Economic, Workplace and Environmental Regulation

  • May 2, 2017
    Guest Post

    *This piece originally appeared on StateAG.org.  

    by James Tierney, Former Maine Attorney General and Lecturer in Law at Columbia Law School

    In a letter sent last week, 21 state attorneys general and the Office of Consumer Protection of Hawaii urged Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to immediately reconsider “the Department of Education’s revocation of critical student loan service reforms.” The policy and guidance memoranda withdrawn by the Department addressed industry-wide procedures by student loan servicing companies that were the subject of investigations and enforcement actions by the Illinois and Washington state attorneys general, among others.

    The April 24 letter highlights some of the industry practices that contributed to more than a quarter of borrowers being delinquent or in default on a student loan, according to a report by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB):

    “In its 2015 report, the CFPB identified troubling student loan servicer practices – including paperwork processing errors and failure to provide accurate information – that discourage the use of income-driven repayment plans. By reforming service incentives and strengthening consumer protections, the rescinded guidance sought to eliminate the loan servicing failures that keep borrowers from entering affordable repayment plans.” — April 24 letter from 21 state attorneys general to Department of Education

    According to Forbes, 44 million borrowers owe approximately $1.3 trillion in student loan debt, making it the second-largest type of consumer debt behind mortgages.

  • April 26, 2017
    Guest Post

    by Joe Mendelson, Former Legal Director at the International Center for Technology Assessment, Former Democratic Chief Climate Counsel for the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and Author of 1999 Petition Seeking EPA Regulation of Carbon Pollution that Led to the Litigation in Massachusetts v. EPA; David Bookbinder, Former Chief Climate Counsel at the Sierra Club and Current Chief Counsel at the Niskanen Center; and Lisa Heinzerling, Justice William J. Brennan, Jr. Professor of Law, Georgetown Law and  Lead Author of the Petitioners’ Briefs in Massachusetts v. EPA

    Ten years ago this month, the Supreme Court issued its landmark ruling in Massachusetts v. EPA, holding that the Clean Air Act gives the Environmental Protection Agency the power to control the pollutants that cause climate change and that the George W. Bush administration had illegally refused to exercise this authority based on political considerations that had no basis in the Clean Air Act.

    The Trump administration has marked this anniversary with dubious ceremony. Last week, President Trump issued an executive order directing the rollback of Obama-era regulations that addressed climate change. Earlier, Trump's EPA chief, Scott Pruitt, publicly questioned the established scientific evidence of the link between human activities and rising temperatures. Pruitt, a lawyer, not only stepped into an area beyond his expertise but also managed to get the law wrong at the same time. Congress, Pruitt claimed, had never acted, and thus EPA's efforts to use the Clean Air Act to bring carbon pollution under control were illegitimate. The claim reflects an astonishing ignorance about the law that he is charged with implementing.

    Far from occurring in a legislative vacuum, EPA's carbon pollution controls are the culmination of a 50-year historical path to limiting these pollutants. It started in 1965 when during a speech to Congress President Lyndon B. Johnson spoke of modernizing the Clean Air Act to address air pollution threats before they occurred. He noted that “this generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through…a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.” During the following legislative debate on the Clean Air Act where Congressman Helstoski urged action because, “It has been predicted that by the year 2000, the amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide may have increased by about 50 percent; and many believe that this will have a considerable effect on the world’s climate.”

  • March 16, 2017
    Guest Post

    by James Tierney, Former Maine Attorney General and Lecturer in Law at Columbia Law School

    In the face of a reduced federal presence, Columbia Law School's Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, in partnership with StateAG.org, has produced a valuable legal research tool for those interested in environmental law and policy. The State AG Environmental Action Database includes a variety of environmental lawsuits and other actions involving state attorneys general. Users can search its contents by state, issue or type of action. The database also includes links to relevant documents and resources.

    This impressive database has been put together by dedicated Columbia Law School students under the supervision of Jessica Wentz, who serves as staff attorney and associate research scholar for the Sabin Center.

    I cannot overstate the importance of this effort. It is the only place where this information has been brought together in a coherent, organized fashion. The database will remain a "work in progress" as AG offices provide more cases to be uploaded. Notwithstanding the efforts by some in Washington D.C., this database is demonstrable proof that state attorneys general remain vigorous protectors of our environmental heritage.

  • March 2, 2017
    Guest Post

    by Justin Pidot, Associate Professor, University of Denver Sturm College of Law

    In its zeal to block regulations adopted by the Obama Administration, the U.S. House of Representatives recently approved a Congressional Review Act (CRA) resolution to overturn BLM’s Waste Prevention Rule, sometimes called the venting and flaring rule. The effort is another in a recent spate of misguided uses of the CRA and represents poor stewardship of natural resources owned by the American public. 

    The Waste Prevention Rule requires companies drilling for oil and gas on federal land to take reasonable steps to prevent natural gas from being released into the atmosphere. Gas in the air cannot be used to generate electricity and it significantly contributes to climate change. Companies also do not have to pay royalties on gas that they do not bring to market, meaning that taxpayers receive no revenue from these public resources. 

    The CRA allows Congress to overturn any regulation adopted by a federal agency within the last sixty legislative days. Until this year, Congress only used the CRA once. This week Congress used it to torpedo the Office of Surface Mining’s Stream Protection Rule, which required coal mining companies to restore waterways after mining, and Congress is considering a raft of other CRA resolutions. 

    Congress should think twice before using the CRA casually and frequently. Federal agencies spend years developing regulations: the Stream Protection Rule was in development for eight years and the Waste Prevention Rule for more than two. The process of developing a regulation harnesses the wisdom of policy, scientific and legal experts and involves extensive public participation. Under the CRA, Congress undoes years of work in the span of hours; a feature of the CRA is that it limits congressional debate. Perhaps most troublingly, language in the CRA suggests that Congressional action also blocks any similar rule the agency may want to issue in the future, thereby threatening to permanently prevent federal agencies from tackling important issues.

  • January 30, 2017
    Guest Post

    *This piece originally appeared in the Detroit Legal News.  

    by Gary Maveal, Professor of Law, University of Detroit Mercy School of Law

    The president’s nominee to head the nation’s Environmental Protection Agency is a staunch opponent of its work. Should this disqualify Scott Pruitt from consideration as the next EPA Administrator? I submit that it clearly does.

    The Role to Fill

    Founded under President Nixon in 1970, the EPA was borne of a national movement insisting that a federal agency was needed to defend the nation’s lands, air and water from degradation. Citizens recognized that pollution ignored the bounds of state lines – and that individual states lacked the resources or political will to confront polluting industries.  

    The design of most federal statutes authorizes the EPA to set national standards for polluting activities which are then implemented by the states. In this way, the EPA avoids the “race to the bottom” by states competing by offering varying (i.e., higher) allowable levels of emissions or discharges.

    The role of EPA administrator is a challenging one, overseeing a dizzying array of complex federal statutes protecting the air, water and endangered species.  EPA rules regulate toxins from arsenic to zinc. In addition, the agency oversees a variety of public education and grant programs to inform and study environmental issues across the nation. The administrator must be proficient in assessing scientific data from public and private sources.