National Security and Modern Conservation—the Sonar Case Part 2

The Sonar Case, recently on cert. to the Supreme Court, raises the perennial tension in conservation and environmental law: to what lengths ought we go to avoid disrupting nature by and through our everyday lives. In this case, the “everyday” part is the use of extremely powerful sonar that has been shown to seriously disrupt and, in some cases, kill and injure a variety of sea life.

The Navy (and the Bush Administration) has argued that the use of this sonar in training exercises is necessary to ensure the nation’s military preparedness, a weighty claim in any case. But in my first post, I suggested that one of our marquee environmental statutes, NEPA, has made our perennial tension harder and harder to resolve because the statute’s normative core—that the federal government should take a hard look at the possible environmental consequences of its “major actions” before taking them—is all too often being muddled up in a tangled web of Executive Branch maneuvering and posturing. It is almost impossible to say whether NEPA analysis in any given case is going to improve a decision or just delay it and make it more costly for the Treasury to fund. NEPA today has arguably become a very different statute because of how our society has evolved since 1970. But it has also (arguably) become the single best form of leverage against a lame duck President who has shown absolutely no leadership on the environmental challenges of our time and who, instead, seems intent on leaving all of these problems to his unfortunate successor.

Agencies are much less likely to have given no thought to the environmental consequences of their actions today than they were in 1970—and forcing them to do an impact analysis when they make a conscious decision to forego one (as NEPA and the NEPA guidelines have always allowed) is arguably nothing more than obstructionism. Of course, obstructionism obviously has its time and place—arguably in this case. But the public really has no way of knowing how valuable these sonar exercises are to the national defense. One can just as easily speculate that the Navy is using the Pacific fleet to lure China into an ill-advised arms race in the South China Sea (who else is building a lot of very quiet submarines?) as one could choose to defer to the military personnel who say “this is more important than the marine mammal fatalities it will entail.”

Resolving the dispute in federal court is one way to test the speculations. The district court hearing the case originally enjoined the Navy from its sonar exercises in August 2007, rejecting the Navy’s determination that the exercises wouldn’t have a “significant impact” on the environment (the NEPA environmental impact statement trigger). The court order eventually required the DoD to produce an EIS. In January 2008, shortly after settlements talks went under, the President issued a special dispensation to the Navy and removed any Coastal Zone Management Act (CZMA) issues from the case while the CEQ, as mentioned in my first post, issued a NEPA dispensation, citing 40 C.F.R. § 1506.11 and the “emergency circumstances” of the court’s injunction. That is how the case came to the Ninth Circuit and how the Ninth Circuit held that the CEQ had misinterpreted its own regulation and that the President had improperly revised the judgment of an Article III court.

NEPA has always been an analytical requirement only—it does not and has never required that one decision be made instead of another. Don’t be fooled, though. Its normative core has always piggy-backed on a part of the country’s ‘overlapping consensus’ that almost certainly creates a presumption in favor of environmentally cautious decisions (that part of America that says “don’t take any unnecessary risks with nature or our natural resources”). Having to document and publish a “detailed statement” justifying the use of this extremely powerful sonar is its own kind of deterrent. In the Sonar Case, the Supreme Court has agreed to decide whether an agency’s effort to avoid discussing such trade-offs in public is due deference in its own right—notwithstanding a preexisting judicial action on the same matter. The agency in this case has played the trump of all trumps and it will be most interesting to see how the Court responds.

Posted by Jamie Colburn