On March 12, 2018, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) order finding that delays by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (NYDEC) in reviewing Millennium Pipeline Company’s application for water quality certification constituted waiver of NYDEC’s authority under the Clean Water Act (CWA). As we detailed in an earlier blog post, FERC found that NYDEC’s delay exceeded the one-year statutory period established by CWA Section 401. The Millennium case is just one of several interstate natural gas pipeline projects that have faced delays associated with the CWA Section 401 permitting process. (See, e.g., Atlantic Bridge Project, Atlantic Sunrise Project, Constitution Pipeline, Northern Access Project, PennEast Pipeline, and Spire STL Pipeline.) The Court’s decision resolves the nearly three-year permitting process for the Millennium Valley Lateral Pipeline and clarifies for other projects (and state agencies reviewing those projects) that the one-year waiver period begins when the state agency receives the initial request for certification. Continue Reading Second Circuit Affirms Waiver Period for State Water Quality Certification Begins Upon Receipt of Request for Certification
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 (NEPA), 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 (FERC) 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.
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. The same issue is at play in the Sabal Trail case currently under review by the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit. See Sierra Club, et al. v. FERC, No. 16-1329 (D.C. Cir. filed Sept. 21, 2016).
Despite oil already flowing through the pipeline, federal litigation involving the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) took another turn last week when partial summary judgment was granted to tribes challenging the adequacy of the US Army Corps of Engineers’ review of DAPL under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and other statutes. Two tribes, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, filed suit in July 2016 attempting to block construction of the last remaining segment and operation of DAPL. As sometimes is the case, agency approvals came faster than the court’s opinion, and without a stay of proceedings DAPL began operating in early June 2017. Having granted partial summary judgment, the court did not require pipeline operations to cease, instead delaying the question of an appropriate remedy until after further briefing by the parties.
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). The case, Delaware Riverkeeper v. Secretary, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection et al., concerned petitions for review filed by environmental and conservation groups in New Jersey and Pennsylvania to challenge state permitting decisions for the Transcontinental Pipeline (Transco) Leidy project. Specifically, the groups challenged the decisions of the Pennsylvania and New Jersey Departments of Environmental Protection (PDEP and NJDEP, respectively) to issue water quality certifications under Section 401 of the Clean Water Act (CWA) and, in the case of the NJDEP, other water quality-related permits required under State law.
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. Under the scheme of “cooperative federalism” set up by many environmental statutes—such as the Clean Water Act (CWA), the Clean Air Act, and the Endangered Species Act—even where a natural gas project is under the exclusive federal regulatory jurisdiction of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), it will often require state-issued permits or other authorizations to go forward. The controversy in the pending Constitution Pipeline cases concerns the extent to which a state may assert authority over discrete aspects of a federally-regulated project in a manner that delays or prevents its construction.
The legacy of Keystone XL lives on, as fallout from that politically influenced debate has created a stigma for many new pipeline construction projects. The Sierra Club and other opposition groups openly admitted that their challenge to the Keystone XL pipeline was really a stalking horse to bring more attention to climate change generally. While that opposition was not intended as a more specific objection to pipelines, regional and local citizen groups are now opposing almost any form of new pipeline construction, on a more confrontational basis, using Keystone XL climate change type arguments even where they are not relevant.
Construction of new pipeline (especially gas) or other energy infrastructure often encounters issues arising from the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA or Act). The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS or the Service) recently announced its intent to evaluate the potential environmental impacts of a proposal to authorize incidental takes of birds under the MBTA. Such evaluation is required under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) for any proposed agency action with the potential to significantly affect the environment. The FWS proposes a multi-faceted approach to regulating the incidental take of migratory birds, including:
- Issuance of general incidental take authorizations for certain hazards to birds associated with particular industry sectors;
- Issuance of individual permits authorizing incidental takes in the context of particular projects or activities; and
- Development of memoranda of understanding with federal agencies, authorizing incidental takes from those agencies’ operations and activities.
The authority of the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to establish minimum safety standards for the design, installation, and construction of pipeline facilities is clearly set forth in the Pipeline Safety Act (49 U.S.C. § 601 et seq.) (PSA or the Act), as is its authority to conduct design review of certain new facilities and new and novel technology by virtue of the 2012 amendments. DOT’s authority to inspect and impose these standards during construction is not so clearly articulated, however. Although DOT has established and enforced standards for pipeline construction since it began regulating the safety of pipelines in the late 1960s, it has published only limited guidance for the regulated community clarifying how this authority will be exercised. It has also rarely asserted its authority to conduct construction inspections, until construction was complete.
In a decision that may affect how impacts of related pipeline construction projects are analyzed, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals recently remanded an environmental assessment (EA) prepared by FERC under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Delaware Riverkeeper Network et al. v. FERC, D.C. Cir. No 13-101 (June 6, 2014). The Court held that the Commission violated NEPA by improperly considering the project’s environmental impacts in isolation from three inter-related projects undertaken or proposed by the same operator on the same pipeline within a short period of time. The Court remanded the case to FERC for further consideration of the cumulative environmental impacts of the four related natural gas pipeline construction projects.