Judicial/ Administrative Decisions

On January 9, 2020, the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) released its highly anticipated proposed rule to improve its National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) regulations. The proposed changes would be the first comprehensive amendment of the NEPA regulations since their original publication in 1978. CEQ’s proposed changes are designed to streamline and speed the NEPA review process, clarify important NEPA concepts, and codify key guidance and case law. CEQ’s Proposal is informed by comments it received on last year’s Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking.

NEPA requires that federal agencies analyze the environmental effects of their proposed federal actions. This means that virtually any project that requires a federal permit or authorization could be required to undergo a NEPA review. Development of broadband infrastructure, roads, bridges, oil and gas pipelines, and renewable energy facilities are just a few examples of the types of activities that could trigger NEPA. A NEPA review can take significant agency and applicant resources, can substantially delay permits and can provide a basis for a federal court challenge to the project.
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On January 9, 2020, conservation groups filed a second phase of litigation in the DC District Court challenging the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) issuance of over 2,000 oil and gas leases across five western states citing climate change concerns. The groups are requesting that the court, among other things, vacate all 2,000 leases and require the BLM to conduct additional climate change impact analysis for each lease.
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A Texas judge has ruled that Hunton Andrews Kurth is entitled to coverage from Great Northern Insurance Co., a unit of Chubb, Ltd. (Chubb), for losses its predecessor firm suffered when Hurricane Harvey closed its Houston office and disrupted business in 2017.

The court agreed with Hunton’s position that the policy, written specifically for a law firm, covered its business income loss until the firm’s operations were restored to their pre-loss levels.  The court rejected in its entirety Chubb’s argument that coverage lasted only until the physical damage that closed the building had been repaired.  Rather, siding with Hunton, the court found that the policy language affords, in addition to ordinary business income coverage during the damage period, “extended period” coverage that commences after the damaged property is repaired and after the firm’s operations resume.
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Yesterday, EPA and the US Army Corps of Engineers (together, the Agencies) signed and made available a pre-publication version of the highly anticipated repeal of the 2015 WOTUS Rule, which will place the entire country under the pre-2015 Rule regime while the Trump administration works to complete its replacement WOTUS definition.
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Over the last year or so, anti-pipeline forces have increasingly used “tree sitting” to obstruct natural gas infrastructure projects. The tactic involves individuals who climb trees slated for removal in a proposed pipeline project and stay there—sometimes for months and often aided by family, friends or others—forcing project developers to take various countermeasures.

Earlier this month a Virginia federal district judge rejected a novel effort by Mountain Valley Pipeline, LLC (MVP) to join certain unnamed tree sitters (“Tree Sitter 1” and “Tree Sitter 2”) as defendants in a pending Natural Gas Act (NGA) eminent domain action to condemn easements over land in southwestern Virginia for construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline.[1] In addition to interfering with its use of the easements being condemned, MVP alleged that the “tree sitters” or their supporters had assaulted a security officer who was part of a tree clearing crew on the project. Notably, though it declined to join the “tree sitters” as parties, the court observed that MVP still had other available remedies against them.
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On April 12, 2019, the US District Court for the Northern District of California entered an order vacating the Department of the Interior’s (DOI) repeal of the 2016 Valuation Rule due to violations of the Administrative Procedures Act (APA). The 2016 Valuation Rule made changes to the government’s methods for valuing oil, gas and coal produced on Federal and Indian lands. The court’s ruling on the APA claims may impact the Trump administration’s repeal and replace rulemakings that are scheduled to be finalized in the near future.
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In Algonquin Gas Transmission, LLC v. Weymouth Massachusetts, a First Circuit panel last month ruled that a statute of limitations defense is inapplicable to a Natural Gas Act (NGA) preemption claim against a locality. The court also held that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s (FERC) longstanding policy of “encourag[ing] cooperation between interstate pipelines and

On March 21, 2019, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (Commission or FERC) held its monthly open meeting. Highlights of the meeting included the following:

“According to FERC, it is now commonplace for states to use Section 401 to hold federal licensing hostage.”

These are the words the DC Circuit used in Hoopa Valley Tribe v. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, No. 14-1271, p. 10 (D.C. Cir., Jan. 25, 2019), to describe the state of play on § 401 certifications affecting hydroelectric facility licensing or re-licensing applications. CWA § 401(a)(1) requires, as a prerequisite for federal permits for activities that may result in a discharge into the navigable waters, that affected states certify that any such discharge will comply with applicable, enumerated provisions of the Clean Water Act. But, if a state fails or refuses to act on a request for certification within “a reasonable period of time (which shall not exceed one year) after receipt of such request,” the statute deems the certification requirements waived.
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On Friday, a court ruling provided some clarity regarding the Clean Water Act (CWA) § 401 water quality certification process. As forecasted in our November 1, 2018 blog post (below), the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit has ruled that a state waives its CWA § 401 authority when, pursuant to a written agreement, an applicant repeatedly withdraws and resubmits its request for water quality certification in order to restart the one-year waiver clock. Hoopa Valley Tribe v. FERC, No. 14-1271 (D.C. Cir. Jan. 25, 2019). According to the Court’s opinion, this sort of arrangement serves to circumvent the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s (FERC) “congressionally granted authority over the licensing, conditioning, and developing of [the] project,” and “if allowed, the withdrawal-and-resubmission scheme could be used to indefinitely delay federal licensing proceedings and undermine FERC’s jurisdiction to regulate such matters.”
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