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.
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.…
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently published a proposed rule revising regulations that authorize permit issuance for eagle incidental take and eagle nest take under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act (the “Act”). In addition to retaining the individual permits already available under the Act, the new rule proposes creation of a “general” permit for qualifying wind energy and power line infrastructure projects.…
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (the “Service”) published a proposed rule listing the tricolored bat as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”). The tricolored bat occurs in portions of 39 states, including Texas, Iowa, and Oklahoma, which contain a significant concentration of utility-scale wind projects. In combination with the Service’s proposed “endangered” designation for the northern long-eared bat, the new proposed rule could complicate wind energy project permitting across the country.…
In Save the Hill Group v. City of Livermore et al., the First District Court of Appeal (Div. 5) reversed and remanded the superior court’s decision to uphold the reissued final environmental impact report (RFEIR) for a development project with 44 single-family homes located in a residentially-zoned grassland area, called Garavanta Hills, near the Garaventa Wetlands Preserve. In doing so, the Court held that the analysis for the “no project” alternative was inadequate because it failed to disclose and evaluate the possibility of using existing mitigation funding to make the no-project alternative feasible. While the superior court agreed that the analysis of the no-project alternative was insufficient, the superior court found that petitioner Save the Hill Group (Petitioner) had failed to exhaust its administrative remedies on this issue, upholding the RFEIR on this jurisdictional prerequisite. While the Court of Appeal reversed this particular decision, it did rejected the Petitioner’s remaining claims.
Continue Reading Court of Appeal Holds No-Project Alternative Analysis May Mean More When Conservation is an Option and Reinforces Low Barrier to Entry Under the Exhaustion Doctrine
On January 23, 2020, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued the Navigable Waters Protection Rule (the “2020 Rule”), which includes a revised definition of the “waters of the United States” subject to federal regulation under the Clean Water Act. The revisions in the 2020 Rule come after a line of U.S. Supreme Court (“Supreme Court”) cases ending with Rapanos v. United States, as well as an Obama-era administrative rule addressing the waterbodies under federal jurisdiction (the “2015 Rule”). Rapanos was the last time the Supreme Court interpreted the term “waters of the United States,” with the intent of curtailing the substantial litigation concerning the meaning of the phrase and defining what “waters of the United States” should be included under federal jurisdiction. The 2015 Rule intended to clarify the definition further and codify the Supreme Court decisions. When effective, the newly issued Navigable Waters Protection Rule will limit the 2015 Rule, attempting again to define what are and what are not “waters of the United States.”…
Continue Reading Navigable Waters Protection Rule: How are the “Waters of the United States” Being Defined?
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) published a rule on October 23, 2019, repealing the Clean Water Rule promulgated by the Obama administration in 2015. The rule, which goes into effect on December 23, 2019, puts the pre-2015 regulations governing areas subject to federal jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act back into place nationwide. Environmental groups and state attorneys general have vowed to challenge the repeal in court.
Continue Reading EPA and Army Repeal Clean Water Rule and Move Forward with Plan to Redefine Waters Subject to Federal Regulation under Clean Water Act
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.
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
The Clean Water Rule defined the extent of jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act. It was supposed to have become effective on August 28, 2015, but was immediately challenged in multiple lawsuits and was eventually stayed nationwide by the Sixth Circuit. Disputes on the merits were put on hold while the courts decided whether the cases should proceed in the district courts or in the appellate courts.
Continue Reading Corps and EPA Push Out Effective Date of Disputed Clean Water Rule
In re Big Thorne Project and 2008 Tongass Forest Plan, __ F.3d __, 2017 WL 2233755 (9th Cir. May 23, 2017). Plaintiffs, environmental conservation and activist organizations, brought suit against the U.S. Forest Service and Department of Agriculture (collectively, “Forest Service”) on behalf of individuals who fish, hunt, and “enjoy” Alaska’s Tongass National Forest. Id. at *3. Plaintiffs alleged that the Forest Service violated the National Forest Management Act (the “Act”) by approving either the 2008 Tongass Forest Plan or the Big Thorne logging project. Id. at *2. The Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s summary judgment in favor of the Forest Service, holding that the Forest Service’s approval was neither arbitrary nor capricious because the Act expressly grants the Forest Service discretion to balance competing interests, and the Forest Service reached its determination after a thorough analysis rationally supported by the evidence. Id. at *5.
Continue Reading Ninth Circuit Affirms Forest Service’s Authority to “Choose Jobs Over Wolves”