Photo of Elizabeth McCormick

On August 1, the Supreme Court of California upheld a decision by the Court of Appeal, which found that the Federal Power Act (FPA) preempts application of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) when the state is acting on its own behalf as licensee of a hydroelectric project.

Continue Reading Supreme Court of California Finds FERC License Preempts Challenge to FERC Order

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) regulations promulgated by the Trump administration (Trump ESA Rules) were challenged by environmental groups. While that challenge was pending, the Biden administration announced that those regulations would be revised. On July 5, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California vacated the Trump ESA regulations, not on the merits of the regulations but because they are in the process of being rewritten. This decision disregards the Biden administration’s request that the regulations remain in effect to preserve consistency and order during the revision process. Instead, the pre-Trump regulations (which were issued in the mid-1980s) have been reinstated and are now in effect until the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) (collectively, the Services) finalize new regulations.

Continue Reading Trump ESA Rules Vacated

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 April 3, representatives of the hydropower industry, Native American tribes, and conservation organizations provided a package of proposed legislative reforms to the Federal Power Act (FPA) to the ranking members of the U.S. Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee and the U.S. House of Representatives’ Energy and Commerce Committee. The package, which was developed as part of the Stanford University Uncommon Dialogue on hydropower and river conservation, is the result of year-long intense negotiations between a variety of hydropower stakeholders.

Continue Reading Hydropower Industry Teams With Tribes, Conservation Organizations to Develop Legislative Package for Licensing Reform

On December 27, 2021, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) issued a final rule reissuing 40 existing Nationwide Permits (NWPs) with modifications and issuing a new NWP for water reclamation and reuse facilities. The 40 existing NWPs that the Corps reissued includes NWP 17, which authorizes the discharge of dredged or fill material associated with certain small hydroelectric projects.

Continue Reading Army Corps Finalizes Modified and New Nationwide Permits, Including for Certain Hydropower Projects

On February 17, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC or Commission) announced two new, significant policies that may have a profound impact on both natural gas pipeline projects before the Commission and the industry in general. Headlining these policies is FERC’s new interim greenhouse gas (GHG) policy statement (Interim GHG Policy Statement), pursuant to which FERC will presume any gas project with 100,000 metric tons per year of carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e) emissions to have a significant impact on climate change and will trigger the preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). Notwithstanding the interim nature of FERC’s new Interim GHG Policy Statement – where FERC is accepting comments by April 4, 2022 – FERC clarified that it will apply both policies to all pending and new project applications, effective immediately.

Continue Reading FERC Overhauls Existing Pipeline Project Analysis, Creates Separate Interim GHG Policy for Gas Infrastructure Projects

In November 2021, the secretaries of the U.S. Department of the Interior, Department of Agriculture, Department of Transportation, Department of Energy, Environmental Protection Agency, White House Council on Environmental Quality, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, and the Tennessee Valley Authority (the participating agencies) entered into a voluntary Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to “improve the protection of, and access to, Indigenous sacred sites through enhanced and improved interdepartmental coordination, collaboration, and action.”
Continue Reading Federal Agencies Sign Memorandum of Understanding for the Protection of Indigenous Sacred Sites