U.S. EPA allocates billions in water funding from infrastructure law to states

By Valerie Volcovici

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday released over $7 billion to state governments and tribes to upgrade drinking and waste water systems, the first allotment of clean water funds that was approved in the bipartisan infrastructure bill signed into law last month.

The installment is part of $44 billion in clean water funds that will be dispersed over five years through a federal-state partnership program. The Biden administration has touted the benefits for states that will flow from the $1 trillion infrastructure law, which President Joe Biden signed on Nov. 15 after months of congressional negotiations.

The $1 trillion in infrastructure spending features what the EPA describes as the “single-largest investment in U.S. water infrastructure ever.”

Over half of the $7.4 billion in state revolving funds (SRFs) that the agency will allocate to states for 2022 will be available as grants or principal forgiveness loans that are meant to make it easier for underserved urban and rural communities to access.

“Billions of dollars are about to start flowing to states and it is critical that EPA partners with states, Tribes, and territories to ensure the benefits of these investments are delivered in the most equitable way,” said EPA Administrator Michael Regan.

He urged that the money be used to “correct longstanding environmental and economic injustices across America.”

EPA Assistant Administrator Radhika Fox will soon issue national program guidance from the EPA’s Office of Water to help agencies best use the billions that will become available.

SRFs, which provide low-cost federal financing, have been used for decades by states to invest in their water infrastructure but many vulnerable and poor communities facing water challenges have not historically accessed their fair share of funds. Regan said he wants the new flow of money from the infrastructure bill will correct the disparities.

California, Texas and New York – the biggest states – will receive the largest share of SRF funds.

(Reporting by Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Aurora Ellis)

Texas electric grid still not ready for extreme winter weather -NERC

By Tim McLaughlin

(Reuters) – The Texas electric grid could suffer a massive shortfall in generating capacity in a winter deep freeze, potentially triggering outages similar to those in February, according to a report on Thursday by an electric reliability authority.

The assessment by the North American Electric Reliability Corp (NERC), a nonprofit regulatory authority, comes as Texas lawmakers and regulators continue to investigate ways to bolster the grid to avert a repeat of last winter’s blackouts, which left 4.5 million customers without power in a deep freeze that killed more than 200 people.

In normal winter conditions, the anticipated reserve margin – a cushion of extra capacity versus demand – is comfortable at nearly 42% for the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the grid operator for about 90% of the state.

But if severe frigid weather hits, it could disrupt pipeline natural gas supplies and power stations, leaving a capacity deficit as high as 37%, NERC said.

The Texas grid is mostly isolated from other U.S. grids, with a limited ability to import electricity when a local shortfall materializes. ERCOT also operates the only major U.S. grid that does not have a capacity market – a system that provides payments to operators to be on standby to supply power during severe weather events.

ERCOT said in a statement that it had made significant progress since last winter. “The electric grid will be able to perform significantly better this coming winter than in the past,” it said.

(Reporting By Tim McLaughlin; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

Judge overrules Texas governor’s ban on mask mandates in schools

By Kanishka Singh and Sharon Bernstein

(Reuters) – A federal judge overruled Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s ban on mask mandates in schools, clearing the path for districts to issue their own rules.

Judge Lee Yeakel of U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas ruled the governor’s order violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, a landmark 1990 federal law that includes protections for students with special needs. In his ruling, Yeakel said the executive order put children with disabilities at risk.

“The spread of COVID-19 poses an even greater risk for children with special health needs,” the judge said in the order. “Children with certain underlying conditions who contract COVID-19 are more likely to experience severe acute biological effects and to require admission to a hospital and the hospital’s intensive-care unit.”

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said he “strongly disagreed” with the ruling.

“My agency is considering all legal avenues to challenge this decision,” Paxton said on Twitter.

The issue of mandates to curb the pandemic has become politicized in much of the United States. Supporters of mandates say they are needed to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, and opponents argue they curb individual liberty.

Some school districts in conservative states where governors have forbidden mask mandates are ignoring the bans, but others feel compelled to enforce them. In Texas, numerous districts including those in Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio, have flouted the ban since it was first announced in May, but others came into compliance amid state pressure including a public list published by Paxton’s office.

In his order, Yeakel said the state could not enforce its ban on mask requirements in school, and also could not levy fines or withhold funds from districts that impose mask-wearing.

The order was challenged by disability rights activists on behalf of several Texas students with special needs.

(Reporting by Kanishka Singh in Bengaluru and Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento; Editing by Tom Hogue and Raju Gopalakrishnan)

With prayers and signs, abortion demonstrators converge on U.S. Supreme Court

By Jan Wolfe

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Shortly before the U.S. Supreme Court began heard arguments in a major abortion dispute out of Texas, a group of demonstrators who oppose abortion joined together outside the stately white marble neoclassical building to pray for the nine justices, listing each one by name.

Hundreds of people in support and opposition to a restrictive Texas abortion law gathered on Monday outside the courthouse on a mild autumn day in the U.S. capital. The justices heard arguments in challenges by President Joe Biden’s administration and abortion providers to the measure, which imposes a near-total abortion ban – prohibiting it after six weeks of pregnancy – and empowers private citizens enforce it.

Abortion opponents held signs saying, “Let their hearts beat,” and played Christian music. Abortion rights supporters held signs saying “Bans off our bodies” and “Abortion is essential.”

Some of the law’s supporters cast the debate in religious terms.

The Reverend Patrick Mahoney, chief strategy officer for the anti-abortion group Stanton Public Policy Center, said, “Our strength is local. You can go to every community in the country right now and find grandmas in church basements knitting baby booties or doing bake sales. There’s this collective energy bubbling in our movement right now.”

Regarding the law’s private-enforcement mechanism, Mahoney said, “Is that the way I would have gone? Probably not. But it’s saving innocent lives. Overall I think it’s innovative and creative.”

The law puts enforcement in the hands of private citizens, empowering them to sue anyone who performs or assists a woman in getting an abortion after cardiac activity is detected in the embryo. Individual citizens can be awarded a minimum of $10,000 in successful lawsuits.

Julia Deluce, a coordinator with the group Students for Life, said she was advocating for the rights of “pre-born children,” adding, “They are human. They are part of our species. And they deserve our protection.”

Abortion rights demonstrators voiced alarm over the Texas law, which bans abortion at a point in time when many women do not yet realize they are pregnant. Abortion was legalized nationwide in the Supreme Court’s Roe. v. Wade decision. A series of restrictive Republican-backed abortion laws have been passed by states in recent years.

Washington resident Martha Dickey said she has been advocating for abortion rights since the 1970s.

“I found out what happened in Texas and I was really upset,” Dickey said. “… It stops the chance for a woman to be free to decide what happens to her own body.”

Amy Hagstrom Miller, founder of the Whole Women’s Health Clinic abortion provider that challenged the Texas law, said, “A ban like this doesn’t change the fact that people need abortions. It just changes the kind of abortions they can have.” She said she hopes the justices understand the impact of their decisions “on real people’s lives.”

(Writing by Jan Wolfe; Editing by Will Dunham)

U.S. Supreme Court leans toward allowing challenge to Texas abortion law

By Andrew Chung and Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Conservative U.S. Supreme Court justices on Monday appeared to lean toward allowing a challenge by abortion providers to a Texas law that imposes a near-total ban on the procedure and lets private citizens enforce it, but seemed skeptical about whether President Joe Biden’s administration can do so.

The court, with a 6-3 conservative majority, heard three hours of oral arguments in separate challenges by abortion providers and the Democratic president’s administration to the Republican-backed measure considered the toughest abortion law in the United States.

Some justices signaled that existing Supreme Court precedent could accommodate the lawsuit brought by abortion providers despite the law’s novel design that makes it difficult for federal courts to block its enforcement. Instead of having state officials enforce a ban on abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy – a time when many women do not realize they are pregnant – the law lets individual citizens enforce it through lawsuits against providers.

U.S. abortion rights are hanging in the balance as the justices review the Texas law before hearing arguments on Dec. 1 over the legality of a Mississippi measure prohibiting the procedure after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

As the Texas challenges are being heard on an expedited basis, a decision potentially blocking the law could come quickly. In the challenge by abortion providers, the court on Sept. 1 declined to halt the law, with five of its six conservative justices in the majority. There were signs on Monday that some conservative justices were reconsidering their positions.

However, in the Biden administration’s challenge, conservative justices seemed skeptical about federal power to sue Texas over the law.

At issue is whether federal courts can hear lawsuits aimed at striking down the Texas law and whether the U.S. government even can sue to try to block it. If the justices keep federal courts out of the process by virtue of the law’s unique design, it could be replicated in other states and curtail abortion access in other parts of the country.

Justice Amy Coney Barrett asked clinic lawyer Marc Hearron about whether under the law’s structure the constitutional claims on the right to abortion could ever be “fully aired.” Under the Texas law, abortion providers can bring up that constitutional issue as a defense only after they have been sued.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh expressed interest in an outcome raised by liberal Justice Elena Kagan in which state court clerks would be barred from allowing lawsuits brought by private individuals seeking to enforce the law to proceed while litigation over the legality of the measure unfolds.

Kavanaugh wondered whether the court should close a loophole that he said the Texas law “exploited” in its precedents concerning when state officials can be barred from enforcing unconstitutional laws.

Kavanaugh also pondered if states could pass similar laws that could infringe other constitutional rights including gun rights. A state, for example, could allow for $1 million in damages against anyone who sells an AR-15 rifle, he said.

His tone was more skeptical during the argument over the Biden administration’s September lawsuit aimed at stopping the Texas measure, describing it as “different and irregular and unusual.”

Kagan said the law was written by “some geniuses” to evade the broad legal principle that “states are not to nullify federal constitutional rights.”

Like Kavanaugh, Kagan warned of the consequences of states passing laws that infringe upon rights, including same-sex marriage and religious liberty. If the Texas law remains, “we would live in a very different world to the world we live in today,” she said.

Conservative justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito raised the question of whether anyone would have standing to sue under the Texas law without having a direct injury. Texas Solicitor General Judd Stone, defending the law, said “outrage” based on abortion opposition would be grounds to bring a lawsuit.

In the Biden administration’s challenge, conservative Chief Justice John Roberts questioned Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar on the “limiting principle” for the federal government suing states, noting that a different administration could also try to directly challenge states over their laws. Other conservative justices expressed similar doubts.

The Texas and Mississippi laws are among a series of Republican-backed abortion restrictions pursued at the state level in recent years. Lower courts blocked the Mississippi law.

LANDMARK RULING

Abortion opponents hope the Supreme Court will roll back abortion rights or even overturn its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that recognized a woman’s constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy and legalized the procedure nationwide.

The Texas measure enables private citizens to sue anyone who performs or assists a woman in getting an abortion after cardiac activity is detected in the embryo. That feature made it more difficult to directly sue the state. Individual citizens can be awarded a minimum of $10,000 for bringing successful lawsuits under the law. Biden’s administration has called it a “bounty.”

The Texas law has an exception for a documented medical emergency but not for pregnancies resulting from incest or rape.

The law’s design has deterred most abortions in Texas, which is the second most populous U.S. state, behind only California, with about 29 million people.

The Texas dispute reached the Supreme Court with unusual speed. The justices agreed to take up the matter on Oct. 22, bypassing lower courts that are considering the challenges.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung and Lawrence Hurley in Washington; Additional reporting by Jan Wolfe; Editing by Will Dunham)

U.S. Supreme Court to hear challenge to Texas abortion ban

By Andrew Chung

(Reuters) -The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday agreed to hear on Nov. 1 a challenge by President Joe Biden’s administration and abortion providers to a Texas law that imposes a near-total ban on the procedure – a case that will determine the fate of the toughest abortion law in the United States.

It is the second major abortion case that the court, which has a 6-3 conservative majority, has scheduled for the coming months, with arguments set for Dec. 1 over the legality of a restrictive Mississippi abortion law.

The Texas and Mississippi measures are among a series of Republican-backed laws passed at the state level limiting abortion rights – coming at a time when abortion opponents are hoping that the Supreme Court will overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade that legalized the procedure nationwide.

Mississippi has asked the justices to overturn Roe v. Wade, and the Texas attorney general on Thursday signaled that he also would like to see that ruling fall.

The justices on Friday deferred a decision on the Biden administration’s request that the justices block the Texas law while the litigation continues, prompting a dissent from liberal Justice Sotomayor. Lower courts already have blocked the Mississippi law.

It is rare that the Supreme Court would, as it did in this case, decide to hear arguments while bypassing lower courts that were already considering the Texas dispute, indicating that the justices have deemed the matter of high public importance and requiring immediate review.

The Texas measure bans abortion after about six weeks of pregnancy, a point when many women do not yet realize they are pregnant. It makes an exception for a documented medical emergency but not for cases of rape or incest.

The Biden administration sued in September, challenging the legality of the Texas law. In taking up the case, the Supreme Court said it will resolve whether the federal government is permitted to bring a lawsuit against the state or other parties to prohibit the abortion ban from being enforced.

The other challenge that the justices took up, filed by Texas abortion providers, asks the court to decide whether the design of the state’s law, which allows private citizens rather than the government to enforce the ban, is permissible. The providers, as well as the administration, have said the law is designed to evade federal court review.

Mississippi’s law bans abortions starting at 15 weeks of pregnancy. Rulings in that case and the Texas case are due by the end of June 2022, but could come sooner.

The Supreme Court previously allowed the Texas law to be enforced in the challenge brought by abortion providers. In that 5-4 decision on Sept. 1, conservative Chief Justice John Roberts expressed skepticism about how the law is enforced and joined the three liberal justices in dissent.

The Texas law is unusual in that it gives private citizens the power to enforce it by enabling them to sue anyone who performs or assists a woman in getting an abortion after cardiac activity is detected in the embryo. That feature has helped shield the law from being immediately blocked as it made it more difficult to directly sue the state.

Individual citizens can be awarded a minimum of $10,000 for bringing successful lawsuits. Critics have said this provision lets people act as anti-abortion bounty hunters, a characterization its proponents reject.

The Biden administration had asked the Supreme Court to quickly restore a federal judge’s Oct. 6 order temporarily blocking the law. The New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals put that order on hold a few days later.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung in New York; Editing by Will Dunham)

Texas urges U.S. Supreme Court to maintain state’s abortion ban

By Andrew Chung

(Reuters) – Texas on Thursday urged the U.S. Supreme Court to keep in place a state law that imposes a near-total ban on abortion while it defends the Republican-backed measure against a legal challenge brought by President Joe Biden’s administration.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton responded in a legal filing to the U.S. Justice Department’s request that the Supreme Court quickly block the state law while the court battle over its legality goes forward.

The Supreme Court, which has a 6-3 conservative majority, previously allowed the law to be enforced in a separate challenge brought by abortion providers. In that 5-4 decision on Sept. 1, conservative Chief Justice John Roberts expressed skepticism about how the law is enforced.

The Texas measure, one of a series of restrictive abortion laws passed at the state level in recent years, bans the procedure after about six weeks of pregnancy, a point when many women do not yet realize they are pregnant. It makes an exception for a documented medical emergency but not for cases of rape or incest.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)

Biden administration asks U.S. Supreme Court to block Texas abortion law

By Andrew Chung and Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -President Joe Biden’s administration on Monday asked the U.S. Supreme Court to block a Texas law that imposes a near-total ban on abortion, calling the Republican-backed measure plainly unconstitutional and specifically designed to evade judicial scrutiny.

The administration asked the Supreme Court to quickly reverse a decision this month by the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to lift a judge’s order blocking the law while litigation over the statute’s legality continues. The justices in a 5-4 Sept. 1 decision let the law take effect in a separate challenge brought by abortion providers in the state.

The Texas measure, one of a series of restrictive abortion laws passed at the state level in recent years, bans the procedure after about six weeks of pregnancy, a point when many women do not yet realize they are pregnant.

The Justice Department, which filed suit last month in a bid to stop the law, told the Supreme Court in a filing that the 5th Circuit’s action enables the ongoing violation by the state of Texas “of this court’s precedents and its citizens’ constitutional rights.”

“Texas’s insistence that no party can bring a suit challenging S.B. 8 amounts to an assertion that the federal courts are powerless to halt the state’s ongoing nullification of federal law. That proposition is as breathtaking as it is dangerous,” the Justice Department added, using the formal name of the Texas law.

The filing also said that “given the importance and urgency of the issues” involved the Supreme Court could decide to take up and hear arguments in the case even before lower courts have issued their own final rulings.

The Texas measure makes an exception for a documented medical emergency but not for cases of rape or incest. It also gives private citizens the power to enforce it by enabling them to sue anyone who performs or assists a woman in getting an abortion after cardiac activity is detected in the fetus. That feature has helped shield the law from being immediately blocked by making it more difficult to directly sue the state.

Under the law, individual citizens can be awarded a minimum of $10,000 for bringing successful lawsuits. Critics have said this provision lets people act as anti-abortion bounty hunters, a characterization its proponents reject.

The Biden administration’s lawsuit argued that the law impedes women from exercising their constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy as recognized in the Supreme Court’s landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion nationwide. It also argued that the law improperly interferes with the operations of the federal government to provide abortion-related services.

In his Oct. 6 ruling blocking the law, U.S. Judge Robert Pitman found that the measure was likely unconstitutional and designed to avoid judicial scrutiny. Pitman said he would “not sanction one more day of this offensive deprivation of such an important right.”

The Supreme Court has a 6-3 conservative majority. When the Supreme Court allowed the law to take effect, conservative Chief Justice John Roberts dissented along with the three liberal justices, expressing skepticism about how the measure is enforced.

Roberts said he would have blocked the law’s enforcement at that point “so that the courts may consider whether a state can avoid responsibility for its laws in such a manner.”

Supreme Court asked Texas to respond to the Justice Department’s request by midday on Thursday.

The Supreme Court already is set to consider a major abortion case on Dec. 1 in a dispute centering on Mississippi’s law banning abortions starting at 15 weeks of pregnancy, Mississippi has asked the justices to overturn Roe v. Wade. A ruling in the Mississippi case is due by the end of next June.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung in New York and Lawrence Hurley in Washington; Editing by Will Dunham)

U.S. Justice Dept. to ask Supreme Court to put Texas abortion law on hold -spokesman

(Reuters) -President Joe Biden’s administration on Friday said it will ask the U.S. Supreme Court to block a restrictive Texas law that imposes a near-total ban on abortion after a federal appeals court reinstated the law.

The U.S. Justice Department will request the Supreme Court, which has a 6-3 conservative majority, to reverse the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision to lift a judge’s order blocking the law, while litigation over the dispute continues, a spokesman said.

The Texas measure, which bans abortion after about six weeks of pregnancy, took effect on Sept. 1. It makes an exception for a documented medical emergency but not for cases of rape or incest.

The law is unusual in that it gives private citizens the power to enforce it by enabling them to sue anyone who performs or assists a woman in getting an abortion after cardiac activity is detected in the embryo. That feature has helped shield the law from being immediately blocked as it made it more difficult to directly sue the state.

Critics of the law have said this provision lets people act as anti-abortion bounty hunters.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung and Brendan O’Brien; Additional reporting by Sarah Lynch; Editing by Daniel Wallis)

Texas abortion provider resumes services after judge blocks near-total ban

By Julia Harte and Maria Caspani

(Reuters) – A day after a federal judge blocked Texas’ near-total abortion ban, at least one provider in the state said it had resumed services on Thursday for patients seeking to terminate pregnancies beyond the law’s limit of about six weeks.

Amy Hagstrom Miller, chief executive of Whole Woman’s Health, told reporters that since the law went into effect on Sept. 1, the provider with four clinics in Texas had put patients on a waiting list if their pregnancies had advanced beyond the legal limit.

“So those folks were able to come in and we did provide them with abortion care today,” Hagstrom Miller said during a call on with reporters.

She did not say which clinics had resumed services or how many abortions they had provided.

U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman in Austin on Wednesday blocked the state from enforcing the law while litigation over its legality continues. The Republican-backed measure empowers private citizens to enforce the ban, and Texas immediately appealed the ruling to the conservative-leaning Fifth Circuit Appeals Court.

The law has become a flashpoint in a national battle over abortion rights as Republican lawmakers in other states try to pass similar legislation. In December, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear a Mississippi case testing Roe v. Wade, its landmark 1973 decision that established the nationwide right to abortion access.

Drexel University law professor David Cohen said Texas clinics that resume their previous abortion services while the law is blocked will be in a “very precarious position.” A clause in the law says providers can still be sued if the law goes back into effect after being struck down by a court.

Cohen said that even if Pitman’s injunction against the law were upheld by the Supreme Court on appeal, it could still be dissolved by a subsequent decision overturning Roe v. Wade, because that decision was the basis for Pitman’s ruling.

Hagstrom Miller said the retroactive clause was concerning for many medical professionals.

“Any abortion you provide, even with an injunction, could be seen as criminal a year from now, six months from now – and you could be held accountable for every one of those. It’s pretty daunting to think about that,” she said.

Anti-abortion advocates said that if Pitman’s ruling is reversed on appeal, they will sue providers who have resumed abortion services.

“As this case develops, if there’s an opportunity for lawsuits or for enforcement in the future, that’s something that the pro-life movement is very interested in,” said John Seago, legislative director for anti-abortion group Texas Right to Life.

Other Texas abortion providers acknowledged they were worried about the state’s vow to appeal the injunction to a conservative-leaning appeals court.

“Given the state’s appeal, our health centers may not have the days or even weeks it could take to navigate new patients through Texas’s onerous abortion restrictions,” the leaders of Planned Parenthood South Texas, Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast and Planned Parenthood Greater Texas said in a joint statement.

Molly Duane, an attorney with the Center for Reproductive Rights, which represents several Texas clinics fighting the law, said abortion providers were in a difficult situation.

“There are independent providers across the state that are working to reopen full services and are doing so wary of the fact that the Fifth Circuit may take away this injunction at any moment,” she said.

(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and David Gregorio)