Rising Sea Levels

In Issuing Executive Order No. 41, Governor Markell Rejects Any Need to Choose Between Mitigating Climate Change and Supporting Economic Growth

September 13, 2013 21:39
by Mike Kelly  & Jameson Tweedie

Yesterday, Governor Jack Markell issued Executive Order No. 41, “Preparing Delaware for Emerging Climate Impacts and Seizing Economic Opportunities from Reducing Emissions.”  In many climate change discussions there exists an implied or overt assumption that society must choose between the economy and the climate.  Consistent with a theme that has resurfaced throughout his tenure as Governor, in Executive Order No. 41 Governor Markell explicitly rejects that choice:  “initiatives to responsibly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prepare Delaware for climate impacts present significant economic development and employment opportunities in infrastructure construction, energy efficiency, clean energy, and advanced transportation.”

Executive Order No. 41 consists of three main components.  First, it establishes a Governor’s Committee on Climate and Resiliency (the “Committee”).  The composition of the Committee itself is noteworthy as it is clear this effort is not “mere puffery,” rather the Committee will include many of the key cabinet heads, including the Secretaries of the Departments of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (“DNREC”), Agriculture, Transportation, Health and Human Services, Safety and Homeland Security, and State, as well as the Directors of the Delaware Economic Development Office, the Office of Management and Budget, the Delaware State Housing Authority, and the Office of State Planning Coordination.

Second, the Committee, chaired by the Secretary of DNREC, shall develop a “an implementation plan to maintain and build upon Delaware’s leadership in responsibly reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” as well as recommendations for actions by agencies and local governments.  The plan and recommendations must be delivered to the Governor by the end of 2014, with the implementation plan updated annually thereafter.  Noteworthy are the requirements which Governor Markell mandates for the plan, overtly rejecting the notion that advancing the economy and planning for, and reducing, climate change must be at odds.  The plan “shall ensure that efforts have a positive effect on the State’s economy, including advancing the strategy of securing cleaner, cheaper, and more reliable energy, improving public health outcomes, increasing employment in Delaware, strengthening Delaware’s manufacturing capabilities, and enhancing Delaware’s overall competitiveness” (emphasis added).  This mandate that the climate change plan achieve positive economic results is framed by the plain acknowledgment of the significant risks facing Delaware from climate change and sea level rise.  These risks include that:

  • Delaware has the “lowest average land elevation in the United States and significant population living along 381 miles of shoreline,” putting Delaware at risk for coastal erosion, storm surge, flooding, saltwater intrusion, and tidal wetland losses.
  • Delaware’s critical infrastructure is at risk from climate change.
  • Delaware’s groundwater aquifers are at risk from saltwater intrusion.
  • Delaware’s $8 billion agriculture industry “could be significantly impacted by increasingly variable temperatures, precipitation, extreme weather events, and droughts.”
  • Delaware’s $6 billion tourism industry is vulnerable to climate change and sea level rise.

The Governor makes clear his belief that mitigating climate change and pursuing economic growth are not mutually exclusive.  Indeed, he plainly considers the joint goals of positive economic and climate outcomes as a logical next step from the successes already achieved in Delaware, including Delaware’s role within the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, Delaware’s reduction of greenhouse gas emissions “by more than any state in the nation (29.7% from 2000 to 2010),” and Executive Order No. 18, which sought to reduce the climate change impacts of State Government, and which the Governor asserts not only significantly reduced the climate-related impacts of State Government, but at the same time “result[ed] in millions of dollars of savings.”

Third, and likely with the most immediate on-the-ground consequences (rather than future planning), Executive Order No. 41 requires that “all state agencies shall adhere” (emphasis added) to certain flood hazard mitigation and sea level rise adaptation requirements.  These include:

  • Requiring all state agencies to “incorporate measures for adapting to increased flood heights and sea level rise in the siting and design of projects for construction of new structures and reconstruction of substantially damaged structures and infrastructure” to avoid and minimize flood risks, and, wherever “practical and effective” shall use natural systems or green infrastructure to “improve resiliency to flood heights, erosion, and sea level rise.”
  • Requiring structures within Federal Emergency Management Agency (“FEMA”) special flood hazard areas to be “designed and constructed with habitable space at least 18 inches above current base flood elevation” and, in addition, requiring structures within areas designated by DNREC to be vulnerable to sea level rise inundation to be “designed and constructed to account for sea level changes anticipated during the lifespan of the structure” (emphasis added).
  • Requiring all state agencies to “consider and incorporate the sea level rise scenarios set forth by the DNREC Sea Level Rise Technical Committee into appropriate long-range plans.”

Only time will tell whether Governor Markell can achieve his dual goals of climate change action and economic growth, but Executive Order No. 41 demonstrates that he is well aware of the challenges and confident in his administration’s ability to achieve both goals.  His experience in the private sector and his economic track record since taking office in 2009, in the midst of the Great Recession, indicate that his climate change policies, and his optimism that they can be positive forces for economic growth, are based on pragmatism, science and economics, not ideology.

Climate Change | Regulation | Rising Sea Levels

Fourth Circuit Rejects Manipulation of Judicial Process As Ocean Manhandles Homes

August 19, 2013 22:56
by J. Wylie Donald


Can a community condemn shorefront cottages where the beach has eroded at 8 feet per year and the cottages interfere with emergency responders traveling along the beach?  Based on the Fourth Circuit's decision at the end of last month in Sansotta v Town of Nags Head we just don't know. What we do know is that a municipality cannot play both ends of the law against the middle to address the problem.

Let us explain.  Nags Head is a shore community of about 2500 souls (soaring to 40,000 in the summer) on North Carolina's Outer Banks. Municipal ordinances provide that a building suffering storm damage or erosion damage may be a public nuisance where it is in danger of collapsing, where there is a likelihood of personal or property injury, or where the structure is on public trust or public land.  Nags Head Ordinance 16-31(6) (a), (b), (c).  A 2009 storm washed away much of the sand around six cottages leaving their septic tanks exposed. The Town declared the cottages nuisances under Ordinance 16-31(6)(b) and (c) and required their abatement. Demolition was the only way to satisfy the ordinance but the homeowners did not comply and the Town assessed fines accruing at $100 per day.  The homeowners sued. (Twenty other cottages were also declared nuisances resulting in at least two other suits. See Town of Nags Head v. Toloczko, 863 F. Supp. 2d 516 (E.D.N.C. 2012); Town of Nags Head v Cherry, Inc., 723 S.E.2d 156 (N.C. Ct. App. 2012).)
 
The suit was originally filed in state court with claims sounding in both state and federal law. The Town removed to federal court.  Both parties moved for partial summary judgment.  The trial court dismissed and the homeowners appealed.

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the trial court's dismissal of the equal protection and procedural due process claims; however, the court of appeals reversed the trial court's dismissal of the takings claim.

Fourteenth Amendment Procedural Due Process.  Due process requires that before one is deprived of life, liberty or property, a constitutionally fair process must be imposed. Here, while the homeowners asserted constitutionally protected interests in the money to pay the fines and the cottages themselves, the Town never deprived them of those interests. First, the fines were never paid. Second, the Town's "regulatory actions do not constitute a deprivation of property because they represent limitations on the use of property that 'inhere in the title itself, in the restrictions that background principles of the State's law of property and nuisance already place upon land ownership.'" Sansotta at 14.  "By acting to abate what it believed was a nuisance, the Town simply kept the Owners from using their property in a way that was prohibited by law." Id. at 15. 

Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection. The homeowners asserted that they were treated differently than the 14 other cottages that were also located in the public trust area. This was true but it did not matter. The Town had a valid reason for treating the cottages differently:  they were closer to the ocean and obstructed the passage of emergency vehicles to a greater extent.  "Notwithstanding the Owners' contentions about all parts of the beach being valuable, different parts of the beach may present different issues with regard to public safety.  Hence, the difference in the locations of the cottages on the beach is a legitimate basis for treating them differently."  Id. at 20. 

Fifth Amendment Takings. The homeowners asserted that their property was taken without just compensation. However, the homeowners had not completed the process of pursuing their compensation claim under state law. This was fatal to a federal claim, which required that a "plaintiff must first have sought compensation 'through the procedures the State has provided for doing so.'" Id. at 21.  In state court, however, the homeowners could assert a taking, even though they had not completed the compensation process.  "[U]nder San Remo Hotel[, L.P. v. City & Cnty. of San Francisco, 545 U.S. 323, 346 (2005)], a plaintiff may bring a takings claim in state court without having already been denied compensation by the state, if he also brings his state-law claim for just compensation." Id. at 23.  And here was the rub:  the Town had removed the case from state court, where the homeowners takings claim was ripe. But in so doing, the Town asserted the claim became unripe in federal court. Id. at 24.

The Court of Appeals was not willing to "judicially condone[] manipulation of litigation." Id. at 25.  The requirement for a federal court to wait until the state court has ruled on a just compensation claim, was a "prudential" not a "jurisdictional" requirement.  State courts have more experience in land use matters than federal courts, but that "does not mean that federal courts are incapable of handling them."  Id. at 25.  "A defendant implicitly agrees with this conclusion when he removes a case involving such a state or municipal law to federal court."  Id. at 25-26. Thus, the court refused to apply the state court litigation requirement and reversed the trial court's dismissal of the takings claim. "Based on our conclusion that a state and its political subdivisions waive the state-litigation requirement by removing a case to federal court, the district court erred in dismissing the Owners' takings claim as unripe." Id. at 35.

We find three things of moment in this case and its decision:

First, Nags Head is just one small community on the Atlantic littoral beset by rising sea levels. Yet it has spawned at least three cases that have been litigated to the appellate level.  We can expect many more.

Second, the issues in the rising sea level cases are going to get right down to fundamentals. Constitutional rights will be invoked. This of course suggests the Supreme Court will get involved. We note that it already has.  See Stop the Beach Renourishment, Inc. v. Florida, 560 U.S. 2606 (2010).

Third, one of the homeowners' takings claim was based on "redefining private property as public land." Id. at 21 n.16. Observe that the states own the land below mean high water (or mean low water in some cases). As the oceans rise, the states' claims to more and more of the current landowners' shorefront will increase. Is it the case, then, that that is a taking?  If it is, then states better start setting aside some substantial funds to pay just compensation that they cannot avoid. 

The front cover of this month's National Geographic premiers Rising Seas, How They Are Changing Our Coast Lines.  In North Carolina, they are living (and litigating) that.

Climate Change Effects | Climate Change Litigation | Regulation | Rising Sea Levels

Harvey Cedars v. Karan: Condemnation at the Shore and the Evolution of the Common Law

July 29, 2013 23:46
by J. Wylie Donald

If you were a municipality that had to take action and condemn private property for the public good to avert disaster, before you got to court you would be particularly pleased to be able to say, "See, I told you so," pointing to an avoided calamity.  When one New Jersey beachfront community, the Borough of Harvey Cedars, took such action, the longed-for serendipity avoided both the trial and intermediate appellate courts. But then fortune smiled and the Borough enjoyed a favorable result before the New Jersey Supreme Court in Borough of Harvey Cedars v. Karan, decided just this month and setting the stage for condemnation actions up and down the New Jersey coast (and potentially elsewhere).

In 1973 the Karans acquired a beachfront home on a small lot (11,868 sq. ft.)  in Harvey Cedars.  It’s a lovely three-story home, the kind of place where one can sit on the porch on the second story and watch the children playing on the beach. Except that is, if there is a 22-foot dune between the home and the water. In that case, to see the little ones one would need to climb up to the third floor. One might, then, be a little incensed if the Borough came and offered $300 for a quarter of the property to put up such a dune.  And the fact that the dune would protect the home from the ravages of a rising and violent ocean, such as that delivered by Superstorm Sandy, might not ameliorate the unjustness of it all. 

That story is pretty much what happened to the Karans.  With funding from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Borough planned to construct a $25 million, 22-foot-high sand dune along its shoreline; it would be placed on private property where necessary by way of an easement. Such a barrier, it was hoped, would protect local homes and businesses from future storm surges. Many beachfront homeowners saw the benefit of a protective dune and voluntarily accepted the easement. Others, including the Karans, did not. The asserted benefits did not sit well with Harvey Karan, who argued that, in nearly four decades of owning the home, he had not seen “a lick of water” reach its living quarters.  We note that this was not a particularly surprising result as the living quarters were on the second and third floor.  In any event, in November 2008, the Borough moved to acquire a portion of the Karans’ property by eminent domain. Unsurprisingly, the Karans rejected the Borough’s offer of $300 “just compensation” and took legal action.

In an evidentiary proceeding, the Karans moved to prevent the Borough’s appraiser, Donald M. Mollier, Ph.D.,  from testifying that the dune’s storm protection increased the value of their home—thus decreasing the amount of compensation to which they were entitled. Instead, they maintained that the project provided “general benefits” to all Harvey Cedar residents, ones that could not be taken into account when determining compensation. Relying on prior New Jersey precedent, Sullivan v North Hudson County Railroad Co., 51 N.J.L. 518 (E. & A. 1889), the court supported this view, instructing the jury:  “the Borough is not entitled to any credit nor should the amount of just compensation to the Karans be reduced by virtue of any general benefit which they may receive along with other property owners in the Borough as a result of the dune and beach replenishment project.”

The jury returned an award to the Karans of $375,000, for the taking of a quarter of their lot and the loss of their view. In early 2012 the Appellate Division affirmed, reasoning "that the advantage accruing to the Karans from the newly constructed dune was not a special benefit but rather 'a classic example of a general benefit,' which cannot be used to offset the loss from a partial taking."

The Borough persisted nonetheless and filed an appeal to the New Jersey Supreme Court. And then came Sandy with its unprecedented devastation up and down the Shore. Over 100 killed, sixty-two billion dollars in damage (much of it uninsured) in the New York-New Jersey metropolitan area. Places like Mantoloking, without a protective dune, were shredded. Places like Harvey Cedars came through relatively unscathed. Hmmmm.  Maybe there's something to the protective dune idea.

The Jersey Shore Partnership thought so and filed a motion seeking leave to be allowed to submit out of time a brief amicus curiae, which the Court granted. Rather than get caught up in an analysis of general and specific benefits, the Partnership took a different tack. Lead counsel, Dave Apy, crafted an argument based on the modern method of any condemnation award:  fair market value.  (Full disclosure:  Mr. Apy mentored me as a younger associate; he has a knack for cutting through legal clutter.)  Rather than staying "mired in technical, nonsensical arguments" over general and special benefits, the courts should look to a simple test:  "whether the benefits, however characterized, are ascertainable and directly enhance the remaining property."  The other amicus, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, likewise advocated for a fair market value approach.   

 The New Jersey Supreme Court bought the Partnership's and the NJDEP's argument. In its ruling, it cited a wide body of case law, dating back to the Magna Carta, and supporting the notion that when private property is taken, the State must pay just compensation. In a complete taking, just compensation is measured by fair market value. The Court saw no reason not to apply the same concept to a partial taking. After laying out the history that led to Sullivan (the basis for the trial court's decision), the Court turned to Mangles v. Hudson County Board of Chosen Freeholders, 55 N.J.L. 88 (Sup. Ct. 1892), decided only a few years after Sullivan and by the same judge. "'Just compensation' could not 'be ascertained without considering all the proximate effects of the taking."  Id. at 92.  "'Any benefit arising from the taking and public use of the property 'which admits of reasonable computation may enter into the award.'" Id.

The remainder of the Court's opinion in Karan bolsters the position of fair market value. It concludes that the general/special benefit distinction "is at odds with contemporary principles of just-compensation jurisprudence."

Thus, there would be a new trial, where “the Borough will have the opportunity to present evidence of any non-speculative, reasonably calculable benefits that inured to the advantage of the Karans’ property at the time of the taking.” "In short, the quantifiable decrease in the value of their property -- loss of view -- should have been set off by any quantifiable increase in its value."

Justice Holmes said in The Common Law, "The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience."  In Karan, logic required that Sullivan’s hoary general and special benefit distinction would carry the day, as it did before the trial court and the Appellate Division.  Experience (bearing the nom de guerre Sandy), however, led to a different result.

Climate Change | Climate Change Effects | Rising Sea Levels | Weather

Walking on Eggshell Skulls: Louisiana's Levees Take on the Oil and Gas Industry Over Coastal Land Degradation

July 24, 2013 23:20
by J. Wylie Donald

Ground zero for climate change and rising sea levels in the United States is not a status to which any state aspires.  Florida distastefully remembers 2005 when 4 hurricanes – Charley, Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne - roared ashore, all within six weeks.   Delaware worries that 8-11% of the state will be submerged by 2100.  Today we learned that Louisiana’s concerns over rising sea levels and hurricanes have resulted in an enormous lawsuit, Board of Commissioners v. Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co LLC, against 100 oil and gas companies based on their activities in Louisiana’s coastal lands over the last century, and the lands' ongoing demise.  “Unless immediate action is taken to reverse these losses and restore the region’s natural defense, many of Louisiana’s coastal communities will vanish into the sea.“  Complaint at 2.

The plaintiff, the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority – East, is a governmental entity whose ”mission is to ensure the physical and operational integrity of the regional flood risk management system.”  To accomplish that end, it concluded that in order for Louisiana's coastal communities to survive into the next century it needed to restore and rejuvenate Louisiana’s coastal lands.  Its complaint explains how the system is supposed to work:

5.2 Coastal lands, including wetlands and marshes, are an integral natural complement to the Authority’s man-made flood protection system. 
5.2.1.  Coastal lands are the first line of defense for south Louisiana’s communities against the destructive force of hurricanes. 
5.2.2. Those lands form a buffer that reduces the height and energy of hurricane storm surge and waves, thereby aiding the Authority in its mission to protect south Louisiana.
5.2.3. Hurricanes lose intensity as they travel over land.  Hence, the more land that a given hurricane must traverse before reaching Louisiana’s coastal cities, the weaker that hurricane’s impact on those communities, and concomitantly, the more effective the levee system.

Notwithstanding the coastal lands’ importance, they had been (allegedly) substantially degraded by the activities of oil and gas companies.  These companies had built a network of canals that was alleged to continue "to introduce increasingly larger volumes of damaging saltwater, at increasingly greater velocity, ever deeper into Louisiana’s coastal landscape and interior wetlands.  The increasing intrusion of saltwater stresses the vegetation that holds wetlands together, weakening – and ultimately killing – that vegetation.  Thus weakened, the remaining soil is washed away even by minor storms.”  Id. ¶¶ 6.7.1-7.2

With the loss of coastal lands, the levees stand to become “de facto sea walls,” a function the levee system is not designed for. Id. ¶ 5.11.

The Authority’s complaint sets forth the regulatory framework for commercial work in the coastal lands.  First, there is the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899, which forbids “any person to … in any manner whatever impair the usefulness of any … work built by the Uniteds States for the preservation and improvement of any of its navigable waters or to prevent floods.”  As noted above, the loss of coastal lands would lead to impairment of the levees struggling to serve as seawalls.  Second, Clean Water Act permits impose obligations for the maintenance and abandonment of canals, and for the minimization of environmental harm.  The permits, it was alleged, had not been complied with.  Third, the Louisiana State Land Office granted rights-of-way, which carried with them maximum right-of-way widths and obligations to minimize environmental effects and to indemnify the State for third-party damages.  The defendants' rights-of-way had all allegedly eroded and now exceeded their permitted size.  Last, state and federal Coastal Zone Management Acts imposed additional obligations.  Id. ¶¶ 9.1-9.4. 

From that framework, the Authority argues a duty of care arises, breach of which by the energy companies supports a claim for negligence.  That claim is joined with claims for strict liability, public and private nuisance, third-party beneficiary rights, and a local favorite, natural servitude of drain.  Under the last claim it is asserted, damages and injunctive relief are owed because “Parties, such as Defendants, may not take actions that increase the flow of water across another party’s land, as the Defendants’ activities in Louisiana’s coastal lands certainly and demonstrably have done.”  Id. ¶ 23.

Commentary already circulating quotes the plaintiff's attorneys on the potential damages at  “many billions of dollars.”  Although the damages are very large, many will look at this as just another wetlands preservation lawsuit. 

We take a different perspective.  The destruction alleged took place over a very long time, by hundreds of entities, with the support of the commercial and political establishments of Louisiana.  The status quo in Louisiana was ongoing energy development in conjunction with degradation of coastal lands.  No one asserted that billions of dollars were owed.  What changed? 

A fundamental tenet of this blog is that climate change will create winners and losers.  The losers are not going to go quietly; instead, they will look around and see if they can be made whole by someone else.  The first wave of climate change liability cases sought to tag the emitters of greenhouse gases with liability; they were uniformly unsuccessful.  Is Board of Commissioners the vanguard of the next wave targeting for liability those entities whose activities make defending against climate change much harder?

There is a theory in tort about the eggshell skull.  As stated by the Seventh Circuit in Schmude v. Tricam Industries:  “If a tortfeasor inflicts a graver loss on his victim than one would have expected because the victim had some pre-existing vulnerability, that is the tortfeasor's bad luck; you take your victim as you find him.” 

Here the Authority might not have done anything, or done it much later, had climate change not exacerbated the dire conditions faced by Louisiana.  Will Louisiana’s eggshell skull be a model for others seeking to be made whole for their losses from climate change?  Only time will tell.  In the meantime, visiting practitioners may wish to practice saying coquille d'oeuf.     

Climate Change | Climate Change Effects | Climate Change Litigation | Rising Sea Levels

Maryland Reassesses Local Sea Level Rise: More of Us Are Going to Get Wet

June 26, 2013 22:14
by J. Wylie Donald

We have looked at Delaware's perspective on rising sea levels several times in recent months.  Now it is Maryland's turn.  Today a panel of experts led by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science issued an update to Maryland's 2008 assessment:   Updating Maryland's Sea Level Rise Projections.  The conclusion is disturbing.  In the passage of just five years, the anticipated sea level rise in the mid-Atlantic states now exceeds the previous high range.

The origin of the report is  Governor Martin O’Malley’s December 28, 2012 Executive Order on Climate Change and “Coast Smart” Construction, which called for updated sea level rise projections based on "an assessment of the latest climate change science and federal guidance."  Maryland has the fourth longest tidal coastline in the continental United States and loses 580 acres every year  to shore erosion.  Id. "Thirteen Chesapeake Bay islands once mapped on nautical charts have been lost." Id.  The State has 450 facilities and 400 miles of roads within areas likely to be impacted within the next 100 years.  Id.  Hence its interest in rising seas.

And the seas are rising, faster than they have before.  More and better data confirm this. 

(1) the 20th century experienced the highest rate of sea-level rise in the last 2,000 years;
(2) global mean sea level (GMSL) rose at an average rate of 1.7 mm yr-1 during the 20th century based on tide gauge records and an average of 3.2 mm yr-1 from 1993 to the present based on satellite measurements;
(3) rates of melting of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets accelerated; and
(4) sea level is likely to rise more than estimated by the IPCC 2007 assessment.

Update at 3.  With respect to the mid-Atlantic region, "relative sea-level rise of 7-8 mm yr-1 has been measured at Maryland tide gauges between 2002 and 2011", although scientists consider this period too short to identify a trend.  Update at 7.

Sea levels are eminently local attributes and affected by much more than the flows from the melting of arctic ice and the warming of the oceans.  The researchers considered, among other things

  • the amount of water being stored behind dams or pumped out of groundwater aquifers (expected to be a net addition over the next century);
  • the weakening gravitational effect of melting arctic ice masses that "counter-intuitively result[] in sea-level decline in nearby polar regions and sea-level increase in tropical regions";
  • glacial isostatic adjustment, which is the rebound of land once weighed down by the glaciers, as well as the subsidence of the "forebulge" of unglaciated lands at the front of the glacier;
  • the slowing of the Gulf Stream, which has the effect of causing coastal waters to rise; and
  • the increase in tidal ranges and storm surges, which are amplified by rising sea levels in an enclosed body of water like Chesapeake Bay.

In case all of that was a little complex, the researchers obligingly "put it all together."  The best estimate of sea level rise in Maryland by 2050 is 1.4 feet, with a range of 0.9 to 2.1 feet; by 2100 it is 3.7 feet with a range of 2.1 to 5.7 feet.  Update at 15.  To put this in perspective, the best estimates in the 2008 Maryland Climate Action Plan (p 53) were by mid-century a range of 0.6 feet to 1.3 feet or by 2100 2.7 to 3.4 feet.   Now the best estimate exceeds the high range of only five years ago.

As Governor O'Malley put it in his executive order, "The State of Maryland must take action now to ensure that State infrastructure investments in vulnerable coastal areas are "Coast Smart" - fiscally wise and structurally sound."  We couldn't agree more.

In closing, we don't often look far out into the future in this blog because its intended focus is the practical here-and-now impacts of climate change on the practice of law.  But the Update offered a sobering perspective on the unshakeable legacy our action or inaction today leaves to our children and grandchildren:

differences in 21st century emissions trajectories begin to have significant consequences for the rate of sea-level rise toward the end of this century and result in even greater differences during the next. In other words, steps taken over the next 30 years to control greenhouse gas emissions and stabilize global temperatures during this century will largely determine how great the sea-level rise challenge is for coastal residents in subsequent centuries. There is not much they could do then to slow sea-level rise because of the inertia of ocean warming and polar ice sheet loss.  Update at 11.

Regulation | Rising Sea Levels

Delaware’s Most Vulnerable County Abstains from Vote on Sea Level Rise Mitigation Options

May 31, 2013 08:47
by J. Wylie Donald  & Jameson Tweedie

In our continuing our discussion (see here and here) of the Delaware Sea Level Rise Advisory Committee ("DSLRAC"), the efforts of the DSLRAC took an ironic - but perhaps predictable - turn when the delegate for the Delaware county likely to be most directly affected by sea level rise abstained from voting on any of the dozens of options developed by the DSLRAC to address the effects of sea level rise.

After developing a list of over 60 "Options for Preparing Delaware for Sea Level Rise" (PDF available here), over the past months the DSLRAC held public engagement sessions in each of Delaware's three counties and solicited public comments on the proposed options. These options fell within four broad types of responses to sea level rise - whether to accommodate, avoid, protect or retreat from the consequences of sea level rise. After consideration of the public comments, the DSLRAC - which includes representatives from municipal governments, business advocacy organizations, citizen advocacy organizations and the cabinet-level departments of the State of Delaware - voted on each of the options before the final list will be presented to Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control Secretary Collin P. O'Mara. The Sussex County delegate, however, abstained from voting on any of the options, reportedly at the request of Sussex County Council.

Sussex County's abstention from the debate - and thus its refusal to vote for any of the options to mitigate the effects of sea level rise in Delaware - is ironic given the effects of sea level rise the DSLRAC found were likely to directly impact Sussex County, which is bordered on the east by the Atlantic Ocean and the Delaware Bay. For example, the DSLRAC found that between 35,000 and 55,000 acres of land in Sussex County was likely to be inundated by sea level rise by 2100, or between 6% and 9% of Sussex County (see here (PDF) at 19). The inundated areas would include low lying resort communities on the Atlantic Ocean, the Delaware Bay and the Inland Bays (id.). In addition to the obvious impacts on tourism and costal recreation, the DSLRAC found that Sussex County was likely to particularly feel the impact of sea level rise on a broad range of infrastructure and resources, including such key items as roads, bridges, evacuation routes, future development areas, and the availability of drinking water (see id. at x-xiii). These risks were apparently not enough to sway the County Council, with one Councilman reported as disputing the existence of sea level rise ("They don't have no facts. It's almost BS, to be honest with you"; "If it hasn't happened in the last 7,000 years, why's it going to do it now, all of a sudden?"), despite the scientific evidence presented by the DSLRAC. Another was reported to have stated that "Sixty percent of our tax base comes from one mile off that beach," but nevertheless suggested that the effects, if any, were "years down the road" and could be dealt with at a later date.

Despite the position of Sussex County Council, various coastal towns within Sussex County, including Dewey Beach and Rehoboth Beach, are looking at actions they can take without County involvement to address the potential impacts of sea level rise, and the Delaware General Assembly has declared the week of September 14-22, 2013 "Sea-Level Rise Awareness Week" to, among other things, "increase the awareness, education and knowledge of Delaware residents" about sea level rise. While the DSLRAC proceeded with the vote on options despite the Sussex County abstention, and will present those options to Secretary O'Mara, Sussex County's position highlights the controversy that continues to surround climate change and sea level rise, even in the places likely to be most affected by sea level rise, and despite the overwhelming consensus among scientists.

Climate Change | Rising Sea Levels

Climate Change Legal Work: Changing the Paradigm Does Not Come Easily

May 8, 2013 08:18
by J. Wylie Donald

I learned the other day that for $3995 I can download nearly a 1000 page report on the climate change industry.  The Ah Hah moment was at hand.  The President’s promise at his inauguration and then again at the State of the Union was upon us.  Here it would be revealed what the small group of lawyers focused on climate change law were looking for:  where is the legal work?  But I am a cautious consumer.  The publisher anticipated my skepticism and offered the table of contents for my review for free.  I didn’t even have to give my email address.  It was an offer hard to turn down.

The TOC was extensive.  Pages and pages chronicled the following industry segments:  Solar Energy, Wind Energy, BioEnergy, Geothermal Energy, Wave & Tidal, Carbon Capture & Storage, Energy Efficiency & Demand Response, Energy Storage, The Green Building Industry, Carbon Markets, Adaptation, Climate Change Consulting, and Transportation.  And under each of these segments one can find pages of company "profiles", presumably businesses with expertise in Wind Energy or Adaptation or Green Buildings.  Even lawyers were able to claim a niche.  Seven firms filled out “Law Firms and Climate Change Practices.”

But as we all know, saying you’re doing something, and actually doing it, can be two entirely different things.  Here’s a different measure:  how many clients attend climate change legal seminars?  I have a bird’s eye view on this topic:  I gave one at the end of last month, Climate Change and Insurance:  Recent Litigation and Regulatory Developments.  The attendance was astounding:  2 insurance companies, 29 law firms (but including none of those "profiled" – maybe that should tell us something), and NO ONE ELSE. 

Could it be that most insurers and all non-insurers have all the climate change related insurance issues already figured out?  Would they get 100% on this little quiz:

What is the atmospheric public trust doctrine and how is it being used to address regulation of greenhouse gas emissions?
Are there any decisions in support of finding that carbon dioxide is not a pollutant within the meaning of a pollution exclusion in a general liability policy?
How do building height restrictions affect rebuilding after Superstorm Sandy?
Do pollution exclusions negate coverage for improper climate change disclosures?
Does a title policy insure against rising sea levels?
Are insurers of last resort (wind pools, beach pools) increasing market share and what are the implications of that?

Anecdotally, I know that most, if not all, would struggle merely to get a C.  But so what?  One can’t sell ice in the wintertime or neckties in a nudist colony.  As lawyers we provide a service to clients with the need for that service.  It is not what we want to sell, but rather what they want to buy.  And there is the secret.  Thomas Kuhn wrote a magnificent work explaining how scientific paradigms shift (think the change from a Ptolemaic universe (the sun revolves around the earth) to a Copernican one (the earth revolves around the sun)).  Presently, the received wisdom is that while climate change is happening (I acknowledge that some still have not received even this idea), it is incidental to the larger issues and can be addressed accordingly. 

I submit that that is, like Ptolemy’s world-view, a paradigm that can be improved.  For example, if one is intent on acquiring property at the Shore, one can buy in fee simple, take a ground lease, or take a shorter term commercial lease.  If one is not actively considering the implications of sea level rise in the fundamental choice of the form of the transaction, one is at risk of finding oneself literally under water with no succor. If in contract documents one is making representations and warranties identifying all releases  of “hazardous materials” (broadly defined to be any substance regulated under environmental laws (a common approach)), without scheduling one’s HVAC systems, one is almost assuredly making inaccurate warranties because virtually all entities are emitting carbon dioxide.  If one relies on a flood plain map for planning purposes, without recognition that all flood plain maps are flawed because they only look backward (i.e., they assume the past accurately predicts the future, which is emphatically not the case in a world of climate change), one is again assuming a large risk.  I could go on. 

The point is that the risks and possibilities of climate change are ubiquitous.  Our job as advocates and wise counsel to our clients is to assist the change to a perspective Copernicus might have adopted, one that incorporates climate change in the larger view.  As demonstrated by the attendance at my seminar, we have a long way to go in that regard.

Carbon Dioxide | Climate Change | Climate Change Effects | Insurance | Rising Sea Levels

In Response to Sea Level Rising At Double the Global Rate, Delaware Debates Whether to Accommodate, Avoid, Protect or Retreat

February 20, 2013 17:07
by J. Wylie Donald  & Jameson Tweedie

On February 19, 2013, the Delaware Sea Level Rise Advisory Committee ("DSLRAC") held the second of three "public engagement sessions" to solicit public comment on a list of 61 "Options for Preparing Delaware for Sea Level Rise". These public engagement sessions are part of the second phase -- focusing on adapting to sea level rise -- of the DSLRAC's mission.

The first phase focused on the preparation of a comprehensive assessment of Delaware's vulnerabilities to sea level rise. The Vulnerability Assessment modeled the effects of three potential sea level increases by the end of the century - 0.5 meters (1.6 feet), 1.0 m (3.3 feet) and 1.5 m (4.9 feet) from mean higher high water - and identified state resources that were vulnerable to sea level rise. The state resources considered were broadly divided into three categories: natural resources; society and economy; and public safety and infrastructure. Within these broad categories, the vulnerability of 79 specific resources to sea level rise was examined, of which 16 were determined to be of high concern statewide: dunes and beaches; coastal impoundments; dams, dikes and levees; evacuation routes; freshwater tidal wetlands; future development areas; habitats of conservation concern; heavy industrial areas; the Port of Wilmington; protected lands; roads and bridges; railways; tidal wetlands; tourism and coastal recreation; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Refuges; and wells. The models did not include any effects from storm surge or increased storm intensity, and thus the effects are arguably conservative for each of the three modeled sea level increases. Even so, the Vulnerability Assessment found that all three of Delaware's counties would be directly affected by sea level rise, and 8-11% of the entire state's land area would be permanently flooded (at the public engagement session a tax assessed value of $1.5 billion was estimated for the land which will potentially be flooded). (Full Vulnerability Assessment).

Delaware's vulnerability to sea level rise is a function not only of its coastal location and economy, but also because sea level rise is occurring faster in Delaware than elsewhere. Currently the global rate of sea level rise used by the DSLRAC (from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates) is 0.07 inches per year, or 7 inches per century (not considering any increase in that rate in the future). However, in Delaware the sea is currently rising at a rate of 0.13 inches per year (13 inches per century), or almost double the global average. This is occurring, in part, because the part of the earth's crust under Delaware is sinking. (Simplistically, during the last ice age some regions were depressed by the weight of the glaciers, while Delaware was not depressed by such heavy glacial coverage and as a result was raised up relative to other regions. This process is now reversing as other regions rebound upward, while Delaware settles downward.) Thus, in Delaware not only are the seas rising, but the land is literally - although slowly - sinking. (See Vulnerability Assessment at 7-8).

With the key vulnerabilities identified, the second phase of the DSLRAC's mission is focused on strategies for adapting to the effects of sea level rise. The DSLRAC has identified four broad strategies: to accommodate sea level rise; to avoid sea level rise; to protect resources form sea level rise; or to retreat from sea level rise. Within these broad strategies - which the DSLRAC does not view as mutually exclusive - are 61 specific options. These range from the very broad - "Increase opportunities for technology transfer and regional coordination for transportation issues affected by sea level rise" (Option 2); "Create new partnerships to increase resources for research and development of adaptation options" (Option 6); "Create a coordinated effort to provide technical assistance to local governments" (Option 56) - to the relatively specific - "Provide sea level rise information to the Delaware Agricultural Land Preservation Program" (Option 7); "Encourage the establishment of a sea level rise group within the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials (Option 9); "Add additional tidal observation stations in Delaware" (Option 54).

Some of the original proposed options have already proven controversial. For example, Option 33 - "Develop a comprehensive outreach strategy to educate public about sea level rise" - was revised to eliminate a reference to educating public school students about climate change and sea level rise. This revision was reportedly made after objections from the Positive Growth Alliance (which is reported as having described such education as "brainwashing") and the Homebuilder's Association of Delaware (which is reported as questioning the "targeting" of children). Another option would require property owners selling property inside zones predicted to be inundated under a specific sea level rise scenario to disclose that vulnerability to potential buyers (also discussed here). This was met with concern that it might negatively affect sales of or the availability of mortgages for such properties, particularly as some stakeholders questioned the three modeled sea level rise scenarios (0.5 m, 1.0 m, 1.5 m) as "speculation" (click here). (It is worth noting that the scenarios modeled by the DSLRAC are generally in line with the recently issued National Climate Assessment (see National Climate Assessment.)

As Delaware considers whether to accommodate, avoid, protect or retreat from the consequences of sea level rise, the Options put forward by the DSLRAC serve as an excellent point of discussion. Option 24 - "Develop a statewide retreat plan" - will undoubtedly contribute to that discussion, if not controversy. Given recent retreat oriented developments in other jurisdictions, such as the recent proposal of Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York to use federal disaster funding in the wake of "Superstorm Sandy" to buy out certain willing homeowners (click here) or the determination in the Netherlands - experts in keeping the sea out - to begin letting the sea back in (click here), an honest and complete discussion of how to engage in retreat, before any retreat is necessary, may be entirely prudent. Whether such a discussion is politically palatable is another question entirely.

Climate Change | Climate Change Effects | Insurance | Rising Sea Levels

A Theory of a Moveable Parcel is Not the Legal Solution to Rising Sea Levels and Beach Front Ownership

February 11, 2013 23:55
by J. Wylie Donald

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court weighed in on an ugly property rights case last Friday concerning some beautiful beachfront on Martha’s Vineyard.  In White v. Hartigan, SJC 11072 (Feb. 8, 2013), the Court considered whether a deed conveying “the beach” in 1841 sufficed to give the plaintiffs title to “the beach” in 2004, notwithstanding that in the intervening century and a half the original beach had vanished beneath the waves.  The Court had little difficulty concluding that, absent an express grant of a moveable parcel, no moveable parcel existed and the plaintiffs’ claims were properly dismissed.

In the case, the Norton and Flynn families, tracing their property rights back to the same scion, enjoyed each others’ company for over a century as upland property owners in a corner of Martha’s Vineyard (near Edgartown for those familiar with the island).  But bosom friends may not stay best friends forever.  Such was the case here and they had a falling out.  Among other things, in deeds conveying parcels of the Norton family property, a reservation was made claiming fractional rights in the beach identified in the 1841 deed, notwithstanding that that beach no longer existed.  That was of no matter claimed the Nortons; “they maintain[ed] that their predecessors in title created a beach parcel with a moveable northern boundary that shifts with the landward migration of the beach.”  The Flynns contested this theory and the Nortons sued.

The basis for the Nortons’ claim was that “the deeds in their chain of title contain either no landward (northern ) boundary or reference as a landward boundary only moveable natural monuments, thereby creating a moveable parcel.”  The Court was “not persuaded.”
 
Although the seaward boundaries of property on the littoral might be moveable, the landward boundary was not.  To hold otherwise would promote instability of property rights and would be inequitable to upland property owners who (if the moveable property boundary rule applied) would have no opportunity for the benefit of accretion to seaward, but would bear all the risk of erosion from the sea.

Nor did the language of the original 1841 deed help the Nortons’ cause.  The case law was clear that references to impermanent monuments or boundaries did not establish a moveable boundary line.  Instead, “the boundary ‘must be taken to refer to the condition of the land at the time the deed was given.’”  The Nortons’ 1841 boundary of arable land and ponds was ascertainable and their beach parcel was under water.

This ruling was certainly not groundbreaking, but it is significant nonetheless.  The precedents relied on by the Court were of an era where rising sea levels raised no concerns.  To be sure, erosion occurred, but no one considered that long-term (even perpetual) submergence might be a more accurate description of what was going on at the shore.  Not so today.  One can find, for example, maps of how sea level rise will specifically affect Martha’s Vineyard.   And Boston has a new report released just last week, Preparing for the Rising Tide.   

One prediction of a response to sea level rise will be the evolution of the common law to protect society’s interests.  As Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. wrote in 1888 in The Common Law:

The substance of the law at any given time pretty nearly corresponds, so far as it goes, with what is then understood to be convenient; but its form and machinery, and the degree to
which it is able to work out desired results, depend very much upon its past.

The Nortons’ theory of a moveable parcel to protect their interests from seaside erosion, could just as easily be applied to seaside submergence.  In either case, however, the common law does not suggest their remedy.  The past does not lead to their desired result; nor, apparently, does Massachusetts’ highest court find it convenient.  

Climate Change Effects | Rising Sea Levels

Call for Comments on the Third National Climate Assessment

February 2, 2013 00:46
by J. Wylie Donald

The draft “National Assessment of Supply Chain and Other Developing Risks” was issued just last month. It outlined increasing threats to infrastructure, food and water supplies, air quality, national security, public health and public safety, and ecosystems. It also discussed measures to reduce those risks and to address them. In short, the Assessment should be required reading for everyone involved in planning a company's response to the things that could destroy the company. Only it won't be because of one small detail. That title, the "National Assessment of Supply Chain etc.," is a fabrication.  The real title is the draft Third National Climate Assessment Report (Assessment).  (It's 147 MB so here's the Executive Summary too.)  Thus, for many companies, the report will be shunted to the EH&S office and the C-Suite will remain oblivious. This is unfortunate.

"National climate assessments act as status reports about climate change science and impacts."  Their legal basis is the Global Change Research Act of 1990 (codified at 15 USC §§ 2921-61), which mandates periodic reports to the President and Congress evaluating the findings of the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP).  Under the USGCRP the effects of global change (not just climate change) on all facets of the nation (including agriculture, energy, water resources, human health and ecoystems) are analyzed.  Trends are reviewed and projected for up to 100 years.  “The NCA aims to incorporate advances in the understanding of climate science into larger social, ecological, and policy systems, and with this provide integrated analyses of impacts and vulnerability.”  The last National Climate Change Assessment was in 2000.

What is particularly rewarding in the Assessment is that it gets right down to the nitty-gritty.  We have picked only one topic to focus on, Transportation, but one could take a deep dive in over a dozen.  Ports are obviously at risk from sea level rise, but some might think that is manageable because sea level is only changing gradually, even if the worst predictions are accepted.  If it were only that simple.  "When sea level rise is coupled with intense storms, the resulting storm surges will be greater, extend farther inland, and cause more extensive damage."  Draft at 200.  Even without sea level rise, the increase in extreme weather and flooding will result in increased sedimentation.  "Channels that are not well maintained and have less sedimentation storage volume will thus be more vulnerable to significant, abrupt losses in navigation service levels."  Id

Climate change predictions also include increasing temperatures, but so what?  The Assessment offers the following:  "expansion joints on bridges and highways are stressed and asphalt pavements deteriorate more rapidly at higher temperatures.  Rail track stresses and track buckling will increase.  Lift-off limits at hot-weather and high-altitude airports will reduce aircraft operations."  Draft at 197.  Each of these conclusions is referenced to research.  Airports too are not out of harm's way.  Thirteen of the nation's largest airports have at least one runway within 12 feet of current sea level.  Draft at 201.  Readers will remember that the storm surge from Sandy was 14 feet in New York.  Draft at 203.  They may not remember that the storm surge from Katrina was 15 feet along the entire Mississippi coast, and much higher in some places (like an "astonishing 27.8 feet at Pass Christian, Mississippi").  Our business is not freight forwarding or overnight delivery but we bet that those running such businesses pay close attention to the reliability of their transportation routes.  If supply chains matter, one needs to be looking at roads, rails, ports and airports, and we mean locally, as well as abroad.

The Assessment is a trove of information and provides citations to the vulnerability studies of numerous cities and states, including Boston and New York City, California, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, Washington, and Wisconsin, which have already begun assessing their transportation vulnerabilities.  Draft at 209.  Although there is a lot of information out there, the Assessment also sounds a note of caution in preparing:  "Impacts of climate on transportation system operations, including safety and congestion, both on road systems and in aviation, have been little studied to date."  Draft at 213.  "[E]xisting models used for snow and ice removal procedures are no longer reliable, requiring better monitoring and new models, as well as better roadway condition detection systems."  Draft at 211.  This uncertainty, however, should not be a reason to do nothing.  As the Assessment states, preparation helps a lot:  " the vulnerability analyses prepared by the metropolitan New York authorities [prior to Sandy] provided a framework for efforts to control the damage and restore service more rapidly."  Draft at 204.

Another approach taken by the Assessment is to comment on the impacts from climate change that can be expected in various areas of the country such as more hot days, or more heavy precipitation (or more drought depending on location). For businesses that don't include weather considerations in their planning, the Assessment won't change anything:  heavy rains have come since the dawn of time and humans have responded. But for those that do any sort of weather preparation and planning, the Assessment points out what extreme weather means, and thus suggests what steps might be worth taking.

For example, torrential rains from Hurricane Irene in Vermont damaged over 500 miles of state-owned roadways and 200 bridges. Draft at 554.  Some communities were isolated for days. Id. Why should people in the Northeast take notice?  Because "between 1958 and 2010, the Northeast saw a 74% increase in the amount of precipitation falling in very heavy events." Draft at 551. In other words, the fate of Vermont is increasingly likely to be the fate of others.

And this is a fundamental feature of climate change.   "Climate change is statistical weather, and manifests itself as a change in the frequency of events that would still occur (but with lower frequency) in the absence of climate change."  Draft at 218. The risk of untoward events is increasing. No one will be able to point to a flood or a hurricane or a heat wave and say this is climate change-related. But that is not necessary, or even relevant. As the risk increases, prudence requires that one spend more time and expense thinking about and countering the risk.  The Assessment is a good place to start.  And a good first step to start one's thinking would be to submit comments on the report.  The deadline is April 12.

Climate Change | Climate Change Effects | Rising Sea Levels | Weather


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