Posted on February 24, 2017
Here’s a thought exercise: I’ll give you a budget of 25 words (including conjunctions, articles, and all the other little ones). You use up a word by either deleting, adding, or replacing one in an existing federal environmental or natural resources statute. How much could you transform the field of practice with just those 25 word edits? The answer is, quite a lot.
When we think of statutory reform, we usually think big, right on up to “repeal and replace.” But after more than 25 years of very little legislative action on federal environmental and natural resources statutes—the National Wildlife Refuge Improvement Act, Sustainable Fishing Act, and the recent Toxic Substances Control Act reforms are a few exceptions since the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments—much rides on the accumulations of judicial and agency interpretations of the meaning of a word here and a phrase there. As we enter a period of potential legislative volatility in this field, therefore, the rifle shot may be just as much in play as the nuclear bomb.
Like any statutory reform, rifle shots can make regulatory statutes either more or less regulatory. For example, one could add “including carbon dioxide” or “excluding carbon dioxide” in just the right place in the Clean Air Act and with those three words put an end to a lot of debate and litigation. Given the current political climate, however, it’s reasonable to assume any rifle shot would be aimed at reducing regulatory impacts. But even with just 25 words in the clip, one could transform the impact of several regulatory programs before running out.
For example, delete the words “harm” and “harass” from the statutory definition of “take” in the Endangered Species Act (ESA) (16 U.S.C. 1532(19)) [LINK 1] and you have a very different regulatory program. Much if not most of the land use regulation impact under the ESA stems from the inclusion of those two words; without them, the ESA’s prohibition of unpermitted take would restrict actions like hunting, killing, shooting, and wounding, but could not reach indirect “harming” from habitat modification. Of course, the interagency consultation program under Section 7 (16 U.S.C. 1536(a)(2)) [LINK 2] would still be in place, prohibiting federal agencies from taking actions that “jeopardize” the continued existence of species. But just add “substantially” before “jeopardize” and the practical effect of that prohibition is greatly reduced.
I’ve managed to transform the ESA, vastly reducing its regulatory impact, with just three word tweaks. Twenty-two to go. Here are some more examples. I’ll let readers evaluate the impacts.
· Speaking of evaluating impacts, the environmental impact review process of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) can really slow things down (42 U.S.C. 4332(B)). [LINK 3] To “streamline” the process, add the word “direct” before “environmental impact” in subpart (C)(1), which would eliminate the current practice of requiring analysis of indirect and cumulative impacts, and delete subpart (C)(iii), which requires agencies to evaluate “alternatives to the proposed action,” to remove a factor that bogs down much NEPA litigation. (Six more words down, sixteen to go.)
· Heard all the commotion about which “waters” are subject to the Clean Water Act? Clear that up by changing the statutory definition of “navigable waters” (33 U.S.C. 1362(7)) [LINK 4] to read “waters of the United States subject to navigation.” That would be pretty extreme—it would remove most wetlands from jurisdiction—so one could control how far jurisdiction extends over wetlands by adding and their adjacent wetlands.” This would draw the line much closer to navigable water bodies than current interpretations reflected in Supreme Court opinions and agency regulations—Rapanos and the Water of the United States Rule become history. (Seven more words down, nine to go.)
· And if you also want to put to rest the question whether the Clean Water Act applies to groundwater, edit the front end of the definition to read “surface waters.” (Another word down, eight to go.)
· The Circuits are split over whether the Migratory Bird Treaty Act’s list of prohibited activities (16 U.S.C. 703(a)), [LINK 5] which includes to “take” or “kill,” sweeps within the statute’s reach any “incidental” taking or killing—injury or mortality that is not the direct purpose of the activity, such as strikes by wind turbines. Easy to solve! Add the word “purposeful” before the list of prohibited activities. (Another word down, seven to go.)
· And, while we’re at it, let’s go ahead and add “excluding carbon dioxide” to the Clean Air Act definition of “air pollutant” (42 U.S.C. 7602(g)). [LINK 6] Adios, Clean Power Plan. (Three more words down, leaving just four to go.)
I’ll leave it to readers to think about how to use the last four words. The point here is that the system of environmental and natural resources law has become quite fragile. With Congress out of the picture for so long, courts and agencies have built up an interpretation infrastructure under which a single word or phrase often carries a tremendous burden of substantive and procedural program implementation. As a consequence, a mere tweak here and there can have dramatic effects on the program.
Granted, anyone who closely follows the statutes tweaked above will quickly appreciate the impact of any of the tweaks, and I’ve chosen some powerful examples unlikely to slip by any such experts. But subtler tweaks buried deep in a larger bill could more easily fly below the radar.
It remains to be seen whether Congress takes this rifle shot approach or goes bigger. Rifle shots don’t eliminate or “gut” entire programs, which may be the current congressional appetite, but the above examples show the potency of this approach. I for one will be keeping my eyes out for rifle shots in bills every bit as much as I will be following the big bomb reform efforts. Do not underestimate the power of the tweak!
Posted on February 14, 2017
Citing its deep decline in numbers, on January 10, 2017, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (“FWS”) listed the rusty patched bumble bee, Bombus affinis, as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”). FWS estimates the rusty patched bumble bee population has seen as much as a 91 percent reduction since the mid to late 1990s. Twenty years ago, this species was practically ubiquitous in eastern North America, spanning across 28 states. Now its territory covers only small regions in 12 states: Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, and Wisconsin.
This listing is the first for bees under the ESA, but unlikely the last. Like the rusty patch bumble bee, other bee species are facing steep declines in their respective populations. Declining bee populations are troubling, because bees, as pollinators, are vital to the U.S. agricultural industry. According to a study conducted in 2010 by Cornell University, bees and other pollinators are estimated to contribute a total of $29 billion to the industry, with $16.35 billion attributed specifically to pollination.
The direct cause of these dramatic declines in bee populations is undetermined and likely due to a multitude of factors. FWS states the threats to the rusty patched bumble bee include disease, exposure to pesticides, habitat loss, and climate change. This listing will likely intensify the debate over commonly used pesticides, including neonicotinoids, which have undergone additional scrutiny after a 2016 study published in Nature linked the use of neonicotinoids to the decline of wild bee populations in England.
FWS published the proposal for this listing in the Federal Register on September 22, 2016 and the final listing was published in the Federal Regulation on. January 10, 2017. However, due to the Trump administration’s Inauguration Day memorandum halting or delaying any new federal regulations, the ESA’s protection for the rusty patch bumble bee is delayed until March 21, 2017-a stinging result.
Posted on January 26, 2017
President Trump wasted no time making good on his promise to reverse President Obama’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and move U.S. energy policy towards cleaner energy sources. On January 24 Trump signed two executive memoranda, one inviting TransCanada to resubmit its application to build the 800,000 barrel a day Keystone XL pipeline from the Canadian oil sands to the Gulf Coast; the other directing the Army Corps of Engineers to expedite the review and approval of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) to carry approximately 500,000 barrels per day of crude oil from the Bakken shale in North Dakota to oil markets in the United States. But a close reading raises some sticky legal and economic issues that will have to be resolved before the oil starts flowing. [LINKS to Keystone and DAPL Memos]
In announcing the Keystone Memo, Trump said that approval was contingent on TransCanada’s willingness to “renegotiate some of the terms” – including perhaps a commitment to use US steel and a share in any profits. The problem is that tar sands oil is not only the dirtiest fuel on the planet, it’s also the most expensive to extract. To be profitable oil prices need to be above $80 per barrel; today they sit around $52, and it is unlikely they will rise much higher in the foreseeable future given the competition from shale oil and the fracking boom that is flooding the market in the US. The break-even point for Bakken shale oil is $29 per barrel. Seventeen major oil sands projects were canceled after oil prices crashed in 2014, as companies took major losses. Major investors in the oil sands have begun to leave, including Norway-based Statoil, which pulled out of the oil sands in December 2016. So cutting a deal to the President’s liking may be harder than it looks.
Assuming the deal goes down, the Keystone Memo issues several directives to clear the way for the project. It directs the State Department to make a final decision within 60 days of the date TransCanada re-submits its application, and it further specifies that “to the maximum extent permitted by law” the final supplemental EIS issued in 2014 shall satisfy the requirements of NEPA as well as the consultation requirements of the Endangered Species Act, and “any other provision of law that requires executive department consultation or review.” The Keystone Memo also directs the Corps of Engineers to use Nationwide Permit 12 to summarily authorize the stream crossings needed to complete the project. These fast track measures are sure to be tested in court by the opponents who are not about to let their hard won victory be snatched away without a furious fight—in the courts as well as in the streets. While courts have ruled that the presidential permit itself is not reviewable, there is presumably no bar to challenging the decisions of the Corps and the Department of Interior that are necessary to complete the project.
The DAPL Memo directs the Secretary of the Army and the Chief of the Corps of Engineers to “review and approve in an expedited manner, to the extent permitted by law and as warranted, and with such conditions as are necessary or appropriate, requests for approvals to construct and operate the DAPL, including easements or rights-of-way to cross Federal areas under section 28 of the Mineral Leasing Act.” The Memo also instructs the Secretary to consider whether to rescind the memorandum issued by the Obama administration requiring preparation of an EIS on DAPL’s request for an easement to cross Lake Oahe, and to deem the previously-issued Environmental Assessment sufficient to satisfy NEPA.
The Standing Rock protest over DAPL has become an historic confrontation that has united an Indigenous land-and-water movement and climate activism to confront a fossil-fuel corporation protected by a militarized police force. At one point in December thousands of veterans arrived to provide a safe space for the protesters who call themselves “water protectors.” Litigation filed by the Standing Rock Tribe and other tribes challenging the Corps’ issuance of permits under the Clean Water Act and Rivers and Harbors Act is pending in federal district court in the District of Columbia. Judge Boasberg denied a preliminary injunction but has yet to rule on the merits of the case. At the moment, the court is considering DAPL’s motion for summary judgment to declare that the project already has all of the approvals it needs and the Corps should not be able to reverse its earlier decision that an EIS was not required. Though the Justice Department has vigorously opposed this move, it will be interesting to see whether the Trump administration adopts a different posture. In any event, the Tribe has raised serious questions about whether the Corps properly evaluated threats to its water supply intake and alternative routes that would lessen the risk. One of the allegations invokes environmental justice concerns arguing that the project was re-routed away from Bismarck in response to concerns about threats to its water supply. The Tribe has also raised novel questions about whether granting the easement would violate treaty rights under the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie.
At the hearing on DAPL’s motion for summary judgment, Judge Boasberg acknowledged the uncertainty about what the new administration might do but observed that “It’s not my business to guess.” For now the rest of us will have to guess at what the final outcome of this epic confrontation that has galvanized indigenous peoples from all over the world will be.
Posted on November 15, 2016
What will a Trump Presidency mean for environmental law? I’m not sure my crystal ball is better than anyone else’s, but here are a few quick thoughts:
- It’s still going to be difficult to amend the key statutes, unless the GOP goes nuclear with the filibuster rules. I don’t see Clean Air Act amendments happening. Significant amendments might be possible to the Endangered Species Act and Superfund.
- Changing regulations is more difficult than one might think. As has already been noted, the Bush administration did not fare too well with judicial review of its efforts to roll back some Clinton environmental initiatives. For example, I still think that the new ozone standard should survive and I think that courts would take a dim view of EPA efforts to raise it. The Clean Power Plan is another matter. All Trump needs there may be a new Supreme Court Justice.
- The easiest target is executive orders. The social cost of carbon? Toast. Guidance on incorporating climate change into NEPA? Toast.
Trying to keep things light, I’ll close with a summary in haiku, which often takes nature as its subject.
Deep-six the Clean Power Plan
Goodbye to winter
Posted on July 13, 2016
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit on July 5 issued a ruling that the federal government violated the Endangered Species Act and the Administrative Procedure Act in approving the long-running, oft-litigated Cape Wind offshore wind project proposed to be built off the Massachusetts coast. Senior Judge Randolph, writing for an unanimous panel, confirmed the District Court’s rejections of a number of the claims advanced by Plaintiffs (who included the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, the Town of Barnstable, and the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound), but reversed the District Court on two key points.
The proposed Cape Wind project, which has been the subject of voluminous news coverage and many court cases for well over a decade, sought to construct 130 3.6 MW turbines in shallow waters near Nantucket. Challenges have included scenic impacts; Native American concerns that the project would will block their sunrise views across the sound, disturb ancestral burial grounds, and perhaps disturb cultural relics; and issuance of submerged land leases required by the project. Financial hurdles seemed to put the project into a death spiral two years ago, but quietly the project developers have continued legal fights to defend the permits and approvals previously issued. They have largely been successful—until this month.
Early on, biologists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (“FWS”) had recommended that the wind turbines be shut off during limited periods of highest risk to two birds listed under the Endangered Species Act-- the piping plover and roseate tern. However, the FWS ultimately rejected that conservation measure on the grounds that it would impair the financial feasibility of the project. The Court of Appeals held that the FWS’s action was arbitrary and capricious. The Court further held that the project cannot proceed without compliance with the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and without further analysis of environmental impacts pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act.
In conclusion, the Court stated: “We reverse the district court’s judgment that the Bureau’s environmental impact statement complied with NEPA and that the Service’s incidental take statement complied with the Endangered Species Act, and we vacate both statements.” A copy of the ruling is here.
Posted on December 10, 2014
On December 2, 2014 the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas enjoined the Small Business Administration (SBA) and the Farm Service Agency (FSA) (together the “Agencies”) from making any payments on their loan guaranties to Farm Credit Services of Western Arkansas (Bank), pending the Agencies’ compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The Bank had loaned nearly $5 million to C&H Hog Farms, Inc. (C&H) in 2012 for the construction of a confined animal feeding operation (CAFO), collateralized by a guaranty from the United States.
The court’s decision paves the way for potential alteration of the collateral agreement terms, over two years after the non-party Bank had closed and funded the loan. Such court action could jeopardize the farm loan guaranty program.
In its decision the court found that the SBA failed to conduct any environmental review of its loan guaranty or to consider the impact of that loan on the endangered Gray Bat that resides in an area near the CAFO, and that the FSA’s environmental impact and endangered species reviews were inadequate; the Agencies’ actions thereby violated both NEPA and ESA. The court’s injunction precludes the Agencies from making any payment on their loan guaranties to the Bank until they have complied with their obligations under NEPA and ESA, giving them a year to do so.
In August of 2012, and as provided under state regulation, C&H received a General No Discharge Permit (Permit) from the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) that addresses the management of manure, litter, and process wastewater generated from the CAFO. The Permit authorizes up to 6503 swine, at a location along a creek that discharges to the Buffalo National River, the nation’s first national river.
Upon completion of FSA’s review process and issuance of a Finding of No Significant Impact in August 2012, C&H obtained an initial construction loan of $3.6 million, 75% of which was guaranteed by SBA. C&H later received a $1.3 million loan, with 90% of that loan guaranteed by FSA. Both loan guaranties were required by the Bank. The loans were funded, construction was completed, CAFO operations commenced, and C&H has been making timely loan payments.
In August of 2013 the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance and several other organizations sued the Agencies, alleging that the CAFO permit contemplated at least occasional discharges of waste into surface waters that could pollute the Buffalo National River, and that the Agencies had violated NEPA, ESA, and certain other federal requirements. The plaintiffs requested that the loan guaranties be enjoined, pending a further environmental review. On December 2, 2014 an injunction was issued. C&H and the Bank were not parties to the litigation.
The significance of this decision is not the finding of a NEPA or ESA violation. What is surprising, and noteworthy, is the Court’s conclusion that such agency action was sufficiently related to a loan arrangement between two entities that were not party to the suit, leading to possible rewriting of that loan two or more years after it was negotiated and closed, and the funds dispersed.
The court concluded there was a sufficient causation nexus because “[w]ithout the guaranties, there would’ve been no loans. Without the loans, no farm.” In addition, the Court concluded that requiring further NEPA and ESA review would in fact redress the plaintiffs’ injuries for the loans already made since the Agencies have an “ongoing role in monitoring any conditions placed on their guaranties,” thereby suggesting that further restrictions could well be placed on C&H’s operation of the CAFO.
The Agencies have now agreed to undertake the additional review within the mandated 12 month time period. That review may result in no additional restrictions, or in restrictions that C&H can carry out without difficulty. With C&H being current on its loan payments, this decision may ultimately have no practical impact on C&H or its Bank. However, the “oh my” scenario is equally possible, because the court’s decision has no limits on the scope of additional restrictions that may be imposed.
As noted by the court, “[t]he federal agencies, through guaranty conditions, have control over C&H’s case-relevant behavior” and “it’s likely that more environmental review will change how C&H operates its farm.” If C&H is unable to meet those restrictions, resulting in a loan default, the Bank will lack the guaranty it required to fund the loan in the first place. Thus, the court has authorized the guarantor to re-write the terms if its guaranty, post hoc, to the severe detriment of the non-party Bank.
With a six year statute of limitations on filing a NEPA claim, what farm loan guaranty is safe from being altered or eliminated as a result of judicial action? Will Old MacDonald be prohibited from obtaining next year’s crop loan until the Agencies complete an EIS, a process that will take a year to complete and likely cause him to miss the planting season?
And what about other endangered species that could implicate the validity of other farm loan guaranties? EPA’s proposed habitat designation for two newly listed endangered mussels will encompass over 40% of the area of the state of Arkansas, impacting one third of all property owners in the state, most of which are farmers.
In addition, the broader implications of this decision on security interests cannot be overlooked. There were no parties in the litigation to argue that relieving the United States from its debt/collateral obligation would unfairly reward the Agencies for their failure to comply with NEPA and ESA. The Agencies certainly did not advance that argument. In fact, the injunction is what the Agencies requested, the court noting that its “Order will follow generally the terms [of the injunction] suggested by [the Agencies].” The Court even ordered the Agencies to “modify or void the loan guaranties as they deem appropriate in light of their revised and supplemented NEPA and ESA analysis.” The impact upon the agricultural loan program is clear, since these loans are routinely traded as federally insured securities.
The Arkansas Farm Bureau has succinctly identified the potential implications of this decision: “[The opinion] probably just made it a whole lot harder for the next guy who’s trying to get a farm loan, regardless of where they are.” You can take that to the bank—or not!
Posted on November 11, 2014
Bucking the trend of five Circuit Courts of Appeal, the U.S. District Court for Utah decided the Endangered Species Act (ESA) cannot be applied on private property for a wholly intrastate species. The threatened Utah prairie dog, found exclusively in Southwestern Utah, apparently has insufficient connection to interstate commerce to support federal protection when found on privately owned land.
In the aptly named People for the Ethical Treatment of Property Owners (PETPO) v. US Fish and Wildlife Service, PETPO sued the government when it modified its regulations establishing limitations on “take” (death, injury) of the Utah prairie dog, a species found only within Utah. Because the species was not found interstate and finding no other relationship between the species and interstate commerce, the court looked at and rejected all of the government’s arguments that the ESA take limitations on the Utah prairie dog were authorized by the Congressional power to regulate activities having a substantial relation to interstate commerce.
The government’s arguments were the same as have been made in multiple court decisions, each of which finding regulation of wholly intrastate species under the ESA supported by the Commerce Clause, including in the 9th, 11th, 5th, 4th and DC Circuits (respectively, see San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority v. Salazar; Alabama-Tombigbee Rivers Coalition v. Kempthorne; GDF Realty Investments, LTD. v. Norton; Gibbs v. Babbitt; Nat’l Ass’n of Home Builders v. Babbitt.) The PETPO decision is contrary to this precedent, which, if upheld by the Tenth Circuit, may lead to a split in the Circuits and a shot at Supreme Court review.
Constitutional law groupies will recall the Supreme Court seemed to establish more strict limitations on the federal Commerce Clause power when it struck down the “Gun-Free School Zones” law in United States v. Lopez and overturned parts of the Violence Against Women Act in United States v. Morrison. At that time, folks questioned whether the ESA would survive a constitutional challenge involving a wholly intrastate species. For a number of years in a number of courts, the government has prevailed. Now there is a decision to the contrary to be watched as it makes its way through appeals.
The court soundly rejected all of the government’s arguments supporting the regulation. The government argued the “activities” prohibited by the rule are commercial or economic in nature; for example, limitations on farming and construction. This position was rejected because the regulation applied whether or not linked to an economic activity. More significantly, the court said the government was looking at the wrong thing for a nexus to commerce: the proper focus of the “substantial effect” test is the “regulated activity.” “In other words, the question in the present case is whether take of the Utah prairie dog has a substantial effect on interstate commerce, not whether the regulation preventing the take has such an effect.” The fact that property owners would have to stop farming or otherwise engage in some commercial activities did not, on its own, provide sufficient nexus to interstate commerce to support species protection.
The government also argued the Utah prairie dog has biological and commercial value, so that any takes of the animal have a substantial effect on interstate commerce. The Utah prairie dog is not a commercial species, and the court concluded, “any takes of Utah prairie dogs on non-federal land–even to the point of extinction–would not substantially affect the national market for any commodity regulated by the ESA.”
As far as biological value, Defendants argue prairie dogs perform many functions contributing to the ecosystem. This point was also rejected in strong language:
If Congress could use the Commerce Clause to regulate anything that might affect the ecosystem (to say nothing about its effect on commerce), there would be no logical stopping point to congressional power under the Commerce Clause. Accordingly, the asserted biological value of the Utah prairie dog is inconsequential in this case.
Finally, intervenor Friends of the Earth argued an interstate commerce connection based on the fact the prairie dog has been the subject of scientific studies and commercially published books. The court said lots of books had been published about both guns and women, but that was not sufficient under Lopez or Morrison.
Although no Clean Water Act decisions are cited, the PETPO opinion may be of interest to those following the constitutionality of federal regulation over wetlands. Pending proposed regulations defining waters of the United States for Clean Water Act jurisdiction rely in part on the connectivity of ecosystems dependent on clean water. (See here, here and here.) Rejecting the argument that the Utah prairie dog warranted federal protection as part of an integrated ecosystem, the Utah decision quotes Chief Judge Sentelle, in dissent in National Ass’n of Home Builders v. Babbitt, “The Commerce Clause empowers Congress ‘to regulate commerce’ not ‘ecosystems.’”
Posted on August 7, 2014
Developing wind energy is a good thing, right? Protecting eagles is too, isn’t it? Both may not be true given recent developments that highlight the tension between wind projects and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.
First, it is official. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (“FWS”) issued a final rule to extend the maximum term for programmatic “take” permits under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act (“Eagle Act”) from five to thirty years. [50 C.F.R. § 22.26.] The rule took effect on January 8, 2014.
With the removal in 2007 of the bald eagle from the list of species protected under the Endangered Species Act, the FWS issued new regulations to authorize the limited take of bald eagles and golden eagles under the Eagle Act. In 2009 the FWS provided for eagle take permits for a maximum of five years. [50 C.F.R. 22.26 and 22.27.] The rule change to allow a 30-year permit is designed to facilitate development of renewable energy projects planned to operate for decades. Generally the life of a project will coincide with the life of a 30-year permit, satisfying risk-averse financiers that their collateral is protected, at least with regard to eagle takes.
The FWS committed to 5-year reviews of the 30-year permit, hoping to satisfy those concerned with eagle conservation. In addition, a permit applicant must implement measures to avoid, minimize, and mitigate threats to eagles over the life of the project. Compensatory mitigation that offsets eagle mortality may also be required. Under programmatic eagle take permits, permittees are required to implement advanced conservation practices -- scientifically supportable measures that represent the best available techniques to reduce eagle disturbance and ongoing mortalities.
There is no legal requirement for project developers or operators to obtain a programmatic eagle take permit under the Eagle Act. However, the risk of proceeding without such a permit can be significant given the civil and criminal penalties that include fines and incarceration for an unpermitted take. [16 U.S.C. § 668(a).]
Second, it is official. The American Bird Conservancy made good on its threat [April 30, 2014 Letter] to litigate the issue of the 30-year rule with the FWS [June 19, 2014 Complaint]. The claims are procedural -- that the FWS deemed the rule to be excluded from any National Environmental Policy Act review, and that the FWS privileged the interests of wind developers over protection of eagles, thereby violating the Eagle Act. The FWS has strong defenses, including its conclusion in 2009 that the eagle take permitting rule as a whole would not have any impact on endangered species. That conclusion will likely be approved under the deferential standard of review applicable in this type of lawsuit.
Third, it is official. The FWS issued its first golden eagle take permit to a wind developer, EDF Renewable Energy for the 102.5MW Shiloh 4 wind farm in Montezuma Hills Wind Resource Area within Solano County, California. The EDF eagle take permit is the first of its kind, allows for the take of up to five golden eagles over five years, and requires the company to implement conservation measures to reduce impacts to eagles. EDF’s application process for its eagle take permit began in 2011, when the five-year permit was the only available option. The application included an Eagle Conservation Plan, as well as a Bird and Bat Conservation Strategy, both of which describe current and proposed future actions to avoid, minimize, and mitigate adverse effects on eagles, birds, and bats. The wind farm repowered at the end of 2012, and was able to incorporate some of those strategies, including compensatory retrofitting of 133 power poles in southern Monterey County formerly considered high risk to both bald and golden eagles.
The first-issued five-year permit notwithstanding, a longer permit timeframe for wind developers may be important to long-term success, providing certainty as to regulations and permit requirements. And take permits that call for affirmative conservation practices allow the FWS to ensure adequate species protection over the lifetime of the permit. It’s a good thing, right?
Posted on August 6, 2014
A recent ruling from the Fifth Circuit involving the endangered whooping crane clarifies the level of proof require to show to establish proximate cause of “take” under the federal Endangered Species Act (“ESA”). The case also sets important precedent on the level of imminent harm required to obtain injunctive relief in ESA litigation.
The case, The Arkansas Project v. Shaw, involves the last remaining wild flock of whooping cranes in the world. According to plaintiff, The Aransas Project (“TAP”), the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (“TCEQ”) water permitting program in 2008-09 caused the deaths of twenty-three endangered cranes (of the approximately 300 remaining in the wild) via the following seven-link chain of causation:
1. TCEQ grants water-rights permits.
2. Water-rights holders divert water
3. Low inflows of water into bays increase bay salinities.
4. Increased salinities diminish available foods for cranes.
5. Diminished food supplies cause cranes to search upland for food.
6. Upland movement of cranes causes them stress.
7. Stress weakens flock and causes crane deaths.
Defendant TCEQ and intervenors, including the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority and Texas Chemical Council, challenged each causation step during a week-long trial in 2011. In March 2013, the federal district court judge issued a 125-page opinion agreeing with TAP’s theory and adopted TAP’s fact findings verbatim. The district court also ordered the TCEQ to immediately apply for an incidental take permit and submit a habitat conservation plan (as if it were that easy). Additionally, the Court enjoined TCEQ from issuing any new water permits in the Guadalupe and San Antonio River Basins, interjecting itself as the watermaster for all new and modified permits in the basins. TCEQ and intervenors appealed the order to the Fifth Circuit and successfully stayed the district court injunction. After an expedited briefing schedule, oral argument before the Fifth Circuit took place in the summer of 2013.
On June 30, 2014, the Fifth Circuit per curiam reversed the district court. The court of appeals held that TAP failed to prove TCEQ proximately caused takes of cranes. The Fifth Circuit is one of the first court of appeals to closely examine the issue of proximate cause and ESA liability since Justice O’Connor penned her concurrence on the subject in the 1995 U.S. Supreme Court opinion Babbit v. Sweet Home. Evoking the famous 1920s Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad case, the Fifth Circuit compared TAP’s claims to the “butterfly effect” (i.e. the idea that a butterfly flapping its wings in China can affect storm systems in New York).
Importantly, the appeals court called into question the district court’s “simplistic” conclusion that a government entity can cause take simply by authorizing an activity that ultimately affects a species. The court noted that prior instances of governmental regulatory liability for take involved actions that “directly killed or injured species or eliminated their habitat.”
Ultimately, the court examined every link of TAP’s chain of causation and concluded that the district court and TAP simply failed to account for the number of contingencies, e.g. drought, affecting each link. As the court summed up, “only a fortuitous confluence of adverse factors caused the unexpected 2008–2009 die-off found by the district court. This is the essence of unforeseeability.”
For future ESA litigation, the court’s analysis of the standard required to obtain injunctive relief is as important as its detailed treatment of proximate causation. In particular, the court noted that the district court focused almost exclusively on the injury that occurred in 2008-2009 and could not explain how a steadily increasing flock showed that there was a reasonably certain threat of imminent harm to the cranes. The court held: “Injunctive relief for the indefinite future cannot be predicated on the unique events of one year without proof of their likely, imminent replication.” This is important precedent for future district courts examining injunctive relief even when past take liability can be proven.
TAP petitioned the Fifth Circuit for a rehearing en banc on July 28, 2014 questioning whether an appeals court can rule on proximate cause as a matter of law. So this case may not be over. But if the court’s ruling stands, it will provide fruitful discussion to examine for future ESA litigation.
Full disclosure: ACOEL Fellow Molly Cagle represented lead intervenor Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority in the Fifth Circuit appeal. She does not attest to any lack of bias in this case and is proud of the fact that the cranes are still doing well, despite unprecedented drought in Texas.
Posted on July 8, 2014
On October 2, 2013, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) proposed to list the Northern Long-Eared (NLE) bat as endangered across its entire range under the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (ESA). The NLE bat is native to a large geographic area and hibernates or often roosts in caves or mines with large openings. Within its range, which encompasses some 39 states and much of Canada, NLE bat populations have declined. While an insignificant portion of this decline has been attributed to human activities, the predominant threat to the NLE bat population is White-nose syndrome (WNS) – a fungal disease that is transmitted in cold temperatures and exhibits a particularly high mortality rate.
Under Section 4(a)(1) of the ESA, FWS must consider five factors in determining whether to list the species as endangered: (1) “the present or threatened destruction, modification, or curtailment of its habitat or range,” (2) “overutilization for commercial, recreational, scientific or educational purposes,” (3) “disease or predation,” (4) “inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms,” or (5) “other natural or manmade factors affecting its continued existence.” According to FWS, where “one or more of these factors imperils the survival of a species,” an endangered listing may be necessary.
The proposed listing of the NLE bat carries particularly significant implications for the natural gas and mining industries, whose activities will require permitting that may be more difficult to obtain should the NLE bat ultimately be listed as endangered or threatened, even though such operations are acknowledged to insignificantly impact the NLE bat population. Several other industries are likely to be affected as well, such as construction and agriculture.
In Pennsylvania, the Game Commission and Department of Conservation and Natural Resources are in the process of preparing an application to FWS for an incidental take permit (ITP) and habitat conservation plan (HCP) covering foresting activities over 3.9 million acres of state land that may provide habitat for the NLE bat and the endangered Indiana bat. As described in the early scoping document for the proposed application, the draft HCP includes setback distances from roost trees and protection of hibernacula as potential impact “minimization measures.” Although the draft HCP, if approved as submitted, would not cover coal mining activities on such lands, it is possible that agencies may nonetheless consider such measures in coal mining permitting decisions.
Recently, several US Representatives from the Pennsylvania delegation sent a letter to the FWS challenging the proposed listing of the NLE bat as endangered due to its potential impact to several industries. Instead, the Representatives requested consideration of listing the species as threatened, which would allow for establishment of special ESA “4(d)” rules that exempt activities that minimally affect the species.
The FWS responded on June 30, 2014 by extending the NLE bat final listing determination period by six months and reopening the public comment period for 60 days through August 29, 2014, based on “substantial disagreement regarding the sufficiency and accuracy of the available data,” including NLE bat population trends and the probability of transmission of WNS to unaffected areas. FWS also pledged to minimize or avoid the economic impacts described above by exercising “regulatory flexibility available under the ESA.” However, it remains to be seen whether FWS will take a cooperative approach towards industries that could be impacted by the listing decision. A final determination by FWS is expected no later than April 2, 2015.
Posted on June 10, 2014
On March 27, 2014, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced its intention to list the Lesser Prairie Chicken (Tympanuchus Pallidicinctus) as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. The diminutive LPC is a member of the grouse family, shorter than its close cousin the Greater Prairie Chicken by about one inch. Known for its colorful garb and ritualistic mating dances (jokingly referred to by one biologist as "Spring Break for Chickens"), the LPC population and habitat have declined significantly over the last decade in five states, according to surveys by FSW and state agencies.
Prior to the FWS listing, a voluntary LPC Range-Wide Conservation Plan was proposed by the fish and wildlife agencies of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico. These agencies of the five states with LPC habitat created the Western Area Fish and Wildlife Authority, or WAFWA. Two days before the FWS listing, WAFWA announced that 32 oil and gas, power transmission, and wind energy companies had committed to enroll more than 3.6 million acres in its LPC range-wide conservation plan, providing about $21 million for habitat conservation over 3 years. Despite this effort by WAFWA, the FWS listing went forward.
Is the sky falling for landowners and other parties operating in the LPC habitat areas designated by FWS? Clearly there will be limitations on land use; particularly in the high-priority areas where surveys have shown the presence of "leks" where the LPC gather to mate, or other areas of primary habitat activity. Companies in oil and gas, pipeline, electric transmission, wind energy and other sectors can enroll in the WAFWA program, pay a one-time fee and follow guidelines to minimize unavoidable impacts on the LPC and its habitat.
By participation in the WAWFA range-wide plan, these enrolled companies become a party to a Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances. This CCAA provides for protection for "incidental take" of the LPC or its habitat which may occur during operations, including emergency repairs to pipelines, electric transmission lines or similar activities.
However, for "Little Guy" or "Mom and Pop" operations, the picture is not so clear. A ranch or farm operation or a small, independent oil and gas producer or developer may face the need for individual permits from FWS or enrollment in the Natural Resources Conservation Service LPC Initiative. Protective assurances may be given in return for per-acre fees of up to $2.25/acre for oil and gas operations, and in the example of ranch operations, NRCS terms may limit grazing by cattle to no more than once in each five years.
Concerns over these land use limitations and the uncertainty regarding FWS penalties and enforcement policies for incidental take of the LPC or its habitat leave many small farm and ranch operators or oil and gas companies feeling they are under surveillance by mysterious forces, subject to sanctions they do not fully understand, with little power to resist. As a result, some oil and gas companies are abandoning plans to develop existing leases within the habitat areas and are not seeking new leases. Even oil and gas companies who are enrolled in the Rangewide Plan are struggling to understand how to operate moving forward. Land values will be impacted in the habitat areas when ranchers and farmers can find safer ground outside the LPC boundaries. While the LPC and its habitat now are better protected, it is not without cost and anxiety for humans living in the same area.
Posted on May 8, 2014
Debarment is the process whereby the federal government can permanently prevent a company from doing business with the federal government or suspend a company from doing business with the federal government for a period of years. The debarment process has been available for decades to the United States to be used against companies or persons whom the government believes are untrustworthy. For instance, removal from EPA’s list of violating facilities requires agency evaluation of corporate attitude. But the Obama Administration has broadened the scope of the process to potentially ensnare many an unsuspecting entity.
The debarment process as it currently exists has resulted in the following scenarios:
A. An oil company in the Rocky Mountain region settled a regulatory violation with the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management and as part of the agreement paid a substantial seven figure fine and adopted new procedures designed to prevent a reoccurrence of the violation and a two-year period of probation. Imagine the surprise of the company’s managers and in-house lawyers when eighteen months after the settlement was executed, they received a Notice of Debarment for a three-year period preventing the use of their federal leases requiring new permits.
B. A wind farm owner that was convicted for killing bald eagles discovered that the company could not sell future electricity production to a federal facility.
C. An oil and gas company that pleaded guilty to a Clean Water Act spill faced debarment from being able to bid on federal oil and gas leases for five years.
Companies or persons found to be in violation of civil or criminal statutes or departmental regulations are subject to debarment. While in egregious cases debarments can be perpetual, most debarments are for a period of three to nine years. Debarments do not affect a company’s current government contracts, but do affect renewals of those contracts or the need for new permits on federal lands. The debarments are company-wide. Consequently, the above-mentioned wind farm owner also could not sell its electricity produced from its coal fired power plants to federal facilities.
Debarment proceedings are administered by the various Offices of Debarment, located within each cabinet department, with the closest responsibility for enforcing the law that was violated. Thus, the Department of the Interior’s Office of Debarment (staffed by the Inspector General’s personnel) handles violations of fish and wildlife, public lands and Indian law. Environmental Protection Agency lawyers in the grants and debarment program handle debarment proceedings authorized by Section 508 of the Clean Water Act or Section 306 of the Clean Air Act.
Upon the entry of a federal court judgment or consent decree a representative of the Department of Justice, often an Assistant United States Attorney, forwards the document to the appropriate cabinet department’s Office of Debarment. The government deems debarment proceedings to be separate from the underlying litigation. Agreements to avoid debarment may not be a condition of any plea bargain or consent decree. Adverse outcomes after executive branch debarment hearings may be appealed to a federal district court under deferential Administrative Procedures Act standards.
Posted on March 17, 2014
How far can an agency deviate from a statutory scheme in order to achieve what it sees as the goals of that scheme? Can the regulatory structure “improve on” the statute? These issues are currently playing out in two closely watched cases.
Last year these pages described a then-undecided Massachusetts state court case that had attracted a surprising degree of national attention. Pepin v. Division of Fisheries and Wildlife began as a relatively straightforward challenge to an agency determination that the plaintiffs’ land provided habitat for the Eastern Box Turtle and that construction of their planned retirement home was therefore subject to regulation under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act (MESA). In the course of judicial appeals of the agency decision, the plaintiffs, with new counsel, shifted the focus of their argument to a challenge to the regulations themselves. When the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (Mass SJC), acting sua sponte, transferred the case to its own docket, interest in the case spiked dramatically. Amicus curiae briefs were filed not only by state-based groups, on both sides of the issue (Massachusetts Audubon Society, Development Council of Western Massachusetts, Home Builders Association of Massachusetts), but also by those from farther afield (Pacific Legal Foundation, Defenders of Wildlife, National Association of Homebuilders, The Nature Conservancy). Clearly, something was at stake. And now, just as the Mass SJC has reached a decision in Pepin, very similar arguments are being made, with even more at stake, in this year’s most closely watched environmental case, Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA, the United States Supreme Court’s review of the Obama Administration’s attempt to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from stationary sources.
To understand these issues, some background on the Massachusetts endangered species regulatory scheme and the challenge to it is necessary. (These are described in more detail in the earlier posting.) The challenged regulations established a process for mapping “priority habitats,” areas that are important for species that fall into any of the three categories established under MESA – in descending order of the peril that they face, endangered species, threatened species, and species of special concern. These Priority Habitat regulations require that before a project is undertaken in such an area, it must be reviewed by the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife to determine whether it will result in a “take” of a species falling into any of the three categories. (“Take” is very broadly defined in the statute and includes habitat alteration.) If a take will occur, the regulations provide, the project may nevertheless proceed if it can be conditioned in such a way as to avoid that result or, in more difficult cases, if the project proponent takes other steps that will result in “a long-term net benefit to the conservation of the impacted species.”
In practice, the evidence showed, 75% of projects proposed in Priority Habitat have been approved without conditions, 22% have proceeded with conditions, and 3% have required that other measures, resulting in a “long-term net benefit,” be taken in order to permit the project to proceed. Because of this history, at least parts of the development community in Massachusetts had accepted the Priority Habitat regulations as a reasonable way of accommodating both developers’ interests and the purposes of MESA.
This acceptance was likely based on something else as well: As a practical matter, the Priority Habitat regulations were promulgated in lieu of regulations under another scheme, specifically set out in the legislation but never put into effect by the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. MESA authorizes the Division to designate as “Significant Habitat” areas that are important to the survival of endangered and threatened species (but not species of special concern). And MESA severely constrains development in areas that the Division has so designated. But, because of the severity of the constraint, the Act also establishes substantial procedural protections before a particular property can be designated as Significant Habitat.
Rather than designating any Significant Habitat, the Division, relying on a general grant of authority to adopt regulations, created the Priority Habitat scheme, with its less severe restrictions on development and its less burdensome (for the agency) procedural requirements. In short, the Division chose not to adopt regulations specifically contemplated in the enabling legislation and adopted instead regulations that were easier to administer, less intrusive for those in the regulated community who would have fallen under the legislatively-contemplated scheme and, as a consequence, arguably more effective at protecting at-risk species in Massachusetts. Doing that, though, made the Priority Habitat regulations subject to challenge by those who might prefer that there be no regulation of land use in the interest of protecting at-risk species at all.
The challenge in the Pepin case to the Massachusetts wildlife agency’s rulemaking power is very like the industry challenge to EPA’s rulemaking in Utility Air Regulatory Group. On February 18 of this year, the Mass SJC upheld the validity of the Priority Habitat regulations. On February 24, the United States Supreme Court heard argument on the challenge by industry and certain states to the Environmental Protection Agency greenhouse gas regulations. (Other states intervened in support of the regulations, and there was extensive amicus participation.) At the heart of the challenge in the Supreme Court is an attack on EPA’s determination that it would raise very substantially the threshold at which emitters of greenhouse gases would be regulated; the emission levels specified in the Clean Air Act are much lower, but they were intended for “conventional” pollutants, not greenhouse gases. Using the Congressionally-specified levels would have been an administrative nightmare for EPA. And it would have been enormously burdensome for businesses and even individuals. EPA therefore determined to use higher thresholds. This presumably benefits the industry petitioners and the states that support them. But that is not the point. EPA’s action leaves it subject to the accusation leveled at the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife: That it re-wrote a statute in order, in its view, to make it work better, and that an administrative agency may not do that.
The Mass SJC had little difficulty rejecting this claim. The unanimous opinion begins its discussion of the validity of the Priority Habitat regulations by noting that “[d]uly promulgated regulations . . . are presumptively valid and ‘must be accorded all the deference due to a statute.’” And in analyzing whether the plaintiffs had overcome that presumption, the court “look[ed] to the statute as a whole to determine the scope of the agency’s power.” In the recent United States Supreme Court argument, EPA sought to invoke these principles in defense of its greenhouse gas regulations. And it received some support from the Court. Justice Elena Kagan, according to the New York Times, acknowledged that what the agency did “was true to the law’s larger purpose.” But other Justices were less comfortable: Justice Anthony Kennedy “couldn’t find a single precedent that strongly supports [EPA’s] position.” And Justice Samuel Alito insisted that the agency’s use of its own threshold numbers, rather than those in the Clean Air Act, was unprecedented “in the entire history of federal regulation.”
The two cases are not the same, of course: the statutes are different; the agencies’ actions and choices were different; and the governing administrative law principles may be different in some respects. But it seems likely that the outcomes in the cases turned and will turn less on any of those factors and more on the views of the judges deciding them about the appropriateness of administrative agencies making their own judgments about how best to accomplish broadly-stated legislative objectives.
One could easily argue that the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife took a more dramatic step, in declining to promulgate regulations that the enabling legislation called for and instead promulgating regulations that were not specifically contemplated by that legislation, than EPA did in adopting the regulatory model that Congress had called for but limiting its reach when it was clear that not doing that would be havoc-making. Perhaps if the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court had reviewed EPA’s actions and the United States Supreme Court had reviewed the Priority Habitat regulations, the results would reflect that distinction. But they didn’t. And what we got, and likely will get, are decisions that reflect as much the views of the members of those courts as they do the substantive nuances of the cases themselves.
Posted on February 24, 2014
Across the globe, populations of elephants, rhinos, tigers, and other wild animals have been decimated as poachers, organized criminal syndicates, terrorist organizations, and corrupt officials seek to capitalize on the growing demand for their ivory, horns, and carcasses. By recent estimates, there are only 3,200 tigers and less than 30,000 rhinos left in the wild, with many subspecies extinct or at the brink of extinction. Combined with a loss of up to 30,000 elephants a year out of an estimated 500,000 remaining worldwide, we may soon see the loss of these great species within the next decade.
The United States recently announced a series of measures aimed at protecting endangered and vulnerable species from the growing risk of extinction at the hands of poachers, traffickers, and consumers. On February 11, 2014, the White House released its National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking and announced a ban on the commercial trade of ivory. Once implemented, these measures could amount to the most significant efforts by the U.S. government to combat the illegal wildlife trade within the United States and abroad in over two decades.
While China and other southeast Asian countries represent the primary source of demand, it might be surprising to know the United States is actually considered the second largest market for wildlife products in the world. Although international trade in ivory products is generally outlawed under the Endangered Species Act, 16 U.S.C.A. §§ 1531 to 1543, which implements the 1974 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), these restrictions are often times evaded (legally and illegally) under exceptions for trade in “antiques” (100 years and older) and permissible domestic ivory trade.
For example, as noted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), it has been permissible under US law to:
- Import unworked African elephant ivory (i.e., raw tusks) as part of a lawfully taken sport-hunted trophy for which appropriate CITES permits are presented
- Import and export worked African elephant ivory that meets the requirements for an “antique” under the ESA (with CITES documentation)
- Export ivory that qualifies as “pre-Act” under the ESA and “pre-Convention” under CITES
- Sell within the U.S. African elephant ivory lawfully imported into the U.S. as “antique” under the ESA or before the 1989 import moratorium under the African Elephant Conservation Act (AECA).
- Sell legally acquired African elephant ivory within the U.S. unless restricted by “use after import” limitations associated with items imported after the listing of the species under CITES or unless prohibited under state law.
Going forward, however, international and interstate trade in elephant ivory will be severely limited to primarily antiques, while intrastate sale in ivory will be generally limited to ivory imported prior to 1990 for African elephants and 1975 for Asian elephants. In all cases, the burden of proof to demonstrate that the ivory is compliant will now be on the buyer/seller.
Under the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s proposed regulatory changes, the following activities will be prohibited:
- Commercial import of African elephant ivory
- Export of non-antique African and Asian elephant ivory (except in exceptional circumstances as permitted under the ESA)
- Interstate commerce (sale across state lines) of non-antique African and Asian elephant ivory (except in exceptional circumstances as permitted under the ESA)
- Sale, including intrastate sale (sale within a state), of African and Asian elephant ivory unless the seller can demonstrate that the ivory was lawfully imported prior to listing in CITES Appendix I (1990 for African elephant; 1975 for Asian elephant) or under a CITES pre-Convention certificate or other exemption document
Imports of African elephant ivory will be limited to certain items and purposes where the ivory item will not be sold (i.e. law enforcement, scientific purposes). Imports of sport-hunted trophies of African elephants will be limited to two trophies per hunter per year.
The proposed regulatory changes will likely take place over the course of the next year, and include: (1) issuance of Director’s Order that will provide guidance to Service officers on enforcement of the existing 1989 AECA moratorium, and clarify the definition of “antique” (mid-February 2014); (2) a proposed or interim final rule to revise the 1989 AECA moratorium and create regulations under the Act in the general wildlife import/export regulations, including measures to limit sport-hunting of African elephants (June 2014); (3) a proposed or interim final rule to revise endangered species regulations to provide guidance on the statutory exemption for antiques (June 2014); (4) a proposal to revoke the ESA African elephant special rule (April 2014); and (5) finalize revisions U.S. CITES regulations, including the “use-after-import” provisions in (February 2014).
While the proposed changes severely restrict ivory sales, they nonetheless leave some room for trade, particularly in the intrastate market. Accordingly, states are also seeking to impose additional restrictions. In New York State, the largest market for illegal wildlife products in the US, Assemblyman Robert Sweeney is proposing to ban the sale of all ivory products, even those legal under federal law. Other states may be inclined to follow suit.
The National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking – while too detailed for summary here – seeks to implement three strategic priorities: (1) strengthening domestic and global enforcement; (2) reducing demand for illegally traded wildlife at home and abroad; and (3) strengthening partnerships with international partners, local communities, NGOs, private industry, and others to combat illegal wildlife poaching and trade. Combined with measures to be adopted under the commercial ivory ban, there is increased hope for vulnerable and endangered wildlife.
These issues are front and center this month as world leaders and conservation leaders gather at the London Conference on Illegal Wildlife Trade 2014 on February 13. The conference seeks to help eradicate illegal wildlife trade and better protect the world’s most iconic species from the threat of extinction. DLA Piper attorneys have been working closely on this issue, and recently produced a ten-country report assessing gaps in domestic legislation, judicial capacity, and institutional capacity to combat wildlife trafficking. As the world reacts to this growing threat, there remains much to be done, but also new foundations for hope.
This blog post is co-authored by Andrew Schatz.
Posted on December 6, 2013
The recent tornado in the Philippines and forecasts of severe weather events ranging from floods to fires and drought, not to mention the global loss of 50 soccer fields of forest every minute, have again focused attention on the Climate Change debate. However, there is little consensus on what to do about it, as evidenced at the recent Warsaw Climate Change Conference and by Japan’s decision to forego participation in the eight year second commitment period (from 2013) under the Kyoto Protocol. Indeed, one U.S. study indicates that even labeling an energy efficient product as promoting environmental protection can reduce its appeal among some U.S. citizens.
With little chance that Climate Change legislation will be adopted in the near term, the federal government will have to rely on existing laws and regulations when it seeks to address the issue. One law that may receive some attention is the Lacey Act, 16 U.S.C. §§ 3371-3378. First passed in 1900 to prevent poaching of game and wild birds, the Act was later expanded to encompass plants that are not common food crops. Since 2008, it has included wood products.
The Lacey Act prohibits the import, transport, sale, acquisition, or possession of illegally harvested timber. In addition, it requires the preparation of import declarations giving information about the species of wood and country of harvest. Noncompliance with its provisions is subject to administrative fines, as well as forfeiture of the timber, with forfeiture being enforced on a strict liability basis. In addition, both civil and criminal penalties can be imposed by a federal court for certain knowing violations or where there is a lack of “due care”.
The federal government has already used the newly expanded Act in an effort to address illegally harvested timber. In addition to a criminal enforcement settlement agreement between the Justice Department and Gibson Guitar involving the import of Madagascar ebony, there was a federal government investigation in September of two Lumber Liquidator facilities in Virginia concerning wood imported from eastern Russia.
In the latter case, this effort tapped into public concern about preserving the forest habitat of the Siberian Tiger, an endangered species, and it also had the secondary effect of addressing Climate Change. When the lack of enthusiasm for tackling Climate Change efforts is contrasted with the public sympathy and favorable publicity for protection of iconic endangered species like the tiger, the Lacey Act may be an interesting addition to the federal government’s Climate Change enforcement arsenal.
And so the real question is what endangered or threatened species in an illegally logged forest is waiting in the wings for face time in the next Lacey Act enforcement effort, and how many soccer fields of forest will that save?
Posted on August 13, 2013
The status of the Lesser Prairie Chicken has received a lot of attention over the last two years, but those affected by a listing decision will have to wait another six months to know whether the notorious bird will receive protection under the Endangered Species Act. As part of a comprehensive settlement agreement in the case of In re Endangered Species Act Section 4 Deadline Litigation 2011, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (“FWS”) agreed to make listing determinations under the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”) for more than 250 species by the end of 2016. Pursuant to this agreement, on December 11, 2012, the FWS published its proposal to list the LPC as a threatened species under the Act, with a final determination to be made by September 30, 2013. However, on July 9, 2013, the FWS announced a six month extension on the final listing determination, under an ESA provision that allows the agency to postpone decisions where there is significant scientific disagreement regarding the sufficiency or accuracy of the available data relating to the decision. In its notice, the FWS noted that it will solicit information to clarify and fully analyze issues raised during the initial comment period. These issues include whether the FWS has considered the effectiveness of conservation practices of the oil and gas industry and the agricultural industry, and the accuracy of short-term and long-term population trends of the LPC, particularly as it relates to climate change.
Moreover, the FWS reopened the comment period for an additional thirty days. Among other things, the FWS specifically requests comments on the application of the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Interstate Working Group’s draft rangewide conservation plan, developed in conjunction with the states of Kansas, Oklahoma, Colorado, Texas, and New Mexico to preserve LPC habitat and increase the LPC population. Over the six month period, the FWS will obtain additional information and achieve better clarity on these and other issues prior to the final listing decision on March 30, 2014. Until then, voluntary efforts to support the species’ population are sure to continue in full force, with the goal of helping the LPC population recover to the point where the protections of the ESA are not necessary.
Posted on July 29, 2013
Bill and Marlene Pepin own 36 acres of land in Hampden, Massachusetts on which they hope to build a retirement home. Their plans have thus far been frustrated by the designation of their property as Priority Habitat for the Eastern Box Turtle, a Species of Special Concern under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act, Mass. Gen. Laws C. 131A. The designation was made by the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, pursuant to its Priority Habitat regulations, 321 Code Mass. Regs. 10.01 et seq., which were promulgated under to the “no take” provision of the Act.
Pursuant to the regulations, the Pepins’ plans must be reviewed by the Division and will be approved only on a showing that they will not result in the “take” of a Species of Special Concern, a showing that may require modifying the project or otherwise taking steps to protect the species. This is a burden that, in the Division’s view, is not especially onerous and is one that has been met many times by many projects during the two decades that the regulations have been in effect. This view appears to have the support of at least a portion of the development community in Massachusetts, support that is based on a concern about what the likely alternative would be to regulation under the Priority Habitat regulations.
The Pepins, though, have taken the view that their project in not subject to the Division’s authority. They have challenged the designation of their property as Priority Habitat; and they have challenged the Division’s authority to adopt the Priority Habitat regulations in the first place. They lost on both grounds in an administrative proceeding and appealed the result to the Superior Court, where they lost again.
The Pepins appealed the judgment to the Massachusetts Appeals Court, the Commonwealth’s intermediate level appellate court. And then the case got considerably more interesting. In the space of a few months, it was transformed from a relatively straightforward (if very important to the Pepins) challenge to an agency determination into one of the most important administrative law and environmental cases in Massachusetts in a number of years.
The case was docketed in the Appeals Court last year; the Pepins, and then the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, filed their briefs. Also filing, in support of the Division, were amici curiae Massachusetts Audubon Society, Massachusetts Association of Conservation Commissions and the Conservation Law Foundation. Among the amici’s arguments in support the of the Division’s authority to promulgate the challenged Priority Habitat regulations was the assertion that it is better for the development community to be regulated under those regulations than pursuant to a different provision of the Act, one that the Pepins assert is the only provision available to the Division to regulate development on private property. In support of the assertion, amici appended to their brief an October 2011 letter from NAIOP Commercial Real Estate Development Association Massachusetts, an extremely active participant in discussions and lobbying concerning environmental regulation in Massachusetts (NAIOP was formerly the National Association of Industrial and Office Parks.) NAIOP’s letter opposed legislation that would have codified the position that the Pepins were taking in court (including in Superior Court, at the time the letter was written) – that the Division does not have authority to regulate private activities in lands designated Priority Habitat and can regulate development only pursuant to the much more restrictive Significant Habitat provisions of the Act, which sharply limit development but which require substantial procedural steps before they can be effective with respect to any particular parcel. “NAIOP strongly believes that this bill would be bad for real estate development. . . . [T]he Division has developed a more flexible regulatory mechanism through Priority Habitat. . . . [T]he bill would result in more unpredictability and uncertainty for developers . . ..” The bill did not pass.
Late last year, before the case could be argued in the Appeals Court, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”), acting sua sponte, moved the case to its own docket. In February of this year, the SJC announced that it was “soliciting amicus briefs. This matter . . . raises the question of what procedural protections are required when the division  designates ‘priority habitat.’” The Pacific Legal Foundation, of Sacramento, California, then moved for leave to file an amicus brief in support of the Pepins. (There is a New England Legal Foundation, based in Boston; it has not played a role in the case.)
The Pacific Legal Foundation brief does not address what had been the original issue between the Pepins and the Division – whether their property was correctly designated as Priority Habitat. Its entire focus is instead on the asserted unlawfulness under Massachusetts law – statutory law, decisional law and constitutional law – of the Priority Habitat regulations.
Section 4 of MESA creates three categories of protected species: Endangered; Threatened (at risk of becoming Endangered); and Species of Special Concern (at risk of becoming Threatened). The statute directs the Division to establish lists of these species and to designate Significant Habitats for Endangered and Threatened Species (but not for Species of Special Concern). The designation of Significant Habitat involves substantial scientific and administrative work by the Division; and designation results in substantial limits on land use in the areas designated – but the statue also provides significant opportunities for affected landowners to challenge the designation or otherwise to seek to lessen or eliminate its impact on them – including by petitioning the Division Director to purchase their property.
Separately, Section 2 of MESA makes it unlawful to “take” any listed species (i.e., Endangered, Threatened or of Special Concern). And in Section 4 the statue empowers the Division to “adopt any regulations necessary to implement [its] provisions .”
The Division has established a “List of Endangered, Threatened and Special Concern Species;” 321 Code Mass. Regs. 10.90; but the Division has not designated any geographical areas as Significant Habitat. The Division has, however, established by regulation the category of Priority Habitat, to be “used for screening Projects and Activities that may result in the Take of State-listed Species [in all three categories] and to provide guidance to Record Owners regarding a Project or Activity . . ..” 321 Code Mass. Regs. 10.12(1). The regulations permit an owner whose land is in delineated Priority Habitat to request reconsideration of the delineation; they place the burden on the owner to show that the delineation was improper.
Designation of the Pepins’ land as Priority Habitat for the Eastern Box Turtle was pursuant to these regulations. Their administrative challenge was summarily dismissed because they produced no evidence that the designation was incorrect, and, as is noted above, the Superior Court upheld the dismissal. The Pepins’ appellate brief addresses this issue, but its importance has diminished considerably. The SJC took the case, and the Pacific Legal Foundation moved to become involved, because the case presents a vehicle for challenging the Division’s authority to create a species protection program that is not specifically created by the statute.
The Division’s defense on appeal is a familiar one in administrative law: The statute creates a comprehensive scheme to protect species in varying degrees of peril; it vests “all powers hereunder” in the Director of the Division; it prohibits the “take” of any protected species; and it empowers the Division to “adopt any regulations necessary to implement [its] provisions.” Given the statutory structure and the deference that is accorded administrative determinations, the Division’s decision to adopt the Priority Habitat Regulations in order to administer the no take provision is reasonable and must be sustained.
There is an appealing counterargument: The Legislature created a mechanism for regulating the use of private property in the interest of species protection. That mechanism contains significant protections for landowners. The Division’s creation of a different mechanism, not mentioned anywhere in the statute and having less robust landowner protections, undermines the balance the Legislature struck between protecting species and respecting property rights.
That argument is briefly made explicit in the Pacific Legal Foundation brief, but the bulk of the brief is a thoroughgoing attack on the authority of the Division – and of administrative agencies generally – to adopt regulations that are not expressly contemplated and specifically described in legislation. To mount this attack, the brief must delve deeply into Massachusetts administrative and constitutional law. And it does, advancing a narrow reading of what it means for a regulation to be “necessary” to effect the purposes of a statute; questioning the appropriateness of deferring to the Division’s interpretation of the statute in this case; and seeking to distinguish a line of Massachusetts cases that holds that statutory authority to act in a specific manner does not foreclose an agency’s pursuing parallel action under a general grant of authority. Moreover, the brief argues, the SJC should decide the case in a way that avoids potential constitutional issues – the brief suggests that upholding the regulations could lead to regulatory takings and that the legislative delegation the Division relies on would constitute a violation of the Massachusetts Constitution’s separation of powers requirement – by striking down the regulations.
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has long been sensitive to environmental concerns, and it has upheld the broad authority of state and local administrative bodies to act to protect the environment. The court has also been careful to ensure that the rights of Massachusetts citizens are protected, including by insisting on strict adherence to procedural requirements established by the Legislature. Bill and Marlene Pepin’s case presents an important test of how those interests will be harmonized. Argument is now set for October 2013 – stay tuned.
Posted on July 16, 2013
Back in the 1950s and early 1960s, many feared that Canada geese were following – or perhaps waddling would be more apt - in the footsteps of the carrier pigeon. Until rediscovered in the wilds of Minnesota, the giant Canada goose, one of several subspecies, was thought to be extinct. Now the concern in much of the United States is the overabundance of resident Canada geese. These geese do not migrate to Canada and have flourished in both urban and suburban environs where there is abundant short grass to eat, plenty of water, and few predators. Averaging a pound of droppings per bird each day, increased numbers of such geese frequent our public parks and beaches, as well as golf courses, farm fields, and backyards, and are often viewed as a nuisance. Canada geese can also interfere with aircraft takeoffs and landings, as occurred in 2009 when US Airways flight 1549 was forced to land on the Hudson River in mid-town Manhattan.
While the solution to the overpopulation problem might seem obvious, it turns out that control of resident geese is subject to a number of regulatory requirements administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in addition to those imposed at the state and local level. Such federal authority is said to derive from the Migratory Bird Treaty Act , 16 U.S.C. §§ 703–712, adopted in 1918 to implement the provisions of a 1916 treaty with Great Britain signed on behalf of Canada (Convention Between United States and Great Britain for the Protection of Migratory Birds, Aug. 16, 1916, U.S.-U.K., 39 Stat. 1702). That treaty protects three categories of “migratory birds”. One category, entitled “Migratory Game Birds”, encompasses a subcategory identified as “Anatidae or waterfowl, including brant, wild ducks, geese, and swans”. Under the Act, the hunting, taking, or killing of such migratory birds, as well as their nests and eggs, is only allowed under regulations issued by the Secretary of the Interior. While the treaty references geese that are migratory game birds, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regulations identify protected birds by their species, thereby encompassing each and every Canada goose, regardless of whether that bird actually migrates.
In recent years, many nonlethal measures have been implemented to address unwanted numbers of resident Canada geese. These have included relocating such geese or chasing them away (such as with border collies and even hovering balloons with an evil eye depicted on them) and efforts to make an area less accessible or attractive (such as fencing and netting, as well as more “exotic” approaches like the application of grape flavored Kool Aid). However, as the population of resident Canada geese – and complaints about their presence - continued to grow, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a final rule in 2006 to expand the methods for controlling their numbers.
Those new measures include categorical orders allowing airports and farms, as well as governmental authorities dealing with a public health threat, to implement various control actions without obtaining permits if specified procedures are followed, including the submittal of reports. Those actions encompass hunting, taking, and killing of resident Canada geese, as well as removing their nests and preventing their eggs from hatching (typically by coating them with corn oil), generally during the time period when their migrating cousins are “out of the country”. In addition and after filing a registration, landowners, municipalities, and other governmental authorities may remove Canada goose nests and oil their eggs from March through June in accordance with similar requirements. Expanded hunting opportunities and methods are also provided for, along with a state-regulated, “managed take” hunting program during August.
Although such measures were intended to reduce the overall population of resident Canada geese by about one third over a ten year time period, their success in many areas of the country – including in my neighborhood - is not readily apparent (e.g. I, II, III, IV). Moreover, they can require the commitment of significant management resources over the long term. As a result, there have been calls for less fragmented, regulation-focused measures. For example, New Zealand has removed Canada geese from its list of protected species and allows them to be hunted and killed at any time of year without a license by “humane means” (which at present would not include poison). While such an approach may not work in this country, particularly in urban and suburban areas where hunting is unlikely to address unwanted concentrations of the geese and vocal constituencies oppose any significant culling of the resident geese population, “something’s gotta give”.
Perhaps the place to start is to carefully consider whether resident Canada geese fall within the purview of a treaty and implementing statute that provide for protection of birds that migrate from one country to another, particularly where the stated premise for doing so is the concern that the migratory birds are subject to potential extinction due to lack of adequate protection. In that regard, the pertinent part of the 1916 treaty refers to migratory birds “of great value as a source of food . . . [that are] in danger of extermination through lack of adequate protection during the nesting season or while on their way to and from their breeding grounds.” The Act in turn declares it unlawful, unless permitted by regulation, to hunt, take, or kill migratory birds or their nests or eggs covered by the treaty, with the Secretary of Interior authorized to allow such activities to the extent compatible with that treaty, giving “due regard to the zones of temperature and to the distribution, abundance, economic value, breeding habits, and times and lines of migratory flight of such birds”.
By making such a distinction between resident and migrating Canada geese, it would then be possible to develop a scientifically based methodology for more effectively managing overpopulation of resident Canada geese, one that may not rely so heavily on the granting of hunting licenses or the removal of nests and egg oiling with all the bells and whistles now attached to such privileges. Moreover, distinctions could be made between control strategies utilized in urban and suburban areas and those best suited for use in rural or sparsely populated areas. And here’s hoping that this can be done expeditiously, before more of our public water supplies are threatened, and our parks and beaches are despoiled.
Posted on March 15, 2013
The clock is ticking on the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s 2015 deadline to decide whether to list the Greater sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act. In the states where the grouse still exists - Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and the Dakotas - ambitious efforts seek to protect the species and make an ESA listing unnecessary. Wyoming – uniquely blessed with some 54% of the remaining sage grouse in the world, spread across 32 million acres of sagebrush habitat – is both ground zero for and the leader in a landscape-scale experiment in collaborative wildlife conservation.
This saga began in January 2005, when FWS decided not to list the species. Since then, sage grouse lawsuits have flown fast and furiously. Litigation was highly predictable, given the history of the ESA, the magnitude of the impacts associated with a potential listing, and the setting; conflict regarding wildlife conservation needs, goals and opportunities runs deep in the West, particularly in the “Sagebrush Sea,” where distrust of the federal government and its institutions often seems learned from birth. The most remarkable aspect of the sage grouse saga is that history and location notwithstanding, it has brought together federal, state and private sector interests across much of the western United States who seek to conserve the species and thereby make listing unnecessary.
Beginning in 2007, the landscape of sage-grouse conservation began to change, led by the State of Wyoming and its “Core Area Policy,” which was designed to identify, maintain, and enhance sage-grouse habitat and populations within the species’ core habitat areas. The pace quickened in 2011, when Oregon followed with a similar core-area approach. Wyoming Governor Matt Mead and Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar hosted a sage-grouse conservation meeting in Cheyenne involving federal and state representatives, that. focused on the development of a coordinated, landscape-level conservation strategy, seeking a collaborative conservation effort at the state, federal and local levels.
Following the Cheyenne summit, the states of Utah, Idaho and Nevada initiated new efforts to develop their own sage grouse management plans, while various federal agencies are vigorously pursuing their own sage grouse conservation efforts. The Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service are revising their management plans in Wyoming, Colorado, North and South Dakota, Utah, Montana, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, and California to incorporate consistent sage grouse conservation objectives and measures. The Natural Resource Conservation Service’s Sage-Grouse Initiative is focusing on conservation grant and technical assistance programs to improve sage-grouse habitat and rangelands productivity. The Department of Agriculture announced an additional $18.2 million Grassland Reserve program in 2011 to help ranchers in Wyoming, Idaho and Utah conserve critical sage-grouse habitats.
And on March 8, 2012, Agriculture Secretary Vilsack and Secretary of the Interior Salazar announced the establishment of the Working Lands for Wildlife partnership program, a $33 million program to conserve sage grouse and six other species.
In addition to state and federal conservation efforts, ranching, mining, oil and gas and other interests are developing Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances (CCAAs) to provide for sage grouse conservation on private and other nonfederal lands in Wyoming, Idaho, and elsewhere. FWS has recently published a draft sage grouse CCAA to be available for Wyoming landowners, and numerous other local efforts are ongoing.
Whether these and other efforts can make an ESA listing unnecessary only time will tell. Sage grouse still occupy some 160 million acres of land, making this a landscape conservation effort of heroic scale. Skeptics, and history, would bet against it. But if the state, federal, and private sector efforts are successful, it will stand as an historical moment in wildlife conservation, and as validation of the West’s author and historian laureate, Wallace Stegner, who wrote:
“This is the native home of hope. When it fully learns that cooperation, not rugged individualism, is the pattern that most characterizes and preserves it, then it will have achieved itself and outlived its origin. Then it has a chance to create a society to match its scenery.”
Wallace Stegner, The Sound of Mountain Water 38 (1980).
Posted on March 8, 2013
Is the Lesser Prairie Chicken (“LPC”) dancing its last dance? The little grouse, noted for stomping its feet and inflating the bright orange air sacs at the side of its neck, while emitting an eerie “booming” sound that echoes across the short grass prairie, has seen its numbers drop sharply in recent years. On November 30, 2012, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ("USFWS") proposed listing the LPC as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act of 1973 ("Act"). Read Donald Shandy's December 13 post on possible impacts of the listing on the energy industry. The LPC 's range, includes tens of thousands of acres in Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas.
The Act prohibits all activities that would harm ("take") a species listed as endangered, unless the activities are otherwise exempted or permitted by the USFWS. For threatened species, Section 4(d) of the Act gives the USFWS authority to tailor the take prohibitions to the particular conservation needs of the species. Typically, that tailoring involves addressing habitat preservation. Habitat fragmentation, modification and degradation within the species' range are the major threats to the LPC. Historic agricultural and livestock grazing land use, and more recent land uses related to wind energy, transmission development, and oil and gas production present challenges to the LPC. Uncontrollable forces, such as the persistent drought in the area, also impact the LPC’s habitat.
For more than a decade impacted stakeholders have created and used voluntary tools to implement conservation actions that preserve the LPC’s range hoping to avoid a listing. A Candidate Conservation Agreement ("CCA") is a voluntary conservation agreement with the USFWS to identify and implement measures designed to address threats to the candidate species. Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances ("CCAAs") provide non-federal landowners with assurances that, as long as the landowners continue habitat conservation efforts, they will not be asked to undertake more than the agreed-upon conservation measures even if the candidate species is later listed or the CCAA is later modified. The USFWS recently approved a CCAA for Oklahoma which is available through the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife. The CCAA is free and voluntary, not dependent on the presence of LPCs on the enrolled property, and landowners may opt out at any time.
CCAs and CCAAs may help avoid the listing, but if the LPC is listed, then the conservation measures undertaken through these agreements are already tailored to the particular conservation needs of the species and can become Section 4(d) requirements. Either way, enrolling in voluntary programs and taking advantage of the opportunity to provide public comment and new ideas for preservation of the LPC may allow the LPC to keep on dancing.
Posted on December 13, 2012
On November 30, 2012, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (“FWS”) announced its proposal to list the Lesser Prairie Chicken (“LPC”) as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”). The proposed rule resulted from a comprehensive 2011 settlement agreement approved by the D.C. Circuit in In re Endangered Species Act Section 4 Deadline Litigation 2011, whereby FWS agreed to review over 250 candidate species and make a determination as to each species whether to issue a proposed listing rule or to issue a finding that the listing is not warranted, over a six-year period. Under the ESA, an endangered species is one that is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range, while a threatened species is likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future. FWS will make a final determination on whether to list the LPC as threatened by September 30, 2013.
The LPC is found across a five-state span, including Colorado, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Texas, and Kansas. Activities identified by FWS as threats to the species include habitat loss, fragmentation, modification, and degradation within the species’ range. Other threats include land uses related to wind energy and transmission development. If FWS ultimately lists the LPC as a threatened species, energy industry operations that could potentially harm the species would be affected. Specifically, due to the species’ avoidance of tall, vertical objects, FWS has identified oil and gas wellheads and wind turbines as features that may cause habitat displacement for the bird. Section 9 of the ESA prohibits the “take” of a listed wildlife species by a private or public entity. Because “take” is defined quite broadly under the ESA, even activities that are not designed or intended to harm a species, but could do so indirectly, such as operation of these tall structures, could potentially constitute a violation.
Unlike endangered species, in regard to a species listed as threatened, FWS has the authority under ESA Section 4(d) to tailor the “take” prohibitions to the conservation needs of the species. The FWS may use its Section 4(d) authority to incentivize participation in conservation plans that will support recovery of the LPC. Additionally, there are conservation plans that may be entered into by energy companies before a species is listed under the ESA. Called Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances (“CCAAs”), these agreements, allow non-federal property owners to commit to implement voluntary conservation measures for a candidate species in return for regulatory assurances that additional conservation measures will not be required, and additional land, water, or resource use restrictions will not be imposed, should the species become listed in the future. Furthermore, the proactive conservation efforts performed through CCAAs may remove or reduce threats to the covered species, so that listing the species under the ESA may become unnecessary. CCAAs, therefore, provide a significant opportunity for a compliant energy company to potentially insulate itself from liability in the event the LPC is listed as threatened. CCAAs have been developed for the LPC in New Mexico and Texas, and Oklahoma, under the leadership of the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, has submitted a CCAA to FWS for review. Notably, because the final listing determination for the LPC must be made September 30, 2013, time is of the essence for energy companies to consider entering into a CCAA.
See the FWS’s Proposed Listing
See the FWS’s News Release Regarding the Proposed Listing
See the FWS’s Facts Regarding the Proposed Listing
Posted on June 15, 2012
The Ninth Circuit’s en banc opinion in Karuk Tribe of California v. United States Forest Service belongs on your summer reading list. It holds your attention on two levels. First, the majority broadly construes consultation requirements of the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”) in the context of mining in National Forests. Then, the dissent provides a memorable critique of “extreme environmental decisions” by the Ninth Circuit.
The case applies the ESA to regulation by the United States Forest Service of small-scale gold mining on the Klamath River in the Klamath National Forest in northern California. The river is critical habitat for endangered salmon, and the river’s bed also contains gold deposits that are mined by miners who hold rights under the General Mining Law of 1872. Mining methods include suction dredging of the river bed, and views differ about the effects of mining on the salmon. The Forest Service mining regulations at issue divide mining activities within National Forests into three categories: those that “will not”, “might,” and “will likely” cause significant disturbance of surface resources. For planned mining activities that either “might” or “will likely” cause such disturbance, the miner must file a notice of intent to operate (“NOI”). After reviewing the NOI, the District Ranger determines whether a plan of operations is also required. A plan of operations is more detailed than an NOI and is required only for mining that “will likely” cause significant surface resource disturbance. If the Forest Service determines that significant surface disturbance is not likely, the NOI satisfies the requirements of the regulations. But the ESA may impose additional requirements. It requires the Forest Service to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service before taking discretionary “agency action” that “may affect” a species listed as threatened or endangered. Otherwise, consultation is not required.
The fundamental issue in Karuk Tribe is whether a Forest Service decision not to require a plan of operations was “agency action” requiring consultation under the ESA or mere agency inaction that does not require consultation. Several miners filed NOIs for proposed operations, and in response to the NOIs the District Ranger essentially imposed conditions but decided not to require plans of operations. The Ranger did not consult the United States Fish and Wildlife Service in reaching that decision. The Karuk Tribe sued the Forest Service and asserted consultation was required. The Forest Service defended its failure to consult by arguing that the NOI was a mere notice and its action on the NOI was only a decision not to regulate, rather than “agency action” under the ESA. The district court ruled in favor of the Forest Service. In 2011, a divided panel of the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s holding that such consultation was not required because the District Ranger’s decision was not “agency action” under the ESA. But upon rehearing the case en banc, the court reversed its previous decision and found that the District Ranger’s decision rose to the level of “agency action” and triggered consultation requirements of the ESA. The court reasoned that the decision was agency action because when the Forest Service considered the NOIs, it affirmatively authorized mining to proceed and the mining may affect the salmon.
The dissenting opinion is essential reading for lawyers who have represented clients entangled in extensive environmental regulation. It ventures well beyond the issues presented by Karuk Tribe to criticize various Ninth Circuit environmental decisions as “extreme”. Featuring art and prose from Gulliver’s Travels, and invoking works of Dante and Aldous Huxley, the dissenting opinion urges that the court exercise judicial restraint in construing environmental laws. Finally, the dissent recounts specific examples of harm to employment, industry, and local government that it attributes to the court’s creation of “burdensome, entangling environmental regulation out of the vapors”. You might take this one to the beach as long as your destination is not the Island of Lilliput.
Posted on April 30, 2012
The oil and gas industry has lately been at the center of the debate over the scope and reach of the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”). (See, for example, an August 2011 blog by Pamela Giblin). Creative approaches will be needed to insulate against potential liability.
When the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia approved two settlements in multidistrict ESA litigation (MDL No. 2165) on September 9, 2011, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (“FWS”) committed to, among other things, review over 250 candidate species and determine whether to issue a proposed listing rule or to issue a finding that listing is not warranted by the end of fiscal year 2016. Among those first on the list to be decided are species located in areas of significant oil and gas development and potentially impacted by oil and gas operations. For example, the Dunes Sagebrush Lizard (also known as the Sand Dune Lizard), a candidate species under the ESA, is known to exist in the energy-rich Permian Basin.
Once a species is listed as endangered or threatened, protective measures apply to the species and its habitat under Section 9 of the ESA. The ESA prohibits the possession, sale, import, and/or export of endangered species, as well as the “take” of a listed wildlife species by a private or public entity. Section 3 of the ESA defines the term “take” broadly to mean “harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or to attempt to engage in any such conduct.” Even activities that are not designed or intended to harm a species, but that could do so indirectly, such as servicing a well, can constitute a take prohibited by the ESA. The ESA subjects any person who violates the statute or its implementing regulations to an array of civil and criminal sanctions.
A decision on whether or not to list the Sand Dune Lizard is due in June 2012. Thus, oil and gas companies operating in areas of lizard habitat, or where other candidate species may exist, need to be thinking proactively about the impacts of a listing. Some of the tools available to operators can be utilized in advance of listing and can provide important protections and assurances if the species is ultimately listed. One significant opportunity for an oil and gas company to potentially insulate itself from ESA liability is a conservation agreement.
Specifically, a Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (“CCAA”) is an agreement, whereby non-federal property owners commit to implement voluntary conservation measures for a candidate species, and in return receive regulatory assurances that additional conservation measures will not be required and additional land, water, or resource use restrictions will not be imposed should the species become listed in the future. Furthermore, the proactive conservation efforts performed through CCAAs may remove or reduce perceived threats to the covered species, so that FWS could determine that listing the species under the ESA is unnecessary.
For example, CCAAs have been developed for the Sand Dune Lizard in Texas and New Mexico, and the Lesser Prairie Chicken in New Mexico. Since assurances under these agreements are only available to operators and land owners who enroll before a species is listed, time is of the essence for projects or operations that may harm candidate species currently under evaluation, particularly the Sand Dune Lizard.
For oil and gas operators who fail to take any action, the listing of a candidate species affected by development as threatened or endangered could immediately bring their operations to a halt. FWS estimates that it could take as long as a year or more for an operator to obtain its own individual “take” permit. Thus, whether or not these species become listed is certainly something to keep an eye on for oil and gas operators and their counsel.
Posted on February 15, 2012
Recent actions taken by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to protect species on BLM-managed lands, before those species have been listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), raise questions about the evolution of BLM’s role in species protection and the impact this evolved role may have on minerals leasing and development on BLM-managed lands.
BLM is charged, under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, with developing Land Use Plans that make its public land and resources available under the principle of multiple-use, but at the same time, conserving special status species and their habitats. The agency’s actions with respect to two species, the Greater Sage-Grouse and the Dunes Sagebrush Lizard, are indicative of BLM’s trajectory in how it intends to balance its roles as species-protector and minerals-manager on public lands.
A December 27, BLM-issued internal Instruction Memorandum (IM) provides interim management policies and procedures to protect the Greater Sage-Grouse on BLM-managed lands in the Western United States with the expressed goal of potentially avoiding an ESA listing. The Greater-Sage Grouse is currently not protected under the ESA, its listing having been designated as “warranted but precluded” by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in March 2010. The “warranted but precluded” listing decision concluded that existing regulatory mechanisms in the BLM’s Land Use Plans were inadequate to protect the species, which is found in up to 47 million acres of BLM-managed land.
The December IM makes it clear the new guidelines apply to both proposed and existing leases. The IM does recognize holders of existing mineral leases do have valid rights entitling them to certain development activities, but the guidance also indicates BLM will attempt to provide maximum protection to the Sage-Grouse within the bounds of those leases. For example, for fluid mineral leases, the IM states BLM may issue written orders requiring “reasonably protective measures consistent with the lease terms.” Further, when an existing leaseholder requires a new permit for minerals development, BLM plans to impose “reasonable” conditions in the permits that are likely to be more protective than the stipulations and restrictions currently identified in approved Land Use Plans.
BLM expressed a similar stance in the development of resource management plans in New Mexico to address the Dunes Sagebrush Lizard. In that instance, BLM noted "holders of existing oil and gas leases have valid rights for development of their leases" but asserted in responses to public comment that BLM "can withhold approval of prospective well locations on existing leases" or address candidate species through existing lease stipulations.
With FWS experiencing increasing backlogs in addressing ESA listing petitions, it seems likely there will be many more species that, like the Greater Sage-Grouse and the Dunes Sagebrush Lizard, are found to need habitat protection but cannot be allotted resources by FWS to do so. If BLM continues to step in and afford protections on the level it has in the case of these two species, effects on minerals leasing in BLM-managed lands could be far reaching. Minerals leaseholders on BLM lands should keep an eye on how far BLM ultimately stretches the bounds of existing mineral leases to protect the Greater Sage Grouse and Dunes Sagebrush Lizard, because BLM’s approach to these species may be indicative of a trend that will apply to many more species in the future.
Posted on January 4, 2012
On December 8, 2011, the Obama administration released a draft policy interpreting a key phrase in the Endangered Species Act (the "Act") that determines when species qualify for protection under the Act. The Act defines an endangered species as any species “in danger of extinction in all or a significant of portion of its range.” The phrase “significant portion of range” is important, because it means that species need not be at risk of extinction globally to receive protection. The policy proposed on December 8 sharply limits the reach of this phrase by both defining “significant” to mean only where the species currently exists, not its historic range and by defining significant to mean that loss of the species from that portion of range would threaten the survival of the species as a whole.
The proposed policy has resulted in an outcry of opposition from environmental groups. For example, the Center for Biological Diversity argues that under the proposed policy, "a species could be absolutely gone or close to vanishing almost everywhere it’s always lived — but not qualify for protection because it can still be called secure on one tiny patch of land." “The policy absolutely undermines the spirit of the Endangered Species Act and will be a recipe for extinction of our native wildlife if it’s finalized - a loophole that’s really a black hole. It will allow for massive species decline and habitat destruction.”