Climate + Energy

Not Sue Fast

Despite the fact that WildEarth Guardians gets accused by right wing politicians of being overly litigious, it’s actually industry that files the majority of lawsuits, at least against the Environmental Protection Agency.

That’s according to a Government Accountability Office report released today, which looked at environmental litigation against the EPA.  According to the report, trade associations and private companies file 48% of all litigation against the EPA, while environmental groups–both local and national–file 30%.  See the table below from the report:

Of course, all this is completely beside the point.  The fact is that anyone–whether industry or environmental group–should be allowed, and in fact encouraged, to sue the federal government for not following the law.  That’s exactly why we have a judicial branch of government, one of three pillars of our democracy.

And as far as environmental groups, or anyone for that matter, getting rich off of suing the EPA, that’s utterly absurd.

For one thing, our laws explicitly provide that if someone sues the EPA for breaking the law and succeeds, that they deserve to have their legal fees compensated by the government.  That standards applies to industry, trade groups, individuals, and even environmental groups.  The reason?  To encourage the government to follow the law and to provide an incentive to all citizens to pursue such efforts.

To this end, it’s telling that according to the GAO report, the EPA has lost so many cases, or at least agreed that the plaintiffs were correct and settled.  This isn’t a matter of environmental groups, or even industry for that matter, bullying the agency, it’s about clear violations of the law.  The lawsuits pointed out in the GAO report–even those filed by industry–should be commended, not condemned, because they actually succeeded in holding the government accountable to its own laws.

It’s a testament to the efficacy of WildEarth Guardians’ legal efforts.  After all, we have won or settled every single case we’ve filed against the EPA.  That’s not bullying, that’s a sign that we have some of the sharpest legal talent you can find.

And as for legal fees, I can tell you no one is getting rich off of suing the government.  The GAO report, for example, points to the fact that the Treasury Department’s Judgment Fund has paid WildEarth Guardians tens of thousands of dollars over the years over successful lawsuits against the EPA.  Yet, these fees are not only a fraction of the market rates for attorneys (the GAO notes that the Justice Department usually pays less than what plaintiffs request), but hardly the “millions” that certain politicians accuse Guardians and other groups of reaping.

Importantly, the GAO found that there was “no discernible trend in the number of environmental cases brought against EPA from fiscal year 1995 through fiscal year 2010” and that there was no discernible trend in the costs borne by the Justice Department and EPA in defending litigation.

It’s telling that the GAO made “no recommendations” in the report.

Despite this, I can tell you firsthand that WildEarth Guardians lawsuits against the EPA are never taken lightly and that we always–always–ensure we have the strongest legal position possible.  Our goal?  To ensure the agency follows through with its duties to protect clean air, our climate, our health, and our well-being.

And it’s worked.  Our lawsuits have spurred the agency to finally follow through with clean air plans for several western states, to sanction states for failing to meet the Clean Air Act, and to veto permits that are illegal.

One of our latest lawsuits calls on the EPA just to respond to a petition challenging a permit issued in Colorado, as required by law.  You can call this radical, but given that all we are asking is that the EPA follow the law, this hardly seems extreme.

And industry, to their credit, seems to agree.  By filing more lawsuits against the EPA than environmental groups, they’ve shown that even polluters value a federal agency that follows the law.  Kudos to them.  Certain right wing politicians could learn a thing or two from them over the value of a government that adheres to its laws.

In the meantime, here’s to holding the EPA accountable to clean air, clean water, and a happy, healthy environment.