Previous Article
Next Article

Your authoritative, multi-channel network for natural resources and environmental information since 1989 – by practioners for practitioners.

Line Spacing+- AFont Size+- Print This Article Back To Homepage

D.C. Circuit Addresses Petition Challenging FERC Decision on Hydropower License and Related Endangered Species Act Claims

D.C. Circuit Addresses Petition Challenging FERC Decision on Hydropower License and Related Endangered Species Act Claims
Related Articles

By Allison Smith

The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals has granted in part, denied in part, and dismissed in part a petition challenging the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s (FERC) decision on an amended hydropower license for the Oakdale and Norway Dams in Indiana, and the related Biological Opinion from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS or the Service). The amended license increases flow below the Oakdale Dam during periods of drought, in order to protect threatened and endangered species of mussels. Petitioners challenged the scientific basis for mandating increased flows, which have the effect of lowering water levels in the lakes behind the dams. In line with petitioners, FERC would have required water levels in the lakes to be maintained, in line with the multiple-use considerations detailed in the Federal Power Act under which the dam license is issued. However, the FWS directed in its Biological Opinion on the amendment that flows below the dam meet certain minimum levels, as a reasonable and prudent measure to minimize incidental take.

The Court of Appeals found that the Service provided a reasoned and thorough justification for its conclusions in the Biological Opinion, supported by substantial evidence, but held that neither FERC nor the Service had adequately considered whether this reasonable and prudent measure was more than a “minor” change to FERC’s proposed license amendment and therefore in violation of Service regulations. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals remanded the case to FERC for further proceedings on that issue, without vacating the amended license or Biological Opinion. [Shafer & Freeman Lakes Environmental Conservation Corporation v. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, 992 F.3d 1071 (D.C. Cir. 2021).]

Factual and Procedural Background

Northern Indiana Public Service Company (NIPSCO) operates the Oakdale and Norway Dams, built in the 1920s on the Tippecanoe River. The Oakdale Dam creates Lake Freeman, and further upstream, the Norway Dam creates Lake Shaffer. With more than four thousand private lakefront properties, the lakes have a significant recreational and economic nexus with the surrounding communities. NIPSCO’s 2007 FERC license required operation of the dams in an instantaneous run-of-river mode. The license did not allow the water level of the lakes to fluctuate more than three inches above or below a specified elevation.

During a drought in 2012, the Service found several species of threatened or endangered mussels were dying downstream from the Oakdale Dam, at least in part from low water flows. At the Service’s direction, NIPSCO increased water flow out of Oakdale Dam to avoid liability under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). NIPSCO concurrently obtained variances from FERC to lower water levels in the lake below the elevation dictated in the license.

The FWS issued a Technical Assistance Letter, outlining procedures for NIPSCO to avoid ESA liability by mimicking natural run-of-river flow. While both the FERC license and the Technical Assistance Letter required “run-of-river” operations, the FWS defined this differently than FERC. Using a linear scaling methodology to determine that the natural water flow directly below Oakdale Dam would be 1.9 times the flow measured above Lake Shaffer, the Service advised NIPSCO to meet this flow requirement and cease electricity generation during low-flow events. NIPSCO sought an amendment of its FERC license to implement the Technical Assistance Letter.

Carroll and White Counties and the City of Montecello, which border Lake Freeman, and the non-profit that owns much of the land beneath the lakes, Shafer & Freeman Lakes Environmental Conservation Corporation (together: Coalition) intervened in the FERC proceeding to oppose the license amendment, objecting to the Service’s formula for calculating river flow. The environmental assessment prepared by FERC under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) analyzed NIPSCO’s proposed alternative to operate in accordance with the Service’s guidance and FERC’s preferred alternative to cease diversion of water for the generation of electricity during periods of low flow, but maintain Lake Freeman’s target elevation. FERC cited its obligation under the Federal Power Act to balance wildlife conservation with other interests.

After a contentious formal ESA consultation, the Service published a Biological Opinion which concluded that FERC’s alternative was not likely to jeopardize threatened or endangered mussel species. However, the Incidental Take Statement included a “reasonable and prudent measure” to minimize incidental take that required NIPSCO to maintain water flows below the Oakdale Dam measuring 1.9 times that of the average daily flow above the dams. The Coalition objected to this measure, which would draw down lake levels, and NIPSCO expressed concern about the clear conflicts between the Biological Opinion and FERC’s alternative, which required a minimum lake elevation. While FERC disagreed with the Service, it treated the Service’s reasonable and prudent measure as “nondiscretionary” and issued an amended license consistent with NIPSCO’s application and the Service’s Biological Opinion. The Coalition brought suit to challenge the amended FERC license and the Biological Opinion.

The D.C. Circuit’s Decision

Challenges to the Biological Opinion

The Coalition raised numerous challenges to the scientific foundation of the Biological Opinion and argued that these errors required invalidation of both the Biological Opinion and the amended FERC license that incorporated the reasonable and prudent measure Biological Opinion. The Court rejected each of these arguments.

The Court of Appeals considered whether the Service’s issuance of the Biological Opinion, or FERC’s licensing decision incorporating the Biological Opinion, were arbitrary and capricious or unsupported by substantial evidence. The court noted that under the ESA, the Service and FERC are required to use the best scientific and commercial data available when making decisions. But, the court reviews scientific judgments of an agency narrowly, holding agencies to certain “minimal standards of rationality,” and vacating a decision only if the agency:

. . .relied on factors which Congress has not intended it to consider, entirely failed to consider an important aspect of the problem, offered an explanation for its decision that runs counter to the evidence before the agency, or is so implausible that it could not be ascribed to a difference in view or the product of agency expertise.

The Court of Appeal rejected the Coalition’s argument that the Service’s scientific conclusions did not deserve deference because the Service personnel who worked on the Biological Opinion lacked hydrological expertise. As the Service consulted hydrologists as part of its decision-making process, the court found that the Service’ judgment merited the deference traditionally given to an agency when reviewing a scientific analysis within the agency’s area of expertise.

The Coalition’s arguments against the Biological Opinion centered on the Service’s calculations of river flow using linear scaling methodology. Acknowledging the method’s imperfections, the Service determined that this was the soundest available method for guaranteeing that water flow out of Oakdale Dam represented the natural flow of the river during low-flow periods. The court found that the Service provided a reasoned and thorough justification for its approach to managing the river’s flow, explaining the scientific basis for its decision, identifying substantial evidence in the record buttressing its judgment, and responding to the Coalition’s concerns. The court found the Service’s analysis “comfortably passes” review under the standards of the Administrative Procedure Act.

Since the court found that the Service had acted reasonably in using the linear scaling methodology, it held that FERC had acted reasonably in relying on the Service’s corresponding scientific judgments FERC’s reliance on the determination that additional flows were needed to protect listed species of mussels, despite certain critiques of the methodology, was not arbitrary or capricious.

On other counts, the court held that it lacked jurisdiction because the Coalition had not raised the issues in its petition for rehearing before FERC. The Coalition had sufficiently raised the validity of the Biological Opinion itself on rehearing, but did not raise several specific objections it brought before the court. Because of this failure to exhaust its administrative remedies under the Federal Power Act with regards to these objections, they could not be considered by the court.

The Services’ ‘Reasonable and Prudent Measures’ and Minor Changes to the FERC License

ESA regulations provide that any reasonable and prudent measures the Service proposes to reduce incidental take cannot involve more than a minor change to the proposed agency action for which the Service prepared the incidental take statement. A reasonable or prudent measure that would alter the basic design, location, scope, duration, or timing of the agency action is prohibited. Service guidance provides that substantial design changes are inappropriate in the context of an incidental take statement issued under a no jeopardy biological opinion. With a finding of no jeopardy, the project, as proposed by the action agency, would be in compliance with the statutory prohibition against jeopardizing the continued existence of listed species.

Here, the Service required a level of flow through Oakdale Dam that could materially reduce the water level in Lake Freeman during drought. The Coalition contended that this reasonable and prudent measure was not a minor change, and therefore a violation of ESA regulations. The Court of Appeals found that the Service and FERC had acted in an arbitrary manner, having failed to adequately explain why the Biological Opinion’s reasonable and prudent measure qualified as a minor change.

FERC’s proposed alternative for the NIPSCO license amendment provided that during low-flow periods, NIPSCO would cease electricity generation, but would continue to operate the Oakdale Dam to maintain a constant water elevation in Lake Freeman. The Service concluded this alternative would not jeopardize threatened and endangered mussels, yet established a reasonable and prudent measure that required NIPSCO to draw down Lake Freeman during low-flow periods, in direct conflict with the terms of the license as proposed by FERC. The court found that the Service had failed to analyze whether it’s reasonable and prudent measure complied with its own regulations on the scope of reasonable and prudent measures.

The Service argued that its proposal should be compared with NIPSCO’s application, which incorporated the Service’s requirement to provide downstream flows, rather than FERC’s alternative. Against NIPSCO’s application, the Service’s reasonable and prudent measure did not represent a change. However, the court found that the alternative with which to compare the Service’s proposal was FERC’s proposed action, not NIPSCO’s application. It was FERC’s alternative that was analyzed in the Biological Opinion, and considered in formulating reasonable and prudent measures. Given the conflict between its alternative and the Incidental Take Statement, FERC adopted the NIPSCO alternative, reasoning that it considered implementation of the Service’s reasonable and prudent measure as nondiscretionary. The court noted that FERC’s treatment of the measure as nondiscretionary would be sensible in the normal course. But here, the Service’s failure to address an important issue was apparent on the face of the Biological Opinion and infected FERC’s license amendment as well.

With this flaw, the court remanded the case to FERC for further proceedings consistent with the opinion, without vacating the license amendment or the Biological Opinion and Incidental Take Statement, given that vacatur would leave NIPSCO again with conflicting directives in the original FERC license and the Service’s Technical Advice Letter.

Conclusion and Implications

This case highlights the potentially contradictory mandates among federal environmental and energy laws that agencies and facilities must navigate. The Federal Power Act’s provisions for hydropower licensing has a multiple use doctrine at its core, as we see in other federal laws governing the use of federal lands and resources. The ESA, on the other hand, has a focus on the protection of species and habitat, with incidental take permits available where consistent with conservation of the species. In this case, FERC felt unable to reject the Service’s reasonable and prudent measure in the Incidental Take Statement for Oakdale Dam. NIPSCO itself urged the agencies to not saddle it with contradictory directives, preferring flow and generation restrictions in the FERC license to the prospect of ESA liability. With this opinion, the Court has hinted that the agencies may not have struck the right balance between the dictates of the ESA and the Federal Power Act, and reminded the Service that where it has found an agency action will result in no jeopardy to a protected species, it must consider whether further would amount to a substantial change in the proposed action itself.