The Biden administration announced on Monday that it would not meet a February target date to issue a revised definition of federal jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act. It still plans to issue a revised definition later in the year. That sounds like a very technical issue. But it actually determines the extent to which the federal government can prevent water pollution and protect wetlands across the nation. The Biden proposal basically calls for case-by-case decisions about federal jurisdiction. It's also the latest chapter in one of the most snarled-up regulatory issue of our times.
The story begins with the 1972 passage of the Clean Water Act. The act requires permits for dredge-and-fill operations and for pollution discharges into "navigable waters." Traditionally, navigable waters were tidal waters or waterways that could be used for commercial transport. Although Congress used the traditional term, the statute eschews the traditional meaning. Instead, it defines navigable waters as "waters of the United States." It's clear that this definition is broader than the traditional definition. But how much broader?
The U.S. Supreme Court has spoken to the issue several times. The …
The decision at the Glasgow climate conference to phase down fossil fuels is an important step forward — and not just because of climate change. We think of fossil fuels as a source of climate change, but that's only a one part of the problem. From their extraction to their combustion, everything about them is destructive to the environment and human health.
Our system of environmental regulation divides up regulation of a single substance based on each of its environmental impacts. Thus, the regulatory system sees the "trees," not the "forest." That muddies the waters when we are talking about regulatory priorities, strategies, and long-term goals. It can also lead to framing issues in ways that may weaken environmentalist arguments, since the various harms of a substance or activity get fragmented into different silos.
Late Friday, the House passed President Biden's infrastructure bill, the Build Back Better law. As The Washington Post aptly observed, the bill is the biggest climate legislation to ever move through Congress. It also attracted key support from some Republicans, which was essential to passing it in both houses of Congress. Biden is pushing for an even bigger companion bill, but the infrastructure bill is a huge victory in its own right.
One major area of spending is transportation. Some of that goes for roads and bridges. But as The Washington Post reports, there's a lot of money for rail and mass transit:
Unless you're deeply immersed in administrative law, you may not have heard of the major questions doctrine. It's a legal theory that conservative judges have used with increasing rigor to block important regulatory initiatives. The doctrine places special obstacles on agency regulation of issues of "major economic and political significance."
In its initial outing, the U.S. Supreme Court's conservative majority said that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) couldn't regulate tobacco without a clear congressional mandate. Most recently, it has applied the doctrine in striking down the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) moratorium on evictions during the pandemic. It now seems poised to do so in a case involving EPA's power to regulate carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants.
Unfortunately, there are a host of major questions about the doctrine's legal scope …
Cost-benefit analysis is required for all major regulations. It's also highly controversial, as well as being a mysterious procedure unless you're an economist. These FAQs will tell you what you need to know about how cost-benefit analysis (CBA) fits into the regulatory process, how it works, and why it's controversial.
Q: Let's start with a basic question. Exactly what is cost-benefit analysis?
A: The term cost-benefit analysis is sometimes used to mean any comparison of pros and cons, which is something we all do every day in ordinary life. For present purposes, though, it means a very rigorous way of balancing pros and cons, using economic analysis to quantify the costs and benefits of an action. Basically, everything gets converted into dollar equivalents in this process.
Q: Why do agencies conduct cost-benefit analyses?
A: A few …
The Biden administration is looking to make big regulatory changes, not least regarding climate change. Yet the White House office overseeing regulations is vacant. The obscurely named Office of Regulatory Affairs and Information (OIRA) has to sign off on all significant regulations. Even the dilatory Donald Trump had nominated a permanent administrator by July of his first year. Biden's delay in filling this important office is hard to defend.
The main reason for the delay is probably that Biden doesn't have the OIRA administrator's boss in place, either. Biden's nominee to head the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) had to be withdrawn when her Senate support evaporated. That was on March 2, however, and there's still no new OMB nomination six months later. Maybe the reason is an inability to find a candidate who can …
On Wednesday, Oregon Governor Kate Brown signed a package of four clean energy bills. These bills move the state to the forefront of climate action. They ban new fossil fuel plants and set aggressive targets for the state's two major utilities, requiring emission cuts of 80 percent by 2030, 90 percent by 2035 and 100 percent by 2040. This is not only a major step forward for the state; it should also clear the path to closer collaboration among Washington State, Oregon, and California on climate issues.
In signing the bills, Brown observed, "As we have all been experiencing, climate change is no longer a distant threat. It is here. In Oregon, and across the West, we are feeling its impacts every day."
The bill setting the state's aggressive targets passed the Oregon Senate on …
For the last century, the Supreme Court has tried to operationalize the idea that a government regulation can be so burdensome that it amounts to a seizure of property. In the process, it has created a house of mirrors, a maze in which nothing is as it seems. Rules that appear crisp and clear turn out to be mushy and murky. Judicial rulings that seem to expand the rights of property owners turn out to undermine those rights. The Court's decision last week in Cedar Point Nursery v. Hassid illustrates both points.
Cedar Point Nursery involved a California law giving labor organizers the right to go into a farm to talk with farmworkers, thereby interfering with the owner's ability to exploit its workers. (No, that's not quite the language the Court used.) The Supreme Court held …
Even most lawyers, let alone the rest of the population, are a bit fuzzy on how the regulatory system works. As the Biden administration is gearing up to start a slew of regulatory proceedings, here's what you need to know about the process.
Q: Where do agencies like EPA get the power to create regulations?
A: EPA and other agencies are created by Congress. They also get the power to issue regulations from laws passed by Congress. For instance, the Clean Water Act tells EPA to issue regulations based on the "best available technology" for controlling the discharge of toxic water pollutants.
Q: Who decides whether an agency should start the process to issue a new regulation?
A: Some statutes set deadlines and require agencies to act. In those situations, a court can intervene …
Hurricanes Harvey and Maria. California wildfires. Superstorm Sandy. The great Texas blackout. The list goes on.
These mega-events dramatize the need to improve our disaster response system. The trends are striking: escalating disaster impacts, more disaster clustering, more disaster cascades, and less predictability. We need to up our game. Lisa Grow Sun and I discuss the implications in a new paper, but here are a few of the key takeaways.
Escalating impacts. From 1980 to 2020, there were an average of seven billion-dollar events per year. (Interestingly, nearly half of them were in Texas.) But from 2015-2020, the average was 16 per year. 2020 had a record-breaking 22 billion-dollar events. Why? It's partly higher GDP and population, so more people and wealth are at risk. More people and infrastructure are located in high-risk areas, especially coasts …