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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

In an August 3 opinion in the case of Vecinos para el Bienestar de la Comunidad Costera et al. v. FERC, Case No. 20-1093, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit determined that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC or Commission) failed to adequately review the impacts of two proposed liquefied natural gas (LNG) export facilities on greenhouse gas emissions and environmental justice communities. The court remanded the proceedings to FERC for further consideration and explanation of these issues. Though the decision focused on FERC’s authorization of natural gas facilities, it signaled that the court will carefully scrutinize an agency’s obligations under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), a statute that has far-reaching applicability in the hydropower context.

Continue Reading DC Circuit Directs FERC to Consider Environmental Impacts of LNG Facilities

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

On October 7, the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NOPR) to revise its regulations implementing the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires federal agencies to take a “hard look” at the environmental impacts of certain proposed projects, but does not mandate any particular outcome. The NOPR is focused on revisions the July 2020 rulemaking completed by the Trump administration, which was the first significant overhaul of the NEPA regulations since their initial promulgation in 1978. The Trump rulemaking included provisions to streamline the NEPA review process, as well as substantive changes to the scope of the review. CEQ’s NOPR follows an announcement early in 2021 by the incoming Biden administration that it planned to review the July 2020 rulemaking. In the NOPR, the Biden administration outlines the aspects of the rule it plans to change: the purpose and need of a proposed agency action, agency procedures for implementing CEQ’s regulations, and the definition of “effects” of a proposed action.

Continue Reading Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for NEPA Revisions Announced

On May 26, the Senate Finance Committee voted to advance legislation that would amend certain energy tax provisions in an effort to combat climate change, curtail greenhouse gas emissions, and create jobs. The bill, known as the Clean Energy for America Act, would provide an “emissions-based, technology-neutral tax credit” for facilities with zero or net negative emissions as well as certain energy storage facilities and high-capacity transmission lines. The bill includes several provisions that would benefit hydropower facilities, including an extension of the production tax credit through the end of 2022, which will encourage new hydropower development and a provision that would make pumped storage hydroelectric facilities eligible for the investment tax credit. It would also include tax credits to encourage environmental, safety, and efficiency improvements at existing hydropower facilities and to remove dams that have reached the end of their useful life.
Continue Reading Proposed Legislation to Impact Hydropower

Following the Council on Environmental Quality’s (CEQ) July 2020 overhaul of regulations implementing the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), environmental plaintiffs filed a series of lawsuits challenging the rule in federal courts in California, Virginia, New York, and the District of Columbia. The plaintiffs argued that CEQ violated NEPA itself in promulgating the final rule by failing to prepare an environmental assessment (EA) or environmental impact statement (EIS). They also argued that CEQ ran afoul of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) by failing to follow notice-and-comment requirements, by issuing a final rule that is “arbitrary and capricious,” and by improperly narrowing both the scope of projects under review and the types of impacts agencies should consider.

Continue Reading NEPA Litigation Update

On March 23, 2021, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit (the “Second Circuit” or the “Court”) agreed with FERC’s determination that the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (“DEC”) had waived its certification authority under the Clean Water Act (“CWA”) by failing to act within the one-year statutory deadline. Notably, the Second Circuit held that a state agency cannot revise a certification request date by written agreement with the applicant, thereby altering the one-year statutory deadline for state action. Denying the petitions for rehearing by DEC and the Sierra Club, the Court applied the same reasoning it applied in New York State Dep’t of Env’t Conservation v. FERC (“New York I”), 884 F.3d 450, 455-56 (2d Cir. 2018) (see March 20, 2018 edition of the WER) where the Second Circuit determined that DEC could not unilaterally alter the application date based on when it considered an application complete “because that approach would allow a state agency not only to dictate when the review process can begin but also to delay it indefinitely.” There, to avoid such a subjective standard, the Second Circuit established a bright line rule that the beginning of the review is determined by the date “of receipt of such request.”
Continue Reading Second Circuit Sides With FERC – States May Not Agree to Revise the Certification Request Date to Avoid Waiver of its Certification Authority Under Section 401 of the Clean Water Act

On March 18, 2021, FERC issued a Final Rule amending its regulations to establish a one-year period for states, tribes, or other certifying authorities (“Certifying Agencies”) to act on a Clean Water Act (“CWA”) Section 401 water quality certification request for proposed natural gas and liquefied natural gas projects.
Continue Reading FERC Establishes Water Quality Certification Waiver Period for Natural Gas Projects