Trump’s EPA cracking down on ‘sue and settle’ lawsuits

By Michael Bastasch

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt signed a directive ending an Obama-era legal practice that conservatives criticized as giving outside activists control of the regulatory process.

“The days of regulation through litigation are over,” Pruitt said in a statement issued Monday.

Pruitt’s order curbs the number of cases EPA settles with outside activist groups that file so-called “citizen suits.” Outside groups, especially environmentalists, file citizen suits to force a federal agency to begin the rulemaking process.

During the settlement process, environmentalists and government lawyers get to set new timetables for new regulations. States, industry groups and other third parties are largely left out of the settlement process.

Republicans and conservative legal scholars labelled the practice “sue and settle” since the Obama administration often settled with outside groups, effectively giving activists control of the environmental regulatory agenda.

Pruitt also targeted the attorneys fees paid out to outside groups suing EPA to force a rulemaking. A 2016 Daily Caller News Foundation investigation found federal agencies pay out at least $50 million in attorneys fees for “sue and settle” cases since 2009.

A 2013 study by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce identified at least 71 lawsuits between 2009 and 2012 as “sue-and-settle” cases, and these resulted in more than 100 new regulations — many of which cost more than $100 million a year.

The Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, for example, is the result of a “sue and settle” lawsuit. EPA began the process of repealing that regulation last week.

“We will no longer go behind closed doors and use consent decrees and settlement agreements to resolve lawsuits filed against the Agency by special interest groups where doing so would circumvent the regulatory process set forth by Congress,” Pruitt said.

Pruitt’s policy requires EPA to publish all citizen suits and settlements online for the public to see. EPA will also be limited in what kinds of settlements it can make with activists, and officials must reach out to states and other third parties.

Environmentalists weren’t very happy with Pruitt’s directive.

Federal environmental laws give individuals and groups the ability to sue agencies that don’t issue a regulation by a statutory deadline. Groups that sue can also get their attorneys fees reimbursed.

EPA is just one of the many federal agencies activists sue every year to force new regulations. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the focus of many lawsuits, demanding the agency issue ruling on whether or not certain species are endangered.

Federal agencies paid out $30 million to attorneys for 237 citizen suits under the Endangered Species Act, a 2016 DCNF investigation found.

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