The scope and definition of critical habitat under Section 4 of the Endangered Species Act has been a controversial subject. In 2012, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated 6,477 acres of land in Louisiana (including 1,600 privately-owned acres) as critical habitat for the dusky gopher frog, despite the fact that the frogs have not been seen in the state for decades. Timber company Weyerhauser Co. and private landowner Markle Interests LLC filed suit challenging that designation. Subsequent to the critical habitat designation for the dusky gopher frog, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service (collectively, “the Services”) promulgated new critical habitat rules that authorized, among other things, the designation of areas where a species was not actually present as critical habitat for that species. Thus, the outcome of this case has significant implications for these 2016 rules.
Earlier this week, the Supreme Court ruled that federal district courts, rather than appellate courts, are the proper venue to challenge the “Waters of the United States” (“WOTUS”) Rule (discussed in a previous blog post here), an Obama-era regulation that expansively defined waters subject to Clean Water Act jurisdiction. Following the Supreme Court decision, the Eleventh Circuit on Wednesday vacated its 2015 decision which held the opposite. In doing so, it also remanded a challenge to the WOTUS Rule brought by a coalition of states (led by Georgia) in 2015 in the federal district court in Brunswick, Georgia.
Today, in a much-anticipated decision, the Supreme Court unanimously held that district courts are the proper courts to hear challenges to the “Waters of the United States” (“WOTUS”) Rule, an Obama-era regulation that expansively defined waters subject to Clean Water Act jurisdiction. The decision overturns a Sixth Circuit ruling that federal appeals courts maintain the proper jurisdiction to hear such challenges. Writing for the Court, Justice Sotomayor found that “Congress has made clear that rules like the WOTUS Rule must be reviewed first in federal district courts.”
On January 8, the Supreme Court denied Murray Energy’s petition for appeal of a Fourth Circuit decision that had rejected its efforts to obtain judicial enforcement of Section 321 of the Clean Air Act (“CAA”). Section 321(a) requires EPA to evaluate the potential for plant closures and job losses resulting from regulation and/or enforcement under the Act. The decision marks the end of a legal challenge brought by Murray Energy and 15 states in October 2016, in which the Northern District of West Virginia strongly rebuked EPA’s failure to comply with the statute (as previously reported here). In a 27-page opinion, the district court took EPA to task, finding that the Agency’s longstanding failure to comply with § 321 evidenced a “continued hostility” to the provision. The district court required the Agency to establish a system by the end of 2017 for conducting the evaluations.
On December 22, 2017, the U.S. Department of Interior (DOI) reversed course and issued a Memorandum interpreting the scope of criminal liability under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) and its applicability to “incidental takings,” which the Memorandum defines as a death or other “take” that “results from an activity, but [that] is not the purpose of that activity.” In short, the Memorandum concludes that criminal liability under the MBTA should not be interpreted to extend to incidental takes, and instead only applies to “affirmative actions that has as their purpose the taking or killing of migratory birds, their nests, or their eggs.” This Memorandum will provide significant needed clarity to renewable energy projects and many other industries that perform activities with the potential to indirectly, and non-purposefully, impact migratory birds during development, construction, or operation.
On November 7, EPA filed a motion asking the D.C. Circuit to remand certain provisions of the CCR Rule for the Agency’s reconsideration. As background, on September 13, EPA granted USWAG’s and AES Puerto Rico’s petitions for reconsideration of the CCR Rule stating that it was “appropriate and in the public interest” for the Agency to reconsider parts of the regulation. EPA’s decision was largely based on the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation (WIIN) Act, which alters the self-implementing nature of the Rule to one implemented through enforceable permit programs.
On August 17, 2017, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) published in the Federal Register a final rule designating over 3,900 river miles along the east coast as critical habitat for five distinct population segments (“DPS”) of Atlantic Sturgeon (New York Bight, Chesapeake Bay, Carolina, South Atlantic and Gulf of Maine). The agency chose these areas based on the presence of “physical or biological factors” (PBFs) essential for the conservation of the species and that may require special management considerations or protection. Back in 2012, NMFS had listed each of the five Atlantic Sturgeon DPS as either endangered or threatened. 77 Fed. Reg. 5880; 77 Fed. Reg. 5914. Once a species is listed, the relevant agencies must identify critical habitat for the species. Under the ESA, impacts to critical habitat must be evaluated in federal permitting actions, in addition to impacts to the species itself.
On August 15, 2017, EPA issued non-binding guidance providing insight of EPA’s expectations for states to assume regulation authority over coal combustion residuals (CCRs). Comments on this guidance are due September 14, 2017. Under the Water Infrastructure and Improvements for the Nation Act, states may develop their own CCR permit programs that are “at least as protective” as the federal CCR rule. EPA must review these programs at least every 12 years. Upon the submission of a program application by a state, EPA will have 180 days to act, which includes a period of public notice and comment. States may choose not to submit such a program, and instead opt to remain under the federal scheme.
On July 25, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law Assembly Bill 398, an extension of California’s greenhouse gas (GHG) cap-and-trade program through 2030. Eight days after being introduced, AB 398 passed the California Legislature with a two-thirds majority vote of 55-22 in the Assembly and 28-12 in the Senate. AB 398 implements California’s goal of reducing GHG emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, which was codified in SB 32, a bill signed by Governor Brown last year.
Yesterday, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit (“Fourth Circuit” or “the court”) vacated a federal district court’s order requiring EPA to account for the economic impacts of Clean Air Act (“CAA”) regulations. This decision stems from a suit filed by coal companies claiming that EPA had failed to perform a non-discretionary duty by completing continuous evaluations of job losses and plant closures resulting from CAA implementation or enforcement as required under Section 321 of the CAA. In a strongly worded opinion, the district court ordered EPA to come into compliance with the requirements of Section 321 by July 2017, an order that EPA subsequently appealed to the Fourth Circuit.