Judge voids EPA rule limiting state powers over energy project permits

Signage is seen at the headquarters of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Washington, D.C.
Signage is seen at the headquarters of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Washington, D.C., U.S., May 10, 2021. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly/File Photo
  • Biden's Environmental Protection Agency had committed to revise Trump-era rule

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A federal judge in San Francisco has vacated a Trump-era rule that limits state powers to deny permits for projects that could harm their waterways, in a victory for about two dozen states, environmental groups and Native American tribes who had sued to block it.

Senior U.S. District Judge William Alsup on Thursday annulled the so-called Clean Water Act (CWA) Section 401 Certification Rule, which was part of President Donald Trump's campaign to fast-track big energy projects.

President Joe Biden's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in May had announced its intention to revise the rule.

The agency in July asked Alsup to remand the rule without vacating it, a request the plaintiffs opposed. They sought the rule to be vacated or for the judge to proceed to summary judgment.

The plaintiffs are states and two coalitions of environmental groups and tribes who sued separately last year. Their cases were consolidated before Alsup.

"The rule's inconsistency with the purpose of the statute it interprets... supports vacatur," the judge wrote in his ruling.

The EPA said it was reviewing the court decision, and that it has begun to work on an replacement rule.

Phil Weiser, the attorney general of co-plaintiff Colorado, said in a statement that through the lawsuit he had been "fighting for Colorado's sovereignty." Other state plaintiffs include Washington and California.

The Western Environmental Law Center (WELC), whose attorneys represented some of the environmental plaintiffs including American Rivers, celebrated the order.

"We feel vindicated by this win today. The court's order immediately restores an essential clean water safeguard," said WELC attorney Sangye Ince-Johannsen in a statement.

Michael Youhana, an attorney with Earthjustice who represents the third group of plaintiffs, which includes conservation group Columbia Riverkeeper and the Suquamish Tribe, called the order "a major win for supporters of state and tribal sovereignty and environmental protection."

The EPA last year altered section 401 of the CWA to make it impossible for states to block water permits for projectssuch as interstate pipelines and coal terminals for any reason other than direct pollution into state waters. States have previously weighed broader factors, such as climate change, to make decisions on projects.

The case is In re Clean Water Act Rulemaking, U.S. District Court for the California Northern District, Nos. 3:20-cv-04636; 3:20-cv-04869; 3:20-cv-06137.

For American Rivers et al: Sangye Ince-Johannsen with the Western Environmental Law Center

For the states: Kelly Wood of the Washington Office with the Attorney General; Tatiana Gaur with the California Office of the Attorney General; Brian Lusignan with the New York State Attorney General

For Columbia Riverkeeper et al: Michael Youhana of Earthjustice

Read more:

U.S. EPA to revise Trump water rule in boost to states’ climate fight

19 AGs to EPA: Roll back Trump's clean-water rule ASAP

California, New York, other states sue U.S. over Trump clean-water rollback

Enviros sue EPA for limiting state powers over energy project permits

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Thomson Reuters

New York-based correspondent covering environmental, climate and energy litigation.