Finance and Project Development

By Joshua Bledsoe, Sara Orr and Stacey VanBelleghem

On August 2, 2016, the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) issued its final guidance for federal agencies to assess the impact of their decisions on greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) and also how such decisions may be impacted by a changing climate (e.g., future sea level rise impacts on a long-term infrastructure project proposed for a coastal barrier island) when conducting reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The final guidance follows CEQ’s issuance of draft guidance in 2010 and revised draft guidance in 2014, incorporating consideration of public comments and feedback on the two drafts. Following this six-year process, CEQ’s guidance is a recommendation to federal agencies versus a formal legal requirement and therefore does not have the same authority as a federal rule or regulation.

The guidance does not establish any particular quantity of GHG emissions as representing a significant burden on the environment – that determination will be left to the discretion of the agencies. However, the guidance does prohibit the so-called “de minimis approach” where an agency would compare a Federal action’s GHG emissions to global GHG emissions, finding that since the action did not represent a meaningful percentage of the global GHG inventory, the action did not significantly affect the environment.

By Sara Orr and Bobbi-Jo Dobush

On July 7, 2016, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced its Record of Decision (ROD) for the Upper Great Plains Wind Energy Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS).[1] This is the final step in a process that US FWS, along with Western Area Power Administration (Western), embarked upon in 2010 to streamline the environmental review process for wind energy projects in the Upper Great Plains (UPG).[2] The process applies to wind energy projects in Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota that would interconnect to Western’s transmission facilities or require the US FWS to consider an easement exchange to accommodate placement of project facilities.

Western, which is responsible for marketing and delivering wholesale power in the western United States and is the joint lead agency on the PEIS, announced its ROD adopting Alternative 1 on August 26, 2015.[3] Eleven months later, US FWS made its final decision and also adopted Alternative 1 of the PEIS which supports US FWS participation in easement exchanges for wind development and provides for expedited environmental reviews (including review pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and Endangered Species Act (ESA)) if developers follow specified best management practices, minimization and mitigation measures. Now that US FWS has issued its Record of Decision, it may implement the PEIS when permitting wind energy projects involving easement swaps within Western’s Upper Great Plains region.

By Michael Gergen, David Pettit and Tara Rice

On June 16, 2016, the White House hosted a Summit on Scaling Renewable Energy and Storage with Smart Markets. As a backdrop to the Summit, the Obama Administration announced new executive actions and 33 public and private sector commitments intended to accelerate the grid integration of renewable energy and storage. Together, these actions are expected to result in at least 1.3 gigawatts of energy storage procurement or deployment within the next five years. 

By Marc Campopiano, Jennifer Roy, and Francesca Bochner

California energy agencies and key stakeholders have finished the first step of a statewide planning process to evaluate transmission needs in the state and the region. This process, called the Renewable Energy Transmission Initiative 2.0 (RETI 2.0), will culminate in recommendations to the legislature on where to increase transmission capacity to meet California’s new, more ambitious renewable energy mandate (see our summary of SB 350, which increased California’s Renewables Portfolio Standard (RPS) to 50% by 2030). RETI 2.0 is not a regulatory proceeding, but the resultant recommendations will frame and inform future transmission planning in California.

Background

RETI 2.0 was launched in September 2015 by the California Natural Resources Agency, the California Energy Commission (CEC), the California Public Utilities Commission, the California Independent System Operator (CAISO), and the US Bureau of Land Management California Office.

In December 2015, the managing agencies released a RETI 2.0 Workplan that divides the RETI 2.0 objectives between three overlapping working groups:

By Christopher Garrett, Daniel Brunton and Shannon Lankenau

On May 4, 2016, the California Supreme Court heard oral argument in Friends of the College of San Mateo Gardens v. San Mateo County Community College District (Case No. S214061), which addresses the standard of review that applies when a lead agency decides that changes or additions to a previously approved project can be treated as a modified version of the original project instead of as an entirely new project. Under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), a modified version of a project will often be analyzed with an expedited “addendum” to the previous CEQA document while an entirely new project may require starting the CEQA review from the beginning.  The Supreme Court’s opinion will likely provide important guidance on this frequently encountered situation. The Court is expected to issue its opinion by early August.

Factual and Procedural Background

Friends of the College of San Mateo Gardens (Friends) challenged the San Mateo County Community College District’s (the District) decision to demolish a building complex on the District’s College of San Mateo campus. The District previously approved a project plan to renovate ten campus buildings and demolish sixteen others, using a mitigated negative declaration to address the project’s environmental impacts. The District later revised its plans to include demolition of one building that had been set for renovation and renovation of two buildings previously slated for demolition. The District evaluated the possible environmental consequences of the change in plans, concluded that the revisions were not extensive enough to require preparation of a subsequent Environmental Impact Report (EIR), and adopted an addendum to the previously approved mitigated negative declaration.

By Sara Orr, Jennifer Roy and Francesca Bochner

On May 2, 2016, the US Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) announced its second attempt to revise its rules authorizing eagle take permits under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act (Eagle Act). The rule would extend the maximum eagle take permit term from 5 to 30 years to better correspond to the typical lifetime of major projects. The proposed revisions are intended to provide clarity on eagle permit regulation, improve permit implementation and increase regulatory compliance while providing strong protection for eagles. Public comments are due by July 5, 2016.

The Bald and Golden Eagle Act

The Eagle Act (16 USC 668-668d) was enacted in 1940 to prohibit the take of bald and golden eagles, except pursuant to federal regulations. The Eagle Act allows the Secretary of the Interior to issue regulations authorizing “take” of eagles for various purposes, with potentially significant fines for violations. Such take must be “compatible with the preservation of bald or golden eagles.” The current “preservation standard” is that the take must be “consistent with the goal of maintaining stable or increasing breeding populations.”

By Joshua Bledsoe and Max Friedman

After a lengthy process of policy review and revision, the California Air Resources Board (ARB) re-adopted the state’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) on September 25, 2015. The LCFS is expected to contribute approximately 20% of the statewide greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions required by 2020 under Assembly Bill 32. Moreover, the LCFS has been identified by Governor Brown as a key regulatory tool both to reduce petroleum consumption 50% by 2030

By Marc Campopiano, Andrea Hogan and Joshua Marnitz

On September 22, 2015, the White House, through the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), issued guidance to the heads of certain federal departments and agencies[1] (the Agencies) establishing metrics for the permitting and environmental review of infrastructure projects in the United States (the Guidance). The Guidance is intended to expand the use and reframe the purpose of the publicly accessible online Federal Infrastructure Permitting Dashboard (the Dashboard). To that end, the Guidance establishes a set of metrics to track permit and review timelines for certain infrastructure projects, and sets a schedule for collecting and posting that data to the Dashboard. It then outlines an approach for capturing and reporting the environmental and community impacts resulting from the federal permitting and review process.

The infrastructure projects covered by the Guidance include those projects in the following sectors: surface transportation (including all highway, rail, and transit projects); airport capital improvement projects; ports and waterways; water resource projects; renewable energy generation; electricity transmission; storm-water infrastructure; broadband internet; and pipelines (except those subject to Federal Energy Regulatory Commission oversight). The Guidance also provides that the Agencies can include other sectors, as appropriate.

By Marc T. Campopiano, Joshua T. Bledsoe, Douglas Porter, Danny AleshireJennifer Roy and Andrew Yancey

The end of the California State Legislature’s regular session for the year culminated in a frenzy of action, with Assembly members scrambling to pass dozens of bills before midnight on September 12, 2015. The California Legislature voted on a package of 12 bills addressing environmental and health concerns, such as off-shore drilling, divestment of investment funding from coal companies, water quality, energy efficiency in disadvantaged communities, and increased public transportation. This post analyzes three of the more significant and controversial bills proposed this year, including last minute changes to each during the final week of the session: SB 350; SB 32; and AB 1288.

SB 350 (De León): The Clean Energy and Pollution Reduction Act of 2015

The most far-reaching climate change goals of the climate bill package were enshrined in SB 350. The proposed bill, authored by Senate President Pro Tempore Kevin de León and Senator Mark Leno, originally called for a 50 percent reduction in petroleum use in cars and trucks, a 50 percent increase in energy efficiency in buildings, and for 50 percent of the state’s utility power to be derived from renewable energy, all by 2030; termed the “50-50-50” formula.

These standards paralleled Governor Jerry Brown’s climate change agenda for the year, which was first announced during his inaugural address in January. Last Wednesday, following a failure to garner the necessary votes amid resistance from moderate Democrats, state legislative leaders amended SB 350 to drop requirements for a 50 percent reduction in petroleum use for cars and trucks. As modified, the bill passed on a 52-27 vote.

By Sara Orr and Jennifer Roy

On September 4, 2015, the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit issued a ruling in United States v. CITGO that a “taking” subject to prosecution under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) does not include the unintentional take of migratory birds. Reversing a district court decision and joining the position of the Eighth and Ninth Circuits, the appellate court held that the MBTA’s take prohibition is limited to “deliberate acts done directly and intentionally to migratory birds,” effectively exempting take that occurs incidental to otherwise lawful activities. While such incidental take may still be subject to prosecution under other federal laws protecting birds, such as the Bald and Golden Protection Act or the Endangered Species Act, the Fifth Circuit concluded that unintentional acts are not subject to the strict liability penalties of the MBTA. This ruling may provide additional assurances to a wide variety of industries with operations in the Fifth, Eighth and Ninth Circuits that have the potential to impact migratory birds, particularly oil and gas, wind, and solar energy. Given the divide among the courts and the importance of the issue, however, it is possible that the U.S. Supreme Court will take up the issue in the future.

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act

Congress enacted the MBTA in 1918 to implement a treaty between the United States and Great Britain. The general policy of the MBTA is to provide for the “preservation, distribution, introduction, and restoration of game birds and other wild birds.” The MBTA prohibits the take of all listed birds, and the take of any migratory bird’s parts, nest, or eggs without a permit. The regulations define “take” as “to pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect” or to attempt any of these acts.