Court Rejects Preemptive Declaratory Judgment Lawsuit Against NGOs

Posted on February 24, 2015 by Peter Van Tuyn

In a decision lauded by local residents, Alaska Native tribal and business interests, the commercial and sport fishing communities, and conservationists, President Obama recently withdrew the Arctic waters of the North Aleutian Basin (also known as Bristol Bay) from future oil and gas leasing.  As President Obama  noted, Bristol Bay is a national treasure, one of Alaska’s most powerful economic engines, and home to one of the world’s largest salmon runs.  At the same time, the Obama Administration is working on the next outer continental shelf leasing program, and will soon be making critical decisions about whether and how to include within it leasing in the U.S. portion of the Arctic’s Chukchi and Beaufort Seas.

Industry interest in the area is led by Shell, which holds leases in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, and as detailed in an article I recently co-authored and in a dramatic cover story in the New York Times Magazine, has experienced a stormy effort to drill there.  Not content, however, to focus on the on-the-water challenges of drilling in the Arctic, Shell also pursued a novel legal strategy by preemptively suing its critics in an effort to smooth the waters for its drilling.

 After receiving approval from U.S. agencies for various aspects of its drilling plans, Shell filed lawsuits against conservation groups alleging that the groups were engaged in an “ongoing campaign to prevent Shell from drilling in the Arctic” and that it was “virtually certain” that the groups would challenge the federal approvals.  Shell sought a declaration from the courts that the approvals were legal. 

            The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently issued an opinion rejecting Shell’s strategy on the jurisdictional ground that the Declaratory Judgment Act, on which Shell had based its strategy,  “does not create new substantive rights, but merely expands the remedies available in federal courts.”  The court noted that the law underlying Shell’s request for declaratory judgment was the Administrative Procedures Act (APA), which allows a party aggrieved by agency action to seek judicial review of that action, and that since it is only the agency that can be sued under the APA, “it would be odd to conclude that a [jurisdictionally-required] case or controversy exists merely because Shell seeks to know who would prevail if the environmental groups asserted an APA claim against the [agency].”  Indeed, as the court found, were it to hold otherwise, its “holding would create several unusual consequences,” two of which it found “particularly noteworthy”:

First, it would allow a district court to declare the [agency]’s actions unlawful under the APA in a judgment that is not binding on the [agency] itself. ... Second, absent agency intervention, such a lawsuit would allow the lawfulness of agency action to be adjudicated without hearing the agency’s own justification for its actions.

I would suggest that two other “unusual consequences” of a ruling for Shell would have been the upsetting of the historical body of administrative law guiding judicial review of federal agency action and an illegal limit on the First Amendment right of citizens to petition the government.