Kleppe v. Sierra Club American Electric Power System v. Sierra Club

Decision Date28 June 1976
Docket NumberNos. 75-552 and 75-561,s. 75-552 and 75-561
Citation427 U.S. 390,49 L.Ed.2d 576,96 S.Ct. 2718
PartiesThomas S. KLEPPE, Secretary of the Interior, et al., Petitioners, v. SIERRA CLUB et al. AMERICAN ELECTRIC POWER SYSTEM et al., Petitioners, v. SIERRA CLUB et al
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus

Section 102(2)(C) of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) requires that all federal agencies include an environmental impact statement (EIS) "in every recommendation or report on proposals for legislation and other major Federal actions significantly affecting the quality of the human environment." Respondent environmental organizations, alleging a widespread interest in the rich coal reserves of the "Northern Great Plains region" (embracing parts of Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota) and a threat from coal-related operations to their members' enjoyment of the region's environment, brought suit against petitioner officials of the Department of the Interior and other federal agencies responsible for issuing coal leases, approving mining plans, and taking other actions to enable private companies and public utilities to develop coal reserves on federally owned or controlled land. Respondents claimed that petitioners could not allow further development of coal reserves in the region without preparing a comprehensive EIS under § 102(2)(C) on the entire region, and sought declaratory and injunctive relief. The District Court, on the basis of extensive findings of fact and conclusions of law, held that the complaint stated no claim for relief, and granted petitioners' motion for summary judgment. While accepting the District Court's findings of fact, the Court of Appeals held, on the basis of the soon-forthcoming interim report of the Northern Great Plains Resources Program (NGPRP) (a study of the potential environmental impact from resource development in Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska) as well as other such studies of areas either inclusive of or included within the Northern Great Plains region, that petitioners "contemplated" a regional plan or program, and reversed and remanded with instructions to petitioners to inform the District Court of their role in the further development of the region within 30 days after the NGPRP interim report issued, and that if they decided to control that development, an EIS would be required. The Court of Appeals also enjoined the Department of the Interior's approval of mining plans in one section of the region for which an EIS already had been prepared.Held :

1. The NEPA does not require petitioners to prepare an EIS on the entire Northern Great Plains region. Petitioners have proposed no legislation on the region, and there is no evidence in the record of any proposal for major federal action with respect to the region, but rather it appears that all proposals have been for actions of either local or national scope. Unless there is a proposal for a regional plan of development, it is not practical to prepare a regional EIS, since, absent such a plan, it is impossible to predict the level of coal-related activity that will occur in the region, and thus to analyze the environmental consequences and the resource commitments involved, and alternatives to, such activity. Pp. 398-402.

2. The Court of Appeals erred in both its factual assumptions that the several studies undertaken by petitioners represented attempts to control development on a regional scale, and in its interpretation of the NEPA. There is nothing in the record to indicate that the NGPRP was aimed toward a regional plan or program, but even if the record justified such a finding the Court of Appeals' legal conclusion cannot be squared with the NEPA, which in § 102(2)(C) clearly states that an EIS is not required until an agency makes a recommendation or report on a Proposal for major federal action. The Court of Appeals had no authority to depart from the statutory language and, by a balancing of court-devised factors, determine a point at which an EIS Should be prepared. Pp. 403-406.

3. Assuming that the Court of Appeals' theory about "contemplation" of regional action would permit a court to require preproposal preparation of an EIS, that court's injunction against approval of the mining plans in one part of the region nevertheless would have been error, since on the court's own terms there was in fact no harm and thus no ground for the injunction. Pp. 407-408.

4. Respondents' contention as to the relationships of all proposed coal-related projects in the Northern Great Plains region does not require that petitioners prepare one comprehensive EIS covering such projects before proceeding to approve specific pending applications. Absent a showing that petitioners acted arbitrarily in refusing to prepare one comprehensive EIS on the entire region, it must be assumed that the responsible federal agencies have exercised appropriately their discretion to resolve the technical issues involved in determining the region, if any, with respect to which a comprehensive EIS covering several proposals is necessary. Pp. 408-414.

169 U.S.App.D.C. 20, 514 F.2d 856, reversed and remanded.

A. Raymond Randolph, Jr., Washington, D. C., for petitioners Thomas S. Kleppe, Secretary of the Interior, and others.

V. Frank Mendicino, Cheyenne, Wyo., for the State of Wyoming, as amicus curiae, by special leave of Court.

Bruce J. Terris, Washington, D. C., for respondents Sierra Club and others.

Francis M. Shea, Washington, D. C., for petitioners in both cases.

[Argument of Counsel from pages 392-393 intentionally omitted] Mr. Justice POWELL delivered the opinion of the Court.

Section 102(2)(C) of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 1 (NEPA) requires that all federal agencies include a detailed statement of environmental consequences known as an environmental impact statement "in every recommendation or report on proposals for legislation and other major Federal actions significantly affecting the quality of the human environment." 42 U.S.C. § 4332(2)(C). The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit held that officials of the Department of the Interior (Department) and certain other federal agencies must take additional steps under this section, beyond those already taken, before allowing further development of federal coal reserves in a specific area of the country. For the reasons set forth, we reverse.

I

Respondents, several organizations concerned with the environment, brought this suit in July 1973 in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia.2 The defendants in the suit, petitioners here, were the offi- cials of the Department and other federal agencies responsible for issuing coal leases, approving mining plans, granting rights-of-way, and taking the other actions necessary to enable private companies and public utilities to develop coal reserves on land owned or controlled by the Federal Government. Citing widespread interest in the reserves of a region identified as the "Northern Great Plains region," and an alleged threat from coal-related operations to their members' enjoyment of the region's environment, respondents claimed that the federal officials could not allow further development without preparing a "comprehensive environmental impact statement" under § 102(2)(C) on the entire region. They sought declaratory and injunctive relief.

The District Court, on the basis of extensive findings of fact and conclusions of law, held that the complaint stated no claim for relief and granted the petitioners' motions for summary judgment.3 Respondents appealed. Shortly after oral argument but before issuing an opinion on the merits, the Court of Appeals in January 1975 issued an injunction over a dissent against the Department's approval of four mining plans in the Powder River Coal Basin, which is one small but coal-rich section of the region that concerns respondents. 166 U.S.App.D.C. 200, 509 F.2d 533. An impact statement had been prepared on these plans, but it had not been before the District Court and was not before the Court of Appeals. In June 1975 the Court of Appeals ruled on the merits and, for reasons discussed below, reversed the District Court and remanded for further proceedings. 169 U.S.App.D.C. 20, 514 F.2d 856. The court continued its injunction in force.

The federal officials petitioned for writ of certiorari on October 9, 1975. On November 7, the Court of Appeals refused to dissolve its injunction,4 and a week later petitioners moved this Court for a stay. On January 12, 1976, we stayed the injunction and granted the petitions for certiorari. 423 U.S. 1047, 96 S.Ct. 772, 46 L.Ed.2d 635. We have been informed that shortly thereafter the Secretary of the Interior (Secretary) approved the four mining plans in the Powder River Coal Basin that had been stayed by the injunction.

II

The record and the opinions of the courts below contain extensive facts about coal development and the geographic area involved in this suit. The facts that we consider essential, however, can be stated briefly.

The Northern Great Plains region identified in respondents' complaint encompasses portions of four States northeastern Wyoming, eastern Montana, western North Dakota, and western South Dakota. There is no dispute about its richness in coal, nor about the waxing interest in developing that coal, nor about the crucial role the federal petitioners will play due to the significant percentage of the coal to which they control access. The Department has initiated, in this decade, three studies in areas either inclusive of or included within this region. The North Central Power Study was addressed to the potential for coordinated development of electric power in an area encompassing all or part of 15 States in the North Central United States. It aborted in 1972 for lack of interest on the part of electric utilities. The...

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