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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Wyoming Legislature Rejects Attempts to Penalize Wind Energy Industry

In a state that has been described as having “world class wind,” a boast hard to ignore during a winter that featured days upon days of wind gusts reaching 80 mph at times, wind energy has struggled to find a secure toehold due to the vice-like grip traditional extractive mineral industries have on the energy sector in Wyoming.  That may be changing, however.

This year, bills were proposed in both the Wyoming House and Senate that sought to limit the ability of wind producers to market their product within the State.  Luckily (or not, depending on your point of view), each bill failed in committee before being introduced on the floor of either house.  House Bill 127 sought to increase the tax on wind energy from $1.00/megawatt hour to $5.00/megawatt hour.  This bill was defeated by a 7-2 vote by the House Revenue Committee on January 23, 2017.  In the Senate, Senate File 71 proposed that utility companies that use wind or solar power would incur a penalty of $10.00/kilowatt hour starting in 2019.  After widespread public opposition to this bill reached the desks of the Senate, it died in committee.  So, while Wyoming is the only state in the U.S. to tax wind1, and while wind producers still face a more difficult permitting process before the Industrial Siting Council than their traditional extractive mineral counterparts, the State legislature prevented two significant roadblocks to future development from being erected.

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2016 Wyoming Energy Plan – Doubling Down on Coal

In the face of a radically altered economic and energy picture for Wyoming, Governor Matt Mead released an updated energy strategy for the State on March 14, 2016. Titled “Leading the Charge: Wyoming’s Action Plan for Energy, Environment, and Economy,” the plan is an update of a similar report issued by the State in 2013, the first of its kind in the nation. The State is facing significant budget challenges from the loss of royalty income, severance taxes, and jobs from low oil and gas prices and the even more dramatic decline of coal mine revenue as key coal mining companies in the State seek bankruptcy protection. Approximately 60% of State government revenues come from mineral development.

Gov. Mead proposes to meet the budget challenges by addressing the backbone of the State’s economy – energy development. The 2013 report set forth 45 initiatives, 28 of which have been completed, and the 2016 strategy adds several new priorities. Emphasizing his commitment to the coal industry, the Governor summed up his approach as “a doubling down on coal and a very good start on renewables.” Specifically, the energy plan includes:

• A “carbon innovation” effort for the development of “clean coal” technologies by building on the success of the Integrated Test Center, a public-private partnership with the XPRIZE, to develop and test new technologies for the capture of CO2 emissions.
• Harnessing Wyoming’s Class 5-7 wind energy resources with a new Wind Energy Manufacturing Initiative, led by the Wyoming Business Council. The goal would be to attract wind turbine manufacturing to the State.
• Hosting a symposium to explore how to turn the devastation caused to Wyoming forests by the Pine Beetle on its head by integrating biomass energy into the State’s overall energy plan.
• Forming a National Environmental Policy Act Team to work with federal agencies to expedite the NEPA process to work more collaboratively with BLM in land use planning and combatting invasive species on public land.
• Identifying and working to reduce areas of duplication in State and Federal regulations.
• In light of coal company bankruptcies and self-bonding the State had permitted earlier, Wyoming must urgently address coal mine reclamation liabilities. The energy strategy accordingly calls for an examination of the adequacy of reclamation formulas, reviewing reclamation goals and definitions, and analyzing the self-bonding program.
• Diversifying the State’s economy by increasing the emphasis on international exports including coal, oil and gas (LNG), uranium and other resources.
• The strategy also addresses rulemaking proposals, including baseline groundwater testing before oil and gas drilling, setback requirements, a review of flaring rules, and mitigation banking and additional efforts for the protection of Greater sage-grouse.

Gov. Mead hopes that this year’s plan will continue to allow the State to be proactive in planning its future energy development, which will in turn create additional economic and business opportunities for both new and existing industries. The Governor asked for $500,000 to implement the energy strategy in the 2017-2018 budget, which was rejected by the Legislature, so it remains to be seen how much of the plan he will be able to implement.

The full text of Wyoming’s Action Plan can be found here: http://governor.wyo.gov/media/news-releases/2016-news-releases/governormeadannouncesupdatedenergystrategy.

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