The U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit decided the case of Allegheny Defense Project, et al. v. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on August 2, 2019. In a Per Curiam opinion, the court denied petitions challenging the Commission’s orders permitting the Transcontinental Gas Pipe Line Company’s expansion of an existing natural gas pipeline which extends from northern Pennsylvania across the Carolinas into Alabama. The expansion is called the “Atlantic Sunrise Project.” In February 2017, FERC approved the expansion, and denied various petitions, filed by environmental organizations and affected landowners, who then challenged the decision in the DC Circuit. However, the court concluded, on the basis of the administrative record, that these challenges “cannot surmount the deferential standards of agency review and binding DC Circuit precedent.” Under the law, the Commission must consider whether the projected pipeline project meets a market need, and whether the public benefits outweigh the harms. If both criteria are satisfied, FERC will, as in this instance, issue a certificate authorizing the pipeline’s construction, and that certificate also empowers the certificate holder to exercise eminent domain authority under to the Natural Gas Act when necessary. It was the latter consequence of the FERC’s determinations that caused several Pennsylvania landowners to file their objections with the Commission and seek to stay construction.
In January 2017, the outgoing Solicitor of the Department of the Interior issued a memorandum which reaffirmed the Department’s “long-standing interpretation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act that the MBTA prohibits the incidental taking of migratory birds.” In December 2017, following the change in administrations, the Department’s Primary Deputy Solicitor, exercising the authority of the Solicitor, issuing a new memorandum which withdrew and replaced the January 2017 interpretation. In response to this change in policy, the Fish and Wildlife Service issued new guidance as to what now constitutes a “prohibited take.” This change in policy has been challenged by several states, the National Audubon Society and the National Resource Defense Council. On July 31, 2018, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York consolidated these challenges and denied the bulk of the Government’s motion to dismiss these petitions for review. This decision is National Resources Defense Council, et al. v,. U.S. Department the Interior.
On July 26, 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Trump administration can access $2.5 billion in Defense Department funds to replace and enhance sections of barrier along the southern border in Arizona, California and New Mexico. The Court’s 5-4 decision in Trump v. Sierra Club stayed an injunction and let the administration access funds that were frozen by decisions of a federal district court in California in May and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (agreeing with the district court) on July 3. The significance of the decision is that the administration can now move forward with the work—for which contracts have already been awarded, but not finalized—while litigation brought by environmental groups proceeds in lower courts, a process that will take several months.
In a decision that will likely be welcomed by the electrical power, chemical manufacturing, and petroleum and coal products manufacturing industries, on July 19, 2019, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit held in the case of Idaho Conservation League et al., v. Wheeler, that EPA acted reasonably in deciding not to issue CERCLA financial responsibility regulations for the hardrock mining industry. CERCLA (a.k.a., Superfund) was enacted in 1980 and amended in 1986, and Section 108(b) of CERCLA provides that EPA shall promulgate requirements that classes of facilities establish and maintain evidence of financial responsibility “consistent with the degree and duration of risk” associated with the production, transportation, treatment, storage or disposal of hazardous substances. However, no action was taken to implement Section 108(b) until 2009, and then only as the result of litigation challenging EPA’s failure to act. EPA and the petitioners agreed to a schedule by which the agency would propose financial responsibility rules for the hardrock mining industry—which was the initial class of industry facilities selected for the possible application of these rules—and the DC Circuit approved this schedule in 2016, which contained the court’s caveat that EPA retained the discretion not to issue any rule at the conclusion of the rulemaking.
On July 2, 2019, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit decided the case of California Communities Against Toxics, et al. v. EPA. In this decision, the court rejected the latest petition to strike or vacate EPA’s 2018 revisions to the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) hazardous waste recycling rules. In 1985, EPA promulgated a new regulatory definition of “solid waste,” which is the linchpin of the agency’s very stringent hazardous waste management rules. (See the rules located at 40 CFR Sections 260-268.) Unless a material is a “solid waste” as defined by the rules, it cannot also be a hazardous waste.
With estimates that sea levels could rise two to six feet over the next century, states are incorporating adaptation and coastal resiliency into their planning and permitting regimes. In “INSIGHT: States Shift From Seawalls to Living Shorelines,” colleagues Eric Moorman, Norman Carlin and Ashleigh Acevedo examine the different strategies being considered and deployed by coastal states.
On June 21, 2019, the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) issued draft guidance clarifying the treatment of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in environmental impact reviews of federal projects under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Those wishing to comment on the draft must submit comments within 30 days after it is published in the Federal Register.
Last week, the Court granted a petition to review a significant CERCLA case, Atlantic Richfield Company v. Christian, et al., decided by the Supreme Court of Montana on state law grounds. This case involves state litigation which could result in a cleanup whose scope is allegedly inconsistent with an ongoing and expensive federal CERCLA cleanup at the Anaconda Smelter site. CERCLA basically provides that no one may challenge an ongoing Superfund cleanup, yet this state common law proceeding seeking a cleanup of the plaintiff’s homes and properties arguably threatens the EPA-approved cleanup remedy. ARCO filed a petition for certiorari with the Supreme Court, which the Court has now granted despite the Solicitor General’s brief which argued that the Court should wait to see the results of the Montana trial. (It is unusual for the Court to reject the advice of the Solicitor General.)
In just the past few weeks, three states have used their Clean Water Act 401 authority to delay, for an indefinite period, FERC-authorized pipeline expansion projects. On May 6, 2019, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality denied, without prejudice, Jordan Cove’s application for a Section 401 water quality certification. Jordan Cove plans to build an LNG export terminal at Coos Bay, Oregon, if it can obtain the necessary federal and permits. Under Section 401(a) of the Clean Water Act, any applicant for a federal permit to conduct any activity, including the operation of facilities which may result in any discharge into the navigable waters, shall provide the permitting agency a certification from the State in which the discharge may originate that any such discharge will comply with the applicable provisions of the Clean Water Act, including effluent limitations and state water quality standards. The States have a “reasonable time”—which shall not exceed one year after the receipt of the 401 application—in which to act, or the state’s authority may be waived by this inaction. The Oregon DEQ concluded that Jordan Cove has not demonstrated that its project, as presently configured, will satisfy state water quality standards. The 401 applications submitted by Transcontinental Gas Pipe Line Co. (Transco) to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and the New York State Department of Environmental Protection were similarly rejected without prejudice on May 15, 2019 (New York) and June 5, 2019 (New Jersey). This use of the states’ 401 authority has frustrated plans to build and operate LNG pipelines around the country.