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On March 31, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia denied an appeal filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and other conservation groups seeking to overturn a National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) decision not to protect two types of river herring, alewife, and blueback herring under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The appeal sought to have NMFS list both species as threatened. A listing of river herring would have a significant impact on hydropower projects, as dams were identified as one of the primary threats to river herring populations.
Continue Reading Conservation Group Efforts Seeking Greater Protection of River Herring Denied

On June 7, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) issued a proposed rule titled, “Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants; Designation of Experimental Populations.” In issuing the proposed rule, FWS re-affirms its authority to designate and introduce experimental populations of protected species into areas of habitat outside of their historical range when climate change, invasive species, or other threats have affected or will affect that range. Importantly, this proposal only applies to species managed by FWS. Species managed by NMFS are governed by separate regulations, which NMFS updated back in 2016. These changes will make the FWS regulations more similar to those of NMFS. Pursuant to NMFS’ existing regulations, experimental populations of salmon have been re-introduced in certain waterways in the Western United States. FWS’s proposal could result in similar re-introduction of experimental populations of terrestrial and freshwater species.
Continue Reading FWS Proposes to Account for Climate Change When Designating Experimental Populations

On April 20, the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) issued a Final Rule, revising certain sections of its regulations implementing the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The Final Rule represents “Phase 1” of the Biden administration’s plan to reverse the Trump-era rulemaking, which significantly revised the NEPA regulations for the first time since 1978.

NEPA, sometimes referred to as a “paper tiger,” requires federal agencies to take a “hard look” at the environmental impacts of certain proposed projects but does not mandate any particular outcome. In July 2020, the Trump administration issued its Final Rule, which represented the first update to the NEPA regulations in over 40 years. The 2020 rule contained numerous revisions, many of which were intended to speed up infrastructure projects by reducing delays and paperwork during NEPA reviews. It also revised the definition of “effects,” which traditionally included “direct, indirect, and cumulative effects,” by reducing it to one short paragraph and eliminating references to these three categories, and instead providing that “effects” should not be analyzed “if they are remote in time, geographically remote, or the product of a lengthy causal change.”
Continue Reading Biden Administration Releases “Phase 1” of NEPA Revisions

On June 1, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a pre-publication version of its proposal to re-write the Clean Water Act Section 401 rule (Certification Proposal), which, if finalized, is expected to have far-reaching impacts on hydroelectric licensing and relicensing. The Certification Proposal is intended by EPA to replace the version of the rule finalized under the Trump administration in 2020 (2020 Rule). While the Certification Proposal maintains some aspects of the 2020 Rule, it differs in some significant areas and in many ways reverts back to the 1971 regulations.

Continue Reading EPA’s Clean Water Act Certification Proposal to Significantly Impact Hydropower Licensing

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC or Commission) published proposed rules on March 21 that, for the first time, would codify the Commission’s expectations regarding what kinds of climate-related disclosures public companies must make in their required filings to the SEC. Prior to now, companies have had to rely on 2010 guidance from the Commission to determine what information they should disclose to investors regarding their climate-related risks.
Continue Reading SEC Publishes Proposed Rule Requiring Climate Disclosures

The listing status of the northern long-eared bat (NLEB) under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) has been the subject of litigation since the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) originally listed it as threatened in 2015. At that time, the Service also issued an ESA Section 4(d) rule that allowed incidental take resulting from development activities to occur within its range and habitat where white nose syndrome (WNS) was not present, so long as certain best management practices, such as time of year restrictions on tree removal, were followed. In 2021, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit found that the Service’s 2015 listing decision did not adequately explain why the bat was not listed as endangered, and failed to address how impacts, such as habitat modification allowed under the 4(d) rule, affected the NLEB. The court remanded the 2015 rule to the Service for further consideration, but allowed the threatened listing and 4(d) rule to stay in place while the Service reconsidered the listing status for the species.

Continue Reading FWS Proposes to Uplist Northern Long-Eared Bat

On October 26, the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and National Marine Fisheries Service (the Services) proposed to rescind two Trump-era final rules: the Habitat Definition Rule and the Designating Critical Habitat Rule. Both rules deal with the designation of critical habitat — a Service-designated area determined to be essential to an endangered species’ conservation and recovery, which may be occupied by a species when designated or unoccupied. Both rules are also a direct result of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2018 decision in Weyerhaeuser Co. v. U.S. FWS, 139 S. Ct. 361, which remanded a critical habitat decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, noting, among other things, that a determination of habitat is needed before FWS can determine what is considered critical habitat.
Continue Reading Biden Administration Rescinds Two Trump-Era Endangered Species Act Rules

On October 21, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California vacated and remanded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) 2020 Clean Water Act Section 401 final rule (Certification Rule).

In response to the court’s ruling, EPA is implementing the previous water quality certification rule nationwide, which had been in effect since 1971, while it develops a new rule.

Pursuant to Section 401 of the Clean Water Act (CWA), no federal license or permit that may result in a discharge to U.S. waters may be issued unless the state or authorized Tribe, where the discharge will originate, issues a water quality certification or waives the certification requirement.
Continue Reading Court Decision to Vacate, Remand State Water Quality 401 Certification Rule

Landowners and permit applicants received an email notification this week that the Army Corps of Engineers (Army Corps) would not be processing their requests for coverage under a variety of Clean Water Act (CWA) Section 404 Nationwide Permits (NWPs). NWPs are general permits that authorize activities under Clean Water Act Section 404 that “will cause only minimal adverse environmental effects when performed separately, and will have only minimal cumulative adverse effects on the environment.” CWA Section 404 (e)(1).

Continue Reading Army Corps Halts Coverage Under Nationwide Permits

On October 4, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) published a revision of its interpretation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA). With the final rule, FWS has effectively reinstated its position that “incidental take” — the harming or killing that results from, but is not the purpose of, carrying out an otherwise lawful activity — is prohibited by the MBTA, and persons that cause incidental take can be prosecuted criminally. FWS’s final rule represents a reversal of a Trump-era interpretation of the MBTA, which narrowly interpreted liability under the statute to apply only to those actions specifically “directed at” migratory birds that “reduce animals to human control.” See previous post covering the prior rule.

Continue Reading Changes to Migratory Bird Treaty Act Program Announced