Environmental Law

Whisky Is for Drinking, Water Is for Fighting

Poojan Thakrar, MJLST Staffer

The American Southwest often lives in our imagination as an arid environment with tumbleweeds strewn about. This hasn’t been truer in centuries, as the Colorado River is facing its worst drought in 1200 years, in large part because of climate change.[1] The Colorado River is the region’s most important river, providing drinking water to about 40 million people.[2] In June, the federal government gave the seven states[3] that rely on the water two months to draft a water conservation agreement or risk federal intervention. The states blew past that deadline and the DOI’s Bureau of Reclamation imposed cuts to water usage as high as 21%.[4]

The History of the Modern Colorado River Allocation System

In 1922, the Colorado River Compact allocated an annual amount of 15 million acre-feet (maf) evenly between the Upper and Lower Basin states.[5] One acre-foot represents the volume of water that covers one acre in one foot of water and is about the amount of water that a family of four uses annually.[6] However, relying on 15 maf was already problematic; data from the past three centuries showed that the Colorado River has average flows of 13.5 maf, with some years as low as 4.4 maf.[7] 

Moreover, Arizona refused to sign this compact, arguing that water should be allocated amongst individual states instead of between river basins.[8] Tensions flared in 1935 as Arizona moved National Guard troops to the California border in protest of a new dam.[9] Arizona finally ratified the compact in 1944, but the disagreements were far from over.[10] 

Arizona also brought a case to the Supreme Court for a related dispute, asking the Supreme Court to allocate how each basin splits water according to the Boulder Canyon Project Act of 1928.[11] Originally filed in 1952, Arizona v. California was not resolved until a Supreme Court opinion in 1963.[12] In the end, the Supreme Court accepted the recommendations of a court-appointed Special Master, whose findings California disagreed with. Of the 7.5 maf allocated to the Lower River Basin, 4.4 maf was allocated to California, 2.8 maf to Arizona and 0.3 to Nevada.[13] The court affirmed each state’s use of their own tributary waters, which Arizona argued for.[14] The case also affirmed the Secretary of the Interior’s authority under the Boulder Canyon Project Act to allocate water amongst the states irrespective of their agreement to a compact.[15] Ultimately, this was a victory for Arizona. 

Colorado River water use has been less contentious since Arizona v. California. The Upper Basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and New Mexico signed a contract to divide their 7.5 maf amongst themselves without the need for federal intervention.[16] However, because of comparatively less development in these Upper Basin states, they collectively only use 4.4 maf of their allocated 7.5 maf.[17] California has historically enjoyed the excess and has often historically surpassed its own allocation.[18]

Modern Water Allocation

Until this year, the seven Colorado River states have relied on voluntary agreements and cutbacks to manage water allocation. For example, in 2007, the states agreed to rules which decreased the amount of water that can be drawn from reservoirs when levels are low.[19] In 2019, they agreed to Drought Contingency Plans (DCPs) in the face of waning reservoir levels.[20] It was under this new DCP that the Bureau of Reclamation first announced a drought in August of 2021.[21] Later that December, the Lower Basin states were able to come to an agreement regarding the drought declaration to keep more water in Lake Mead, a reservoir on the Colorado.[22]

However, the December 2021 cutbacks were presumably not enough. In June of 2022, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton testified in front of the Senate Energy Committee about the dire situation on the Colorado.[23] She testified that Lake Powell and Lake Mead, both reservoirs on the Colorado, cannot sustain the current level of water deliveries.[24] Commissioner Tounton gave the seven states 60 days to agree how to conserve 2 to 4 maf.[25] 

Underlying this recent situation is the megadrought that the western United States has suffered since 2000.[26] The last 20 years have been the driest two decades in the past 1200 years.[27] The Colorado River states have become remarkably adept at conserving water in that time. For example, the Las Vegas basin’s population has grown by 750,000 in the past 20 years, but its water usage is down 26%.[28] Earlier this year, Los Angeles banned lawn watering to only one day a week, much to the chagrin of Southern California’s most famous residents.[29] 

Commissioner Tounton’s 60 day deadline came and went without an agreement.[30] During a speech on August 15th of this year, Commissioner Tounton mandated that the seven states have to cut their water usage by 1 maf, roughly the amount of water usage of four million people.[31] However, the cuts were not proportioned equally. Arizona was mandated to cut its water by 21% because of the old water agreements, while California was not required to make any.[32]

More recently on October 5th, several California water districts volunteered cuts of almost one-tenth of their total allocation.[33] California conditioned these cuts upon other states agreeing to similar reductions, as well as on incentives from the federal government.[34] California’s cuts are significant, representing roughly 0.4 maf of the 1 maf that Commissioner Tounton asked states to conserve in her August 15th statement.[35] This represents a bold, good-faith move considering California was not mandated to make any. However, there is no doubt that these ad hoc negotiations are unsustainable. As the drought continues, Colorado River water policy will have implications on how food is grown and where people live. The 40 million people that live in the American Southwest may see their day-to-day lives affected if a solution is not crafted. Ultimately, this situation is far from over as states are forced to come to grips with a new water and climate reality.

Notes

[1] The Journal, The Fight Over Water In The West, Wall Street Journal, at 00:50 (Aug. 23, 2022) (downloaded using Spotify).

[2] Luke Runyon, 7 states and federal government lack direction on cutbacks from the Colorado River, NPR (Aug. 27, 2022, 5:00 AM) https://www.npr.org/2022/08/27/1119550028/7-states-and-federal-government-lack-direction-on-cutbacks-from-the-colorado-riv.

[3] Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico are considered Upper Basin states and California, Arizona and Nevada are the Lower Basin states.

[4] The Journal, supra note 1, at 12:30.

[5] Joe Gelt, Sharing Colorado River Water: History, Public Policy and the Colorado River Compact, The University of Arizona (Aug. 1997), https://wrrc.arizona.edu/publications/arroyo-newsletter/sharing-colorado-river-water-history-public-policy-and-colorado-river.

[6] The Journal, supra note 1, at 8:08.

[7] Gelt, supra note 5.

[8] Id.

[9] Nancy Vogel, Legislation fixes borders wandering river created; Governors of Arizona, California sign bills to get back land the Colorado shifted to the wrong state, Contra Costa Times, Sept. 13, 2002.

[10] Gelt, supra note 5.

[11]  Arizona v. California, 373 U.S. 546 (1963).

[12] Supreme Court Clears the Way for the Central Arizona Project, Bureau of Reclamation https://www.usbr.gov/lc/phoenix/AZ100/1960/supreme_court_AZ_vs_CA.html.

[13] Arizona v. California, 373 U.S. 546, 565, 83 S. Ct. 1468, 1480 (1963).

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Gelt, supra note 5.

[17] Heather Sackett, Water managers set to talk about how to divide Colorado River, Colorado Times (Dec. 13, 2021) https://www.steamboatpilot.com/news/water-managers-set-to-talk-about-how-to-divide-colorado-river.

[18] Gelt, supra note 5.

[19] Lower Colorado River States Reach Agreement to Reduce Water Use, Renewable Natural Resources Foundation (Feb. 4, 2022) https://rnrf.org/2022/02/lower-colorado-river-states-reach-agreement-to-reduce-water-use/.

[20] Id.

[21] Id.

[22] Id.

[23] Marianne Goodland, Reclamation official tells Colorado River states to conserve up to 4 million acre-feet of water, Colorado Politics(June 15, 2020) https://www.coloradopolitics.com/energy-and-environment/reclamation-official-tells-colorado-river-states-to-conserve-up-to-4-million-acre-feet-of/article_376a907a-ece6-11ec-b0ba-6b2e72447497.html.

[24] Id.

[25] Id.

[26] Ben Adler, ‘Moment of reckoning:’ Federal official warns of Colorado River water supply cuts, Yahoo News (June 15, 2020) https://news.yahoo.com/moment-of-reckoning-federal-official-warns-of-colorado-river-water-supply-cuts-171955277.html.

[27] Id.

[28] The Journal, supra note 1, at 5:50.

[29] Id. at 6:10.

[30] Id. at 8:55.

[31] Id. at 10:05.

[32] Id.

[33] Marketplace, Why women have been left behind in the job recovery, American Public Media, at 11:35 (Oct. 6, 2022) (downloaded using Spotify).

[34] Id.

[35] Ian James, More water restrictions likely as California pledges to cut use of Colorado River supply, L.A. Times, (Oct. 6, 2022) https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-10-06/southern-california-faces-new-water-restrictions-next-year.


Hunting the Hunters: The Recent Saga of Gray Wolf Hunting and Protection

Mason Medeiros, MJLST Staffer

Hunting is a common activity throughout the United States. Whether for sport or sustenance, it is commonly practiced in every state across the country. States, to protect animals from overhunting and extinction, have enacted laws detailing which animals can be hunted and the period of time in which the hunt can occur. Furthermore, the Endangered Species Act has made it illegal to hunt, harm, or damage the habitat of any species on the endangered species list. But what happens when the government removes a species from the endangered species list? And particularly, what happens when a state has a statutory hunting period for such species? This question was brought to light in Wisconsin, and across the nation, when the federal government the gray wolf from the endangered species list on January 4, 2021. The resulting hunts and legal disputes have created a thrilling saga about the future of the gray wolf and the protections available to them. This post will discuss (1) the Wisconsin wolf hunt litigation and aftermath, (2) what a recent Ninth Circuit opinion means for the future of the gray wolf, and (3) what this saga shows about the weakness of endangered species protections in the United States.

 

The Wisconsin Wolf Hunt Litigation

Soon after the gray wolf was delisted, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (W-DNR) began receiving requests for a wolf hunt. The first of such requests came from Republican lawmakers on January 15—less than 20 days after the delisting. They based their argument based on two statutes: Wisconsin Statute 29.185(1m) and Wisconsin Statute 29.185(5)(a). Statute 29.185(1m) states that “[i]f the wolf is not listed on the federal endangered list and is not listed on the state endangered list, the [W-DNR] shall allow the hunting and trapping of wolves” as regulated by this section. This provision is further developed by Statute 29.185(5)(a), which requires the W-DNR to “establish a single annual open season for both hunting and trapping wolves that begins on the first Saturday in November of each year and ends on the last day of February of the following year.” The lawmakers argued that, when taken together, these statutes require the W-DNR to immediately allow a wolf hunt for the remainder of the 2021 season because the wolves were no longer under federal protection.

On January 22, in a 4-3 vote, the W-DNR Board voted against allowing a wolf hunt for the remainder of the 2021 season. Rather than starting a hunt right away, they claimed that they needed additional time “to develop a science-based harvest quota, gather input from tribes and update its wolf management plan.” This decision, however, was short-lived.

On February 3, Hunter Nation, Inc., a Kansas-based organization, filed a lawsuit challenging the W-DNR’s decision. The court ruled that, because of the state’s statutes mandating the hunting season, the W-DNR must allow it to occur during the remainder of the season. Complying, the W-DNR set a quota of 200 wolves, 81 of which were reserved for native Ojibwe tribes. In only three days, hunters unaffiliated with the tribes exceeded this quota by killing 218 wolves.

 

The Ninth Circuit Returns Protections for the Gray Wolf

Luckily, protections for the gray wolf are beginning to return. On February 10, 2022, a Federal District Court in the Ninth Circuit returned federal protections for wolves in Defenders of Wildlife v. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services, 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 30123 (N.D. Cal. 2022). The court found that, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service delisted the gray wolves, they failed to consider threats to gray wolf populations outside of the Great Lakes and Northern Rocky Mountains and “didn’t rely on the best available science.”

This decision returned federal protections to gray wolves in the contiguous United States outside of Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana, which remain under state control. Many pro-hunting groups oppose the decision, claiming that the wolf populations have recovered enough and should be managed by the state. Conservation organizations, on the other hand, believe that the decision is a step in the right direction but that more government intervention is needed to protect wolf populations in the remaining states from overhunting. While this decision is a major step in wolf protection, it does not address the issue of what happened to the wolves when they were initially delisted.

 

Better Policies are Needed to Protect Animals Coming Off of the Endangered Species List

This saga has highlighted some of the weaknesses in the endangered species program. Even though the animals are protected while on the list, they can immediately be hunted once the government removes them. This is particularly the case in states with statutorily mandated hunting seasons for certain species. Once one of these species is removed from the endangered species list, the statutes act as a trigger, forcing the hunt to begin. These “trigger laws” have major impacts on the species and need to be addressed.

One of the major issues with the trigger laws is that they do not provide a chance for the state to ensure that the quotas they set are scientifically accurate. Rather, the hunt needs to start during a statutorily required period.

Additionally, the hunters may not follow the quotas set by the state. This situation occurred in the 2021 Wisconsin hunt when hunters unassociated with tribes killed over 200 wolves, nearly doubling their quota in only three days. This hunt had potentially devastating effects on the wolf population. Wisconsin’s Green Fire, a conservation group, estimates that the wolves’ reproduction rate will be depleted by 24–40% because of the loss of females and alpha males in the hunt. If these rates remained, it would lead to a rapid decrease in wolf populations.

To address this concern, the government need to implement further protections for animals that they delist. Even though the species’ population is reportedly stable at the time they are delisted, the sudden hunting can quickly return them to critical levels. One potential solution is to mandate a protection period between the delisting and when hunting can actually begin. This period will allow states to develop scientifically accurate quotas and ensure that their protocols for the hunt are up to date while negating the applicability of potential trigger laws hidden in a state’s statutes.


Zombie Deer: Slowing the Spread of CWD

Warren Sexson, MJLST Staffer

Minnesota is one of the premier states in the Union for chasing whitetails. In 2020, over 470,000 licenses were purchased to harvest deer. As a hunter myself, I understand the importance of protecting Minnesota’s deer herd and habitat. The most concerning threat to whitetail deer in the state is Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD). CWD alters the central nervous system, similar to “mad cow disease,” causing deer to lose weight, stumble, drool, and behave similarly to an extra on The Walking Dead. It was first discovered in 1967 in Colorado mule deer and is transmissible to other ungulates such as moose, elk, red deer, black-tail deer, Sitka deer, and reindeer. It is 100% fatal in animals it infects and there is no known treatment or vaccine. While it currently poses no threat to humans, Canadian researchers have shown eating the meat from infected animals can infect hungry macaques, prompting the CDC and the World Health Organization to recommend against consumption of CWD positive animals. Luckily, in Minnesota there were only a handful of cases last season. Challenges still remain, however, and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the state legislature have tools at their disposal to combat the spread.

The DNR currently has a comprehensive response plan. In order to get a deer hunting license, the hunter has to pick what “zone” he or she will be hunting in. Minnesota is divided up into zones based off of the deer population and geography. Each zone has different guidelines for how many licenses will sell to the public. Some are “limited draw,” meaning a lottery system where only a certain number of applicants are selected, others are “over-the-counter,” meaning anyone who wants a license in that unit may buy one. Within the zoning system, the DNR has three “CWD Zone” classifications that restrict harvesting deer depending on the risks of the disease—surveillance, control, and management zones. Surveillance zones are where CWD has been found in captive deer or in wild deer in an adjacent zone. Control zones border the management zones, and management zones take up most of the south-eastern portion of the state, where CWD is highly concentrated. The restrictions in each type of zone vary, with surveillance zones being the least restricted and management zones being the most. Hunters have a key role in slowing the spread of CWD. Reducing deer populations in CWD ridden areas helps to reduce contact among deer and lower infection rates. However, there are other ways to further Minnesota’s commitment to slowing the spread of CWD.

The DNR can use emergency actions; it has done so recently. In October of 2021, the DNR temporarily banned moving farmed deer into and within the state through emergency action. Farmed deer (deer raised in captivity for use in trophy hunting) are a main vector of transmission for CWD. The ban was lifted in December but could have lasted longer. The DNR has emergency authority under Minn. Stat. § 84.027 Subd. 13(b) and (g). By enacting emergency declarations, the DNR can continue to use proven measures to slow the spread: requiring testing in high risk areas, banning movement between deer farms, increasing legal limits, and requiring hunters who desire a big buck to first harvest does in so called “Earn-a-Buck” programs. But, such emergency authority can only be 18 months at the longest. While limited in time, emergency orders provide the DNR the flexibility it needs to combat the disease’s spread.

The agency could also attempt to regulate by standard rulemaking authority as laid out in Chapter 14 of Minnesota’s statutes. The agency likely has authority to regulate deer hunting rules relating to CWD and recently has gained concurrent authority over deer farms along with the Board of Animal Health. However, if the DNR attempted to ban deer farming or imposed severe regulatory requirements, industry and interest groups would likely respond with legal challenges to the rulemaking process. In previous attempts to severely restrict deer farms, the Minnesota Deer Farmers Association has filed lawsuits attempting to block restrictions.

While the DNR likely can regulate deer hunting to slow the spread, the legislature is the best option for stopping deer farming as a whole. It is not necessarily a one-sided issue; a bi-partisan coalition of hunters and environmentalistswish to see the practice banned. State Rep. Rick Hansen (DFL) who chairs the House Environment and Natural Resources Finances and Policy Committee has discussed ending the practice and buying out all existing operators. Craig Engwall, head of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association has additionally called for such a ban. State legislation would be the most comprehensive way to slow the spread of CWD.

State legislators should also consider funding more research for potential vaccines and treatments for CWD. Funding is beginning to pick up; Canadian researchers have begun working on potential vaccines. Additionally, Rep. Ron Kind’s (D-WI) bill, the Chronic Wasting Disease Research and Management Act passed the House of Representatives with Bipartisan support and awaits a vote in the Senate. While this is encouraging, more can be done to support scientific research and protect deer herds. If Minnesota wants to lead the United States in solving such a global issue, the bipartisan support exists to help tackle the largest threat to deer hunting in the U.S. and the state.

CWD threatens the state’s large and historic deer hunting tradition. The DNR and the state legislature have the tools at their disposal to impose meaningful reform to combat the spread of “zombie-deer,” so the population can thrive for generations to come.


Holy Crap: The First Amendment, Septic Systems, and the Strict Scrutiny Standard in Land Use Law

Sarah Bauer, MJLST Staffer

In the Summer of 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court released a bevy of decisions favoring religious freedom. Among these was Mast v. City of Fillmore, a case about, well, septic systems and the First Amendment. But Mast is about so much more than that: it showcases the Court’s commitment to free exercise in a variety of contexts and Justice Gorsuch as a champion of Western sensibilities. It also demonstrates that moving forward, the government is going to need work harder to support that its compelling interest in land use regulation trumps an individual’s free exercise rights.

The Facts of Mast

To understand how septic systems and the First Amendment can even exist in the same sentence, it’s important to know the facts of Mast. In the state of Minnesota, the Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) is responsible for maintaining water quality. It promulgates regulations accordingly, then local governments adopt those regulations into ordinances. Among those are prescriptive regulations about wastewater treatment. At issue is one such ordinance adopted by Fillmore County, Minnesota, that requires most homes to have a modern septic system for the disposal of gray water.

The plaintiffs in the case are Swartzentruber Amish. They sought a religious exemption from the ordinance, saying that their religion forbade the use of that technology. The MPCA instead demanded the installation of the modern system under threat of criminal penalty, civil fines, and eviction from their farms. When the MPCA rejected a low-tech alternative offered by the plaintiffs, a mulch basin system not uncommon in other states, the Amish sought relief on grounds that the ordinance violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). After losing the battle in state courts, the Mast plaintiffs took it to the Supreme Court, where the case was decided in their favor last summer.

The First Amendment and Strict Scrutiny

Mast’s issue is a land use remix of Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, another free exercise case from the same docket. Fulton, the more controversial and well-known of the two, involved the City of Philadelphia’s decision to discontinue contracts with Catholic Social Services (CSS) for placement of children in foster homes. The City said that CSS’s refusal to place children with same-sex couples violated a non-discrimination provision in both the contract and the non-discrimination requirements of the citywide Fair Practices Ordinance. The Supreme Court didn’t buy it, holding instead that the City’s policy impermissibly burdened CSS’s free exercise of religion.

The Fulton decision was important for refining the legal analysis and standards when a law burdens free exercise of religion. First, if a law incidentally burdens religion but is both 1) neutral and 2) generally applicable, then courts will not ordinarily apply a strict scrutiny standard on review. If one of those elements is not met, courts will apply strict scrutiny, and the government will need to show that the law 1) advances a compelling interest and 2) is narrowly tailored to achieve those interests. The trick to strict scrutiny is this: the government’s compelling interest in denying an exception needs to apply specifically to those requesting the religious exception. A law examined under strict scrutiny will not survive if the State only asserts that it has a compelling interest in enforcing its laws generally.

Strict Scrutiny, RLUIPA, and Mast

The Mast Plaintiffs sought relief under RLUIPA. RLUIPA isn’t just a contender for Congress’s “Most Difficult to Pronounce Acronym” Award. It’s a choice legal weapon for those claiming that a land use regulation restricts free exercise of religion. The strict scrutiny standard is built into RLUIPA, meaning that courts skip straight to the question of whether 1) the government had a compelling government interest, and 2) whether the rule was the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling government interest. And now, post-Fulton, that first inquiry involves looking at whether the government had a compelling interest in denying an exception specifically as it applies to plaintiffs.

So that is how we end up with septic systems and the First Amendment in the same case. The Amish sued under RLUIPA, the Court applied strict scrutiny, and the government failed to show that it had a compelling interest in denying the Amish an exception to the rule that they needed to install a septic system for their gray water. Particularly convincing at least from Coloradan Justice Gorsuch’s perspective, were the facts that 1) Minnesota law allowed exemptions to campers and outdoorsman, 2) other jurisdictions allowed for gray water disposal in the same alternative manner suggested by the plaintiffs, and 3) the government couldn’t show that the alternative method wouldn’t effectively filter the water.

So what does this ultimately mean for land use regulation? It means that in the niche area of RLUIPA litigation, religious groups have a stronger strict scrutiny standard to lean on, forcing governments to present more evidence justifying a refusal to extend religious exemptions. And government can’t bypass the standard by making regulations more “generally applicable,” for example by removing exemptions for campers. Strict scrutiny still applies under RLUIPA, and governments are stuck with it, resulting in a possible windfall of exceptions for the religious.


Monumental Tug-of-War: America’s National Monuments May Be the Latest Targets in the Partisan Policy Back-and-Forth

Douglas Harman, MJLST Staffer

On October 7, 2021, the Biden Administration moved to restore the size and protections of two national monuments in the state of Utah: Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. This latest action culminates a back-and-forth of the last three presidencies that has drawn national attention. It suggests an emerging pattern of using national monuments as part of a broader legal and political debate over the use of federal lands.

There is a cultural and political split with liberals broadly favoring conservation/preservation of wilderness and Native American heritage sites and conservatives broadly favoring resource extraction and land development. It now seems likely that national monuments, and the underlying law dealing with their creation, will be subject to the same intense partisan tug-of-war as are other federal land use policies.

 

The Antiquities Act of 1906 and National Monuments

In the early 20th century, Congress passed the Antiquities Act, delegating to the President the power to “declare by public proclamation historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest [situated on federal lands]…to be national monuments.” Once a monument is established, the antiquities act also provides for its protection, and penalizes anyone who detrimentally interferes with it. Such a grant of power is quite significant, as it allows a President to designate areas for protection without the requirement for an act of Congress, as is needed for national parks. It is also important to note that, although the statute expressly authorizes the creation of national monuments, the statute is silent about the reduction or dissolution of the same. For this reason, there is general consensus that the President lacks granted or implied authority to completely abolish a national monument without congressional approval (though, as discussed below, some Presidents have reduced the sizes of monuments). 

Because it allows Presidents a relatively free hand in preserving lands and does not require congressional approval (with some exceptions added later for Wyoming and Alaska), Presidents have used the Antiquities Act quite frequently to designate lands as monuments. As an additional incentive, the Supreme Court has generally held that Presidents have extremely broad discretion when creating national monuments, and that a designation as a monument protects incidental resources needed to maintain the monument. See Cameron v. United States, 252 U.S. 450 (1920); Cappaert v. United States, 426 U.S. 128 (1976). There are currently 129 National Monuments ranging widely in area and character. Though there has been some controversy over creation of monuments in the past, there had been no record of a President unmaking or effectively undercutting a monument made by a predecessor prior to 2017.

Debate remains around whether and to what extent a President can diminish a national monument. Despite Presidents reducing the size of existing monuments in the past (the last President to do so before Trump was Eisenhower), courts have never squarely addressed the issue of whether and how much a President may reduce an already-created National Monument. Additionally courts have not addressed the companion issue of what level of reduction would constitute an effective abolition of the monument, and might therefore exceed a President’s authority under the Antiquities Act.

 

Clinton/Obama, then Trump, then Biden

President Clinton established Grand Staircase as a National Monument by proclamation in 1996, a move that sparked controversy in Utah, but received relatively little attention overall and was hardly a national issue of concern. Clinton’s Republican successor, George W. Bush, took no action against Grand Staircase in the eight years he was President. Years later, in December of 2016, as negotiations between Native American Nations and Utah fell apart, and with an eye on both his legacy and his successor, President Obama signed a declaration creating Bears Ears National Monument. Environmentalists, Native American Nations, and academic groups hailed Bears Ears as protecting unique habitats, historical areas, and indigenous sacred sites. However, Utah locals and politicians, as well as various resource-extraction industries, derided the creation of Bears Ears as federal government overreach and a denial of resources to the state.

When the Trump Administration took office in 2017, it had a different set of goals for federal lands. In addition to environmental deregulation and increased oil and gas extraction, Trump signed a proclamation in late 2017 to shrink Bears Ears and Grand Staircase. The actions sparked public interest for two reasons. First, because no President since Eisenhower had reduced a national monument, and previous reductions and revisions of boundaries appear to have been relatively non-controversial. Second, because the reduction proclaimed by Trump amounted to the largest reduction of national monument land in US history, reducing Bears Ears by 85% and Grand Staircase by 50%. The action was promptly challenged in court, with plaintiffs arguing that the reduction effectively abolished the monuments, thereby intruding on congressional powers. Wilderness Society v. Trump, 2019 WL 7902967 (Nov. 2019) (trial pleading). There was an additional legal issue regarding Grand Staircase, as Congress statutorily recognized and modified the monument in 1998, raising the question of whether a President could unilaterally further alter a monument with borders designated by Congress.  The case dragged on in DC courts and has not yielded a clear resolution as of this writing (and is unlikely to do so, as Trump is no longer President and the proclamation reducing the size of the monuments has now been superseded).

President Trump was defeated in the 2020 election, and Joe Biden became President. One of his myriad goals was to restore environmental protections undone during his predecessor’s term. This included restoring Bears Ears and Grand Staircase to their pre-Trump sizes (in the same proclamation, Biden restored protections to the marine Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Monument, which Trump had opened to commercial fishing). This has meant that, just like many other land use and environmental priorities, the pendulum has swung on national monuments based solely on the party affiliation of the occupant of the White House.

 

The Future of National Monuments

In the proclamations restoring the monuments, the Biden Administration took no legal issue with the actions of the Trump Administration. There was no claim that the diminishment had been illegal or unconstitutional; there have been no circulated legal memos denouncing the Trump White House’s legal logic as flawed; and there has been no argument that the reduction exceeded the scope of Presidential power by effectively abolishing the monuments. The reversal of policy has also essentially rendered any court decision of the cases against the Trump administration moot. This means that, although the Biden administration undid Trump’s actions, it appears to have tacitly accepted and affirmed their validity. This means the pattern of the last several years can (and probably will) be repeated.

It does not take a huge logical jump, then, to imagine the national monuments pulled into a perpetual seesaw. Perhaps a Republican takes the White House in 2024 or 2028 and moves to slash the size of national monuments as Trump did, only for them to be re-expanded by a future Democrat. Perpetual change of federal land designation, and, therefore, use, is not good for anyone. Industry will be disincentivized from making investments in development on lands that could be incorporated or re-incorporated into a protected National Monument, while environmental and Native American groups will have to be constantly on the alert for actions from a hostile President unilaterally undoing everything they’ve worked extremely hard to protect on national monument land. 

Such a policy seesaw hurts everyone. It seems evident that the unilateral and unlimited Presidential power to create and diminish National Monuments will lead to significant instability as long as the major parties have such diametrically opposed land use goals. One possible solution is for Congress to amend the law, but that seems unlikely given Congress’s declining productivity in the last several years and the political divisions in an evenly split Congress. Without Congressional action, further guidance from the courts about the extent of a President’s legal ability under the Antiquities Act to diminish national monuments may be the only way to stabilize the process. The question is when, and if, the courts will have their chance to weigh in.


It’s Not Always Greener on the Other Side: Challenges to Environmental Marketing Claims

Ben Cooper, MJLST Staffer

On March 16, 2021 a trio of environmental groups filed an FTC complaint against Chevron alleging that Chevron violated the FTC’s Green Guides by falsely claiming “investment in renewable energy and [Chevron’s] commitment to reducing fossil fuel pollution.” The groups claim that this complaint is the first to use the Green Guides to prevent companies from making misleading environmental claims. Public attention has supported companies that minimize their environmental impact, but this FTC complaint suggests that a critical regulatory eye might be in the future. If the environmental groups convince the FTC to enforce the Green Guides against Chevron, other companies should review the claims they make about their products and operations.

A Morning Consult poll released in early December 2020 showed that nearly half of U.S. adults supported expanding the use of carbon removal practices and technologies. Only six percent of survey respondents opposed carbon removal practices. In response to the overwhelming public support for carbon reduction, hundreds of major companies are making some type of commitment to reduce their carbon footprint and curb climate change. One popular program, the Science Based Targets initiative, has over 1,200 participants who made various pledges to decarbonize (or offset the carbon within) their operations.

International and non-governmental organizations took the reins of climate change policy, especially once the Trump Administration withdrew the United States from the Paris Agreement in 2017. “Climate change seems to be the leading fashion statement for business in 2019,” declared a Marketplace story in October of 2019. Yet, as with fashion, style only gets one so far. Substance is key—and often lacking. One of the founders of the Science Based Targets initiative criticized fashionable but flimsy voluntary corporate commitments: “[T]here is not a lot of substance behind those [voluntary corporate] commitments or the commitments are not comprehensive enough.”

The voluntary commitments placated environmental groups when the alternative was the Trump Administration’s silence—but the Biden Administration presents an eager environmental partner: the FTC complaint “is the first test to see if [the Biden Administration] will follow through with their commitment to hold big polluters accountable,” said an environmental group spokesperson according to a Reuters report. The consensus of environmental groups, industry commentators, and regulatory observers appears to be that government oversight is imminent to encourage consistency and accountability—and to avoid “greenwashing.”

Should organizations that make environmental claims be concerned about enforcement action?  It is too early to tell if the Chevron FTC complaint portends future complaints. In the Green Guides, the FTC declared that it seeks to avoid placing “the FTC in the inappropriate role of setting environmental policy,” which might suggest that it will stick to questions of misrepresentation and avoid wading into questions of evaluating environmental claims. It is also worth noting that the FTC is missing one of its five commissioners and Commissioner Rohit Chopra is expected to resign in anticipation of his nomination to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. While the FTC might not be in a position at the moment to enforce the Green Guides, organizations that make environmental claims in marketing materials should monitor this complaint and ensure their compliance with FTC guidance as well as any policy changes from the Biden Administration.


Carbon Copy Critters: Cloned Species and the Endangered Species Act

Emily Kennedy, MJLST Staffer

The United States is home to over 1,600 species listed as threatened or endangered. These species face a number of challenges arising from human activity, such as habitat loss from encroaching human populations, pollution, climate change, and excessive hunting. While species such as the Houston toad or the Government Canyon bat cave Spider may seem insignificant, and perhaps a bit frightening, each species is an important part of an intricately connected biotic community. Losing a few species could trigger an “extinction domino effect” that results in ecosystem fragility and the loss of more and more species. The Endangered Species Act was designed to protect species and their ecosystems. While the Act did not contemplate cloning of endangered species, cloned animals are also protected.

The black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes), a small mammal that historically inhabited the United States’ western mountain prairie region, is among the species listed as endangered. Black-footed ferrets were nearly wiped out entirely as a result of human efforts to kill them to ensure that prairie ranges were better suited for cattle. In fact, they were thought to be extinct until they were rediscovered and scientists captured the remaining animals for a captive breeding program.

Scientists recently announced the birth of Elizabeth Ann, a black-footed ferret who is the first clone of an endangered species indigenous to the United States. Born to a domestic ferret surrogate, she was cloned from a wild black-footed ferret named Willa who died and was frozen in 1988. After her death, Willa’s tissues were sent to a “frozen zoo” that retains genetic materials for over 1,000 species. Viagen, the company that cloned Elizabeth, also recently cloned an endangered Mongolian horse and will clone pet cats and dogs for a hefty fee of $35,000 to $50,000. Elizabeth and any future clone siblings will remain in the possession of scientists for study, with no plans for release into the wild.

The Endangered Species Act was signed into law in 1973 to protect the plant and animal species threatened with extinction in the United States. One commentator has argued that an “aggressive federal governmental policy of cloning endangered animal species would be consistent with the language and spirit of the Endangered Species Act as interpreted by the courts.” Additionally, “lack of genetic diversity in species revived in the laboratory should not preclude [Endangered Species Act] listing.” This was the case with the listing of a plant known as the Franciscan manzanita. Much like the black-footed ferret, the Franciscan manzanita was thought to be extinct until a single plant was discovered. Genetically identical clones were then propagated from cuttings from that plant.

Cloning is a cutting-edge and high-tech practice, but that does not mean that it is a panacea for species extinction concerns. Firstly, the process of cloning wild animals is successful only around 1% of the time. But the primary problem is that many species succumb to extinction due to habitat loss or fragmentation. Cloning does nothing to solve this issue, since cloned animals will still lack the habitat they need to thrive.

Further, genetic diversity is already a concern for many endangered and threatened species. Because they were nearly wiped out as a species before they rebounded in a captive breeding program, black-footed ferrets, like the one Elizabeth was cloned from, descend from seven closely related individuals. Such genetic homogeneity results in increased susceptibility to some diseases. Currently, cloning does not address this concern and may even exacerbate it, by relying on genetic material from even fewer individuals. However, some hope that manipulating the genome to improve genetic resistance is a “possibility in the future.”

While cloning may not be a complete solution to increasing species extinction, some think that it is a useful tool to address the complex problem of extinction in conjunction with other measures. Perhaps in the future, cloning can offer a high-tech option that works in concert with more established methods such as habitat restoration and conservation, captive breeding programs, and measures to address climate change.


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.