Presidential Directive Mandates Expansive and Likely Unlawful No Net Loss Compensatory Mitigation Requirement for Most Federal Development Permitting

Posted on November 12, 2015 by Jeffrey Lepo

 

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. 

Will we ever have a national energy policy?

Posted on April 18, 2012 by Michael Rodburg

USEPA continues its program of death by a thousand cuts to the coal industry, but does the agency’s actions reflect a coherent national energy policy? On March 27, 2012 the EPA issued its new source performance standards for new power plants limiting CO2 emissions per megawatt-hour of produced electricity to a level about that of state-of-the-art, combined-cycle, gas-fired power plants. Importantly, industry observers claim that the level is far below what the best coal-fired power plants can achieve at least without commercially unavailable and quite expensive carbon capture technology.  While certain exceptions within the rule preclude stating that EPA has banned the use of coal in new plants, it comes pretty close.  That reminds me of an often repeated statement of an old client of mine back in the 1970’s whose recycled solvent fuel business and the EPA just didn’t get along that well—he would remark that “if coal were discovered today, EPA would never allow it to be burned.”  He appears to have been ahead of his time.

Of course one winner in this is natural gas.  With new sources of natural gas from shale and fracking having driven natural gas prices downward relative to coal and oil, old King Coal has been facing a distinct price disadvantage for years.  EPA had further disadvantaged coal and oil as a result of last year’s cross-state air pollution rule.  Last December, EPA’s MATS rule (mercury and air toxics standards) for power plants further adversely affected coal. Is EPA’s latest effort merely the coup de grace?

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not a coal apologist.  One need not be a fan or sworn enemy of either natural gas or coal, of free markets or environmental regulation, to realize that something is going on that is important to our national energy situation with no one particularly in charge.  After all, coal mining, transportation and existing uses drive tens of thousands of jobs and the economy of such disadvantaged states as West Virginia.  Presidents and presidential candidates have decried our lack of a national energy policy for 30 years with meager results. 

My point is otherwise: What does the overall national interest—economic, energy and environment—have to say about the relative use of coal vs. natural gas vs. petroleum vs. nuclear power?  Should EPA’s rule, based on concerns for global warming and not immediate health and safety, trump everything else?  Should we increase our reliance on natural gas at the expense of coal?  Should we be at the mercy of market forces without regard to our long term, sustainable future?  Should we simply use a bumper sticker (“Drill, baby, drill”) instead of reasoned policy? 

What passes as policy is a series of regulatory silos each with its own raison d’etre—FERC, NRC, EPA, DOE. And, of course, Congress, some of whose members can’t wait to kill alternative energy policies (solar), decry subsidization for renewables while rejecting as nearly immoral attempts to eliminate out of date tax subsidies for oil and gas (Subsidies at today’s prices?  Give me a break!). EPA’s new rule, in isolation from everything else, is merely another example of our lack of a coherent national policy on energy.  It may be a good environmental rule, but is it good for the country?