In County of Butte v. Department of Water Resources (2022) 13 Cal.5th 612, the California Supreme Court partially reversed an opinion from the Third District Court of Appeal that CEQA is completely preempted by the Federal Power Act (FPA), finding instead that CEQA is only partly preempted. Specifically, the Supreme Court held the FPA preempts an agency’s application of CEQA to the extent that it interferes with the federally established licensing process, but not when CEQA is used to make decisions concerning matters outside federal jurisdiction or those compatible with the federal government’s exclusive licensing authority.
This consolidated litigation addresses a license renewal for the Oroville Facilities, a collection of public works projects, including hydroelectric facilities, in Butte County. As part of the renewal process, the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) engaged the alternative licensing process (ALP) authorized by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) prior to applying for relicensing. The ALP process allowed DWR to engage with stakeholders and develop a settlement agreement addressing their concerns, which effectively functions as a first draft of the FERC license. Following five years of negotiations, all but two of the stakeholders signed on to the settlement agreement, which DWR submitted to FERC. The Counties of Butte and Plumas did not sign the agreement. Following submission of the settlement agreement and licensing application by DWR, FERC prepared an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) pursuant to NEPA, which considered several alternatives, including a “staff alternative” with modifications from the FERC staff. The EIS concluded the “staff alternative” was the preferred alternative.
Also following submittal of the relicensing application, DWR prepared an EIR pursuant to CEQA, analyzing implementation of the settlement agreement and continued operation of the Oroville Facilities as the “project” under CEQA and the same alternatives considered by FERC. DWR prepared the EIR to comply with additional permitting requirements under the Clean Water Act, for which the State Water Resources Control Board was the lead agency, and to help DWR determine whether to accept a license containing the original terms or the “staff alternative.”
Butte County and Plumas County separately filed petitions for writ of mandate, each challenging DWR’s compliance with CEQA in connection with the relicensing of Oroville Facilities. The cases were later consolidated.
The trial court found DWR’s EIR adequate, and the Counties appealed. On appeal, the Third District declined to reach the merits of the case, holding that the Counties’ CEQA claims were entirely preempted by the FPA, the purpose of which is to “facilitate the development of the nation’s hydropower resources” by centralizing regulatory authority over dams, reservoirs, and hydroelectric power plants in the federal government. The California Supreme Court granted the Counties’ petition for review but subsequently transferred the matter back to the Court of Appeal for reconsideration in light of Friends of the Eel River v. North Coast Railroad Authority (2017) 3 Cal.5th 677 (Friends), which held that the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act (ICCTA) does not necessarily preempt a State agency’ compliance with CEQA for a new railroad project, and that State, as a railroad operator, could voluntarily subject itself to compliance with CEQA without conflicting with the ICCTA. On remand, the Third District affirmed its earlier holding that CEQA was preempted by the FPA.
The California Supreme Court again granted the Counties’ petition for review to determine whether the FPA preempts CEQA when the state is acting on its own behalf and exercising discretion in relicensing a hydroelectric dam.
The California Supreme Court’s Decision on Preemption
A five justice majority of the California Supreme Court held that CEQA claims are preempted insofar as they conflict with the FPA’s licensing scheme, but not where CEQA is used to make decisions concerning matters outside federal jurisdiction or those compatible with the federal government’s exclusive licensing authority. Specifically, the court determined that any CEQA challenge to the ALP and the terms of the settlement agreement and license being considered by FERC were preempted by the FPA. However, because DWR’s compliance with CEQA was not limited to the FERC relicensing, the Counties’ broader challenges to the adequacy of DWR’s EIR were not preempted. The Court concluded that DWR could use the environmental conclusions reached through the CEQA process to aid its decision whether to accept FERC’s “staff alternative” or request modification to the terms of the license issued by FERC, which the FPA allows.
The Court discussed the federal and state law principles applicable to the case before it, including the presumption against preemption for a state-owned, or state-operated project. The FPA does not include an “express” preemption clause, so the issue was whether “conflict” or “field” preemption applied. The Court concluded that the distinction between the two types of preemption was not meaningful here, particularly considering the presumption that, absent a clear statement of Congressional intent that state regulation is preempted, federal law will not be interpreted as interfering with state-owned or state-operated projects. The Court also found federal caselaw applying “field” preemption to state regulatory schemes related to the FPA distinguishable because those cases addressed state attempts to regulate private actors seeking licensing under the FPA. The Court stated that CEQA, in the context of a state agency applying for a federal license, constitutes “self-governance” rather than traditional state regulation of private actors that has been held preempted in the past.
The Court acknowledged that state courts could not require a CEQA remedy inconsistent with federal law, including the FPA, but noted that the Counties had dropped their previous request to enjoin FERC’s licensing process pending DWR’s compliance with CEQA. The Court reasoned, however, that DWR’s compliance with both CEQA and the FPA was possible without creating any conflict. Specifically, DWR used CEQA analysis, in part, to determine whether it should accept a license from FERC containing the proposed terms or those modified by FERC staff. Similarly, the FPA allows applicants to amend their licensing applications or request that FERC modify the terms of the license. DWR could thus use the environmental conclusions reached in the CEQA process to make its own decisions and then make appropriate requests to FERC without intruding on FERC’s jurisdiction. Just as FERC was not required to issue a license wholly consistent with the terms of the settlement agreement, FERC retained jurisdiction to consider, but in no way be bound by, any subsequent requests from DWR. For these reason, environmental review at both levels of government did not overlap to invoke conflict preemption.
The Court also concluded that any preemption issues related to DWR’s adoption of specific mitigation measures demanded by the Counties were premature, as no court had ruled that any additional mitigation was required. The question before the Court was whether any CEQA challenge to DWR’s EIR was preempted by the FPA, the Court ruled such a challenge, in the abstract, was not inherently preempted. Additionally, the Court noted that it may be possible for DWR to adopt mitigation measures that are either outside of FERC’s jurisdiction or compatible with FERC’s licensing authority. Again, FERC could simply deny any request from DWR that conflicted with the FPA or FERC’s licensing authority.
In sum, where the Counties’ CEQA challenges seek to undermine a FERC license or associated terms, they are preempted by the federal government’s exclusive licensing authority under the FPA. However, Counties’ CEQA claims which implicate the sufficiency of an EIR to inform state self-governance and decision-making are not preempted.
The Concurring and Dissenting Opinion
Notably, the Chief Justice, and author of the Friends decision, filed a concurring and dissenting opinion. The Chief Justice agreed that any CEQA challenge to FERC’s licensing process including the settlement agreement was preempted but disagreed that broader CEQA challenges were not similarly preempted. The dissent reasoned that, in addition to “field” and “conflict” preemption, state law that constitutes an “obstacle” to the purposes and objectives of federal law would be similarly preempted. Here, given the history of federal caselaw concluding that state regulation of hydroelectric facilities is preempted by the FPA, and the express “savings clause” in the FPA reserving regulation of water rights to the states, the Chief Justice concluded that CEQA is an “obstacle” to the objectives and purpose of the FPA, particularly where the FPA licensing process included multiple equivalents of CEQA through the ALP and FERC’s compliance with NEPA and does not contemplate delays caused by state court review of CEQA compliance.
The dissent also concluded that CEQA was subject to “field” preemption because CEQA did not involve state regulation of water rights. The Chief Justice also noted that, while none of the federal FPA preemption cases addressed state-operated projects, the concept of “field” preemption (i.e., where Congress truly intends to “occupy the field”) is broad enough to preempt all state regulation, regardless of who the operator is.
Turning to Friends, the Chief Justice characterized her decision in that case as concluding that CEQA is exempt from preemption under the ICCTA as an example of “self-governance” by the State. Given the purpose of the ICCTA was to deregulate railroads, and thereby allow greater “self-governance” by railroad operators, the State’s voluntary compliance with CEQA was not preempted. In contrast, the dissent concluded that the FPA’s purpose and objectives is to vest exclusive regulation of hydroelectric facilities in FERC and to exclude all state regulation, with the exception of water rights. The Chief Justice concluded that, unlike the ICCTA, the FPA (including the federal caselaw interpreting the FPA) made it “unmistakably clear” that all state regulation of hydroelectricity facilities, except regulation of water rights, is preempted.
Lastly, the dissent concluded that finding CEQA only partially preempted was unworkable because a ruling that DWR’s CEQA compliance deficient would not impact FERC’s decision on whether to issue the license. Forcing DWR to perform additional analysis or consider additional mitigation or alternatives would be an exercise in generating paper, without any practical effect. As the Majority Opinion acknowledges, FERC has complete discretion to deny any request to alter the terms of the license, regardless of whether DWR believes such changes to be necessary to comply with CEQA. The dissent also found that requiring CEQA compliance in this case, where multiple environmental studies have been prepared for FERC’s consideration during the licensing process, would be redundant and have little practical benefit.
By Jordan Wright and Nathan George