By: LeeAnne Edmonds Applegate, Former Staff Member. This Comment was originally published in JNREL Vol. 20 No. 1.
Abstract by: Ramsey Groves, Staff Member
Montana Wilderness Ass'n. v. Fry, 310 F. Supp. 2d 1127 (D. Mont. 2004) was decided by the United States District Court for the District of Montana. In this crucial case, the court enjoined the continued use of a natural gas pipeline based on violations of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA). In issuing the injunction, the court weighed the public interest in protecting the environment against the potential economic harm to the energy company. However, the court failed to consider the economic harm to the public. Arguably, the court erred because the policies and goals of NEPA indicate the relevance of economic harm to the public. On multiple occasions, the courts of the Ninth Circuit have exhibited faulty analysis of energy issues by refusing to consider the economic harm to the public despite the requirements of the NEPA.
The NEPA states that its goals include "identify[ing] and developing methods and procedures . . . which will insure that presently unquantified environmental amenities and values may be given appropriate consideration in decision-making along with economic and technical considerations." Thus, the NEPA states in no uncertain terms that economic impact should be considered. However, in Montana Wilderness Ass'n v. Fry, the Ninth Circuit recognized that the remedy for a NEPA violation is ordinarily an injunction, and the court stated that the factors to be considered include harm to the public and harm to the parties. The court further stated, "A third party's financial damages from an injunction generally do not outweigh potential harm to the environment." Based on this statement, the Ninth Circuit clearly places more weight on the environmental impact factor.
When balancing factors that include harm to the public, it is reasonable to expect a court to give appropriate consideration to economic harm to the public. This is certainly true when one considers the rising price of oil. This is of great importance because of the widespread use of petroleum products in our culture and the profound effect of these products on our national economy. Rising oil prices not only increase transportation and heating costs, but they also impact the costs of household items made from petroleum derivatives, such as diapers, deodorant, aspirin, dentures, golf balls, and compact discs.
Fortunately, not all circuits have the same view as the Ninth Circuit. The D.C. Circuit recognizes the value in reducing U.S. dependency on foreign oil. As such, the D.C. Circuit takes a more expansive approach by considering all of the factors articulated by Congress, including the economic harm to the public.
The Ninth Circuit clearly fails to comply with the NEPA policy of weighing economic harms. This circuit is the largest in the country geographically and includes within its jurisdiction the oil-producing states of California and Alaska. The Ninth Circuit's view is particularly troubling because, by failing to consider the impact of increased energy costs on the public, there is certainly a potential for great damage to the economy. Absent a Supreme Court decision mandating that the standards of NEPA are to be considered in their entirety, the Ninth Circuit is likely to maintain its problematic position.