2017 ended with a bang, well, more like a “pop.” I’m writing this with my leg comfortably elevated, recovering from a torn Achilles tendon and subsequent surgery. This mandatory rest period has provided the opportunity to watch all those year-end cable news shows where the so-called experts look back on forecasts they made a year before. You soon realize that the prediction business is doing quite poorly. In today’s topsy-turvy world, things that once seemed certain are anything but; the improbable is more likely to come to pass.
With that sober context, “Envirostructure” now offers the following, most likely wildly incorrect predictions for the coming year.
1) The administration will offer a formal infrastructure legislative proposal. Yes, I know I thought that would happen last year, but so did many other experts. An infrastructure bill is probably the only legislative initiative that has any chance of progressing on the cusp of the 2018 mid-term elections. However, introducing a proposal and passing a bill are two different things. The bill will languish and die until after the November elections.
2) Courts will pull in the reins on environmental regulation roll-backs. 2017 marked an unprecedented and largely successful effort by the new administration to reverse, delay, or eliminate a wide-range of environmental and natural resources regulations, consistent with the President’s Executive Orders to, among other things, reduce regulation and control regulatory costs. For the most part, these actions were only part one of a three-act play that now turns to the judiciary. High-profile matters like WOTUS and the Clean Power Plan will garner most of the attention, but courts will take steps to ensure that EPA, the Department of the Interior, and other agencies meet their obligations under the Administrative Procedure Act to justify all manner of regulatory reforms.
3) Aggressive measures to streamline permitting for a wide range of sectors will be proposed and successfully instituted, especially in the mining and energy sectors. No new legislation is necessary to accomplish this aim, and a long backlog of projects is waiting for this favorable treatment. Project proponents will be anxious to test how project delivery reforms can be put to use, and federal agencies will be willing to push the envelope. Which leads to…
4) Environmental litigation will continue to be filed at a remarkable rate. Challenges to all manner of public and private actions will be filed, not just by traditional non-governmental entities, but also by state attorneys general across the country. If EPA’s rate of pollution enforcement actions lags in any way, citizen’s suits will blossom across virtually all statutes providing that option.
I realize that these predictions were somewhat tame, so let’s get a little bit more imaginative.
5) Administrator Scott Pruitt will resign by the end of 2018 to pursue political office. More than almost any other cabinet or sub-cabinet official, Mr. Pruitt has fulfilled just about every objective consistent with his express goal of reinventing his agency. The impending new balance of power in Congress, with the enhanced oversight that will bring, will convince the Administrator to that he has accomplished all that he could. He is an ambitious person, and he will seize new political opportunities.
6) Major legislation and regulations that are major components of the federal environmental law regime will see significant reform proposals. The administration and Congress will push changes to NEPA and the Endangered Species Act, both statutes and programs that have not seen substantial changes for decades. These reforms may not be finalized in 2018, but there will be a push to update both statutes, which have long been viewed by certain advocates as having morphed from their original intent to act as more of a weapon to attack development and infrastructure proposals.
7) The demand for fossil fuels will decline from current levels as more countries and local jurisdictions make commitments to advance the electrification of vehicles. Sales of EVs will reach historic highs, and advances in battery efficiency will enable the application of new technology to the heavy-duty trucking sector. The price of a barrel of oil, which had been slowly recovering, will drop again by the end of the year.
8) And finally, 2018 will once again bring a series of natural disasters, whether storms, wildfires, or another phenomenon, that will place even more pressure on the United States to participate in commitments articulated in the Paris Accord, even if it does not take action to rejoin the treaty. A new Congress will promise to support programs for states and cities inclined to promote climate or resilience actions, over objections of the administration.
There you have it. Educated guesses that are bound to be wrong… except for the ones that may be right. From everyone at Venable’s environmental practice group, have a happy and healthy 2018, and may all your happiest predictions for the New Year come true!