“According to FERC, it is now commonplace for states to use Section 401 to hold federal licensing hostage.”

These are the words the DC Circuit used in Hoopa Valley Tribe v. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, No. 14-1271, p. 10 (D.C. Cir., Jan. 25, 2019), to describe the state of play on § 401 certifications affecting hydroelectric facility licensing or re-licensing applications. CWA § 401(a)(1) requires, as a prerequisite for federal permits for activities that may result in a discharge into the navigable waters, that affected states certify that any such discharge will comply with applicable, enumerated provisions of the Clean Water Act. But, if a state fails or refuses to act on a request for certification within “a reasonable period of time (which shall not exceed one year) after receipt of such request,” the statute deems the certification requirements waived.
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With the federal government shutdown finally over after five weeks, the long-term effects are likely to have a lingering impact on regulatory and permitting programs for months to come. Even those federal agencies that were fully funded during the shutdown, such as the US Army Corps of Engineers (Corps), were stymied in their ability to undertake routine day-to-day operations during the lapse in appropriations. This post highlights two examples of the shutdown’s implications for regulatory reform and permitting in the natural resources arena.
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2018 was a banner year for M&A activity in the energy space, with numerous high dollar value transactions in the upstream, midstream, downstream and oil field services (OFS) segments. As investors in the public securities markets have shown a significantly decreased appetite for new issuances of equity by energy companies, the preferred exit or growth strategy for 2018 has been through strategic mergers, acquisitions or divestitures. These transactions have manifested themselves in various forms: asset acquisitions and divestitures, private equity investment into “drillcos” with strategic oil and gas companies, public-public mergers between OFS companies and upstream shale drillers, and simplification transactions by master limited partnerships (MLPs) in the midstream space. In addition to all this M&A activity, one element has become significantly more prevalent in the oil and gas industry throughout 2018 and shows no signs of letting down for 2019: water.
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Last week, EPA and the Corps issued a long-awaited proposal to redefine the “waters of the US” (WOTUS) subject to federal regulation and permitting requirements under the Clean Water Act. The reach of the CWA is notoriously unclear, but knowing which areas on your property are jurisdictional and will require permits is critical to project planning and timelines. If finalized, the proposed rule would replace the Obama administration’s contentious 2015 WOTUS Rule and eliminate the regulatory patchwork that currently exists as the 2015 WOTUS Rule is being implemented in only certain parts of the country.
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Responding to an EPA collection request can be costly, time consuming and stressful for the target of the request—especially because failure to submit a timely and accurate response can result in significant civil or criminal penalties. On November 21, EPA’s Office of Water (OW) and Office of Civil Enforcement (OCE) issued new policies that, if followed, promise to make the process more reasoned and less burdensome.
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With produced water volumes on the rise as a result of the growth in oil and natural gas production and various areas of the country experiencing water scarcity, states and stakeholders are increasingly looking for ways to reuse, recycle and beneficially use waters originating from the oil and gas industry. Two recent initiatives are likely to significantly advance policy decisions related to produced water management.
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For decades, the precise scope of the Clean Water Act’s point source permitting program has been the subject of much controversy.  Over the past several years, the question of whether that program—known as the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (“NPDES”)—regulates discharges to groundwater that is hydrologically connected to surface water has produced a number of conflicting decisions and a torrent of commentary and public debate.  The Fourth and Ninth Circuits recently concluded that the NPDES program regulates such discharges under certain circumstances, while the Sixth Circuit reached the opposite conclusion, setting up potential review of the issue in the United States Supreme Court.
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Continuing its vanguard approach to environmental regulation, California is poised to incorporate Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL)-specific requirements into its industrial storm water general permit (IGP). TMDLs are pollutant- and water body-specific and establish the maximum amount of a pollutant a water body can receive while meeting water quality standards. Once effective, these new requirements will provide additional avenues of attack for the already active Clean Water Act citizen suit docket.
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