Rep. Greg Gianforte stepped up his efforts to “restore balance” to environmental ligation on Thursday, saying reforms are needed to keep extremists and special interest groups from filing lawsuits to block projects they oppose.
Gianforte, the Republican chairman of the Subcommittee on the Interior, Energy and Environment, made those claims during a hearing where he blamed “serial” environmental plaintiffs for working to stop everything from sensible forest management to irrigation projects.
Those plaintiffs, he added, are using the court system to restrict access to federal land, obstruct infrastructure development, and stifle the use of natural resources.
“Unfortunately, many Montanans are already familiar with this problem,” he said. “Serial plaintiffs and special interest groups have used litigation to threaten our Montana way of life by thwarting efforts at responsible forest management, despite the threat of catastrophic wildfires, and deny our communities access to surrounding resources.”
Gianforte said he offered an amendment to the Fiscal Year 2019 budget for Interior appropriations to block the “sue and settle” practice under the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act.
While that hasn’t been taken up by the Senate yet, he’s now seeking additional opportunities to reform and eliminate provisions in environmental law he says are misused. That includes stages of the legal process often manipulated by special interests, he said.
“Many Montanans have shared with me their concerns about the abuse of the Equal Access to Justice Act,” Gianforte said. “Today, however, wealthy environmental organizations take advantage of the law’s loopholes and exemptions to obtain large fee awards from our federal agencies. This is an abuse of taxpayer dollars, and it’s a burden on agencies that already devote considerable resources to guard against and respond to litigation.”
Stacy Plaskett, D-New York and ranking member of the committee, disagreed with Gianforte’s take on the alleged environmental abuses under the Equal Access to Justice Act.
It was adopted, she said, to ensure small businesses, individuals and nonprofits can hold government accountable for unlawful actions – and inaction – even if they don’t have vast sums of money to take on the government.
“We allow prevailing parties in certain important circumstances to recover attorney fees in their lawsuit against the government,” she said. “Equal Access to Justice plays a vital role in our judicial system, and not just in environmental cases.”
Plaskett said it was false to suggest that environmental groups sue too frequently, receive too much in recovered fees and ultimately change the priorities of the federal government through litigation, despite Gianforte’s claims.
According to a 2011 report by the GAO, she said, most of the cases filed against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency were brought by trade associations and private companies, not environmental groups.
The Administrative Conference of U.S. found similar results by reviewing the amount federal agencies are paying under Equal Access to Justice and the cases brought under it.
“Attorney fees were awarded to a much greater degree to cases involving veterans benefits and Social Security benefits than to environmental litigation,” said Plaskett. “In one year, attorney fees awarded by VA and the Social Security Administration were 23 times greater than fees awarded by the EPA and the Department of Interior.”