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Jim Rusk is a partner with the Land Use and Natural Resources practice group in the firm’s San Francisco office.

Recent amendments to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which Congress included in the Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023 (FRA), aim to streamline federal environmental review by imposing time limits, clarifying the scope of review and agencies’ roles, and narrowing some key definitions. Most of the amendments simply codify regulatory definitions or agency practices already in effect, so the practical impact of the changes is likely to be limited. Nonetheless, the amendment of NEPA is noteworthy in its own right and could signal a new willingness in Congress to address a process often seen as cumbersome and prone to delay.Continue Reading NEPA Amendments Aim To Streamline Environmental Review But Largely Codify the Status Quo

In a long-anticipated decision on the reach of the Clean Water Act (“CWA”), the Supreme Court significantly narrowed the scope of the wetlands and other waters subject to the CWA’s protections. The Court’s opinion in Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency, released May 25, 2023, limits waters of the United States (“WOTUS”) to “relatively permanent” water bodies such as streams, oceans, rivers and lakes, and to wetlands with a “continuous surface connection” to those water bodies. The Court’s holding removes a wide swath of previously-protected wetlands from the CWA’s permitting requirements, likely eliminates jurisdiction for many ephemeral and intermittent streams, and spells all but certain doom for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s recent rulemaking adopting a new definition of WOTUS for CWA purposes.Continue Reading Supreme Court Narrows Scope of Waters Protected by the Clean Water Act in Sackett v. EPA

In the latest effort by the Biden administration to promote consideration of climate and environmental justice impacts in federal decision-making, the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) recently issued interim guidance for federal agencies analyzing greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) and climate change under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).[1] Under the new guidance, which is similar to previous guidance that had been withdrawn under the Trump administration, NEPA review documents generally will be expected to quantify GHG emissions caused by federal actions, discuss the resulting climate impacts, and incorporate environmental justice considerations. While the guidance recommends methods for conducting the necessary technical analysis, it sidesteps key legal issues surrounding climate change analysis under NEPA, leaving federal agencies—and project proponents seeking federal approvals or funding—with difficult questions to resolve.Continue Reading Updated CEQ Guidance for Analysis of GHG Emissions Sidesteps Key Legal Issues

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Wednesday published a final rule defining “Waters of the United States,” or WOTUS, which determines the extent of federal regulatory authority under the Clean Water Act. 88 Fed. Reg. 3004-3144 (Jan. 18, 2023). The new rule largely reinstates the longstanding definition of WOTUS first adopted in 1986, as modified by the Supreme Court’s opinion in Rapanos v. United States,547 U.S. 715 (2006). But the final rule comes as the Supreme Court again considers the proper scope of WOTUS in Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency, which will likely determine the viability of the new definition.Continue Reading Turbulence Ahead for the Clean Water Act: Agencies Redefine “Waters of the United States” as SCOTUS Prepares to Rule in Sackett v. EPA

The U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona on August 30 vacated the 2020 Navigable Waters Protection Rule (NWPR) that redefined “waters of the United States” for purposes of Clean Water Act jurisdiction, effectively reinstating the definition in effect prior to 2015.  Under that prior definition, many ephemeral streams and isolated wetlands that were not subject to federal jurisdiction under the NWPR will again be subject to case-by-case determinations of their status.  The case, Pasqua Yaqui Tribe v. EPA, CV-20-00266-TUC-RM (D. Ariz.), is one of several challenging the NWPR, and the outcome leaves unanswered questions about the scope of the court’s ruling and the potential for inconsistent regulations across the nation.
Continue Reading Uncertainty Over ‘Waters of the U.S.’ Definition Continues, as Federal Court in Arizona Vacates 2020 Rule

The decades-long battle over organic certification of hydroponically grown foods is poised for resolution, with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals set to decide an appeal by the Center for Food Safety (CFS) in a case that seeks to block certification of foods not grown in soil.  On May 19, 2021, CFS filed an appeal asking the Ninth Circuit to reverse a district court decision upholding the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s determination that hydroponically grown foods are eligible for certification under the National Organic Program (NOP).  The outcome of the appeal could have significant implications both for hydroponically grown fruits and vegetables and for other soil-less crops, including mushrooms and sprouts.
Continue Reading Organics Advocates Dig In With Ninth Circuit Appeal Challenging Certification for Hydroponics

The Clean Water Act sometimes requires a permit for the indirect discharge of pollutants from a point source to navigable waters, but only when the discharge is the “functional equivalent” of a direct discharge, the Supreme Court held on April 23.  The Court’s 6-3 opinion in County of Maui v. Hawaii Wildlife Fund (No. 18-260) addresses a circuit split regarding whether indirect discharges to navigable water via groundwater are subject to the Act’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (“NPDES”) permitting program, but it has implications for other types of indirect discharges as well.  Although the Court identified some factors that may help determine when a discharge is the functional equivalent of a direct discharge—especially the time and distance between the discharge of a pollutant from a point source and the pollutant’s arrival in navigable waters—its opinion is likely to create substantial uncertainty for the regulated community as the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”), litigants, and the courts attempt to apply the Court’s multi-factor test to a variety of factual scenarios.
Continue Reading Clean Water Act Permit Required for “Functional Equivalent” of Direct Discharge, Supreme Court Says

On August 27, 2019, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service (collectively, the “Services”) published final rules amending three important parts of the federal regulations that implement the Endangered Species Act (16 U.S.C. §§ 1531 et seq.). The amended rules, which will take effect on September 26:

  • Eliminate the automatic extension of protections to threatened (as opposed to endangered) species;
  • Revise the provisions for designating critical habitat and listing and de-listing species under ESA Section 4; and
  • Revise the procedures for interagency consultation under ESA Section 7.

Continue Reading Endangered Species Act Rulemakings Face Immediate Challenge

In a recent opinion, the D.C. Circuit suggested the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) must attempt to obtain information necessary to evaluate the environmental effects of a proposed interstate pipeline project due to the project’s effect on natural gas production and consumption. In Birckhead v. FERC, USCA Case No. 18-1218 (D.C. Cir. 2019), the court criticized FERC for failing to obtain and consider information about upstream production and downstream consumption in its National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review of a proposed project to add compression to an existing pipeline, even though the applicant was unlikely to have information regarding the origin and destination of the gas to be transported. The court indicated that FERC has an obligation to at least request information about upstream and downstream activities from pipeline applicants, and suggested that, under the decision in Sierra Club v. FERC, 867 F.3d 1357 (D.C. Cir. 2017), FERC may be required to consider the environmental effects of those activities as indirect effects of FERC’s pipeline approval.
Continue Reading D.C. Circuit Says NEPA Requires FERC To Inquire Into Up and Downstream Effects of Pipeline Project

An area designated as critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act must first qualify as “habitat” for listed species, the Supreme Court held this week in the closely watched Weyerhaeuser case. The Court’s November 27, 2018 ruling, which reversed a decision by the Fifth Circuit, has the potential to narrow federal agencies’ discretion to designate as critical habitat areas that are currently unoccupied by endangered or threatened species, but the opinion leaves important questions to be answered by the lower courts – including the meaning of “habitat.” The Court also held that agency decisions not to exclude specific areas from a critical habitat designation on economic grounds are subject to judicial review, reversing the Fifth Circuit and overturning the current law in the Ninth Circuit.
Continue Reading Critical Habitat Must Be Habitat for Listed Species, Supreme Court Says

A recent Ninth Circuit ruling that pollutants reaching waters of the United States through groundwater may trigger Clean Water Act liability has prompted the U.S. EPA to consider clarifying its position on the subject. The Ninth Circuit held last month, in Hawai‘i Wildlife Fund v. County of Maui, that the Act applies to “indirect discharges” from point sources, such as wells, that eventually make their way to surface waters. Though the Ninth Circuit is not the first federal court to hold that indirect discharges require a permit under the Act, the EPA responded by seeking public comment on whether it should clarify previous statements addressing this topic. The County of Maui subsequently filed a petition on March 1 for en banc rehearing of the Ninth Circuit panel’s opinion.
Continue Reading After 9th Circuit Ruling in Hawai‘i Wildlife Fund v. County of Maui, EPA Considers ‘Clarifying’ Clean Water Act Coverage for Discharges Via Groundwater