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.
The EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) announced a series of public teleconferences for stakeholder input on recommendations to revise the definition of “Waters of the United States” under the Clean Water Act. This definition is critical to the determination of whether wetlands or water discharge permits are required for construction projects or operations across all industries. In total, there will be ten teleconferences beginning on September 19, 2017, nine of which will be tailored to a specific industry sector and one of which will be open to the public at large (see summary below). The session specific to the energy, chemical and oil and gas industries is scheduled for October 24, 2017. The teleconferences will run throughout the fall on Tuesdays from 1 to 3 pm eastern. Continue Reading Stakeholder Meetings Scheduled for Revised Waters of the U.S. Rule
The DC Circuit issued a decision on July 3, 2017, vacating the 90-day stay of the Oil & Gas Industry NSPS rules – the first rules to regulate methane from that sector. In a June 5 Federal Register notice, the new Trump EPA stayed the rules pending reconsideration under Section 307(d) of the Clean Air Act. Environmental Groups filed an emergency challenge to the stay, asking for either a stay of that decision or summary vacatur of it. Issuing its decision less than a month later, the court vacated EPA’s stay of the rules.
EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers (the Corps) issued a prepublication version of a proposed rule that will rescind prior 2015 revisions to the definition of “waters of the U.S.” under the Clean Water Act (CWA), pending the issuance of a more substantive rulemaking that reevaluates the definition. The prior revisions expanded federal jurisdiction over certain waters and prompted numerous judicial challenges and a subsequent nationwide stay of the rule.
The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) recently published a notice inviting public comment to identify statutes, rules, regulations, and interpretations in policy statements or guidance that “unjustifiably delay or prevent completion of surface, maritime, and aviation transportation infrastructure projects.” As stated in the notice [attached], in keeping with President Trump’s regulatory reform agenda, DOT and other federal agencies are in the process of reviewing existing policy statements, guidance documents, and regulations that might pose impediments to transportation infrastructure projects. The upcoming deadline to provide input on that review is July 24, 2017. We encourage industry to consider submitting comments, particularly given DOT’s statement that comments are not restricted to burdensome regulations, but also extend to policy statements, interpretations and guidance.