Greens, industry spar over ‘sue and settle’

Industry and environmental activists traded fire on Friday over controversial legal settlements that critics say force agencies to speed up their regulations.

The “sue and settle” agreements are developed behind closed doors, according to William Kovacs, a senior vice president at the Chamber of Commerce. He said it allows environmental groups to compel the Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies to issue new rules without proper oversight.

“There shouldn’t be secret deals in the determination of how someone regulates a sector, an industry, a pollutant,” he said.

Critics like Kovacs say that environmental groups sue the EPA for missing legal deadlines, which result in consent decrees that are developed without transparency.

Environmental groups say the court process is necessary to hold agencies accountable for carrying out the law.

“These are statutory duties that Congress mandated,” said John Walke, the head of the Natural Resource Defense Council’s climate and clean air program.

Critics’ real problem with court settlements, he said, was their opposition to the laws on which they’re based.

“They don’t like the courts upholding the law,” Walke said. “They would prefer to have that lawbreaking behavior continue.”

Kovacs retorted that the process amounts to an end run around the legislative branch since it forced agencies to prioritize the court orders ahead of other efforts. 

“Once you’ve signed a sue and settlement agreement, you’ve usurped the power of Congress,” he said.

He said that Congress sets hundreds of deadlines and obligations, and expects agencies to “balance” them. Bringing lawsuits against an agency for delays of specific regulations just changes the agencies’ own priorities.

A current bill in the House, the Sunshine for Regulatory Decrees and Settlements Act, would put limits on consent decrees and allow outside parties to get involved in the cases.

The bill passed the Judiciary Committee in July but has not yet come up for a vote on the House floor.