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. 
 


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After protracted litigation challenging plans to build 130 wind turbines, each 440 feet tall, in a 25 square mile area of Nantucket Sound, the D.C. Circuit last month denied petitions for review of the Federal Aviation Administration’s (“FAA”) determination that the turbines would pose no hazard to air navigation.

The petitioners, the Town of Barnstable, Massachusetts and a non-profit group of pilots and others, challenged the no hazard determinations based on the FAA’s failure to analyze the safety risks posed by the project and to perform an environmental review required by the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”), 42 U.S.C. § 4332.  The D.C. Circuit had previously vacated a 2010 no hazard determination based on the FAA’s failure to consider potential adverse effects of the turbines on pilots operating under visual flight rules (“VFR”) and the potential that electromagnetic radiation from the turbines would interfere with radar systems in nearby air navigation facilities.

Noting the circumstances had changed after the FAA upgraded the radar and beacon at Otis Airfield, the circuit court’s January 22, 2014 opinion upheld the FAA’s 2012 no hazard determinations.  The court concluded that the FAA properly based its determinations on aeronautical studies conducted according to the FAA Handbook, Procedures for Handling Airspace Matters, FAA Order JO 7400.2J (February 9, 2012), of which Section 3 on identifying and evaluating aeronautical effect was applicable.  According to the court, the FAA could reasonably view its Handbook procedures implementing the Secretary of Transportation’s regulations as requiring a threshold finding before triggering the need for a more advanced “adverse effects” analysis under Handbook Section 6–3–3 which states that “[a] structure is considered to have an adverse effect if it first … is found to have physical or electromagnetic radiation effect on the operation of air navigation facilities.”
 


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In what might be a surprising decision in any other Circuit, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued a ruling in Barnes v. U.S. Dept. of Transportation, United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, Case No. 10-70718, August 25, 2011, which, while narrow, begins the process of eroding both the Federal Aviation Administration’s (“FAA”) long held position that “aviation activity . . . will increase at the same rate regardless of whether a new runway is built or not,” Barnes, at 16285, and the Federal Court’s traditional deference to it. City of Los Angeles v. FAA, 138 F.3d 806, 807-08, n. 2 (9th Cir. 1998).


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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).
 
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