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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