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Vol. 51-2 Natural Resources

October 20, 2021

Natural Resources

Updates on ESA & NEPA Litigation

Case Updates 

In 2017, the United States Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) reissued Nationwide Permit 12 (NWP 12), which was then challenged in Sierra Club v. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.[1] The D.C. Circuit remanded the case to FERC for preparation of an environmental impact statement (EIS) on August 22, 2017.[2] According to the D.C. Circuit, FERC needed to provide more information on the pipeline’s downstream greenhouse gas emissions.[3] Subsequently, FERC filed a panel rehearing petition on October 6, 2017.[4] On January 31, 2018, the D.C. Circuit denied the decision’s rehearing.[5] As a result, the pipeline project developers filed a motion on February 6, 2018, for a 90-day stay of the mandate’s issue.[6] Along with a request to expedite FERC’s reissuance of the project authorization certificates, the developers argued several points: FERC has already resolved the environmental review deficiencies that were originally brought up by the court, vacatur will cause significant irreparable economic and environmental harms, staying the mandate helps avoid irreparable harm during preparation of and disposition of a writ of certiorari petition, and this mandate’s stay is justified, even under the traditional test for a stay pending appeal.[7]

The petitioners responded, opposing the stay for the following reasons: no good cause exists to allow FERC and the developers to avoid vacatur using the stay, the court should not pre-determine whether FERC’s additional environmental review complies with the court’s remand order, and there is no irreparable harm to consumers or the environment; and the developers’ economic harm does not justify delaying the mandate.[8]

On March 7, 2018, the court granted FERC’s motion to stay the mandate’s issuance.[9] The mandate was withheld through March 26, 2018.[10] On March 14, 2018, FERC reauthorized the pipeline project after concluding that the downstream-greenhouse gas emissions quantification does not change the project’s environmental acceptability and notified the D.C. Circuit of its issued order on March 23, 2018.[11]

In May 2018, FERC denied a rehearing regarding its certificate of public convenience and necessity issuance for two New York natural gas facility projects.[12] Shortly thereafter, the Delaware Riverkeeper Network requested FERC to rescind its order due to FERC violating NEPA by failing to adequately consider climate change impacts created by the pipeline infrastructure decision-making.[13] By July of 2018, the New York Attorney General had sent a letter to FERC warning the agency that by denying the rehearing request in May, the agency was uncharacteristically departing from its tradition of evaluating downstream greenhouse gas emissions from natural gas infrastructure projects’ environmental impacts.[14] As a result, the New York Attorney General concluded that FERC’s rehearing denial was procedurally and substantively wrong.[15]

Nationwide Permit 12

In Northern Plains Resource Council v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Northern Plains Resource Council argued that the Corps acted arbitrarily and capriciously in issuing the Keystone XL Pipeline’s NWP 12, and that the Corps should have consulted with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on whether NWP 12 jeopardizes endangered species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).[16] This case’s outcome could significantly change the extent to which the Corps and other parties can obtain and rely upon such permits in the future.

So far, several district court rulings have applied a stricter adherence standard to NEPA regulations. If this pattern continues, the Corps may potentially be more limited in its ability to issue NWPs, which will be particularly detrimental to the oil and gas industry. Furthermore, upcoming court decisions may also limit the Corps’ regulatory authority. The Corps has argued that while the ESA requires the Corps to conduct programmatic consultation with relevant wildlife agencies before issuing a NWP, the Corps was justified in failing to do so, because general permit conditions that require site-specific consultation remove the need for programmatic consultation; yet, a Montana district court rejected this argument.[17] In an April 2020, ruling by the same district court, the Corps’ regulatory approach described above was deemed “an unlawful ‘delegation’” of the agency’s regulatory authority.[18]

A Montana federal court issued an order on the parties’ motions for summary judgment on April 15, 2020. Subsequently, a motion for a partial stay pending appeal was filed.[19] In May 2020, the Court held that NWP 12 is vacated regarding new oil and gas pipelines pending environmental statutes and regulations consultation and compliance, but it remains in place regarding non-pipeline construction activities and routine maintenance; and the Corps cannot authorize any new oil and gas pipeline dredge or fill activities pending completion of required NWP 12 actions, but the Corps can still authorize dredge and fill activities for non-pipeline construction activities or routine maintenance.[20]

On June 15, 2020, the Corps requested the Supreme Court to stay regarding a pending district court appeal. The pending appeal would enjoin new oil and gas pipelines’ authorization under NWP 12 due to failure to comply with the ESA.[21] The Corps contends that the district court had no justification to set aside NWP 12, that national equitable relief was improper, that the order was issued without fair notice, and that the order lacked sound basis in the ESA.[22] On June 23, 2020, eighteen states, including Texas and West Virginia, filed a motion for leave to file an amicus brief.[23]

On July 6, 2020, the Supreme Court granted the application to stay in part.[24] More specifically, the Court denied the Keystone XL pipeline’s approval to proceed under NWP 12, but issued a partial stay as it applies to other pipelines.[25] Along with the Supreme Court’s decision, other difficulties exist in completing the Keystone XL, such as various legal challenges, an unpredictable oil market, and the current revocation of its permit by the Biden Administration, which is currently being litigated.[26] Furthermore, various business groups filed an amicus brief on September 23, 2020, asking the Ninth Circuit to reverse the district court’s evaluation of the Corps’ decision to issue NWP 12.[27]

While the Supreme Court’s stay on a nationwide injunction on new oil and gas pipelines narrows the law’s application, the Court’s decision to maintain the Keystone XL pipeline’s injunction sharpens the ESA’s “teeth” for long-term, endangered species protection.

Dakota Access Pipeline

On March 25, 2020, a federal district court judge struck down permits for the Dakota Access Pipeline, as requested by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.[28] The district court cited the recent case, National Parks Conservation Association v. Semonite, in its reasoning that the Corps left too many questions unanswered about the permit’s environmental impacts under NEPA.[29] According to the court, approving the permits would be “‘highly controversial’” under NEPA, given that the Corps provided unrebutted expert critiques on leak-detection systems, operator safety records, adverse conditions, and worst-case discharge.[30] After assessing government violations, a District of Columbia federal district court judge determined, on July 6, 2020, that the pipeline should be shut down.[31] Rather than shut down the pipeline, however, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals issued an order in August 2020 that allows oil to continue flowing for the time being.[32]

Additionally, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals resolved another administrative stay in August 2020 by vacating the Lake Oahe pipeline permit.[33] The Corps decided to challenge many of the district courts’ actions, including overturning the Corps’ NEPA findings, ordering an EIS, and vacating the permits and shutting down the pipeline.[34] The pipeline’s EIS process started in early September[35] and comments were due by October 26, 2020.[36] Tribes, congress members, state governments, the Corps, and the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL) all filed federal briefs and had oral argument on November 4, 2020, during which parties discussed, before the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, whether the lower court erred in concluding that the federal regulators’ DAPL oil project approval did not meet NEPA standards.[37]

On October 16, 2020, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe renewed its request for an injunction to shut down the pipeline, for which a motion was briefed and ready by December 2020.[38] Additionally, fourteen states filed briefs claiming that shutting down the DAPL will significantly damage the Midwest’s agricultural economies because it will be more expensive to ship grain.[39]

Potential Impacts of Updated NEPA Regulations

Five key NEPA-regulations alterations that went into effect on September 14, 2020, include: EIS reports are restricted to two years for completion and EA reports to one year; the “major federal actions” definition creates a limit that excludes smaller projects from review; categorical exclusions pooling allows different agencies to use other agencies’ historically used categorical exclusions; cumulative impacts are not considered in environmental studies, but rather only the reasonable alternatives and impacts in close proximity to the relevant project; and comments are only considered if they are “exhaustive.”[40]

While current regulations are likely to change under the Biden Administration, the Trump Administration’s regulatory alterations currently include narrower NEPA criteria for infrastructure projects. One of the regulations narrows what constitutes a “major federal action.”[41] This rule alteration will not only exclude many nonfederal or minimally federal-funded projects from NEPA review, but will also exclude projects whose effects are attributed to a long causal chain.[42] For instance, Sierra Club v. FERC may not have been heard by a court under the updated NEPA rules, because the court might consider the Sierra Club’s contentions regarding climate change and downstream greenhouse gas emissions too indirect and geographically remote to necessitate NEPA review.

The updated rules also eliminate cumulative impact consideration.[43] In Sierra Club v. FERC, the case outcome largely depended on the project’s cumulative impacts analysis.[44] Narrowing NEPA criteria gradually eliminates the breadth of NEPA review. Furthermore, lack of consideration for indirect factors like climate change can limit the extent to which courts are able to identify trending fact patterns in their environmental impact analyses. When the plaintiffs moved for summary judgement in November 2019 in Northern Plains Resource Council v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, they contended that the Corps failed to evaluate greenhouse gas emissions’ indirect and cumulative effects allowed by Nationwide Permit 12.[45] Under the new rules, a court facing similar facts to those in Northern Plains might not consider said factors under NEPA, making an injunction issuance less likely. Under the altered rules, it is also possible that there will be less consideration of the structural soundness of future infrastructure projects. For instance, it is no longer necessary under NEPA to analyze whether a rise in sea level will submerge particular infrastructure project’s structures.[46]

However, the Trump Administration’s NEPA regulations’ rollback is not immune to the Congressional Review Act (CRA), which Congress can use to overturn rules issued by federal agencies, which may happen now that the Democratic party controls both congressional houses.[47] President Biden will likely continue to bolster environmental protection by creating new standards, editing current standards, and ramping up enforcement.[48]

Bipartisanship might become a cornerstone for the current administration to achieve its environmental goals. More than that, a growth in bipartisan solutions may also lead to better representation of the American populace. Lastly, support for, and the growth of, the renewable energy industry will likely continue to increase under the Biden Administration.[49]

Patrick Leahy is an Associate at Baker Botts (Austin) and he works on a variety of environmental litigation matters at the administrative, state, and federal levels, permitting, regulatory compliance, and transactional support matters.

Bahar B. Sahami is a third-year student at The University of Texas School of Law and Senior Editor of the Texas Environmental Law Journal.


[1] Sierra Club v. Fed. Energy Regulatory Comm’n, 867 F.3d 1357, 1363 (D.C. Cir. 2017).

[2] Id.

[3] Sierra Club, 867 F.3d at 1374.

[4] Petition for Panel Rehearing, Sierra Club, 867 F.3d 1357 (D.C. Cir. 2017) (Nos. 16-1329, 16-1387).

[5] Order, Sierra Club, 867 F.3d 1357 (D. C. Cir. 2017) (No. 16-1329) (denying the petition for rehearing).

[6] Motion of Intervenor-Respondents for 90-Day Stay of Issuance of Mandate, Sierra Club, 867 F.3d 1357 (D.C. Cir. 2017) (No. 16-1329).

[7] Id.

[8] Response of Petitioners Sierra Club et al., Sierra Club, 867 F.3d 1357 (D. C. Cir. 2017) (Nos. 16-1329, 16-1387).

[9] Order, Sierra Club, 867 F.3d 1357 (D. C. Cir. 2017) (No. 16-1329) (granting FERC’s motion to stay the mandate’s issuance).

[10] Id.

[11] Fla. Se. Connection, LLC, 163 ¶ 61,233 (2018).

[12] Dominion Transmission, Inc. 163 ¶ 61,128 (2018).

[13] Letter from Maya K. van Rossum, Del. Riverkeeper, Del. Riverkeeper Network, to Kimberly D. Bose, Sec’y, Fed. Energy Regulatory Comm’n (May 26, 2018) (on file with FERC).

[14] Letter from Barbara D. Underwood, Attorney Gen. of N.Y., N. Y. State Office of the Attorney Gen., to Kimberly D. Bose, Sec’y, Fed. Energy Regulatory Comm’n (July 10, 2018) (on file with New York Attorney General’s Office).

[15] Jeffrey M. Karp, FERC Continues to Forge Its Own Path in Considering Climate Impacts in Pipeline Applications, Lexology (Jan. 14, 2019),

[16] N. Plains Res. Council v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 454 F.Supp 3d 985, 996 (D. Mont. 2020).

[17] Supreme Court Revives Clean Water Act General Permit for Pipeline and Utility Line Projects, Perkins Coie (July 15, 2020),

[18] Id.

[19] Motion for Partial Stay Pending Appeal by Transcanada Keystone Pipeline, LP and TC Energy Corporation, N. Plains Res. Council, 454 F.Supp.3d 985 (D. Mont. 2020).

[20] Order Amending Summary Judgment Order and Order Regarding Defendants’ Motions for Stay Pending Appeal, N. Plains Res. Council, 454 F.Supp.3d 985 (D. Mont. 2020).

[21] Application for a Stay Pending Appeal to the Unites States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and Pending Further Proceedings in this Court, N. Plains Res. Council, 454 F.Supp.3d 985 (D. Mont. 2020) (No. 19A-1053).

[22] Id.

[23] Motion for Leave to File Brief, N. Plains Res. Council, 454 F.Supp.3d 985 (D. Mont. 2020) (No. 19A-1053).

[24] Order, N. Plains Res. Council, 454 F.Supp.3d 985 (D. Mont. 2020) (No. 19A-1053) (granting the application for stay in part).

[25] Id.

[26] Press Release: In Yet Another Blow to Keystone XL, Supreme Court Rejects Bid to Revive Key Water Crossing Permit, Northern Plains Resource Council (July 6, 2020),; States sue Biden in bid to revive Keystone XL pipeline, Associated Press (Mar. 17, 2021),

[27] Northern Plains Resource Council v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Chamber Litig. Ctr. (Sept. 23, 2020),

[28] Standing Rock Sioux Tribe v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 440 F.Supp.3d 1 (D.D.C. 2020).

[29] Id. at 8.

[30] Id.

[31] Standing Rock Sioux Tribe v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 471 F.Supp.3d 71, 88 (D.D.C. 2020).

[32] Standing Rock Sioux Tribe v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 2020 U.S. App. LEXIS 25580 (D.C. Cir. 2020).

[33] Id.

[34] Brief for Appellant at 20, 32, 33, 34, Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, 2020 U.S. App. LEXIS 25580 (D.C. Cir. 2020) (No. 20-5201).

[35] United States Army Corps of Engineers’ Status Report, Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, 2020 U.S. App. LEXIS 25580 (D.C. Cir. 2020).

[36] Notice of Intent To Prepare an Environmental Impact Statement for an Easement to Cross Under Lake Oahe, 85 Fed. Reg. 55,843 (Sept. 10, 2020).

[37] The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s Litigation on the Dakota Access Pipeline, EarthJustice, (last visited May 2, 2021).

[38] Plaintiff’s Motion for Clarification and a Permanent Injunction, Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, 2020 U.S. App. LEXIS 25580 (D.C. Cir. 2020).

[39] Todd Neeley, States, Ag Battle for Dakota Access Pipeline—DTN, AgFax (Dec. 15, 2020),

[40] Cliff Rothenstein et al., A New Normal? Trump Administration Retooling Of Core NEPA Elements, K&L Gates (July 23, 2020),

[41] Id.

[42] Id.

[43] Id.

[44] Id.

[45] Id.

[46] Id.

[47] Cong. Research Serv., The Congressional Review Act (CRA): Frequently Asked Questions 1 (2020).

[48] Jennifer Adams et al., Environmental Law outlook under a Biden Administration, Lexology (Nov. 9, 2020),

[49] Id.