It is not uncommon to hear of lawsuits being filed against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Citizens and states might sue the EPA for overregulation of an industry that could lead to lost jobs and revenues. Green groups might sue the EPA because they feel it hasn’t done enough to over-regulate businesses or to expand enforcement of current environmental laws.
But it is important to note that in many cases the EPA and Treasury Department are required to award attorney’s fees to those plaintiffs that successfully dispute the EPA. And because the Justice Department is what defends the EPA in court cases, your tax dollars are what are used to pay the opposing sides’ attorneys.
Facts on just how much taxpayer money is spent on these environmental court cases and who benefits wasn’t well known until Senators Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., and David Vitter, R-La., and a report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), shed some light on the subject.
The GAO report found that in addition to attorney’s fees awarded, the Justice Department spent at least $43 million in taxpayer dollars defending EPA in court from 1998 to 2010. That doesn’t include the fact that Treasury paid about $14.2 million from fiscal year 2003 through 2010 and the EPA paid approximately $1.4 million from fiscal year 2006 through 2010.
Because most people don’t have millions of dollars on hand to sue the EPA if need be, these statutes were put into place so citizens and industries could afford to bring charges against the federal government. However, less than 20 percent of awarded money has been given to private industries, citizens, state agencies and associations combined. This begs the question, what were the largest beneficiaries of these payouts?
The three primary beneficiaries from 1998 to 2010 were: Sierra Club, Earthjustice and Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Total amounts these organizations received from all attorney fees paid to EPA litigants combined was at least 41 percent of the total payouts. Earthjustice alone received 32 percent, as indicated by this report.
Go figure that the primary beneficiaries of statutes set to protect citizens and private industries would instead be awarded to environmental groups that want nothing more than to extend the power and grasp of the federal government’s EPA.
“These statutes aren’t in place to protect clean air or water, but used to stop everything productive: growth, jobs, projects,” says Thomas Pyle, president of Institute for Energy Research (IER). “The system has been misguided and this is not the way these statutes were intended to play out. They are outdated and causing more harm than good.”
Even more striking was the payout to all environmental groups (ENGOs), which in total was 82 percent.
A press release from Sen. Vitter’s office claims that in 2008 alone, the NRDC received $3.5 million in taxpayer money “as it pursued litigation that would imperil the jobs of tens of thousands of energy industry employees in Louisiana alone.”
What may be worse is there is almost no accountability or transparency in how the judgment funds are dispersed. For example, the GAO could only provide the Senators with data from recent years, rather than the past 15 years, as they requested.
Also, the GAO report stated that the government may also incur other costs associated with litigation, including the costs of revising regulations in response to lawsuits, EPA overhead costs, and costs associated with delays in EPA permitting, but did not have reliable data to quantify these costs.
Taxpayer money has no business going towards furthering the goals of environmental groups, and unfortunately, even in light of this report, Justice Department officials have no plans to make the payout process more transparent or responsible.
“It is not a coincidence that these lawsuits get settled,” Pyle says. “Through this they achieve most of, if not all, what the EPA was trying to accomplish in the first place.”
If organizations like NRDC, which had a reported $181,427,464 in net assets in 2009, want to sue the EPA, it should do so with its own funds, not those of the taxpayer. It makes little sense to reward environmental groups with taxpayer money to file lawsuits directed at putting taxpayers out of work.