Alaska Wilderness League v. Jewell, 788 F.3d 1212 (9th Cir. 2015) (affirming the district court’s ruling that: (i) the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement’s approval of the challenged oil spill response plans was not arbitrary and capricious; (ii) the Endangered Species Act did not require the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement to consult with any environmental agencies before approving oil spill response plans; (iii) the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement was entitled to Chevron deference for its interpretation of the Oil Pollution Act; and (iv) the National Environmental Policy Act did not require the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement to do an environmental impact statement before approving an oil spill response plan).

The Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (“OCSLA”) outlines the procedure for exploration and development of oil and gas resources offshore. This process has four stages. First, the Secretary of Interior creates a five-year leasing program under which operators may search and mine for oil and gas. Second, the Secretary must approve the leases under agreed upon terms and conditions. Third, the lessee must provide the Secretary with a plan of exploration and an Oil Spill Response Plan (“OSRP”) pursuant to the Clean Water Act (“CWA”). Fourth, after searching for oil and gas, and successfully finding either, the lessee has must submit a production and development plan to the Secretary for approval.

At the third stage, the Secretary of the Interior has delegated its power to the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (“BSEE”) to approve OSRPs to prevent and respond to oil spills. The CWA requires these plans at four levels: national, regional, local, and individual. At the individual level, owners and operators must propose an OSRP for approval that outlines their response to a potential “worst case discharge” of oil or some other hazardous substance.

Shell Gulf of Mexico Inc. and Shell Offshore Inc. (collectively “Shell”) acquired three leases for offshore exploration and production—two leases in the Beaufort in 2005 and 2007, and one in the Chukchi Seas in 2008. Shell complied with all regulations at the time for intended exploration, but due to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, the Secretary of the Interior placed a temporary moratorium on all offshore drilling. The United States Department of Interior required owners and operators to provide new information in all OSRPs after the moratorium ended. To comply with the new criteria, Shell updated its OSRPs for its three leases. BSEE approved the updated Beaufort and Chukchi Seas OSRPs.

Alaska Wilderness League, a coalition of environmental groups, sued Secretary of Interior, Sally Jewell, in her official capacity because of the approval of Shell’s three OSRPs. Shell intervened as a co-defendant. On cross-motions for summary judgment, the United States District Court for the District of Alaska (“district court”) ruled in favor of Jewell and Shell. Alaska Wilderness League appealed to the United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit (“Court”). The Court reviewed the granting of summary judgment de novo and reviewed the record of the agency’s action under the arbitrary and capricious standard.

First, Alaska Wilderness League argued BSEE’s approval of the OSRPs was arbitrary and capricious because Shell assumed it would be able to recover ninety to ninety-five percent of any oil spilled in either of the seas via mechanical means. A figure that Alaska Wilderness League claimed was unrealistic and that Shell failed to support with any evidence. The Court did not agree with Alaska Wilderness League’s interpretation, finding instead that Shell could store, not recover, ninety to ninety-five percent of any spilled oil. Further, the Court found that BSEE did not rely on this information in approving Shell’s OSRPs. Therefore, the Court found that the record did not support Alaska Wilderness League’s argument. Accordingly, the Court concluded BSEE’s approval of the OSRPs was not arbitrary and capricious.

The Court next addressed Alaska Wilderness League’s argument that BSEE failed to consult with other agencies in order to comply with the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”). The Court disagreed. The Court reasoned that ESA only triggers consultation when the agency’s involvement is discretionary, and, in this case, BSEE’s approval of the OSRPs was non-discretionary. Therefore, the Court held that ESA did not require BSEE to do a consultation.

The Court then went through a two-step Chevron deference analysis to assess BSEE’s interpretation of the applicable sections of the CWA. At step one of its Chevron analysis, whether the statute in question is ambiguous, the Court found that the CWA was ambiguous in both its structure and its language. The Court found the CWA has ambiguous language because of three pertinent sections: (i) 33 U.S.C. § 1321(j)(5)(A)(i) requires an operator to “prepare and submit . . . a plan for responding, to the maximum extent practicable, to a worst case discharge;” (ii) § 1321(j)(5)(D) lists six requirements that the OSRP “shall” meet; and (iii) § 1321(j)(5)(E)(iii) states that if the OSRP meets all six requirements, then BSEE “shall” approve it.

Specifically, the Court found the text ambiguous as to whether BSEE has the discretion to consider any additional environmental factors in making its determination of an OSRP. The Court found that the “maximum extent practicable” language in § 1321(j)(5)(A)(i) suggested the agency had discretion in its approval of an OSRP. However, the Court also found §§ 1321(j)(5)(D) and 1321(j)(5)(E)(iii) to be a laundry list of requirements that an OSRP must meet. If an OSRP meets those requirements, then BSEE must approve the plan; removing any agency discretion. Additionally, the Court found the statute’s structure ambiguous because of the discretionary language in one section, and the rigid language in the one following it. The Court found this difference created “a statute whose halves do not correspond to each other – giving rise to ambiguity that calls for Chevron deference.” Under this finding of ambiguity, the Court found it must defer to BSEE’s interpretation of the statute as long as its interpretation is reasonable.

The Court then underwent the second step of the Chevron analysis to determine whether BSEE’s interpretation was reasonable. Courts must defer to an agency’s interpretation of an ambiguous statute as long as that interpretation is reasonable. The Court found that BSEE’s interpretation of the statute was reasonable. BSEE argued that § 1321(j)(5)(A)(i) mandated it to promulgate regulations that help operators follow the OSRP requirements listed in § 1321(j)(5)(D). Then, separately, § 1321(j)(5)(D)-(E) lists exactly what the OSRP shall include and the agency shall approve. The Court agreed with BSEE’s interpretation that the statute mandated the agency to publish regulations to outline how operators can comply with the list. The Court also agreed with BSEE’s interpretation that it could not consider anything more than the list when granting an OSRP. The Court, having found BSEE’s interpretation to be reasonable, deferred to the agency’s interpretation.

The Court also found that BSEE’s interpretation was consistent with longstanding agency policy. The Court explained how BSEE has a history of regulating in conformity with the goals of the Oil Pollution Act that amended the CWA. The legislative history of the Oil Pollution Act suggests that Congress meant to create specific requirements of OSRPs, not guidelines open to interpretation by the courts or agencies.

Lastly, the Court addressed Alaska Wilderness League’s four additional arguments. First, Alaska Wilderness League argued that the similarity in language between the requirements listed in § 1321(j)(5)(E) and the section of the statute governing federal response plans to spills subjected the approval of OSRPs to ESA consultation. However, the Court disagreed with this interpretation. Under the sections of the statute governing federal response plans, an ESA recommendation may prompt agency action, but the plan “shall include, but not be limited to” a number of factors. This federal response plan requirement, unlike that in § 1321(j)(5)(E), does not limit the factors to those listed.

Second, Alaska Wilderness League argued that the regulations contain no language to support approval of the OSRPs just because they address the clean up plan to some degree. The Court quickly dismissed this argument. The Court found that the statute states that the purpose of the OSRP is to prepare a response plan for an accident at sea resulting in release of oil, and that Congress ordered these plans be in compliance with “the Oil Pollution Act’s amendments to the Clean Water Act.” The Court deferred to BSEE’s interpretation that the OSRPs were sufficient and justly approved, despite any explicit language governing BSEE’s decision.

Third, Alaska Wilderness League argued that BSEE had discretion over whether OSRPs met the criteria in § 1321(j)(5)(E), thus triggering ESA consultation. The Court found this argument to be at odds with previous Supreme Court’s rulings. The Supreme Court previously held that “ESA cannot defeat an agency’s nondiscretionary statutory directive.” The Court held that BSEE’s act of granting OSRPs was nondiscretionary, and so it did not trigger any interagency review under ESA.

Lastly, Alaska Wilderness League claimed that BSEE violated the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”) by failing to do an environmental impact statement (“EIS”) before approving the OSRPs. Under NEPA, all federal agencies must conduct an EIS before conducting any “major Federal action” that significantly affects the environment. However, the Court noted that there is an exception to this requirement when the environmental impact is the result of a decision over which the agency had no discretion. The Court ruled that because BSEE had no discretion over the approval of the OSRPs under the statute, it also had no discretion over the environmental impacts, making BSEE exempt from performing an EIS.

Accordingly, the Court affirmed the district court’s ruling.

D.W. Nelson, Senior Circuit Judge, dissenting.

Senior Circuit Judge Nelson agreed with the majority’s ruling that BSEE acted appropriately when it approved the OSRPs in question, but dissented to all other aspects of the majority opinion. Specifically, the dissent agreed with Alaska Wilderness League’s contention that BSEE’s action was discretionary, triggering an ESA consultation.

The dissent also disagreed with the majority’s finding that BSEE was exempt from performing a NEPA analysis. The dissent did not agree with the majority’s interpretation of the NEPA exception. The dissent argued that as a regulator of environmental consequences “the [BSEE] did in fact possess the kind of discretion that necessitated NEPA review.”

William James Tilton

Image: Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Gulf of Mexico. Flickr user Green Fire Productions, Creative Commons.


Askins v. Ohio Dep’t of Agric., 809 F.3d 868 (6th Cir. 2016) (holding that i) the Clean Water Act’s citizen suit provision does not apply to notification requirements; ii) the Clean Water Act’s notification requirement is not a condition of a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit; iii) the Clean Water Act does not permit a cause of action against non-polluting regulators for violations of procedural regulations; and iv) the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s decision not to hold a hearing was not a failure to perform a non-discretionary duty, and as such was not actionable under the Clean Water Act).

This was an appeal from The United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio, which dismissed all of appellants’, Larry and Vickie Askins (“Askinses”), claims.  The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (“Ohio EPA”) administers the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (“NPDES”) under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (“U.S. EPA”) approval.  In 2001, the Ohio legislature authorized the Ohio Department of Agriculture (“ODA”) to apply to the U.S. EPA to transfer authority from Ohio EPA to ODA, so that ODA could administer part of the state-NPDES program.  The Clean Water Act (“CWA”) permits such a transfer, but requires the U.S. EPA’s permission prior to transfer.  The Askinses alleged that the transfer took place in 2001, while the Ohio EPA didn’t seek permission until some five years later.  As such, the Askinses sued under the CWA’s citizen suit provision, alleging various violations of the CWA.

The lower court held that the Askinses failed to state a claim under the CWA, the U.S. EPA did not fail to perform a non-discretionary duty under the CWA, and the U.S. EPA, the Ohio EPA, and the ODA did not violate the CWA.  The Askinses appealed to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals (“Court”), arguing that the CWA’s citizen suit provision permitted their cause of action.

First, the Court considered whether the Askinses could maintain a citizen suit action for a violation of the CWA’s notice requirement under Section 1314.  The Court reasoned that the notice requirement at issue is not an enumerated provision requiring compliance, and as such, the citizen suit provision does not encompass alleged violations of the requirement.

Next, the Court considered whether the notification requirement was a “condition.”  The Court concluded that the notification requirement serves as a timing mechanism, which triggers a state’s ability to apply to administer the NPDES program, as opposed to a substantive requirement.  Further, the notification requirement referred to EPA approval of a state’s permit program, not a state’s approval of individual permits.  Finally, the Court concluded that the Askinses’ reading of the notification requirement as a condition was contradictory to NPDES requirements, specifically that state and federal permit conditions be the same.  As such, the Court held that the CWA’s notification requirement is not a permit “condition.”

Third, the Court determined whether there existed a private cause of action against regulators for violations of procedural regulations.  The Court concluded that if Congress intended the citizen suit provision to permit the Askinses’ claim, it would have included language in the explicitly enumerated circumstances permitting suit.  Further, if the citizen suit provision were so expansive as to permit this claim, the provision’s remedies would give it more teeth than the U.S. EPA itself has, by way of the provision’s shorter notice period and availability of civil penalties and costs.  This is not the case because Congress intended the citizen suit provision to supplement the regulators’ authority.  Finally, cases that considered other, identical citizen suit provisions reached the same conclusion as this Court.  Therefore, the Court held, the CWA citizen suit provision did not permit a private right of action against a non-polluting regulator for procedural violations.

Finally, the Court considered whether the U.S. EPA failed to perform a non-discretionary duty.  The Court held that the CWA does not require the U.S. EPA to hold a hearing.  Should the U.S. EPA choose to hold a hearing, the CWA requires it to withdraw approval of a state-NPDES program after hearing, proper notice, and time to address the issue.  That is to say, the CWA does not require a hearing in the first place; therefore it is not a non-discretionary duty.  The U.S. EPA did not hold a hearing in the present case, so no non-discretionary duties arose.  Thus, the CWA did not permit the Askinses’ citizen suit.

Accordingly, the Court affirmed the lower court’s dismissal for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction.

Tim Berrier