President Joe Biden’s administration has made a number of meaningful moves on climate change, and not just through the landmark Inflation Reduction Act. It has also enacted a slew of environmental regulations, covering everything from pollutants to tailpipe emissions to oil wells. But many of the new regulations are already being challenged in court by the same industries that they target.

Companies and industry groups have long turned to the courts in attempts to reverse environmental regulations. Their arguments generally boil down to the same concern—money—and are reinforced by the long-held perception that environmental regulation is harmful to business and economic interests.

“American polluting industries have had a long history of challenging environmental regulations that apply to them,” says Christophe Courchesne, director of the Environmental Advocacy Clinic at Vermont Law School. “They very commonly take their objections to court at the first available opportunity, so in a sense, [these recent suits are] part of a long tradition of litigation over environmental protections.”

The main driver behind the recent wave of lawsuits, Courchesne says, is that the current federal judiciary is largely skeptical of administrative power, including that of the environmental agencies under the Biden administration. In lawsuits over environmental regulations, that means many federal judges are more receptive to industries’ financial concerns and less supportive of the public health interests that drove the regulations to be created in the first place, according to Courchesne.

A major Supreme Court decision last month may spark an even more intense onslaught of suits against the Biden administration’s environmental regulations—while also making them more vulnerable to these challenges. In the decision, the court ruled 6-3 to overturn “Chevron deference,” a 40-year-old legal precedent that gave federal agencies broad power to interpret the laws they executed.

The precedent has protected a number of environmental policies over the years, including in a 2014 Supreme Court decision upholding a series of emissions standards set by the EPA. The lawsuit claimed that the standards were based on an improper interpretation of the Clean Air Act. However, the court relied on Chevron deference to affirm the EPA’s ability to interpret the law, resulting in a unanimous ruling in favor of the agency.

Conservatives and business groups have long opposed Chevron deference, arguing that it made the executive branch overly powerful by enabling it to enact burdensome rules without congressional authorization.

“We have a very active and aggressive judiciary in questioning administrative acts,” Courchesne says. “So that’s why industry sees opportunities everywhere to reduce costs, often at the expense of environmental protections or the public health.”

If Donald Trump wins the presidential election in November, he will undoubtedly be even more receptive to corporate interests. During his last term, he rolled back over 200 environmental rules and regulations—a legacy that Biden spent his time in the White House attempting to dismantle.

“When you have a bunch of the judiciary that is very sympathetic to industry arguments about cost and very not sympathetic to environmental values and environmental protections, it’s fertile ground for industry,” Courchesne says.

Amid the wave of lawsuits, here’s a rundown of the recent cases that could overturn some of the Biden administration’s most significant environmental regulations.

NEPA

When the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) took effect in 1970, it set up a bedrock framework in environmental law: By requiring federal agencies to evaluate and inform the public about the impact of their actions on the environment, it enhanced government accountability and transparency.

For decades, NEPA sat largely untouched. That changed in 2020, when then-President Trump weakened the landmark conservation law to speed up the processes by which freeways, power plants, and pipelines were permitted.

In April, the Biden administration finalized its own revisions to NEPA—particularly regarding how states should implement the law—to replace many of the controversial changes Trump made. However, those revisions, which took effect last week, are already under attack.

On May 21, 20 states led by Republican attorneys general sued the White House, claiming the new revisions would stunt development. The Biden administration, meanwhile, argued that the changes will speed up the permitting process for renewable energy and other key infrastructure projects.

In the lawsuit, led by Iowa Attorney General Brenna Bird and North Dakota Attorney General Drew Wrigley, the states accused the Biden administration of changing NEPA from a procedural rule to a “substantive set of requirements” to advance its policy agenda.

The attorneys general argued that the revisions resulted in the “elevation” of environmental-justice and climate-change related goals. In addition, they contended that “favored projects” would be sped up in a “politically motivated” way as a result of the changes.

Bird also argued that numerous development projects in her state would be affected by the new revisions, such as the reconstruction of a highway in northwestern Iowa and the replacement of a bridge over the Mississippi River.

‘Forever chemicals’

In April, the EPA implemented a new rule mandating that municipal water systems remove six chemicals belonging to a class of toxic substances called PFAS—more commonly known as “forever chemicals”—from the tap water of hundreds of millions of Americans. The EPA argued that the new standard would prevent thousands of deaths and keep tens of thousands of people from experiencing serious illnesses. Still, chemical and manufacturing groups hit the agency with a round of lawsuits, accusing the government of overstepping its authority.

PFAS—which stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances—are a class of synthetic chemicals that have been used in consumer products since around the 1940s. Because of their unique properties, particularly around stain and water resistance, they’re found in everything from cosmetics to nonstick pans to pizza boxes. But their chemical composition is so strong that PFAS can pollute the environment—and people’s bodies—for centuries.

Exposure to these toxic chemicals has been connected to a higher risk for some cancers, developmental delays, and decreased fertility, among numerous other effects. And they’re in much of the tap water Americans use, according to the EPA.

“Everyone should be able to turn on the tap and know that the glass of water they fill is safe to drink,” said Brenda Mallory, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, about the EPA’s new cleanup rule at a public address.

Water utilities, however, have questioned the science behind the rule and pointed to the cost of filtering PFAS from drinking water, which the EPA has estimated to be roughly $1.5 billion per year. Utilities have argued that the expense may be double that.

It’s also expected that the EPA’s new rule would lead water utilities to initiate a wave of legal action against chemical manufacturers in an attempt to recoup the costs of cleaning PFAS from their systems.

On June 10, the American Chemistry Council and the National Association of Manufacturers filed a suit against the EPA, arguing that its cleanup rule was “arbitrary, capricious, and an abuse of discretion.”

The American Water Works Association and the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies also hit the EPA with their own lawsuit, declaring that the agency had “significantly underestimated the costs,” of the new cleanup rule. They argued that the burden to pay for the cleanup expenses would eventually fall on taxpayers through increased water rates.

Electric vehicles 

In one of the most important climate regulations in U.S. history, the Biden administration issued new tailpipe pollution limits for vehicles in order to expand production of EVs in March. The EPA’s set of new rules placed limits on climate-warming tailpipe emissions from cars and other light- and medium-duty vehicles so that auto manufacturers would have to develop and sell more EVs in order to comply.

By 2032, the resulting shift to EV production would make the majority of new passenger cars and light trucks sold in the U.S. electric, the Biden administration projected.

In response, top lobbying groups for the oil and corn industries announced on June 13 that they were teaming up in a lawsuit against the administration. While the two industries aren’t always allies—they frequently clash over biofuel regulations—they typically join forces against EVs to ensure that internal combustion engines continue to take priority. 

The lawsuit was filed by the American Petroleum Institute (API), the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA), and the American Farm Bureau Federation, in addition to six auto dealers that collectively operate dozens of dealerships nationwide. They argued that the new limits and a push toward EVs would cause economic harm to farmers, consumers, and manufacturing workers.

The two farm groups also contend that corn ethanol, an industry that’s supported by gas-powered cars, would be a more readily available means of lowering greenhouse gas emissions, rather than shifting to EVs.

Oil-well cleanup

Cleaning up old oil wells can cost billions—which falls on taxpayers if companies go bankrupt or transfer assets to a different firm. But a proposed rule by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) would guarantee nearly $7 billion from the offshore oil and gas industry for the expensive job of decommissioning these wells.

The rule would force any offshore oil and gas companies it deems financial risks to acquire insurance for the cost of cleaning up oil wells, which includes plugging them, removing pipelines, and deconstructing platforms.

On June 17, the attorneys general of Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi, as well as the Gulf Alliance—a coalition of top independent offshore oil and natural gas producers—hit the BOEM with a lawsuit

The BOEM said the proposed regulation could impact roughly 75% of oil and gas operators in the Gulf of Mexico. There, decommissioning is overdue for more than 2,700 oil wells and 500 platforms as of June 2023, according to the Government Accountability Office.

When the proposed rule, which is set to take effect later this year, was finalized, the Department of the Interior said it would “protect taxpayers from covering costs that should be borne by the oil and gas industry when offshore platforms require decommissioning.” The attorneys general in the lawsuit, however, listed financial concerns for their states as the primary driver of their challenge.

Large oil companies primarily won’t be impacted by the rule—they’re less likely to be considered financial risks because they typically meet credit criteria or have sufficiently large reserves. But smaller oil companies may be deemed more risky because they may lack investment grade ratings or enough proven oil reserves.

Tailpipe emissions

Just days after filing a lawsuit about the Biden administration’s new emissions standards for cars, the oil and corn industries again joined forces to sue the administration. This time, over updated standards for tailpipe emissions from heavy-duty vehicles, like semi-trucks and buses.

In March, the EPA finalized these new rules, which will apply to any heavy-duty vehicles produced between 2027 and 2032.

Heavy-duty vehicles are responsible for roughly 7% of U.S. emissions, making them major contributors to climate change. The new standards would help reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 1 billion tons through 2055.

In response, the API, the NCGA, the American Farm Bureau Federation, and the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association argued that the new regulations would amount to an economic disaster for truckers, farmers, and consumers.

“Small business truckers make up 96% of trucking and could be regulated out of existence if the EPA’s unworkable heavy-duty rule comes into effect,” Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association President Todd Spencer said. “This rule would devastate the reliability of America’s supply chain and ultimately increase costs for consumers.”

Even when Chevron deference still stood, interest groups were successful in watering down the EPA’s rules regarding tailpipe emissions. Now that the precedent has been overturned, experts say it may be even more difficult for the Biden administration to defend its tailpipe emissions rules in this lawsuit.



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