July 9, 2020

Volume X, Number 191

July 09, 2020

Subscribe to Latest Legal News and Analysis

July 08, 2020

Subscribe to Latest Legal News and Analysis

July 07, 2020

Subscribe to Latest Legal News and Analysis

July 06, 2020

Subscribe to Latest Legal News and Analysis

DOJ ENRD Memo Blog Series– Enforcement Principle 1: “Adhering to the Impartial Rule of Law”

On March 12, 2018, a U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) memorandum was issued by Jeffrey H. Wood, DOJ’s Acting Assistant Attorney General (“AAG”) for the DOJ’s Environment and Natural Resource Division (“ENRD”) titled “Enforcement Principles and Priorities” (the “Wood Memorandum”), as noted in our April 19, 2018 post. The Wood Memorandum mentioned seven enforcement principles for the ENRD. The first principle, which will be the subject of this post, is “Adhering to the Impartial Rule of Law.”

This principle appears to signal a tightening in the government’s approach to environmental enforcement, stemming from concerns that enforcement was increasingly based itself on guidance documents, policy statements, and other resources lacking the legal authority of statutes, regulations, and case law. Reorienting enforcement to the “rule of law” does not necessarily prohibit the use of guidance that interprets or defines an undefined term in a regulation or statute, but rather, deters enforcement activity based on a policy that is tantamount to an un-promulgated rule (i.e., a policy that was not subject to notice-and-comment rulemaking). AAG Wood expressly acknowledged this change in approach, stating that federal environmental laws will only be effective if the ENRD “adheres faithfully to the Constitution and the fundamental principle of the rule of law.” AAG Wood’s expression of the principle parallels the constitutional principle of textualism – a commitment to enforcing the law “as Congress has written it and within the limits that Congress has established.”

In support of his discussion regarding the impartial rule of law, AAG Wood cites a January 25, 2018 DOJ memorandum issued by former Associate Attorney General (ASG) Rachel Brand providing that civil and criminal charges should be premised on the violation of federal statutes and regulations (not upon agency guidance documents), which “avoids rulemaking by enforcement.” AAG Wood appears to signal that ENRD’s role in enforcement proceedings should be ensuring the proper execution of existing law as opposed to creating new law, which is the exclusive domain of the legislative branch. Going forward, AAG Wood stated that ENRD attorneys may only file complaints and indictments that are “well-founded in law and fact” and that seek relief permitted by law.

Further, AAG Wood cites two DOJ memoranda discussing the use of third-party settlement payments. AAG Wood views settlement payments to third parties as another DOJ practice worth adjusting to require stricter adherence to the law because the outcomes obtained (payments to non-parties and non-victims) are wholly untethered to the genesis of the underlying case.  Instead of issuing settlement payments to third-party nongovernmental organizations that were neither victims nor parties to the proceeding, AAG Wood instead encourages settlement payments that “directly remed[y] the harm that is sought to be addressed, including, for example, harm to the environment.” Finally, he notes that mitigation may be an important remedy in environmental cases, but it is not a penalty in and of itself. Otherwise stated, the ENRD should be permitted to address the extent of actual harm in environmental cases, but it “must not be used as an additional means of penalizing a defendant.”  

As the regulated community works with ENRD’s enforcement officials going forward, we can expect this first principle to serve as a helpful guidepost in defining the scope of government investigations. When embroiled in enforcement proceedings, the cooperation of parties will be less likely to extend to an exploration of adherence to a policy or guidance document that does not have a “rule of law” effect. Information requests from the government will need to be tailored accordingly. Policy and guidance documents will, instead, be used to drive important discussions surrounding the evolution of the regulatory framework, as dictated by the legislative role of Congress and the rulemaking function of the agencies to act within their statutory authorization.

Likewise, settlement talks with ENRD are apt to focus penalty calculations on environmental harm. While this removes a means of relieving pressure on the penalty itself, it anchors the enforcement scheme to environmental harm as opposed to feeding the defendant’s resources to a third party, non-victim who might have been in a position to provide environmental benefit to the region. The broad and highly discretionary authority of EPA’s penalty policies will remain a challenge, particularly when set in this new context. AAG Wood’s other principles and future memoranda might be expected to address that tension.

Our next blog post in this series of posts will focus on the second and third principles espoused in the Wood Memorandum: “Enhancing Cooperative Federalism” and “Exercising Pragmatic Decision-making.”

© 2020 Bracewell LLPNational Law Review, Volume VIII, Number 120


About this Author

Kevin D. Collins, Bracewell, Government Investigations Attorney, Chemicals Sector lawyer,

Kevin is a former Assistant U.S. Attorney from the Eastern District of Texas. He is a trial lawyer and has experience trying cases to jury verdict in state and federal court.

He also assists companies responding to government investigations after major industrial accidents and chemical releases in the energy and chemical sectors. Kevin has experience responding to investigations by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Chemical Safety Board (CSB), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the Pipeline and Hazardous...

Jason Hutt, Environmental Attorney, Bracewell law firm

Jason Hutt, head of the firm’s Environmental and Natural Resources practice, advises energy companies, manufacturers, project developers, investor groups and financial institutions about environmental risks and liabilities associated with incident response, regulatory compliance, project development, congressional and internal investigations and corporate transactions. He also assists in the defense of administrative, civil and criminal proceedings involving environmental enforcement agencies at the federal and state levels. Jason counsels clients on current and upcoming regulatory developments at the nexus of environmental and energy policy, with focused attention on shale gas development (including hydraulic fracturing).

Ryan M. Eletto, Bracewell, environmental strategy lawyer, energy regulatory matters attorney

Ryan Eletto focuses his practice on energy regulation, environmental strategy, regulatory matters and public policy issues. He advises energy companies and other clients in litigation, investigation, enforcement and compliance matters involving administrative agencies, including the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. 

Prior to joining Bracewell, Ryan served as a law clerk to the Honorable Bruce E. Kasold of the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims in Washington, D.C. 


Kevin Voelkel assists clients on environmental regulatory, enforcement and policy matters, as well as pipeline safety issues. His clients include companies in the offshore exploration and development, natural gas and liquids pipelines and power transmission sectors.

Before joining Bracewell, Kevin completed internship programs at various energy and oil and gas-focused agencies and organizations, including the North American Electric Reliability Corporation and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. He was also a research...