Launch of the Ohio Environmental Law Blog

Today, I am excited to launch a new blog dedicated to discussion of environmental legal and policy issues that impact or present implications to businesses and individuals living in Ohio.  My goal is to write my posts in a manner so that they will be accessible to individuals even if they do not have expertise in the field.  I hope to reach individuals in the business community, government, and the law grappling with environmental regulation or with an interest in the topic of environmental protection.  I hope my background provides readers with some unique insights into this complex topic. 

Posts may:

  • Discuss policy, current events and news related to environmental protection
  • Analyze the potential impacts of new environmental regulations
  • Identify significant new court decisions and discuss their implications
  • Provide updates or make observations regarding environmental programs and initiatives
  • Include opinions or observations relating to the general topic of environmental regulation

The site will be continuously updated.  Feel free to pass the site along to anyone you think may have some interest.  I would welcome your comments and suggestions.  I look forward to taking part in the virtual discussion of this fascinating and important topic. 

U.S. EPA Requests Ohio Provide Support for Air Reforms

Ohio EPA recently received a letter from U.S. EPA's Region V requesting justification for changes made to the State's air pollution control plan.  The changes to the State plan came about as a result of reform legislation passed by the Ohio Legislature in 2006.  Much has recently been made about the letter sent by U.S. EPA.  There has been two articles (article 1 and article 2) by Spencer Hunt in the Columbus Dispatch discussing the letter.  Also, there was recently an Editorial in the Toledo Blade chastising the Agency for being easy on "polluters" and for failing to timely submit the required information to U.S. EPA. 

Environmental groups have strongly criticized the portion of the legislation that allows smaller facilities (less than 10 tons per year) to avoid installing best available technology (BAT) and install reasonably available control technology (RACT) in its place.  This change has been described as weakening the protection of Ohio's environment.  In reality, it at worst will men minimal increases of pollution from these small sources.  As discussed below, increases that are more than offset by other programs.

I am familiar with these arguments having been at the center of the storm during the legislative debates over S.B. 265.  The editorial and comments strongly criticizing these changes seem to ignore some fundamental facts about Ohio's regulation of air pollution. 

The criticism ignores the fact that federal air quality standards are getting more stringent, not weakening.  Most notably, U.S. EPA recently strengthened the ozone standard.  Ohio still must meet the federal air quality standards.  The state legislation (S.B. 265) provided more flexibility in choosing how to comply.  Bottom line, Ohio's air quality has improved and will continue to improve.

So what was the purpose of the legislation?  Did you know Ohio regulates over 70,000 air sources while its neighbor, Michigan, only regulates 7,000?  This is not because we have so many more sources in Ohio, its because we decided long ago to regulate much smaller sources of air pollution in the state. With Ohio's struggling economy, it makes sense to be more efficient and effective in how Ohio met federal air quality standards.

Maybe this puts the 10 tpy threshold in perspective-the brand new permit for the AMP Ohio Coal fired power plant allows it to emit 3,194 tpy of NOx and 6,820 tons of SO2.  That is one source.  The equivalent of at least 300 or 600 smaller sources taking advantage of the 10 tpy exemption.  (Remember sources less than 10 tpy still must have controls, they just don't have to install more costly controls).

Even when the AMP Ohio facility comes on line, total emissions from Ohio's power plants will be drastically reduced. The total emission budget for Ohio power plants under the federal CAIR program in Ohio is 180,677 tpy of NOx which will be reduced to 95,556 tpy of NOx in 2015.  The reduction of some 85,000 tons of NOx will more than offset any insignificant increase attributable to small sources installing less costly controls.  And that is just one major reduction on-the-books, more reductions will also be forthcoming.

 

 

Narrowing Federal Jurisdiction Over Waterways

The USA Today did a story on the huge debate taking place over the limits of federal jurisdiction over waterways.   The debate ensued in the aftermath of two major Supreme Court cases dealing with federal jurisdiction over wetlands. 

Early on the focus after Rapanos and SWANCC was which wetlands would receive federal protection.  Now, after a series of federal district court rulings and proposed federal legislation, the debate has grown to be much larger.  The States may soon find themselves in the middle scrambling to fill some large holes in federal authority.

(Image: Colin Gregory Palmer/everystockphoto.com)

At issue was the term "navigable waters" which appears repeatedly in the Clean Water Act.  Both Rapanos and SWANCC looked at that term as it related federal jurisdiction over wetlands.  The Supreme Court ruled that Congress, by using the term "navigable waters", did not intend to use its full powers under the Commerce Clause of the Constitution.  Rather, Congress limited exercise of its authority to waters and wetlands that had some significant connection to a "navigable in fact waterway." 

Unfortunately the Court could not agree on a clear test for determining which waters are federally protected.  Justice Kennedy's broader "significant nexus" test seems to have emerged as the most relevant test.  Under the "significant nexus" test, any stream, pond, wetland or other waterway that has a "significant nexus" to a navigable water is federally protected.  "Significant nexus" means it has a significant effect on the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the navigable water.

The grey area are intermittent streams and isolated ponds/wetlands.  Litigation has seen a clash between experts arguing over whether there is some significant hydrologic connection to a navigable water. 

Now two major cases have expanded the debate from beyond just wetlands.  Back in 2006, the 5th Circuit in United States v. Chevron Pipe Line Co. 437 F. Supp. 2d 605, 614 (N.D. Tex. June 28, 2006)  drastically limited the federal government's authority to pursue spill and contamination in waterways.  Chevron involved a major oil spill of 126,000 gallons.  The Company successfully argued there was no federal violation resulting from the spill because contamination only reached intermittent streams that had no flow during the time of the spill or during clean up.  The Court put the burden on U.S. EPA to prove contamination actually reached a navigable water.

In March, a Federal Court vacated U.S. EPA's SPCC Rule (API v. Johnson, No. 02-2247, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 25859 (D.D.C March 31, 2008) because it contained an overly broad definition of navigable water.  The Court ruled there was no way U.S. EPA could defend the regulation in light of the recent Supreme Court rulings limiting federal jurisdiction.  The result of this ruling may be less facilities will need to prepare spill control plans. 

Many are focused on the proposed federal legislation as the viable fix to these gaps in federal authority. The legislation would expand coverage under the Clean Water Act from "navigable waters' to "waters of the United States".   As highlighted in the USA Today article, given the controversy over such a large expansion of federal jurisdiction, I don't see legislation passing anytime soon.  This means the States, who have broader authority will soon be facing the prospect of filling the gaps in federal authority using state permitting or enforcement authority.

CO2 to Jolt the Coal States

Everyday we are bombarded with stories of rising gas and energy prices.  The USA Today recently had a front page article on the increases in electricity rates due to the rise in fuel costs.  The article said utilities are raising rates up to 29% due to soaring fuel cots.   Its not just oil that has skyrocketing prices, natural gas and coal have experienced dramatic increases as well.  Since the beginning of the year coal prices have gone from around $60 per ton to well over $100 per ton (depending on the type of coal purchased). 

Ohio businesses have yet to experience the impacts from what is happening in the energy markets.  Until recent passage of Senate Bill 265, Ohio had frozen its electric rates so recent fuel cost spikes have not been taken into account in rates.  As reported by John Funk in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the utilities have begun meeting with the State to discuss price increases

Ohio better brace itself for even a larger jolt in prices attributable to CO2 regulation.  Federal legislation such as S. 2191 (the Lieberman-Warner Bill), which would regulate carbon emissions, had a quick death a few weeks ago in the Senate.  However, it is inevitable that federal legislation that establishes a carbon cap and trade program will pass soon after we have a new President (both McCain and Obama support the cap and trade approach). 

With 87% of Ohio's power coming from coal, what impact would such a cap and trade program have on Ohio?  Most understand there will be an impact, but I'm not sure most understand the magnitude.  To illustrate the impact, I attached a chart from U.S. EPA's modeling of the impact of the Lieberman-Warner bill on electricity generation.  The two charts project the amount of electricity generation from various sources (blue = coal, yellow = nuclear, green = other sources).

The chart to the left (click to enlarge image) is the status quo- no greenhouse gas regulation.  It projects coal-fired power would continue to dominate generation in the US. The chart on the right shows what will happen if something close to Warner-Lieberman passes. 

Not only does the amount of coal power shrink relative to nuclear and other sources like renewables, the composition of generation from coal dramatically shifts. The change from blue to red in the chart project the conversion of coal to carbon capture and sequestration (CCS).  U.S. EPA projects that ALL coal plants will institute CCS by the year 2035.  Why?  Because the cost of emitting carbon will be so high that the economics will drive utilities to institute CCS. 

Even U.S. EPA notes in its analysis that this projection is "optimistic."  That certainly is an overstatement given the fact there are no successful CCS projects currently being implemented.  So what does it mean if CCS is unrealistic in that time frame?  It means huge cost increases for coal-fired utilities because the price of allowances under the cap and trade program will rise.  

With fewer reductions there is a corresponding increase in the value of the C02 reduction credits used to offset emissions.  Higher costs for C02 credits translates into larger compliance costs for coal-fired utilities. Those huge costs will be passed on to consumers in the form of electricity price increases. 

Seems to me Ohio business and officials better start seriously considering the implications of federal regulation of CO2.  I am not advocating against passage of greenhouse gas regulation.   Ohio better start planning for a carbon constrained world and how electricity prices tied to coal generation may affect Ohio's competitiveness.