On November 3, 2015, President Obama issued a Presidential Memorandum establishing policies that are a significant departure from existing practice regarding compensatory mitigation for effects to natural resources from most federally approved projects. The Memorandum, entitled “Mitigating Impacts on Natural Resources from Development and Encouraging Private Investment,” applies to all permits and authorizations issued by the Department of Defense (e.g., the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers), the Department of Agriculture (e.g., the Forest Service), the Department of Interior (e.g., BLM, USFWS, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, etc.), EPA and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (e.g., National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) ), including actions taken by USFWS and NMFS pursuant to the Endangered Species Act. Although it cannot be known today how the new policies will ultimately be implemented, the Memorandum is, at least as written, both anti-development and potentially draconian.
The new Memorandum states that it is establishing certain policies premised upon “a moral obligation to the next generation to leave America’s natural resources in better condition than when we inherited them.” In furtherance of this moral obligation, the President has established it to be the policy of the identified federal bodies (and all bureaus and agencies within them):
· To avoid and to minimize harmful effects to land, water, wildlife and other ecological resources (natural resources), and to require compensatory mitigation for, the projects they approve.
· To establish a net benefit goal or, at a minimum, a no net loss goal for mitigation of the natural resources each agency manages that are important, scarce or sensitive.
· To give preference to advance compensation mechanisms in establishing compensatory mitigation. “Advance compensation” is defined to mean a form of compensatory mitigation for which measurable environmental benefits (defined by performance standards) are achieved before a given project’s harmful impacts to natural resources occur. This policy preference appears to somehow contemplate that compensatory mitigation will be achieved before the project is constructed and operated.
· To use large-scale plans to identify areas where development is most appropriate, where natural resource values are irreplaceable and development policies should require avoidance, and where high natural resources values result in the best locations for protection and restoration.
The Memorandum also establishes certain deadlines for action, principally by the agencies of the Department of Interior (e.g., one year deadline for BLM to “finalize a mitigation policy that will bring consistency to the . . . application of avoidance, minimization and compensatory actions [f]or development activities and projects impacting public lands and resources.”; one year deadline for USFWS to finalize compensatory mitigation policy applicable to its Endangered Species Act responsibilities).
Some federal laws (e.g., Clean Water Act Section 404 permitting for filling of waters of the United States) already have well-developed compensatory mitigation programs; however, most federal permitting schemes have not been interpreted or implemented to authorize or require compensatory mitigation, let alone at no net loss or net benefit levels. Accordingly, to the extent that the Memorandum is intended to require net benefit or no net loss compensatory mitigation through many/most federal permitting programs, such a directive would be a significant departure from existing practice, of untested legality, and arguably contrary to existing law.
Moreover, to demonstrate that compensation has occurred at a net benefit or no net loss, unless the adverse effects are offset through generation or preservation of in-kind resources (e.g., a duck for a duck), the “damage” to affected natural resources must first be valued. Accordingly, if implemented so that compensatory mitigation is broadly required, the policy could lead to an extensive, time consuming and complicated valuation process. One worst case scenario would be for this policy to result in some form of new natural resources damages assessment, the time and expense for which would be challenging to rationalize in the context of a development proposal where cost and time are relevant (i.e., for every development project).
Unless the Memorandum is rescinded or feebly implemented, or its implementation is held unlawful, it has significant strategic, permitting, legal and financial implications for many, if not most, major development projects. Of course, it is likely to be difficult or impossible to challenge the new policies established in the Memorandum, except on a project-by-project permit-by-permit basis. As such, the pressure for project proponents to navigate (rather than litigate) the new policies will be substantial.