The Bureau of Land Management’s NEPA Review of Land Plans: Is Net Zero A Reasonable Alternative?

Posted on August 20, 2019 by Robert Uram

The Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) requires the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to review and revise its land use plans periodically. In the current round of reviews, the BLM is seeking to roll back protections for areas of critical environmental concern, to reduce lands managed for wilderness, and to greatly expand lands available for oil and gas and coal leasing. Since production and consumption of oil, gas, and coal result in the release of vast amounts of carbon, these changes threaten to worsen the outlook for global warming.

Before it can adopt these land use changes, the BLM must, of course, comply with the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA). Now nearing its 50th anniversary, NEPA is one of the most important federal environmental laws. While NEPA does not mandate that a federal agency take actions that are most protective of the environment, it does require decision makers to fully disclose the environmental impacts of any major federal action in an Environmental Impact Statement. Additionally, an EIS must present and consider reasonable alternatives to a proposed federal action that might mitigate environmental impacts. Consideration of alternatives is at the heart of an EIS. An EIS that does not cover a full range of reasonable alternatives is deficient.

Increased future fossil fuel development on public lands will lead to enormous increases in climate change gases. The fact that fossil fuel development affects global temperatures has long been clear to federal decision makers. Indeed, as long ago as 1979, the Programmatic EIS for the Federal Coal Leasing program warned that coal use was a contributor to greenhouse gases and could result in increased temperatures of 2-3° Celsius. The BLM will certainly make some attempt to disclose these impacts, but mere disclosure is not enough. The BLM needs to present meaningful alternatives that would address climate change concerns.

To date, the BLM has been considering a short list of alternatives in its land use planning EISs,  a no-action alternative that would keep the current land use plan in place, and several alternatives that vary the amount of protection for sensitive lands and the extent of lands open to fossil fuel development. If Judge Skelly Wright (the author of the seminal NEPA case, Calvert Cliffs v. Atomic Energy Commission) were alive today, he would undoubtedly call the BLM’s approach “crabbed.”

In particular, the BLM’s alternatives fail to present the decision maker with an alternative that would directly address the increase of carbon emissions. Many authoritative analyses, including the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, have concluded that the world needs to achieve net zero carbon emissions economy-wide by 2050 to limit the temperature rise to 1.5˚C above pre-industrial levels. Net zero carbon dioxide can be achieved by balancing carbon emissions with carbon removal or offsets or simply eliminating carbon emissions altogether.

To comply with NEPA, the BLM needs to add a “net zero” land-use planning alternative that would reduce or mitigate net carbon impacts from activities in the planning area to zero by 2050 or another date certain. This alternative would, by necessity, constrain fossil fuel development and provide for offsetting carbon reductions. A net zero alternative can be fully consistent with FLPMA.

Net zero land use planning is not unrealistic. Many countries, states, local governments, and private businesses have or will adopt net zero policies, and many development projects are being planned to achieve net zero now. Even very large carbon producing projects can achieve net zero emissions. For example, a master planned community in southern California that will build 21,000 homes and 11.5 million square feet of commercial and office space associated with 60,000 jobs was originally planned with little consideration of climate effects. Years of litigation, environmental analysis, and private initiative transformed the project into a net zero project by incorporating a combination of onsite and offsite measures.

To achieve net zero, the project will design homes and business to be energy efficient and use solar power, will install an electric vehicle charging station in every home and build 4,000 other electric vehicle charging stations, half in the community and half offsite. In addition, the project will provide subsidies for converting public transit buses to electric buses and creating an electric school bus program within the community. Offsite, the project will invest in carbon reducing measures in the surrounding area as well as elsewhere in California and other locations.

In these critical times for the planet, NEPA can play an important role in showing a path to net zero. Net zero alternatives for the BLM’s land-use plans and other activities would illuminate the role public lands plays in contributing to (and potentially avoiding) the adverse effects of global warming and identify changes needed to reach net zero for the proposed federal action. It might be too much to hope for that this administration will seize the opportunity to adopt a net zero alternative, but the analysis of what is needed will be informative and can be a blueprint for future administrations.

“To Count or Not to Count, That is the Question”

Posted on June 28, 2018 by Jeff Civins

“To count or not to count”--greenhouse gas (“GHG”) emissions--was a question facing both the Bureau of Land Management (“BLM”) and the US Forest Service (“USFS”), in deciding whether to lease 13 parcels of federal mineral estate in Santa Fe National Forest in New Mexico for oil and gas production, and the federal district court in New Mexico, on an appeal of those agencies’ joint determination to lease those parcels.  The appeal, filed by plaintiff citizen groups, in San Juan Citizens Alliance v. United States Bureau of Land Management, No. 16-cv-376-MCA-JHR, D. NM (June 14, 2018), asserted a number of violations of the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”) based on, among other things, the agencies’ alleged failure to take a hard look at direct, indirect, and cumulative impacts of oil and gas leasing.  The GHG emissions in question related to those that would result not from the production of oil and gas from the leases, but rather from the consumption of that production--and the resulting climate change impacts of those emissions.  The court answered yes to the question of whether to count those emissions, but its determination raised another question--what difference would or should counting those GHG emissions make.

Operating under a memorandum of understanding, the USFS and BLM jointly manage oil and gas leasing on federal forest land, with the USFS regulating the surface and the BLM, the subsurface.  The USFS identifies specific lands to be offered for lease; the BLM provides a reasonably foreseeable development scenario.  If the UFS consents to leasing, it may include conditions; BLM may then issue competitive leases.  The leases here were issued after protracted administrative proceedings, which included the USFS’s preparation of an environmental impact statement and supplement that supported the permitting of oil and gas leasing and which culminated in the BLM’s issuance of a Decision Record and Environmental Assessment approving the parcels for lease, which “tiered to” the USFS environmental studies.

Plaintiffs argued that the agencies “failed to take a hard look at direct, indirect, and cumulative impacts of oil and gas leasing” before making an irretrievable commitment of resources.  Regulations of the Council on Environmental Quality, at 40 CFR Part 1500, define the pertinent terms.

Direct effects” are “caused by the action and occur at the same time and place” while “indirect effects” are effects that “are caused by the action and are later in time or farther removed in distance, but are still reasonably foreseeable.” A “cumulative impact,” on the other hand, is an “impact on the environment [that] results from the incremental impact of the action when added to other past, present, and reasonably foreseeable future actions regardless of what agency … or person undertakes such other actions.” “Cumulative impacts can result from individually minor but collectively significant actions taking place over a period of time.” 

BLM’s Decision Record explained that the agency was evaluating only GHG emissions associated with exploration and production of oil and gas (estimated to be 0.0018% of the US’s total GHG emissions), because the environmental impacts of GHG emissions from consumption of that oil and gas, e.g., refining and consumer-vehicle combustion, were not direct effects and neither were they indirect effects because production was not a proximate cause of GHG emissions resulting from consumption.  BLM argued, however, that emissions from consumption were accounted for in the cumulative effects analysis. 

The Decision Record explained:

The very small increase in [GHG] emissions that could result from approval of the action alternatives would not produce climate change impacts that differ from the No Action Alternative. This is because climate change is a global process that is impacted by the sum total of [GHG] emissions in the Earth’s atmosphere. The incremental contribution to global [GHG] from the proposed action cannot be translated into effects on climate change globally or in the area of this site-specific action. It is currently not feasible to predict with certainty the net impacts from the proposed action on global or regional climate.

The Air Resources Technical Report discusses the relationship of past, present and future predicted emissions to climate change and the limitations in predicting local and regional impacts related to emissions. It is currently not feasible to know with certainty the net impacts from particular emissions associated with activities on public lands.

The Air Resources Technical Report noted that the BLM did not have the ability to associate an action’s contribution in a localized area to impacts on global climate change,” but may do so in the future when “climate models improve in their sensitivity and predictive capacity.” 

In its review of the agencies’ record, the court noted “neither the Record Decision nor its tiered or incorporated documents estimate the potential greenhouse gas emissions from consumption of the oil and gas produced by wells developed on the leases, nor do they discuss the potential impacts of such emissions. “  The court concluded that the failure to estimate the amount of GHG emissions resulting from consumption of the oil and gas produced as a result of development of wells on the leased areas was arbitrary and required that BLM reanalyze the potential impact of such greenhouse gases on climate change in light of the recalculated amount of emissions in order to comply with NEPA.

For that reason, the court remanded the case to the BLM to address this error and to consider whether, based on that reanalysis, its mitigation analysis needed to be revised as well.  The court reasoned that GHG emissions from the consumption of oil and gas were an indirect effect that BLM should have considered, citing Sierra Club v. Fed. Energy Regulatory Comm’n, 867 F.3d 1357, 1374 (D.C. Cir. 2017), and found that BLM also did not adequately consider the cumulative effects of those emissions, together with other emissions.

The question raised by this case, and Sierra Club v. FERC, which the court cites, is how helpful the analysis of indirect and cumulative effects will be to the agency in its decision-making and could or should that analysis result in the selection of a different alternative or in requirements to mitigate. As a practical matter, given the global nature of the concern posed by GHG emissions and the relatively small contribution of the activity under review, is there an expectation that an agency will make meaningful changes in its decision-making as a result of any required reanalysis? So perhaps the question should be not whether to count or not to count, but rather, “What difference would or should counting make?”And, perhaps an even more salient question is, as a policy matter, should concerns posed by GHG emissions be better addressed through legislation and rulemaking rather than by imposing constraints on an ad hoc basis?

Court Rejects BLM’s Efforts to Unbalance the Scales of Justice

Posted on November 6, 2017 by Seth Jaffe

Last month, Magistrate Judge Elizabeth Laporte granted summary judgment to plaintiffs and vacated the Bureau of Land Management’s notice that it was postponing certain compliance dates contained in the Obama BLM rule governing methane emissions on federal lands.  If you’re a DOJ lawyer, it’s pretty clear your case is a dog when the Court enters summary judgment against you before you’ve even answered the complaint.

The case is pretty simple and the outcome should not be a surprise.  BLM based its postponement of the compliance deadlines on § 705 of the APA, which authorizes agencies to “postpone the effective date” of regulations “when justice so requires.”  However, every court that has looked at the issue has concluded that the plain words of the APA apply only to the “effective date” of a regulation and not to any “compliance date” contained within the regulation.

It seems clearly right to me.  For Chevron geeks out there, I’ll note that the Court stated that, because the APA is a procedural statute as to which BLM has no particular expertise, its interpretation of the APA is not entitled to Chevron deference – a conclusion which also seems right to me.

What particularly caught my eye about the decision was the Court’s discussion of the phrase, “when justice so requires.”  In a belt and suspenders bit of analysis, the Court also made findings that justice did not require postponement.  BLM’s argument was that justice required the postponement because otherwise the regulated community would have to incur compliance costs.  However, as the Court noted, “the Bureau entirely failed to consider the benefits of the Rule, such as decreased resource waste, air pollution, and enhanced public revenues.”  Indeed:  

If the words “justice so requires” are to mean anything, they must satisfy the fundamental understanding of justice: that it requires an impartial look at the balance struck between the two sides of the scale, as the iconic statue of the blindfolded goddess of justice holding the scales aloft depicts. Merely to look at only one side of the scales, whether solely the costs or solely the benefits, flunks this basic requirement. As the Supreme Court squarely held, an agency cannot ignore “an important aspect of the problem.” Without considering both the costs and the benefits of postponement of the compliance dates, the Bureau’s decision failed to take this “important aspect” of the problem into account and was therefore arbitrary.

I think I detect a theme here.  Some of you will remember that Foley Hoag filed an amicus brief on behalf of the Union of Concerned Scientists, supporting the challenge to President Trump’s “2-for-1” Executive Order.  We made pretty much the same arguments in that case that Magistrate Judge Laporte made here – minus the reference to the scales of justice.

Unless SCOTUS gets rid of all agency deference, the Trump Administration is going to get some deference as it tries to eliminate environmental regulations wherever it can find them.  However, if it continues to do so while looking solely at the costs of the regulations to the business community, while ignoring the benefits of the regulations, it’s still going to have an uphill battle on its hands.

HEY, JUDGE SKAVDAHL - DON’T THE INTERESTS OF THE UNITED STATES INCLUDE PROTECTING GROUNDWATER ON ITS OWN LAND?

Posted on July 6, 2016 by Karl Coplan

The Mined Lands Act directs the Bureau of Land Management to issue regulations governing mining on public lands for, inter alia, “the protection of the interests of the United States, . . . and for the safeguarding of the public welfare.” More recently, the Federal Lands Policy Management Act specifically directs the BLM to take environmental issues into account in promulgating regulations governing the use of federal lands, that is, to manage federal lands in a way,

That will protect the quality of scientific, scenic, historical, ecological, environmental, air and atmospheric, water resource, and archeological values,

Last year, acting under these statutory authorities, the BLM issued regulations governing fracking on federal lands, which required federal lessees to disclose chemicals in their fracking fluids and to take measures to prevent well leakage.  This week, the Federal District Court for the District of Wyoming struck down these regulations as exceeding BLM’s authority to regulate mining on public lands. The Court purported to find this result under the Chevron step I analysis, i.e., finding specific congressional intent that the Bureau of Land Management does not have authority to protect groundwater on public lands.  Despite the broad statutory authorities cited above, the Court found that the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which specifically exempted fracking from EPA regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act, evidenced Congressional intent that no federal agency has jurisdiction to regulate fracking activities, even on federal lands.

This ruling ignores the obvious difference between EPA regulation to protect groundwater generally under the Safe Drinking Water Act and actions by the BLM to protect the United States’ own properties that are subject to federal leases.  FLPMA specifically directs BLM to take measures to protect ecological interests in managing federal lands, and it seems inappropriate for a federal court to second guess BLM’s balance between resource extraction and groundwater protection.  The United States in general has very broad authority to regulate activities on its own land, and Congress’ decision to exempt fracking on private lands from EPA regulation can’t possibly be read as specific Congressional intent to preclude BLM from protecting groundwater on lands owned by the United States. On another level, this decision reflects a concerning trend towards judicial activism tearing down the Obama administration’s invocation of statutory authorities to advance environmental protection in the face of a hostile Congress – witness the Supreme Court’s stay of EPA’s Clean Power Plan, and the Sixth Circuit’s stay of the Clean Water Rule.              

Environmental law got its start when courts, like the Second Circuit in Scenic Hudson Preservation Conference v. Federal Power Commission, read broad statutory grants of regulatory authority to include environmental protection.  This decision by the District of Wyoming departs from that tradition.  The BLM plans to appeal.

Surprise, Surprise, Surprise: An Agency Cannot Revise Regulations In a Consent Decree

Posted on May 22, 2013 by Seth Jaffe

In a decision that should not have come as a surprise to anyone, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled late last month, in Conservation Northwest v. Sherman, that the Bureau of Land Management and other agencies implementing the Northwest Forest Plan could not amend the NFP without complying with the procedural requirements of the Federal Land Policy Management Act.  The rationale of the decision should apply far more broadly than just the FLPMA, however.  It should apply to any action by any agency purporting to amend agency regulations that would otherwise be subject to procedural requirements, such as notice-and-comment rulemaking, without complying with those procedural protections.

The history of the case itself it tortuous and not really relevant here.  The short version is that the agency defendants sought to resolve citizen litigation regarding the “Survey and Manage” provisions of the NFP by entering into a consent decree that would amend certain elements of Survey and Manage.  It was uncontested that, if the agencies had sought to do so outside the context of litigation, they would have had to follow FLPMA requirements.  The agencies – and the District Court which upheld entry of the consent decree – argued that, because approval of a consent decree is a “judicial act”, it is not subject to the FLPMA procedures.

I’ve got to say, that argument just seems like a non sequitur to me.  In any case, the 9th Circuit rejected it, concluding that:

"a district court abuses its discretion when it enters a consent decree that permanently and substantially amends an agency rule that would have otherwise been subject to statutory rulemaking procedures."

Well, yeah.

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"Fast-Tracking" of Solar Development Not a Bypass of Environmental Review

Posted on November 20, 2009 by Linda Bullen

On June 29, 2009, Department of the Interior (DOI) Secretary Ken Salazar announced several initiatives to aid development of solar energy facilities on federal lands in the Western U.S. Working with Western leaders, the DOI initiative would:

 

  • Designate prime zones for utility-scale solar development
  • Open new Bureau of Land Management (BLM) offices to facilitate permit processing
  • Expedite project proposals. 

Twenty-four tracts of BLM land were designated as Solar Energy Study Areas, upon which projects of 10 megawatts or greater would, under this initiative, be eligible for priority processing. This “priority processing” is commonly referred to as “fast-tracking.” In early November 2009, Secretary Salazar announced the fast-tracking of six renewable energy facilities located on federal land in the State of California. 

 

Fast-tracking is not intended to circumvent any environmental or other process, but rather to facilitate the identified projects identified by the federal agencies involved (most commonly the BLM), giving priority to those that are marked as fast-tracked projects. Nevertheless, several fast-tracked projects, and fast-tracking in general, has come under criticism by some members of the environmental community and others.

 

This criticism is misplaced to the extent that it suggests that fast-tracked projects are not subject to the same rigorous scrutiny as non-fast-tracked projects. Every utility-scale project on federally-owned land is subject to review under the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”). NEPA mandates thorough review of all environmental aspects of any utility-scale energy project on federal land. 

 

The NEPA process does not allow for “short cuts” or circumvention of any part of the process on projects upon which NEPA applies. Accordingly, fast-tracking of renewable projects does not result in a less meticulous or careful environmental review, just an expedited one. Efficiency does not equate to inadequacy, and such criticisms are misplaced.