A recent US Court of Appeals decision could have broad implications for how federal wildlife agencies consider potential climate change impacts on species and their habitat. Pursuant to the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) or National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) must determine whether to list a species as endangered or threatened based on “the best scientific and commercial data available.” 16 U.S.C. § 1533(b)(1)(A). Given the inherent uncertainties and limitations of forecasting specific population changes (or habitat changes) on the basis of climate change projections, the Services may find that potential climate change impacts on a species are too speculative to support a decision to list a species. The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, however, recently overturned a FWS decision not to list a species on that basis. In reviewing FWS’s decision not to list the arctic grayling, a cold-water fish species found in Montana, a three-judge panel found that FWS failed to adequately explain why uncertainty regarding future impacts of climate change justified its conclusion that listing the species was not warranted. Continue Reading Ninth Circuit Overturns Climate Change-Based Decision Not to List Species Under ESA
The US District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana ordered the $750 million Bayou Bridge pipeline to halt construction within the Atchafalaya Basin when it concluded that the US Army Corps of Engineers’ environmental analysis likely violated the National Environmental Policy Act and the Clean Water Act due to the following deficiencies:
- The Corps did not provide sufficient explanation for how the proposed off-site mitigation would compensate for the loss of wetlands impacted by construction; and
- The Corps failed to sufficiently consider and address historical impacts to wetlands from past pipeline projects in the cumulative effects analysis.
On appeal, however, the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit overturned the lower court.
A second district court has agreed that challenges to the 2015 Waters of the United States (WOTUS) Rule are likely to succeed on the merits. The US District Court for the Southern District of Georgia issued an order on June 8 enjoining the WOTUS Rule in 11 states. Georgia v. Pruitt, No. 2:15-cv-00079 (S.D. Ga. 2018). The rule was previously enjoined by the US District Court for North Dakota in 13 states. North Dakota v. U.S. EPA, 127 F. Supp. 3d 1047 (D.N.D. 2015). The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the US Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) (“the Agencies”) recently promulgated a new applicability date for the 2015 WOTUS rule (Applicability Rule), preventing its implementation until February 2020, but there have been several lawsuits challenging the Applicability Rule. Now, regardless of the outcome of challenges to the Applicability Rule, the 2015 Rule cannot be applied in 24 states until a court issues a final decision on the merits, either upholding or invalidating the Rule, or the Agencies finalize a repeal and/or replacement of the 2015 Rule. Continue Reading 2015 “Waters of the US” Rule Enjoined in an Additional 11 States
On March 12, 2018, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) order finding that delays by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (NYDEC) in reviewing Millennium Pipeline Company’s application for water quality certification constituted waiver of NYDEC’s authority under the Clean Water Act (CWA).
This week, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana granted a preliminary injunction, halting construction of the $750 million Bayou Bridge Pipeline. Judge Shelly D. Dick concluded that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in authorizing the project, did not provide sufficient explanation for how the proposed off-site mitigation would compensate for the loss of wetlands impacted by construction. In addition, the Court found the Corps’ environmental analysis failed to sufficiently consider and address historical impacts to wetlands from similarly situated pipelines. Thus, the Court held that these deficiencies likely violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and ordered the 162-mile oil pipeline to halt construction within the Atchafalaya Basin, a large wetland habitat for a variety of fish and wildlife species and a critical component of regulating flooding and stream recharge in the region. As we recently saw with the D.C. Circuit’s decision to vacate authorizations for the Sabal Trail Pipeline, this is another example of courts and environmental organizations relying on errors in a federal agency’s NEPA analysis to justify enjoining pipeline construction or operations.
On Monday, the Trump Administration released an ambitious legislative proposal that aims to stimulate $1.5 trillion in new infrastructure investment over the next 10 years, expedite the federal permitting process, address rural infrastructure needs, and prepare the American workforce for the future. To accomplish those goals, the proposal includes aggressive recommendations to streamline key federal environmental review and permitting processes for infrastructure projects. In addition to traditional forms of infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, and airports, the Legislative Outline for Rebuilding Infrastructure in America addresses drinking and wastewater systems, energy infrastructure, veterans’ hospitals, and Brownfields and Superfund sites.
Federal agencies that authorize or permit large infrastructure projects, like interstate natural gas pipelines, are often subject to the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and environmental organizations frequently rely on NEPA to challenge a project. The D.C. Circuit recently struck down a decision by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to approve the construction and operation of three interstate natural gas pipelines because the Court found defects in FERC’s NEPA analysis. The court’s decision to vacate FERC’s authorization now threatens to shut down the pipelines, including the Sabal Trail pipeline currently supplying natural gas to newly constructed power plants in Florida.
On January 22nd, the Supreme Court issued a unanimous (9-0) decision, authored by Justice Sotomayor, agreeing with industry groups, some eNGOs, and many states, that the district courts have jurisdiction over challenges to the 2015 Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) Rule. Nat’l Ass’n of Manufacturers v. Dept. of Defense, et al., No. 16-299 (Jan. 22, 2018). The Court wholly rejected the government’s claim that the WOTUS Rule is subject to exclusive appellate court jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act’s (CWA) judicial review provision and confirms that current and future challenges to the WOTUS Rule must be brought in district court. By reversing the Sixth Circuit decision which found that the CWA vests the federal courts of appeals with exclusive jurisdiction over challenges to the WOTUS Rule, the Supreme Court set in motion proceedings that will likely result in the lifting of the Sixth Circuit’s nationwide stay of the 2015 WOTUS Rule. Continue Reading Agencies Move Quickly to Delay Applicability of 2015 WOTUS Rule Following Unanimous Supreme Court Decision
In 2016, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS or the Service) issued two policies on how to mitigate the impact of projects affecting fish and wildlife and natural resources: one overarching policy and one policy specific to Endangered Species Act implementation. Raising eyebrows, these mitigation policies were not limited to offsetting project impacts, but instead set a goal of improving the condition of affected resources. Continue Reading Should Mitigation Meet a “Net Gain” Standard? USFWS is Reconsidering its Stance
Once large infrastructure projects, such as oil and natural gas pipelines, receive federal government approval, they are often the target of legal challenges from opposition groups. Opponents repeatedly argue that the environmental review, pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), was insufficient. If a court finds deficiencies in the government’s NEPA analysis, can a court halt construction or cease operations even after years of project design, permit approvals at all levels of government, and tens of millions of dollars in investment? This question was at the heart of the ongoing litigation involving the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), and, on October 11, Judge James Boasberg determined “no,” the court would not shut down the pipeline. This case is important precedent for projects being challenged under NEPA. For more information, see our post on PipelineLaw.