Written by Ellen Essman
This edition of the Ag Law Harvest is heavily focused on recent environmental case law at the federal level. Read on to find out how habitats, migratory birds, environmental and administrative laws, and Trump’s new Waters of the United States rule have fared in recent decisions.
What does “habitat” mean to you? Think about it carefully, because now is your chance to provide your input to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). Readers of the blog may remember we reported on a Supreme Court case dealing with critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) a few years ago. The Supreme Court remanded the case back to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals was charged with interpreting the word “habitat.” The Court of appeals then punted the interpretation to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, where the parties settled the case. Even with a settlement, the question of what “habitat” means remains. To remedy this omission, the FWS and NMFS published a proposed rule on August 5th to define “habitat” under the ESA. In this proposal, FWS and NMFS put forward two possible definitions of “habitat”:
- The physical places that individuals of a species depend upon to carry out one or more life processes. Habitat includes areas with existing attributes that have the capacity to support individuals of the species; or
- The physical places that individuals of a species use to carry out one or more life processes. Habitat includes areas where individuals of the species do not presently exist but have the capacity to support such individuals, only where the necessary attributes to support the species presently exist.
The agencies are asking for public comment on the two definitions, and “on whether either definition is too broad or too narrow or is otherwise proper or improper, and on whether other formulations of a definition of ‘habitat’ would be preferable to either of the two definitions, including formulations that incorporate various aspects of these two definitions.” The comment period is open until September 4, 2020.
Will a lawsuit stop planned changes to NEPA? At the end of July, a number of environmental groups banded together and filed a 180-page complaint against the U.S. Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ). The complaint challenges the Council’s update to rules under the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA). The groups’ basic argument is that the CEQ, under the direction of the Trump administration, published a new administrative rule under NEPA, but did not follow the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), which governs agency actions, when doing so. The lawsuit alleges: “[r]ather than make this drastic change deliberately and with the careful process the APA requires, CEQ cut every corner. The agency disregarded clear evidence from over 40 years of past implementation; ignored the reliance interests of the citizens, businesses, and industries that depend on full and complete NEPA analyses; and turned the mandatory public engagement process into a paper exercise, rather than the meaningful inquiry the law requires.” Basically, the groups argue that the administration ignored the APA all together. Why is this important? The environmental groups argue that the new rule essentially makes it possible for the federal government to push through projects that might have impacts on citizens and the environment, such as pipelines and roadways, much more quickly, and without much input from the public. You can read the final NEPA rule here. We will have to wait and see whether the court agrees that the APA was violated in the creation of this rule.
Ruling on Migratory Bird Act clips the administration’s wings. Another lawsuit against the federal government was decided on August 11, 2020. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York sided with a number states as well as environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Fund and the National Wildlife Federation. The Court found that the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) and FWS (at the direction of the administration) could not overturn 50 years of DOI interpretations of what “killings” and “takings” of birds meant under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 with a single memo. Traditionally, the killing or taking any migratory bird, even accidentally or incidentally, has been interpreted as a violation of the Act. DOI’s memo sought to change this, only making the Act only apply to intentional hunting, killing, or taking. Essentially, if a business or person had a pond full of wastewater, and migratory birds swam in it, eventually killing the birds, it would only be “incidental” taking and not intentional under DOI’s logic in the memo. Ultimately, Judge Valerie Caproni channeled Atticus Finch by stating “It is not only a sin to kill a mockingbird, it is also a crime,” meaning that one memorandum could not overturn the fact that incidental and accidental takings of birds are still takings punishable by the Act.
Another WOTUS lawsuit bites the dust. There’s always something going on with the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule. In April, the Trump administration published its final rule on WOTUS, which replaced the Obama administration’s beleaguered rule from 2015. Almost immediately, the rule was challenged in court by those who thought it went too far in protecting waters, as well as those who felt it didn’t go far enough. The Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, which falls into the latter camp, filed suit against the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over the 2015 rule, later amending their complaint to address the 2020 rule. The Association claimed that both the old and new rules went too far, and that EPA did not have the authority to carry them out under the Clean Water Act. The judge dismissed the Association’s case without prejudice for lack of standing, meaning that the issue may be litigated again, but the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association could not show that its members are being negatively affected by the 2020 rule at this time.