National Environmental Policy Act

The Novel Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) outbreak is affecting virtually every sector of society and the economy. The healthcare sector and government agencies are on the front lines of the response. Providing support to these critical response activities as well as striving to maintain the strength of the overall economy by continuing regular business operations is vitally important. The private sector has important roles to play. The purpose of this blog post is to briefly outline some practical and legal tools available to help provide both direct support and maintain broader economic activities while ensuring environmental protection and compliance with natural resource laws.

This blog post will be updated as new or relevant information becomes available.


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National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) analyses and Endangered Species Act (ESA) Section 7 consultations are high on the list of project time, cost and risk drivers. The impact of these environmental reviews on projects often turns on the scope of those reviews, which in turn depends on determining which effects will be caused by the action. In August 2019 the US Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service established, for the first time, a regulatory causation standard governing ESA section 7 consultations, and, in January 2020, the Council on Environmental Quality proposed a new regulatory causation standard governing NEPA reviews.
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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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On November 4, 2019, the US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit upheld the Clean Water Act (CWA) section 404 permit issued by the US Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) for the extension of an existing phosphate mine in central Florida. Center for Biological Diversity v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, No. 18-10541 (11th Cir. Nov. 4, 2019). The Corps permit authorizes the discharge of dredged or fill material into waters of the United States that comprise a small portion of the mining extension. Opponents challenged the permit in the Middle District of Florida, claiming the issuance of the permit violated the CWA, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by not considering “downstream” effects, and the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The district court rejected all of the claims, and the Eleventh Circuit affirmed.
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In the wake of the April 19 ruling by Judge Morris of the US District Court of the District of Montana that required the DOI to conduct an environment review on its decision to lift the coal leasing moratorium, the parties disagree on the necessary remedy and the next steps. Instead of immediately reinstating the moratorium, Judge Morris ordered additional briefing on the remedy, setting a July 22 deadline. The parties submitted dueling briefs; while DOI is requesting additional time to finalize its environmental review for its decision to lift the moratorium, environmental groups and states are requesting that the court vacate the Secretarial Order that lifted the moratorium altogether.
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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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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.
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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.
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