Justia U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Environmental Law
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In a dispute over the classification of two Texas counties under the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) established by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit upheld the EPA's decision to designate the counties as "nonattainment" for sulfur dioxide emissions. The dispute arose when the EPA initially designated Rusk and Panola counties as nonattainment based on data submitted by the Sierra Club. The EPA later proposed to change the designation to "unclassifiable" after it found the initial data to be potentially erroneous. However, in June 2021, the EPA withdrew the proposal and upheld the initial nonattainment designation. The State of Texas and Luminant Generation Company, companies adversely affected by the nonattainment designation, petitioned for a review of the EPA's decision. The court held that the EPA's decision was not arbitrary, capricious, or unlawful, but rather a valid exercise of the agency's discretion based on its technical expertise and review of complex scientific data. The court also found that the EPA did not misconceive its legal authority or fail to treat like cases alike in its decision-making process. View "State of Texas v. Environmental Protection Agency" on Justia Law

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The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit decided a case regarding the regulation of two tracts of land in Livingston Parish, Louisiana. The landowners, Garry L. Lewis and G. Lewis-Louisiana, L.L.C. (collectively referred to as "Lewis"), had been contending with the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) for ten years over the agency's assertion of jurisdiction over alleged "wetlands" on their property under the Clean Water Act.The case had a complex history, involving two Supreme Court cases, three Approved Jurisdictional Determinations (AJDs), two federal court cases resulting in two remand orders, and two appeals to the Fifth Circuit. Ultimately, the Fifth Circuit held that the Supreme Court’s decision in Sackett v. EPA controlled the facts of this case and dictated that Lewis' property lacked "wetlands" that had "a continuous surface connection to bodies that are 'waters of the United States' in their own right," such that there was no clear demarcation between "waters" and wetlands. As a result, the property was not subject to federal jurisdiction.The court noted that Lewis' property, used primarily as a pine timber plantation, was composed of two approximately twenty-acre tracts of "grass-covered, majority dry fields, with gravel logging and timber roads on two sides of each tract." Despite this, the USACE had concluded after numerous site visits that certain percentages of these tracts contained jurisdictional wetlands, thereby restricting Lewis' development plans without a federal permit.The court rejected the government's arguments that the case was moot following the withdrawal of the 2020 AJD and that further remand was necessary for the USACE to reevaluate the jurisdictional issue. The court held that the voluntary cessation of the allegedly wrongful behavior did not moot the case as there was no reasonable expectation of non-recurrence, and remand was inappropriate as the facts and governing law made it clear that Lewis' property was not subject to federal Clean Water Act regulation.The court ultimately vacated the judgment of the district court and remanded the case with instructions to enter judgment in favor of Lewis, confirming that the tracts in question were not "waters of the United States" under the Sackett ruling. View "Lewis v. USA" on Justia Law

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In this consolidated appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled on a decade-long dispute between landowners Garry L. Lewis and G. Lewis-Louisiana, L.L.C. (together referred to as "Lewis") and the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) over the federal jurisdiction of "wetlands" on their Louisiana property under the Clean Water Act (CWA). The case involved numerous Supreme Court cases, jurisdictional determinations, federal court cases, and appeals.Lewis's property was primarily used as a pine timber plantation. In 2013, Lewis requested a jurisdictional determination from the USACE to develop the property, which went unanswered until a formal request two years later. The USACE concluded in 2016 that portions of the property contained wetlands subject to CWA jurisdiction. Lewis appealed, leading to a reconsideration and a substantially unchanged jurisdictional determination in 2017. Lewis then filed suit in federal court, claiming that the Corps' action was arbitrary and capricious under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). The district court found the administrative record insufficient to support the conclusion that wetlands on the property met the "adjacency" test or had a "significant nexus" to traditional navigable waters and remanded the case back to USACE for further review.On remand, USACE revised the data and applied a recently issued regulation. However, the revised determination nearly doubled the alleged wetlands on one of Lewis's property tracts. After another round of litigation and appeals, the case reached the Fifth Circuit, where Lewis argued that under no interpretation of the administrative facts could his property be regulated as "wetlands" subject to the CWA.The Fifth Circuit agreed with Lewis, drawing upon the Supreme Court's recent decision in Sackett v. EPA which held that the CWA only extends to wetlands with a continuous surface connection to bodies that are "waters of the United States" in their own right. The Fifth Circuit found that there was no such connection between any plausible wetlands on Lewis's property and a "relatively permanent body of water connected to traditional interstate navigable waters," and thus, there was no factual basis for federal Clean Water Act regulation of these tracts.The court also rejected the government's arguments that the appeal was moot due to the withdrawal of the 2020 jurisdictional determination, and that the case should be remanded to USACE for reevaluation. The court held that the agency's unilateral withdrawal of a final agency action did not render the case moot and that remand was not appropriate because there was no uncertainty about the outcome of the agency's proceedings on remand.Consequently, the Fifth Circuit vacated the judgment of the district court and remanded with instructions to enter judgment in favor of Lewis that the tracts in question are not "waters of the United States" under the Clean Water Act as interpreted by Sackett v. EPA. View "Lewis v. USA" on Justia Law

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Six small refineries1 (“petitioners”) challenge the EPA’s decision to deny their requested exemptions from their obligations under the Renewable Fuel Standard (“RFS”) program of the Clean Air Act (“CAA”). The EPA denied petitioners’ years-old petitions using a novel CAA interpretation and economic theory that the agency published in December 2021.The Fifth Circuit granted the petitions for review, vacated the challenged adjudications, denied a change of venue, and remanded. The court concluded that the denial was (1) impermissibly retroactive; (2) contrary to law; and (3) counter to the record evidence. The court noted that the agency supports its assertion by dreaming up a hypothetical contract—filled with unsubstantiated speculation about terms such RIN clip sale prices and broker service fees—that TSAR might be able to negotiate. But EPA never explains why it believes small refineries can get contract terms like those. Unsubstantiated agency speculation does not overcome petitioners’ proven inability to purchase market-rate RINs ratably. The court explained that as a general matter, courts cannot compel agencies to act. Petitioners do not allege that the CAA expressly requires EPA to issue such guidance. An agency’s control over its timetables is entitled to considerable deference.That EPA has yet to make good on its promise to provide further guidance does not render the agency’s current (lack of) guidance arbitrary and capricious. View "Placid Refining Company, L.L.C. v. EPA" on Justia Law

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The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (“TCEQ”) declined to impose certain emissions limits on a new natural gas facility that it had recently imposed on another such facility. In doing so, it contravened its policy of adhering to previously imposed emissions limits, but it did not adequately explain why.   The Fifth Circuit vacated the Commission’s order granting the emissions permit at issue and remanded. The court explained that in this case, the Commission rejected the ALJs’ proposed CO and NOX emissions limits because they were “not demonstrated to be achievable or proven to be operational, obtainable, and capable.” Even though those limits had been approved for Rio Grande LNG, there was no “operational data to prove” they were achievable. Here, the record is clear—the limits imposed on Port Arthur LNG are not “at least equivalent” to those imposed on Rio Grande LNG. Therefore, the Commission’s own policy directed it to consider Rio Grande LNG’s limits, even if Rio Grande LNG was not currently in operation. It therefore acted arbitrarily and capriciously under Texas law. View "Port Arthur Cmty Actn Netwk v. TCEQ" on Justia Law

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The Inflation Reduction Act (“IRA”) requires the federal government to hold a specific oil-and-gas lease sale (“Lease Sale 261”), covering territory in the northwest and north-central Gulf of Mexico, by September 30, 2023, in accordance with a particular administrative record of decision. A month before that deadline, however, the bureau in the Department of the Interior charged with conducting the sale—the Bureau of Ocean Energy and Management (“BOEM”)—abruptly changed the sale terms, removing six million acres from the lease and imposing new limits on vessels that pass through the to-be-leased area. Plaintiffs—the State of Louisiana, the American Petroleum Institute, Chevron USA, Inc., and Shell Offshore, Inc.—sued BOEM and other federal entities and officials, arguing that BOEM’s implementation of the new terms was arbitrary and capricious in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act (“APA”). The merits panel stayed the preliminary injunction pending its decision on the merits. On appeal, BOEM does not challenge the injunction, instead asking only for enough time to comply with it. Only the four environmental organizations that intervened below (“Intervenors”) challenge the preliminary injunction on appeal.   The Fifth Circuit dismissed the intervenors’ appeal and amended the preliminary injunction to require that the lease sale at issue be conducted within thirty-seven days. The court explained that here, the causal chain of events necessary to support Intervenors’ theory of standing is so attenuated that the alleged harm is not “certainly impending.” Namely, for the complained-of conduct to result in the alleged injury, the following chain of events needs to occur. View "State of Louisiana v. Haaland" on Justia Law

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Louisiana oil and gas law authorizes the state Commissioner of Conservation to combine separate tracts of land and appoint a unit operator to extract the minerals. Plaintiffs own unleased mineral interests in Louisiana that are part of a forced drilling unit. BPX is the operator. Plaintiffs alleged on behalf of themselves and a named class that BPX has been improperly deducting post-production costs from their pro rata share of production and that this practice is improper per se. The district court granted BPX’s motion to dismiss Plaintiffs’ per se claims, holding that the quasi-contractual doctrine of negotiorum gestio provides a mechanism for BPX to properly deduct postproduction costs. Plaintiffs filed this action as purported representatives of a named class of unleased mineral owners whose interests are situated within forced drilling units formed by the Louisiana Office of Conservation and operated by BPX. BPX removed this action to the district court based on both diversity and federal question jurisdiction. BPX sought dismissal of the Plaintiffs’ primary claim. The district court granted BPX’s motion to dismiss. The district court certified its ruling for interlocutory appeal pursuant to 28 U.S.C. Section 1292(b).The Fifth Circuit wrote that no controlling Louisiana case resolves the parties’ issue. Accordingly, the court certified the following determinative question of law to the Louisiana Supreme Court: 1) Does La. Civ. Code art. 2292 applies to unit operators selling production in accordance with La. R.S. 30:10(A)(3)? View "Self v. B P X Operating" on Justia Law

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The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has asserted that it has authority under the Atomic Energy Act to license temporary, away from reactor storage facilities for spent nuclear fuel. Based on that claim of authority, the Commission issued a license for Interim Storage Partners, LLC, to operate a temporary storage facility on the Permian Basin.Fasken Land and Minerals, Ltd., and Permian Basin Land and Royalty Owners (“PBLRO”) petitioned for review of the license. As did the State of Texas, arguing that the Atomic Energy Act doesn’t confer authority on the Commission to license such a facility.The Fifth Circuit granted Texas’ petition for review and vacated the license, finding that the Atomic Energy Act does not confer on the Commission the broad authority it claims to issue licenses for private parties to store spent nuclear fuel away from the reactor. And the Nuclear Waste Policy Act establishes a comprehensive statutory scheme for dealing with nuclear waste generated from commercial nuclear power generation, thereby foreclosing the Commission’s claim of authority. View "State of Texas v. NRC" on Justia Law

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Several collections of residents near Jefferson Parish Landfill sued the landfill’s owner (Jefferson Parish) and its operators (four companies). This mandamus action arises out of the Eastern District of Louisiana’s case management of two of those lawsuits: the Ictech-Bendeck class action and the Addison mass action. The Ictech-Bendeck class action plaintiffs seek damages on a state-law nuisance theory under Louisiana Civil Code articles 667, 668, and 669. The Addison mass action plaintiffs seek damages from the same defendants, although they plead claims for both nuisance and negligence. The district court granted in part and denied in part Petitioners’ motion for summary judgment against some of the Addison plaintiffs. Then on April 17 the district court adopted a new case management order drafted by the parties that scheduled a September 2023 trial for several of the Addison plaintiffs.   The Fifth Circuit denied Petitioners' petition for mandamus relief. The court explained that mandamus is an extraordinary form of relief saved for the rare case in which there has been a “usurpation of judicial power” or a “clear abuse of discretion.” The court explained that mandamus relief is not for testing novel legal theories. The court wrote that Petitioners’ theory is not merely new; it is also wrong. Rule 23 establishes a mechanism for plaintiffs to pursue their claims as a class. It does not cause the filing of a putative class action to universally estop all separate but related actions from proceeding to the merits until the class-certification process concludes in the putative class action, after years of motions practice. View "In Re Jefferson Parish" on Justia Law

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For decades, a facility has allegedly emitted dangerous levels of a chemical called Ethylene Oxide (“EtO”). The dangerous properties of the chemical were not widely known outside the scientific community, so it was not until a local law firm began advertising potential lawsuits. Fourteen plaintiffs eventually sued. The case was severed, and the instant case is the first to reach the court. The district court granted Shell’s and Evonik’s motions to dismiss. The court concluded that all claims predicated on Plaintiff’s wife’s death were time-barred and that Plaintiff had not properly pleaded damages for the claims based on his own fear of cancer. Plaintiff appealed.   The Fifth Circuit affirmed the finding of improper joinder. The court reversed and remanded Plaintiff’s claims predicated on his wife’s death. The court vacated the denial of leave to amend the claims predicated on Jack’s emotional injuries, as pleaded against Evonik. The court explained that Plaintiff, who had no connections to the plant, had lived in the same small town all his life, was computer illiterate, and had no medical training, could not be expected to hunt down answers to a problem when there was absolutely no suggestion, at the time of the diagnosis, that any out-of-the-ordinary problem existed. Thus the court reversed and remanded this claim to the district court for further factual development as to when Plaintiff reasonably could have discovered the allegedly tortious cause of his wife’s diagnosis and death. View "Jack v. Evonik Corporation" on Justia Law