Environmental Law


Rethinking Health-Based Environmental Standards

Michael A. Livermore, Richard L. Revesz

Under the Clean Air Act, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is required to determine the stringency of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS), arguably the most important federal environmental program, without considering the costs of achieving these standards. Instead, it must rely exclusively on health-related criteria. This Article argues that health-based standards, which are one of the principal approaches to setting the stringency of environmental requirements in the United States, exhibit two serious pathologies: the stopping-point problem and the inadequacy paradox. The stopping-point problem arises because there is no coherent, defensible way for EPA to set the permissible level of pollution based on health considerations alone. Moreover, contrary to the commonly accepted view, the NAAQS have generally been set at levels that are less stringent than those that would result from the application of cost-benefit analysis, giving rise to the inadequacy paradox. We urge a reinterpretation of the Supreme Court’s important decision in Whitman v. American Trucking Associations to avoid the inadequacy paradox.

Cost Consideration and the Endangered Species Act

Sheila Baynes

Congress enacted the critical habitat provisions of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) to provide a powerful tool for promoting the recovery of endangered and threatened species of plants and animals. However, agency recalcitrance and constant litigation have mired its efficacy, resulting in a tangled mess that fails to effectuate the recovery goal of the ESA. This Note disentangles that mess through the lens of the ongoing circuit split over the proper methodology for consideration of costs during critical habitat designation. Concluding that the Services’ favored method, the baseline method, is superior in its faithfulness to the statutory language and the intent of Congress, this Note warns that the baseline method’s legality will continue to be undermined until the Services promulgate proper regulatory definitions to support its internal logic.

Encouraging Climate Adaptation Through Reform of Federal Crop Insurance Subsidies

Ann Jaworski

Climate change is expected to have immensely detrimental effects on agriculture. Changing climate patterns will also make many locations inhospitable to the crops currently grown there. In order to mitigate the effects of climate change on agriculture, farmers should adapt by changing the mix of crops grown in a given location. Federal crop insurance masks incentives American farmers would otherwise have to adapt to climate change through crop choice. Large premium subsidies—with most insured farmers paying less than half of the actuarially sound premium—are a huge part of this problem. This Note explains the connection between crop choice and climate change. It then analyzes existing proposals for reforming the crop insurance system to better incentivize adaptation to climate change, and highlights some political and practical obstacles to doing so. Finally, it argues that a tiered subsidy system—in which crops at high risk of failure due to location-specific climate risks would receive lower subsidies—could be a feasible, incremental solution to the problem.

The Validity of the Clean Power Plan’s Emissions Trading Provisions

Jessica M. Wilkins

In June 2013, President Obama issued a memorandum directing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to use its authority under Sections 111(b) and 111(d) of the Clean Air Act to address carbon pollution from new and existing power plants. Over two years later, the EPA issued the final rule, known as the Clean Power Plan, and a proposed federal plan that will be implemented in states that do not submit their own plan under the Clean Power Plan. Both the Clean Power Plan and the EPA’s proposed federal plan rely heavily on emissions trading programs to reduce carbon emissions in a cost-effective manner. Emissions trading programs set a cap on the total amount of a pollutant permitted and allow sources to buy and sell allowances based on how much of the pollutant each source is reducing or emitting. Opponents of the Clean Power Plan and its trading provisions are challenging the rule on the grounds that it is beyond the EPA’s authority under the Act.

This Note suggests that these emissions trading provisions are valid for two related reasons: first, the EPA has successfully implemented emissions trading programs under Section 110 of the Act in the past that demonstrate the agency’s longstanding history of using these programs; and second, emissions trading has been upheld by the Supreme Court as permissible under Section 110, and Section 111(d)—under which the Clean Power Plan was promulgated—contains two substantive references to Section 110. Taken together, the EPA’s past use of emissions trading programs and the statutory references in Section 111 suggest that the trading provisions in the Clean Power Plan and the proposed federal plan are a permissible exercise of the EPA’s authority.

Public Energy

Shelley Welton

Many scholars and policy makers celebrate cities as loci for addressing climate change. In addition to being significant sources of carbon pollution, cities prove to be dynamic sites of experimentation and ambition on climate policy. However, as U.S. cities set climate change goals far above those of their federal and state counterparts, they are butting up against the limits of their existing legal authority, most notably with regard to control over energy supplies. In response, many U.S. cities are exercising their legal rights to reclaim public ownership or control over private electric utilities as a method of achieving their climate change goals.

Although there is widespread desire for cities to act within their legal authority to reduce carbon pollution, it is a different question entirely whether they should be encouraged to expand this authority by reclaiming ownership or control over tasks previously outsourced to private companies. On this question, energy law has much to learn from administrative law’s robust attention to outsourcing theory. This Article draws from the outsourcing literature to argue that climate change complicates traditional theories regarding whether cities should prefer publicly or privately owned electricity systems. By transposing these theories into energy law, it constructs a theoretical defense of why more public forms of energy ownership or control may be effective governance tools for the climate change era. In the last century, providing electricity was a task well suited to government oversight of private companies, as regulators primarily aimed to incentivize low prices and adequate supply. This century, however, climate change creates the need for more deliberative, experimental management of electricity to meet the additional aim of decarbonization while maintaining affordability and reliability. In this situation, outsourcing theory widely counsels against utilizing a private contractor model, and illustrates the difficulties inherent in using regulation to manage private companies. Instead, it is time for broader reconsideration of more public forms of energy control and ownership, of just the sort that leading U.S. cities are pioneering.

FPA Preemption in the 21st Century

Matthew R. Christiansen

On February 24, the Supreme Court will hear oral argument in Hughes v. Talen Energy Marketing. In deciding this case, the Court must determine whether an effort by the State of Maryland to incentivize the construction of new power plants is field preempted by the Federal Power Act (“FPA”)—that is, whether the Maryland law intrudes on an area that is exclusively the federal government’s to regulate.  This Comment urges the Court to evaluate Maryland’s regulation under a conflict-preemption, as opposed to a field-preemption, standard. In particular, the Court should clarify that field preemption—a doctrine that prohibits any state regulation in a particular area of the law—applies only when a State targets the core aspects of federal jurisdiction under the FPA, namely the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s (“FERC”) ability to determine whether a wholesale rate is just and reasonable.  Conflict preemption—which provides that state laws are preempted only when they interfere with or frustrate the federal regulatory regime—provides a far superior framework for evaluating the type of law at issue in Hughes.  It conforms more closely to the FPA’s core objectives, furthers important state policies, and somewhat paradoxically, enhances FERC’s ability to regulate effectively the aspects of the electricity sector under its jurisdiction.  Not only is a conflict-preemption approach good policy, it is also entirely consistent with the Court’s FPA preemption jurisprudence.  In particular, the Court’s prior decisions can be read to support a less intrusive field-preemption inquiry—a reading which, this Comment argues, should be applied the facts before the Court in Hughes.

Matthew R. Christiansen, FPA Preemption in the 21st Century, 91 N.Y.U. L. Rev. Online 1 (2016).