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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In recent litigation involving the development of interstate natural gas pipelines, one of the key issues has been whether the state has waived its authority under Clean Water Act section 401 by exceeding the one-year time period. In a separate case involving a series of hydroelectric facilities, the waiver period was again directly at issue. On October 1, at oral argument before the D.C. Circuit, the parties addressed whether California and Oregon had waived their water quality certification authority by having the applicant withdraw and resubmit its request for certification over a number of years. Notably, the judges seemed to agree that FERC could make a waiver determination before the end of the one-year time limit and that withdrawing and resubmitting an application may not always restart the clock.
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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.
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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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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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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.
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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 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.

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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.
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