Interior Reins in the MBTA to Remove a “Domestic Energy Burden”

Mining, oil and gas, wind, solar and transmission companies who have struggled to comply with the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 (MBTA) received an early Christmas present from the U.S. Department of the Interior’s lawyer. On December 22, 2017, the Principal Deputy Solicitor issued a binding Memorandum Opinion, M-37050, to limit the reach of the MBTA to intentional, unlawful acts of hunting and poaching. In a 41-page legal analysis, the Solicitor concludes, “The text, history and purpose of the MBTA demonstrate that it is a law limited in relevant part to affirmative and purposeful actions, such as hunting and poaching, that reduce migratory birds and their nests and eggs, by killing or capturing, to human control. . . . Interpreting the MBTA to criminalize incidental takings raises serious due process concerns and is contrary to the fundamental principle that ambiguity in criminal statutes must be resolved in favor of defendants.” This action came in response to Executive Order 13783, Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth (March 28, 2017) and was a regulatory review specifically identified by Interior in the “Final Report: Review of the Department of the Interior Actions that Potentially Burden Domestic Energy,” (October 24, 2017) at pp. 32-33.

Why was addressing the MBTA a priority for the Trump Administration? For one, it was a “midnight rule” exemplifying the Obama-era regulation of the energy industry. On January 10, 2017, as the Obama Administration was drawing to a close, its Solicitor issued a legal analysis determining that the MBTA should be interpreted to cover “incidental take” (“apply broadly to any activity”) of migratory birds, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) issued an implementing guidance document. “Incidental take” liability means that otherwise lawful actions like constructing a wind turbine, maintaining an oil and gas wastewater facility or constructing a transmission line could result in prosecutable take under the MBTA.1

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U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Announces Notice of Intent to Prepare Rulemaking for Migratory Bird Treaty Act Incidental Take Permits

On May 26, 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a notice of intent (NOI) to prepare a programmatic environmental impact statement (EIS) evaluating the impacts of a proposal to authorize the incidental take of migratory birds under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA).

The MBTA was enacted almost 100 years ago in order to curb poaching and commercial hunting of migratory birds. The MBTA makes it unlawful to “pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill, attempt to take, capture or kill,” possess, sell, purchase, or ship any migratory bird or any part, nest or egg of a migratory bird, unless authorized “taking” by a federal regulation (such as the issuance of hunting permits and permits for the control of injurious or depredating birds). “Taking” under the MBTA is defined more narrowly than under the Endangered Species Act or the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, and, in contrast to those statutes, the MBTA does not include a prohibition on general harassment of birds or habitat modification.

Nonetheless, even with the slightly narrower prohibitions contained in the MBTA, individuals still face potential criminal liability for violations of the Act. Currently, there is no regulatory mechanism in place to provide protection from prosecution for harm caused to migratory birds during common commercial and industrial activities.

The NOI outlines several proposals the FWS is evaluating for authorizing take of migratory birds, and has asked for industry feedback on these proposals, which include:

• Individual, site-specific incidental take permits for activities that “present complexities or siting considerations that inherently require project-specific considerations, or for which there is limited information regarding adverse effects.”

• General, nation-wide take authorizations for identified types of hazards known to be caused by specific industry activities. These industry activities include utility-scale wind and solar generation and certain E&P activities such as oil and gas reserve pits and wastewater ponds, flares, exhaust pipes and vents at oil and gas production sites.

• Entering into or expanding inter-agency agreements with other federal agencies permitting the other agencies to provide incidental take authorization when permitting actions regulated by those agencies.

• Expanding the scope of the use of voluntary guidance agreements in specific industry sectors, such as wind, solar and oil and gas. Under these agreements, best management practices and mitigation measures are set out that, if complied with, lessen the likelihood of prosecution in the event of a take. FWS currently uses this approach with wind and solar producers.

It is almost certain that, if FWS moves forward with the rulemaking, the rule will face legal challenges. Federal courts are split on whether the MBTA even prohibits the incidental killing of migratory birds. The 10th Circuit has held that MBTA liability is triggered any time a bird is killed, even if that was not the purpose of the activity. However, the 9th Circuit and the Federal District Court for the District of North Dakota have disagreed, finding that the MBTA only prohibits the intentional killing of migratory birds. Thus, the FWS’s authority to regulate incidental take is not clear.

Beyond the questions of regulatory authority are the practical concerns related to agency capacity to process what could be a huge number of new permits. Permit processing times for oil and gas facilities and renewable energy operations can already span a period of years, and adding an additional layer of federal oversight could potentially extend these already long permitting times. It is also unclear whether the FWS intends to grant incidental take permits only for new projects or facilities, or whether it will seek to permit existing facilities as well. Aware of the likely administrative burden this would impose on the FWS, the NOI makes clear that intends to focus largely on industry sectors that are known to cause a large number of bird deaths. However, this could still embrace a very large number of actions.

The NOI invites comment on the proposal through July 27, 2015. After scoping is complete, FWS will prepare a draft EIS for public comment, which would likely be accompanied by proposed regulations.

The NOI can be found at: https://www.federalregister.gov/articles/2015/05/26/2015-12666/migratory-bird-permits-programmatic-environmental-impact-statement

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