Environmental Law

Regulatory agencies spring into action after Supreme Court decides dusky gopher frog case

Emily Newman, MJLST Staffer

While “critical habitat” is defined within the Endangered Species Act (ESA), a definition for “habitat” has never been adopted within the statute itself or any regulations issued by the two agencies responsible for implementing the ESA, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (collectively, the “Services”). In 2018, however, the U.S. Supreme Court called this gap into question. Weyerhaeuser Co. v. United States Fish and Wildlife Serv., 139 S. Ct. 361 (2018). In Weyerhaeuser Co. v. United States Fish and Wildlife Service, the Court reviewed a case by which the USFWS designated a particular area of land as critical habitat for the dusky gopher frog, including private property and land that was currently unoccupied by the frog. Id. at 366. Weyerhaeuser Company, a timber company, and a group of family landowners challenged the designation because the land was not currently occupied by this species and would need to be improved before occupation could actually occur. Id. at 367. The Court vacated and remanded the case to the Fifth Circuit, determining that the land first must be designated as “habitat” before being designated as “critical habitat.” Id. at 369. More specifically, they remanded to the Fifth Circuit for it to interpret the meaning of “habitat” under the ESA; however, they did not specifically direct the Services to adopt a definition. Id. The Fifth Circuit ended up dismissing the case upon remand.

The Services’ proposed new rule aims to address this gap. The proposed rule was published on August 5, 2020, and within it, the Services propose two alternative definitions for the meaning of “habitat” which would be added to § 424.02 of the ESA. The first definition is as follows: “The physical places that individuals of a species depend upon to carry out one or more life processes. Habitat includes areas with existing attributes that have the capacity to support individuals of the species.” The alternative definition of “habitat” is listed as: “The physical places that individuals of a species use to carry out one or more life processes. Habitat includes areas where individuals of the species do not presently exist but have the capacity to support such individuals, only where the necessary attributes to support the species presently exist.”

The first definition emphasizes “dependence” while the second emphasizes “use”, but both allow for unoccupied areas to be included in the definition. Additionally, both definitions imply that the land has to be suitable for a particular species in its current condition with no improvements made. The Services clarified that the proposed rule would only be prospective and would not revise any designations of critical habitat already made.

The Services issued the proposed rule largely in order to respond to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Weyerhaeuser, but the Services do mention additional purposes such as the desire to “provide transparency, clarity, and consistency for stakeholders.” The proposed rule is also meant to build upon regulatory reforms issued by the Services in 2019. Additionally, the Services place the proposed rule in a larger context as part of the efforts of the Trump administration to “bring the ESA into the 21st century.”

The proposed rule has received both support and criticism. Those in support of the rule mainly highlight how defining “habitat” would lead to more certainty as to when a particular area would or could be protected under the ESA. They say that this could positively impact species by “aiding the public’s understanding of those areas that constitute habitat” and also by helping companies plan out projects in such a way as to minimize any impact on habitat.

Those against the two definitions contained in the proposed rule have multiple reasons for their criticism. For one, they believe that the primary definition in particular runs the risk of conflating “habitat” and “critical habitat” even though “habitat” presumably should cover a wider area. Second, they argue that defining “habitat” through a regulation is unnecessary and has not been necessary in the 45 plus years that the ESA has been around. This is because defining “habitat” could undermine any critical habitat designations under the ESA, and it would also negatively impact or cause confusion in other parts of the ESA where the word “habitat” is used and other federal statutes that are often “implicated by actions related to listed species.” Third, while the proposed rule is prospective and would not require reevaluations of past critical habitat designations, that does not mean the Services by their own accord won’t reevaluate those designations using the new definition of “habitat.”

The last, and arguably most important, critique of the proposed rule is that either definition has the potential to exclude essential areas of habitat such as fragmented, degraded, or destroyed habitat that would need to be restored, and also habitat that is needed for species whose range will likely fluctuate due to the impacts of climate change. Critics, such as the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) and the American Fisheries Society (AFS), argue that this would only maintain the status quo and simply “wouldn’t make sense from a management perspective for species recovery or the legislative perspective intended by Congress in enacting the ESA.” The AFS makes a useful analogy to what would happen if a similar definition applied to polluted waters under the Clean Water Act: “Indeed, if a similar definition was used for polluted waters in the U.S. under the Clean Water Act, we would never have improved water quality by installing treatment systems to remove pollutants, as the definition leaves the only condition as status quo.”

Several opponents of the proposed rule provide their own alternative definitions of habitat or what that definition should include. The Defenders of Wildlife suggest a definition that is consistent with definitions of habitat in academia and with the intent of the ESA, as well as being complementary to but distinct from the definition of “critical habitat” in the ESA: “ ‘Habitat’ is the area or type of site where a species naturally occurs or depends on directly or indirectly to carry out its life processes, or where a species formerly occurred or has the potential to occur and carry out its life processes in the foreseeable future.” Additionally, the AFS advises that any definition of habitat account for areas that may not even “house” the species in question but that are nevertheless important for energy and resource flow; this broader suggestion reflects the move towards “holistic watershed approaches” in fisheries management.

The public comment period for the proposed rule closed on September 4, 2020, but the Services has not yet issued a final rule. Looking ahead, though, the strong opinions both for and against the proposed rule indicate that the Services will most likely face litigation irrespective of what they decide upon in the final rule. Moreover, a change in the Administration following the 2020 election will likely affect the outcome of this regulatory action.

 

 


“IceBreaker” Freshwater Offshore Wind Project Cracks Through Regulatory Jam

Ben Cooper, MJLST Staffer

An offshore wind project in Lake Erie, churned by regulatory crosscurrents, has begun flowing towards construction once again. But followers of the IceBreaker Wind project can be forgiven for harboring reservations about what lies ahead, due to the long-running back-and-forth. Back-and-forth notwithstanding, critics and proponents alike look at IceBreaker Wind as an, ahem, icebreaker to clear the path for more offshore wind in the Great Lakes.

IceBreaker Wind Project

For more than a decade, the Lake Erie Energy Development Corporation (LEEDCo) has been working to advance a windfarm eight miles off the coast of Cleveland in Lake Erie. The project would have six turbines with a combined production to power 7,000 homes. Outside advocates are split on the project: some environmental groups (like the Sierra Club and the Ohio Environmental Council) support IceBreaker Wind, while other environmental groups (like the Black Swamp Bird Observatory and the American Bird Conservancy) are leading the legal challenges to it. Additionally, a group of lakefront property owners and a coal company have become involved in the opposition to the project.

As this project has moved through the regulatory framework, stakeholders have continually pointed out that it will likely chart the course for future offshore wind projects in the Great Lakes. Up until this point, the future of freshwater offshore wind has been aspirational. The CEO of LEEDCo says this approach makes sense when launching a new industry: “[U]ntil you climb that first hill and see what’s out there, you better focus on that first hill.” Now that IceBreaker Wind has cleared some of its most significant hurdles, others in the industry are beginning to peak over the top of that first hill.

Diamond Offshore Wind Moves in on the Great Lakes

Way back when IceBreaker Wind was just a concept, optimism bubbled throughout the Great Lakes region about the promise of offshore wind. Major cities like Chicago, Buffalo, New York, and Cleveland sit just a few miles away from strong, consistent winds. The appeal of offshore wind in the Great Lakes is obvious: abundant energy close to the population centers that need it. Yet, the challenges are evident in IceBreaker’s decade-long saga.

With all the uncertainty that crept into the IceBreaker Wind project, proposals and planning for other offshore wind projects in the Great Lakes quieted down. Still, industry has kept its eyes on IceBreaker—looking for a proof of concept project to lay out the “pathway to responsible development.” Based on recent movement, it seems like players in the freshwater offshore wind space have seen the pathway they need.

One move has been in response to New York State’s 70% renewable energy target by 2030. Diamond Offshore Wind, a subsidiary of Mitsubishi Corporation, thinks the answer lies at least in part in a wind farm in Lake Erie off the coast of Buffalo. This project is in its earliest stages and is still waiting for the results of a feasibility study New York State is conducting.

Even with all the uncertainty of offshore wind development in the Great Lakes, there is a regulatory benefit to these freshwater projects over their ocean counterparts: while offshore projects in the ocean require approval from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), projects in the Great Lakes do not require BOEM’s involvement. This is notable because BOEM has been frustratingly absent from offshore wind development over the past few years.

Conclusion

Even with the benefits of advancing these offshore wind projects in the Great Lakes rather than the ocean, these projects are costly and time intensive. It makes sense that developers are cautious to jump into the unknown. Since IceBreaker Wind cleared some of its last major hurdles, however, we should expect to see more companies embarking on projects to harness the country’s greatest untapped natural resource.


Extracting Favors: Fossil-Fuel Companies are Using the Pandemic to Lobby for Regulatory Rollbacks and Financial Bailouts

Christopher Cerny, MJLST Staffer

In the waning months of World War II, Winston Churchill is quoted, perhaps apocryphally, as saying, “[n]ever let a good crisis go to waste.” It seems fossil-fuel companies have taken these words to heart. While in the midst of one of the greatest crises of modern times, oil, gas, and coal companies are facing tremendous economic uncertainty, not only from the precipitous drop in demand for gasoline and electricity, but also from the rise of market share held by renewable energy. In response, industry trade groups and the corporations they represent are engaged in an aggressive lobbying campaign aimed at procuring financial bailouts and regulatory rollbacks. The federal government and some states seem inclined to provide assistance, but with the aforementioned rise of renewable energy, many see the writing on the wall for some parts of the fossil-fuel industry.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic continues to inflict immeasurable havoc on a global scale. The virus and the mitigation efforts designed to curb its spread have dramatically changed the way humankind interacts with each other and the world around us. In the United States, nearly all states at one time or another implemented mandatory shelter-at-home orders to restrict movement and prevent the further spread of the novel coronavirus. These orders have, in many ways, completely restructured society and the economy, with perhaps no sector being more impacted than transportation. At the peak of the virus in the United States, air travel was down 96% and, in April 2020, passenger road travel was down 77% from 2019. Similarly, the pandemic has altered America’s energy consumption. For example, the Midcontinent Independent System Operator reports a decrease in daily weekday demand in March and April of up to 13% and a national average decline of as much as 7% for the same time frame. A secondary impact of these market disruptions is on the fossil-fuel industry. The decrease in electricity demand has further diminished the already declining coal market, while the fall off in travel and transportation has radically impacted oil prices.

On April 20, a barrel of oil traded for a loss for the first time ever when demand fell so low that the cost storing oil exceeded its sale price. While the price of a barrel of oil, the world’s most traded commodity, has since improved, as of October 1st, the U.S. stock index for domestic oil companies remains down 57% in 2020. Similarly, coal consumption in the United States is projected to decline 23% this year. Natural gas remains resilient, with U.S. demand only dropping 2.8% between January and May of 2020. However, much of natural gas’s buoyancy comes at the expense of lower prices. These numbers are dire, especially for coal and oil, two domestic industries already on the decline due to the rise in renewable energy.

Fossil-fuel companies have gone on the offensive. The oil and gas industry is responding to these calamitous figures and grim financials by lobbying state and federal lawmakers for financial bailouts and the relaxation of environmental regulations. The California Independent Petroleum Association, an oil and gas trade group, requested an extension for compliance with an idle well testing plan that would push 100% program compliance from 2025 to 2029. Further, the trade group asked California to scale back on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s plan to increase the staff of the California Energy Management Division, the state agency charged with oversight of oil and gas drilling. In Texas, the Blue Ribbon Task Force on Oil Economic Recovery, created at the behest of the state oil and gas regulatory body and composed of representatives and leaders of Texas’s oil and gas trade groups, recommended the suspension of particular environmental testing and extensions for environmental reporting to the state agency. The Louisiana Oil and Gas Association asked Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards to suspend the state’s collection of severance taxes.

On the national stage, the Independent Petroleum Association of America asked the Chairman of the Federal Reserve to support changes to the Main Street Lending Program, a part of the CARES Act, to expand the eligibility requirements to include many oil and gas producers. The American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, a refiners trade association, called on the Trump administration and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to waive biofuel policies that mandate the blending of renewable corn-derived ethanol in petroleum refining. The American Petroleum Institute also reached out to the Trump administration seeking the waiver of record keeping and training compliance.

Not to be left behind, the coal industry ramped up its lobbying as well. In an opinion piece, the CEO of America’s Power, a coal trade group extolled the virtues of the fleet of coal power plants and their necessity in the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. The National Mining Congress, the coal industry’s lobbying arm, sent a letter to the Trump administration and Congressional leaders asking for an end to the industry’s requirements to pay into funds for black lung disease and polluted mine clean-up

These lobbying efforts are being met with varied levels of success. In a move that garnered criticism from the Government Accountability Office, the Department of the Interior through the Bureau of Land Management cut royalties on oil and gas wells leased by the federal government, saving the industry $4.5 million. The EPA scaled back enforcement of pollution rules, instead relying on companies to monitor themselves. The Governors of Texas, Utah, Oklahoma, and Wyoming sent a letter asking the EPA to waive the biofuel blending regulations in support of the refiners trade group. In September, the EPA denied the request. The Governor of Louisiana agreed to delay the collection of the severance tax, a revenue source for the state that can normally bring in $40 million per month. The Louisiana state legislature later voted to reduce the severance tax on oil and gas from 12.5% to 8.5% for the next eight years. The EPA finalized a rule that it is not “appropriate and necessary” to regulate certain hazardous air pollutants, including mercury, emitted from coil and oil fired power plants.

It is difficult to discern what impact these industry efforts and resulting government actions will have in the long term. The financial measures may have propped up an industry that otherwise would have suffered permanent damage and bankruptcies without the influx of relief and capital. However, environmental groups are more concerned with the regulatory rollbacks. For example, after the EPA chose to allow companies to self-monitor pollution, there was a year-over-year decline of 40% in air emissions tests at industrial facilities and over 16,500 facilities did not submit required water quality reports. The ramifications of the state and federal acquiescence to the fossil-fuel industry’s requested regulatory non-compliance may end up costing the American tax payers millions of dollars, causing irreparable immediate harm to the environment, and delaying critical action needed to mitigate anthropogenic climate change.


A Cold-Blooded Cure: How COVID-19 Could Decimate Already Fragile Shark Populations

Emily Kennedy, MJLST Staffer

Movies like Jaws, Deep Blue Sea, and The Meg demonstrate that fear of sharks is commonplace. In reality, shark attacks are rare, and such incidents have even decreased during the COVID-19 pandemic with fewer people enjoying the surf and sand. Despite their bad, Hollywood-driven reputation sharks play a vital role in the ocean ecosystem. Sharks are apex predators and regulate the ocean ecosystem by balancing the numbers and species of fish lower in the food chain. There are over 500 species of sharks in the world’s oceans and 143 of those species are threatened, meaning that they are listed as critically endangered, endangered, or vulnerable. Sharks are particularly vulnerable because they grow slowly, mature later than other species, and have relatively few offspring. Shark populations are already threatened by ocean fishing practices, climate change, ocean pollution, and the harvesting of sharks for their fins. Sharks now face a new human-imposed threat: COVID-19.

While sharks cannot contract the COVID-19 virus, the oil in their livers, known as squalene, is used in the manufacture of vaccines, including COVID-19 vaccines currently being developed. Shark squalene is harvested via a process known as “livering,” in which sharks are killed for their livers and thrown back into the ocean to die after having their livers removed. The shark squalene is used in adjuvants, ingredients in vaccines that prompt a stronger immune response, and has been used in U.S. flu vaccines since 2016. Approximately 3 million sharks are killed every year to supply squalene for vaccines and cosmetic products, and this number will only increase if a COVID-19 vaccine that uses shark squalene gains widespread use. One non-profit estimates that the demand for COVID-19 vaccines could result in the harvest of over half a million sharks.

Sharks, like many other marine species, are uniquely unprotected by the law. It is easier to protect stationary land animals using the laws of the countries in which their habitats are located. However, ocean habitats largely ungoverned by the laws of any one country. Further, migratory marine species such as sharks may travel through the waters of multiple countries. This makes it difficult to enact and enforce laws that adequately protect sharks. In the United States, the Lacey Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act govern shark importation and harvesting practices. One area of shark conservation that has gotten attention in recent years is the removal of shark fins for foods that are considered delicacies in some countries. The Shark Conservation Act was passed in the United States in response to the crisis caused by shark finning practices, in addition to the laws that several states had in place banning the practice. The harvest of shark squalene has not garnered as much attention as of yet, and there are no United States laws enacted to specifically address livering.

Internationally, the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) and the International Plan of Action for the Conservation and Management of Sharks (IPOA) are voluntary, nonbinding programs. Many of the primary shark harvesting nations have not signed onto CMS. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) is binding, but there are loopholes and only 13 shark species are listed. In addition to these international programs, some countries have voluntarily created shark sanctuaries.

Nations that have refused to agree to voluntary conservation efforts, that circumvent existing international regulations, and lack sanctuaries leave fragile shark species unprotected and under threat. The squalene harvesting industry in particular lacks transparency and adequate regulations, and reports indicate that protected and endangered shark species end up as collateral damage in the harvesting process. A wide array of regional and international interventions may be necessary to provide sharks with the conservation protections they so desperately need.

Research and development of medical cures and treatments for humans often comes with animal casualties, but research to development of the COVID-19 vaccine can be conducted in a way that minimizes those casualties. There is already some financial support for non-animal research approaches and squalene can also be derived and synthesized from non-animal sources. Shark Allies, the conservation group that created a Change.org petition that now has over 70,000 signatures, suggests that non-shark sources of squalene be used in the vaccine instead, such as yeast, bacteria, sugarcane, and olive oil. These non-animal adjuvant sources are more expensive and take longer to produce, but the future of our oceans may depend on such alternative methods that do not rely on “the overexploitation of a key component of the marine environment.”


Turning the Sky Orange and the Lights Off: West Coast Wildfires Diminish Solar Power Generation

Isaac Foote, MJLST Staffer

On September 9th, 2020 social media feeds were taken over by images of the sky above San Francisco.  As if it was a scene out of Bladerunner 2049, the sky turned a remarkable shade of orange due to smoke from forest fires raging across the West Coast. The fires have had a devastating effect on the region; they have burned over five million acres of forest, forced over 500,000 people to evacuate their homes, and killed over 30 people. Further, the combustion of millions of trees has threatened air quality across the United States and has released over 83 million tons of CO2 emissions into the atmosphere. This is more CO2 than power plants in both California and Oregon release in a typical year and is another example of how climate change perpetuates itself.

In addition to CO2, when forests burn they also spew incredible amounts of soot (another name for black carbon) into the atmosphere. This soot can then join together with water vapor to create pyrocumulonimbus clouds in the stratosphere which, in turn, are very effective at absorbing light from the sun. Because carbon absorbs more blue light than red light, these soot clouds caused the ominous coloration of the sky above San Francisco on September 9th.

While most of the focus on forest fire smoke has (rightfully) been around its potential health effects, the absorption effect mentioned above can also have a significant impact on solar power installations. At a micro scale, the impact of forest fire smoke can be intense. One small scale solar installation in Cupertino, California saw a 95% reduction in energy generation on September 9th. Outside of California, a Utah study demonstrated that a single forest fire within 150 miles of a solar array reduced generation by 12.5% over a three day period following the start of the fire.

At the systemic level, California Independent System Operator (California ISO) reported that at times on September 10th statewide solar generation was reduced by ⅓ compared to typical summer levels. While this did not set off rolling blackouts (as California ISO was forced to implement in mid-August), a 33% shock to generation is a worrying sign for the future. After all, this wave of wildfires already resulted in significant strain on the California transmission system independent of solar disruption. California has a 100% clean energy generation target for 2045 (SB 100 (de León, 2018)) and projections estimate solar will need to constitute a large percentage of California’s energy production to meet this goal. While energy planners factor the instability of solar generation into forecasts of energy production, typical state-wide drops of this magnitude usually occur in winter, when energy demand is reduced due to lower temperatures. With the increased prevalence and intensity of forest fires, California grid operators must be wary of sudden smoke-related drops going into the future, especially during the hot and dry weather that corresponds with both forest fires and high energy usage.

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, “[a] worst-case wildfire scenario could reduce annual solar-energy production from affected installations by as much as 2%.While this impact may seem small on the scale of the energy system, some back of the envelope math estimates this worst-case scenario would reduce California’s annual solar production by 569 gigawatt-hours or $94,340,000 in retail sales at current production levels. This calculation is not even considering additional maintenance costs and efficiency reductions that analysts worry may be necessary if soot settles onto solar panels after leaving the atmosphere.

Of course, none of this is to argue against the increased adoption of solar generation in California. In fact, rapidly moving from a fossil fuel based economy to one based on renewable energy is the most important step in preventing future large forest fires as “the link between climate change and bigger fires is inextricable.” Additionally, advocates of distributed solar argue that increased residential solar adoption may help mitigate the stresses that forest fires place on the electric grid. Instead, this should be treated as another example of the costs of climate change and, consequently, fossil fuel use. Even with aggressive reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, forest fires will continue in the American West and soot will continue to harm solar efficiency. The best solution is for grid operators (like California ISO) and government planners (like the California Energy Commission) to understand the risks forest fires pose to solar generation and factor that into their long term (like the Annual Planning Renewable Net Short) and short term planning processes.


COVID-19: Substantiating the Impacts of Environmental Racism

Jessamine De Ocampo, MJLST Staffer

The Coronavirus (COVID-19) Pandemic is highlighting the numerous socio-economic inequalities in America. Because of these inequalities minorities are dying at disproportionally high rates. In addition to various barriers to health care, minority communities are inequitably exposed to hazardous environmental conditions that may end up affecting their long-term health. Under-served communities, including communities of color and the poor, are disproportionately impacted by environmental problems. Under-served communities historically lack the political power to prevent new sources of pollution and eradicate existing ones. As a result, generations of inequity and unjust systems have placed certain communities at higher risk than others. For example, in Harris County, Texas, 40 percent of those who died from COVID-19 were African-American, though African-American’s accounted for only 20 percent of the county’s population. Similar COVID-19 fatality patterns can be seen in Georgia,  Detroit, Michigan, Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Chicago, Illinois. Environmental justice advocates have long argued that environmental racism is killing their communities, but COVID-19 brings new light into just how detrimental the severity of environmental racism can be.

Environmental justice advocates seek to shield low-income and minority communities from the worst impacts of air pollution and environmental degradation. A recent Harvard study analyzed thousands of US counties in order to find a link between air pollution and COVID-19 fatalities. The study reflects that coal plants, waste incinerators, refineries, landfills, mines, smelting plants, and other sites, often located in communities of color, have long emitted toxic pollutants into the water and particulate matter into the air, increasing air pollution which in turn leads to various pulmonary and cardiovascular diseases. These chronic health issues increase chances of contracting severe cases of COVID-19.

In Louisiana, between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, exists an industrial corridor stretching about 85 miles, containing more than 140 chemical factories and oil refineries. This area is commonly known as Cancer Alley. These chemical factories and oil refineries release large amounts of particulate matter, which has been listed as a known carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Cancer Alley is one of the most polluted places in America, and someone has died from cancer in almost every household in the area. In the community of Reserve, a predominantly African-American working class neighborhood nestled in the middle of Cancer Alley, the risk of cancer from air toxicity is 50 times the national average. Now, Cancer Alley has one of the highest COVID-19 death rates in the country.

Similarly, Native American Tribes have long held the burden of having their lands used for toxic dumping sites. Environmental injustice, among other facts, has led to varying risks of illness on Indian lands. Now, they are bracing for the worst impacts of COVID. Kevin Allis, chief executive of the National Congress of American Indians stated “When you look at the health disparities in Indian Country — high rates of diabetes, cancer, heart disease, asthma and then you combine that with the overcrowded housing situation where you have a lot of people in homes with an elder population who may be exposed or carriers — this could be like a wildfire on a reservation and get out of control in a heartbeat.” And then, there are the residents of Oakland, California where mainly low-income African American and Latino residents are exposed to a disproportionate amount of airborne toxins as compared to the rest of the surrounding Alameda County. East and West Oakland residents have higher rates of asthma, strokes and congestive heart failures and during the COVID pandemic, these communities are the hardest hit in Alameda County.

Robert Bullard, who some consider the “father of environmental justice” stated in a recent interview:

When you have poverty, lack of access to health care, [high rates of] uninsured, many who have no private automobiles and are dependent on the buses and public transportation, and neighborhoods in pollution sacrifice zones you’re going to get people who are vulnerable. The coronavirus is basically taking advantage of those vulnerabilities, and you’re seeing it play out in the deaths.

While the environmental movement has taken off in recent years with the growing certainty of climate change, environmental justice cases have almost slipped through the cracks. As organizations begin to plan for a new world shaped by lessons learned during the pandemic, the influence the environment has on health, and the disproportionate burden on minority communities, needs to bear a greater weight in our political discourse. As former democratic primary candidate and current Vermont Senator, Bernie Sanders stated, “access to a clean and healthy environment is a fundamental right of citizenship. To deny such rights constitutes an environmental injustice that should never be tolerated.” The death rates and disproportionate effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on minority groups only compounds the evidence that unhealthy environments are detrimental to society/humanity. In addition to monitoring the biological environmental consequences of our societies, we also need to be considering the social consequences.


A Rising Tool in International Climate Litigation: The Right to Life

Jessamine De Ocampo, MJLST Staffer

There has been a growing national and international trend placing environmental rights and environmental justice under the umbrella of human rights. The empirical data around climate change is vastly shaping the international human rights arena, allowing environmental rights to be considered and litigated amongst human rights. As of 2019, air pollution is estimated to have resulted in and continues to result in 7 million yearly premature deaths worldwide; of which 600,000 are children under the age of 5. Entire communities, particularly island nations, are being forced to relocate due to rising sea levels while climate variability and changing weather is resulting in severe food crises threatening food security.

Climate and environmental issues have been actively permeating the international human rights field. The UN Human Right Council entered a mandate for an investigation into the correlation between human rights and environmental rights, the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights commissioned their first special rapporteur on Economic, Social, Cultural and Environmental Rights, and the UN Human Rights Committee in a General Comment, recognized the relevance of climate issues in the context of the right to life. The Right to Life is a universally recognized fundamental human right. While it can be found in a multitude of international and regional doctrines, it is primarily referenced in relation to Article 3 of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The right to life doctrine essentially states that every person has a right, protected by law, to live.

In the international courts, climate litigation cases have been decided under the Right to Life doctrine with growing success. A Pakistani farmer sued his country for failing to implement environmental legislation and won; a family of rural workers sued their home country of Paraguay for failing to protect them from severe environmental contamination in which the court held “the link between environmental protection and human rights is ‘undeniable.’ ” Finally, in December 2019, the Dutch Supreme Court held that the Dutch government must reduce emissions immediately in line with its human rights obligations.

As climate change and environmental justice concerns continue to pose an ever-growing multi-layered effect on our societies, these new tools may prove to be crucial in implementing liability. As the link tying climate change and human rights becomes stronger, individuals have more than before to establish a claim. The right to life doctrine can, and should, be used to enforce government liability for failing to regulate the harmful effects of climate change.


Controversial Community Solar Garden Program is a Target of Minnesota’s 2019 Legislative Session

Hannah Payne, MJLST Staffer 

In 2013, Minnesota’s legislature opened the way for certain solar projects with the passage of the Community Solar Garden Program. The program requires Xcel Energy to purchase the energy created by Community Solar Gardens (“CSGs”) that are under a certain generation capacity. CSGs represent a middle ground between residential rooftop solar and large-scale, utility-owned solar. The idea is that medium-sized solar arrays are built in or near communities by developers, local residents buy subscriptions, and then the utility buys the energy from the array and credits the resident subscribers’ accounts. Solar developers sell subscriptions by highlighting the chance to save money and help the environment.

CSGs have been controversial since the inception of the program. Along with the significant growth of CSGs in Minnesota have come concerns about the sales practices of developers, who have been accused of misrepresenting the certainty of profit or stage of project development. The Attorney General warns consumers to “make sure they fully understand a subscription agreement and carefully consider whether they are willing to commit to its terms.” Opponents also decry that the majority of the capacity – 90% – of CSGs is purchased by commercial and other non-residential customers, undercutting the idealistic image of CSGs bringing renewable energy tangibly closer to communities. However, CSG advocates point out that the vast number of subscribers – 92% – are actually residential; they just use less energy than commercial customers.

At the heart of the controversy is the price issue. Opponents of the CSG program, including Xcel, say that it is far cheaper to produce solar energy in a large-scale setting. Xcel recently committed to going 100% carbon-free by 2050, and is likely focused on building renewable capacity efficiently. On the other side, proponents claim that Xcel’s lack of tolerance for competition has resulted in the undervaluation of CSGs because the social benefits and avoided costs have been ignored.

In any case, the CSG program looks poised to undergo change this year; several CSG bills have been introduced in the legislature. Senator Mike Goggin, a nuclear plant manager at Xcel, has proposed total repeal of the CSG program. Another bill would require Public Utilities Commission approval of CSG projects and cap the amount of capacity that may be built within the program annually at 25 Megawatts (there is currently no limit). Other proposals aim to improve developer sales practices, one listing detailed disclosures to be required in promotional materials, another calling for the state’s Clean Energy Resource Team partnership to develop a “disclosure checklist” for developers. Yet another bill would fund a study of “economic benefits to farmers” to investigate if the CSG program may be tweaked to be more farmer-friendly.

Minnesota is a national leader when it comes to CSGs; many will be watching to see how the legislation develops. As Xcel and others get more serious about renewable energy, conversations and controversies around renewables can only be expected to increase. Watching a debate like this unfold is a great way to keep a finger on the pulse of the energy world in this exciting time.


Seasteading

Will Dooling, MJLST Staffer

This February, students at the University of Minnesota fought record snowfalls and low temperatures. A lot of us are dreaming of running away to a tropical island somewhere, or buying one and starting our own country. Today, we explore “seasteading,” the practice of founding a sovereign nation on the high seas, usually on a floating platform, or a remote private island.

Sovereign nations have already claimed every large island, and every part of the ocean even remotely near shore. As such, seasteading requires a would-be nation-builder to either construct a new island on a deep ocean seamount or build a floating platform from scratch. Both are remarkably challenging and costly feats of engineering. Even very generous estimates put the cost of a freestanding deep-sea platform capable of supporting a few residents at $50 million. The other challenge, of course, is supplying the community’s inhabitants with food, water, and electricity. While a seasteader could try imaginative solutions ranging from self-sufficient algae farms to enormous solar-powered desalination systems, the practical startup cost of such an operation is utterly enormous.

The attraction is obvious, though, largely thanks to the persistent myth that once safely in international waters on a floating platform or a private island, no laws will apply. It is certainly true that Article 2 of the 1958 UN Convention on the High Seas prohibits any signatory from claiming sovereignty over the high seas, and Article 57 of the UN Convention on the Laws of the Sea limits the exclusive economic zone of any nation (the region of the sea over which that nation has total sovereign control) to no more than “200 nautical miles from the baselines from which the breadth of the territorial sea is measured.” However, these limitations have never seriously prevented the United States, for example, from carrying out law enforcement activities to prevent “acts done outside a geographic jurisdiction, but which produce detrimental effects within it[.]” United States v. Smith, 680 F.2d 255, 258 (1st Cir. 1982). This means that the most tempting uses of a seastead—an offshore casino, a drug den, or a tax haven—are unworkable. One of the only law review articles to seriously examine seasteading puts it bluntly: “Given the United States’ penchant for exercising jurisdiction thousands of miles from its coastlines, not even the territorial seas of other nations may be sufficient to protect a seastead from American jurisdiction.”

A few innovative souls have tried semi-serious attempts to start a sovereign nation on the high seas, but none have quite succeeded. In the 1970s, real estate tycoon Michael Oliver spent millions of dollars attempting to found a sovereign state on a cluster of reefs in the South Pacific, about 250 miles from the island nation of Tonga. He dubbed his project the “Republic of Minerva.” Oliver created his own currency, flag, and declaration of independence from Tonga, but his project ultimately failed when Tongan king Taufa’ahau Tupou, and a construction crew, arrived and dissembled Oliver’s early construction work on the reefs. Oliver then abandoned the project.

Similarly, from 1976 to 2010, pirate radio broadcaster Paddy Roy Bates made periodic attempts to claim a World War II era anti-aircraft platform situated in the North Sea as a sovereign nation. Sealand, like the Republic of Minerva, has its own currency, constitution, and even its own national anthem. Sealand also sells titles of nobility. British pop star Ed Sheeran, for example, is a Baron of Sealand. Unlike the Republic of Minerva, Sealand is still going strong, and purportedly celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2017, but only two people live there permanently.

Currently, the largest promoter of seasteading is the libertarian-aligned Seasteading institute, an organization that hopes to build utopian communities of artificial islands set in international waters, though critics charge that the project is largely an attempt to bypass regulation (and taxation) that its members find inconvenient. In 2017, the government of French Polynesia briefly flirted with the idea of allowing the Seasteading Institute to establish an experimental economic seazone in their territorial waters, though the deal ultimately seems to have fallen through.

While no one has successfully gotten a self-sufficient seasteading community afloat, the dream is completely understandable. Once we get better at deep-water construction and remote power generation, it may actually be possible. Until then, it remains a dream, though one that is relatable and understandable in the depths of a Minnesota winter, at least until Tonga invades.


Renewable Energy vs. National Parks

By: Bethany Anderson

That’s what happened in Animal Welfare Institute v. Beech Ridge Energy LLC, where a wind energy facility was curtailed because it stood in the migration pathway of an endangered species—Indiana bats. The court allowed the facility to operate, but with significant constraints. For instance, though construction on those turbines already under construction could continue, Beech Ridge could operate only after it applied for and obtained an Incidental Take Permit (“ITP”), which would immunize Beech Ridge from certain ESA penalties for killing and injuring bats. Moreover, construction of additional turbines was conditioned on obtaining an ITP. Additionally, the Court ordered the Fish and Wildlife Service (“FWS”) to determine when Beech Ridge could actually operate after Beech Ridge obtained an ITP, taking into account the migration and hibernation patterns of the bats (see this report for a brief discussion on the aftermath of the Beech Ridge case).

In a similar energy against nature context, significant outcry (see this article) over oil and gas drilling in and around national parks arose in the last year. The Trump Administration opened up more public lands for mineral leasing, and directed agencies to revise or rescind rules that burden domestic energy development. Environmental groups lamented the endangerment of pristine public lands, darkness of wilderness night skies, quiet of natural soundscapes, and tech- and industry-free experiences many visitors crave. These are all legitimate concerns because the experiences, sounds, and sights preserved in our national parklands are preserved relatively unspoiled only in these limited corners of the country. The groups’ sentiment seems to be “let’s just drill somewhere else, okay? It’s a big country. Preservation uses claim few acres in the scheme of things.”

The recent outcry misses, however, concern over greener energy projects that also threaten wilderness and nature values. Like in Beech Ridge, there are two sometimes competing goals here. Renewables serve climate change goals, displacing carbon-emitting energy sources like coal, natural gas, and oil. National parklands preserve land and culture in their natural and historical state. What happens when green energy development requires a huge expanse of flat land exposed to sun year round? A solar facility one mile from Mojave National Preserve presents an example. Is such a land use plan any less invasive than drilling? Maybe it’s quieter and lower to the ground, and maybe it serves a goal that those in the nature fight can get behind better than oil and gas drilling. In this instance, the solar facility still a mile away and does not in any way reach into the park through something comparable to directional drilling. But the facility uses land that was previously untouched and is still potentially visible from parks. As another example, what happens when the only way to get offshore wind online is to construct a high-voltage transmission line across a historic park? Developers say alternative energy sources that replace closing coal plants require a transmission line crossing a historic trail. Opponents say the line undermines the historic atmosphere of the trail and surrounding park area, and may open the floodgates to more industrialization in historic and pristine areas. In the same way as oil and gas drilling, these developments undermine some of the wilderness and historic values park advocates fight for.

So how do we balance these seemingly competing values? National parks are to be preserved unimpaired for the enjoyment of present and future generations. That mandate may conflict with climate change-combatting green energy tech seeking the most effective locations for new facilities.

The 9B regulations (“regulations”) that govern nonfederal oil and gas rights in and around national parks are a framework from which to balance renewables with the preservation mandate. The regulations require a plan of operations, plans in case of spills or other emergencies, a security bond in case of harm to park resources, and eventual restoration of the land, returning it as close to its original status as possible after operations conclude. Renewables are likely more permanent than an oil or gas well, so space and distance restrictions will need to be stricter. But a similar plan of operations, with mitigation strategies and emergency contingencies, is a good start, especially since the regulations are already in place in one piece of the energy sector. As energy technology develops, it constantly brings novel challenges into the existing legal context. The 9B regulations provide a starting point for the ever-growing green energy versus preservation debate.