BLM Suspends Sixty-One Oil and Gas Leases to Perform Climate Change and Greenhouse Gas Analyses in Montana

Posted on April 2, 2010 by James Spaanstra

Authored by:

Robert D. Comer
James R. Spaanstra

Recently, the Bureau of Land Management ("BLM") and several Montana environmental groups agreed to suspend 61 Montana oil and gas leases as settlement of a case challenging lease issuance for failure to consider climate change effects. The leases, which had been issued, were suspended while BLM conducts additional analysis of greenhouse gas fugitive emissions and climate change impacts under the National Environmental Policy Act. As part of the settlement, BLM also asserts "authority to void or terminate any lease, if it determines upon review that such an action is appropriate.

On March 18, 2010, Judge Molloy of the United States District Court for the District of Montana entered an order dismissing the case based on the settlement agreement, despite the absence of the oil and gas industry from the settlement discussions. BLM and the environmentalist parties are seeking to keep confidential the deliberations that led to the settlement. This stands in contrast to prior positions taken by the United States regarding the release of settlement discussion documents under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) pursuant to the U.S. Supreme Court Klamath decision in 2000.

Unlike the 77 Utah leases that were voided by BLM in 2009, the agency did not admit to error in the NEPA process leading to issuance of the leases. The takeaway from these BLM actions is to make sure that your company has solid NEPA analysis that fully considers climate change and greenhouse gas issues, including those resulting from production and gathering operation fugitive emissions, when applying for leases and APDs. The willingness to suspend or void leases represents a new chapter in available remedies BLM is willing to use, whereby even already issued leases may now be at risk. Click here to review the settlement and click here to review the order.

Environmental Review for Genetically Engineered Crops

Posted on November 11, 2009 by Andrew Brown

For some genetically engineered (GE) crops, the fields may be quiet, but the courtrooms have been busy. On October 22, Monsanto, Forage Genetics International, and two alfalfa farmers filed a U.S. Supreme Court cert petition to reverse a permanent nationwide injunction that prevents GE alfalfa from being sold or planted. On September 21, a federal court in California held an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is required for the deregulation of GE sugar beets. The permanent injunction on alfalfa and the recent decision for sugar beets could result in many lost years where farmers are unable to grow these weed-resistant crops. (For disclosure: my firm, Dorsey & Whitney LLP represented Forage Genetics in this case, and I was lead counsel.)

 

Alfalfa

            The U.S. Supreme Court petitioners are challenging a nationwide injunction against Roundup Ready alfalfa that prevents its use and sale until the government performs an EIS.   On February 13, 2007, the District Court held that the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service’s (APHIS) environmental assessment was inadequate because it failed to explain why the possibility of cross-pollination of conventional and organic alfalfa with Roundup Ready alfalfa was not itself a “significant harmful impact” on the environment. On this basis, the court ordered APHIS to prepare a full EIS. The decision to require an EIS was not challenged on appeal, but APHIS, Monsanto (who owns the intellectual property rights to Roundup Ready alfalfa), Forage Genetics (the exclusive developer of Roundup Ready alfalfa) and three alfalfa growers appealed the court’s order which stopped the commercial use of Roundup Ready alfalfa until the EIS was prepared. The appellants argued the injunction was too broad, the district had effectively exempted the NEPA plaintiffs from showing irreparable harm to obtain the injunctive relief (only requiring the “possibility” of harm), and that the injunctive relief had been granted without an evidentiary hearing although there were genuinely disputed issues of fact and an evidentiary hearing had been requested.    

            The petitioners argue the Ninth Circuit misapplied the recent Supreme Court decision in Winter v. NRDC, 129 S.Ct. 365 (2008),which held a district court may not enter an injunction for a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) violation broader than necessary to prevent a likelihood of “irreparable harm” pending the government’s preparation of an EIS. Following this reasoning, petitioners argue the Ninth Circuit’s concern over the mere possibility of cross-pollination cannot be reconciled with Winter’s holding that irreparable harm must be likely. Petitioners also argue the Ninth Circuit erred in upholding an injunction sought to remedy a NEPA violation without first conducting an evidentiary hearing on genuinely disputed facts.

            The issue of cross-pollination has become an increasingly important topic for the world of GE crops. According to the cert petition, cross-pollination can occur only if two fields produce flowers simultaneously and pollen is transferred between them. However, debates regarding isolation zones and whether farmers should fence-in or fence-out have not been resolved and are intensifying. The Roundup Ready alfalfa has been genetically engineered to be resistant to Roundup, a broad-spectrum agricultural herbicide that controls nearly every weed species in alfalfa crops.  

Sugar Beets

            The Northern District of California, the same district court that decided the alfalfa case, ruled on September 21 that the government failed to require an EIS on GE Roundup Ready sugar beets. Center for Food Safety v. Vilsack, No. C 08-00484 (N.D. Cal. 2009). The plaintiffs sued after APHIS decided to unconditionally deregulate the sugar beets and allow them into U.S. agriculture. Over 95% of the U.S. sugar beet crop is now engineered to resist herbicide, so the effect of the District Court’s ruling could be extensive.

            Once again, the District Court expressed its concern about the possibility of cross-pollination. Although APHIS, after conducting an environmental assessment, determined the likelihood of cross-pollination to organic fields is “unlikely,” the District Court found the “potential elimination of farmer’s choice to grow non-genetically engineered crops, or a consumer’s choice to eat non-genetically engineered food” does have a “significant effect” on the environment because of the long distances pollen can travel by wind. The Court held APHIS did not demonstrate a “hard look” at this issue as required by NEPA.

            The District Court planned a case management conference on October 30 to determine the remedies phase of the case. In addition to the original parties, other growers, sugar processors and seed companies like Monsanto were expected to be allowed to take part in the remedy phase. The results of the case management conference have not yet been published.

The Future of GE Crops

            According to an October NY Times article, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is preparing for a drastic rethinking of the country’s polices for GE crops. The Department of Agriculture is planning to update its regulations this spring to create a better way for GE and conventional crops to coexist. Vilsack stated “[y]ou know, I think [regulations for GE are] an evolving process, which is why we’re doing this and probably should have done it more than 20 years ago.”

            The Department of Agriculture will have a lot to tackle in the upcoming months when creating new policies for GE crops, which are widely used throughout the country. The NY Times reported 95% of sugar beets, 90% of soy and cotton crops, and 85% of the corn crop utilize GE seeds. Whether the agency creates rules that compliment or correct the recent court rulings will be an important question, especially for farmers with sugar beets or alfalfa in their fields.

The October 8, 2009, New York Times article is available here.

(I would like to express my appreciation to Valerie Paula, an associate at Dorsey & Whitney LLP, for her assistance in preparing this note.)

NRDC v. Winter -- Green Trumps the Blue and Gold -- National Security Takes a Back Seat to Natural Resources

Posted on January 22, 2008 by ACOEL Admin
 
I. INTRO
On January 3, 2008, a federal judge for the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California imposed substantial restrictions on the U.S. Navy’s use of mid-frequency active (MFA) sonar in waters off the California coastline.  Although details of the restrictions and their immediate impact on the Navy can readily be discerned by reviewing the judge's order, the reverberations of this order may have a much broader impact that could further enhance the role of environmental lawyers.
Until recently, few might have predicted the success of an environmental challenge to military operations -- especially given our country's current military operations abroad.  The California court's much-anticipated order is the latest word in an ongoing debate over MFA sonar operations in potentially close proximity to marine mammals, an activity decried by environmental groups and vigorously defended by the Navy.  The U.S. military has generally been able to defend questionable practices by emphasizing the overall importance of those practices to national security.  As the Supreme Court noted twenty years ago, "unless Congress specifically has provided otherwise, courts traditionally have been reluctant to intrude upon the authority of the Executive in military and national security affairs."[1]


[1] Dep’t of Navy v. Egan, 484 U.S. 518, 529 (1988).
II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY
A. THE DISTRICT COURT'S FINDINGS
In March 2007, the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and several other environmental groups filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California against both the U.S. Navy and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), seeking to enjoin sonar operations scheduled between February 2007 and January 2009 as part of fourteen training exercises in the Southern California Operating Area (SOCAL).  The Navy defended its operations by emphasizing their importance to national security, an argument it has made with considerable success in the past, but this time the court found the national security argument less compelling than the competing concern about MFA sonar's impact on the marine environment. The court based its decision on the following findings.
1. PLAINTIFFS' PROBABILITY OF SUCCESS ON THEIR CLAIMS
   
a. NEPA
Because the Plaintiffs presented evidence sufficient to raise substantial questions about whether the proposed activities would have a significant impact, they demonstrated a probability of success on their claims that the Navy had committed several NEPA violations.  First, although the Navy prepared an Environmental Assessment (EA) prior to commencing its naval exercises in the SOCAL, the court disagreed with the Navy's subsequent decision to issue a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI).  Based on the court's review of facts available to the Navy, the court agreed with Plaintiffs that the proposed sonar operations would likely have a significant impact, triggering NEPA's requirement that an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) be prepared.  Alternatively, because the court considered the Navy's self-imposed mitigation measures to be inadequate and incapable of preventing the significant impact anticipated, the Navy had no basis for issuing the FONSI. Second, the court found that "[the Navy's] EA failed to consider reasonable alternatives or cumulative impacts."[1]  The court noted that the Navy disregarded mitigation measures recommended by the California Coastal Commission (CCC), the state agency that administers California's Coastal Management Plan (CCMP), and it also elected not to implement more restrictive mitigation measures previously used by the Navy and its allies in similar training exercises that employed MFA sonar.  Although the Navy's EA did conclude that the proposed activities "would not have any significant contribution to the cumulative effects on marine mammals,"[2] the court held that, absent detailed and quantifiable information supporting that conclusion, the statement was merely aspirational and lacked the substantive analysis traditionally required by the Ninth Circuit. 
b. CZMA
When a federal agency's proposed activity will "affect[] any coastal use or resource,"[3] the CZMA requires the federal agency to submit a Consistency Determination (CD) to the applicable state agency.  In its analysis of the Navy's alleged violations of the CZMA, the court identified two deficiencies in the CD that the Navy submitted to the CCC.  First, the Navy neglected to mention that it intended to conduct sonar operations.  The Navy defended the omission by arguing that the sonar operations would not have an effect on the coastal zone.  Just as the court disagreed with the Navy's determination that its sonar operations would not have a significant impact on the marine environment, so too did the court disagree with the Navy's similar conclusion that MFA sonar would not affect the coastal zone.  Second, the CD did not incorporate mitigation measures that the CCC required pursuant to the CCMP.  The CZMA required the Navy to ensure that its sonar operations were "consistent to the maximum extent practicable with the enforceable policies of [the CCMP],"[4] and the Navy failed to satisfy its burden of proving the inapplicability of the mitigation measures required by the CCC.
2. POSSIBILITY OF IRREPARABLE HARM TO THE ENVIRONMENT
In support of its finding that the proposed MFA sonar operations would create a possibility of irreparable harm to the environment, the court relied not only on evidence provided by Plaintiffs but also cited a Navy study that "conclude[d] that the SOCAL exercises . . . [would] cause widespread harm to nearly thirty species of marine mammals, including five species of endangered whales, and [might] cause permanent injury and death."[5]
Having identified the possibility of irreparable harm, the court then considered the appropriateness of an injunction to prevent that harm.  After weighing the competing concerns of national security and environmental protection, the court concluded 
that the balance of hardships tip[ped] in favor of granting an injunction, as the harm to the environment, Plaintiffs, and public interest outweigh[ed] the harm that Defendants would incur . . . if prevented from using MFA sonar, absent the use of effective mitigation measures, during a subset of their regular activities in one part of one state for a limited period.[6]
  
B. THE DISTRICT COURT'S INITIAL ORDER
Based on the findings above, the court issued a preliminary injunction of potentially indefinite duration on August 7, 2007, because it would have prohibited all MFA sonar use "until the Navy adopt[ed] mitigation measures that would substantially lessen the likelihood of serious injury and death to marine life."[7]  
C. APPEAL TO THE NINTH CIRCUIT
On August 31, 2007, the Ninth Circuit stayed the district court's sweeping injunction, pending an appeal by the Navy.[8] On November 13th, the Ninth Circuit adopted the district court’s findings and vacated the stay, but it remanded the matter, chastising the district court for having imposed such an overly broad preliminary injunction. The Ninth Circuit instructed the district court to narrow the scope of the injunction by using its findings to craft mitigation measures uniquely tailored to fit the Navy’s MFA sonar operations in the SOCAL.[9] 
III. MITIGATION MEASURES IMPOSED BY THE DISTRICT COURT
On January 3, 2008, the district court finally issued its much-anticipated order in which it laid out the following mitigation measures applicable to future MFA sonar operations in the SOCAL:
1. 12 Nautical Mile Coastal Exclusion Zone.  "The Navy shall maintain a 12 nautical mile exclusion zone from the California coastline at all times."[10]  Although Plaintiffs sought to enjoin MFA sonar operation within twenty-five miles of the California coastline, the court, though agreeing with Plaintiffs that a twenty-five mile exclusion zone would ensure maximum protection of marine habitat, deemed the zone unduly burdensome to the Navy.  The court noted that the Navy had previously operated under a twelve mile exclusion zone and that such a zone struck the best balance between protection of marine habitat and the Navy's need to train "to detect submarines in the very bathymetry in which submarines are likely to hide."
2. 2200 Yard MFA Sonar Shutdown.  "The Navy shall cease use of MFA sonar . . . when marine mammals are spotted within 2200 yards . . . ."[11]  Designed only to prevent the most damaging consequences of exposure to MFA sonar, the court concluded that a 2200 yard zone of protection for marine mammals imposed a minimal burden on the Navy.
3. Monitoring.  For sixty minutes prior to conducting MFA sonar operations, the Navy "shall monitor for the presence of marine mammals,"[12] using lookouts on vessels and one dedicated aircraft to monitor the entire operating area.  If a marine mammal is spotted, the Navy must suspend sonar operations until it establishes the requisite 2200 yard buffer.  Once sonar operations have begun, the Navy must continue visual monitoring efforts by posting two National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)- and NMFS-trained lookouts in addition to using one dedicated aircraft, and Navy vessels must also listen for the presence of marine mammals using passive acoustic monitoring.
4. Helicopter Dipping Sonar.  Helicopters must monitor the area for ten minutes prior to employing active dipping sonar and, after spotting a marine mammal within 2200 yards of the helicopter, must cease active dipping sonar operations until reestablishing the 2200 yard safety zone.
5. Surface Ducting Conditions.  "[W]hen surface ducting conditions are detected . . . in which sound travels further than it otherwise would due to temperature differences in adjacent layers of water . . . the Navy shall power down sonar by 6dB"[13] to minimize the sonar's greater intensity and range.
6. Choke Points and the Catalina Basin.  "[T]he Navy [shall] refrain from employing MFA sonar in the Catalina Basin,"[14] an area located between the Santa Catalina and San Clemente islands that provides habitat to a large population of marine mammals.
7. Continue National Defense Exemption (NDE) II Mitigation Measures.  Since 2002, the Navy has worked with NOAA and NMFS to ensure the compliance of its operations with all federal laws, and it has adopted various mitigation measures to achieve that goal of compliance.   The district court explained that its mitigation measures were to be implemented in addition to those measures either already adopted or currently under review by the Navy pursuant to its ongoing collaboration with NOAA and NMFS.
IV. RECENT DEVELOPMENTS
On Tuesday, January 15, 2008, President Bush signed an exemption authorizing the Navy's continued use of MFA sonar in its SOCAL exercises.  In the exemption, the President stated that the sonar exercises "[we]re in the paramount interest of the United States" and that compliance with the mitigation measures would "undermine the Navy's ability to conduct realistic training exercises that [we]re necessary to ensure the combat effectiveness of carrier and expeditionary strike groups."[15] The exemption "claim[s] that the Navy [is] exempt from the [CZMA] and . . . [NEPA],"[16] and it formed the basis of the Navy’s appeal to the Ninth Circuit late on Tuesday night. The Ninth Circuit remanded the case to the district court on Wednesday, and on Thursday, January 17th, the district court responded by temporarily lifting the requirements that the Navy maintain a 2200 yard zone of protection for marine mammals and that it power down its sonar during surface ducting conditions.[17] More developments are expected within the next several days.  
V. THE SIGNIFICANCE OF NRDC V. WINTER  TO ENVIRONMENTAL LAWYERS
NRDC v. Winter is not likely to be an isolated event in the history of environmental law.  At a minimum, the California court's January 3rd order represents an historic victory for environmental groups and a staggering blow to the U.S. military; however, the broader implications of this order will be the ones worth watching. The White House’s recent involvement in the case has ignited the controversy and captured the media’s attention, setting the stage for a dramatic showdown between proponents of national security and advocates of environmental protection. 
Though merely conjectural at this point, it seems plausible that NRDC v. Winter might spawn an explosion of environmental litigation, giving rise to an even greater abundance of work for environmental lawyers.  The case may give environmentalists renewed confidence to challenge the environmental records of their most formidable adversaries.  At the same time, it may also make many regulated entities more conscious of their own environmental vulnerability and prompt them to begin seeking the best legal representation available.  By prevailing against the U.S. Navy, the NRDC and its fellow plaintiffs have not only inspired other environmental groups around the country, but they have also issued a stern warning to the entire regulated community that no organization is immune from liability in this new era of heightened environmental awareness. 
Contact information: jim.farrell@butlersnow.com or (228) 575-3048
Jim Farrell is an associate in the law firm of Butler, Snow, O’Mara, Stevens & Cannada, PLLC, and a member of the firm’s environmental law practice group. Mr. Farrell graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1999 and served for five years as a naval officer prior to attending law school. He received his JD from the University of Mississippi School of Law in 2007. In the summer of 2006, Mr. Farrell served as a law clerk in the U.S. EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance.
Butler, Snow, O'Mara, Stevens & Cannada, PLLC, is a full-service law firm with more than 150 attorneys representing regional and national clients from offices in Jackson, Miss., on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Memphis, Tenn. and Bethlehem, Penn.  For more information, visit www.butlersnow.com.


[1] Natural Res. Def. Council v. Winter, No. 8:07-cv-00335-FMC-FMOx, slip op. at 8 (C.D. Cal. Jan. 3, 2008) (order issuing preliminary injunction).
[2] Id.at 10.
[3] Id.at 11 (quoting 15 C.F.R. § 930.32(a)(1)).
[4] Id.at 10-11 (quoting 16 U.S.C. § 1456(c)(1)).
[5] Id.at 12.
[6] Id.at 12-13.
[7] Id.at 3. 
[8] See Natural Res. Def. Council v. Winter, 502 F.3d 859 (9th Cir. 2008).
[9] See Natural Res. Def. Council v. Winter, 508 F.3d 885 (9th Cir. 2008).
[10] Natural Res. Def. Council v. Winter, No. 8:07-cv-00335-FMC-FMOx, slip op. at 14 (C.D. Cal. Jan. 3, 2008) (order issuing preliminary injunction).
[11] Id.at 15.
[12] Id.
[13] Id.at 17.
[14] Id.at 17-18.
[15] Activists Vow to Push Fight Against Navy Sonar, http://www.msnbc.com/id/22683062 (last visited Jan. 21, 2008). 
[16] Daniel Hinerfield & Hamlet Paoletti, Sonar Case Remanded to District Court, http://www.nrdc.org/media/2008/080116c.asp (last visited Jan. 21, 2008).
[17] See Natural Res. Def. Council v. Winter, No. 8:07-cv-00335-FMC-FMOx, slip op. at 2 (C.D. Cal. Jan. 17, 2008) (order for temporary partial stay and setting briefing schedule).

NRDC v. Winter -- Green Trumps the Blue and Gold -- National Security Takes a Back Seat to Natural Resources

Posted on January 22, 2008 by ACOEL Admin

 

I. INTRO

On January 3, 2008, a federal judge for the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California imposed substantial restrictions on the U.S. Navy’s use of mid-frequency active (MFA) sonar in waters off the California coastline.  Although details of the restrictions and their immediate impact on the Navy can readily be discerned by reviewing the judge's order, the reverberations of this order may have a much broader impact that could further enhance the role of environmental lawyers.

Until recently, few might have predicted the success of an environmental challenge to military operations -- especially given our country's current military operations abroad.  The California court's much-anticipated order is the latest word in an ongoing debate over MFA sonar operations in potentially close proximity to marine mammals, an activity decried by environmental groups and vigorously defended by the Navy.  The U.S. military has generally been able to defend questionable practices by emphasizing the overall importance of those practices to national security.  As the Supreme Court noted twenty years ago, "unless Congress specifically has provided otherwise, courts traditionally have been reluctant to intrude upon the authority of the Executive in military and national security affairs."[1]



[1] Dep’t of Navy v. Egan, 484 U.S. 518, 529 (1988).

II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

A. THE DISTRICT COURT'S FINDINGS

In March 2007, the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and several other environmental groups filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California against both the U.S. Navy and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), seeking to enjoin sonar operations scheduled between February 2007 and January 2009 as part of fourteen training exercises in the Southern California Operating Area (SOCAL).  The Navy defended its operations by emphasizing their importance to national security, an argument it has made with considerable success in the past, but this time the court found the national security argument less compelling than the competing concern about MFA sonar's impact on the marine environment. The court based its decision on the following findings.

1. PLAINTIFFS' PROBABILITY OF SUCCESS ON THEIR CLAIMS

   

a. NEPA

Because the Plaintiffs presented evidence sufficient to raise substantial questions about whether the proposed activities would have a significant impact, they demonstrated a probability of success on their claims that the Navy had committed several NEPA violations.  First, although the Navy prepared an Environmental Assessment (EA) prior to commencing its naval exercises in the SOCAL, the court disagreed with the Navy's subsequent decision to issue a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI).  Based on the court's review of facts available to the Navy, the court agreed with Plaintiffs that the proposed sonar operations would likely have a significant impact, triggering NEPA's requirement that an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) be prepared.  Alternatively, because the court considered the Navy's self-imposed mitigation measures to be inadequate and incapable of preventing the significant impact anticipated, the Navy had no basis for issuing the FONSI. Second, the court found that "[the Navy's] EA failed to consider reasonable alternatives or cumulative impacts."[1]  The court noted that the Navy disregarded mitigation measures recommended by the California Coastal Commission (CCC), the state agency that administers California's Coastal Management Plan (CCMP), and it also elected not to implement more restrictive mitigation measures previously used by the Navy and its allies in similar training exercises that employed MFA sonar.  Although the Navy's EA did conclude that the proposed activities "would not have any significant contribution to the cumulative effects on marine mammals,"[2] the court held that, absent detailed and quantifiable information supporting that conclusion, the statement was merely aspirational and lacked the substantive analysis traditionally required by the Ninth Circuit. 

b. CZMA

When a federal agency's proposed activity will "affect[] any coastal use or resource,"[3] the CZMA requires the federal agency to submit a Consistency Determination (CD) to the applicable state agency.  In its analysis of the Navy's alleged violations of the CZMA, the court identified two deficiencies in the CD that the Navy submitted to the CCC.  First, the Navy neglected to mention that it intended to conduct sonar operations.  The Navy defended the omission by arguing that the sonar operations would not have an effect on the coastal zone.  Just as the court disagreed with the Navy's determination that its sonar operations would not have a significant impact on the marine environment, so too did the court disagree with the Navy's similar conclusion that MFA sonar would not affect the coastal zone.  Second, the CD did not incorporate mitigation measures that the CCC required pursuant to the CCMP.  The CZMA required the Navy to ensure that its sonar operations were "consistent to the maximum extent practicable with the enforceable policies of [the CCMP],"[4] and the Navy failed to satisfy its burden of proving the inapplicability of the mitigation measures required by the CCC.

2. POSSIBILITY OF IRREPARABLE HARM TO THE ENVIRONMENT

In support of its finding that the proposed MFA sonar operations would create a possibility of irreparable harm to the environment, the court relied not only on evidence provided by Plaintiffs but also cited a Navy study that "conclude[d] that the SOCAL exercises . . . [would] cause widespread harm to nearly thirty species of marine mammals, including five species of endangered whales, and [might] cause permanent injury and death."[5]

Having identified the possibility of irreparable harm, the court then considered the appropriateness of an injunction to prevent that harm.  After weighing the competing concerns of national security and environmental protection, the court concluded 

that the balance of hardships tip[ped] in favor of granting an injunction, as the harm to the environment, Plaintiffs, and public interest outweigh[ed] the harm that Defendants would incur . . . if prevented from using MFA sonar, absent the use of effective mitigation measures, during a subset of their regular activities in one part of one state for a limited period.[6]

  

B. THE DISTRICT COURT'S INITIAL ORDER

Based on the findings above, the court issued a preliminary injunction of potentially indefinite duration on August 7, 2007, because it would have prohibited all MFA sonar use "until the Navy adopt[ed] mitigation measures that would substantially lessen the likelihood of serious injury and death to marine life."[7]  

C. APPEAL TO THE NINTH CIRCUIT

On August 31, 2007, the Ninth Circuit stayed the district court's sweeping injunction, pending an appeal by the Navy.[8] On November 13th, the Ninth Circuit adopted the district court’s findings and vacated the stay, but it remanded the matter, chastising the district court for having imposed such an overly broad preliminary injunction. The Ninth Circuit instructed the district court to narrow the scope of the injunction by using its findings to craft mitigation measures uniquely tailored to fit the Navy’s MFA sonar operations in the SOCAL.[9] 

III. MITIGATION MEASURES IMPOSED BY THE DISTRICT COURT

On January 3, 2008, the district court finally issued its much-anticipated order in which it laid out the following mitigation measures applicable to future MFA sonar operations in the SOCAL:

1. 12 Nautical Mile Coastal Exclusion Zone.  "The Navy shall maintain a 12 nautical mile exclusion zone from the California coastline at all times."[10]  Although Plaintiffs sought to enjoin MFA sonar operation within twenty-five miles of the California coastline, the court, though agreeing with Plaintiffs that a twenty-five mile exclusion zone would ensure maximum protection of marine habitat, deemed the zone unduly burdensome to the Navy.  The court noted that the Navy had previously operated under a twelve mile exclusion zone and that such a zone struck the best balance between protection of marine habitat and the Navy's need to train "to detect submarines in the very bathymetry in which submarines are likely to hide."

2. 2200 Yard MFA Sonar Shutdown.  "The Navy shall cease use of MFA sonar . . . when marine mammals are spotted within 2200 yards . . . ."[11]  Designed only to prevent the most damaging consequences of exposure to MFA sonar, the court concluded that a 2200 yard zone of protection for marine mammals imposed a minimal burden on the Navy.

3. Monitoring.  For sixty minutes prior to conducting MFA sonar operations, the Navy "shall monitor for the presence of marine mammals,"[12] using lookouts on vessels and one dedicated aircraft to monitor the entire operating area.  If a marine mammal is spotted, the Navy must suspend sonar operations until it establishes the requisite 2200 yard buffer.  Once sonar operations have begun, the Navy must continue visual monitoring efforts by posting two National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)- and NMFS-trained lookouts in addition to using one dedicated aircraft, and Navy vessels must also listen for the presence of marine mammals using passive acoustic monitoring.

4. Helicopter Dipping Sonar.  Helicopters must monitor the area for ten minutes prior to employing active dipping sonar and, after spotting a marine mammal within 2200 yards of the helicopter, must cease active dipping sonar operations until reestablishing the 2200 yard safety zone.

5. Surface Ducting Conditions.  "[W]hen surface ducting conditions are detected . . . in which sound travels further than it otherwise would due to temperature differences in adjacent layers of water . . . the Navy shall power down sonar by 6dB"[13] to minimize the sonar's greater intensity and range.

6. Choke Points and the Catalina Basin.  "[T]he Navy [shall] refrain from employing MFA sonar in the Catalina Basin,"[14] an area located between the Santa Catalina and San Clemente islands that provides habitat to a large population of marine mammals.

7. Continue National Defense Exemption (NDE) II Mitigation Measures.  Since 2002, the Navy has worked with NOAA and NMFS to ensure the compliance of its operations with all federal laws, and it has adopted various mitigation measures to achieve that goal of compliance.   The district court explained that its mitigation measures were to be implemented in addition to those measures either already adopted or currently under review by the Navy pursuant to its ongoing collaboration with NOAA and NMFS.

IV. RECENT DEVELOPMENTS

On Tuesday, January 15, 2008, President Bush signed an exemption authorizing the Navy's continued use of MFA sonar in its SOCAL exercises.  In the exemption, the President stated that the sonar exercises "[we]re in the paramount interest of the United States" and that compliance with the mitigation measures would "undermine the Navy's ability to conduct realistic training exercises that [we]re necessary to ensure the combat effectiveness of carrier and expeditionary strike groups."[15] The exemption "claim[s] that the Navy [is] exempt from the [CZMA] and . . . [NEPA],"[16] and it formed the basis of the Navy’s appeal to the Ninth Circuit late on Tuesday night. The Ninth Circuit remanded the case to the district court on Wednesday, and on Thursday, January 17th, the district court responded by temporarily lifting the requirements that the Navy maintain a 2200 yard zone of protection for marine mammals and that it power down its sonar during surface ducting conditions.[17] More developments are expected within the next several days.  

V. THE SIGNIFICANCE OF NRDC V. WINTER  TO ENVIRONMENTAL LAWYERS

NRDC v. Winter is not likely to be an isolated event in the history of environmental law.  At a minimum, the California court's January 3rd order represents an historic victory for environmental groups and a staggering blow to the U.S. military; however, the broader implications of this order will be the ones worth watching. The White House’s recent involvement in the case has ignited the controversy and captured the media’s attention, setting the stage for a dramatic showdown between proponents of national security and advocates of environmental protection. 

Though merely conjectural at this point, it seems plausible that NRDC v. Winter might spawn an explosion of environmental litigation, giving rise to an even greater abundance of work for environmental lawyers.  The case may give environmentalists renewed confidence to challenge the environmental records of their most formidable adversaries.  At the same time, it may also make many regulated entities more conscious of their own environmental vulnerability and prompt them to begin seeking the best legal representation available.  By prevailing against the U.S. Navy, the NRDC and its fellow plaintiffs have not only inspired other environmental groups around the country, but they have also issued a stern warning to the entire regulated community that no organization is immune from liability in this new era of heightened environmental awareness. 

Contact information: jim.farrell@butlersnow.com or (228) 575-3048

Jim Farrell is an associate in the law firm of Butler, Snow, O’Mara, Stevens & Cannada, PLLC, and a member of the firm’s environmental law practice group. Mr. Farrell graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1999 and served for five years as a naval officer prior to attending law school. He received his JD from the University of Mississippi School of Law in 2007. In the summer of 2006, Mr. Farrell served as a law clerk in the U.S. EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance.

Butler, Snow, O'Mara, Stevens & Cannada, PLLC, is a full-service law firm with more than 150 attorneys representing regional and national clients from offices in Jackson, Miss., on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Memphis, Tenn. and Bethlehem, Penn.  For more information, visit www.butlersnow.com.


[1] Natural Res. Def. Council v. Winter, No. 8:07-cv-00335-FMC-FMOx, slip op. at 8 (C.D. Cal. Jan. 3, 2008) (order issuing preliminary injunction).

[2] Id.at 10.

[3] Id.at 11 (quoting 15 C.F.R. § 930.32(a)(1)).

[4] Id.at 10-11 (quoting 16 U.S.C. § 1456(c)(1)).

[5] Id.at 12.

[6] Id.at 12-13.

[7] Id.at 3. 

[8] See Natural Res. Def. Council v. Winter, 502 F.3d 859 (9th Cir. 2008).

[9] See Natural Res. Def. Council v. Winter, 508 F.3d 885 (9th Cir. 2008).

[10] Natural Res. Def. Council v. Winter, No. 8:07-cv-00335-FMC-FMOx, slip op. at 14 (C.D. Cal. Jan. 3, 2008) (order issuing preliminary injunction).

[11] Id.at 15.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.at 17.

[14] Id.at 17-18.

[15] Activists Vow to Push Fight Against Navy Sonar, http://www.msnbc.com/id/22683062 (last visited Jan. 21, 2008). 

[16] Daniel Hinerfield & Hamlet Paoletti, Sonar Case Remanded to District Court, http://www.nrdc.org/media/2008/080116c.asp (last visited Jan. 21, 2008).

[17] See Natural Res. Def. Council v. Winter, No. 8:07-cv-00335-FMC-FMOx, slip op. at 2 (C.D. Cal. Jan. 17, 2008) (order for temporary partial stay and setting briefing schedule).