Good news for the Arctic! “I believe there will not be an oil spill”—this according to Ken Salazar, the nation’s Secretary of Interior and, now, environmental crystal-gazer. As someone still fretting about BP’s mess in the Gulf, I want to believe; but it’s hard. So let me back up.
Earlier this week, Secretary Salazar said it was “highly likely” that his agency would grant Shell Oil permits to begin drilling exploratory wells in Arctic waters north of Alaska, despite opposition from many environmental groups. While acknowledging the many challenges presented by such an operation, the Secretary recalled his department’s new permitting standards and expressed confidence in a new oil containment device that was recently tested in Washington’s Puget Sound.
Then: “I believe there will not be an oil spill. . . . If there is, I think the response capability is there to arrest the problem very quickly and minimize damage. If I were not confident that would happen, I would not let the permits go forward.”Full text
The end of the school year always leaves me wishing that I could have lectured more clearly or somehow covered more in my classes on environmental law and policy. There was really just too much to discuss. How does one do justice to all those doubtful arguments in support of the Keystone XL pipeline? It’s a job creator! A gasoline price cap! A floor wax! Or the continuing saga of how the Obama administration should reorganize the offshore drilling responsibilities assigned to the MMS, I mean BOEMRE, I mean BOEM/BSEE. And there is never enough time to test it all.
This year I’ve assembled a few questions that have been on my mind this semester but that didn’t make it onto the exam. (Answers are posted at the bottom of this page). By the way, if you’re a regular reader of CPRBlog, this should be a snap: All of the answers can be found in CPRBlog entries from the last five months.
So find a quiet spot, sharpen that No. 2 pencil, and test your knowledge.
1. Last year, when the EPA began limiting emissions of CO2 from coal-burning power plants and other sources, the energy industry blew a fuse. Affected companies publicly argued that greenhouse gas regulation had gone too far. But last February during oral argument before the U.S. Court of Appeals, lawyers for some of those same companies argued that the agency’s rule was invalid because it did not go far enough. According to them, what was wrong with the rule?Full text
I spent last Friday – the second anniversary of the BP Blowout – in the vast basement of the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court building, shifting in my metal chair, ignoring the talk-show chatter from the flat screens, and keeping an eye on the red digit counter to know when my number was up.
I'd been called for jury duty.
Whether I will eventually be deployed is up to the gods, but until then I had resolved to study (with the help of this building's creaking Wi-Fi system) all 2,000 pages of the proposed multibillion-dollar settlement in the Deepwater Horizon case – the settlement made public last week by BP and thousands of Gulf Coast residents and businesses. (I blogged earlier when the broad outline of this settlement was first announced here.)
Now some of you may wish to savor the details, poring over the documents page-by-page between sips of Courvoisier. But for the rest, I've got the bottom line [SPOILER ALERT]: The proposed settlement rewards plaintiffs' hard bargaining, puts a crimp in federal and state hopes for a speedy trial, and demonstrates once again that despite the size of this deal, the main course is yet to come, in the form of federal civil fines and possible criminal prosecution.Full text
The BP Oil Spill case settled! Well, part of it. The smaller part. But, still, we must count this a victory for U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier, whose reported 72 million pages of assigned reading will inevitably be shaved down. (Does this man have an iPad?)
On Friday evening the court announced that BP had reached a settlement with the steering committee that represents thousands of private plaintiffs in the case. Judge Barbier postponed the trial indefinitely while the remaining parties, including the federal government, regroup. According to news reports, the settlement would cover claims for economic loss and medical harm. BP estimated that the settlement, which has no firm cap, might total $7.8 billion; the actual number would depend on how many plaintiffs accept the deal and how much they’re ultimately paid. Plaintiffs displeased with the offer could opt out and stay in the litigation. And all private claims against Transocean and other defendant companies remain.
On balance, the settlement appears to be a good thing. But this plate is just the appetizer. The main course—a pepper pot of federal civil claims and criminal charges—has yet to come. And that’s a dish that could really bust a gut.Full text
Well, another magnificent Mardi Gras has ended, and at this point, I’d normally be slouched on the sofa sipping a tomato juice (neat) and sorting beads. But not this year. That’s because next week, squadrons of lawyers, journalists, petroleum engineers, and fisher folk are scheduled to descend on New Orleans, squeeze into a federal courtroom, and begin on Monday what the media have modestly called, “The Trial of the Century,” otherwise known as the BP Oil Spill litigation.
Whatever the rest of the century holds, it seems fair to say that this legal dispute, if it does not settle, will be the most complicated environmental trial anyone has ever seen. With a thousand plaintiffs, a galaxy of witnesses, and 20,000 exhibits, this spectacular has more moving parts than a Madonna half-time show. As the trial unfolds, I’ll provide you with some occasional shrimp-boots-on-the-ground legal blogging.
First, though, I’ll start with the background of the case (please see also two CPR white papers: Regulatory Blowout: How Regulatory Failures Made the BP Disaster Possible, and How the System Can Be Fixed to Avoid a Recurrence (Oct 2010) and The BP Catastrophe: When Hobbled Law and Hollow Regulation Leave Americans Unprotected (Jan 2011)). Here are some answers to common questions.
Q: Can you remind me what the BP Oil Spill was all about? I remember “Top Kill” and “I’d like my life back,” but the rest of it is a little hazy.Full text
Last fall, in a speech I gave at an environmental justice event in Los Angeles, I ruffled some feathers with an impromptu line that went something like this: “Believe it or not, federal environmental statutes say nothing directly about environmental justice.” During the “Q & A” I was challenged by an environmental activist and lawyer who listed various ways that advocates had successfully used federal environmental statutes to address inequalities in many of California’s minority and low-income communities.
I saw immediately that I had not been clear. For what I meant was that although environmental statutes could be used to further the interests of social justice, the terrain was not landscaped for that purpose. It took activists with imagination and grit to climb the peaks my questioner was talking about. It took lawyers who could scan the glaciers of the federal code and find a foothold—a place where you could jam your steel-toothed boot, stabilize your momentum, and launch yourself forward. (EPA policy analyst Abby Hall and I expand on our theory of regulatory “footholds”—and also regulatory “rope lines”—here.)
Like community lawyers, policy makers need footholds too. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has made environmental justice a pillar of her tenure. But many of our environmental statutes, because they pre-date the modern environmental justice movement, were not developed with this priority in mind. So Administrator Jackson asked her lawyers to survey the landscape of environmental authorities for legal standards and directives that would provide the positioning and leverage to promote “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income.” EPA’s lawyers then catalogued those footholds and put them in a guide intended for use across the agency.
In an admirable display of integrity and transparency, EPA has now publicly released that guide for all lawyers, activists, and citizens to see – and perhaps use.Full text
Today’s question: When are flood waters not “flood waters”? We New Orleanians have become fluent in all things subaqueous; last week three Texans sitting on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals took their turn.
Yes, we’re talking about Katrina. Or, more specifically, its flood waters, which busted federal levees in fifty places, swamped 80% of New Orleans, and caused 800 deaths in the urban area. It is beyond argument that federal malfeasance played a key role. But sovereign immunity under the 1928 Flood Control Act (FCA) seemed sure to prevent residents from pursuing any flood-based claims against their government.
Yet as recent developments suggest, the case for immunity may not be nearly so open and shut.
Back in the 1920s, when the federal government assumed responsibility for levees on the Lower Mississippi, Congress worried that such a mammoth endeavor could expose the country to overwhelming liability. So they wrote into the FCA an immunity provision: “[no] liability of any kind shall attach to . . . the United States for any damage from or by floods or flood waters at any place.” This sweeping language has proved remarkably steadfast, if not occasionally abhorrent. Take, for instance, the time when federal operators idiotically opened floodgates of a recreational reservoir without first warning a group of waterskiers, one of whom was summarily sucked down the vortex and killed. In James v. United States(1986)a majority of the Supreme Court found government immunity too clear to avoid, leaving a trio of dissenting justices wailing about an outcome they called both “perverse” and “barbaric.”Full text
Let’s stipulate: EPA’s withdrawal of a stronger ozone rule was the low point. And for many, a betrayal, a sedition, the nation’s biggest sell-out since Dylan went electric (or played China, take your pick).
Still, Jackson’s EPA has accomplished a great deal. Last week the EPA showcased new policy devoted to one issue with which Jackson has associated herself since day one: environmental justice.
The policy is called Plan EJ 2014, the agency’s comprehensive environmental justice strategy, planned to correspond with the 20th anniversary of President Clinton’s formative executive order on environmental justice (full disclosure: I was involved in the development of some parts of Plan EJ 2014 when I was in the Obama administration). The planoffers a road map for integrating environmental justice and civil rights into EPA’s daily work, including rulemaking, permitting, compliance and enforcement, community-based programs and coordination with other federal agencies. Jackson’s EPA deserves credit for making EJ an A-list priority, establishing a political-level, highly visible EJ advisor, and establishing this plan. Plans, of course, are only as good as their implementation, but this is a significant first step.Full text
Imagine you are building a beach house somewhere on the Gulf Coast and that I had some information about future high tides that would help you build a smarter structure, avoid flood damage, and save money in the long-run. Would you want that information?
Not if you follow the reasoning of Representatives Steve Scalise of Louisiana or John Carter of Texas. Both are concerned about the Obama administration’s recent efforts to make federal programs stronger and more resilient in the face of climate change. Scalise sponsored an amendment (H.AMDT. 467 to H.R. 2112) that prevents the Department of Agriculture (USDA) from pursuing its plan to assess climate vulnerabilities in its programs. Carter did the same (H.AMDT. 378 to H.R. 2017) for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). And this month the Republican-led House of Representatives, with little fanfare, passed both initiatives (Scalise roll call, Carter roll call). I doubt either proposal will move past the Senate, but these efforts show how far some in the Republican Party have drifted from the geographic realities of their own states. And they underline the point that in the next election cycle Republicans seem likely to oppose any initiative whatsoever intended to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions or help with adapting to a changed world.
Forgive me for saying so, but our climate is changing. In the last 50 years, the ambient temperature in the United States has risen 2 degrees Fahrenheit. Overall precipitation in that time has increased by 5 percent. The amount of rain falling in the heaviest downpours in the United States has increased an average of 20 percent in the past century. In the last 40 to 50 years, many types of extreme weather events like heat waves and droughts have become more frequent and intense. Coastal storms in the Pacific and Atlantic have also intensified. And in the last half-century, sea level has risen up to 8 inches or more along some areas of the coastal United States. These trends are expected to continue or accelerate into the future. This information and more is available in the 2009 report, "Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States," issued by the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP), a consortium of thirteen federal agencies and departments. This peer-reviewed survey synthesizes a mountain of direct observations and other data accumulated over the last one hundred years.Full text
Copenhagen—Denmark’s famed "Little Harbor Lady," or in English, "Little Mermaid," has had her share of antics and perils. She’s been photographed by millions in Copenhagen’s harbor, carted off and shown at the 2010 World Fair in Shanghai, beheaded (several times), dynamited, splashed with pink paint, and enveloped in a Burqua. An environmental nerd for all occasions, I look at her longing face and wonder, How long before the rising sea swallows her up? Bolted to that rock in the sea, a shaft a concrete now inserted into her neck, what will she do? Or, for that, matter, the thousands of others who call coastal Copenhagen home. Is anyone thinking about this?
Many experts expect the world’s seas to rise somewhere between 1 to 1.5 meters this century, depending on location (and, of course, it could be more). Add to this a potential for stronger storms and much higher storm surges and you see why cities like Copenhagen, London, New York, and Miami are all in the crosshairs.
Danish experts have begun using computer-enhanced mapping techniques to predict what a high-tide of 2.26 meters—what they believe a "20-year event" might look like in 2110—would do to the city. The result leaves an inner city map covered in blue, including the Danish Stock Exchange, the Royal Library, and the city’s stunning Opera House. For this reason, the country is developing a proposal for a dike along Copenhagen’s North Harbor and an area called Kalveboderne to protect some of the city’s most treasured assets. For areas lying outside the protected region, which includes the Opera House, engineers are considering elevating roads and introducing architectural adjustments.
Back in New Orleans, where I live, we are also strengthening our fortress walls. At the opening of hurricane season this month, city residents took comfort (perhaps) in the strongest flood-control system ever constructed for the region. My favorite part is the Lake Borgne Barrier, a 1.8-mile-long castle-toothed wall, anchored by 66-inch-wide, 144-foot-deep concrete columns. The structure, which cost $1.1 billion and was built in just two years, is designed to block the kind of crashing hurricane surge brought by Hurricane Katrina, which in 2005 swept through the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway and Industrial Canal into the heart of New Orleans.
As I continually remind my students, resistance, while expensive and complicated, is not always futile....Full text