On May 7, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS or Service) under the new Biden administration published a proposed rule to revoke a final rule issued during the final weeks of the Trump administration, 86 Fed. Reg. 1134 (Jan. 7, 2021) (January 7 rule), which excluded incidental take from the prohibition against take under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA or Act). 86 Fed. Reg. 24,573 (May 7, 2021) (Proposed Rule). This proposal is the latest development in a series of efforts by recent presidential administrations to implement competing interpretations of the MBTA, as we have reported in previous articles. If USFWS revokes the January 7 rule as proposed, the regulated community will once again face uncertainty regarding its exposure to criminal enforcement under the MBTA for unintentional take of protected birds associated with a wide range of productive activities. Notably this could include the operation of wind turbines, an activity that the current administration otherwise presumably wants to encourage as part of its effort to expand the use of renewable energy to address climate change.
Last month, EPA announced a planned update of the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) reporting program, incorporating several additions. The updates would expand the TRI program by adding new chemicals, facilities, and tools to increase accessibility of data. The goal, according to EPA’s statement, is “to advance Environmental Justice, improve transparency, and increase access to environmental information.”
The Biden Administration’s enforcement priorities began to take shape last week, as the US Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) enforcement arm issued a pair of memoranda encouraging the use of certain tools in civil enforcement and settlements and for prioritizing enforcement efforts in environmental justice communities. Lawrence E. Starfield, a senior career EPA official currently serving as Acting Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance (OECA), issued both memoranda. The memos demonstrate a concrete shift in EPA’s enforcement philosophy—doubling down on Next Generation or “NextGen” compliance tools and Supplemental Environmental Projects (SEPs), and focusing on environmental justice—under the new administration. The specific ways in which EPA enforcement staff will carry out these policies are not yet known and will develop over time, but it is important for regulated entities to be aware of, and prepared for, EPA’s use of NextGen compliance tools and focus on strengthening enforcement in environmental justice communities.
Waterfront development in Massachusetts has a new problem. In particular, projects that rely on a municipality’s approved municipal harbor plan and a corresponding building height exemption from what the Massachusetts waterfront development law otherwise requires will likely be blocked, at least for now. The impact is not limited to Boston, as municipal harbor plans reach deep into waterfront zoning and development statewide.
The topic of infrastructure has been front and center in recent weeks, following the Biden Administration’s unveiling of the American Jobs Plan, a massive investment plan to “Build Back Better” the country’s infrastructure. A critical infrastructure component is water systems—drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater—many of which have deteriorated with age and lack of funding. The renewed focus on infrastructure proposes to funnel massive investment into upgrading the nation’s water systems, under the American Jobs Plan and a slate of bills now before Congress. We take a look at what the new infrastructure developments could mean for water systems.
As we previously reported, for the first time in over 25 years, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has approved the formal transfer of Clean Water Act (CWA) section 404 permitting authority to a state. On December 22, 2020, the State of Florida – only the third state to receive such approval – “assumed” 404 permitting authority from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) in certain waters of the United States (WOTUS). Since that time, CWA section 404 permit applicants have faced a number of questions about the scope and process of assumed 404 permitting. Five of the top questions are listed below, followed by their answers.
Last week, among many actions taken by the Biden-Harris Administration on Earth Day 2021, one may have flown under the proverbial radar, though it does have significant legal implications for greenhouse gas regulation and the whole-of-government(s) approach: the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) notice proposing to repeal the preemption portions of NHTSA’s 2019 rule entitled “The Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient (SAFE) Vehicles Rule Part One: One National Program,” 84 Fed. Reg. 51,310 (Sept. 27, 2019) (SAFE I Rule). NHTSA, “Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) Preemption; Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (signed Apr. 24, 2021) (Proposed Rule).
On Earth Day, as expected, the Biden-Harris Administration continued its efforts to fulfill campaign commitments on climate change. The big announcement came on what is called the “Nationally Determined Contribution” or NDC. The Administration announced that the United States will aim to cut its greenhouse gas emissions from 2005 levels by 50% by 2030. This reflects an increased commitment from the United States’ prior commitment of cutting emissions by 25% from 2005 levels by 2025.
In a recent post (“Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance: What are the Risks, Really?”), we discussed the various risks, trending issues, and emerging concerns arising from environmental, social, and corporate governance (“ESG”). One key takeaway is that ESG-related activity at the federal government is just getting started and that agencies have already begun devoting substantial resources to ESG issues, like the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s recently-announced Climate and ESG task force to “develop initiatives to proactively identify ESG-related misconduct.”
In Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards et al. v. Red River Coal Co., Inc., 2021 WL 1182464 (4th Cir. Mar. 30, 2021), a unanimous Fourth Circuit panel recently affirmed a district court holding that an operator cannot be held liable under the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (Surface Mining Act) for a discharge that is otherwise shielded from liability by the Clean Water Act (CWA). The court’s opinion expressly relied on the Sixth Circuit’s decision in Sierra Club v. ICG Hazard, LLC, 781 F.3d 281 (6th Cir. 2015), which reached the same conclusion.