Judicial/ Administrative Decisions

Federal agencies that authorize or permit large infrastructure projects, like interstate natural gas pipelines, are often subject to the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act, and environmental organizations frequently rely on NEPA to challenge a project. The D.C. Circuit recently struck down a decision by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to approve the construction and operation of three interstate natural gas pipelines because the Court found defects in FERC’s NEPA analysis. The court’s decision to vacate FERC’s authorization now threatens to shut down the pipelines, including the Sabal Trail pipeline currently supplying natural gas to newly constructed power plants in Florida.
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On January 31, 2018, in proceedings to condemn easements for the Mountain Valley Pipeline project, the US District Court for the Western District of Virginia ruled that the pipeline company’s preliminary injunction motions for pretrial possession of the easements would be granted only if it appraised each of the nearly 300 properties at issue.
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Once large infrastructure projects, such as oil and natural gas pipelines, receive federal government approval, they are often the target of legal challenges from opposition groups. Opponents repeatedly argue that the environmental review, pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), was insufficient. If a court finds deficiencies in the government’s NEPA analysis, can a court halt construction or cease operations even after years of project design, permit approvals at all levels of government, and tens of millions of dollars in investment? This question was at the heart of the ongoing litigation involving the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), and, on October 11, Judge James Boasberg determined “no,” the court would not shut down the pipeline. This case is important precedent for projects being challenged under NEPA.
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On September 15, 2017, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC or the Commission) issued an order in which it concluded that delays by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (NYDEC or the Department) in processing Millennium Pipeline Company’s application for Clean Water Act (CWA) water quality certification constituted a waiver of the certification requirement.
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As previously reported on PipelineLaw, the ongoing controversy over an April 2016 decision by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (NYDEC or the Department) to deny a Clean Water Act (CWA) water quality certification to Constitution Pipeline Company (Constitution or the Company) for its interstate natural gas pipeline project in Pennsylvania and New York highlights tensions between federal and state oversight of such projects.
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Since the Administration denied a Presidential (border crossing) Permit to the Keystone XL Project in 2015, a number of regional, state or local objections to new pipeline construction projects have emerged around the U.S. Most of the protests have continued themes relied on by opposition to Keystone, including the claim that fossil fuels should remain in the ground in order to limit the impacts of climate change.
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The Third Circuit held in a highly anticipated recent decision that state actions on water quality-related permits for interstate natural gas pipeline projects are reviewable only in the federal Circuit Courts of Appeals, in accordance with the Natural Gas Act (NGA).
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Recent developments in cases brought by Constitution Pipeline Company to challenge New York’s denial of certain water quality authorizations highlight tensions between federal and state oversight of interstate natural gas pipeline construction projects, and the accompanying potential for costly and protracted delays.
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The question of whether Presidential Permit authority is constitutional and/or subject to judicial review has been and continues to be an unsettled issue.  A little more than a month after the State Department’s November 2015 denial of TransCanada’s application for a Presidential Permit to construct its Keystone XL pipeline project, the United States District Court for the District of Minnesota ruled in White Earth Nation et al. v. Kerry et al. that State Department Presidential Permitting decisions are Presidential in nature and are therefore not subject to judicial review.  Approximately one month later, in January 2016, TransCanada filed two separate actions to challenge the Obama administration’s rejection of its application for a Presidential Permit for the Keystone XL pipeline.  The first action was filed in federal district court in Texas to challenge the denial of the Keystone Presidential Permit, and the second is a Notice of Intent to submit a claim to arbitration under Chapter 11 of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

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