Lawsuits against the U.S. EPA and individual states seem to be a popular strategy to address water pollution problems. Last April, we wrote about Lucas County, Ohio and its suit against the EPA over water quality in the western basin of Lake Erie. Since that time, a federal judge has given another lawsuit concerning Lake Erie, filed by the Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC), the green light. But not all litigation concerns Ohio waters—recently, Maryland’s attorney general was directed to sue the EPA and Pennsylvania over water pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. Here are summaries of these two developments.
Environmental Law & Policy Center vs. EPA
We wrote about this lawsuit in February 2019, when ELPC had just filed its complaint. Essentially, ELPC contended that the U.S. EPA violated the Clean Water Act (CWA) when it allowed the Ohio EPA to designate Lake Erie as an impaired water body without instituting a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) for pollutants going into the lake. You can get more details on this case by reading our blog post, here. Subsequently, EPA moved to dismiss the complaint. In addition, Lucas County joined ELPC as co-plaintiffs.
On November 13, 2019, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio denied EPA’s motion to dismiss. Judge James Carr ruled that the case can go forward, finding that ELPC “plausibly alleges that Ohio EPA has clearly and unambiguously refused to develop a TMDL for Western Lake Erie.” This means that the action will go forward and that ELPC will be able to argue the case on the merits. You can read the ruling here.
Maryland to sue EPA, Pennsylvania
Meanwhile, in Maryland, the governor recently sent a letter to the state’s attorney general asking him to “commence litigation” against the EPA for “failing to enforce the Chesapeake Bay” TMDL, and against its upstream neighbor, Pennsylvania, for “repeatedly falling short of necessary pollution reduction goals.” At the center of this controversy is Pennsylvania’s draft Watershed Implementation Plan (WIP), which Maryland’s governor alleges will cause Pennsylvania to fall far behind its 2025 pollution reduction targets in addition to not meeting the TMDL. The governor asserts that by accepting Pennsylvania’s WIP with very few changes, the EPA is failing to enforce Pennsylvania’s compliance with the established TMDL.
It typically takes these types of lawsuits a while to work through the courts. The way the courts decide these cases will affect how TMDLs are viewed. Are TMDLs necessary under the CWA and enforceable, as the plaintiffs claim? Or are TMDLs simply soft goals and guidelines for reducing pollution that EPA does not necessarily have to enforce? Ultimately, outcomes of these cases could have implications for agricultural runoff, which can be a contributor to pollution in both Lake Erie and the Chesapeake Bay.
A new rule proposed by the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) covers a topic that has been up in the air for more than a decade. The 2008 Farm Bill called on the Secretary of Agriculture to create regulations meant to guide the USDA in determining whether or not a packer, swine contractor, or live poultry dealer gave a person or locality “any undue or unreasonable preference or advantage” when purchasing livestock and meat products. The Secretary of Agriculture entrusted the rulemaking to USDA’s Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA). GIPSA did propose versions of the rule in 2010 and 2016, but neither ever went into effect due to congressional prohibitions on such rulemaking and a presidential transition, respectively. (The anticipated regulations have long been referred to as the “Farmer Fair Practice Rules.”) Once Trump came into office, his administration did away with GIPSA and gave its responsibilities to AMS, further delaying the rulemaking.
After all this time, what does AMS propose for the Farmer Fair Practice Rules? On January 13, AMS published its proposed rule in the Federal Register. AMS would add a section to the Packers & Stockyards regulations, which would allow the Secretary of Agriculture to “consider one or more criteria” when deciding whether a packer, swine contractor, or live poultry dealer unfairly favored any person or locality over another in their dealings. AMS developed four criteria to be considered when determining whether a packer, contractor, or dealer’s actions were unfair. Actions would be deemed unfair when they:
- Cannot be justified on the basis of cost savings related to dealing with different producers, sellers, or growers;
- Cannot be justified on the basis of meeting a competitor’s prices;
- Cannot be justified on the basis of meeting other terms offered by a competitor; and
- Cannot be justified as a reasonable business decision that would be customary in the industry.
In the rulemaking, AMS provides several examples of fair and unfair practices. AMS also emphasizes several times that the Secretary of Agricultural would not be limited to considering just those four criteria when making a decision, as each situation is unique. In essence, the proposed language is meant to guide the Secretary’s thinking when making a determination about whether or not an action is unfair.
If you would like to read more about this proposed rule it is available in its entirety here. Information about submitting comments on the rule is available at the same link. Comments on the rule may be submitted up until March, 13, 2020. Will this version of the elusive Farmer Fair Practice Rules finally stick? We will have to wait and see.
With 2019’s ups and downs in the weather and the marketplace, it’s likely that many farmers used the Federal Crop Insurance Program to mitigate their losses. Those farmers whose crop insurance claims reach $200,000 or more will be audited by the USDA’s Risk Management Agency.
What’s the purpose of an audit—does it mean you’re in trouble with the government? What can you expect when going through the audit process? How do you prepare for an audit? What kind of records and documentation do you need? All of these questions and more are answered in a new fact sheet we recently published through our partnership with the National Agricultural Law Center. Click here to read the fact sheet to better prepare you for going through an audit.
I often receive quizzical looks when someone asks me what kind of law I practice and I say “agricultural law.” A common response is “what in the world is that”? A look back at agricultural law in 2019 provides a pretty good answer to that question. Our review of major developments in the last year illustrates the diversity of legal issues that make up the world of agricultural law. It’s never dull, that’s certain.
Here are the highlights of what we saw in agricultural law in 2019:
- The Lake Erie Bill of Rights (LEBOR). Toledo citizens gained national attention when they passed a charter amendment granting legal rights to Lake Erie and its ecosystem to “exist, flourish, and naturally evolve.” The amendment also allowed Toledoans to sue corporations and governments that violate the lake’s legal rights. Ohio’s legislature quickly enacted a law prohibiting any attempt to enforce LEBOR, and Drewes Farm challenged LEBOR as unconstitutional in a lawsuit that is still tied up in federal court. While Toledoans won’t be able to use LEBOR to recognize legal rights for the lake, the measure raised awareness of the water quality frustrations felt by Toledoans and others with ties to Lake Erie, and brought attention to similar efforts around the country to protect natural resources by granting them legal rights. Read our review of LEBOR here.
- Watersheds in Distress tug-of-war. Controversial rules proposed by the Kasich administration would have expanded areas in Ohio designated as “watersheds in distress” and added regulations for farmers operating within those areas. Governor DeWine’s new Director of Agriculture yanked the rules upon taking office in January, however, effectively ending the controversy over whether more regulations for farmers are the solution to Ohio’s water quality problems. The governor's H2OH initiative offers an alternative to the Watersheds in distress approach.
- Hemp hemp, hooray. After the 2018 Farm Bill legalized hemp by distinguishing it from marijuana under federal law, then authorized states to allow hemp production, Ohio passed legislation also decriminalizing hemp. Ohio’s proposed rules for cultivating and processing hemp are now out, and ODA held a hearing on the proposed rules on December 18, 2019. ODA also submitted Ohio’s Hemp Production Plan to the USDA in December, and the USDA approved the plan. Once the state rules become final, Ohio’s hemp program will open up and applicants can apply for cultivation licenses and begin growing hemp as a commodity crop in 2020. ODA’s hemp program page is here.
- Waves of WOTUS. We began 2019 with the Trump administration’s proposed WOTUS rewrite in February, which is still under review and not yet effective. We followed that with the administration’s announced repeal of the Obama-era 2015 WOTUS rule in September; the repeal became effective on December 23, 2019. There’s more: the administration published a reinstatement of the WOTUS definition from 1986/1988 until its proposed rule becomes final. But that’s not all. Sprinkled in and around those dates were a slew of lawsuits and injunctions challenging the Obama-era rule, the rulemaking process, and the pre-2015 definitions of WOTUS. By the end of the year, we were left with a patchwork of different WOTUS rules across the country and uncertainty about which are actually in effect. Read our latest WOTUS post here.
- Third Roundup cancer lawsuit is biggest yet. A jury awarded a whopping $2 billion to a California couple who claimed that Monsanto failed to warn them about the health risks of using Roundup, which they believe caused their non-Hodgkins lymphoma. This was the largest of three verdicts against Monsanto to date, but the court later reduced the amount to $87 million. Approximately 13,000 more Roundup cases are pending in state and federal courts across the country, and more Roundup lawsuits are also underway against Home Depot and Lowe’s. Bayer announced in June that it would invest $5.6 billion on weed management research to find alternatives to the glyphosate used in Roundup.
- Ohio’s Right to Farm law expanded. Buried deep in Ohio’s budget bill were significant changes to Ohio’s Right to Farm law, the law that gives agricultural activities immunity from civil nuisance lawsuits. The changes were an obvious response to the Lake Erie Bill of Rights initiative. The revisions allow agricultural activities on any CAUV land and agricultural activities conducted by a person pursuant to a lease agreement to qualify for the immunity, in addition to the pre-existing law’s coverage for land owners enrolled in the “Agricultural District Program” with the county auditor. The new law also attempts to clarify the types of agricultural activities that receive protection under the law, including fertilizer and manure applications and any expansions or changes in farm operations. Read more about the changes, which became effective October 17, here.
- Congress increases farm bankruptcy limit. Sometimes Congress can agree on something. The Family Farmer Relief Act of 2019 is one example. The federal bill, effective August 23, 2019, raised the debt limit for family farmers and fishermen seeking to use Chapter 12 bankruptcy law to reorganize debts and stay in business. Farmers may now have an aggregate debt of up to $10 million when using Chapter 12, rather than the previous limit of $4.4 million.
- Revisions to H-2A rules begin. Long awaited revisions to the H-2A program are underway. In October, changes were made to the labor market test for H-2A labor certification, which determines whether qualified American workers are available to fill temporary agricultural positions and if not, allows an employer to seek temporary migrant workers. Employers will no longer have to advertise a job in a print newspaper of general circulation in the area of intended employment. For the final rule, visit this link.
- Meat and eggs are not so simple anymore. While all is quiet in Ohio, the country continues to battle over what exactly is “meat” and when eggs must come from cage free hens. The most recent egg law arose in Michigan, whose lawmakers passed a bill that will require all eggs sold in the state by 2024 to be from birds housed in cage-free facilities. Oregon and Washington passed similar laws in 2019. Meanwhile, litigation in Arkansas has put a hold on carrying out a state law that prohibits labeling a food product as “meat” if it doesn’t derive from an animal. A similar law and lawsuit developed in Missouri last year. And in Washington DC, the USDA and FDA jockeyed for regulatory authority over “cell cultured meat” and finally agreed to divide labeling and inspection authority between the two agencies. We expect these food battles to continue in 2020.
- Solar leasing on the rise. Yes, solar leasing in Ohio. Thousands of acres of farmland in Ohio will soon be home to utility-scale solar energy facilities under long-term solar energy leases. The Ohio Power Siting Board has approved six solar facilities, with eight more in the works. We’ve examined the legal issues raised by solar energy leasing on farmland and have summarized them in our Farmland Owner’s Guide to Solar Leasing, available here.
What might the wide world of agricultural law see in 2020? We’ll tackle that question next, so stay tuned for more.
Hemp, drones, meat labeling and more—there is so much going on in the world of ag law! With so much happening, we thought we’d treat you to another round of the Harvest before the holidays.
Hemp for the holidays. As 2020 and the first growing season approach, there has been a flurry of activity surrounding hemp. States have been amending their rules and submitting them to the USDA for approval in anticipation of next year. In addition, just last week USDA extended the deadline to comment on the interim final hemp rule from December 30, 2019 to January 29, 2020. If you would like to submit a comment, you can do so here. To get a refresher on the interim rule, see our blog post here.
In other hemp news, EPA announced approval of 10 pesticides for use on industrial hemp. You can find the list here. Additional pesticides may be added to the list in the future.
Congress considers a potential food safety fix. It’s likely that over the last several years, you’ve heard about numerous recalls on leafy greens due to foodborne illnesses. It has been hypothesized that some of these outbreaks could potentially be the result of produce farms using water located near CAFOs to irrigate their crops. A bill entitled the “Expanded Food Safety Investigation Act of 2019” has been introduced to tackle this and other potential food safety problems. If passed, the bill would give FDA the authority to conduct microbial sampling at CAFOs as part of a foodborne illness investigation. The bill is currently being considered in the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.
Animal welfare bill becomes federal law. In November, the President signed the “Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture Act” (PACT), into law. PACT makes it a federal offense to purposely crush, burn, drown, suffocate, impale, or otherwise subject non-human mammals, birds, reptiles, or amphibians to serious bodily injury. PACT also outlaws creating and distributing video of such animal torture. The law includes several exceptions, including during customary and normal veterinary, agricultural husbandry, and other animal management practices, as well as during slaughter, hunting, fishing, euthanasia, etc.
No meat labeling law in Arkansas? Last winter, Arkansas passed a law that made it illegal to “misbrand or misrepresent an agricultural product that is edible by humans.” Specifically, it made it illegal to represent a product as meat, beef, pork, etc. if the product is not derived from an animal. Unsurprisingly, the law did not sit well with companies in the business of making and selling meat substitutes from plants and cells. In July, The Tofurky Company sued the state in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas, Central Division, claiming the labeling law violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments, as well as the dormant Commerce Clause. On December 11, the District Court enjoined, or stopped Arkansas from enforcing, the labeling law. This means that the state will not be able to carry out the law while the District Court considers the constitutionality of the law. We will be following the ultimate outcome of this lawsuit closely.
Ag wants to be part of the drone conversation. The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation is currently considering a bill called the “Drone Advisory Committee for the 21st Century Act.” If passed, the bill would ensure that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) includes representatives from agriculture, forestry, and rangeland, in addition to representatives from state, county, city, and Tribal governments on the Drone Advisory Committee (DAC). Thus, such representatives would be part of the conversation when the DAC advises the FAA on drone policies.
Ag financing tools may get an upgrade. The “Modernizing Agriculture and Manufacturing Bonds Act,” or MAMBA (what a great name) was introduced very recently in the House Committee on Ways and Means. Text of the bill is not yet available, but when it is, it should be located here. According to this fact sheet, the bill would make a number of changes to current law, including increasing “the limitation on small issue bond proceeds for first-time farmers” to $552,500, repealing “the separate dollar limitation on the use of bond proceeds for depreciable property” which would mean famers could use the full amount for equipment, breeding livestock, and other capital assets, and modifying the definition of “substantial farmland” to make it easier for beginning farmers to gain access to capital.
Shoring up national defense of agriculture and food is on the docket. The Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry sent the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility Act of 2019 (NBAF) to the floor of the Senate for consideration. Among other things, bill would allow the USDA, through the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility, to address threats from human pathogens, zoonotic disease agents, emerging foreign animal diseases, and animal transboundary diseases, and to develop countermeasures to such diseases. Essentially, USDA and NBAF would see to national security in the arena of agriculture and food.
We hope you have a wonderful holiday season! We will be sure to continue the ag law updates in the next decade!
Written by Ellen Essman and Peggy Hall
The holidays are almost here, 2019 is almost over, but the world of ag law isn’t taking a break. From cannabidiol, to Ohio bills on water quality and wind power, to a cage-free egg law in Michigan, here’s the latest roundup of agricultural law news you may want to know:
FDA warns companies about cannabidiol products. If you’ve been following the hemp saga unfold over the past year, you know that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been contemplating what to do with cannabidiol, or CBD from derived hemp products. In addition to manufacturing standards, FDA has also considered how CBD products are marketed and labeled. Although FDA has issued no official rules on CBD marketing and labeling, the agency has warned a number of companies that their marketing of CBD violates the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act). On November 25, FDA sent warning letters to 15 companies. FDA asserts that the companies “are using product webpages, online stores and social media to market CBD products in interstate commerce in ways that violate the FD&C Act.” In particular, FDA is apprehensive about those companies who market CBD products in ways that claim they can treat diseases or be used therapeutically for humans and animals. Since CBD has not been approved by FDA or found safe for these uses, companies cannot make such claims. You can see FDA’s news release for more information and for the list of companies.
It won’t be as difficult for financial institutions to serve hemp related businesses. Federal agencies and state bank regulators released a statement clarifying what is required of banks when hemp businesses are customers. Since hemp was removed from the federal list of controlled substances, banks no longer have to file a Suspicious Activity Report on every customer involved in growth or cultivation of hemp just because they grow hemp. This action will make it easier for those legally cultivating hemp to work with banks and obtain loans for their farms. For more information, the agencies’ press release is available here.
Ohio House considers the Senate’s water quality bill. Ohio’s House Energy & Natural Resources Committee held a hearing on Senate Bill 2 just last week. The bill would implement a Statewide Watershed and Planning Program through the Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA). Under the bill, ODA would be charged with categorizing watersheds in Ohio and appointing coordinators for each of the watersheds. ODA and the coordinators would work closely with soil and water conservation districts to manage watersheds. Ag groups such as the Sheep Improvement Association, the Cattleman’s Association, the Pork Council, the Dairy Producers Association, and the Poultry Association testified in favor of SB 2.
Ohio House committee debates wind bill. The House Energy & Natural Resources Committee was busy last week—in addition to SB 2, they also discussed House Bill 401. In the simplest terms, if passed, HB 401 would allow townships to hold a referendum on approved wind projects. This means that with a vote, townships could overturn decisions made by the Ohio Power and Siting Board (OPSB). In the committee hearing, wind industry representatives argued that such a referendum would be harmful, since it would overturn OPSB decisions after companies have already spent a great deal of money to be approved by the Board. They also argued that the bill singles out the wind industry and does not allow referendums on other energy projects. Republican committee members signaled that they may be willing to revise the language of HB 401 to allow a referendum before OPSB decisions.
Iowa’s ag-gag law is paused. In May, we wrote about Iowa’s new ag-gag law, which was the state’s second attempt to ban undercover whistleblowers and journalists from secretly filming or recording at livestock production facilities. In response, numerous animal rights groups sued the state, claiming that the law unconstitutionally prevents their speech based on content and viewpoint. On December 2, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa issued a preliminary injunction, which means that the state will not be able to enforce the ag-gag law while the lawsuit against it is being considered. The preliminary injunction can be found here.
Cage free eggs coming to Michigan in 2024. Michigan lawmakers recently passed Senate Bill 174, which, among other things, will require that all birds producing eggs both in and out of the state be housed in “cage-free” facilities by 2024. The cage-free facilities will have to allow hens to roam unrestricted with the exception of exterior walls, and some types of fencing to contain the birds. In an indoor facility, the farmer must be able to stand in the hens’ usable floor space while caring for them. In addition, the facilities must have enrichments for hens such as scratch areas, perches, nest boxes, and dust bathing areas. Michigan joins California, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Washington in banning non-cage-free eggs. Note that Michigan’s law will apply to Ohio egg producers who sell eggs to buyers in Michigan.
Case watch: hearing set in Lake Erie Bill of Rights case. The court has set a January 28, 2020 hearing date for the slow moving federal lawsuit challenging the Lake Erie Bill of Rights (LEBOR) enacted by Toledo voters in February. The hearing will likely focus on several motions to dismiss the case filed by the parties on both sides of the controversy, but Judge Zouhary indicated that he’ll set the agenda for the hearing prior to its date. Drewes Farm Partnership filed the federal lawsuit against the City of Toledo in February, claiming that LEBOR is unconstitutional and violates several Ohio laws. The State of Ohio was permitted to join the farm as plaintiffs in the case, but the court denied motions by Toledoans for Safe Water and the Lake Erie Ecosystem to join as defendants in the case. For more on the LEBOR lawsuit, refer to this post and this post. For our explanation of LEBOR, see this bulletin.
Stay tuned to the Ohio Ag Law Blog as we continue to track these and other developments in agricultural law through the holidays and beyond.
You’re never going to make everyone happy. This is especially true when it comes to the federal definition of “waters of the United States,” or WOTUS, under the Clean Water Act (CWA). The definition of WOTUS has changed over the years in order to adapt to numerous court decisions. The Obama administration’s 2015 rule has been litigated so much that a patchwork of enforcement has been created across the country, with some states falling under the 2015 rule and others falling under the previous iterations of the rule from 1986 and 1988. In fact, in New Mexico, parts of the state follow one rule and other parts follow the other. You can see the current state breakdown here.
To add even more chaos to all of this confusion, the Trump administration decided to repeal and replace Obama’s 2015 rule. In September, a rule was announced that would repeal the 2015 WOTUS rule and replace it with the 1986 and 1988 rule. This reversion would not be permanent; the 1986/1988 rule is simply a placeholder until the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers finalize a new WOTUS rule to replace it. The repeal is set to become effective in December. You can read our blog post on the repeal here.
Of course, there are those who are unhappy with the 1986/1988 rule being reinstated, even if only for a time. In October, two lawsuits were filed against the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers in federal district courts. In South Carolina, environmental groups sued because they feel that the 1986/1988 rules do not go far enough to protect waters. On the other hand, in the New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association sued because they feel that returning to the 1986/1988 rules goes too far in regulating water. Below, we will briefly break down the arguments in each of these lawsuits.
South Carolina lawsuit
Following the October repeal announcement, environmental groups, including the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League and the Natural Resources Defense Council, sued the EPA and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina, Charleston Division, claiming that the repeal rulemaking was unlawful. In their complaint, the environmental groups make several arguments. They allege that the repeal rulemaking violates the Due Process Clause, Administrative Procedure Act (APA), and Supreme Court precedent. They say that the Due Process Clause has been violated because the rulemaking was not undertaken with an open mind, instead it was already pre-judged or all but decided before the process even started. They cite many violations of the APA—including failing to provide a “reasoned explanation” for the repeal, failing to discuss alternatives to repealing the rule, and failing to provide a meaningful opportunity for public comment on the rulemaking. Additionally, the environmental groups claim that the repeal “illegally departs from Justice Kennedy’s” opinion in the Rapanos case. Ultimately, Kennedy’s opinion in Rapanos is what led the EPA and Corps to scrap the 1986/1988 rule and create the 2015 rule to be more consistent with that opinion. Therefore, the environmental groups argue that going back to the 1986/1988 version would violate Kennedy’s “significant nexus” test for WOTUS, which invalidated the old version of the rule. In other words, the environmental groups believe that going back to the 1980s rules will result in less waters being protected.
New Mexico lawsuit
The New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association (NMCGA) sued the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico. In the complaint, NMCGA asks the court to enjoin, or stop the enforcement of the repeal rule, claiming that the rule violates the CWA, the Congressional Review Act, the Commerce Clause, the Due Process Clause, the Non-delegation Doctrine, and the Tenth Amendment. The NMCGA’s argument hinges on the definition of “navigable waters.” Under the CWA, “navigable waters” are the same as WOTUS. Like the environmental groups in South Carolina, NMCGA interprets the Rapanos decision as invalidating provisions of the 1986/1988 WOTUS rule. NMCGA, however, reads Rapanos as limiting “navigable waters” to only the waters that are actually navigable, or “navigable-in-fact.” Thus, unlike the environmental groups, NMCGA believes that both the 1986/1988 rule and the 2015 rule result in more waters being regulated than is allowed under the CWA and Supreme Court decisions.
Will the tide turn on WOTUS in the future?
Despite the Trump EPA’s repeal and upcoming replacement of the 2015 rule, the future of WOTUS is anything but certain. The lawsuits in South Carolina and New Mexico are just the latest proof of that. What is more, the lawsuits to enjoin the 2015 rule are still ongoing, and it is unclear whether they will be wiped out when the repeal rule becomes effective in December. When the replacement rule is finally published, there is no doubt even more lawsuits will follow. It’s also important to remember that we have an election next year, so if there’s a new administration, they’ll probably put their own stamp on WOTUS.
We haven’t done a legislative update in a while—so what’s been going on in the Ohio General Assembly? Without further ado, here is an update on some notable ag-related bills that have recently passed one of the houses, been discussed in committee, or been introduced.
- House Bill 7, “Create water quality protection and preservation”
This bill passed the House in June, but the Senate Finance Committee had a hearing on it just last month. HB 7 would create both the H2Ohio Trust Fund and the H2Ohio Advisory Council. To explain these entities in the simplest terms, the H2Ohio Advisory Council would decide how to spend the money in the H2Ohio Trust Fund. The money could be used for grants, loans, and remediation projects to address water quality priorities in the state, to fund research concerning water quality, to encourage cooperation in addressing water quality problems among various groups, and for priorities identified by the Ohio Lake Erie commission. The Council would be made up of the following: the directors of the Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA), the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (OEPA), and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) the executive director of the Ohio Lake Erie commission, one state senator from each party appointed by the President of the Senate, one state representative from each party appointed by the Speaker of the House, and appointees from the Governor to represent counties, municipal corporations, public health, business or tourism, agriculture, statewide environmental advocacy organizations, and institutions of higher education. Under HB 7, the ODA, OEPA, and ODNR would have to submit an annual plan to be accepted or rejected by the Council, which would detail how the agencies planned to use their money from the Fund. You can find the bill in its current form here.
- House Bill 24, “Revise Humane Society law”
HB 24 passed the House unanimously on October 30, and has since been referred to the Senate Committee on Agriculture & Natural Resources. The bill would revise procedures for humane society operations and require humane society agents to successfully complete training in order to serve. Importantly, HB 24 would allow law enforcement officers to seize and impound any animal the officer has probable cause to believe is the subject of an animal cruelty offense. Currently, the ability to seize and impound only applies to companion animals such as dogs and cats. You can read HB 24 here.
- House Bill 160, “Revise alcoholic ice cream law”
Since our last legislative update, HB 160 has passed the House and is currently in Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee in the Senate. At present, those wishing to sell ice cream containing alcohol must in Ohio obtain an A-5 liquor permit and can only sell the ice cream at the site of manufacture, and that site must be in an election precinct that allows for on- and off-premises consumption of alcohol. This bill would allow the ice cream maker to sell to consumers for off-premises enjoyment and to retailers who are authorized to sell alcohol. To read the bill, click here.
- House Bill 168, “Establish affirmative defense-certain hazardous substance release”
This bill was passed in the House back in May, but there have been several committee hearings on it this fall. HB 168 would provide a bona fide prospective purchaser of a facility that was contaminated with hazardous substances before the purchase with immunity from liability to the state in a civil action. In other words, the bona fide prospective purchaser would not have the responsibility of paying the state of Ohio for their investigations and remediation of the facility. In order to claim this immunity, the purchaser would have to show that they fall under the definition of a bona fide prospective purchaser, that the state’s cause of action rests upon the person’s status as an owner or operator of the facility, and that the person does not impede a response action or natural resource restoration at the facility. You can find the bill and related information here.
- House Bill 183, “Allow tax credits to assist beginning farmers”
House Bill 183 was discussed in the House Agriculture & Rural Development Committee on November 12. This bill would authorize a nonrefundable income tax credit for beginning farmers who attend a financial management program. Another nonrefundable tax credit would be available for individuals or businesses that sell or rent farmland, livestock, buildings, or equipment to beginning farmers. ODA would be in charge of certifying individuals as “beginning farmers” and approving eligible financial management programs. HB 183 is available here. A companion bill (SB 159) has been introduced in the Senate and referred to the Ways & Means Committee, but no committee hearings have taken place.
- House Bill 373, “Eliminate apprentice/special auctioneer licenses/other changes”
HB 373 was introduced on October 22, and the House Agriculture & Rural Development Committee held a hearing on it on November 12. This bill would make numerous changes to laws applicable to auctioneers. For instance, it would eliminate the requirement that a person must serve as an apprentice auctioneer prior to becoming an auctioneer; instead, it would require applicants for an auctioneers’ license to pass a course. The bill would also require licensed auctioneers to complete eight continuing education hours prior to renewing their license. HB 373 would give ODA the authority to regulate online auctions conducted by a human licensed auctioneer, and would require people auctioning real or personal property on the internet to be licensed as an auctioneer. To read the bill in its entirety and see all the changes it would make, click here.
- Senate Bill 2, “Create watershed planning structure”
Since our last legislative post, SB 2 has passed the Senate and is now in the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee. If passed, this bill would do four main things. First, it would create the Statewide Watershed Planning and Management Program, which would be tasked with improving and protecting the watersheds in the state, and would be administered by the ODA director. Under this program, the director of ODA would have to categorize watersheds in Ohio and appoint watershed planning and management coordinators in each watershed region. The coordinators would work with soil and water conservation districts to identify water quality impairment, and to gather information on conservation practices. Second, the bill states the General Assembly’s intent to work with agricultural, conservation, and environmental organizations and universities to create a certification program for farmers, where the farmers would use practices meant to minimize negative water quality impacts. Third, SB 2 charges ODA, with help from the Lake Erie Commission and the Ohio Soil and Water Conservation Commission, to start a watershed pilot program that would help farmers, agricultural retailers, and soil and water conservation districts in reducing phosphorus. Finally, the bill would allow regional water and sewer districts to make loans and grants and to enter into cooperative agreements with any person or corporation, and would allow districts to offer discounted rentals or charges to people with low or moderate incomes, as well as to people who qualify for the homestead exemption. The text of SB 2 is available here.
- Senate Bill 234, “Regards regulation of wind farms and wind turbine setbacks”
Senate Bill 234 was just introduced on November 6, 2019. The bill would give voters in the unincorporated areas of townships the power to have a referendum vote on certificates or amendments to economically significant and large wind farms issued by the Ohio Power and Siting Board. The voters could approve or reject the certificate for a new wind farm or an amendment to an existing certificate by majority vote. The bill would also change minimum setback distances for wind farms might be measured. SB 234 is available here. A companion bill was also recently introduced in the House. HB 401 can be found here.
If you’ve been keeping up with the ag news lately, chances are you’ve heard a lot about the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS). As a refresher, the RFS program “requires a certain volume of renewable fuel to replace the quantity of petroleum-based transportation fuel.” Renewable fuels include biofuels made from crops such as corn and soybeans. Lately, you may have heard discussion about a controversial new rule regarding the volumes of biofuels that are required to be mixed with oil. While all that talk has been going on, there has also been a lawsuit against the EPA for RFS exemptions given to certain oil refineries. Congress has been examining the exemptions as well. Having trouble keeping all of this RFS information straight? We’ll help you sort it out.
EPA proposes new RFS rule
As we explained in our last Ag Law Harvest post, available here, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently released a notice of proposed rulemaking, asking for more public comment on the proposed volumes of biofuels to be required under the RFS program in 2020 and 2021. Agricultural and biofuels groups are not pleased with the proposed blending rules, arguing that the way EPA proposes to calculate biofuel volumes would result in much lower volumes than they were originally promised by President Trump. (The original promise was made in part to make up for waivers the Trump EPA had given to oil refineries.) Conversely, EPA and the Trump administration contend that the proposed rule does meet the previously agreed upon biofuel volumes. A hearing on the proposed rule was held on October 30, where many agriculture and biofuels groups expressed their concerns. The oil industry was also represented at the hearing. Members of the oil industry feel that the cost of mixing in biofuels is too high. It is unlikely any deal was struck at the hearing, but there is still an opportunity to comment on the proposed rule if you wish. Comments are due on November 29, 2019. You can click here for commenting instructions, as well as for a link to submit your comment online.
Ag and biofuels groups sue the EPA
In the midst of the argument over how the volumes of biodiesel under the RFS will be calculated, another related quarrel has emerged. At the center of this dispute are exemptions EPA has given to “small refineries” in the oil industry. The number of exemptions given has increased drastically under the Trump administration, which in turn has lessened the demand for biofuels made from crops like corn and soybeans. On October 23, 2019, agriculture and biofuel groups filed a petition against the EPA in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. In the petition, the groups ask the court to review a decision made in August 2019 which retroactively exempted over 31 small refineries from meeting their 2018 biofuels requirements. The petitioning groups include Renewable Fuels Association, American Coalition for Ethanol, Growth Energy, National Biodiesel Board, National Corn Growers Association, and National Farmers Union.
How does the small refinery exemption work?
Typically, an oil refinery would have to mix a set volume of renewable fuels, like biofuels, into their gasoline or diesel fuel. The volumes are set annually. Small refineries, which are defined as refineries where “the average aggregate daily crude oil throughput does not exceed 75,000 barrels,” can petition the EPA for an exemption from meeting their renewable fuel obligations. Exemptions are typically given temporarily if the refinery can show they would suffer economic hardship if they were made to blend their fuel with biofuel. A refinery seeking an exemption has to include a number of records showing their economic hardship in their petition, such as tax filings and financial statements. EPA’s website explaining the small refinery exemption is available here.
Why are ag and biofuel groups asking for judicial review?
Why are the groups we mentioned above upset about this particular set of small refinery exemptions? Well, first of all, the groups point to the brevity of the EPA’s decision. (The decision document can be found in the link to the petition, listed above.) The EPA’s decision document uses only two pages to explain their decision on 36 small refinery petitions. Because the decision was so short, the groups feel that EPA did not include the analysis of economic hardship for each refinery that they believe is required by the Clean Air Act and RFS regulations. Essentially, the groups argue that the EPA has not provided enough evidence or explanation for awarding the exemptions. You can read the groups’ press release explaining their reasoning here.
Underlying all of this is the fact that more small refinery exemptions means lower demand for biofuels. In fact, the ag and biofuel groups claim that due to the 31 exemptions made in August alone, 1.5 billion gallons of renewable fuel were not used. In addition, the 31 exemptions are just a few of many awarded by Trump’s EPA. By all accounts, since Trump took office, there has been a sharp increase in exemptions granted. EPA has data on the number of exemptions available here. The first year the Trump administration made exemptions is 2016.
Congress gets in on the action
It seems as though the House Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change (part of the Committee on Energy and Commerce) is also worried about EPA’s exemptions, or waivers, for small oil refineries. On October 29, 2019, the Subcommittee held an oversight hearing entitled “Protecting the RFS: The Trump Administration’s Abuse of Secret Waivers.” In fact, in their memo about the hearing, the Subcommittee cited some of the same issues in the lawsuit we discussed above; namely the increase in waivers and the consequent effect on biofuel demand. Testimony was heard from both ag/biofuels and oil representatives.
In the hearing, the Subcommittee also considered the proposed “Renewable Fuel Standard Integrity Act of 2019.” The text of the bill is available here. The bill would require small refineries to submit petitions for exemptions from RFS requirements annually by June 1. Additionally, it would require information in the waiver petitions to be available to the American public. For information and documents related to the hearing, as well as a video stream of the hearing, click here.
What happens next?
As you can see, we’re playing a waiting game on three separate fronts. For the RFS rule, we’ll have to wait and see what kind of comments are submitted, and whether or not the EPA takes those comments into account when it writes the final rule. As for the lawsuit, all eyes are on the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. The court could determine that the law does indeed require EPA to include more information and analysis to explain their reasons for exemption. On the other hand, the court could find that EPA’s decision document is sufficient under the law. In Congress, we’ll have to wait and see whether the proposed bill gets out of the Committee on Energy and Commerce and onto the House floor. We will be keeping track of the RFS developments on all fronts and keep you updated on what happens!
Mentoring is a rewarding part of my position with OSU, but it is often a bittersweet experience to see young people come and go. Such is the case with our law fellow Evin Bachelor, whom I’ve had the privilege of mentoring for the past two years. Evin left the Farm Office on September 30 to pursue private practice.
While I’m happy to send Evin off to serve farmers with his brilliant legal mind, I’m sad to see him go. I will miss his passion, his cleverness, his analytical gifts, and his hearty laugh. But it’s been a joy to help Evin evolve from a law student curious about agricultural law to an attorney prepared to impact the world of agricultural law. He has deftly exceeded every challenge I’ve given him.
One of those challenges was to co-author a set of law bulletins on legal documents used in farm financing arrangements, his final project. The Financing the Farm law bulletin series, which specifically targets new and beginning farmers, is now available. The series includes explanations of mortgages, promissory notes, installment contracts, leasing arrangements and secured transactions, and how they’re used in farm financing. Access the law bulletins in the Financing the Farm series here.
Evin will be practicing law with our good friends at Wright & Moore Law Co. LPA in Delaware, Ohio. He's an excellent addition to an already outstanding agricultural law firm. You’ll continue to see his work on the Farm Office, however, as I’ll be contracting with Evin on a few more finance and farm transition projects in the next year. The mentorship and Evin’s time at OSU is over, but the relationship will continue. A bittersweet ending, to be sure.