— Environmental group ignores details of report, claims litigation effects limited
The recently-released Governmental Accountability Office (GAO) report came to the conclusion that environmental litigation has had “limited” effect on the actions of federal agencies. A couple environmental litigation groups, particularly the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), hailed this as vindication against “right-wing fearmongering.”
However, one key detail in this supposed victory is left out; the report only looked at a very narrow sliver of usual targets of environmental lawsuits.
The GAO report only examined deadline lawsuits brought against the Environmental Protection Agency under “seven key environmental laws” that allow for citizen suits. Among the seven key laws, the most relevant to agriculture are the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. The report does not account for non-deadline suits brought against the EPA or lawsuits brought against other federal agencies.
As there is no public record of how many lawsuits are brought against federal agencies, or settled or for how much, it is impossible to tell what potentially small portion of total environmental lawsuits brought against the government this selection represents. Based on the observable activities and statements of environmental litigative groups, however, it seems very small.
Bait and switch
This exceedingly narrow nature of the report’s focus was not mentioned in the CBD’s triumphant announcement following the report’s release. The language employed in the group’s announcement instead suggests the narrowissue report is the final word on the impact of all environmental litigation.
Deadline lawsuits against the EPA are neither the most pressing nor the most numerous when it comes to western agriculture. More relevant to cattle producers are lawsuits repeatedly launched regarding Endangered Species Act (ESA) listing. The all-inclusive language used by CBD regarding the statements of the GAO report is misleading.
“A new report from the federal Government Accountability Office debunks a long-running Republican criticism of environmental lawsuits targeting federal agencies that fail to meet legal deadlines for taking action,” claimed CBD’s announcement of the report.
“The GAO concludes that those lawsuits had only a ‘limited’ effect on Environmental Protection Agency regulations and that none of those in their report ‘included terms that finalized the substantive outcome of the rule.’” According to WLJ’s casual count of just CBD’s self-announced lawsuits, joining lawsuits, or intents-to-sue of 2014, 42 percent of them were directed at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). By comparison, only 17 percent were directed at EPA total. When asked by WLJ, a GAO representative said that the team that deals with creating reports of this nature was “not aware of any environmental litigation reports underway relating to the Fish and Wildlife Service and BLM.”
Additionally, CBD’s own words suggest the group sees its litigative efforts as very effective in affecting the behavior of federal agencies. Out of the 487 total announcements issued by the group in 2014, 65 directly credited their own lawsuits or other legal pressures with spurring specific actions from targeted government agencies. An additional 39 announcements directly referenced the “landmark agreement” between CBD and USFWS in 2011. In the agreement, the USFWS agreed to make final listing decisions on 757 different species by 2018, theoretically to stem the tide of listing-related lawsuits from the organization. — WLJ