Ninth Circuit rejects Tongass National Forest exemption to Roadless Rule

A federal appeals court has turned aside an attempt to exempt Alaska’s Tongass National Forest from a nationwide regulation protecting roadless areas.

Judge Andrew Hurwitz, writing for a majority of eleven judges sitting as an en banc panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, concluded that the effort to prevent the Roadless Area Conservation Rule from applying to the country’s largest national forest violated the main federal law that governs agency rulemaking.

The majority held July 29 that the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the parent agency of the Forest Service, had reversed a finding made during the process of enacting RACR that exempting the Tongass “would risk the loss of important roadless area values” without any explanation.

“Elections have policy consequences,” Hurwitz wrote. “But . . . even when reversing a policy after an election, an agency may not simply discard prior factual findings without a reasoned explanation.”

The 69,000 square kilometer-large Tongass National Forest is the largest remaining temperate rainforest on the planet. Among the wildlife that depend on it are five stocks of Pacific salmon, grizzly and black bears, bald eagles, arctic terns, and the imperiled Alexander Archipelago wolf.

RACR, which was finalized shortly before President William J. Clinton left office in Jan. 2001, was the subject of a barrage of lawsuits. The rule did not go into effect until a federal appeals court in Denver rejected the last remaining legal attack on it in 2011.

Three judges dissented from the ruling, which might end a fight that began shortly after the administration of President George W. Bush wrote the Tongass exemption into the Code of Federal Regulations in Dec. 2003.

The state of Alaska and the Alaska Forest Association, Inc., which defended the Tongass exemption, could seek review of the Ninth Circuit’s decision.

The case is Organized Village of Kake v. U.S. Department of Agriculture, No. 11-35517.

Ninth Circuit refuses to reconsider decision restricting standing in climate change cases

This refinery, operated by Texas-based Tesoro  Corp., is one of five in Washington that are the subject of a multi-year legal battle over greenhouse gas emission controls. Image courtesy Wikimedia.
This refinery, operated by Texas-based Tesoro Corp., is one of five in Washington that are the subject of a multi-year legal battle over greenhouse gas emission controls. Image courtesy Wikimedia.

A federal appeals court has decided not to reconsider a decision holding that environmentalists cannot mount a federal court challenge to a Washington agency’s decision not to force the state’s oil refineries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

The order of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in Washington Environmental Council v. Bellon rejected a request by a judge on the court that the opinion be subjected to en banc review.

At issue in the case is whether the Washington State Department of Ecology, the Evergreen State’s air quality regulator, must force oil refineries to adopt reasonably available control technology to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

In 2011 a federal district judge ruled that WSDE must do so. Last autumn a panel of judges on the San Francisco-based appeals court vacated that ruling, holding that the challengers to WSDE’s inaction lack standing to file a complaint about it in federal court.

The three-judge panel’s decision was not unanimous. A majority led by El Segundo, Calif.-based judge Milan D. Smith, Jr. said that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife precluded the lawsuit.

In Lujan, a plurality of the justices concluded that the U.S. Constitution’s standing requirement demands that plaintiffs challenging regulatory inaction show that they are both directly impacted by the government’s choice and that any court decision in their favor be certain to redress the harm they suffer.

Smith, an appointee of former President George W. Bush, wrote in an opinion concurring in the Feb. 3 order denying en banc review of his Oct. 2013 decision that the restrictive nature of the Lujan case compelled the outcome in Bellon because the environmental group plaintiffs in the dispute provided no evidence that imposition of the regulations they sought would result in lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Three dissenters, led by Seattle-based judge Ronald Gould, disagreed, arguing that the 2007 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency compelled a finding that the plaintiffs had standing.

“The majority’s argument -whose logical conclusion is that non-state entities categorically lack standing to use the Clean Air Act to compel state action on global warming – disregards Supreme Court precedent, makes bad law for our circuit, and harms the public,” Gould wrote for himself and fellow judges Kim Wardlaw and Richard Paez.

Gould, Wardlaw, and Paez were appointed to the Ninth Circuit by former President William J. Clinton.

Gould explained that the Massachusetts case has to be read in conjunction with Lujan and that, in that landmark 2007 decision, the justices held that a state’s regulatory response does not have to be likely to solve an entire policy problem in order for plaintiffs to show that a court order would deal with the harms they claim will result from the inaction:

“The Supreme Court’s reasoning endorsed the principle that causation and redressability exist, independent of sovereign status, when some incremental damage is sought to be avoided,” Gould wrote. “Accordingly, Massachusetts v. EPA also confers standing upon individuals seeking to induce state action to protect the environment.”

Smith dismissed that point, asserting that the state plaintiff in Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency was allowed to invoke the jurisdiction of a federal court only because it is a sovereign entity and that the harm it claimed was procedural, as opposed to the increased risk of global warming claimed by the plaintiffs in the Ninth Circuit dispute.

In the Ninth Circuit, en banc review involves reconsideration of a decision by a panel of 11 active judges on the court. For it to be granted, a majority of the court’s active judges must agree.

Janette Brimmer, a lawyer with Earthjustice who represents the environmental group plaintiffs in the case, said that her clients have not yet determined whether to ask the Supreme Court to review the Ninth Circuit’s decision.

Her clients’ immediate objective looks like it will be achieved notwithstanding the appeals court’s holding that they cannot challenge the specific regulatory decision by the Washington State Department of Ecology.  The plaintiffs in the Bellon case sought to convince the WSDE to impose reasonably available control technology requirements (RACT), a technology-forcing tool mandated by the federal Clean Air Act and the state statutory and administrative programs that enforce it, on Evergreen State oil refineries.

“The state has repeatedly admitted that it believes it has an obligation to do this under state law (even though it argued it was not compelled under a federal SIP enforcement) and so we will be following up on that acknowledgement,” Brimmer said in an email message.

Brimmer was referring to a state implementation plan, the principal means by which emission limits on pollutants regulated by the federal Clean Air Act are enforced.

Greenhouse gases are not yet subject to a national ambient air quality standard imposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, but a 1976 U.S Supreme Court decision held that state implementation plans can regulate pollutants that are not subject to the national emission limits represented by a NAAQS.

Camille St. Onge, a spokesperson for WSDE, confirmed that a rule that attempts to impose an obligation on the state’s refineries to control greenhouse gas emissions is in development.

“We finished our formal comment period,” St. Onge said.

She explained that WSDE views the rulemaking as being supported not only by federal and state statute, but also by the earlier decision in the Bellon case by a Seattle-based federal district judge.

“We do have authority under our state law,” she said. “I would think that we’re following the court order. We also have authority under the Clean Air Act.”

The Bellon case and WSDE’s proposed RACT rule focus on five refineries in Washington. Those refineries are the second-largest stationary source of greenhouse gas pollution in the state.


Federal appeals court rejects U.S. plan for oil drilling in Chukchi Sea

The Obama administration’s plan to extract billions of barrels of oil from Arctic seas off the northwest coast of Alaska hit a roadblock in federal court last week.

The federal appeals court in San Francisco ruled Jan. 22 that the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulations, and Enforcement’s ‘s environmental impact study was flawed because it assumed a production level far lower than the potential oil production from the project.

The case centers on a lease sale advanced by the administration of President George W. Bush. Called Lease Sale 193, the 2008 decision affects about 30 million acres of the marine region, an area larger than Pennsylvania.

The sale of 487 exploration leases in Lease Sale 193 produced more than $2.6 billion in revenue for Washington, with about $2.1 billion of that coming from Royal Dutch Shell, one of the world’s largest energy companies.

Opponents of the BOEM plan to allow drilling in the area point to the risks it poses to the region’s diverse wildlife.

“The melting Chukchi Sea is no place for drillships,” Rebecca Noblin, the Center for Biological Diversity’s Alaska director, said in a statement. “It’s a place where polar bears hunt for ringed seals, where walruses socialize and bowhead whales make their way to rich feeding grounds.”

The opponents, who include 12 conservation groups, one native Alaskan advocacy organization, and one native Alaskan village, argued that, by underestimating the amount of oil that could be extracted from the area if drilling occurred, BOEM was risking a huge oil spill that would devastate that pristine area.

“This mistake means that the EIS gives only the best case scenario for environmental harm,” Eric Grafe, an attorney with the public interest law firm Earthjustice, said. “All is based on the number of barrels produced. If they get the number wrong, they understate all those other impacts.”

Grafe said that, even if only 1 billion barrels of oil were produced in the area that is subject to the oil lease sale, there would be a 40 percent chance of an oil spill.

“Because it’s so remote and so inaccessible, the assumption is that you’d have to find a significant amount of oil to justify the infrastructure that would have to be put in,” he said. “Right now there’s nothing. No roads, no pipelines. It’s a pristine area. It’s precisely because of that absence of infrastructure that it’s so risky to drill there. If there is an oil spill, you’re not going to have the resources to respond to that oil spill and you can’t clean it up in an icy environment anyway.”

The federal appeals court panel that heard the case agreed that the government’s reliance upon an estimate of 1 billion barrels of oil caused its study of environmental impacts from the drilling activity  to be flawed.

“In the case before us, BOEM was fully aware from the very beginning that if one billion barrels could be economically produced, many more barrels could also be economically produced,” Judge William Fletcher, the lead author of the appellate panel’s opinion, wrote.

There may be as many as 15 billion barrels of oil that are economically viable to extract beneath the Chukchi Sea, according to 1 2011 BOEM analysis.

Environmentalists also point to the contribution to ongoing climate change that extracted oil would make.

“We can’t afford to burn the oil found there,” Grafe said. “We shouldn’t be getting more oil out to burn it if we are going to stay within climate change parameters.”

Shell commenced drilling in the Chukchi Sea in 2012 but experienced numerous problems. A  March 2013 report by the U.S. Department of Interior concluded that Shell committed a series of logistical and planning blunders in connection with its Lease Sale 193-related activities in the Arctic.

“They screwed it up really badly,” Grafe said. “Here’s a company saying ‘we’re ready to drill, we can do it safely’ and it’s a giant fiasco. Nothing goes right.”

Among those problems:

* a containment dome used to prevent the spread of oil spills that was being tested in Puget Sound was “crushed like a beer can,” according to a U.S. Department of Interior official who observed the test;

* a drill ship called the Noble Discoverer slipped anchor and nearly ran aground in Dutch Harbor, AK, then had to quickly be moved from Shell’s exploration site in the Chukchi Sea because an ice storm was rapidly approaching;

* U.S. Coast Guard inspectors found a litany of maritime regulation violations on the vessel and later referred its findings to the U.S. Department of Justice;

* the Noble Discoverer later caught fire and exploded while in port in the Aleutian Islands; and

* another drilling ship, the Kulluck, broke free of a tow and ran aground in Kodiak, AK in Dec. 2012. Shell was trying to move the ship to Seattle to avoid paying Alaska property taxes on vessels used for oil and gas exploration.

“Doing that in the winter when there’s lots of storms in the Gulf of Alaska is risky,” Grafe said. “But they did it.”

The incident involving the Kulluck drill barge remains under investigation by the U.S. Coast Guard.

Under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act of 1953 the U.S. Department of Interior has authority over oil and gas exploration and extraction on submerged lands along the country’s coasts. That cabinet department, in turn, includes a specialized agency – BOEM – to handle leasing of the submerged lands for oil and gas development activity. BOEM used to be known as the Minerals Management Service. The Obama administration changed its name in 2010, following the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Chukchi Sea lease sale dispute will now go back before a U.S. district judge in Alaska. He will decide whether the holders of oil leases in the Chukchi Sea can proceed to drill after a modified environmental impact statement is prepared or whether the lease sales should be voided altogether.

Judge Ralph Beistline had previously rejected BOEM’s environmental impact statement in a 2010 decision. Later, after the Obama administration made changes to the EIS and proceeded with Lease Sale 193, Beistline upheld that decision. It was that 2011 order that was reversed by the Ninth Circuit last week.

Grafe said that the appeals court’s opinion gives BOEM time to decide whether to abandon the Chukchi Sea leases.

“They could put out a draft EIS and, while they’re doing that process to get a more accurate assessment, not allow any activities to happen on those leases,” he explained. “At the end of that EIS process, when we have a document that more accurately informs the public about the risks, they can reconsider the decision about whether the leases should be there.”

Grafe was referring to an environmental impact statement, which is the study of the environmental impacts likely to result from a “major federal action,” such as marine oil leases, mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969.

Shell announced this week that it would not attempt to drill in the Chukchi or Beaufort Seas this year.

The case is Native Village of Point Hope v. Jewell, No. 12-35287.

Chukchi Sea ice - photo courtesy NOAA - photo by Karen E. Frey Beluga whale pod in Chukchi sea - photo courtesy NOAA, photo by Laura Morse Walruses in the Chukchi Sea - photo courtesy USGS

Kulluck aground - photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard, photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Klingenberg

Top photo: Ice on Chukchi Sea (photo courtesy National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, photo by Karen E. Frey)

Second photo: Beluga whale pod in Chukchi Sea (photo courtesy National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, photo by Laura Morse)

Third photo: Walrus in Chukchi Sea (photo courtesy U.S. Geological Survey)

Fourth photo: The drill ship Kulluck aground in Kodiak, AK, Jan. 1, 2013 (photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard, photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Klingenberg)

Ninth Circuit considering whether to grant en banc review in Drakes Bay Oyster case

The San Francisco-based federal appeals court that upheld an Obama administration decision not to renew a permit allowing oyster farming at Point Reyes National Seashore is considering whether to re-hear the case.

In an order released Tuesday, the judges who wrote the Sept. 3 opinion asked the U.S. Department of Justice to inform the court whether it thinks en banc review is appropriate. The court set a Dec. 2 deadline for the Obama administration’s brief.

The case involves a clash between a 1970s decision by Congress to designate an estuary called Drakes Estero, the likely site of the first landing by Europeans in California in 1579, as a potential addition to the National Wilderness Preservation System and a shellfish farm that has been in operation for about eight decades. 

Former secretary of the interior Ken Salazar announced in Nov. 2012 that a 40-year lease allowing use of about 1,100 acres located in the western half of the estuary for shellfish harvesting would not be renewed.

If the Interior Department’s decision not to renew the lease and accompanying special use permit is upheld, then the Drakes Estero acreage used by Drakes Bay Oyster Co., as well as about 1,600 additional acres, will become part of the first marine wilderness area on the west coast.

En banc review, or reconsideration of a three-judge panel’s opinion by a larger group of judges, is conducted in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit by 11 judges. According to the court’s rules, the judges who would sit on such a panel are chosen at random by a member of the clerk of court’s staff.

Federal law authorizes appeals courts to grant en banc review if the case is of “exceptional importance” or if the decision by the panel of three circuit judges is in conflict with a decision by another three-judge panel.

In the Drakes Bay case, the permit holder argues that an amendment to a 2009 law authorizes perpetual operation of the oyster farm, despite the 1976 statute.

The case is Drakes Bay Oyster Co. v. Jewell, No. 13-15227.

Ninth Circuit says enviros have no standing to compel state regulation of GHG emissions from oil refineries

A panel of Republican-appointed judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled Oct. 17 that environmentalists lack standing to challenge a state’s failure to invoke the Clean Air Act to regulate oil refinery greenhouse gas emissions.

The case involves an effort by environmentalists to force Washington to develop and implement technology standards that would result in the reduced GHG pollution. Washington’s state implementation plan, the program for air pollution control required by the Clean Air Act, does not reach greenhouse gases.

The environmentalists won in the federal district court.

The appeals court panel’s holding rests on an assertion that the plaintiffs were unable to show a link between the harm they suffer from the emissions and the industrial activities, and consequent emissions, by the regulated entities. In other words, the panel decided that there is no legally recognizable connection between the conceded emissions and the generally accepted environmental damage they do.

“[A]ttempting to establish a causal nexus in this case may be a particularly challenging task,” wrote the opinion’s author, Judge Milan D. Smith.

This is so because there is a natural disjunction between [p]laintiffs’ localized injuries and the greenhouse effect. Greenhouse gases, once emitted from a specific source, quickly mix and disperse in the global atmosphere and have a long atmospheric lifetime. Current research on how greenhouse gases influence global climate change has focused on the cumulative environmental effects from aggregate regional or global sources. But there is limited scientific capability in assessing, detecting, or measuring the relationship between a certain GHG emission source and localized climate impacts in a given region.

Smith cited a May 2008 memorandum from the director of the U.S. Geological Survey to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for this conclusion.

Richard Frank, a professor of law at the University of California at Davis and an expert on environmental law, said that Smith’s point is a departure from the traditional way in which courts approach pollution problems.

The courts have pretty easily and readily dismissed the notion that one of the polluters should not be held responsible and the party could not go after one bad actor in court because of the idea that everyone is doing it,” he explained.

Janette Brimmer, an Earthjustice lawyer who represented the environmental group plaintiffs in the case, said she thought the opinion will make it harder for public interest plaintiffs to challenge regulatory inaction in court.

“There’s no doubt this decision raises the bar, and raises it pretty darn high,” she said.

Smith’s opinion relied on a narrow reading of a 2007 holding of the U.S. Supreme Court. In that case, called Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency, the justices held that Massachusetts had standing to challenge EPA’s failure to regulate greenhouse gases.

Smith wrote that the ability of the states in the Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency case to secure standing in a challenge focused on failure to regulate rested solely on those states’ status as sovereigns, a status environmentalists do not have.

This reading of the Massachusetts case, Frank said, is too narrow.

There were a lot of people that, when the Massachusetts decision was issued in 2007, thought this opened the courthouse door at least a little bit to a lot of different parties who sought to bring climate change actions,” he said.

The Supreme Court’s opinion in Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency may not have even been solely premised on a state’s status as a sovereign entity within the union. The court did not hold in that case that Massachusetts’ co-plaintiffs lacked standing to challenge the Bush administration’s refusal to use the tools provided by the Clean Air Act to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

In fact, the court said that Congress’ decision to include a citizen suit provision in the Clean Air Act meant that sovereign entities are not the only parties who can sue under the law.

When a litigant is vested with a procedural right, that litigant has standing if there is some possibility that the requested relief will prompt the injury-causing party to reconsider the decision that allegedly harmed the litigant,” he wrote.

Nor is the other pillar of Smith’s rejection of standing for the environmental plaintiffs necessarily well-grounded in the guidance offered by the justices. Smith’s opinion for the Ninth Circuit panel also asserted that, in contrast to the higher percentage of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions at issue in the Massachusetts case, the Washington refineries account for only five percent of warming pollution emanating from the sources just in that single state.

Stevens’ opinion in the Massachusetts case dismissed a similar argument against standing.

“[The] argument rests on the erroneous assumption that a small incremental step, because it is incremental, can never be attacked in a federal judicial forum,” Stevens wrote. “Yet accepting that premise would doom most challenges to regulatory action. Agencies, like legislatures, do not generally resolve massive problems in one fell regulatory swoop.

In fact, Frank said, another federal appeals court has applied the Massachusetts decision to a question of standing very similar to that in the Washington case and come out exactly opposite to the Ninth Circuit panel.

“There’s a decision in the Second Circuit, based in New York, in American Electric Power v. Connecticut that I think is pretty diametrically opposed to this,” he said.

One explanation for the Ninth Circuit decision may be judicial discomfort with the notion that courts should help fashion a societal response to climate change.

At oral argument in the Washington case, one of the judges on the panel indicated that he believed that the courts should discourage litigation as a method for dealing with it.

Perhaps carbon dioxide causes harm, we know poverty causes harm, so why shouldn’t it be a policy question decided Congressionally rather than an inch-by-inch incremental series of injunctions by district courts, each of which has no practical effect, but in your theory incrementally adds up to an effect?,” Judge Andrew Kleinfeld, an Alaska-based member of the panel that decided the case, asked at oral argument July 10.

Frank explained that this response may be based on a view that climate change is too complex for courts.

“You’re talking about a global problem,” he said. “One unit of pollution emitted in Anacortes, Washington does not have more or less effect than a unit of pollution discharged in Beijing, Paris, or Johannesburg.”

The federal appeals court also held that, even if the plaintiffs had shown causality between the refinery emissions and environmental damage to Washington lands and waters and the atmosphere, a RACT requirement would not make any difference.

“Because the effect of collective emissions from the [o]il [r]efineries on global climate change is ‘scientifically indiscernible,’ [p]laintiffs’ injuries are likely to continue unabated even if the [o]il [r]efineries have RACT controls,” Smith wrote.

Smith’s opinion was joined by Kleinfeld and circuit judge N. Randy Smith.

Smith was appointed to the bench by former President George W. Bush in 2006, while Smith was appointed by Bush in 2007. Kleinfeld was appointed by President George H.W. Bush in 1991.

The case is Washington Environmental Council v. Bellon, No. 12-35323.

Federal appeals court okays effort to kill sea lions to save salmon

A federal appeals court has rejected an effort to prevent the National Marine Fisheries Service from killing California sea lions near Bonneville Dam as part of a program to conserve imperiled Pacific salmon species.

The decision likely brings to an end a dispute that has been ongoing since 2008. The administration of former President George W. Bush had authorized the states of Idaho, Oregon, and Washington to annually kill a maximum of either 85 sea lions or “the number required to reduce the observed predation rate to 1 percent of the salmonid run at Bonneville Dam.

The National Marine Fisheries Service granted the necessary permission based on a clause of the Marine Mammal Protection Act that allows killing of pinnipeds that interfere with the recovery of species included on the federal list of threatened and endangered species.

The Humane Society of the United States challenged the approval, arguing that NMFS had not adequately explained the basis of its decision that sea lions should be killed as an impediment to salmon conservation and that the agency had also failed to justify the maximum number of kills allowed.

In 2010 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that NMFS had not provided a sufficient explanation for its belief that a salmon predation rate of one percent should trigger section 120(a) of the MMPA. The opinion pointed to earlier federal government decisions that would allow fishers to take more of the population of protected Columbia River salmon each year than would sea lions.
The court also ruled in its 2010 decision that NMFS had not adequately explained why killing of sea lions would be permissible as an interference with salmon recovery when the agency was simultaneously willing to tolerate the killing of a greater percentage of the runs by hydroelectric dams and fishing.

The agency, upon reconsideration, limited the annual take of sea lions to 92 individuals per year and committed to a review of the decision to authorize the program after five years. NMFS also adopted a qualitative, as opposed to a quantitative, standard as justification for the kill authorization.

HSUS and the Wild Fish Conservancy filed another lawsuit against the program in March 2012. U.S. District Judge Michael Simon decided in May 2012 not to issue a preliminary injunction that would block NMFS from carrying it out. 

The Ninth Circuit, in an unpublished opinion announced Sept. 27, affirmed Simon’s ruling, holding that NMFS had complied with both MMPA and the National Environmental Policy Act.

Hatcheries and birds also kill more protected salmon on the Columbia River each year than do sea lions.

A 2012 report by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimated that the annual toll of salmon lost to California sea lions at Bonneville Dam is about 0.6 percent of the run.

Photo courtesy Wikimedia.

Note: This article also appears at

Ninth Circuit gives green light to California low carbon fuel regulation

A federal appeals court has rejected arguments that California’s pioneering low-carbon fuel standard violates the U.S. Constitution by discriminating against out-of-state ethanol and crude oil producers.

In a decision released Sept. 18 the court held that the LCFS does not transgress the Commerc Clause. Two judges on a U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit panel found that California law may treat fuels with different levels of carbon intensity differently because the benefits obtained for the environment outweighs that discrimination. 

“This is a great day for public health and the economy of California,” Tim O’Connor, an attorney at Environmental Defense Fund and director of that organization’s California Climate Initiatives, said. “The court clearly upheld a groundbreaking policy that will protect consumers and the environment by diversifying our fuel mix and providing more choices for a clean energy future.”

The court’s holding specifically sanctioned California’s effort to take into account the greenhouse gas emission caused at all stages of a fuel’s production, transportation, and distribution.

“If California is to successfully promote low carbon-intensity fuels, countering a trend towards increased [greenhouse gas] output and rising world temperatures, it cannot ignore the real factors behind GHG emissions,” the majority opinion by Judge Ronald M. Gould said.

Another noteworthy aspect of the Ninth Circuit’s opinion is a recognition that states may formulate regulations that recognize the greenhouse gas emission implications of  fuel producers’ entire operations:

With its long coastlines vulnerable to rising waters, large population that needs food and water, sizable deserts that can expand with sustained increased heat, and vast forests that may become tinderboxes with too little rain, California is uniquely vulnerable to the perils of global warming. The California legislature determined that [greenhouse gas] emissions from the production and distribution of transportation fuels contribute to this risk, and that those emissions are caused by the in-state consumption of fuels. Whether or not one agrees with the science underlying those views, those determinations are permissible ones for the legislature to make, and the Supreme Court has recognized that these risks constitute local threats.

The opinion also rejected a claim that the California LCFS is preempted by the federal Clean Air Act.

One of the three judges on the panel, Mary Murguia, dissented.

The LCFS is one aspect of California’s multi-pronged efforts, based on the state’s Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, to reduce greenhouse gas pollution. It forces producers and distributors of fuels used in transportation systems, especially motor vehicles, to meet a gradually more rigorous schedule of reduced greenhouse gas emissions. The regulation does this by mandating a focus on the “carbon intensity” of the fuels. That term refers  to the amount of atmosphere-warming compounds produced at each stage of the process of extracting, refining, distributing, and burning the fuel.

The case is Rocky Mountain Farmers Union v. Corey, No. 12-15131.

Supreme Court dismisses only environmental law case on 2013-2014 docket

The U.S. Supreme Court might not have to decide soon questions relating to environmental law.

The justices dismissed on Monday the only case raising such questions that had been on its docket for next year.

In an unsigned, one-line order the Court vacated the judgment of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in U.S. Forest Service v. Pacific Rivers Council and ordered the district court to dismiss the case on mootness grounds.

The Court’s action has alarmed some commentators.

Richard M. Frank, a University of California at Davis law professor, wrote on the respected Legal Planet blog that the order might reflect a belief by environmental advocacy organizations that they cannot get a fair hearing at the Supreme Court.

Frank explained that the plaintiffs in the case, including Portland-based Pacific Rivers Council, entered into an agreement with the United States government not to further challenge USDA Forest Service’s compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act in a dispute over planning of management actions on national forests in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

The Ninth Circuit rejected the 2004 planning effort on grounds that the Forest Service’s efforts did not properly account for the impacts of planned extraction and other activities on fish populations within the national forests in that region.

Historically, NEPA has not faired well in the Court. One analysis demonstrated that environmental groups have never convinced the Court to rule in their favor in a case arising under the law in its entire 44-year history.

Other environmental laws have also not fared well before the Court lately. During this year’s term the justices overturned two Ninth Circuit decisions that enforced the Clean Water Act.