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Thursday, July 11, 2024 | Back issues
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Utah railway dispute puts feds’ duty to environment under Supreme Court microscope

The high court’s review will decide if counties in Utah can move forward with a railway that would quadruple oil production in the Uinta Basin.

WASHINGTON (CN) — After an appeals court shot down a proposed Utah oil and gas rail line for its potential to harm the environment, the Supreme Court on Monday agreed to give the project a second look. 

The justices granted an appeal from a group representing seven Utah counties fighting for a permit to build the Uinta Basin Railway, a project designed to quadruple oil production in the Uinta Basin. 

At the request of environmental groups, a panel on the D.C. Circuit threw out the U.S. Surface Transportation Board’s approval of the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition’s project last summer. The appeals court ruled that the agency failed to consider the broader environmental harms the railway would cause. 

With about nine trains a day, the rail line would transport up to 350,000 barrels of waxy crude oil out of the Uinta Basin, linking its oil fields to a national rail network in another part of the state.

The U.S. Surface Transportation Board approved the railway’s permit by considering the project’s potential drilling, transportation and refining oil that would be attributed to the line. The appeals court said the board needed to go further, estimating the broader environmental harms on vegetation and special-status species in the basin. 

The group representing the seven counties said the D.C. Circuit’s ruling was based on an incorrect reading of Department of Transportation v. Public Citizen. In the 2004 ruling, the justices said the National Environmental Policy Act did not require agencies to analyze the environmental effects out of its regulatory control. 

Seven County Infrastructure Coalition urged the justices to reject the D.C. Circuit’s broad reading of the ruling. 

“By requiring an agency to consider any environmental effect that it has the power to prevent, no matter the limits of its regulatory authority, the D.C. Circuit’s rule turns each agency into a ‘de facto environmental-policy czar,’” said Jay Johnson, an attorney with Venable representing the group. 

The environmental groups and the Biden administration opposed the petition, arguing that the counties were conflating variations in agency regulatory authority to create a circuit split. 

“What petitioners describe as differences in the courts of appeals’ understanding of Public Citizen are more appropriately attributed to variations in the statutory and regulatory authority wielded by different agencies in different contexts,” U.S. Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar wrote in the government’s brief. 

The fate of the Utah railway was just one of seven grants the court issued on Monday. Teeing up a battle over transgender rights, the court said it would review Tenneesee’s ban on gender-affirming care for transgender minors. 

Military veteran Karyn Stanley brought the court an Americans with Disabilities fight. After working for two decades as a firefighter in Sanford, Florida, Stanley was forced to take disability retirement when she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. 

Stanley’s employment package initially included a retirement health insurance subsidy, requiring the city to pay for the cost of her health insurance until she was 65. In 2003, however, Sanford changed its policy, limiting the benefits for employees who retire as a result of disabilities. 

Under the new policy, an employee who retired after 25 years of service would receive benefits until they turned 65. Instead, Stanley received only 24 months of insurance coverage after retiring from a disability. 

The court will decide if a panel on the 11th Circuit correctly dismissed Stanley’s Americans with Disabilities Act claims because she was no longer employed by the city when filing her suit. 

In an appeal from another military veteran, the justices agreed to decide if the government owed Nick Feliciano differential pay for his active-duty service in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. 

Feliciano served both as a civilian air traffic controller and a member of the Coast Guard Reserve. In 2012, his active duty service in the Coast Guard left him absent in his position at the Federal Aviation Administration. 

Service members like Feliciano get differential pay, the difference between his paycheck in the military and his civilian role, when called to active-duty military service during times of war or a national emergency. 

The justices will decide if Feliciano was entitled to this pay merely because there was an ongoing national emergency at the time of his service. 

After over a decade of litigation, the justices will take another stab at resolving a complex foreign property fight stemming from World War II. Holocaust survivors and their relatives want compensation for personal property they claim that Hungary and its national railway seized from Jewish people. The court will decide if an exception of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act covers certain funds connected to a foreign state’s commercial activity in the United States. 

In another appeal from the government, the justices agreed to decide if a bankruptcy trustee can avoid handing over a debtor’s $145,138 tax bill. 

A trademark showdown will also grace the court’s docket next term. The fight over football player John Dewberry’s Dewberry Capital Corporation and real-estate entity Dewberry Engineers.

Both companies provide real estate development services. Dewberry Engineers recently won a Lanham Act suit against Dewberry Capital, ordering the company to disgorge $43 million in profits from its affiliates. The affiliates want the court to find they are a legally separate non-party, shielded from the order. 

Follow @KelseyReichmann
Categories / Appeals, Courts, Environment

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