Recent Cases - Environmental

After a nearly two-year wait, in Protecting Our Water and Environmental Resources v. County of Stanislaus (2020) __ Cal.5th ____ (POWER), the California Supreme Court unanimously rejected the County of Stanislaus’s (County) bright-line categorization that all groundwater well construction permits are ministerial, and therefore not subject to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).  In an interesting twist, the Supreme Court also rejected the petitioner’s alternative “all or nothing” position that, if the permits are not ministerial, they must be discretionary and conditioned on CEQA compliance.  Instead, the Supreme Court held the decision of whether each permit is ministerial or discretionary hinges on the specific language of the governing ordinance and regulatory controls.[1]
Continue Reading California Supreme Courts Holds Categorical Classification of Well Permits As Exclusively “Ministerial” Does Not Hold Water

In Sacramentans for Fair Planning v. City of Sacramento (2019) ___ Cal.App. 5th ___, the Third District Court of Appeal upheld the City of Sacramento’s use of a sustainable communities environmental assessment (“SCEA”) pursuant to the Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act (SB 375), rather than a more traditional CEQA document (i.e., an environmental impact report or mitigated negative declaration), when it approved the Yamanee development (the “Project”) as a transit priority project (“TPP”). The mixed-use Project comprised one floor of commercial space, three levels of parking, 134 residential condominiums and one floor of residential amenities, for a total of 177,032 square feet on a 0.44-acre site. The Project also included inconsistencies with the City’s general plan density and building intensity standards. The court rejected arguments that the City improperly utilized a regional transportation and greenhouse gas (“GHG”) reduction plan in approving the SCEA; or that the SCEA should have further analyzed the Project’s cumulative impacts, and not relied on tiering off past EIRs. The holding further affirms the innovative and beneficial use of SCEAs in streamlining environmental review for qualifying TPPs.
Continue Reading Sustainable Communities Environmental Assessment Upheld Under CEQA

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

The belatedly published South of Market Community Action Network v. City and County of San Francisco (2019) ___ Cal.App.5th ___ (“South of Market”), is the first published decision in which the court applies the principles articulated by the California Supreme Court in the recent Sierra Club v. County of Fresno decision (commonly referred to as “Friant Ranch”) regarding the standard of review for the adequacy of an EIR (discussed in detail here).

The challenged EIR in South of Market set forth two proposed schemes for a mixed‑use development (the “5M Project”) on a 4-acre site in downtown San Francisco: an “Office Scheme” and a “Residential Scheme.” Under both schemes, the overall gross square footage was substantially the same, with varying mixes of office and residential uses. Additionally, each scheme would result in new active ground floor space, office use, residential dwellings, and open space. Both schemes would also preserve and rehabilitate the Chronicle and Dempster Printing Buildings, demolish other buildings on site and construct new buildings ranging from 195 to 470 feet in height.

Petitioners alleged a litany of CEQA violations in their petition, including claims regarding traffic and circulation, open space, inconsistencies with area plans and policies, and the adequacy of the statement of overriding considerations. Applying existing law and specifically relying on Friant Ranch, the South of Market court looked to whether the EIR at issue contained the details necessary for informed decision-making and public participation. The court emphasized that when assessing the legal sufficiency of an EIR, perfection is not required as long as a good faith effort at full disclosure has been made. Contrary to the petitioners’ allegations, the court held this standard was met here, demonstrating that, in this case at least, Friant Ranch does not appear to have led to a significantly different approach to resolving the various CEQA challenges alleged in the petition for writ of mandate.

To avoid redundancy and for the sake of brevity, the remainder of this post will address in detail only the more novel and/or nuanced holdings of the court.
Continue Reading EIR for Downtown San Francisco Mixed-Use Project Upheld Under Supreme Court’s Newly Articulated Standard of Review

A federal district court has ruled that the Bureau of Land Management (“BLM”) failed to adequately consider climate change when approving a set of oil and gas leases on public lands in Wyoming. The ruling should be of broader interest to developers and energy companies because it offers guidance on how to properly analyze a project’s effects on climate change under the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”). The law in this area remains unsettled –especially since President Trump rescinded the Obama Administration’s formal guidance on NEPA and climate change in 2017. Future developments are likely, and project sponsors should monitor them closely.

At issue in the case are oil and gas leases covering 300,000 acres of public lands in Wyoming. For each lease sale, BLM prepared an environmental assessment to comply with NEPA. The environmental assessments discussed climate change on a “conceptual level,” without quantifying and analyzing the greenhouse gas emissions that would result from the lease sales. The court found the analysis inadequate under NEPA, and it halted drilling under the leases and sent the matter back to BLM for additional environmental review. In its lengthy ruling, the court offered concrete guidance to BLM on how to fix its analysis of greenhouse gas (“GHG”) emissions and climate change on remand, including that:

  • BLM should quantify GHG emissions that would result from drilling oil and gas wells on the leased parcels.
  • BLM should provide more detail about “downstream” GHG emissions that would result from the consumption of oil and gas produced under the leases.
  • BLM should better evaluate the “cumulative” effect of the leases together with other projects, including by comparing GHG emissions from the leases against available emissions forecasts and other BLM programs.

This guidance may also serve as a useful roadmap to NEPA compliance for other projects, particularly other energy projects. And development opponents are likely to use the court’s reasoning to challenge future NEPA documents. Below we break down the court’s direction on three categories of GHG emissions, each requiring a different level of detail.
Continue Reading District Court Provides Guidance On Climate Change Analysis Under NEPA

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently upheld – for the second time – California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard (“LCFS”) against constitutional challenges brought by industry groups. The case, Rocky Mountain Farmers Union v. Corey (9th Cir. 2019) (No. 17-16881) (“Rocky Mountain II”), considered the groups’ claims that all 3 historical versions of the LCFS violate the Commerce Clause and the “federal structure of the Constitution” by regulating extraterritorially. The court held that while the plaintiff’s claims had changed form since the first time the court upheld the LCFS, “both the regulations and the claims have the same core structure now as they did then.” The court used this similarity to guide its analysis and uphold the district court’s dismissal.
Continue Reading On Repeat: Courts Again Uphold Low Carbon Fuel Standard Programs

Makah Indian Tribe, et al. v. Quileute Indian Tribe et al., 813 F.3d 1157 (9th Cir. 2017).

Defying the universal notion that whales and seals are, in fact, mammals, the Ninth Circuit recently affirmed in part, and reversed in part, the Western District Court of Washington’s judgment determining that such species qualify as fish in limited circumstances relating to tribal fishing rights in western Washington. Id. at 1159. While the direct determination that the use of the word “fish” may occasionally include some marine mammals may not be universally enlightening, this case painstakingly details the rules to be utilized when interpreting sovereign treaties—a tool helpful to almost any jurisdiction. (The opinion also quotes from the television show “Seinfeld,” validating George Costanza’s proclamation that whales are fish.)
Continue Reading Ninth Circuit Determines That George Costanza Was Right!—In Limited Circumstances, Whales And Seals Are Fish (Not Mammals)

TDY Holdings v. United States, et al., 872 F.3d 1004 (9th Cir. 2017).

TDY brought suit for contribution under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) against the U.S. government relating to environmental contamination at TDY’s manufacturing plant. The district court granted judgment in favor of the government after a 12-day bench trial and allocated 100 percent of past and future CERCLA costs to TDY. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit held that the district court sharply deviated from the two most “on point” decisions regarding allocation of cleanup costs between military contractors and the U.S. government when it determined the cases were not comparable, clarified the applicability of those cases, and remanded the case to reconsider the appropriate allocation of cleanup costs between TDY and the U.S. government.
Continue Reading Ninth Circuit Finds District Court Sharply Deviated from Existing Authority on CERCLA Cleanup Costs Between Military Contractor and U.S. Government When it Allocated 100 Percent of Liability to Military Contractor

Sturgeon v. Frost, et al., 872 F.3d 927 (9th Cir. 2017).

In September 2011, moose hunter John Sturgeon brought an action against the National Park Service (“Park Service”), alleging it inappropriately banned him from using a hovercraft to hunt moose on the Nation River in the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve (“National Preserve”). Id. at 929. On remand from the Supreme Court, the decision analyzes which entity is permitted to decide this matter after the Supreme Court rejected an earlier circuit decision supporting the ban. The court’s ruling affirms congressional intent to permit Park Services authority to manage navigable waters in Alaska’s national parks, especially those parks meant to preserve wild rivers, and describes the balance between state and federal jurisdiction.
Continue Reading Ninth Circuit Holds National Park Service Has the Authority to Regulate Navigable Waters in Alaska’s National Parks and Prohibit the Use of Hovercraft (Again)

Asarco, LLC v. Atlantic Richfield Company, 866 F.3d 1108 (9th Cir. 2017). In a Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) contribution case, the Ninth Circuit addressed three issues of first impression for the circuit related to the ability to pursue contribution after settlement and the application of the statute of limitation. Specifically, the court looked at (1) whether a settlement agreement entered into under an authority other than CERCLA may give rise to a CERCLA contribution claim; (2) whether a “corrective” measure under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), qualifies as a “response” action under CERCLA; and (3) what it means for a party to “resolve its liability” in a settlement agreement. Id. at 1113. The Ninth Circuit concluded that a settlement under RCRA may give rise to a CERCLA contribution claim and that corrective measures under a RCRA decree may constitute response costs under CERCLA. Id. at 1113–14. The court found that the CERCLA contribution claim at issue was not barred by the statute of limitation because plaintiff Asarco, LLC (Asarco) did not “resolve its liability” under a 1998 RCRA consent decree, and, therefore, could not have brought its contribution action until a subsequent CERCLA consent decree was issued. Id.
Continue Reading Ninth Circuit Weighs In On Circuit Split Regarding CERCLA Contribution Claims After Settlement and The Statute of Limitation

What is Prop 65?

Prop 65 is a California law that requires California consumers receive warnings regarding the presence of chemicals that cause cancer or reproductive toxicity. The law is highly technical, constantly evolving and actively enforced by the government and private enforcers.
Continue Reading WARNING: Prop 65 Has Changed – If Your Product Is Sold In California Or You Do Business In California, Pay Attention