The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) issued a Certificate of Convenience and Public Necessity to the Mountain Valley pipeline project in 2017, authorizing new construction of a 300-mile natural gas pipeline through West Virginia and Virginia. Several environmental and citizen groups challenged the FERC decision in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. Among many issues raised, the petitioners argued that FERC failed to properly consider downstream impacts on climate change resulting from the combustion of gas transported by the new pipeline, as required by the Court’s 2017 decision in Sierra Club v. FERC. On February 19, 2019, the D.C. Circuit issued a short (five page) decision in the Mountain Valley case, Appalachian Voices et al v. FERC . The decision summarily dismissed all sixteen of the petitioners’ challenges to FERC’s Order.
In yet another development relating to Clean Water Act (CWA) Section 401 water quality certifications, a recent policy directive from the Department of the Army could impose tighter timeframes for a state to review whether projects comply with state water quality standards. The U.S. Department of the Army has issued a policy directive memorandum requiring the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to adhere to a “default time period” of 60 days for states to act on a request for water quality certification under CWA Section 401 in conjunction with USACE’s issuance of dredge and fill permits under CWA Section 404. The directive also requires USACE to “immediately draft guidance” to establish criteria for USACE District Engineers to identify circumstances that may warrant additional time for states to decide on an application for water quality certification. Continue Reading USACE to Impose 60 Day Period on State Water Quality Certification Review
The federal Clean Water Act (CWA) requires that states review all federal permits involving water discharges to certify that those permits do not conflict with state water quality standards (WQS). 33 U.S.C. § 1341. The statute further provides that 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 certification requirements of this subsection shall be waived with respect to such Federal application.” Id. For pipeline projects, this ‘Section 401’ authority was not historically a significant issue, as most federal permits already anticipated and ensured compliance with state WQS. In recent years, however, opponents of new or expanded pipeline projects have sought to use Section 401 as an additional point of challenge, seeking to stop or delay pipeline project permitting. In a decision issued just last week – although not in a pipeline case – the D.C. Circuit provided the most recent clarification on the issue, admonishing states that the one year timeframe is “absolute.” Hoopa Valley Tribe v. FERC, No. 14-1271 (D.C. Cir., Jan. 25, 2019). Continue Reading D.C. Circuit Clarifies that States have Maximum of One Year to Decide on Water Quality Certification Applications
EPA’s proposed replacement for the Clean Power Plan, dubbed the “Affordable Clean Energy” rule, or “ACE,” is now open for comment. In short, the rule requires states to develop efficiency standards for fossil fuel-fired power plants with the intent of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Coal-fired power plants, and those involved in the production of coal, have a keen interest in the rule for obvious reasons—ACE targets them directly and could require capital projects costing millions.
On September 7, 2018, a jury in a California state court found Plains All American Pipeline guilty on 9 criminal counts, stemming from a release of 140,000 gallons of crude oil from a Plains pipeline near Santa Barbara in 2015. Media across America reported on the criminal verdict in the Plains case, and certain commenters predict that the verdict could further energize pipeline opposition groups around the country. The case may be viewed best, however, as somewhat of an anomaly: a broadside of state legal requirements brought after an oil spill to a sensitive environment in California.
The U.S. DOT and 10 other federal agencies signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on April 9, 2018, which became effective on April 10, 2018. The MOU is intended to implement Executive Order 13807 (Aug. 15, 2017), which established a “One Federal Decision” policy for infrastructure projects that require authorizations by multiple federal agencies. Under the MOU, a lead federal agency must be designated to be responsible for addressing compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and the preparation of a single Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The lead agency will establish a single Permitting Timetable that all federal agencies must follow. The MOU mandates that all federal authorizations must be resolved within 90 days of issuance of the lead agency’s Record of Decision (ROD) on the EIS, with limited exceptions.
There have been problems on large pipeline construction projects in recent years getting all federal agencies to agree on an approach to permitting review and timetables. The MOU addresses that by requiring all agencies to work on a single approach and timeline, and to develop the policies necessary to do so. It also requires all environmental review to be complete no later than two years from issuance of a Notice of Intent (NOI) to prepare an EIS for a new project. Additionally, the MOU specifies three “concurrence points” at which all involved agencies are requested to reach consensus on NEPA project review and approval: (1) Purpose and Need; (2) identification of Alternatives; and (3) selection of the Preferred Alternative.
For new natural gas pipeline construction projects, FERC will continue to be the lead agency preparing an EIS, but any cooperating agencies must now comply with a uniform schedule for review and input. Although not required by the MOU, state, local and tribal agencies will be invited to voluntarily participate in the single permitting timetable process.
The MOU was welcomed by many as a means to achieve permit streamlining, a concept that Congress has attempted to address over the years, as noted in our prior posts regarding both House and Senate efforts [see prior pipelaws posts, August 4, 2017, July 5, 2017]. It also harkens to President Trump’s January 2017 Presidential Memorandum addressing permit streamlining for domestic manufacturing. As a representative of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said of this new MOU, “It shouldn’t take longer to approve a project than to build it.” Opponents of new infrastructure projects, including pipelines, note that the courts are still deliberating on whether and to what extent large projects need to consider climate change impacts under NEPA. Challenges such as that are not addressed directly by the MOU, but in theory the MOU will foster a consolidated position by all federal agencies involved.
While the MOU stands to improve the coordination and timing among federal agencies, it is only aspirational, speaking in terms of “goals” and “milestones” that are ultimately non-binding. It may also place more burdens on project applicants, to ensure that all agencies are, in fact, coordinating and adhering to the timetable, etc., and that any disputes are identified and resolved in a timely manner.
In addition, challenges to permits and approvals at the local and state level will be unaffected by this MOU. New infrastructure projects continue to face opposition by environmental or citizen groups, and increasingly states too have posed challenges to large scale projects. For example, as noted in our prior post of July 5, 2017, projects such as Millennium Pipeline Company that received prior FERC approval have found themselves in the U.S. Courts of Appeals addressing state challenges. The Second Circuit recently issued a favorable decision in the Mellennium appeal , however, holding firm to the plain language in the Clean Water Act that the timeline for a state’s action in response to a request for a water quality certification is one year from receipt of the request.
 The MOU was signed by the heads of the Department of Transportation; the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission; the Environmental Protection Agency; Department of Energy; U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; Department of the Interior; Department of Agriculture; Department of Commerce; Department of Housing and Urban Development; the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and the Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council.
In an attempt to bring clarity following the recent Supreme Court decision—which as noted in our prior post will result in expiration of the nationwide stay of the 2015 revised definition of “waters of the U.S.” that was imposed two years ago by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals—EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) issued a final rule extending the applicability date of the 2015 revised definition to February 6, 2020. With this final rule, the Agencies seek to ensure that the pre-2015 “waters of the U.S.” definition will remain in place consistently throughout the country while the Agencies consider possible revisions. As expected, the final rule has already been subject to judicial challenge, further ensuring that the scope of “waters of the U.S.” will continue to remain uncertain in the near future as these challenges play out. Continue Reading Final Rule Adds 2020 Applicability Date to “Waters of the U.S.” Rule
On January 22, 2018, the Supreme Court in a unanimous decision threw the long contested issue of what constitutes “waters of the U.S.” back to the lower courts. Somewhat surprisingly, the Supreme Court held that federal district courts have jurisdiction to hear challenges to the rule, reversing a Sixth Circuit decision and suspending that court’s nationwide stay of the rule. In doing so, the Court guaranteed that a revised definition of “waters of the U.S.” will remain undecided for some time to come. Continue Reading Definition of “Waters of the U.S.” Remains Uncertain
The 5th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals reversed several key aspects of a PHMSA Final Order in a recent opinion issued on August 14, 2017. That decision is significant for the fact that few final actions by this agency have been presented for judicial review, and, of those, even fewer have been successful. The decision is based on a complex set of facts and legal issues that went through several years of administrative appeals before the agency. As with most complex cases, many of the factual issues were unique, and are not likely to be repeated. There are a few larger, procedural themes to be gleaned from the decision that apply more broadly, however, both to this agency and administrative law generally.