Monday, May 2, 2011

Aera Energy LLC v. Kenneth Salazar (DOI)

Apr 29:  In the U.S. Court of Appeals, D.C. Circuit, Case No. 10-5101. Appealed from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. In its summary of the case, the Appeals Court indicated that in 1999, the Pacific Regional Director of the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service caused four oil and gas leases off the California coast, for which appellants had originally paid the United States over $140 million, to expire. The Regional Director later testified that he based his decision "solely on political considerations and that absent such considerations he would have instead extended the leases."
    The Appeals Court said, "Reviewing the matter de novo, however, the Interior Board of Land Appeals, acting without regard to political considerations and on the basis of scientific evidence, affirmed the original decision. The district court upheld that ruling, and appellants now appeal, arguing that in order to cure the Regional Director's original decision of political taint, the Board should have adopted the decision the Regional Director says he would have made absent political influence. Because we agree with the district court that appellants received all they were entitled to -- i.e., an agency decision on the merits without regard to extra-statutory, political factors -- we affirm."
    The Appeals Court ruled further, "We are keenly aware that administrative agencies making important and sometimes controversial decisions are often buffeted by political pressure. Indeed, public advocacy plays a healthy role in our system. Accordingly, 'we have never questioned the authority of congressional representatives to exert pressure, and we have held that congressional actions not targeted directly at [agency] decision makers -- such as contemporaneous hearings -- do not invalidate an agency decision.' ATX, 41 F.3d at 1528 (citing Volpe, 459 F.2d at 1249 and Koniag, 580 F.2d at 610) (emphasis in original). But sometimes political pressure crosses the line and prevents an agency from performing its statutorily prescribed duties. When that occurs, we have repeatedly declined to stand in the agency's shoes and take over its decision making function. Instead, we have directed the agency to use the traditional administrative tools at its disposal to render a politically untainted decision. Such an approach follows from the distinct roles Congress has assigned to administrative agencies and the courts: for agencies, to reach reasoned decisions based on the relevant statutory factors; and for the courts, to ensure that those agencies properly carry out their statutory responsibilities. Having found that the IBLA [Interior Board of Land Appeals] fulfilled its role, we have fulfilled ours and so affirm."
    Access the complete opinion (click here). [*Energy/OCS]

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