The U.S. District Court for Montana amended and narrowed its April 15, 2020 order yesterday vacating Nationwide Permit (NWP) 12, which authorizes minimal impacts from “utility line activities” to jurisdictional waters.  Despite the case centering on the Keystone XL Pipeline, as previously reported, the court’s April 15 order vacated NWP 12 nationwide for all activities (including pipelines, broadband, electric, water and sewer) until the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) consults with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service (Services) pursuant to the Endangered Species Act (ESA).  Nearly a month later, the court amended the vacatur’s applicability by limiting it to the construction of new oil and gas pipelines, pending completion of the consultation process and compliance with all environmental statutes and regulations.  Under the amended order, the Corps may continue to authorize the use of NWP 12 for “maintenance, inspection, and repair activities” on existing projects, including existing pipelines, as well as non-pipeline construction activities (e.g., broadband, electric, water, and sewer). Continue Reading Court Limits Nationwide Permit 12 Vacatur to New Oil and Gas Pipeline Construction

The United States Department of Transportation (“DOT”), Office of the Inspector General (“OIG”) recently issued its audit findings of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s (“PHMSA’s”) procedures and standards for reviewing whether liquified natural gas (“LNG”) facilities meet federal safety standards. The audit was designed to assess PHMSA’s (1) review of proposed LNG facilities, (2) inspection of existing LNG facilities, and (3) evaluation of state gas programs that are tasked with inspecting LNG facilities. While the OIG found that PHMSA’s inspection of existing interstate LNG facilities met agency standards, the audit identified several deficiencies with PHMSA’s siting of proposed LNG facilities and its review processes of state programs. This report comes as PHMSA’s proposed overhaul of its Part 193 LNG safety regulations moves toward publication.

Continue Reading OIG Critical of PHMSA LNG Reviews

In light of its recent decision in County of Maui v. Hawaii Wildlife Fund, the Supreme Court of the United States has instructed the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit to revisit its decision in Upstate Forever v. Kinder Morgan Energy Partners, L.P. On remand, the Fourth Circuit will be the first lower court to apply the Supreme Court’s new “functional equivalent” standard to determine whether the Clean Water Act (CWA) requires a permit when pollutants originate from a point source but are conveyed to navigable waters by a nonpoint source, such as groundwater. Under this “functional equivalent” standard, courts must consider a variety of factors to determine whether a release constitutes a “discharge of any pollutant” as defined by the CWA, including: (1) transit time, (2) distance traveled, (3) the amount of pollutant entering the navigable waters relative to the amount of the pollutant that leaves the point source, (4) the manner by or area in which the pollutant enters the navigable waters, and (5) the degree to which the pollution (at that point) has maintained its specific identity. As we discussed in detail on a previous post, it is unclear how lower courts will apply these subjective factors, and notably this initial case will be applying the standard specifically in the context of pipelines.

Continue Reading Fourth Circuit Firsts: First to Apply Maui Test and First to Determine CWA Applicability to Pipelines

As we previously reported, the Federal District Court for Montana vacated the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (“Corps”) Nationwide Permit (“NWP 12”) on April 15, 2020, finding that the Corps had failed to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service prior to issuing NWP 12. The court’s decision vacated NWP 12 nationwide and prevents the Corps from authorizing a broad range of projects that are unrelated to the project at issue in that case, the Keystone XL Pipeline.  Yesterday, the Corps requested that the court stay the effect of its ruling pending the Corps’ appeal to the Ninth Circuit. The Corps requested in the alternative that the court stay its ruling with respect to all projects across the country, except the Keystone XL Pipeline.

Continue Reading Update: Corps Seeks Stay of Montana District Court’s NWP 12 Ruling

A Montana federal district court recently dismissed a challenge by an environmental group seeking to compel the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (“PHMSA”) to comply with certain provisions of the Mineral Leasing Act, 30 U.S.C. § 181 et seq.,. See Wildearth Guardians v. Chao, CV-18-110-GF-BMM, 2020 WL 1875472 (D. Mont. Apr. 15, 2020).  In this case, the environmental group Wildearth Guardians brought suit under the Administrative Procedure Act (“APA”) alleging that PHMSA failed to comply with its legal obligation under the Mineral Leasing Act to “[p]eriodically, but at least once a year,  . . . cause the examination of all pipelines and associated facilities on Federal lands[.]”  Although PHMSA did not contest Wildearth’s assertion that the agency had failed to periodically inspect certain pipelines on federal lands, PHMSA argued that the suit must be dismissed because Wildearth lacked standing to challenge PHMSA’s inaction and the environmental group was unable demonstrate that PHMSA’s failure to inspect the pipelines constituted a “failure to act” under the APA. The district court agreed and narrowly interpreted what constitutes a “failure to act” under  the APA in a manner that could present obstacles for third parties seeking to compel agencies to comply with its their regulatory obligations.

Continue Reading Environmental Group’s Attempt to Compel PHMSA Action Dismissed

The U.S. Supreme Court issued its long-awaited opinion in County of Maui v. Hawaii Wildlife Fund, addressing whether the Clean Water Act (CWA) requires a permit when pollutants originate from a point source but are conveyed to navigable waters by a nonpoint source, such as groundwater. In its decision, the Court established a new “functional equivalent” test with potential impacts to pipeline construction projects, ongoing maintenance, and possibly pipeline spills. The application of this new rule, however, is far from straightforward.

Continue Reading SCOTUS Establishes “Functional Equivalent” Test for Permitting Discharges to Groundwater

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic understandably has strained available personnel and other resources as oil and gas pipeline operators focus on maintaining their essential operations. For the gas industry, the pandemic comes at a time that coincides with the initial deadlines associated with the first installment of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s gas “mega” rule, July 1, 2020. In order to provide gas operators with further flexibility due to constrained resources, PHMSA announced a 6-month stay of enforcement of initial Part 192 compliance deadlines in the rule, “if a regulated entity fails to meet such requirement by Dec. 31, 2020, for reasons attributable to the [COVID-19] National Emergency.”

Continue Reading Ongoing COVID-19 Pandemic Prompts Gas Pipeline Enforcement Stay

Under the Clean Air Act, a facility that emits air pollutants may not be constructed unless an air permit has been issued to the facility. For decades, EPA has interpreted the statute to prohibit almost any construction or modification activities until a permitting authority issues a final permit. But on March 25, 2020, EPA proposed new guidance to clarify that, according to regulations adopted 40 years ago, the only construction prohibited prior to issuance of an air permit is construction on the emitting unit itself. If adopted by state permitting authorities, this guidance should provide companies, such as pipeline project proponents, with more flexibility by allowing more construction activities pre-permit. That said, project proponents should carefully consider the risks associated with initiating construction prior to receiving an air permit.

Continue Reading EPA Shifts Policy on Construction Prior to an Air Permit

The Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board’s (“CSB’s”) long-awaited accidental reporting rule became effective on March 23, 2020. Under the new rule, 40 C.F.R. §§ 1604.1-1604.6., owners and operators of chemical facilities must report accidental releases that result in fatalities, substantial injury, or substantial property damage over a million dollars. This requirement includes reporting of releases that result in in-patient hospitalization, even if the hospitalization is taken as a precautionary measure. As such, this rule may impose a new reporting requirement for accidental releases from certain pipeline facilities that result in injury or property damage, such as at complex facilities where there is non-transportation related storage, processing or other handling of chemical substances.

Continue Reading New Chemical Release Reporting Rule Potentially Applicable to Pipeline Facilities

In a surprisingly broad decision, the District of Montana vacated the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (“Corps”) Nationwide Permit (“NWP”) 12 on April 15, 2020.  NWP 12 authorizes impacts from “utility line activities” to jurisdictional waters that have minimal individual and cumulative adverse environmental effects. “Utility line” is broadly defined to include pipelines and any cable, line, or wire for the purpose of transmitting electricity or communication. The court found that the Corps failed to comply with the Endangered Species Act (“ESA), and thus remanded NWP 12 to the Corps for consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service (the “Services”) in accordance with Section 7 of the ESA. The court’s order prohibits the Corps from authorizing “any dredge or fill activities under NWP 12 pending completion of the [ESA Section 7] consultation process.”

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