Posted on January 26, 2017
President Trump wasted no time making good on his promise to reverse President Obama’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and move U.S. energy policy towards cleaner energy sources. On January 24 Trump signed two executive memoranda, one inviting TransCanada to resubmit its application to build the 800,000 barrel a day Keystone XL pipeline from the Canadian oil sands to the Gulf Coast; the other directing the Army Corps of Engineers to expedite the review and approval of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) to carry approximately 500,000 barrels per day of crude oil from the Bakken shale in North Dakota to oil markets in the United States. But a close reading raises some sticky legal and economic issues that will have to be resolved before the oil starts flowing. [LINKS to Keystone and DAPL Memos]
In announcing the Keystone Memo, Trump said that approval was contingent on TransCanada’s willingness to “renegotiate some of the terms” – including perhaps a commitment to use US steel and a share in any profits. The problem is that tar sands oil is not only the dirtiest fuel on the planet, it’s also the most expensive to extract. To be profitable oil prices need to be above $80 per barrel; today they sit around $52, and it is unlikely they will rise much higher in the foreseeable future given the competition from shale oil and the fracking boom that is flooding the market in the US. The break-even point for Bakken shale oil is $29 per barrel. Seventeen major oil sands projects were canceled after oil prices crashed in 2014, as companies took major losses. Major investors in the oil sands have begun to leave, including Norway-based Statoil, which pulled out of the oil sands in December 2016. So cutting a deal to the President’s liking may be harder than it looks.
Assuming the deal goes down, the Keystone Memo issues several directives to clear the way for the project. It directs the State Department to make a final decision within 60 days of the date TransCanada re-submits its application, and it further specifies that “to the maximum extent permitted by law” the final supplemental EIS issued in 2014 shall satisfy the requirements of NEPA as well as the consultation requirements of the Endangered Species Act, and “any other provision of law that requires executive department consultation or review.” The Keystone Memo also directs the Corps of Engineers to use Nationwide Permit 12 to summarily authorize the stream crossings needed to complete the project. These fast track measures are sure to be tested in court by the opponents who are not about to let their hard won victory be snatched away without a furious fight—in the courts as well as in the streets. While courts have ruled that the presidential permit itself is not reviewable, there is presumably no bar to challenging the decisions of the Corps and the Department of Interior that are necessary to complete the project.
The DAPL Memo directs the Secretary of the Army and the Chief of the Corps of Engineers to “review and approve in an expedited manner, to the extent permitted by law and as warranted, and with such conditions as are necessary or appropriate, requests for approvals to construct and operate the DAPL, including easements or rights-of-way to cross Federal areas under section 28 of the Mineral Leasing Act.” The Memo also instructs the Secretary to consider whether to rescind the memorandum issued by the Obama administration requiring preparation of an EIS on DAPL’s request for an easement to cross Lake Oahe, and to deem the previously-issued Environmental Assessment sufficient to satisfy NEPA.
The Standing Rock protest over DAPL has become an historic confrontation that has united an Indigenous land-and-water movement and climate activism to confront a fossil-fuel corporation protected by a militarized police force. At one point in December thousands of veterans arrived to provide a safe space for the protesters who call themselves “water protectors.” Litigation filed by the Standing Rock Tribe and other tribes challenging the Corps’ issuance of permits under the Clean Water Act and Rivers and Harbors Act is pending in federal district court in the District of Columbia. Judge Boasberg denied a preliminary injunction but has yet to rule on the merits of the case. At the moment, the court is considering DAPL’s motion for summary judgment to declare that the project already has all of the approvals it needs and the Corps should not be able to reverse its earlier decision that an EIS was not required. Though the Justice Department has vigorously opposed this move, it will be interesting to see whether the Trump administration adopts a different posture. In any event, the Tribe has raised serious questions about whether the Corps properly evaluated threats to its water supply intake and alternative routes that would lessen the risk. One of the allegations invokes environmental justice concerns arguing that the project was re-routed away from Bismarck in response to concerns about threats to its water supply. The Tribe has also raised novel questions about whether granting the easement would violate treaty rights under the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie.
At the hearing on DAPL’s motion for summary judgment, Judge Boasberg acknowledged the uncertainty about what the new administration might do but observed that “It’s not my business to guess.” For now the rest of us will have to guess at what the final outcome of this epic confrontation that has galvanized indigenous peoples from all over the world will be.
Posted on January 24, 2017
On December 28, 2016, President Obama by Proclamation under the federal Antiquities Act designated 1.35 million acres of federal lands in southeastern Utah as the Bears Ears National Monument. That action culminated nearly a century of efforts to protect this unique, canyon-country site, which is archaeologically rich, ecologically diverse, and the ancestral homeland of a number of southwestern Indian tribes.
Immediately after this designation, the Utah governor and congressional delegation, some local officials, and various conservative pundits railed that the designation was an illegal and inappropriate “federal land grab,” was done without proper public input, will unduly impede traditional tribal and local activities, and can and should promptly be reversed and rescinded by the incoming Trump Administration.
Each of those claims has no factual or legal merit. The most recent Bears Ears proposal was initiated several years ago by local Navajo leaders and formally endorsed by the Navajo Nation and four other tribes whose ancestors inhabited this area, as well as other local and national Indian and conservation groups. It has been thoroughly vetted for several years and was the subject of a number of public meetings throughout 2016, including several local meetings attended by Interior Secretary Jewell. As a result of that extensive public input, the Obama administration excluded over 600,000 acres of initially-proposed lands that contain oil and gas leases, existing and prospective uranium mining sites, limestone quarries, grazing areas, local water supply watersheds, and other objected-to areas. The designation also expressly protects all valid existing rights, preserves access by Native Americans for traditional uses such as sacred ceremonies and gathering plants and firewood, and creates an Advisory Committee of state, local, and tribal representatives and private landowners to provide information and advice to BLM and the U.S. Forest Service in their joint administration of the monument and development of appropriate management and transportation plans. As a result, the principal existing activities that will be restricted within the designated Monument are the ongoing illegal theft and vandalism of federal and tribal archaeological sites.
The Proclamation also uniquely creates a Bears Ears Commission consisting of an official from each of the five Native American tribes with historic ties to the area, to provide guidance and recommendations on the management of the Monument and related plans. This is the first, and long-overdue, instance of Native American tribes being directly involved in coordinating with federal agencies to manage a monument that protects sacred sites on their ancestral homelands.
Regarding whether this action is a proper use of the Antiquities Act, it is widely acknowledged that this area contains one of the densest and most significant concentrations of archaeological and paleontological sites and specimens in North America. It is also uncontroverted that historic sites in the area have been extensively looted and vandalized over the last century. The FBI has conducted major enforcement actions against illegal “pot-hunters” in this area, including as recently as 1986 and 2009. Complaints that state and local officials can better protect against such theft and vandalism ignore that most illegal pot-hunters have been local denizens and that, until fairly recently, the University of Utah museum was a major purchaser of the pilfered artifacts. Providing federal protection to these highly-jeopardized antiquities on federal public lands is precisely what the Antiquities Act was designed and intended to do. Far from being improper, this protective measure is long overdue.
In terms of timing and process, the Administration waited patiently until a long-pending legislative alternative proposal to protect the area failed in Congress. That bill, introduced by Utah Congressman R. Bishop and dubbed the Public Lands Initiative (PLI), would have put 1.4 million acres into two National Conservation Areas (NCAs) and a separate wilderness area, but it provided less protection and increased state and local control over uses in the NCAs, with no direct tribal involvement. But that bill failed to move through Congress before it adjourned. In addition to waiting for completion of that legislative process, by reducing the monument designation from the initially proposed 1.9 to the final 1.35 million acres, the Obama Administration also largely aligned the boundaries of the final monument designation with those of the failed PLI proposal and excluded the central areas of objection.
Regarding the proposal for the incoming Trump Administration to administratively rescind this designation, there is no legal authority for the President to do so. The Antiquities Act authorizes a President to designate an area as a national monument on federal lands when necessary to protect the appropriate sites and resources. It does not authorize a President to rescind a designation made by some predecessor, and no President has ever done so in the 111-year history of the Act. The Attorney General in 1938 formally opined that the Act does not provide for such rescission, and nothing has changed that would alter that conclusion. The Congressional Research Service recently confirmed the absence of any such authority or precedent. Republican Party members would also do well to recall that the Antiquities Act was signed in 1906 by its own conservation hero, Teddy Roosevelt, who used it to designate 18 monuments in three years, seven of which later became popular national parks, including at the Grand Canyon. All but three presidents since that time have done the same. As was the case with all those actions by Teddy and others, after all the immediately-following outrage and uproar, this measured Bears Ears designation will no doubt later be acknowledged as a brave, innovative, and critical action to protect this long-vandalized and currently-threatened area.
In sum, the recent designation of the Bears Ears Monument was the right decision at the right time for the right reasons, and there is no legal basis to rescind or restrict it without an act of Congress. The incoming Administration and Congress should not heed recent partisan, emotional calls to try to undo it and should instead work with the new tribal Commission and all affected stakeholders to develop a fair and appropriate management plan for the new Monument.
Posted on May 19, 2016
Three companion decisions in Atlantic Richfield Co. v. U.S. et. al., Case No. 1:15-cv-00056, in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico, provide insight on the CERCLA statute of limitations, potential pitfalls in pleading CERCLA claims, and the defense of sovereign immunity by an Indian Pueblo in the context of CERCLA and contract claims. The case remains pending.
In the 1940s, when the war was over, the federal government was in the market for uranium concentrate for bombs, and it encouraged private entities to mine and mill uranium for sale to the government at prices set by the government. Much of the country’s uranium reserves were in the Grants Uranium Belt in western New Mexico, an area that includes the Laguna Pueblo.
Uranium was discovered on Laguna Pueblo lands in 1952, and Anaconda Copper Mining Company entered into mining leases with Laguna, which were approved by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, acting pursuant to its trust responsibility to the Pueblo. Much uranium was mined there from the Jackpile Paguate mine beginning in 1952, and operations continued until 1982. In 1986, the Pueblo and Anaconda’s successor, Atlantic Richfield Co. (“ARCO”), entered into an agreement to terminate the leases and perform remediation. ARCO agreed to pay the Pueblo to perform remediation, and the Pueblo agreed to assume all liability and release ARCO regarding it. The Department of the Interior approved the agreement and, following the preparation of an EIS, BLM and BIA issued a ROD that established requirements for the remediation. ARCO paid $43.6 million to the Pueblo to perform the remediation and release ARCO.
All defendants were involved in varying degrees with the remediation. BIA had responsibility to determine the extent of remediation required and approve key remediation decisions according to a cooperative agreement with the Pueblo. But BIA and the Pueblo saw in ARCO’s $43.6 million payment an economic development opportunity. The Pueblo formed Laguna Construction Company (“LCC”) to conduct the remediation, and BIA ceded certain oversight to the relatively inexperienced LCC as well. Work on the initial remediation ended in 1985. Beginning in 2007 the Pueblo, and then EPA, investigated the adequacy of mine reclamation at the mine site and found problems. In 2012 EPA proposed listing on the NPL, and in 2014 it asserted that ARCO should fund the RI/FS, but EPA has brought no litigation.
ARCO claims that the remediation was mishandled and brought CERCLA claims against the United States, the Pueblo and LCC, seeking cost recovery, contribution, and declaratory relief. The United States moved to dismiss. In detailed decision by Senior United States District Judge, James A. Parker, all of ARCO’s claims against the United States were dismissed. In companion decisions, some claims against the Pueblo and LCC were dismissed and some survived motions to dismiss. Dismissals were based in part on the CERCLA statute of limitations, the court’s determination that the ARCO pleadings were deficient and sovereign immunity.
ARCO sought to recover two categories of response costs: (1) the $43.6 million it paid to the Pueblo in 1986 in exchange for the Pueblo’s agreeing to be responsible for the remediation and to release ARCO from all responsibility for it; and (2) the significant costs ARCO incurred in responding to EPA’s more recent efforts to shift responsibility to ARCO. The Court dismissed ARCO’s claims for cost recovery and contribution for the 1986 settlement payment as time barred. The Court dismissed ARCO’s claim to recover the costs in responding to EPA and associated investigation as inadequately pled to establish that the expenditure constitutes “necessary costs of response.” Claims for contribution under 113(f)(1) (referenced by the court as “post judgment contribution claim”) were dismissed as premature because ARCO had not been sued. Finally, the claims against the United States for declaratory judgement were dismissed; the court ruled that ARCO cannot bring a claim for declaratory relief because it has failed to establish a valid underlying contribution or cost recovery claim.
Claims against the Pueblo and LCC are somewhat more complicated as a result of sovereign immunity defenses they raised. The court considered the sovereign immunity defense asserted by both Laguna Pueblo and LLC, its federally-chartered Tribal Corporation. The Court concluded that both the Pueblo and LCC are entitled to assert sovereign immunity as a bar to ARCO’s CERCLA claims because the language of existing waivers of sovereign immunity was not unequivocal enough to cover CERCLA claims. The Court therefore dismissed those CERCLA claims. However, the court found that the Pueblo and LCC waived sovereign immunity with regard to ARCO’s breach of contract claims. The source of this waiver for the Pueblo is in the 1986 Agreement to Terminate Leases. The court found that this agreement served to waive sovereign immunity from claims brought under that contract. Regarding LCC, the source of the waiver of sovereign immunity for breach of contract claims was in the Articles of Merger associated with the merger of LCC from a New Mexico corporation to a federal LCC formed under 25 USC §477, which may assert sovereign immunity. A motion for reconsideration by LCC is pending.
Although the facts of Atlantic Richfield are unique, its lessons are broader. First, in pleading a CERCLA claim for cost recovery, care should be taken to allege in some detail facts which support all elements of the claim, including facts showing that necessary response costs within CERCLA were incurred. Second, without adequate waiver of sovereign immunity, the settlement and payment in exchange for a release and commitment by a tribe or tribal corporation to assume full responsibility for clean-up may leave the door open for CERCLA liability in the future without recourse through CERCLA-based contribution and cost recovery claims. Finally, although the court’s decision confirmed that the defense of sovereign immunity applies to CERCLA contribution and cost recovery claims brought by private parties against sovereign Indian tribes and their federally chartered corporations, the court’s analysis confirms that under the right circumstances, a tribe may waive its sovereign immunity protections.
Posted on February 24, 2016
The Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) has promulgated new regulations involving the original procurement and renewal of Right-of-Ways (ROW) on tribal and allottee lands which take effect on March 22, 2016. These new rules will replace those in place since 1947, creating a series of significant problems. This post lists the problems and suggests a legislative solution.
1) Majority Consent of Life Estate Heirs is Needed for ROW to be Granted or Renewed
The new rules limit the length of a ROW to 20 years. The ROWs are not subject to state or local laws, and the new rules impose consent and approval requirements that do not appear in the current regulations. Under the current law, voluntary agreements could be struck between tribes, allottees, and a company, so long as the BIA Regional Director approved the deal. The BIA would approve if a majority of the allottee landowners consented and the amounts of money paid for the ROW were not less than the fair market value (FMV) of the allotment parcel. Under the new rules, however, the company must obtain a majority consent for the original ROW or renewal thereof, not only from the living life estate allottees, but from their heirs as well. This presents a huge obstacle, as companies will now have to find each of the heirs and then attempt to bargain with them individually. Under the current rules, if agreement could not be reached, then the company was free to use a 1907 statute to condemn the allottee land but never the tribal land.
2) Life Estate Holders Can Withdraw Previously Granted Consents
In two separate New Mexico ROW cases involving Western Refining’s pipeline and Public Service of New Mexico’s (PNM) overhead wires, the companies both originally obtained the written consent of a majority of the life estate holders who were paid fair market value for their consent. However, upon the BIA Regional Director finding a lack of a majority of heirs consenting, certain life estate holders informed the BIA that they were “unconsenting” in order to hold out for better compensation, even though they had cashed the original checks. Because the BIA allowed the holdouts’ action of “unconsenting” to stand, the companies lost their majority consent of life estate holders. Attorneys for the life estate holders are now suing PNM for trespass in federal court in Albuquerque.
3) Fair Market Value Has Become a Floor in Negotiations Rather Than an Appraisal Standard
Since the 1947 statute came into existence, the fair market value (FMV), as determined by BIA-qualified appraisers, of the allotment acreage to be crossed by the pipeline served as the negotiation basis between the company and individual allottees. The allottees, knowing that their land could be condemned under the 1907 statute dealing with ROWs, often bargained for a payment that was two or three times FMV. However, under the new regulations, FMV is a starting point, non-binding and irrelevant to an allottee who believes that the sky is the limit when dealing with large corporations.
4) The Condemnation Alternative is Under Attack Due to Tribal Ownership of Undivided Interests in Allotments
In the Public Service of New Mexico federal district court litigation, PNM sued the allottees of several allotments under the New Mexico condemnation statutes after failing to obtain the consent of a majority of life estate heirs for a 20-year renewal. The federal judge dismissed the condemnation lawsuit, because recently deceased allottees left their interests to the Navajo Nation. Even though those interests amounted to less than 1% of the entire allotment, the court labeled that interest tribal land, recognized the Navajo Nation’s sovereign immunity from suit, declared the Navajo Nation an indispensable party, and dismissed the lawsuit. PNM is appealing the dismissal to the Tenth Circuit. Without the ability to condemn, pipelines will be left only with choice of either paying ransom under the 1947 statute or facing allottee trespass actions.
Western Refining has also filed a condemnation suit against the unconsenting allottees under the New Mexico condemnation statutes. The case is before a different judge than the PNM case and is currently stayed pending a decision from the Interior Board of Indian Appeals on the majority consent of heirs issue.
The best solution to the four problems above requires the active involvement of the Legislative Branch.
Utilizing its plenary authority concerning tribal issues, Congress should pass amendments to the 1907 and 1947 statutes or create new legislation supplanting the current law that:
- Eliminates the need for heirs to consent
- Eliminates the ability of consenters to unconsent once consideration is paid
- Re-establishes the sufficiency of fair market value as the basis for the compensation to be paid
- Guarantees the right of pipeline owners to condemn allottee land regardless of partial tribal ownership
Nothing less than the free flow of energy-oriented interstate commerce is at stake.
Posted on June 26, 2015
Storms, strong winds and tornados usher in spring in Oklahoma. Home to 38 federally recognized Indian Tribes, feathers often fly at Oklahoma graduations. A few high schools each spring face off with Native American students, families, or tribal leaders over a graduating Native American student’s request to wear her sacred eagle feather on her graduation cap during commencement.
The eagle feather symbolizes strength, nobility, courage, perseverance, respect and wisdom. Leaders and elders only gift eagle fathers in times of great achievement. For Native American students, receiving an eagle feather or plume in honor of graduation can be as important as the diploma. Native American students incorporate the eagle feather or plume into their graduation regalia by attaching it to their graduation cap or tassel, thereby expressing both religious and cultural beliefs and honoring their Native American heritage.
What has this got to do with environmental law? Well, as this Oklahoma spring blew in with two lawsuits about eagle feathers at graduation, I began to wonder -- where do these eagle feathers awarded to students come from? After all, the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act forbids anyone from "taking" bald or golden eagles or their parts. The Act punishes anyone who takes, possesses, sells, purchases, barters, offers to sell, purchase or barter, transports, exports or imports a bald or golden eagle. Punishment includes large fines and imprisonment and applies whether the eagle is alive or dead, or the collector is absconding with an entire bird, part of the bird, an egg or a nest.
So what is a tribal leader in need of eagle feathers to do? In recognition of the significance of eagle feathers to Native Americans, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) established the National Eagle Repository at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge in Denver, Colorado. The Repository provides Native Americans with the feathers of golden and bald eagles for ceremonial purposes.
But wait, it’s not as easy as that. The Repository collects, processes, and ships about 1,000 dead bald and golden eagles each year. Electrocution, vehicle collisions, unlawful shooting and trapping, and natural causes are the usual culprits in eagle deaths, so the condition of the eagle feathers is not always perfect. Only enrolled members of federally recognized tribes can obtain a permit to obtain eagles or eagle parts for religious purposes. Approximately 95% of the orders are for whole eagles. With 566 Federally recognized tribes nationally, the large demand and the limited supply force applicants to wait more than 3 years for a whole bird eagle order to be filled. Currently, there are over 5,000 people on the waiting list for the approximately 1000 eagles the Repository receives each year.
Not everyone settles for eagle feathers from the Repository. In 2005, a fellow named Winslow Friday, a member of the Northern Arapaho Tribe of Wyoming shot a bald eagle within the Wind River Reservation for use in the tribe’s traditional religious Sun Dance ceremony. Unfortunately, Mr. Friday had no permit and was ultimately fined after losing a challenge to his penalty under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
The story doesn’t stop there. The Wind River Reservation, created in 1968, is home to both the Northern Arapaho Tribe and the Eastern Shoshone Tribe. Mr. Friday’s self-help effort having failed, the Northern Arapaho Tribe still needed eagles for use in their Sun Dance ceremony. So the Tribe applied for a permit to take two eagles each year on the Wind River Reservation.
But it’s a long road to an eagle take permit. Two years after the Arapahos applied for the permit, their co-habitants of the Wind River Reservation opposed the take of eagles on the reservation, claiming that allowing an enemy of the tribe to kill sacred eagles goes against Shoshone traditions, values, morals, heritage, and freedoms. Ultimately, however, the USFWS awarded the first federal eagle take permit to the Arapaho Tribe on condition that the take not occur on the Wind River Reservation. The Arapaho Tribe filed suit challenging that permit restriction. Judge Alan Johnson, of the United States District Court of the District of Wyoming issued an order on March 12, 2015 granting in part the Arapaho Tribe’s motion for summary judgment on Free Exercise grounds, and remanding the matter for reconsideration by the USFWS in light of the Court’s Order. See Northern Arapaho Tribe v. Daniel M. Ashe, Director, United States Fish and Wildlife Service, Case No. 2:11-CV-00347 Document 93 Opinion and Order Granting in Part and Denying in Part Plaintiffs’ Motion for Summary Judgment on Remaining Claims and Opinion and Order Granting in Part and Denying in Part Defendants’ Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment on Plaintiffs’ Remaining Claims (March 12, 2015). The Northern Arapaho Tribe’s religious quest through an eagle take permit continues.
My Oklahoma-spring curiosity led me to the conclusion that eagle feathers aren’t just blown in on the wind – eagles and eagle feathers are hard to come by even for those who lawfully possess them. Any student fortunate enough to be awarded a sacred eagle feather for graduation is truly graced.
Posted on May 5, 2014
Last month, after 30 years of negotiations between the parties, an arbitration decision set the price to be paid by the Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribes (CSK) to PPL Montana to acquire the Kerr Dam. The tribes expect the dam -- the first major hydroelectric facility owned by a tribal entity -- will serve as a driver for economic development for tribal members, residents of the Flathead Reservation, and the surrounding area. The dam will operate under the same licensing requirements applicable to PPL Montana and will sell energy generated by the dam on the open market. The dam has the generating capacity of 194 megawatts, standing at 205 feet high and 541 feet long.
After considering arguments by the tribes and PPL Montana, a panel of the American Arbitration Association set $18,289,798 as the price to be paid by the CSK to acquire the dam. This price includes $16.5 million for the existing plant and $1.7 million for required environmental mitigation and was the original price agreed to by the parties in a negotiated deal in 1985. The tribes had argued to the panel that $14.7 million would be a fair price while PPL Montana maintained the tribes should pay close to $50 million for the dam.
The arbitration decision is a culmination of a long history of the construction and operation of the dam. Negotiation for purchase has been going on since 1984 when the 50-year lease terminated. Understanding the debates surrounding the dam requires some explanation. In 1934 a subsidiary of the Montana Power Company began construction on the Kerr Dam on tribal lands on the Flathead River despite opposition from members of the Flathead Indian Reservation. In 1938 the construction was completed and named after the then CEO of Montana Power Co., Frank Kerr. The construction financing for the project included a 50-year term lease that provided for lease payments to the tribes for the dam, which is located on tribal lands and uses tribal resources.
The arbitration decision indicated that the purchase can occur after September 5, 2015. Energy Keepers, a federally chartered corporation owned by the tribes is expected to tender the purchase money early in September 2015. The CSK Tribes hopes to develop the dam as a self-sustaining energy source for the tribes as well as a revenue source. The Tribal Council is expected to choose a new name for the dam after the transfer.
In 2011 the tribes competed for and received a federal grant, which was available for energy projects. The grant money funded a feasibility study to assess energy efficiency improvement projects and to implement energy conservation measures in existing tribal facilities. The grant funding also supported the development of an organizational structure to acquire the dam.
Not all tribal members supported acquisition of the dam. The arbitration process ran from February 3 to March 3, and some tribal members have objected that lack of notice means that public comment should be allowed at this time. Additionally, some tribal members have noted in the media the need for caution in going forward. For example, some have emphasized that, after the purchase, the dam will no longer be a taxable asset and tax support for schools in the area will be lost or will need to be funded from other sources. Preparation for the transition to tribal ownership has begun, and the tribes are working with current employees at the dam who are tribal members and searching for engineers and information technology employees.
Posted on February 19, 2014
The recent decision of the D.C. Circuit in Oklahoma DEQ v. EPA vacated the 2011 Tribal NSR Rules with respect to non-reservation lands for which EPA has not made a prior determination of tribal jurisdiction. By its broad terms, the opinion’s reach extends well beyond lands solely within Oklahoma (“We…vacate the Indian Country NSR Rule with respect to non-reservation Indian country.”). States with EPA-approved implementation plans may once again permit facilities within their borders located on such non-reservation lands, in the wake of this decision. Though it may be decried by EPA and Native American tribes as effecting a partial loss of federal jurisdiction and/or tribal sovereignty, it should be praised by all who value legal and regulatory certainty, especially including those who wish to obtain air permits for their commercial activities within Indian Country.
EPA promulgated the Tribal NSR Rules to fill a regulatory gap created by the asserted general lack of state authority to regulate air quality within Indian Country. It did so by exercising its authority under Clean Air Act § 7601(d)(4) to administer a federal program over Indian Country in the stead of the tribes. This gap persisted for twenty years, until the Tribal NSR Rules were finalized as a Federal Implementation Plan (FIP) for Indian Country lands nationwide that lacked such a plan.
This twenty-year regulatory gap led to the inability to obtain air permits in Indian Country for certain activities, or the conduct of such activities without air permits at all: neither a good result. It also led to enforcement against even well-controlled activities and facilities in Indian Country because without a legally and practically enforceable limit on their emissions, such as in a valid permit, EPA and tribes were required to assume emissions were as high as their potential to emit without controls, often triggering the most serious, alleged violations. This unhappy state of affairs persisted from the passage of the 1990 CAA amendments until 2011, interrupted only in 2006 by the faint promise of proposed rules that would take another five years to be finalized.
When is a Regulatory Gap not a Gap?
EPA’s overbroad assertion of jurisdiction under the Tribal NSR Rules is what ultimately led to the vacatur of the rules for non-reservation lands. The case turned on the D.C. Circuit’s prior holding in Michigan v. EPA, which involved review of the Federal Operating Permits program for Indian Country. In that rule, EPA had established a federal CAA program throughout Indian Country, but declared it would “treat areas for which EPA believes Indian Country status is in question as Indian Country.” 64 Fed. Reg. at 8262. The court in Michigan sided with the petitioners and confirmed § 7601(d)(4) permits the EPA to act only in the shoes of a tribe, and EPA could not regulate in Indian Country where a tribe could not, i.e., on non-reservation lands where there had been no demonstration of tribal jurisdiction. The Oklahoma DEQ decision was controlled by this prior interpretation of EPA’s authority under § 7601(d)(4), and confirmed that a state “has regulatory jurisdiction within its geographic boundaries except where a tribe has a reservation or has demonstrated its jurisdiction.”
The good news is that part of the gap EPA sought to fill was not a gap at all: states with valid SIPs were authorized all along to issue permits for activities on non-reservation lands for which tribal jurisdiction has not been demonstrated. The decision reaffirms such authority of states for such non-reservation lands, so air permitting with respect to them may proceed, albeit after a period of transition (EPA had loudly proclaimed in the Tribal NSR Rules that states don’t have jurisdiction anywhere in Indian Country).
While this result is not optimal from a tribal perspective, and appears to complicate the future ability of tribes to assume the broadest possible authority to regulate air quality, it is not all bad. For example, in Oklahoma, where no reservation lands remain due to the assimilationist policies of the last century, and where title to allotment lands is a legal quagmire preventing anyone from easily determining if a project is on non-reservation lands within Indian Country, the state may once again issue permits to protect air quality. I suggest it is also not a bad thing in other states, since the ability to obtain valid state air permits for activities on non-reservation lands within Indian Country will not only protect air quality there, but will create air permitting certainty, thereby removing some of the regulatory barriers to economic development on non-reservation lands.