public comments, the DSLRAC - which includes representatives from municipal governments, business advocacy organizations, citizen advocacy organizations and the cabinet-level departments of the State of Delaware - voted on each of the options before the final list will be presented to Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control Secretary Collin P. O'Mara. The Sussex County delegate, however, abstained from voting on any of the options, reportedly at the request of Sussex County Council. Sussex County's abstention from the debate - and thus its refusal to vote for any of the options to mitigate the effects of sea level rise in Delaware - is ironic given the effects of sea level rise the DSLRAC found were likely to directly impact Sussex County, which is bordered on the east by the Atlantic Ocean and the Delaware Bay. For example, the DSLRAC found that between 35,000 and 55,000 acres of land in Sussex County was likely to be inundated by sea level rise by 2100, or between 6% and 9% of Sussex County (see here (PDF) at 19). The inundated areas would include low lying resort communities on the Atlantic Ocean, the Delaware Bay and the Inland Bays (id.). In addition to the obvious impacts on tourism and costal recreation, the DSLRAC found that Sussex County was likely to particularly feel the impact of sea level rise on a broad range of infrastructure and resources, including such key items as roads, bridges, evacuation routes, future development areas, and the availability of drinking water (see id. at x-xiii). These risks were apparently not enough to sway the County Council, with one Councilman reported as disputing the existence of sea level rise ("They don't have no facts. It's almost BS, to be honest with you"; "If it hasn't happened in the last 7,000 years, why's it going to do it now, all of a sudden?"), despite the scientific evidence presented by the DSLRAC. Another was reported to have stated that "Sixty percent of our tax base comes from one mile off that beach," but nevertheless suggested that the effects, if any, were "years down the road" and could be dealt with at a later date. Despite the position of Sussex County Council, various coastal towns within Sussex County, including Dewey Beach and Rehoboth Beach, are looking at actions they can take without County involvement to address the potential impacts of sea level rise, and the Delaware General Assembly has declared the week of September 14-22, 2013 "Sea-Level Rise Awareness Week" to, among other things, "increase the awareness, education and knowledge of Delaware residents" about sea level rise. While the DSLRAC proceeded with the vote on options despite the Sussex County abstention, and will present those options to Secretary O'Mara, Sussex County's position highlights the controversy that continues to surround climate change and sea level rise, even in the places likely to be most affected by sea level rise, and despite the overwhelming consensus among scientists.

Climate Change | Rising Sea Levels

Climate Change Legal Work: Changing the Paradigm Does Not Come Easily

May 8, 2013 05:18
by J. Wylie Donald
I learned the other day that for $3995 I can download nearly a 1000 page report on the climate change industry.  The Ah Hah moment was at hand.  The President’s promise at his inauguration and then again at the State of the Union was upon us.  Here it would be revealed what the small group of lawyers focused on climate change law were looking for:  where is the legal work?  But I am a cautious consumer.  The publisher anticipated my skepticism and offered the table of contents for my review for free.  I didn’t even have to give my email address.  It was an offer hard to turn down. The TOC was extensive.  Pages and pages chronicled the following industry segments:  Solar Energy, Wind Energy, BioEnergy, Geothermal Energy, Wave & Tidal, Carbon Capture & Storage, Energy Efficiency & Demand Response, Energy Storage, The Green Building Industry, Carbon Markets, Adaptation, Climate Change Consulting, and Transportation.  And under each of these segments one can find pages of company "profiles", presumably businesses with expertise in Wind Energy or Adaptation or Green Buildings.  Even lawyers were able to claim a niche.  Seven firms filled out “Law Firms and Climate Change Practices.” But as we all know, saying you’re doing something, and actually doing it, can be two entirely different things.  Here’s a different measure:  how many clients attend climate change legal seminars?  I have a bird’s eye view on this topic:  I gave one at the end of last month, Climate Change and Insurance:  Recent Litigation and Regulatory Developments.  The attendance was astounding:  2 insurance companies, 29 law firms (but including none of those "profiled" – maybe that should tell us something), and NO ONE ELSE.  Could it be that most insurers and all non-insurers have all the climate change related insurance issues already figured out?  Would they get 100% on this little quiz: What is the atmospheric public trust doctrine and how is it being used to address regulation of greenhouse gas emissions?Are there any decisions in support of finding that carbon dioxide is not a pollutant within the meaning of a pollution exclusion in a general liability policy?How do building height restrictions affect rebuilding after Superstorm Sandy?Do pollution exclusions negate coverage for improper climate change disclosures?Does a title policy insure against rising sea levels?Are insurers of last resort (wind pools, beach pools) increasing market share and what are the implications of that? Anecdotally, I know that most, if not all, would struggle merely to get a C.  But so what?  One can’t sell ice in the wintertime or neckties in a nudist colony.  As lawyers we provide a service to clients with the need for that service.  It is not what we want to sell, but rather what they want to buy.  And there is the secret.  Thomas Kuhn wrote a magnificent work explaining how scientific paradigms shift (think the change from a Ptolemaic universe (the sun revolves around the earth) to a Copernican one (the earth revolves around the sun)).  Presently, the received wisdom is that while climate change is happening (I acknowledge that some still have not received even this idea), it is incidental to the larger issues and can be addressed accordingly.  I submit that that is, like Ptolemy’s world-view, a paradigm that can be improved.  For example, if one is intent on acquiring property at the Shore, one can buy in fee simple, take a ground lease, or take a shorter term commercial lease.  If one is not actively considering the implications of sea level rise in the fundamental choice of the form of the transaction, one is at risk of finding oneself literally under water with no succor. If in contract documents one is making representations and warranties identifying all releases  of “hazardous materials” (broadly defined to be any substance regulated under environmental laws (a common approach)), without scheduling one’s HVAC systems, one is almost assuredly making inaccurate warranties because virtually all entities are emitting carbon dioxide.  If one relies on a flood plain map for planning purposes, without recognition that all flood plain maps are flawed because they only look backward (i.e., they assume the past accurately predicts the future, which is emphatically not the case in a world of climate change), one is again assuming a large risk.  I could go on.  The point is that the risks and possibilities of climate change are ubiquitous.  Our job as advocates and wise counsel to our clients is to assist the change to a perspective Copernicus might have adopted, one that incorporates climate change in the larger view.  As demonstrated by the attendance at my seminar, we have a long way to go in that regard.

Carbon Dioxide | Climate Change | Climate Change Effects | Insurance | Rising Sea Levels

In Response to Sea Level Rising At Double the Global Rate, Delaware Debates Whether to Accommodate, Avoid, Protect or Retreat

February 20, 2013 14:07
by J. Wylie Donald
On February 19, 2013, the Delaware Sea Level Rise Advisory Committee ("DSLRAC") held the second of three "public engagement sessions" to solicit public comment on a list of 61 "Options for Preparing Delaware for Sea Level Rise". These public engagement sessions are part of the second phase -- focusing on adapting to sea level rise -- of the DSLRAC's mission. The first phase focused on the preparation of a comprehensive assessment of Delaware's vulnerabilities to sea level rise. The Vulnerability Assessment modeled the effects of three potential sea level increases by the end of the century - 0.5 meters (1.6 feet), 1.0 m (3.3 feet) and 1.5 m (4.9 feet) from mean higher high water - and identified state resources that were vulnerable to sea level rise. The state resources considered were broadly divided into three categories: natural resources; society and economy; and public safety and infrastructure. Within these broad categories, the vulnerability of 79 specific resources to sea level rise was examined, of which 16 were determined to be of high concern statewide: dunes and beaches; coastal impoundments; dams, dikes and levees; evacuation routes; freshwater tidal wetlands; future development areas; habitats of conservation concern; heavy industrial areas; the Port of Wilmington; protected lands; roads and bridges; railways; tidal wetlands; tourism and coastal recreation; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Refuges; and wells. The models did not include any effects from storm surge or increased storm intensity, and thus the effects are arguably conservative for each of the three modeled sea level increases. Even so, the Vulnerability Assessment found that all three of Delaware's counties would be directly affected by sea level rise, and 8-11% of the entire state's land area would be permanently flooded (at the public engagement session a tax assessed value of $1.5 billion was estimated for the land which will potentially be flooded). (Full Vulnerability Assessment).Delaware's vulnerability to sea level rise is a function not only of its coastal location and economy, but also because sea level rise is occurring faster in Delaware than elsewhere. Currently the global rate of sea level rise used by the DSLRAC (from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates) is 0.07 inches per year, or 7 inches per century (not considering any increase in that rate in the future). However, in Delaware the sea is currently rising at a rate of 0.13 inches per year (13 inches per century), or almost double the global average. This is occurring, in part, because the part of the earth's crust under Delaware is sinking. (Simplistically, during the last ice age some regions were depressed by the weight of the glaciers, while Delaware was not depressed by such heavy glacial coverage and as a result was raised up relative to other regions. This process is now reversing as other regions rebound upward, while Delaware settles downward.) Thus, in Delaware not only are the seas rising, but the land is literally - although slowly - sinking. (See Vulnerability Assessment at 7-8). With the key vulnerabilities identified, the second phase of the DSLRAC's mission is focused on strategies for adapting to the effects of sea level rise. The DSLRAC has identified four broad strategies: to accommodate sea level rise; to avoid sea level rise; to protect resources form sea level rise; or to retreat from sea level rise. Within these broad strategies - which the DSLRAC does not view as mutually exclusive - are 61 specific options. These range from the very broad - "Increase opportunities for technology transfer and regional coordination for transportation issues affected by sea level rise" (Option 2); "Create new partnerships to increase resources for research and development of adaptation options" (Option 6); "Create a coordinated effort to provide technical assistance to local governments" (Option 56) - to the relatively specific - "Provide sea level rise information to the Delaware Agricultural Land Preservation Program" (Option 7); "Encourage the establishment of a sea level rise group within the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials (Option 9); "Add additional tidal observation stations in Delaware" (Option 54).Some of the original proposed options have already proven controversial. For example, Option 33 - "Develop a comprehensive outreach strategy to educate public about sea level rise" - was revised to eliminate a reference to educating public school students about climate change and sea level rise. This revision was reportedly made after objections from the Positive Growth Alliance (which is reported as having described such education as "brainwashing") and the Homebuilder's Association of Delaware (which is reported as questioning the "targeting" of children). Another option would require property owners selling property inside zones predicted to be inundated under a specific sea level rise scenario to disclose that vulnerability to potential buyers (also discussed here). This was met with concern that it might negatively affect sales of or the availability of mortgages for such properties, particularly as some stakeholders questioned the three modeled sea level rise scenarios (0.5 m, 1.0 m, 1.5 m) as "speculation" (click here). (It is worth noting that the scenarios modeled by the DSLRAC are generally in line with the recently issued National Climate Assessment (see National Climate Assessment.)As Delaware considers whether to accommodate, avoid, protect or retreat from the consequences of sea level rise, the Options put forward by the DSLRAC serve as an excellent point of discussion. Option 24 - "Develop a statewide retreat plan" - will undoubtedly contribute to that discussion, if not controversy. Given recent retreat oriented developments in other jurisdictions, such as the recent proposal of Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York to use federal disaster funding in the wake of "Superstorm Sandy" to buy out certain willing homeowners (click here) or the determination in the Netherlands - experts in keeping the sea out - to begin letting the sea back in (click here), an honest and complete discussion of how to engage in retreat, before any retreat is necessary, may be entirely prudent. Whether such a discussion is politically palatable is another question entirely.

Climate Change | Climate Change Effects | Insurance | Rising Sea Levels

A Theory of a Moveable Parcel is Not the Legal Solution to Rising Sea Levels and Beach Front Ownership

February 11, 2013 20:55
by J. Wylie Donald
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court weighed in on an ugly property rights case last Friday concerning some beautiful beachfront on Martha’s Vineyard.  In White v. Hartigan, SJC 11072 (Feb. 8, 2013), the Court considered whether a deed conveying “the beach” in 1841 sufficed to give the plaintiffs title to “the beach” in 2004, notwithstanding that in the intervening century and a half the original beach had vanished beneath the waves.  The Court had little difficulty concluding that, absent an express grant of a moveable parcel, no moveable parcel existed and the plaintiffs’ claims were properly dismissed. In the case, the Norton and Flynn families, tracing their property rights back to the same scion, enjoyed each others’ company for over a century as upland property owners in a corner of Martha’s Vineyard (near Edgartown for those familiar with the island).  But bosom friends may not stay best friends forever.  Such was the case here and they had a falling out.  Among other things, in deeds conveying parcels of the Norton family property, a reservation was made claiming fractional rights in the beach identified in the 1841 deed, notwithstanding that that beach no longer existed.  That was of no matter claimed the Nortons; “they maintain[ed] that their predecessors in title created a beach parcel with a moveable northern boundary that shifts with the landward migration of the beach.”  The Flynns contested this theory and the Nortons sued. The basis for the Nortons’ claim was that “the deeds in their chain of title contain either no landward (northern ) boundary or reference as a landward boundary only moveable natural monuments, thereby creating a moveable parcel.”  The Court was “not persuaded.” Although the seaward boundaries of property on the littoral might be moveable, the landward boundary was not.  To hold otherwise would promote instability of property rights and would be inequitable to upland property owners who (if the moveable property boundary rule applied) would have no opportunity for the benefit of accretion to seaward, but would bear all the risk of erosion from the sea. Nor did the language of the original 1841 deed help the Nortons’ cause.  The case law was clear that references to impermanent monuments or boundaries did not establish a moveable boundary line.  Instead, “the boundary ‘must be taken to refer to the condition of the land at the time the deed was given.’”  The Nortons’ 1841 boundary of arable land and ponds was ascertainable and their beach parcel was under water. This ruling was certainly not groundbreaking, but it is significant nonetheless.  The precedents relied on by the Court were of an era where rising sea levels raised no concerns.  To be sure, erosion occurred, but no one considered that long-term (even perpetual) submergence might be a more accurate description of what was going on at the shore.  Not so today.  One can find, for example, maps of how sea level rise will specifically affect Martha’s Vineyard.   And Boston has a new report released just last week, Preparing for the Rising Tide.    One prediction of a response to sea level rise will be the evolution of the common law to protect society’s interests.  As Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. wrote in 1888 in The Common Law: The substance of the law at any given time pretty nearly corresponds, so far as it goes, with what is then understood to be convenient; but its form and machinery, and the degree towhich it is able to work out desired results, depend very much upon its past. The Nortons’ theory of a moveable parcel to protect their interests from seaside erosion, could just as easily be applied to seaside submergence.  In either case, however, the common law does not suggest their remedy.  The past does not lead to their desired result; nor, apparently, does Massachusetts’ highest court find it convenient.  

Climate Change Effects | Rising Sea Levels

Call for Comments on the Third National Climate Assessment

February 1, 2013 21:46
by J. Wylie Donald
The draft “National Assessment of Supply Chain and Other Developing Risks” was issued just last month. It outlined increasing threats to infrastructure, food and water supplies, air quality, national security, public health and public safety, and ecosystems. It also discussed measures to reduce those risks and to address them. In short, the Assessment should be required reading for everyone involved in planning a company's response to the things that could destroy the company. Only it won't be because of one small detail. That title, the "National Assessment of Supply Chain etc.," is a fabrication.  The real title is the draft Third National Climate Assessment Report (Assessment).  (It's 147 MB so here's the Executive Summary too.)  Thus, for many companies, the report will be shunted to the EH&S office and the C-Suite will remain oblivious. This is unfortunate. "National climate assessments act as status reports about climate change science and impacts."  Their legal basis is the Global Change Research Act of 1990 (codified at 15 USC §§ 2921-61), which mandates periodic reports to the President and Congress evaluating the findings of the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP).  Under the USGCRP the effects of global change (not just climate change) on all facets of the nation (including agriculture, energy, water resources, human health and ecoystems) are analyzed.  Trends are reviewed and projected for up to 100 years.  “The NCA aims to incorporate advances in the understanding of climate science into larger social, ecological, and policy systems, and with this provide integrated analyses of impacts and vulnerability.”  The last National Climate Change Assessment was in 2000. What is particularly rewarding in the Assessment is that it gets right down to the nitty-gritty.  We have picked only one topic to focus on, Transportation, but one could take a deep dive in over a dozen.  Ports are obviously at risk from sea level rise, but some might think that is manageable because sea level is only changing gradually, even if the worst predictions are accepted.  If it were only that simple.  "When sea level rise is coupled with intense storms, the resulting storm surges will be greater, extend farther inland, and cause more extensive damage."  Draft at 200.  Even without sea level rise, the increase in extreme weather and flooding will result in increased sedimentation.  "Channels that are not well maintained and have less sedimentation storage volume will thus be more vulnerable to significant, abrupt losses in navigation service levels."  Id.  Climate change predictions also include increasing temperatures, but so what?  The Assessment offers the following:  "expansion joints on bridges and highways are stressed and asphalt pavements deteriorate more rapidly at higher temperatures.  Rail track stresses and track buckling will increase.  Lift-off limits at hot-weather and high-altitude airports will reduce aircraft operations."  Draft at 197.  Each of these conclusions is referenced to research.  Airports too are not out of harm's way.  Thirteen of the nation's largest airports have at least one runway within 12 feet of current sea level.  Draft at 201.  Readers will remember that the storm surge from Sandy was 14 feet in New York.  Draft at 203.  They may not remember that the storm surge from Katrina was 15 feet along the entire Mississippi coast, and much higher in some places (like an "astonishing 27.8 feet at Pass Christian, Mississippi").  Our business is not freight forwarding or overnight delivery but we bet that those running such businesses pay close attention to the reliability of their transportation routes.  If supply chains matter, one needs to be looking at roads, rails, ports and airports, and we mean locally, as well as abroad. The Assessment is a trove of information and provides citations to the vulnerability studies of numerous cities and states, including Boston and New York City, California, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, Washington, and Wisconsin, which have already begun assessing their transportation vulnerabilities.  Draft at 209.  Although there is a lot of information out there, the Assessment also sounds a note of caution in preparing:  "Impacts of climate on transportation system operations, including safety and congestion, both on road systems and in aviation, have been little studied to date."  Draft at 213.  "[E]xisting models used for snow and ice removal procedures are no longer reliable, requiring better monitoring and new models, as well as better roadway condition detection systems."  Draft at 211.  This uncertainty, however, should not be a reason to do nothing.  As the Assessment states, preparation helps a lot:  " the vulnerability analyses prepared by the metropolitan New York authorities [prior to Sandy] provided a framework for efforts to control the damage and restore service more rapidly."  Draft at 204. Another approach taken by the Assessment is to comment on the impacts from climate change that can be expected in various areas of the country such as more hot days, or more heavy precipitation (or more drought depending on location). For businesses that don't include weather considerations in their planning, the Assessment won't change anything:  heavy rains have come since the dawn of time and humans have responded. But for those that do any sort of weather preparation and planning, the Assessment points out what extreme weather means, and thus suggests what steps might be worth taking. For example, torrential rains from Hurricane Irene in Vermont damaged over 500 miles of state-owned roadways and 200 bridges. Draft at 554.  Some communities were isolated for days. Id. Why should people in the Northeast take notice?  Because "between 1958 and 2010, the Northeast saw a 74% increase in the amount of precipitation falling in very heavy events." Draft at 551. In other words, the fate of Vermont is increasingly likely to be the fate of others. And this is a fundamental feature of climate change.   "Climate change is statistical weather, and manifests itself as a change in the frequency of events that would still occur (but with lower frequency) in the absence of climate change."  Draft at 218. The risk of untoward events is increasing. No one will be able to point to a flood or a hurricane or a heat wave and say this is climate change-related. But that is not necessary, or even relevant. As the risk increases, prudence requires that one spend more time and expense thinking about and countering the risk.  The Assessment is a good place to start.  And a good first step to start one's thinking would be to submit comments on the report.  The deadline is April 12.

Climate Change | Climate Change Effects | Rising Sea Levels | Weather

Delaware Advisory Committee Suggests Mandatory Disclosure of Rising Sea Levels in Real Estate Contracts

January 14, 2013 14:09
by J. Wylie Donald
If the State dropped a notice in the mail advising you that 10% of your property was going to be condemned without compensation, you would immediately hire a lawyer, seek out the press and raise holy **** about the trampling of individual rights, justice and the Constitution. That is the situation in which Delaware contemplates finding itself, but the Constitution is no salve.  Rising sea levels of between 0.5 and 1.5 meters are predicted to inundate between 8% and 11% of the state's land area by 2100. Delaware, however, is not one to tear its clothes and beat its chest in lamentation; instead, it is acting. Last July, the Delaware Sea Level Rise Advisory Committee published Preparing for Tomorrow's High Tide:  Sea Level Rise Vulnerability Assessment for the State of Delaware. Besides providing background about sea level rise and the methodology of vulnerability determinations, it looked at 79 resources in the state and assessed the impact of rising sea levels. Sixteen of those resources were assessed as being of high concern statewide. To quote the Executive Summary: "Within those potentially inundated areas lie transportation and port infrastructure, historic fishing villages, resort towns, agricultural fields, wastewater treatment facilities and vast stretches of wetlands and wildlife habitat of hemispheric importance." "[E]very Delawarean is likely to be affected by sea level rise through increased costs of maintaining public infrastructure, decreased tax base, loss of recreational opportunities and wildlife habitat, or loss of community character." From roads to wetlands to tourism, Delaware now has a basis to marshal its resources, and its polity, and move forward into the next phase:  adaptation planning. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change defines "adaptation" thus: "Adaptation refers to adjustments in ecological, social, or economic systems in response to actual or expected climatic stimuli and their effects or impacts. It refers to changes in processes, practices, and structures to moderate potential damages or to benefit from opportunities associated with climate change."  Delaware's focus is to "identify ways that government, businesses and citizens can adapt their policies and business practices to reduce the impact of seal level rise on our state's citizens, economy, and natural resources." The committee has wasted little time in taking action on the vulnerabilities identified in July. As reported in Delaware Online, last Thursday the committee offered up for public comment this question:  "whether property owners selling inside boundaries where seas are predicted to rise will have to disclose that vulnerability to potential buyers."  Hearings will begin in February.  Currently, disclosure of a property's location in a flood zone is required, but flood zones are based on the historical record. Requiring a disclosure about a prediction for the future is new. One can quickly see a few of the implications. First, all things being equal, some will be dissuaded from purchasing, demand will drop and prices will fall. How much and when is anybody's guess.  Second, the drawing of the sea-level-rise boundary may be intensely litigated. Indeed, we have already seen one ocean front property rights case, Stop the Beach Renourishment v. Fla. Dep't of Envtl. Protection, 130 S. Ct. 2592 (2010), make its way all the way to the Supreme Court. Third, realtors, real estate lawyers and other professionals involved in shore transactions will be pleased by this development as the liability for non-disclosure will be much harder to pin on them.  An injured property owner likely will find it difficult to assert an adviser's failure to disclose the risk was the proximate cause of his or her injury.  See J. Wylie Donald, Getting Ahead of Storm Surge, Especially in the Era of Climate Change.   Fourth, and perhaps most significantly, this small step will set the stage down the road when questions of compensation arise for individuals and entities harmed by rising sea levels. Buyers with such a disclosure in their contracts will be hard-pressed to claim ignorance. That in turn is likely to figure into the public discussion of fairness and the right to compensation. Of course, the committee's raising the point for discussion does not mean anything is going to change.  But, with the dialogue initiated, we expect that this issue will no longer be quietly ignored.  In any event, we look forward to further discussion in February.

Climate Change | Climate Change Effects | Regulation | Rising Sea Levels

Top 6 at 12: Highlights of the Top Climate Change Stories in the Second Half of 2012

December 31, 2012 08:59
by J. Wylie Donald
2012 has drawn to a close.  We chronicle here six of the most significant stories on the climate change front in the last six months.  For those looking for hope that government is taking action to rein in greenhouse gas emissions, the focus is on California, where cap-and-trade stepped into reality with California's first emissions auction.  Nationally and internationally regulation is at a standstill or going backward.  In the courts, the climate change liability plaintiffs were pounded again as the Ninth Circuit confirmed the dismissal of Native Village of Kivalina v. ExxonMobil Corp.  Responding to climate change, however, is a different story.  Superstorm Sandy was a wakeup call on adaptation and the impacts of extreme weather; the National Flood Insurance Program managed to obtain statutory authority to include climate change in its considerations. 1.  Superstorm Sandy –  Climatologists are confident that the changing climate will lead to more frequent and more severe storms.  Sandy, following Hurricane Irene the previous year, delivered on both predictions.   A nine-foot storm surge at Battery Park.  Transformers exploding and putting Manhattan into darkness.  The Hoboken PATH station  submerged.  $50 billion in damage.  Superstorm Sandy set records and was completely consistent with the concerns of proponents of climate change mitigation and adaptation.  Did it have anything to do with climate change or was it simply a chance confluence of events?  The weather pattern was unusual.  There was a hurricane (albeit fading), coupled with a nor’easter, intersecting with an arctic high pressure front, under a full moon.  Individually, those are independent of climate change.  But there was also a record lack of sea ice, which has a measured and observed effect on global atmospheric circulation, which could result in severe weather coming together more severely.  So quite possibly Sandy is a result of climate change.  More important than the academic debate, however, is the impact on adaptation.  Regardless of one’s views on climate change, Sandy demonstrated that a major metropolitan area is vulnerable to extreme weather.  Steps will be taken to flood-proof subways, bury electric lines, raise seawalls, improve evacuation plans  and emergency response,  etc.  All of these are part of the steps needed to adapt to climate change.   Whether it is acknowledged as linked to climate change or not (but see Bloomberg Business Week cover following Sandy:   “It’s Global Warming, Stupid!”), adaptation is going to happen.  2.  Presidential Election - Climate change was an important part of the campaign:  "The Obama-Biden cap-and-trade policy will require all pollution credits to be auctioned, and proceeds will go to investments in a clean energy future, habitat protections, and rebates and other transition relief for families."  The 2008 election campaign that is. It was a completely different position in 2012. Or maybe not different at all.  No one could tell because nobody was talking about it.  Even Sandy wasn't enough to propel climate change into the debate in the last week of campaigning. 3.  Native Village of Kivalina v. ExxonMobil - The last filed of the original quartet (American Electric Power, General Motors, Comer, and Kivalina) of climate change nuisance cases, Kivalina finally made it to a federal appellate court, where in September it met the same fate as its brethren:  dismissal affirmed.  Plaintiffs asked for rehearing.  The Ninth Circuit wasn't interested.  As of this writing, the only case left is Comer v. Murphy Oil USA, which is on appeal following its dismissal last March (for the second time) by the Southern District of Mississippi.  According to that court, plaintiffs lose for a wide variety of reasons:  standing, political question doctrine, res judicata, collateral estoppel, displacement, statute of limitations and proximate cause.    4.  Cap-and-trade - California, alone among the fifty states, instituted its multi-industry full-fledged cap-and-trade program auctions in November.  All of its allowances for 2013 were sold at a price slightly above the mandated floor price of $10/ton.  Regulators and environmental groups hailed the auction as a success; some business groups were less enthusiastic.  The California Chamber of Commerce sued the California Air Resources Board to invalidate the auctions.  Meanwhile, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative in the northeast continues with its allowances trading at the floor price, and with less than 2/3 of its allowances selling in its August and December auctions.  Some commentary concludes that it is time for RGGI to shut down as its CO2 emission goals have been met.    From where we sit, RGGI's success or failure can't be judged until its carbon trading is done in connection with  a robust economy.  The world economic malaise suppresses business, and with it, carbon dioxide emissions.  California may face the same issue.   5.  National Flood Insurance Program Reform - Could a poisonously partisan Congress vote for this:  (1) IN GENERAL- The Council shall consult with scientists and technical experts, other Federal agencies, States, and local communities to--(A) develop recommendations on how to--(i) ensure that flood insurance rate maps incorporate the best available climate science to assess flood risks; and (ii) ensure that the Federal Emergency Management Agency uses the best available methodology to consider the impact of--(I) the rise in the sea level; ..."?   Not the Congress we know.  Or so we thought.  Somehow, somewhere, someone put this into a draft, which made it into and out of a committee, ended up on the floor of both houses, survived two votes and came out as an enrolled bill for the president's signature.  The president signed it into law in July.  This was part of the miscellaneous section of the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act  (aka the Transportation and Student Loan Bill), which may explain how this occurred.  In any event, climate change considerations are statutorily mandated as part of the NFIP.  42 USC § 4101a(d)(1).  We can expect a report by July 6, 2013.  Id. § 4101a(d)(1)(B).  Who'd have thunk?  6.  Global GHG Regulation - COP-18, the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, wrapped up in Doha, Qatar in the middle of December widely panned as ineffective.   While it extended to 2020 the Kyoto Protocol addressing global greenhouse gas emissions, major nations (Canada, Russia, Japan and New Zealand) dropped out, and the United States continued to refuse to participate.  Thus, only about fifteen percent of global emissions are now covered by the protocol (the EU and other European nations, as well as Australia, continue to support the protocol).   Developing nations (whose emissions are not restricted by Kyoto) had hoped to obtain commitments for funding "climate finance" of $100 billion, but that did not occur either.  One can see parallels between the Kyoto Protocol and the Western Climate Initiative and RGGI.  In all three members have dropped out and the commitment to address greenhouse gas emissions waivers.    The fiscal cliff was the focus at the end of 2012; climate change got short shrift.  2013 may establish that that was short-sighted.

Carbon Emissions | Climate Change | Climate Change Litigation | Flood Insurance | Rising Sea Levels | Weather | Year in Review

Storm Surge in Your Lobby: You Should Have Been Thinking About Hurricane Isaac Months Ago

August 28, 2012 07:43
by J. Wylie Donald
12 feet.  Water that deep comfortably inundates the front office's front door and floats the boss's desk.  And that is the predicted maximum storm surge for coastal Louisiana and Mississippi as Hurricane Isaac bears down.   So there are likely to be a few problems in that part of the country by the time the sun goes down this afternoon.  What can be done?  At this late hour, very little unfortunately, other than heading for the hills; here the adage “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” says it all. Other than sand bags and plywood sheeting what preventive steps have some taken?  We’d like to focus on some things lawyers and businesspeople can address ahead of time:  modeling, insurance and contracting. Modeling – Besides wreaking record havoc, Hurricane Andrew in 1992 was the coming of age for catastrophe modelers. As reported by Business Insurance last week, when AIR Worldwide reported an estimated $13 billion in damage to its clients following the storm's passage, reaction ranged from “skepticism to outrage.”   Now modeling is big business and well accepted.  Indeed, modeling was approved by the Maryland Court of Appeals as an appropriate way to make business decisions in January of this year.  See People's Insurance Counsel Division v. Allstate Insurance Co., 36 A.3d 464 (Md. 2012). There is no reason to believe that Maryland’s lead would not be followed elsewhere. Today the public can get the benefit of some of the modelers’ insight in email alerts from companies’ such as AIR, or simply downloading them from the internet.  Those following Hurricane Isaac were able to learn that its ultimate effect was unsettled:  Isaac reaching hurricane status tonight leaves 24 hours of time for additional development prior to landfall; within that window, Isaac could reach Category 2 intensity. How much stronger Isaac will become will depend in part on the storm's track—that is, how much time it will spend over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico.  Further adding to the uncertainty around Isaac’s forecast intensity is the fact that the storm will be moving over some of the warmest waters it has encountered to date, so a period of rapid intensification that leads to even stronger winds cannot be ruled out. Subscribers to services offered by modeling firms can assess their exposures long before a hurricane makes landfall and take steps to diversify or minimize risks, can optimize their response to a looming hurricane by shifting production or scheduling a shutdown, and can make time-critical decisions as the catastrophe unfolds with the best data available concerning not only the storm’s effect on one’s own facility, but on the infrastructure and other plants on which one’s facility depends. Including such modeling in business planning leads to improvement of the bottom line. Insurance – It is well-documented that insurers don’t particularly care for flood risk, including storm surge.  Following Hurricane Katrina dozens of cases sought insurance coverage for storm surge. The courts were not sympathetic; most found flood exclusions and anti-concurrent causation clauses valid and applicable. For example, where homeowners did not purchase flood insurance through the National Flood Insurance Program after being told by their carrier “Your policy does not cover flood loss. You can get protection through the National Flood Insurance Program,” the Fifth Circuit affirmed the trial court’s ruling and stated, among other things, “The omission of the specific term "storm surge" does not create ambiguity in the policy regarding coverage available in a hurricane and does not entitle the Leonards to recovery for their flood-induced damages.”  Leonard v. Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co., 499 F.3d 419, 438 (5th Cir. 2007).  Commercial insureds fared no better.  E.g., Northrop Grumman Corp. v. Factory Mut. Ins. Co., 538 F.3d 1090, modified, 563 F.3d 777 (9th Cir. 2008). All of which is not to say that flood coverage is not available, but one has to actively seek it out, and pay for it.  This has important implications for supply chain coverage because if one's policy does not cover flood, and one's key supplier (scheduled under the contingent business interruption coverage) is shut down (as happened to many last year with Thailand's epic flooding), then there will be no coverage.  In other words, flood risk must be assessed at all relevant locations, not simply the insured's locations.  Contracting away risk – Considering storm surge, one researcher has written:  "In many places, only inches separate the once-a-decade flood from the once-a-century one; and separate the water level communities have prepared for, from the one no one has seen.  Critically, a small change can make a big difference, like the last inch of water that overflows a tub."  Ben Strauss et al., Surging Seas 4 (Mar. 14, 2012).  We saw just above that insurance may not be available for a storm surge.  Is there any other path to recovery?  Some that have purchased properties that have subsequently suffered flood damage have pursued their transaction professionals for the loss based on the theory that there should have been some disclosure.  They have had some success.  See, e.g., Perri v. Prestigious Homes, Inc., Docket No. A-0403-10T1 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. Jan. 13, 2012) (suing broker for flood damage); Stonacek v. City of Lincoln, 782 N.W.2d 900 (Neb. 2010) (suing realtor, developer, engineer and city for ensuing water damage from flood); Loya v. Howard Hanna Smythe Cramer Co., 2009 Ohio 448 (Ohio Ct. App. 2009) (suing realtor for ensuing water damage from flood); Potter v. First Real Estate Co., 844 So. 2d 540 (Ala. 2002) (suing realtor based on flooding); Clay v. Walden Joint Venture, 611 So. 2d 254 (Ala. 1992) (referring to suit against realtor for flood damage).  It is relatively easy, however, to inoculate oneself against that kind of suit:  make the disclosure in the contract.  Realtors and sellers in Norfolk, Virginia apparently already do that. For a more detailed discussion see J. Wylie Donald, Getting Ahead of Storm Surge, Especially in an Era of Climate Change. Sand bags and plywood sheeting are irreplaceable as a hurricane roars in.  Maybe one should start including other preventive steps as equally necessary in order to avoid the proverbial several pounds of cure.

Flood Insurance | Insurance | Rising Sea Levels | Weather

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