Senate Monitors FAA Airspace Changes Through New Advisory Committee

The Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act of 2016, passed by the United States Senate on April 19, 2016, and previously reported on in this publication, contains another provision that merits comment.  Section 2506, “Airspace Management Advisory Committee” was introduced by Senators McCain and Flake of Arizona, purportedly to provide a communication channel between the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) and the public concerning FAA programs for redesign of regional airspace over major public airports.   

The Senators were apparently motivated by their constituents after the FAA initiated a massive redesign of the airspace over the region surrounding Phoenix International Airport, causing substantial and widespread public outcry regarding perceived altitude changes and associated aircraft noise increases, especially over neighborhoods not previously overflown.  Despite these reported impacts, FAA found that the airspace changes created no significant aircraft noise impacts, and, thus, chose to document their determination with a categorical exemption from review under the National Environmental Policy Act, 42 U.S.C. § 4321, et seq. (“NEPA”).  The City of Phoenix instituted a two-prong approach in disputing this determination.  It first filed a lawsuit to halt the airspace changes, on the ground that, among other things, a categorical exemption is inapplicable where, among other things, there is a division of an established community caused by movement of noise impacts from one area to another, while at the same time utilizing the political approach by submitting section 2506 through Senators McCain and Flake.  
 
Despite its apparently noble purpose, section 2506 doesn’t quite live up to its publicity.
 

For one thing, the legislation calls only for the establishment of an “advisory committee” to:

 (1) Review practices and procedures of the FAA with regard to “airspace [changes] that affect airport operations, airport capacity, the environment for communities in the vicinity of airports;” including
 
(A) An assessment of whether there is sufficient consultation between various FAA offices involved in the changes; and
 
(B) Between FAA and affected entities including “airports, aircraft operators, communities, and state and local governments;”
 
(2) Recommend revisions to procedures;
 
(3) Conduct a review of FAA data systems used to evaluate obstructions to air navigation, as defined in 14 C.F.R. Part 77; and
 
(4) Ensure that the data described in section 3 is made publicly accessible.  
 
The aims of the legislation may be virtuous, but the procedures used to achieve those ends may be viewed with a grain of salt.  Specifically, the “advisory committee” mandated by the legislation is composed of: (1) air carriers; (2) general aviation, including business aviation and fixed-wing aircraft and rotorcraft; (3) airports of various sizes and types; (4) air traffic controllers; and (5) state aviation officials, section 2506(c), but does not include any representative of an “affected community,” the very constituency the legislation’s purpose is to assist.  The result is that the interests of those communities will be represented by surrogates, many of whom have interests directly antithetical to those of the communities.  What can be said is that the legislation is a good start at making the FAA more accountable for its decisions with regard to airspace changes.  What is needed now is a next step, perhaps in an amendment to the existing legislation, bringing the affected communities actively into the conversation.  

 

Privatization of the United States Air Traffic Control System Hits Roadblock in the U.S. Senate

Less than a month ago, it seemed clear that privatization was the wave of the future for the United States Air Traffic Control System (“ATC System”).  On February 19, 2016, the United States House of Representatives Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approved the Aviation Innovation, Reform and Reauthorization Act (“H.R. 4441” or “FAA Reauthorization Act”), the centerpiece of which was the establishment of an independent, nonprofit, private corporation to modernize the U.S. ATC System and provide ongoing ATC services.  The benefits of such “privatization” were seen to include less expense, less backlog in the implementation of air traffic control revisions, in essence, greater efficiency in the development, implementation, and long-term operation of the ATC System.  Central questions still remain, however, concerning the synergy of a private corporation’s management of the ATC System with the overarching statutory regime by which it is currently governed.  

H.R. 4441 does not directly address the issues of: (1) whether the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) still have the final determination as to whether a change in the ATC System recommended by the corporation is “safe,” or will that determination also be left in private hands; (2) will the National Environmental Policy Act, 42 U.S.C. § 4321, et seq. (“NEPA”), applicable to the analysis of the environmental impacts of projects sponsored by a federal agency, still apply to changes in the ATC System effectuated by a private corporation; and (3) will federal preemption of local airport noise and access restrictions, conclusively established in the Airport Noise and Capacity Act of 1990, 49 U.S.C. § 47521, et seq. (“ANCA”), apply to determinations by a private corporation?  While many questions are left to be clarified, H.R. 4441 does explicitly answer at least one – it provides that federal preemption of local regulation of airline “prices, routes, and service,” originally established in the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, 49 U.S.C. 41713(b), will remain in place.  Finally, judicial review under the Act is applied differentially, depending on whether a challenge is to FAA’s grant of a proposal, or its denial.  FAA’s approval of a proposal made by the corporation would be subject to the “abuse of discretion” standard, and the deference normally accorded to a governmental entity charged with the administration of a program established by Congress, which is difficult to overcome.  FAA’s denial of such a proposal, however, likely to be challenged only by the corporation, would not be subject to such deference, making the path to a reversal and ultimate approval of the corporation’s recommendations smoother.  

Apparently, the Senate Commerce Committee recognized H.R. 4441’s many unanswered questions, as did the full House of Representatives which has held up approval and caused the House to enact an extension of the FAA’s funding reauthorization to July 15, 2016.  The Senate reacted by passing its version of H.R. 4441 without the privatization provision.  This means that passage of the FAA Reauthorization must wait first until the issue is resolved internally in the House of Representatives.  Even if H.R. 4441 should emerge from the full House including the privatization provision, unless the full Senate should see fit to agree, a Conference Committee will be required and funding for the FAA could be delayed well past the current July 15, 2016 deadline.  
 

Land Trade and Airport Expansion Expected to Put Mammoth Mountain on "Must Ski" Map

Usually regarded as a local ski area for ski buffs in Northern and Southern California, to which it is readily accessible by car, Mammoth Mountain Ski Area (“MMSA”) is preparing to come into the 21st Century with a new lodge, updated lifts, and, perhaps most important to proponents of the development, an expanded airport.  The expected transformation will be accomplished by the December 12, 2014 passage of the National Defense Authorization Act to which was attached an amendment specifically targeted at the MMSA.  The amendment provides for a land trade of over 1,500 acres of public and private property in proximate counties, for approximately 21 acres of United States Forest Service (“USFS”) land surrounding Mammoth Mountain Inn, which is currently leasing that property as the center of ski operations of the MMSA.  In addition, the Bill allows for a “cash equalization option” to facilitate the exchange, by which MMSA can make up any deficiency in the value of the property conveyed to the USFS with a cash equivalent.  
 
Most important in MMSA’s view is the expansion of the airport.  

In August, 2014, the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) approved a new Airport Layout Plan (“ALP”) for the Mammoth Yosemite Airport (“Airport”) which includes proposed runway and associated parallel taxiway extensions, land acquisition for those improvements, as well as a terminal expansion.  MMSA believes that “the combination of the Mammoth Mountain land trade and the FAA approval of an expanded commercial airport in Mammoth Lakes is a game changer. . .,” “now, for the first time, the mountain owns the land it resides on and can make improvements it can own.  Plus the new airport will allow for flights from around the country.”

Environmental groups, not unexpectedly, deplore the new events.  Mammoth Mountain is located on the east side of the Sierra Nevada, surrounded by valuable natural resources, including the Owens and Walker Rivers, which are home to a variety of species fast losing habitat elsewhere.  The debate over the expansion will be more clearly articulated during the environmental review process for the land exchange, pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act, 42 U.S.C. § 4321, et seq. (“NEPA”), which will start upon the signing of the Bill authorizing the land exchange.  
 
Moreover, the FAA’s approval of the ALP was based on the satisfaction of certain conditions including that: (1) the proposed runway, taxiway extensions and land acquisition are not approved for short term developments; (2) FAA approve a terminal study that includes acceptable forecasts for use of the terminal; and (3) all development must comply with NEPA.  Therefore, development depends not only on the success of the contemplated land purchases, but also upon satisfaction of environmental requirements.  In California, those requirements involve not only NEPA, but also the California Environmental Quality Act, Cal. Pub. Res. Code § 21000, et seq. (“CEQA”) as well, with its much more rigorous analytic requirements.
 
In summary, although the land trade and associated airport expansion may be seen as a long term benefit to real estate development and the skiing public from outside California, the environmental controversy over the protection of the Eastern Sierra Wilderness will rage for many years to come. 
 

FAA Seeks Comments on Exemption from Environmental Review for New Airspace Procedures

On August 19, 2014, the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) published a proposed rule regarding “Implementation of Legislative Categorical Exclusion for Environmental Review of Performance Based Navigation  Procedures,” 79 Fed.Reg. 49141 (“CATEX Rule”) to implement the Congressional mandate contained in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, Pub.L. 112-95 (“FRMA”), § 213, directing FAA “to issue and file a categorical exclusion for any navigation performance or other performance based  navigation (PBN) procedure that would result in measureable reductions in fuel consumption, carbon  dioxide emissions, and noise on a per flight basis as compared to aircraft operations that follow existing instrument flight rule procedures in the same airspace.”  79 Fed.Reg. 41941.

FAA was motivated to request public review of the CATEX Rule by the exceptions in FMRA that limits the change in the environmental review requirements to: (1) PBN procedures (excluding conventional operational procedures and projects involving a mix of both), FMRA § 213(c)(2); and (2) those in which there are measurable reductions in fuel consumption, carbon dioxide emissions and noise on a per flight basis, Id., see also, 79 Fed.Reg. 49142, citing FMRA § 213(c)(1).  In addition, FAA feels it necessary to further explore the consequent recommendations of the industry group appointed to develop a metric to capture the new requirement, the NextGen Advisory Committee (“NAC”), made up of 28 members from the “airlines, airports, manufacturers, aviation associations, consultants, and community interests.”  Id.
 

Specifically, the NAC recommended the “Net Noise Reduction Method,” which would “[p]rovide[] for the computation of the number of people who would experience a reduction in noise and the number of people who would experience an increase in noise with a proposed PBN procedure as compared with the existing instrument procedure, at noise levels of DNL [average] 45 dB and higher.”  79 Fed. Reg. 49142.  FAA concluded that this proposal needs further evaluation because it “would introduce a new method for assessing noise … that is different in a number of respects from current noise analysis methodologies,” Id., and because it “does not produce a quantity of noise on a per flight basis,” 79 Fed.Reg. 49143, (i.e., a single event, or SENEL basis), as mandated by Congress, but instead “allows for averaging [of] noise impact on a representative basis,” (closer to the DNL or average noise level), 79 Fed.Reg. 49142, fn. 3.  

The FAA is further concerned about the extent “to which the Net Noise Reduction Method’s reliance on a net reduction in the number of people exposed to noise constitutes a net reduction in noise, since the two reductions are not the same.”  79 Fed.Reg. 49143.  Ironically, communities exposed to high levels of airport noise have been making the same objection to the DNL metric, the 24 hour average noise metric, for decades, on the ground that while such average is the conventional method of establishing noise impact, individuals do not hear “averages” but rather experience noise on a per flight basis, as has now been recognized by Congress.  

Finally, and despite FAA’s disclaimer that “[a] CATEX is not an exemption or waiver of NEPA review,” a categorical exemption is exactly what it purports to be: an exclusion from the normally applicable requirement to perform review under the National Environmental Policy Act, 42 U.S.C. § 4321, et seq. (“NEPA”).  Apparently recognizing this, Congress enacted the caveat that a categorical exemption will not apply where “the Administrator determines that extraordinary circumstances exist with respect to the procedure.”  FMRA § 213(c)(1), although what precisely constitutes an “extraordinary circumstance” is not explained in the proposed rule.  

In summary, Congress has now mandated the development of a per flight noise metric for PBN procedures, and FAA will be required to adjust its traditional metric to conform.  FAA is giving the public, including affected communities, their first opportunity to weigh in on this important regulatory distinction by September 18, 2014.  Comments identified by ‘‘Docket Number FAA–2014–0510’’ may be sent either by mail to Docket Operations, M–30, U.S.  Department of Transportation (DOT), 1200 New Jersey Avenue SE, Room W12–140, West Building Ground Floor, Washington, DC 20590–0001 or electronically to the Federal eRulemaking Portal at http://www.regulations.gov.  

Update:  On September 11, 2014, FAA extended the comment period to October 20, 2014 (79 Fed. Reg. 54342).  

 

FAA Changes the Rules for National Environmental Policy Act Review

Inspired by Congressional intervention, the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) has begun the process of revising and reorganizing FAA Order 1050.1E, “Environmental Impact: Policies and Procedures” in a new Order, 1050.1F (by the same name).  78 Fed.Reg. 49596-49600 (August 14, 2013).  That in itself would not be particularly notable, except for the importance of the changes that are being made, and their significance for both airport operators and the communities around airports that are the direct recipients of both the disbenefit of the environmental impacts of airport projects, and the potential benefit of the adequate environmental review of those impacts.

The most important of the potential revisions to Order 1050.1E involves FAA’s relief from the burdens of environmental review granted by Congress in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, H.R. 658 (112th) (“FMRA”).  Specifically, two legislatively created categorical exclusions are added in 1050.1F, paragraphs 5-6.5q and 5-6.5r, Exemption from NEPA Review which basically give a free pass to changes to air traffic procedures throughout the country.
 

These are: (1) Area Navigation/Required Navigation Performance (“RNP”) procedures proposed for “core” (large hub) airports, or any medium or small hub airports located in the same metroplex, and for RNP procedures proposed at 35 non-core airports to be selected by the Administrator; and (2) for any navigation performance or other performance based navigational procedure “developed, certified, published or implemented that in the determination of the Administrator would result in unreasonable reductions in fuel consumption, carbon dioxide emissions and noise on a per flight basis as compared to aircraft operations that following existing instrument flight rules . . . in the same airspace irrespective of the altitude.”  78 Fed.Reg. 49599 [emphasis added].

In other words, Congress has exempted FAA from the responsibility to review the environmental impacts, and specifically those of noise and air quality, of the new GPS based procedures being implemented throughout the United States.  The rationale for this exemption is clearly to pave the way for the modernization of the air traffic system with satellite based technology.  The result, however, is less benign.  To the extent these procedures allow for the increasing geographical focus of arrivals and departures, their impacts are also increasingly focused over certain communities.  This means that specific populations are, or will, experience far more intense noise and air quality effects from arrivals and departures, while others will be relieved.  Ironically, this is the very change in the distribution of impacts that the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”) was enacted to disclose. 

Finally, the good news is that, aside from excusing the RNP projects from environmental review, new Order 1050.1F also elevates certain additional categories of projects to EIS status.  For example, Order 1050.1F requires an EIS for, among other things: (1) location of a new commercial service airport in a MSA; (2) a new runway to accommodate air carrier aircraft at a commercial service airport in a MSA; and (3) major runway extensions. 

In summary, new FAA Order 1050.1F appears to follow in the footsteps of its predecessor in smoothing FAA’s path to project approval by eliminating the hard bumps in the process of environmental review.  Interested parties may submit comments by September 30, 2013 by internet at http://www.regulations.gov; by mail at U.S. Department of Transportation, Docket Operations, M-30, West Building Ground Floor, Room W12-140, 1200 New Jersey Avenue SE, Washington, DC  20590-0001; and by fax at (202)493-2251.
 

FAA Issues Temporary "Final Rule" for the New York North Shore Helicopter Route

In a surprising climax to the long controversy concerning helicopter flights and attendant noise impacts on the North Shore communities of New York’s Suffolk County, the FAA, on July 6, issued a “Final Rule,” making mandatory the current voluntary flight path for helicopters one mile offshore, but allowing the “Final Rule” to sunset on August 6, 2014, two years from the effective date, “unless the FAA determines a permanent rule is merited.”  The route commences 20 miles northeast of LaGuardia, near Huntington, New York, and remains approximately one mile offshore until reaching Orient Point, near the eastern end of Long Island, with deviations allowed for safety reasons, and to allow helicopters to transit over land to reach their ultimate destinations. 

The FAA discloses that its decision to promulgate the original voluntary rule arose from the numerous complaints of noise from helicopter overflights brought to its attention by Senator Charles Schumer of New York and Representative Tim Bishop of Long Island’s North Shore in October, 2007.  The subsequent mandatory rule apparently resulted from continued political pressure by residents who are “unbearably and negatively” impacted, particularly during the summer months when the number of helicopters, as well as deviations from the voluntary routing, seem to increase dramatically.  The real surprises in the “Final Rule,” however, are FAA’s rationale for: (1) making the route mandatory, a rationale which seems to apply equally to currently voluntarily procedures at other airports; and (2) the Rule’s sunset provision. 
 

On the need for a mandatory rule, FAA asserts that such a rule will “help further decrease levels of noise that have already been voluntarily achieved.”  In support, FAA offers that its noise analysis indicates not too surprisingly that, even though cumulative noise levels may be low when averaged across the year (as low as 45 dB DNL), helicopter overflights could be more disturbing on certain days when they are experienced several times over a period of several hours or the course of a day.  FAA then claims that maximizing the utilization of the existing voluntary route by making it mandatory will somehow secure and improve the decreased levels of noise that have been voluntarily achieved. 

Of course, many of the 900 commenters, including the Town of East Hampton, disagree that significant improvement in noise levels have already been achieved by the voluntary rule, and further object to FAA’s refusal to conduct environmental review of the new procedure, instead invoking its power under the National Environmental Policy Act, 42 U.S.C. § 4321, et seq., and FAA Order 1050.1E, § 312f to categorically exclude the new rule from environmental review. 

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of FAA’s rationale, however, is that it would apply equally to current voluntary noise abatement procedures at airports such as O’Hare (e.g., the “Fly Quiet Rule”) which FAA has, up to now, refused to consider upgrading to a mandatory status. 

Finally, FAA took the public by surprise by including in the “Final Rule” a sunset provision that FAA had, apparently, not contemplated when it published the Draft Rule.  Under the sunset provision, the “Final Rule” will independently expire “if the FAA determines there is no meaningful improvement in the effect of helicopter noise on quality of life . . .”  However, the notice is not specific to the metric FAA will use to define “meaningful improvement,” when it contends that noise is already as low as 45 dB DNL in affected areas.  If the only indicator of adverse impact leading to the promulgation of the Rule was public complaints, the only conclusion as to the indicator for “meaningful improvement” is a reduction in public complaints.  Thus, the sunset provision constitutes a canny way for a public agency to discourage public and political pressure.  Whether making the rule mandatory while, of necessity, still permitting helicopter overflights over land will accomplish FAA’s ultimate purpose of further reducing noise, or simply silence some complaints, remains to be seen. 
 

Federal Court Finds that Judicial Deference Does Not Mean "Do Everything Federal Entity Requests"

Challengers to the determinations of Federal agencies do not go to court on a level playing field with their governmental adversaries.  Federal courts have long taken the position that deference is properly accorded to an agency making decisions within its area of technical expertise.  That position may now be changing, at least with respect to two specific sets of legal circumstances. 

The first set of circumstances deals with settlements.  In SEC v. Citigroup Global Markets, Inc., 2011 W.L. 5903733 (S.D.N.Y.), Judge Jed S. Rakoff rejected a $285 million settlement between the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) and Citigroup which he believe had not been adequately supported.  Specifically, the Judge found the settlement was vague concerning the rationale for a charge of negligence in what was clearly a well thought out scheme of “shorting” dubious investments it had just sold to investors; the total losses suffered by investors; and the penalty amount that would have been imposed. 

In a hearing on those questions, counsel for the SEC took the position that the Judge had no business assessing the “public interest” in the settlement, as it was not part of the applicable standard of review.  The Judge firmly disagreed.  Analogizing the applicability of the public interest standard in settlements to its applicability in injunctive relief, the Court held that it could not be asked to “exercise my power and not my judgment,” particularly where Supreme Court authority held that a court cannot grant injunctive relief without considering the public interest.  Ultimately, refusing to be “a mere handmaiden to a settlement privately negotiated on the basis of unknown facts,” the Court ordered the parties to trial in July, 2012.

The second circumstances under which deference may be attenuated in the future occurs mainly in actions involving the National Environmental Policy Act, 42 U.S.C. § 4321 (“NEPA”).  In typical NEPA cases, courts give almost total deference to the adequacy of a project’s environmental review by a Federal agency that has been delegated by Congress with the authority to promulgate rules implementing Congress’ clearly expressed statutory purpose.  U.S. v. Mead Corp., 533 U.S. 218, 227-228 (2001).  However, in a very recent, untypical case, Tinicum Township, et al. v. U.S. Department of Transportation, et al., still pending in the United States 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, the Federal agency delegated with that rulemaking and implementation power, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) took strong and unchanging issue with the adequacy of the review by the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) of the Philadelphia International Airport Capacity Enhancement Project (“Project”).  Tinicum Township is the first, if not the only, case in which the challenger has pled that, even though FAA is the agency delegated to perform environmental review, it is EPA that deserves deference in its conclusion that the Project’s review was inadequate. 

As can be seen from the above situations, the concept of deference may be in transition.  From a specific perspective, this change could most notably affect the level of judicial review of settlements and NEPA compliance.  More generally, the transition could implicate cognizable separation of powers issues between the Executive and Judicial branches of government.
 

Tinicum Township, Pennsylvania's Challenge to the Philadelphia International Airport Expansion Project Goes to Court

On Tuesday, March 6, 2012, Tinicum Township, Pennsylvania and its partners County of Delaware, Pennsylvania; Thomas J. Giancristoforo; and David McCann (“Petitioners”) took their grievances with the ongoing expansion project at Philadelphia International Airport (“PHL”) to the 3rd Circuit Federal Court of Appeals in Philadelphia.  Petitioners, made up of communities and residents surrounding the airport, expressed their concern with the Federal Aviation Administration’s (“FAA”) often-ignored failure to adequately disclose and analyze the project’s air quality and land use impacts. 

Relying most heavily on consistent objections to the project by the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) the Federal agency delegated by Congress with the power to promulgate and enforce regulations governing Clean Air Act compliance, Petitioners asserted that their claims are based on: (1) FAA’s failure to comply with the disclosure and analysis requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act, 42 U.S.C. § 4321, et seq., (“NEPA”); (2) the EPA’s right to receive deference from the Court to its negative views of the project because, in the 3rd Circuit, “deference follows delegation,” see, e.g., Chao v. Community Trust Company, 474 F.3d 75, 85 (3rd Cir. 2007); and (3) FAA’s violation of the Airport Airway Improvement Act, 49 U.S.C. § 47101, et seq., (“AAIA”) requirement that airport projects be reasonably consistent with the existing plans of jurisdictions authorized by the State in which the airport is located to plan for the development of the area surrounding the airport.  49 U.S.C. § 47106(a)(1).  FAA disagreed with Petitioners’ assertions of deference and claimed that they had complied with the AAIA by relying on the plans of the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission.  (See Philadelphia Inquirer, March 6, 2012 and Delaware County Daily Times, March 7, 2012 for catalog of FAA arguments.)

The three judge panel expressed satisfaction with the scope of the oral argument, but is not subject to any specific time period within which to render its decision.
 

There May Still Be Time to Weigh in on the Congressional Action to Exempt the NextGen Technologies from NEPA Review

As we reported yesterday in our blog titled “FAA Reauthorization Act Exempts Next Generation Airspace Redesign Projects from Environmental Review,” Congress is set to act on the conference version of H.R. 658 (“Act”), a Bill the nominal purpose of which is to fund the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) for 2011-2014, a task Congress has been unable or unwilling to accomplish for the last two years. 

The legislation goes far beyond funding, however.  Toward another stated purpose - to “streamline programs” - the Act sets out the parameters for establishment and operation of FAA’s Next Generation Transportation System (“NextGen”).  Not stopping there, it also “creates efficiencies” by exempting the NextGen program from environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act, 42 U.S.C. § 4321, et seq. (“NEPA”), Act, § 213.  Thus, whole communities around at least 30 “core” airports might be newly impacted by aircraft overflights seemingly without the opportunity for public review and comment before the NextGen project is implemented, and without an avenue of leverage in the courts afterwards.  All is not yet lost, however.
 

Citizens appear to have at least three remaining means to obtain relief.  First, H.R. 658 is set for Congressional consideration at 5:30 p.m., Monday, February 6, 2012.  However, if communities around airports throughout the United States weigh in en masse with their Senators and Congressmen, between now and then, by e-mail, the legislation’s summary consideration may be considerably lengthened.  With enough vocal opposition from the public, it is even possible, though not probable, that the offending § 213 may be deleted. 

Another strategy for overcoming the obstacle to environmental relief being established by Congress involves response to the solicitation of comments on proposed changes to FAA regulations, 14 Code of Federal Regulations § 91, 121, 125, 129 and 135, 76 Fed.Reg. 77,939 (December 15, 2011), adding regulations governing NextGen.  The Congressional exemption from NEPA allows for the Administrator to exercise discretion in deciding whether “extraordinary circumstances exist with respect to the procedure,” such that the presumption of no significant environmental effect may be abrogated.  § 213(c)(1) and (2).  Thus, relevant comments on the new regulations would include an exhortation to the Administrator to expand the parameters of the “extraordinary circumstances,” from the already existing factors of increased fuel consumption, carbon dioxide emissions and noise, to include revision in flight paths that bring aircraft over communities not previously overflown, and which substantially lower altitudes over communities that are currently overflown.

Finally, and hopefully as a last resort, there remains recourse to other Federal statutes as a basis for court action.  A categorical exclusion under NEPA does not excuse FAA from complying with its obligations under other environmental statutes.

In short, what is critically important in the short run is: (1) a massive and focused campaign to convince our Congressional representatives that the public health and welfare should be as well protected as administrative “efficiencies;” and (2) a well-orchestrated set of comments on the regulatory revisions governing NextGen to take advantage of the loopholes in the Federal legislation.

FAA Reauthorization Act Exempts Next Generation Airspace Redesign Projects from Environmental Review

In a monument to political deal making, the United States Congress is today considering, in the House and Senate Aviation Committees, the "FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012," H.R. 658 ("Act") to, among other things, "authorize appropriations to the Federal Aviation Administration for fiscal years 2011-2014 . . ." It is, however, the other provisions of the legislation which most profoundly affect the public.   

Purportedly to "streamline programs, create efficiencies, reduce waste and improve safety and capacity," the most recent version of the Act to emerge from the House-Senate Conference Committee exempts all new area navigation ("RNAV") and required navigation performance ("RNP") procedures, which collectively comprise the "Next Generation Air Transportation System" ("NextGen"), Act § 201, Definitions, from environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act, 42 U.S.C. § 4321, et seq. ("NEPA"). 

The Act, generally, mandates that all "navigation performance and area navigation procedures developed, certified, published or implemented under this section [Section 213] shall be presumed to be covered by a categorical exclusion (as defined in § 1508.4 of Title 40, C.F.R.) under Chapter 3 of FAA Order 1050.1E, unless the Administrator determines that extraordinary circumstances exist with respect to the procedure." Act, § 213(c)(1).   

The Act expands on this mandate in § (c)(2). "NEXTGEN PROCEDURES - Any navigation performance or other performance based navigation procedure developed, certified, published or implemented that, in the determination of the Administrator, would result in measurable reductions in fuel consumption, carbon dioxide emissions, and noise, on a per flight basis, as compared to aircraft operations that follow existing instrument flight rule procedures in the same airspace, shall be presumed to have no significant effect on the quality of the human environment and the Administrator shall issue and file a categorical exclusion for the new procedure."

Certainly some of the duplication will be removed in the Act's final version. But the bottom line will remain. Dramatic changes in the configuration of the national airspace system, to be implemented throughout the United States during the next few years, will be relegated to "a category of actions which do not individually or cumulatively have a significant effect on the human environment and which have been found to have no such effect in procedures adopted by a federal agency in implementation of these regulations . . . and for which, therefore, neither an environmental assessment nor an environmental impact statement is required." 40 C.F.R. § 1508.4. This is so despite the fact that, in many cases, the new NextGen procedures will implicate numerous communities never before overflown, or never overflown at the same low altitudes. Newly affected populations will thereby be deprived of an avenue of redress in the courts through NEPA on which they have come to depend to level the playing field usually dominated by governmental action. The fundamental intent of NEPA, to allow the public a chance to review and comment on governmental actions before they are taken, will effectively be bypassed by the Act. 

Nor do the conditions on a finding of categorical exclusion, such as the requirement for a measurable reduction in fuel consumption, carbon dioxide or noise, mitigate the adverse impacts of the exemption, as the determination that those conditions exist is within the exclusive discretion of the FAA Administrator, the same party charged with implementing the NextGen program.   

There are two potential courses of action still available to interested parties and affected populations. The first is short term: to call Senators and Congressmen to express opposition to the apparent end run around NEPA's protections. The second is longer term, and involves other statutes that can be applied to take up where NEPA protections will now leave off. The next few days will determine whether the legal strategy in alternative two will eventually be required. First, it's time for the affected public to weigh in with its political leaders to protect its best interests. Stay tuned for the next chapter.

Legislature Asked to Grant CEQA Relief for Rail Projects

Following in the footsteps of his colleagues, on January 6, 2012, Assemblyman Mike Feuer introduced legislation that would give rail projects the same type of relief from California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”) requirements that were received in the last session by the proposed NFL stadium in Los Angeles, and some renewable energy projects. Notably, the CEQA amendments enacted for the NFL stadium include a very short time frame of 175 days for resolution of CEQA issues. While current CEQA litigation may extend to two years or more, depending on the complexity of the project and workload of the court, it stands to reason that issues surrounding local projects such as the stadium, with local traffic, noise and air quality impacts, may potentially be resolved within the 175 day timeframe. Rail projects are of far different scope, geographic extent, and are subject to a different set of laws.

Indeed, the geographic size of rail projects implicates the greater scope of legal applicability. Rail projects, even if, like the current “high speed rail,” limited to within the borders of California, will, of necessity, be recipients of Federal funding. Consequently, Federal environmental statutes, including the National Environmental Policy Act, 42 U.S.C. § 4321, et seq., and the Federal Clean Air Act, 42 U.S.C. § 7501, et seq., apply. Thus, while the California legislature may attenuate the CEQA process, the rail projects will still remain hostage to NEPA.

Finally, even if rail projects could proceed without Federal funding, which they most likely cannot, where they cross state lines, the Interstate Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution is implicated, and Federal law will apply. In short, to attenuate the environmental review process for major transportation projects will require a different legislative template, at a different legislative forum, the United States Congress.
 

Don't Procrastinate: Make Your Comments on Environmental Analyses Early and Often

Recent appellate cases have once again brought to the fore the critical importance of the “exhaustion of administrative remedies” for any potential challenger to an agency action based on noncompliance with the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”), the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”) and other laws meant to protect the environment and public.

In California, as example, public projects such as road construction, airport development, and power facilities, as well as private projects such as shopping centers are challenged on the basis of the failure to exhaust administrative remedies, or to present the alleged grounds of noncompliance “to the public agency orally or in writing . . . during the public comment period provided by this division or prior to the close of the public hearing . . .” Cal. Pub. Res. Code § 21177.

All too often, individuals, environmental organizations and public agencies wait to make their decisions to challenge the analysis of a project’s environmental impacts until their frustration peaks, and the time for filing a legal challenge arrives. [The usual time for filing a CEQA challenge is very short – 30 days from the filing by the agency of its Notice of Determination (“NOD”) which marks the final agency action in the CEQA process. NEPA is normally 60 days from the signing of the Record of Decision (“ROD”).] By that time, however, it is too late, because “exhaustion of administrative remedies is a jurisdictional prerequisite to maintenance of a CEQA action.” Bakersfield Citizens for Local Control v. City of Bakersfield, 124 Cal.App.4th 1184, 1199 (2004).
 

Moreover, simply articulating “generalized environmental comments at public hearings . . . [cites omitted]; relatively . . . bland and generalized references to environmental matters . . . [cites omitted]; . . . or isolated and unelaborated comments will not suffice.” Sierra Club v. City of Orange, 163 Cal.App.4th 523, 535-36 (2008). Instead, “the objections must be sufficiently specific so that the agency has the opportunity to evaluate and respond to them.” Id. Finally, “the petitioner bears the burden of demonstrating that the issues raised in the judicial proceeding were first raised at the administrative level.” Id. at 536.

Two recent California cases illustrate the ways in which two courts apply these strictures to arrive at diametrically opposing decisions. In Citizens for Responsible Equitable Environmental Development v. City of San Diego, 196 Cal.App.4th 515 (May 19, 2011), a citizens group challenged the Environmental Impact Report (“EIR”) for a residential development on the grounds that CEQA’s mandated Water Supply Assessment (“WSA”) was deficient. The court rejected the petitioners’ claim of having exhausted administrative remedies as a “perfunctory or skeleton showing . . .,” Id., at 528, where the petitioners rested their claim on: (1) a DVD submitted to the respondent city containing “thousands of documents,” Id., and (2) an accompanying letter referencing “evidence on water supply,” Id., but not specifically mentioning the word “drought.”

The court also rejected petitioners’ argument that they could rely on a statement by an unaffiliated party made at the public hearing that did reference “drought.” Even though “a petitioner may allege as a ground of noncompliance any objection that was presented by any person or entity during the administrative proceedings,” Id. quoting Bakersfield Citizens for Local Control, supra, 124 Cal.App.4th at 119, the court found that the testimony of a former councilman upon which the petitioners intended to rely was not specific enough, because, while petitioners claimed that the EIR’s analytic deficiencies required recirculation of a Supplemental Environmental Impact Report (“SEIR”), the councilman “never argued an EIR was necessary.” Citizens for Responsible Equitable Environmental Development, supra, 196 Cal.App.4th at 528. NEPA varies materially from CEQA on the issue of the required specificity of comments. Under NEPA, a would-be challenger must have raised the specific issue upon which it wishes to base its challenge during the administrative process.

Just one month later, another Appellate Court decided the issue differently, by relying on a variant of the exhaustion standard. In Santa Clarita Organization for Planning the Environment v. City of Santa Clarita, 197 Cal.App.4th 1042 (June, 2011), the court found that petitioner had adequately “papered the record,” even though the petitioner had not previously, among other lapses, provided explicit examples of the numerous mitigation measures it claimed in its challenge the city should have considered in the EIR’s analysis of the project’s global warming impacts. The court acknowledged that the petitioner had not been as specific as desirable. However, it found, despite some reservations about the petitioners’ alleged naiveté about CEQA’s procedural requirements, Id. at 1051, that “less specificity is required to preserve an issue for appeal in an administrative proceeding than in a judicial proceeding,” Id., quoting Citizens Association for Sensible Development of Bishop Area v. County of Inyo, 172 Cal.App.3d 151, 163 (1985). This was because “[parties] generally are not represented by counsel. To hold such parties to knowledge of the technical rules of evidence and to the penalty of waiver for failure to make a timely and specific objection would be unfair to them.” Citizens Association for Sensible Development of Bishop Area, supra, 172 Cal.App.3d at 163.

In short, courts can make radically disparate decision on the adequacy of exhaustion of administrative remedies, based on similar sets of facts and arguments. The solution is: (1) to engage an experienced attorney who can provide educated counsel concerning the issues in the environmental analysis most vulnerable to challenge; (2) to comment early and often on those and other issues, preferably starting with the Notice of Preparation of the Environmental Impact Report (“NOP”), including comments on the Draft Environmental Impact Report (“DEIR”), which is proforma, and ending only with the last document in the environmental analysis available for review, normally the Final Environmental Impact Report (“FEIR”); and (3) to make comments as technically specific as possible, even if this involves the expenditure for a technical consultant. It is only through those three steps that a would-be petitioner can successfully withstand the “exhaustion of administrative remedies” defense that is all but certain to arise in environmental litigation.
 

National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) Review of the Federal Aviation Administration's Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen)

In a recent report entitled Civil Aviation Growth in the 21st Century, the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) recommended that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) develop strategies to integrate National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review into the FAA’s Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) implementation planning process in a way that would make NextGen environmental reviews less costly and time-consuming.

 

In the report, the AIA acknowledges that: (1) redesign of terminal airspace by the FAA requires compliance with NEPA; (2) airspace redesign typically has potentially negative environmental impacts and does not qualify as a “categorical exclusion”; and (3) most often, airspace redesigns require an Environmental Assessment (EA). Every EA must result in either a ‘finding of no significant impact” (FONSI) or a more detailed “environmental impact statement” (EIS). Citing the historical duration and cost of FAA actions involving EAs and EISs, the AIA reports that industry stakeholders in NextGen are frustrated with the time-consuming and costly nature of the NEPA review process, consider it a major impediment to the timely rollout of the system, and would like to see additional efforts to expedite the NEPA process. Although the report does not expressly state that all NextGen EAs should result in a FONSI, it could reasonably be read to suggest that approach in order to save costs and fast-track the NEPA review process.

While it is true that NEPA review is costly and time-consuming, there should be no different, attenuated NEPA review process for NextGen than for any other Federally sponsored or funded project. To subject some arbitrarily chosen Federal projects to less stringent review than NEPA prescribes would require an amendment of NEPA (a highly unlikely eventuality). NextGen is no different than any other Federal effort, and the Congress has clearly spoken about the precise protocols that must be followed. Any initiative to the contrary, without a NEPA amendment, would be contrary to law.

The California Supreme Court Clarifies Environmental Review Baselines Under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA)

The California Supreme Court recently weighed in on the critical issue of the proper baseline to be used in assessing the environmental impacts of a proposed project under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). [Agencies must use a “baseline” from which to determine whether a project’s environmental effects will be “significant.”]  In Communities For a Better Environment v. South Coast Air Quality Management District, et al., 48 Cal. App. 4th 310 (2010), ConocoPhillips Company argued that the proper baseline for environmental analysis of a project at a petroleum refinery employing existing equipment should be the maximum permitted operating capacity of the equipment, even if the equipment is operating below those levels at the time the environmental analysis is commenced. The Court rejected that argument, holding that the baseline for CEQA analysis must be the “existing physical conditions in the effected area” (i.e., “real conditions on the ground”), rather than the level of development or activity that “could” or “should” have been present according to a plan or regulation. This confirms the California CEQA Guidelines requirement that the baseline consist of the physical environmental conditions in the vicinity of the project as they exist at the time the notice of preparation of the EIR is published or at the time the environmental analysis begins. 14 Cal. Code Regs. §15125(a).
 

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) has similar requirements. NEPA also requires establishment of a baseline against which to compare the impacts of the proposed project. And, as with CEQA, the NEPA baseline usually consists of the pre-project environmental conditions. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals considered the baseline issue in American Rivers v. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, 187 F.3d 1007 (9th Cir. 1999), where it held that use by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission of existing environmental conditions at a hydroelectric power facility to evaluate a re-licensing proposal was the proper baseline, rather than a “theoretical reconstruction” of what the river basin would have been like if projects had never existed, as argued by several conservation and environmental organizations.

As shown in Communities For a Better Environment and American Rivers, project proponents often confuse “baseline” with the “no-action” alternative. Both CEQA and NEPA require that an EIR/EIS include an analysis of the environmental effects if the project is not approved or implemented, i.e., a “no action” alternative. However, the purpose of the no-action analysis is to compare alternatives, not to establish a baseline. The definition of the no-action alternative will vary depending on the nature of the proposed project. For some projects, the existing environment will not change if the project is not approved, and the no-action alternative and baseline will be the same. For other projects, rejection of the project will not preserve existing environmental conditions, and the no-action alternative will be different from the baseline.

Public agencies preparing environmental documents and agencies, organizations and others reviewing environmental documents should understand this important distinction between the environmental baseline and the no-action alternative.