The pre-publication version of the final rule to be promulgated by EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) to repeal the 2015 redefinition of the Clean Water Act’s term “Waters of the United States” which is the linchpin of these agencies’ regulatory power under the CWA, was made available on September 12, 2019. The rule should be published in the Federal Register in the next few weeks, and it will be effective 60 days thereafter. Many challenges are expected to be filed in the federal courts.
The federal courts have recently decided two significant Clean Water Act (CWA) cases: State of Georgia, et al. v. Wheeler, where the US District Court for the Southern District of Georgia held that the 2015 rulemaking proceeding of EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers redefining the term “Waters of the United States” in the CWA violated the Act as well as the Administrative Procedure Act; and the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, et al. v. Glaser, where the appeals court ruled that the lower court erroneously interpreted a CWA NPDES permitting exception involving agricultural return flows.
This is a brief survey of many of the environmental and regulatory laws passed by the Texas Legislature and signed by the Governor in the 86th Regular Session of the Legislature, which ended in May 2019. Altogether, more than 1,300 laws were enacted in this session, including a surprising number of environmentally related bills. Most of these new laws take effect on September 1, 2019. This survey places them in the following broad categories: Air, Water; Waste; Disaster (principally because of the effects of Hurricane Harvey); and Miscellaneous. (Special thanks to Jay Bowlby, a summer intern in our Houston office, who made a significant contribution to this survey.)
Developers in California know that getting approval to build new housing projects can be extremely difficult, time-consuming, and expensive. But a new policy is finally coming into full effect which could help developers cut through those barriers. SB 35, enacted in 2017, streamlines the approval process for housing developments in areas with inadequate housing supply, so long as the developments meet certain criteria.
The U.S. Court of Appeals or the District of Columbia has recently issued two important rulings on the Clean Air Act in particular and administrative law in general: California Communities Against Toxics, et al., v. EPA and Murray Energy Corporation v. EPA.
On August 13, 2019, in a case that may have an impact on the leasing of federal lands for energy development in the future, the U.S. District Court for the Missoula, Montana Division, issued a ruling in the case of Western Organization of Resource Councils v. Bernhardt, which involves the application of the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) to the Department of the Interior’s Royalty Policy Committee. This advisory committee, initially established in 1995 to provide advice to the Secretary on issues related to the leasing of federal and Indian lands for energy and mineral resources production, is subject to the provisions of FACA, codified at 5 U.S.C. app. Sections 1-16. The plaintiffs challenged the operations of this advisory committee, which was reestablished for two years beginning in 2017, because it allegedly “acts in secret and works to advance the goals of only one interest: the extractive industries that profit from the development of public gas, oil, and coal.” More specifically, the plaintiffs alleged that this advisory committee violated FACA because: (a) it was not properly established as provided in the implementing GSA rules (which are located at 41 CFR Section 102-3); (b) did not provide public notice of its meetings and publicly disseminate its materials; (c) ensure that its membership was fairly balanced; and (d) failed to exercise independent judgment without inappropriate influences from special interests.
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.