There has been a string of actions in the past few weeks addressing the federal government’s policy goal of streamlining the NEPA review process.  Although a number of actions have been taken, it presently boils down to this:  the federal government seems to genuinely be pursuing ways to make the NEPA process for infrastructure projects (including energy projects) faster, more predictable, and more efficient.  Whether and how this will be implemented in practice remains to be seen.  The Dept. of Interior and CEQ have been the first to take (aspirational) actions to implement this policy.  The following summarizes the recent actions.

President Trump issued Executive Order 13807, titled “Establishing Discipline and Accountability in Environmental Review and Permitting Process for Infrastructure Projects. Among other things, EO 13807 directs the following:

  • Development of a “performance accountability system” to track milestones and deadlines “major infrastructure projects,” score agencies’ ability to meet those deadlines, establish best practices for the permitting/review of infrastructure projects.  Projects would also be tracked through a “dashboard” that is updated monthly.
  •  Implement “One Federal Decision” for major infrastructure projects.  Under “One Federal Decision,” a project would have a single lead agency that will coordinate all necessary federal approvals and issue a single record of decision to address all those approvals.
  • The completion of all permit decisions should occur within 90 days of the ROD, and “not more than an average of approximately 2 years” after issuance of the notice of intent to prepare an EIS.
  • CEQ’s development of a list of initial actions that it will take to modernize the federal environmental review process, which can include issuing new regulations, guidance, and other directives.

For purposes of the EO, “major infrastructure project” essentially includes energy, water, and transportation projects for which multiple federal authorizations are required and for which an EIS is required.  The EO is fairly general and ambiguous and leaves room for exceptions to just about all of its directives.  The EO can be viewed here:

CEQ responded by issuing a notice listing the actions it plans to take to implement EO 13807, as follows:
Continue Reading Recent Federal Actions to Streamline the NEPA Process

In the continuing saga of the Echanis wind project in Eastern Oregon, U.S. District Court Judge Michael Mosman on April 18 vacated the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM)’s Record of Decision (ROD) on a right-of-way grant decision under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act for a 230-kV transmission line conveying power generated from the wind project proposed for development on private land on the north side of Steens Mountain. The wind project would include between 40 and 69 wind turbines near Diamond, Oregon.

The case was before Judge Mosman on remand from the Ninth Circuit, which instructed Judge Mosman to vacate the BLM’s ROD unless he found it advisable that the ROD remain in place. The Ninth Circuit’s 2016 opinion followed Judge Mosman’s initial decision to grant the BLM’s motion for summary judgment. Judge Mosman had ruled that the BLM had adequately considered the impact of the project on fragmentation and connectivity of sage-grouse habitat, but the Ninth Circuit’s decision reversed that decision based on its determination that the BLM’s environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) did not adequately assess baseline sage-grouse data during winter at the proposed project site.
Continue Reading BLM Directed to “Try Again” on NEPA Analysis for Echanis Wind’s Transmission Line: Greater Sage-Grouse Remains Key Issue for Project Development Despite USFWS Decision Not to List Under ESA

Today the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) published notice in the Federal Register of a long-anticipated final rule revising its eagle permitting regulations (Revised Eagle Rule). Concurrent with the Revised Eagle Rule, the Service issued a Final Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) analyzing the Eagle Rule revision under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Although we are still in the process of evaluating the entire package and have concerns with certain aspects of the Revised Eagle Rule, many of the proposed changes represent a step forward for applicants seeking regulatory certainty through the eagle permitting process. Here’s a quick snapshot of the changes:

(Re)extends maximum permit term to 30 years. As we discussed in a previous blog post, in August 2015, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California set aside the 30-year tenure provision of the 2013 revisions to the eagle permit regulations on NEPA grounds, concluding that the Service had failed to demonstrate an adequate basis in the record for deciding not to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement or Environmental Assessment. The Revised Eagle Rule, now backed by NEPA analysis that evaluates the 30-year maximum term, once again extends the maximum term for eagle take permits from five to 30 years, subject to recurring five-year check-ins. In the Federal Register notice, the Service acknowledges that “[t]he 5-year maximum duration for programmatic permits appears to have been a primary factor discouraging many project proponents from seeking eagle take permits. Many activities that incidentally take eagles due to ongoing operations have lifetimes that far exceed 5 years. We need to issue permits that align better, both in duration and the scale of conservation measures, with the longer-term duration of industrial activities, such as electricity distribution and energy production. Extending the maximum permit duration is consistent with other Federal permitting for development and infrastructure projects.”

Applies practicability standard to all permits. Under the previous rule, applicants for standard (non-programmatic) permits were required to reduce potential take to a level where it was “practicably” unavoidable, but applicants for programmatic permits were required to meet a higher standard (reducing take through the implementation of advanced conservation practices (ACP) to a level where remaining take is “unavoidable”). The Revised Eagle Rule applies the “practicability” standard to all eagle take permits and removes the “unavoidable” standard from the permit program. Thus, all permits will contain the standard that take must be avoided and minimized to the maximum degree practicable.
Continue Reading U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Issues Final Revised Eagle Rule

On January 19, 2016, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) dropped its Ninth Circuit appeal of U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh’s ruling that set aside the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (“Service”) rule to extend the maximum term for programmatic “take” permits under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act (“Eagle Act”) to 30 years for failure to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”).

As we discussed in our previous post,  in August 2015 the court set aside the 30-year rule on NEPA grounds, concluding that the Service had “failed to show an adequate basis in the record for deciding not to prepare an EIS–much less an EA–prior to increasing the maximum duration for programmatic eagle take permits by sixfold.” The Court found the Service’s reliance on certain U.S. Department of Interior categorical exclusions misplaced. According to the Court, the Service failed to establish that the decision was “administrative” or “procedural” in nature and failed to address concerns by its own experts that the rule revisions might have highly controversial environmental effects.  Importantly, however,  the court’s decision to set aside the 30-year rule only applied to the 30-year permit tenure provision of the 2013 rule amendments. Other components of the 2013 rule amendments were left intact, including the 5 year permit renewal and assignment provisions.
Continue Reading U.S Fish and Wildlife Service Opts Not to Appeal 30-Year Eagle Rule Decision, Focuses on Development of Eagle Permitting Program

As we discussed in this post from May 2014, the American Bird Conservancy (“ABC”) in 2014 filed a lawsuit challenging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (“USFWS”) 2013 revisions to its eagle permit rule, alleging violations of the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”) and the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”). ABC’s challenge related to the revised eagle permit rule that was issued in December 2013 and that extended the maximum term for programmatic Eagle Take Permits under the Eagle Act to 30 years (the “Final 30-Year Rule”), subject to a recurring five-year review process throughout the permit life. Under the previous rule, the maximum term for programmatic permits for incidental “take” of bald and golden eagles was five years.
Continue Reading Court Invalidates 30-Year Permit Provisions of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Eagle Permit Rule on NEPA Grounds

From our colleague Michael O’Connell:

On April 2, 2010, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP) issued recommendations on Department of the Interior (Interior) procedures for coordination of energy project development and protection of historic properties. Among other measures, the ACHP recommended that: (a) Interior agencies “engage in effective tribal consultations early in the project planning and review process to enable full understanding and appreciation of tribal views on energy development and its potential to affect properties of religious and cultural significance to them;” (b) give “due deference” to the views of Indian tribes regarding the impact on historic properties that are integral to the cultural and religious identify of tribes; (c) ACHP develop guidance with the Council on Environmental Quality on coordination of National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) and National Environmental Policy Act review processes; (d) ACHP and Interior develop guidance to assist other federal agencies in assessing effects of energy projects, “especially wind and solar projects,” on historic properties that comprise large areas, with special emphasis on properties of cultural and religious importance to Indian tribes; and (e) ACHP clarify the distinction between “direct” and “indirect” effects to historic properties and when visual effects may constitute “direct” effects.Continue Reading Advisory Council on Historic Preservation Recommendations Regarding Procedures for Energy Project Development