Articles Posted in Environmental Law

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In cases consolidated for review, the issue presented for the Tenth Circuit centered on whether the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) acted beyond its statutory authority when it promulgated a regulation, 43 C.F.R. sec. 3162.3-3 (2015), governing hydraulic fracturing (fracking) on lands owned or held in trust by the United States. The district court invalidated this regulation as exceeding the BLM’s statutory authority. While these appeals were pending, a new President of the United States was elected, and shortly thereafter, at the President’s direction, the BLM began the process of rescinding the Fracking Regulation. Given these changed and changing circumstances, the Tenth Circuit concluded these appeals were unripe for review. As a result, the Court dismissed these appeals and remanded with directions to vacate the district court’s opinion and dismiss the action without prejudice. View "Wyoming v. Zinke" on Justia Law

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This case presented a question of whether a large-scale excavation project constituted “mining” under the pertinent federal regulations that address mineral development on Indian land. When an entity engages in “mining” of minerals owned by the Osage Nation, a federally approved lease must be obtained from the tribe. The Osage Mineral Council (OMC), acting on behalf of the Osage Nation, appealed the award of summary judgment to Defendant Osage Wind, LLC (Osage Wind), arguing that Osage Wind engaged in “mining” without procuring a federally approved mineral lease. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) has defined “mining” as the “science, technique, and business of mineral development[.]” The Tenth Circuit held the term “mineral development” had a broad meaning, including commercial mineral extractions and offsite relocations, but also encompass action upon the extracted minerals for the purpose of exploiting the minerals themselves on site. The Court held Osage Wind’s extraction, sorting, crushing, and use of minerals as part of its excavation work constituted “mineral development,” thereby requiring a federally approved lease which Osage Wind failed to obtain. Accordingly, the Court reversed the award of summary judgment and remanded for further proceedings. View "United States v. Osage Wind" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs-Appellants WildEarth Guardians and Sierra Club challenged the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) decision to approve four coal leases in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin. Plaintiffs brought an Administrative Procedure Act (APA) claim arguing that the BLM failed to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) when it concluded that issuing the leases would not result in higher national carbon dioxide emissions than would declining to issue them. The district court upheld the leases. The Tenth Circuit held the BLM’s Environmental Impact Studies and Records Of Decisions were arbitrary and capricious because they omitted data pertinent to its choice with respect to issuing the leases, and thereby informing the public of its rationale. The Tenth Circuit remanded with instructions to the BLM to revise its Environmental Impact Statements (EISs) and Records of Decision (RODs). The Court did not vacate the resulting leases. View "WildEarth Guardians v. Bureau of Land Management" on Justia Law

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In an amendment to the Clean Air Act (CAA), Congress directed the EPA to operate a Renewable Fuel Standards Program (the RFS Program) to increase oil refineries’ use of renewable fuels. But for small refineries that would suffer a “disproportionate economic hardship” in complying with the RFS Program, the statute required the EPA to grant exemptions on a case-by-case basis. Petitioner Sinclair Wyoming Refining Company owned and operated two refineries in Wyoming: one in Sinclair, and another in Casper. Both fell within the RFS Program’s definition of “small refinery” and were exempt from the RFS requirements until 2011. Those exemptions were extended until 2013 after the Department of Energy found Sinclair’s Wyoming refineries to be among the 13 of 59 small refineries that would continue to face “disproportionate economic hardship” if required to comply with the RFS Program. Sinclair then petitioned the EPA to extend their small-refinery exemptions. The EPA denied Sinclair’s petitions in two separate decisions, finding that both refineries appeared to be profitable enough to pay the cost of the RFS Program. Sinclair filed a timely petition for review with the Tenth Circuit court, which concluded the EPA exceeded its statutory authority under the CAA in interpreting the hardship exemption to require a threat to a refinery’s survival as an ongoing operation. Because the Court found the EPA exceeded its statutory authority, it vacated the EPA’s decisions and remanded to the EPA for further proceedings. View "Sinclair Wyoming Refining v. EPA" on Justia Law

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Under the federal environmental laws, the owner of property contaminated with hazardous substances or a person who arranges for the disposal of hazardous substances may be strictly liable for subsequent clean-up costs. The United States owned national forest lands in New Mexico that were mined over several generations by Chevron Mining Inc. The question presented for the Tenth Circuit’s review was whether the United States is a “potentially responsible party” (PRP) for the environmental contamination located on that land. The Tenth Circuit concluded that under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA), the United States is an “owner,” and, therefore, a PRP, because it was strictly liable for its equitable portion of the costs necessary to remediate the contamination arising from mining activity on federal land. The Court also concluded the United States cannot be held liable as an “arranger” of hazardous substance disposal because it did not own or possess the substances in question. The Court reversed the district court in part and affirmed in part, remanding for further proceedings to determine the United States’ equitable share, if any, of the clean-up costs. View "Chevron Mining v. United States" on Justia Law

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Consolidated appeals arose out of the district court’s grant of a preliminary injunction to the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish. The injunction followed the release, without a state permit, of two Mexican gray wolf pups on federal land located in New Mexico by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (“FWS”). The district court’s order enjoined the Department of the Interior, FWS, and certain individuals in their official capacities from importing or releasing: (1) any Mexican gray wolves into the State without first obtaining the requisite state permits; and (2) any Mexican gray wolf offspring into the State in violation of prior state permits. Interior, FWS, Ryan Zinke, in his official capacity as Secretary of the Interior, Jim Kurth, in his capacity as Acting Director of FWS, Dr. Benjamin Tuggle, in his capacity as Southwest Regional Director for FWS, and intervening defendants Defenders of Wildlife, Center for Biological Diversity, WildEarth Guardians, and New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, separately filed timely appeals contending the district court abused its discretion in granting the Department a preliminary injunction. After review, the Tenth Circuit determined the Department failed to present sufficient evidence to support a finding that it was likely to suffer irreparable harm absent a preliminary injunction. As a result, the district court abused its discretion in granting the Department’s request for injunctive relief. The Tenth Circuit therefore reversed and vacated the district court’s order enjoining Federal Appellants from importing and releasing: (1) any Mexican gray wolves into the State without first obtaining the requisite state permits; and (2) any Mexican gray wolf offspring into the State in violation of prior state permits. The case was remanded back to the district court for further proceedings. View "NM Dept. of Game & Fish v. Dept. of Interior" on Justia Law

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People for the Ethical Treatment of Property Owners (“PETPO”) challenged a regulation promulgated by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (“FWS”) pursuant to the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”). The challenged regulation prohibited the “take” of the Utah prairie dog, a purely intrastate species, on nonfederal land. The ESA defined “take” as meaning “to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect.” The district court granted summary judgment for PETPO on the ground that neither the Commerce Clause nor the Necessary and Proper Clause of the Constitution authorized Congress to regulate take of the Utah prairie dog on nonfederal land. FWS and intervenor-defendant Friends of Animals (“FoA”) appealed the grant of summary judgment, arguing that the challenged regulation was authorized by both the Commerce Clause and the Necessary and Proper Clause, and that PETPO lacked standing. After its review, the Tenth Circuit held that the district court correctly concluded that PETPO had standing, but erred in concluding that Congress lacked authority under the Commerce Clause to regulate (and authorize the Service to regulate) the take of the Utah prairie dog. View "People for Ethical Treatment v. U.S. Fish & Wildlife" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff-Appellant Asarco, LLC appeals the entry of summary judgment against it in its contribution action against Noranda Mining, Inc., under Section 113(f) of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act ("CERCLA"). The district court held that Asarco was judicially estopped from pursuing its claim because of representations it made to a bankruptcy court concerning its settlement agreement with the EPA for the site in question. After review, the Tenth Circuit reversed, finding that the district court abused its discretion in applying judicial estoppel: "The overall context of the CERCLA settlement approved by the bankruptcy court makes it apparent that Asarco's positions are not clearly inconsistent, that to allow Asarco to pursue its claim would not create the perception that a court was misled, and that Asarco would not necessarily gain an unfair advantage by being allowed to pursue its claim now." View "Asarco v. Noranda Mining" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs appealed the district court’s denial of their request for a preliminary injunction to prevent the drilling of certain oil and gas wells in the Mancos Shale formation of the San Juan Basin in New Mexico. The district court concluded that Plaintiffs had failed to satisfy three of the four elements required to obtain a preliminary injunction: (1) Plaintiffs had not demonstrated a substantial likelihood of success on the merits of their claims; (2) the balance of harms weighed against Plaintiffs; and (3) Plaintiffs failed to show that the public interest favored an injunction. Finding no reversible error in the district court's denial, the Tenth Circuit affirmed. View "Dine Citizens v. Jewell" on Justia Law

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Petitioners American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign, The Cloud Foundation, Return to Freedom, Carol Walker, and Kimerlee Curyl filed this action against Sally Jewell, the Secretary of the Department of the Interior, and Neil Kornze, the acting director of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), seeking review of BLM’s decision to remove wild horses in certain areas of public land located in southwestern Wyoming within an area known as the “Checkerboard.” The Checkerboard was comprised of over one million acres of generally high desert land, and “derives its name from the pattern of alternating sections of private and public land which it comprises.” Under a 2013 consent decree, BLM agreed to remove all wild horses located on private lands in the Checkerboard. BLM maintained that “due to the unique pattern of land ownership” within the Checkerboard, “and as recognized in the Consent Decree, it is practically infeasible for the BLM to meet its obligations under Section 4 of the [Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act ("the Act")] while removing wild horses solely from the private lands sections of the [C]heckerboard.” Petitioners alleged, in pertinent part, that the removal violated the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 (FLPMA). The district court rejected these claims. Petitioners appealed. The Tenth Circuit reversed, finding it was "improper" for BLM to construe the unambiguous terms “privately owned land” and “private lands,” as used in Section 4 of the Act, to include the public land sections of the Checkerboard. And, in turn, with respect to the FLMPA claims, it was improper for BLM to conduct what it described as a Section 4 gather on the public land sections of the Checkerboard. "By doing so, BLM violated the duties that Section 3 clearly imposes on it with respect to wild horses found on the public land sections of the Checkerboard." The Court reversed the district court and remanded this case for further proceedings. View "American Wild Horse v. Jewell" on Justia Law