On Friday October 28, 2011, the United States Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia issued a decision vacating and remanding the Federal Aviation Administrations’ ("FAA") 130 identical Determinations of No Hazard which were issued with respect to the proposed Cape Wind 130-turbine offshore wind farm. See Town of Barnstable, et al, v. Federal Aviation Administration, No. 10-1276 (D.C. Cir. 2011).
Summary of the Decision
The lawsuit, filed by long-standing opposition group Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound (the “Alliance”) and the town of Barnstable, MA (together, the “Petitioners”), alleged that the FAA “violated its governing statute, misread its own regulations, and arbitrarily and capriciously failed to calculate the dangers posed to local aviation.” The FAA, along with intervening party Cape Wind Associates, LLC, responded by alleging that the petitioners had no Article III standing to challenge the FAA determinations. Id. at 3. Although the Court’s decision is likely to lead to additional delays for Cape Wind, the ruling does not per se negate the validity of the submerged land lease issued by the Department of the Interior (“DOI”) to Cape Wind in October 2010.
With respect to the threshold question of standing, the FAA argued that even if the Petitioners could allege harm, the fact that “FAA’s hazard determinations, by themselves, have ‘no enforceable legal effect’” means that reversal of the FAA hazard determinations would not redress the grievance. Id. at 5. Although the Court agreed that the FAA hazard determinations were not enforceable on their own, the DOI incorporated a provision into the submerged land lease requiring that Cape Wind abide by “any future mitigation measures that the FAA might deem necessary to reduce or eliminate a hazard on Cape Wind.” Id. at 6. Accordingly, the Court held that the DOI’s inclusion of the FAA hazard mitigation provision is sufficient basis to find it “‘likely as opposed to merely speculative,’ that [DOI would cancel or retract the Cape Wind lease] if faced with an FAA determination that the project posed an unmitigatable hazard.” Id. at 10 (additional citations omitted).
The Court then considered whether FAA properly issued its No Hazard Determinations. Although the petitioners’ alleged that the FAA violated both its governing statute (49 U.S.C. Sec. 44718(b)) and its own internal guidelines (“Procedures for Handling Airspace Matters”, FAA Order 7400.2G (April 10, 2008)), the Court’s ultimate ruling regarding the FAA’ hazard determinations rests solely on the FAA’s application of its internal guidelines. Id. at 10. Importantly, the Court did not issue a declaration stating that the Cape Wind turbines present a hazard – mitigatable or otherwise. Rather, the Court merely remanded the determinations to FAA “to require the FAA to address the issues and explain its conclusion.” Id. at 13-14.
What Happens Next?
There are at least two possibilities as to what will happen in the wake of the Circuit Court’s decision. First, the FAA and Cape Wind Associates could appeal the decision by submitting a writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court of the United States. However, if the Supreme Court does not grant certiorari, the decision of the Appeals Court will stand. Moreover, even if the Supreme Court does choose to hear the matter, a Supreme Court affirmation of the lower court ruling could further dampen the perception that the U.S. offshore wind industry has the support of the U.S. government.
The alternative is for FAA to follow the Circuit Court’s order. FAA would be within its authority to re-issue all 130 Determinations with a “No Hazard” finding provided FAA includes further explanation of its conclusions. Under principles of administrative law, the FAA’s hazard determinations must not be "arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law." 5 U.S.C. § 706(2)(A). In other words, the agency must “adequately explain its result…." Public Citizen, Inc. v. FAA, 300 U.S. App. D.C. 238, 988 F.2d 186, 197 (D.C. Cir. 1993).
Nevertheless, even if FAA finds that it must issue one or more determinations indicating a hazard, the Circuit Court decision indicates that FAA may make recommendations for mitigation measures to overcome these hazards. Accordingly, the only circumstance under which DOI may need to reconsider Cape Wind’s lease is in the event that FAA finds that there are unmitigatable hazards associated with the Cape Wind turbines.
Litigants’ Statements About the Case
Given the longstanding enmity between Cape Wind Associates and the Alliance, both parties issued public statements regarding the decision of the Circuit Court.
The Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound issued a press release stating that the decision is "a resounding victory for the Cape and Islands community and the citizens of Massachusetts" and that the "FAA case is the first of multiple federal lawsuits challenging this poorly sited and expensive project and is just the tip of the iceberg of the problems the courts will consider relative to the Nantucket Sound location."
Cape Wind spokesman Mark Rodgers issued Cape Wind's official response to the decision: "The FAA has reviewed Cape Wind for eight years and repeatedly determined that Cape Wind did not pose a hazard to air navigation," he said. "The essence of today's court ruling is that the FAA needs to better explain its Determination of No Hazard ruling."