In a strange twist on the normal relationship between federal regulatory agencies, the National Transportation Safety Board (“NTSB”) has found the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) a primary culprit in the October 31, 2014 disastrous test flight of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, in which one of the two pilots was killed, and debris was spread over a 33 mile area in San Bernardino County, northeast of Los Angeles.  

 
The issue appears to be the grant of a waiver by FAA from the existing rules governing safety of interplanetary vehicles, despite FAA’s own safety consultant’s warning that Virgin Galactic was violating those rules.  The claim is that, while Congress did not delegate to FAA the authority to implement regulations as stringent as those applicable to commercial aircraft, FAA managers specifically ignored the repeated advice of safety engineers that Virgin Galactic had not fully complied with the regulations that do exist.  Specifically, FAA safety personnel claim that FAA managers based their decision to grant the waiver on the remoteness of the Town of Mojave where the aircraft’s launch company, Scaled, is based, and on the surrounding area where the company planned its test flights.  
 
In the end, the NTSB found that, although the co-pilot had erred by prematurely unlocking the rocketship’s movable tail, the FAA and the launch company bear a disproportionate share of the responsibility.  On the one hand, the launch company had failed to ascertain that a single error by an operator could lead to the ship’s destruction.  On the other hand, the FAA, acceding to pressure to approve the permit quickly, had failed to ensure that the company took this lack of redundancy into account.  Exacerbating the issue is the fact that SpaceShipTwo is one of three commercial rockets to crash in the span of eight months.  
 

Continue Reading NTSB Faults FAA in Private Spacecraft Investigation

In a surprising decision, Surface Transportation Board Decision, Docket No. FD35861, December 12, 2014 (“Docket”), the Federal Surface Transportation Board (“Board”) ruled that the application of the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”), Cal. Pub. Res. Code § 21000, et seq., to the 114 mile high-speed passenger rail line between Fresno and Bakersfield, California is preempted in its entirety by federal law.  The Board’s decision is not only surprising in the context of prevailing legal authority, but also potentially important in the context of other modes of transportation.  

The decision is surprising because it went far beyond the scope of the petition filed by the responsible State agency, the California High-Speed Rail Authority (“Authority”).  The Authority asked only that the Board find that injunctive relief as a remedy under CEQA is foreclosed as preempted by the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act (“ICCTA”), Pub.L. 104–88, 104th Congress, and is, thus, barred under 49 U.S.C. § 10501(b) which gives the Board jurisdiction over “the construction, acquisition, operation, abandonment, or discontinuance of spur, industrial, team, switching, or side tracks, or facilities, even if the tracks are located, or intended to be located, entirely in one State,” 49 U.S.C. § 10501(b)(2).  The Authority further argued that, as it had completed CEQA review in May 2014, the Board need not address whether CEQA is generally preempted, but need only address whether injunctive relief resulting in a work stoppage is available as a remedy in the lawsuits filed against the Authority.
 
Despite the Authority’s limited petition, the Board expanded its ruling to include a finding that § 10501(b) prevents the states and localities from intruding into matters that are “directly regulated by the Board (e.g., rail carrier rates, services, construction, and abandonment),” Docket, p. 8, and from “imposing requirements that, by their nature, could be used to deny a rail carrier’s ability to conduct rail operations.”  Id.  The Board employs the rationale that “Section 10501(b) [ ] is intended to prevent a patchwork of local regulation from unreasonably interfering with interstate commerce.”  Id.  
 
The Board recognizes, however, that “[n]ot all state and local regulations that affect rail carriers are preempted by § 10501(b).”  Id. at p. 9.  It acknowledges further that “State and local regulation is appropriate where it does not interfere with rail operations,” Id., and that “[l]ocalities retain their reserved police powers to protect the public health and safety so long as their actions do not unreasonably burden interstate commerce.”  Id.  
 
On that basis, and ignoring that “states and towns may exercise their traditional police powers . . . to the extent that the regulations ‘protect public health and safety, are settled and defined, can be obeyed with reasonable certainty, entail no extended or open-ended delays, and can be approved (or rejected) without the exercise of discretion on subjective questions,’” Id. citing Green Mountain v. Vermont, 404 F.3d 638, 643 (2nd Cir. 2005), the Board concluded that CEQA was categorically preempted as a “state preclearance requirement that, by its very nature, could be used to deny or significantly delay an entity’s right to construct a line that the Board has specifically authorized, thus impinging upon the Board’s exclusive jurisdiction over rail transportation,” Docket, p. 10, citing DesertXpress Enters., LLC-Pet. For Declaratory Order, slip op. at 5.  The Board further found that CEQA lawsuits “can regulate rail transportation just as effectively as a state statute or regulation.”  Id. at 14, citing, inter alia, Maynard v. CSX Transp., Inc., 360 F. Supp. 2d 836, 840 (E.D. Ky. 2004) [explaining that common law suits constitute regulations].  
 
The Board decision, however, appears to be based on two fundamental misconceptions. 
 

Continue Reading The Federal Surface Transportation Board Finds California Environmental Quality Act Preempted as Applied to High-Speed Rail Projects

The Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) reports that close calls between conventional aircraft and unmanned aircraft systems (“UAS” or “drones”) have increased during 2014 to more than 40 per month over earlier reports of 10 such incidents in the months of March and April.  Some of these incidents have occurred in the busy airspace surrounding Los Angeles, California, Washington, D.C., and John F. Kennedy Airport in New York.  Some of these conflicts have arisen because untrained operators of recreational drones are unaware of FAA’s guidelines governing such use.  Those guidelines ask, among other things, that “hobby” drones stay away from civil aviation, below 400 feet AGL, and at least 5 miles from airports.  However, as FAA prepares to release its highly anticipated Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for small unmanned aircraft systems, the focus is not on hobbyists, but on commercial operators.

Continue Reading FAA Reports Increasing Conflict Between Drones and Civil Aviation

Earlier today, in a landmark decision for the unmanned aircraft systems industry, the National Transportation Safety Board reversed the Administrative Law Judge Patrick Geraghty’s order in the Pirker case and held that unmanned aircraft systems fall squarely within the definition of “aircraft” under the Federal Aviation Regulations.  This is the most significant legal opinion issued to date on the issue of drones in the United States. 

In a twelve page opinion reversing the ALJ’s March 7, 2014 decisional order, the NTSB stated:
“This case calls upon us to ascertain a clear, reasonable definition of ‘aircraft’ for purposes of the prohibition on careless and reckless operation in 14 C.F.R. § 91.13(a). We must look no further than the clear, unambiguous plain language of 49 U.S.C. § 40102(a)(6) and 14 C.F.R. § 1.1: an ‘aircraft’ is any ‘device’ ‘used for flight in the air.’ This definition includes any aircraft, manned or unmanned, large or small. The prohibition on careless and reckless operation in § 91.13(a) applies with respect to the operation of any ‘aircraft’ other than those subject to parts 101 and 103. We therefore remand to the law judge for a full factual hearing to determine whether respondent operated the aircraft ‘in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another,’ contrary to § 91.13(a).”
The Federal Aviation Administration’s success on appeal comes as no surprise to most members of the UAS industry, many of whom have already tacitly recognized the FAA’s jurisdiction over unmanned aircraft by specifically requesting regulatory exemptions to conduct commercial UAS operations under Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012.
 

Continue Reading Pirker Reversed: NTSB Confirms FAA Has Jurisdiction Over Drones

On October 24, 2014, the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) published its final rule documenting the failure of the California Air Resources Board (“CARB”) to submit a State Implementation Plan (“SIP”) revision containing measures to control California’s significant contribution to the nonattainment, or interference with maintenance, of the 2006 24 hour fine particulate matter (“PM2.5”) National Ambient Air Quality Standards (“NAAQS”) in other states (“Interstate Transport SIP”).

More specifically, CARB’s failure to submit constitutes a violation of the general provisions of the Clean Air Act (“CAA”), § 110(a)(2)(D)(i)(I) which requires that CARB submit a SIP revision to comply with the implementation, maintenance and enforcement provisions related to new or revised NAAQS within three years after the promulgation of the revised NAAQS; and that such plan contain adequate provisions to prohibit emissions from the state that will contribute significantly to nonattainment of the NAAQS (“Prong 1”), or interference with maintenance of the NAAQS (“Prong 2”), in any other state.  The final rule implementing the “Finding of Failure” transfers to EPA the obligation to promulgate a Federal Implementation Plan (“FIP”) to address the interstate transport requirements, within 24 months.
 
The issue has come to prominence as a result of the federal/state partnership that is the foundation of the CAA, see 42 U.S.C. § 7401(a)(3) and (4), giving EPA the power of approval over locally developed plans.  

Continue Reading California Once Again Relinquishes Clean Air Act Enforcement Responsibility to the Federal Government

California’s unprecedented drought provided the impetus in Sacramento in the closing weeks of the Legislature’s 2013-14 session for the passage of sweeping new regulations governing groundwater. The new rules, which Gov. Brown likely will sign, amount to a broad re-write of California’s existing groundwater law, the first substantial changes to the law in approximately one hundred years. And with the new rules comes significant new authority for a state agency, drawing upon potentially billions of dollars in new fees, to implement new groundwater management plans over the objections of local water authorities. 

Orange County’s groundwater management system, accomplished across numerous governmental jurisdictions and which has, so far, spared Orange County from the full effects of the drought, is held up as the model for the new state scheme. But the legislation goes well beyond anything done in Orange County. Major changes are coming in the way California regulates and allocates its ground water, and in the way our citizens pay for that water.

 

Continue Reading Water’s For Fighting Over

While many members of the growing community of developers, manufacturers and operators of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (“UAS”) have expressed enthusiasm at the National Transportation Safety Board Administrative Decision in the Pirker case, Administrator v. Pirker, NTSB Docket CP-217, July 18, 2013, their reaction should be tempered by the law of unintended consequences.  The outcome of the administrative action, which the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) has since appealed, acknowledges not only the FAA regulation that is certain to arise as a result of the Congressional mandate contained in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, Pub. L. 112-95, § 334 (“FMRA”), but also opens the door to unrestricted local regulation. 

Specifically, Pirker’s argument is based on the assumption that the UAS at issue is a “five-pound radio-controlled model airplane constructed of styrofoam [sic],” Motion to Dismiss, p. 1.  He does not cite, or even refer to, any operant statutory or regulatory definition of “model aircraft.”  On that basis, Pirker alleges that his operation of the “model airplane” cannot be regulated because FAA has “fallen far behind its own schedule, as well the scheduled mandated by Congress,” Motion to Dismiss, p. 1, for enacting regulations.  Pirker again fails to refer the Court to the full extent of the Congressional mandate in FMRA which effectively disposes of his fundamental argument. 
 

Continue Reading Decision in Pirker Case Invokes Specter of Local Regulation of Unmanned Aircraft Systems

The Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) has appealed a recent National Transportation Safety Board administrative decision, Administrator v. Pirker, NTSB Docket CP-217, July 18, 2013, in which Administrative Law Judge Patrick Geraghty ruled that FAA had no regulatory authority when it fined the operator of an Unmanned Aircraft System (“UAS”) (otherwise known as “drone”) used for commercial photography, for operating a UAS at an altitude below that approved for commercial manned aircraft.  It would do well for developers, manufacturers and operators of UAS to listen carefully to FAA’s views because the decision, while preliminary, and subject to appeal through many levels of the Federal Court system, has opened the proverbial Pandora’s Box in the relationship of manned and unmanned aircraft and their joint, or separate regulatory frameworks. 

First, it is important for the UAS community to recognize that, while Administrative Law Judge Geraghty found an absence of regulatory authority in the FAA, the Opinion did not acknowledge the seminal issue of “the federal government’s pervasive regulation of aircraft, airspace and aviation safety,” see, Montalvo v. Spirit Airlines, 508 F.3d 464, 472-74 (9th Cir. 2007).  That pervasive control arises under the Federal Aviation Act, 49 U.S.C. § 40101 in which Congress expressly granted to the Secretary of Transportation, through his/her designee, the FAA, the tasks of, among other things, “controlling the use of the navigable airspace and regulating civil and military operations in that airspace in the interest of the safety and efficiency of both . . .,” 49 U.S.C. § 40101(d)(4), as well as “encouraging and developing civil aeronautics, including new aviation technology.”  49 U.S.C. § 40101(d)(3).  That express assignment of responsibility alone gives FAA “skin in the game.” 

FAA’s response more specifically addresses what it believes to be misapprehensions about the extent of its power and authority. 
 

Continue Reading FAA Pushes Back Against Advocates of Unregulated Drone Operations

On March 27, 2013, the Los Angeles County Airport Land Use Commission (“ALUC”) gave the latest in a series of approvals including those from Los Angeles Board of Airport of Commissioners (“BOAC”) and Los Angeles City Planning Commission, of the proposed Los Angeles International Airport Specific Plan Amendment Study Project (“Project”).  The Project includes construction of a new terminal, addition of runway safety lighting, and, its centerpiece, the reconfiguration of the North Runway Complex with movement of runway 6L/24R 260 feet north. 

Most notably, the Project will impose dramatic impacts on surrounding communities, including significant new noise impacts on over 14,000 people, 12,000 in the City of Inglewood alone.  Moreover, the Project adversely impacts the goal of regionalization which is a centerpiece of the Stipulated Settlement signed by the Petitioners in City of El Segundo, et al. v. City of Los Angeles, et al., Riverside County Superior Court Case No. RIC426822.  A principal goal of that settlement was, and remains, diversion of air traffic to other airports in the region, not the encouragement of access to LAX. 
 

Continue Reading Surrounding Communities Object to Approval of the Los Angeles International Airport Specific Plan Amendment Study Project

Once again taking a forefront position in innovative environmental programs, California, for good or ill, is poised to launch the first of its kind and scope in the nation greenhouse gas (“GHG”) emissions trading system (“Cap and Trade”). 

On November 14, 2012, the California Air Resources Board (“CARB”) will hold an auction mandated by California’s 2006 “Climate Change” law, AB32, in which pollution permits (“Allowances”) will be bartered to more than 350 businesses, including utilities and refineries.  The concept behind Cap and Trade is that polluters must either cut carbon emissions to the level of a specific emission cap placed on individual types of pollutants by AB32, or buy allowances for each metric ton of carbon discharged over cap limits from other companies whose emissions did not reach cap levels.  Through the Cap and Trade program, excess carbon polluters can achieve up to 8% of emissions reductions needed. 
 

Continue Reading “Cap and Trade” in Greenhouse Gas Emissions Launched in California