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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

In their article “Are We There Yet? The Challenges of Litigating Clean Air Act Rules,” Mack McGuffey and Melissa Horne discuss the difficulties of getting final answers from the courts in the increasingly polarized political environment of Clean Air Act rulemaking.

Continue Reading Troutman Pepper Environmental Attorneys Author Articles in ABA’s Natural Resources & Environment Summer 2021 Edition

Last week, Washington became the latest state to address environmental justice (EJ) through legislation by adopting the Healthy Environment for All (HEAL) Act and the Climate Commitment Act into law. The HEAL Act, which is the more comprehensive of the two passed laws, was based on recommendations of a state-funded environmental task force issued in fall of 2020 and seeks to remedy the effects of past disparate treatment of vulnerable communities. The Climate Commitment Act is a more targeted law that establishes a greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions cap-and-invest program with the goal of reducing GHG and criteria pollutants in overburdened communities highly impacted by air pollution. Although the laws become effective on July 25, their major EJ-related requirements take effect at later dates.

Continue Reading Washington Adopts Two Ambitious Environmental Justice Laws

The Biden administration has already taken several actions that signal its intention to shift to a more federally focused environmental enforcement approach. Although the Trump administration generally adopted a “hands off” approach that afforded states broad deference in deciding when to initiate and prosecute environmental enforcement actions, the new administration appears to be moving toward a more robust federal role in environmental enforcement.

Continue Reading Preparing for a More Aggressive Federal Environmental Enforcement Regime

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) continues its push to finalize pending rules before the new administration takes office next year. Following a publication of a final rule defining “habitat” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) earlier this week, today the agency published a final rule establishing the agency’s process for excluding certain lands from critical habitat designations.

Continue Reading FWS Finalizes Rule for Excluding Areas from Critical Habitat Designations

In a case involving the question of when unoccupied habitat may be designated “critical habitat” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the U.S. Supreme Court held that critical habitat land must first be habitat before it could be “critical habitat.” Weyerhaeuser Co. v. U.S. FWS, 139 S.Ct. 361 (2018). Given that neither the ESA nor its implementing regulations define habitat, the Court remanded the case for further consideration. In response to this opinion, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service (the Services) issued a final rule defining habitat on December 16, 2020. The rule becomes effective on January 15, 2021.

Continue Reading Final Rule Defining “Habitat” under the Endangered Species Act Issued

The COVID-19 pandemic has elevated fiscal concerns of water and sewer service providers, with many states imposing a moratorium on the collection of delinquent bills and the termination of service. The affordability of water and sewer service has also been a central topic in environmental justice discussions. In the midst of this heightened interest, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) released its long-awaited proposed updates to its Clean Water Act (“CWA”) affordability guidance. The pre-publication version of its 2020 Financial Capability Assessment for CWA Obligations (“2020 FCA”) was released on September 15, 2020. The proposal builds on EPA’s prior guidance, issued in 1997, as well as its 2014 Financial Capability Assessment Framework.  The purpose of the guidance is to establish criteria for EPA consideration of the impact of water quality, stormwater, and drinking water requirements on affordability. This information can then be used to prioritize different regulatory requirements and establish longer compliance schedules in permits and enforcement actions.

Continue Reading EPA Issues Long-Awaited Update to CWA Financial Capability Assessment

In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Weyerhaeuser Co. v. U.S. FWS, 139 S.Ct. 361 (2018), the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has issued a series of proposals to refine the scope, meaning, and criteria for designating critical habitat for species listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The most recent proposal will be published in the Federal Register on September 8, 2020, kicking off a 30-day public comment period.

Continue Reading FWS Issues Additional Habitat Proposal

Environmental justice has received greater attention in 2020, both because it is an election year, but also because of the increased focus on racial inequality since the killing of George Floyd in May 2020. Many states are considering legislation on this topic, but on August 27, 2020, New Jersey passed a significant environmental justice bill, the first to require denial of a permit on environmental justice ground.
Continue Reading New Jersey Passes Significant Environmental Justice Legislation