On December 20, 2019, the Supreme Court of The Netherlands ruled in a climate case brought against the state by Urgenda, a non-governmental organization for “a fast transition towards a sustainable society.” The Court of Appeal and the Court of The Hague had previously ruled on Urgenda’s claims. In both instances, the courts granted Urgenda’s claim that the Dutch state should reduce emissions of CO2 from its territory by at least 25% by the end of 2020. The Supreme Court rejected the state’s appeal and confirmed the ruling.
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On January 9, 2020, the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) released its highly anticipated proposed rule to improve its National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) regulations. The proposed changes would be the first comprehensive amendment of the NEPA regulations since their original publication in 1978. CEQ’s proposed changes are designed to streamline and speed the NEPA review process, clarify important NEPA concepts, and codify key guidance and case law. CEQ’s Proposal is informed by comments it received on last year’s Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking.

NEPA requires that federal agencies analyze the environmental effects of their proposed federal actions. This means that virtually any project that requires a federal permit or authorization could be required to undergo a NEPA review. Development of broadband infrastructure, roads, bridges, oil and gas pipelines, and renewable energy facilities are just a few examples of the types of activities that could trigger NEPA. A NEPA review can take significant agency and applicant resources, can substantially delay permits and can provide a basis for a federal court challenge to the project.
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On January 9, 2020, WildEarth Guardians and Physicians for Social Responsibility filed suit in the DC District Court challenging the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) approval of over 2,000 oil and gas leases. The leases were sold through 23 different lease sales, spanning from December 8, 2016, to March 20, 2019, and they cover over two million acres of public lands across five western states—Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. The conservation groups contend that BLM continually fails to fully account for climate change impacts associated with oil and gas leasing.
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Last month, Representative Ben Ray Luján (D-NM) and Senator Tina Smith (D-MN) introduced companion bills in the House and Senate that renewed the call for a national clean energy standard for retail utilities. While Congress has mulled over the idea for over a decade, states have passed their own standards that force power generators to obtain increasing amounts of their electricity from non- or low-emitting sources. More recently, states have aggressively updated these targets in attempts to decarbonize their power sectors.
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In response to a court order, the Bureau of Land Management released a draft environmental assessment evaluating the potential environmental impacts of lifting the federal coal leasing moratorium. The publication opens a 15-day comment period that ends on June 6, 2019. The assessment focuses on the environmental impacts resulting from the three non-exempt leases issued as a result of the Zinke Order and the eight pending leases that would be produced about two years later if the moratorium remained in effect.
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Federal agencies must often balance competing policy concerns and legal requirements. This process may be difficult and fraught with intense public feedback, and frequently results in litigation. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has found itself in the hot seat over how it manages the nation’s rivers, pitting its obligations under the Endangered Species Act against private property rights. Litigation in the federal courts may soon determine whether, and if so how, responsible the federal government is for unintentional or incidental flooding when the government manages rivers for the benefit of listed species. These cases also bring to the fore a burning question: When can government agencies be held responsible for natural events? With the increase in climate change-related litigation nationwide, this issue will likely only rise in prominence.
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Highway Interchange

Several presidential administrations have sought to shorten the lengthy process for obtaining federal authorizations and permits, with particular attention on infrastructure projects that usually require multiple federal permits with accompanying environmental reviews. Despite consistent interest in improving this process, delays persist, in part because of how courts have interpreted the level of analysis required during these environmental reviews. This past Tuesday, President Trump issued a new Executive Order (EO) 13807: “Establishing Discipline and Accountability in the Environmental Review and Permitting Process for Infrastructure Projects.” As this EO is implemented, the big question is: How much relief can this or any other executive action provide?


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