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Updated: The Nation Goes the Way Montana Goes? Nationwide Permit 12 Vacatur and Injunction

On April 15, 2020, the Montana federal district court issued an Order in Northern Plains Resource Council v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, No. 4:19-cv-00044-BMM (D. Mont.) (NPRC v. Corps) that may have far reaching implications for energy development projects across the United States.

In a case involving the Keystone XL Pipeline Project, the Montana court vacated the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ (Corps) Nationwide Permit (NWP) 12. The Court concluded that because the Corps failed to consult under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) Section 7 when it reissued NWP 12 in 2017, the permit is not valid and the Corps may not authorize work under the terms and conditions of NWP 12.

Background, Key findings, and Order

The Corp’s 2017 Reissuance of NWP 12. When the Corps reissued NWP 12 (along with all other NWPs) in 2017, it determined that ESA consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service (the “Services”) was not required because the reissuance of NWPs has “no effect” on ESA-listed species or critical habitat.

Court’s Key Findings. The court held that the Corps’ “no effect determination and resulting decision to forego programmatic consultation proves arbitrary and capricious in violation of the Corps’ obligations under the ESA.” The court concluded that the Corps cannot circumvent ESA Section 7(a)(2) consultation requirements by relying on project-level review (e.g., by non-federal entities) under NWP General Condition 18’s preconstruction notification (PCN) requirement. The court reasoned that (1) General Condition 18’s PCN requirement fails to ensure that the Corps fulfills its obligations under ESA Section 7(a)(2) because it delegates the Corps’ initial effect determination to non-federal permittees.

Court’s Order. Based on the court’s findings, the Order (1) vacated NWP 12; (2) remanded NWP 12 to the Corps to initiate consultation now; and (3) enjoined the Corps from authorizing work under NWP 12 until consultation is completed.

Potential Implications if a Motion for Reconsideration or Stay is not Granted

Immediate Impact on Projects with NWP 12 Authorization. The Order creates immediate uncertainty for project proponents needing NWP 12 authorization. If the Order is not stayed or appealed, the Corps could reopen programmatic consultation with the Services, which could take several months or longer to complete and, once completed, may be subject to further litigation. In addition, the Order could be leveraged by other plaintiffs targeting the Corps’ other NWPs that rely on General Condition 18. Given the uncertainty, developers will need to consider their current permitting options, which may include other NWPs, individual 404 permits (which trigger NEPA, NHPA, and ESA), or project redesign to avoid impacts to regulated waters.

Current Status

On April 27, 2020, the Corps filed motions for expedited briefing and consideration for a partial stay of the Order pending an appeal. The Corps’ motion asks the Court to stay “those portions of its April 15, 2020, Order that vacate NWP 12 and broadly enjoin the Corps from authorizing any dredge or fill activities under the permit”; or at “the very least, the Court should stay its vacatur and injunction as they relate to anything other than the Keystone XL pipeline.”

**UPDATE**:    On April 28, 2020, U.S. District Court Judge Brian Morris denied the Corps’ motion for a temporary administrative stay of the court’s vacatur, injunction, and remand orders.  Judge Morris ordered Plaintiffs and the Corps to complete briefing on an expedited basis by May 8, however, on the Corps’ broader request for a stay pending appeal, which should give permit-seekers and holders additional insight into the immediate future of NWP 12.

Copyright 2020 K & L Gates

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About this Author

Ankur K. Tohan, KL Gates Law Firm, Environmental Law Attorney
Partner

Ankur Tohan works with the firm's Environmental, Land and Natural Resources practice. His practice focuses on energy infrastructure, natural resource development, compliance counseling, and defense of governmental and citizen enforcement actions.

Ankur helps clients navigate complex regulatory, permitting, and enforcement matters under a range of environmental statutes, including the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA), Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act (BGEPA), Endangered Species Act (ESA), Clean Water Act (CWA), Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA...

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Buck B. Endemann, KL Gates, energy infrastructure lawyer, remediation projects attorney
Partner

Buck Endemann is a partner in the firm’s San Francisco office, where he is a member of the energy practice group. He provides comprehensive counseling on energy, infrastructure and remediation projects, including advice on air, water and waste compliance issues, and represents clients in related litigation. 

Mr. Endemann has extensive experience on the commercial, land use, and regulatory aspects of renewable energy and infrastructure projects throughout the Western United States, with an emphasis on California. He has a particular expertise before the California Public Utilities Commission and counsels clients on California Independent System Operator (CAISO) issues. Mr. Endemann is also well-versed in the primary federal and state environmental, water, and species laws, including, CERCLA, RCRA, NEPA, CEQA, Endangered Species Act, Migratory Bird Treaty Protection Act, and Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. Mr. Endemann has also counseled clients in proceedings before the Los Angeles Department of Water Resources and Water Replenishment District of Southern California. 

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Tad MacFarland, KL Gates Law Firm, Environmental Law Attorney
Associate

Tad Macfarlan is an associate in the firm’s Environment, Land and Natural Resources practice group. Mr. Macfarlan counsels the firm’s industrial, energy, utility and commercial sector clients on compliance with federal, state and local environmental and land use laws. He has extensive experience working with the regulatory regimes governing air emissions, wastewater and stormwater discharges, wetland and stream protection, solid and hazardous waste management, water withdrawals and supply, chemical and toxic substance controls, release reporting and response, and...

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