Tag: cost-benefit analysis

It’s Raining Cert Petitions!: Last Term’s Biggest Supreme Court News

Supreme CourtBy Richard Lazarus — Sep. 11, 2014 at 9:05 a.m.

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2014 issue of The Environmental Forum. The Environmental Law Institute has graciously allowed the Harvard Environmental Law Review Blog to republish the piece.

The biggest environmental law news from the Supreme Court last term may well not have been the Court’s rulings in two high profile Clean Air Act cases. To be sure, both EPA v. EME Homer City Generation and Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA were true blockbusters. EME Homer, which upheld EPA’s ambitious rulemaking to combat interstate air pollution, was plainly a huge victory for the Environmental Protection Agency.

But, potentially more important, yet largely unnoticed and unreported, were the Court’s repeated denials last spring of a series of petitions filed by business interests seeking the Court’s review of a series of adverse appellate rulings. At one point the deluge of such petitions led one lawyer, who frequently represents environmental groups, to remark gamely, “It’s raining cert petitions!”

The reason for the onslaught is clear. The business community has in recent years enjoyed considerable success in persuading the justices to grant review in environmental cases that otherwise seemed to lack the obvious trappings of a cert-worthy case, lacking clear conflicts in the federal courts of appeals. Cases in which the potential for further agency action made unclear the actual, practical significance of the appellate court’s ruling. And even cases in which the solicitor general, after being invited by the High Court to express its views concerning whether review was warranted, recommended against.

In short, the Court often appeared to be operating on a hair trigger in considering business claims that the lower courts had endorsed overreaching of federal environmental laws. But this spring, the Court repeatedly said no, leaving industry lawyers a bit baffled by the Court’s sudden betrayal.

Four times business interests embraced what had heretofore been a winning strategy. They hired the best Supreme Court lawyers — the ones who know the Court best, and even more important, the ones the justices and their law clerks know the best and therefore might be more likely to give weight to their views. Former Solicitor General Paul Clement. Sidley & Austin’s Peter Keisler. And Stanford law professor and formal appellate judge Mike McConnell. The business petitioners recruited legions of amicus curiae to file briefs in support of the Court’s granting review. These briefs would invariably describe the “crippling,” “severe,” “intolerable,” “deleterious,” “crushing,” and “staggering” consequences to the nation’s economy if the Court left standing these adverse lower court rulings.

No one was better, however, than the Chamber of Commerce in describing the economic havoc and destruction that would occur absent the Court’s review. In each of the successive cases, the chamber’s predictions grew more dire.

Although candidly acknowledging that it would “difficult to overstate the importance” of the lower court’s ruling for business, the chamber did not shy away from doing its best to do just that. It described in one case how the “crippling uncertainty and costs” would “exacerbat[e]” existing energy shortages” because “power plants faced with a new onslaught of tort liability may choose to cease operations.” In another, the lower court’s ruling “will undermine the proper functioning of the nation’s integrated national market in transportation fuels.”

Not to be outdone by its competing predictions of economic cataclysm, the chamber contended in yet another case that a Second Circuit decision “would transform every public drinking water supply in this country — indeed every future supply — into a ready-made multi-million-dollar lawsuit.” It “would open the floodgates to claims against virtually every manner of human enterprise” and the “consequences could extend to all corners of our economy.”

Finally, the chamber described the “staggering” economic consequences of the D.C. Circuit’s upholding of EPA’s authority to override a Clean Water Act permit previously issued by the Army Corps of Engineers. That ruling placed at risk “over $220 billion of investment annually,” that in turn the chamber calculated generated $660 billion of downstream economic activity, or almost four percent of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product.

The Court nonetheless denied review all four times: first in Mingo Logan Coal Co. v. EPA in March; then Exxon v. City of New York in April, and twice in June, Gen-On Power Midwest v. Bell, at the beginning of the month, and finally in Rocky Mountain Farmers Union v. Corey, just before adjourning for the summer. No justice dissented.

There is, of course, a useful lesson here. Zealous advocacy is to be expected. But exaggerated advocacy is counterproductive, especially in the High Court when, by spring time, the justices’ law clerks are more seasoned and can more readily tell the difference between the two.

And, most happily, the chamber’s prophecies have not (yet) borne out. Whew!

 

Richard Lazarus is the Howard J. and Katherine W. Aibel Professor of Law at Harvard University.

A New Cost of Cost-Benefit Analysis?

LAND_arches_UT_alecharrisBy Gabriel DalyNov. 7, 2013 at 12:10pm

If an agency uses cost-benefit analysis (CBA) to inform its decision-making, what costs and what benefits should it consider? A case currently before the D.C. Circuit, White Stallion Energy Center, LLC v. EPA,[1] raises this issue. White Stallion suggests a tension between the incentives created by Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) review and those created by judicial review, such that an agency seeking to insulate itself from review from within the administration may end up exposing itself to increased risk of losing upon external (judicial) review.

White Stallion concerns one of the most important and expensive rules the EPA has ever promulgated: a regulation under Section 112(n)(1)(A) of the Clean Air Act (CAA) that requires oil- and gas-fired power plants to reduce their emissions of mercury and other hazardous air pollutants. The benefits of the regulation are staggering: monetized benefits of $37 billion to $90 billion, plus non-monetized benefits above and beyond that range.[2] But the costs are also significant – approximately $9.6 billion per year. Among the issues before the court is whether the statute requires EPA to consider these costs, as industry challengers to the rule contend. EPA argues that Section 112(n)(1)(A) – which permits it to promulgate regulations that are “appropriate and necessary” to address hazards to public health posed by oil- and gas-fired power plants – does not require the agency to take costs into account.

Regardless of how the D.C. Circuit resolves that question, the way in which EPA did consider costs raises an interesting issue with broad implications. EPA did tabulate costs and benefits in its rulemaking, not because it believed the CAA required it to do so, but because Executive Order 13,563 requires all agencies (to the extent permitted by law) to adopt regulations “only upon a reasoned determination that [their] benefits justify [their] costs.” EPA’s use of CBA in this context may be seen as an example of what Jennifer Nou has identified as agency self-insulation:[3] that is, an attempt to insulate the agency’s rule against review from within the administration at OIRA.[4] The tension, however, is that, in insulating itself from review from within the administration – by demonstrating very positive CBA scores – EPA may have exposed itself to liability in external review.

Under D.C. Circuit precedent, agency rulemaking will not be invalidated for failure to conduct a CBA if consideration of cost is not required by statute. But if an agency relies on a CBA in making its decision (even if it is not required to conduct a CBA), the agency’s analysis must be reasonable to survive judicial scrutiny.[5] Here, EPA explicitly did not rely on a CBA to make its “appropriate and necessary” finding; so the strength of the CBA will be irrelevant if the court affirms EPA’s legal theory that section 112 does not require consideration of costs. But if the court rejects this theory, EPA might be in real trouble. This is because EPA’s CBA estimated benefits from mercury reductions totaling just $4 million to $6 million. The vast majority of benefits from the regulation come from “co-benefits” due to reductions in particulate matter, PM2.5.[6] EPA’s decision to regulate oil- and coal-fired power plants was based on health effects caused by hazardous air pollutants, under a provision of the CAA specifically focused on hazardous pollutants.[7] PM2.5 is not a hazardous pollutant.[8] Thus, there is an argument that EPA’s consideration of the benefits of PM2.5 reduction was arbitrary and capricious because these benefits are statutorily irrelevant for the purposes of Section 112.[9]

In this case, the tension between intra-administration review and judicial review of an agency’s CBA will likely remain below the surface. EPA quite explicitly declined to rely on its CBA to justify its “appropriate and necessary” determination, and it has a very strong argument that this determination should be upheld under Chevron. But even if EPA is vindicated in the D.C. Circuit, the underlying tension between intra-administration and judicial review is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon.

This is because the tension between intra-administrative and judicial review highlights a larger problem: the shortcomings of our current environmental laws. Since the Reagan Administration, cost-benefit analysis has gained an increasingly prominent role in agency decisionmaking, and courts (the D.C. Circuit in particular) are increasingly likely to read cost-benefit balancing into statutes.

But the environmental laws have not been revised to reflect these policy choices.[10] Agencies, left trying to make sense of laws that have not been revised in decades, are left in limbo. To pass muster at OIRA, an agency must justify its decisionmaking in terms of costs and benefits. In a case like this one, where the costs are very significant but the benefits are even greater, EPA has every incentive to insulate its rule with a CBA highlighting those great benefits. But reliance on a CBA of this kind may create a risk that a court will invalidate the rule as arbitrary and capricious.


[1] No. 12-1100 (D.C. Cir.).
[2] 77 Fed. Reg. 9306 tbl.2.
[3] See Jennifer Nou, Agency Self-Insulation Under Presidential Review, 126 Harv. L. Rev. 1755 (2013). Nou suggests a “simple theory”: Under an anti-regulatory president, agencies will submit CBAs of poor quality to increase the costs of review for OIRA, making it less likely that OIRA will reverse the agency. Under a pro-regulatory president, agencies will submit high-quality CBAs to reduce the costs of review for OIRA, making it more likely that OIRA will approve the agency’s rule.  Id. at 1806–07. The agency-OIRA interaction here suggests a complication to Nou’s “simple theory.” The Obama Administration would surely be considered “pro-regulatory,” but EPA might still feel a need to insulate itself because of the sheer magnitude of this rule and its high political saliency.
[4] OIRA is not the only body within the Administration that participates in review, but “OIRA” is often used as convenient shorthand for this review process. See Cass R. Sunstein, The Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs: Myths and Realities, 126 Harv. L. Rev. 1838, 1856 (2013).
[5] See Bus. Roundtable v. SEC, 647 F.3d 1144, 1148–49 (D.C. Cir. 2011) (invalidating agency action as arbitrary and capricious because, inter alia, it “inconsistently and opportunistically framed the costs and benefits” of its rule).
[6] 77 Fed. Reg. 9306, tbl.2.
[7] See 77 Fed. Reg. 9306; CAA § 112.
[8] See Clean Air Act § 112, codified as amended at 42 U.S.C. § 7412(b)(1) (listing hazardous pollutants).
[9] See Motor Vehicle Mfrs. Ass’n of U.S., Inc. v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 463 U.S. 29, 42–44 (1983) (holding that an agency acts arbitrarily when it considers statutorily irrelevant factors in its decision-making).
[10] Cf. Richard J. Lazarus, Congressional Descent: The Demise of Deliberative Democracy in Environmental Law, 94 Geo. L. J. 619, 629–32 (2006) (noting the lack of environmental legislation since 1990, with particular focus on the absence of new laws addressing substantive environmental issues, including climate change).

The Endangered Species Act’s Fall From Grace in the Supreme Court

By J.B. Ruhl

Thirty-five years ago, the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”) had as auspicious a debut in the U.S. Supreme Court as any statute could hope for. In Tennessee Valley Authority v. Hill, a majority of the Court proclaimed that the ESA was intended “to halt and reverse the trend toward species extinction, whatever the cost” and backed up those and other bold words by preventing a nearly completed federal dam from impounding its reservoir because doing so would eliminate the only known (at the time) habitat of a small fish, the now infamous snail darter. To this day, Hill remains actively discussed in judicial opinions, on environmental lawyers’ short list of important cases, a mainstay of law school casebooks, and a lively focus of legal scholarship. As it turns out, however, Hill has become the extreme outlier in the Court’s ESA jurisprudence. In a series of four decisions spaced out from 1992 to 2007, two focusing on standing doctrine and two on statutory substance, the Court has silently but unmistakably eviscerated Hill, thereby knocking the ESA off its pedestal.

This Article is the first to examine the ESA’s remarkable fall from grace in the Court. It does so not only as a measure of where the ESA has traveled in the Court, but also more broadly to examine where environmental values and environmental law fit in the Court’s jurisprudence and what that suggests for the design of environmental law. Part I provides brief overviews of the ESA, the cases, and the Justices’ voting patterns to situate the Court’s four post-Hill decisions in their jurisprudential contexts. The body of the Article then moves through three lessons that Hill’s successors have to offer. Part II uses the ESA’s slow demise as a window into the Court’s environmental values perspective, using what has happened to the ESA to illuminate and evaluate various legal scholars’ theories of how the Court views the natural environment as a jurisprudential context. Part III argues that the driving causal agent behind the ESA’s decline has been the evolution of the statute’s implementation from a novelty in environmental law to a robust regulatory program. The evidence from the ESA’s fall from grace, therefore, is that while the Court has at times seemed apathetic to, confused about, or hostile to the environment, the better explanation for what has happened to the ESA is that the Court is skeptical about environmental law. Part IV thus closes by extracting what can be learned from the history of the ESA in the Court about the design of environmental laws, particularly those aimed at ecosystem protection and biodiversity conservation.

Cite as: J.B. Ruhl, The Endangered Species Act’s Fall From Grace in the Supreme Court, 36 Harv. Envtl. L. Rev. 487 (2012).

[btn link=”http://harvardelr.wpengine.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/Ruhl.pdf” color=”forestGreen” size=”size-l”]View Full Article (PDF)[/btn]

Two Cheers for Feasible Regulation: A Modest Response to Masur and Posner

By David M. Driesen

This Article compares the relative merits of feasibility and cost-benefit based regulation, responding to a recent article by Jonathan Masur and Eric Posner on this topic. Normatively, it shows that the lack of correlation between non-subsistence consumption and welfare supports the argument that regulation should be strict, unless widespread plant shutdowns, which would seriously impact well-being, are involved. It demonstrates that a host of practical defects Masur and Posner find in feasibility analysis would infect cost-benefit analysis as well in light of the importance of cost’s distribution, the feasibility principle respresents a reasonable effort to politically resolve difficult normative issues.

Cite as: David M. Driesen, Two Cheers for Feasible Regulation: A Modest Response to Masur and Posner, 35 Harv. Envtl. L. Rev. 313 (2011).

[btn link=”http://www.law.harvard.edu/students/orgs/elr/vol35_2/Driesen.pdf” color=”forestGreen” size=”size-l”]View Full Article (PDF)[/btn]