Department of the Interior

A new draft environmental impact statement on the scope of liability under the MBTA available for public comment.

By Janice M. Schneider, Taiga Takahashi, and Julie Miles

The US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) recently took another step toward narrowing its interpretation of liability under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) by issuing a draft environmental impact statement (DEIS). MBTA regulations currently protect 1,093 species of migratory birds. (See 50 CFR §10.13 for the complete list.) Notice of the public comment period in connection with the DEIS, which closes on July 20, 2020, was published in the Federal Register.

The DEIS preferred alternative would exclude incidental take of birds from the scope of liability under the MBTA, consistent with the FWS proposed rule published earlier this year. The issue of whether incidental take of birds is covered by the MBTA has long been a contentious one. The MBTA imposes strict criminal liability for taking protected birds, which can occur in the ordinary operations of a wide variety of industries and activities. For example, investigations by the federal government have included electric utilities, oil and gas, communication towers, chemical spills, bridgework, artificial lighting, and renewable energy activities, among others.[1]

DRECP under review in an effort to alleviate burdens on energy development.

By Marc T. Campopiano, Joshua T. Bledsoe, Jennifer K. Roy, and James Erselius

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) recently issued a notice of intent to review the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) for potential burdens on domestic energy production in California. The BLM issued the notice on February 2, 2018, in response to Executive Order (EO) 13783, “Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth.” EO 13783 was issued on March 28, 2017, and requires the heads of federal agencies to review all existing agency actions that “potentially burden the development or use of domestically produced energy resources.”

Finalized in 2016, the DRECP established a framework to streamline permitting for renewable energy projects on public lands in the California Mojave and Colorado/Sonoran desert region. The DRECP covers renewable energy development activities, including solar, wind, and geothermal projects, as well as transmission facilities that service renewable energy projects. As discussed in a previous post, concerns from local agencies, industry, and environmental groups caused state and federal agencies to narrow DRECP’s focus to public lands only.

The corresponding Land Use Plan Amendment (LUPA), issued when the DRECP was finalized, affects land use planning decisions for all of the 10.8 million acres of federal lands within the 22 million total acres covered under the DRECP. The LUPA set aside certain BLM-managed lands for conservation and recreation, and identified priority areas for renewable energy development. As detailed in a prior post, the approved LUPA designates 388,000 acres of Development Focus Areas, which are lands identified as having high-quality solar, wind, and geothermal energy potential and access to transmission. In addition to Development Focus Areas, the approved LUPA designates: 40,000 acres of Variance Process Lands for renewable energy development; approximately 6.5 million acres for conservation; approximately 3.6 million acres for recreation; and 419,000 acres of General Public Lands, which lack a specific land allocation or designation. A land use plan amendment is needed to develop renewable energy in General Public Lands areas.

By Janice Schneider, Sara Orr, Jennifer Roy and James Erselius

Reversing a long-standing federal legal position, the US Interior Department recently stated that the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) does not impose liability for the incidental take of protected birds. The 41-page Solicitor’s Opinion (number M-37050) withdraws and replaces a prior Solicitor’s Opinion (number M-37041), issued during the Obama administration. The prior Solicitor’s Opinion had interpreted the MBTA to prohibit “incidental take,” and concluded that “the MBTA’s broad prohibition on taking and killing migratory birds by any means and in any manner includes incidental take and killing.” The new legal position means that the Trump administration will not consider the non-directed and unintentional death of birds by energy companies and other businesses in the course of their otherwise lawful activities to be a crime under the MBTA.

The MBTA, enacted in 1918, prohibits the take of over 1,000 species of 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. Violations of the MBTA are criminal offenses, and courts have held that the MBTA imposes strict liability, regardless of intent. Courts have debated, however, whether the scope of strict liability under the MBTA extends to the incidental take of migratory birds resulting from otherwise lawful activities. As discussed in a previous post, the Fifth Circuit joined courts in the Eighth and Ninth Circuits in ruling that the MBTA does not prohibit incidental take. In contrast, other circuits, such as the Second and Tenth, have extended liability under the MBTA to incidental take in at least some instances.

By Sara Orr, Jennifer Roy and Francesca Bochner

On December 14, 2016, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) finalized its proposed revisions to the Eagle Rule (Final Rule) and released its Record of Decision (ROD). The Final Rule allows companies and others to obtain 30-year incidental take permits under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act of 1940 (the Act) in exchange for committing to conservation measures designed to reduce impacts to eagles.

As discussed in our previous articles (here and here), this is FWS’ second attempt at revising the Eagle Rule to allow for 30-year permit terms. The draft version of the revisions and the Draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (DPEIS) were originally released on May 2, 2016. FWS accepted public comments on the proposed revisions and DPEIS until July 5, 2016, receiving over 700 comments from other agencies, public interest groups, industry organizations, and private citizens.

By Sara Orr, Jennifer Roy and Francesca Bochner

On July 5, 2016, the public comment period closed for the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) proposed revisions to the rules authorizing eagle take permits under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act (Eagle Act) and accompanying Draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS), paving the way for FWS to complete and release a final rule, possibly as early as the end of this year.

FWS originally released the revised proposed rules on May 6, 2016, as discussed more fully in our previous post. FWS received over 700 comments on the proposed revisions and Draft PEIS from other agencies, public interest groups, industry organizations, and private citizens.

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 Paul Singarella, Claudia O’Brien, Marc Campopiano Daniel Brunton, Joshua Bledsoe, Lucas Quass, John Heintz, Joshua Marnitz and John Morris

On July 27, 2015, the US Department of the Interior, through its Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE), proposed to revise regulations adopted under the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 (SMCRA) that govern surface coal mining and reclamation operations near surface streams (the Proposed Rule). According to the OSMRE, “[t]he primary purpose of this proposed rule is to reinforce the need to minimize the adverse impacts of surface coal mining operations on surface water, groundwater, fish, wildlife, and related environmental values, with particular emphasis on protecting or restoring streams and aquatic ecosystems.” OSMRE asserts widespread impacts including loss of headwater streams, long-term degradation of surface water quality downstream from mines, displacement of native species, compaction of postmining soils and watershed hydrology impacts. SMCRA requires OSMRE regulations to respect coal’s important place in the country’s energy portfolio. Whether this draft rule strikes a reasonable balance under SMCRA will be the subject of intense debate as this rulemaking proceeds.

The Proposed Rule would significantly alter OSMRE’s decades-old “Stream Buffer Zone” regulations, which nominally require a 100-foot buffer for mining operations along streams,[1] and would expand regulatory oversight in the coal industry. Along with the Proposed Rule, OSMRE has published a draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and a Regulatory Impact Analysis (RIA).

By Marc Campopiano and Max Friedman

Following the May 28, 2015 release by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) of 14 final Environmental Impact Statements (EISs) for land use plans designed to provide greater protection to the greater sage-grouse on approximately 50 million acres of BLM-managed land in 10 different western states, more than 40 environmental groups, industry organizations, states, and counties have  filed formal complaints with the BLM, protesting various aspects of the plans.  BLM aims to provide sufficient

By Marc Campopiano, Max Friedman and Gunnar Gundersen

On Thursday, May 28, 2015, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) released fourteen final Environmental Impact Statements (EISs) that incorporate greater-sage-grouse conservation measures into the land-use plans for about 50 million acres of BLM-managed land in 10 western states. The population of the sage-grouse has declined by more than half over the last decade. As discussed in our prior entry, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is under a

By Andrea Hogan and Joshua Marnitz

On May 6, 2015, the US Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs voted 12-1 in favor of a bill designed to streamline the Federal permitting process for major energy and infrastructure projects. The bill, first introduced in January 2015 by Senators Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri) as S. 280 or the Federal Permitting Improvement Act of 2015, will now proceed to the full U.S. Senate for consideration.

If passed, the