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Pit River Tribe v. Bureau of Land Management

United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit

September 19, 2019

Pit River Tribe; Native Coalition for Medicine Lake Highlands Defense; Mount Shasta Bioregional Ecology Center; Save Medicine Lake Coalition; Medicine Lake Citizens for Quality Environment, Plaintiffs-Appellees,
v.
Bureau of Land Management; U.S. Department of the Interior, Defendants-Appellants.

          Argued and Submitted May 14, 2019 Seattle, Washington

          Appeal from the United States District Court Nos. 2:04-cv-00956-JAM-AC 2:04-cv-00969-JAM-AC for the Eastern District of California John A. Mendez, District Judge, Presiding

          Mary Gabrielle Sprague (argued) and Ellen J. Durkee, Appellate Section; Eric Grant, Deputy Assistant Attorney General; Jeffrey Bossert Clark, Acting Assistant Attorney General; Environment and Natural Resources Division, United States Department of Justice, Washington, D.C.; for Defendants-Appellants.

          Samuel Lazerwitz (argued) and Caleb G. Wright (argued), Certified Law Students; Alicia E. Thesing, Isaac C. Cheng, and Deborah Ann Sivas, Supervising Attorneys; Environmental Law Clinic, Mills Legal Clinic at Stanford Law School, Stanford, California; for Plaintiffs-Appellees.

          Before: William A. Fletcher and Morgan Christen, Circuit Judges, and Roslyn O. Silver, [*] District Judge.

         SUMMARY [**]

         Geothermal Steam Act / Federal Leases

         The panel affirmed the district court's summary judgment in favor of Pit River Tribe and several environmental organizations in their action against federal agencies responsible for administering twenty-six unproven geothermal leases located in California's Medicine Lake Highlands.

         Pit River alleged that the Bureau of Land Management's decision to continue the terms of the unproven leases for up to forty years violated the Geothermal Steam Act ("GSA").

         Section 1017 of the GSA authorizes the Secretary of the Interior to approve cooperative or unit plans to manage multiple geothermal leases as a unit, and the Secretary must review such unit plans every five years and eliminate any lease not reasonably necessary for unit operations under the plan. Section 1005(a) of the GSA provides that geothermal leases on federal land have primary lease terms of ten years, and allows the leases to be continued for as long as geothermal steam is produced in commercial quantities. Section 1005(c) states that leases subject to "unit plans" may be extended even if not productive during the initial ten-year term under certain conditions.

         The panel held that the statutory meaning of 30 U.S.C. § 1005(a) was clear and unambiguous. The panel held that the provision permitted production-based forty-year continuations at the end of the primary term only on a lease-by-lease basis, not on a unit-wide basis. It was BLM's burden to provide a compelling reason for the court to depart from the plain language of § 1005(a), and the panel concluded that it had not met that burden here.

          OPINION

          CHRISTEN, CIRCUIT JUDGE

         The Bureau of Land Management and the Department of the Interior (collectively, BLM) appeal the district court's order granting summary judgment in favor of the Pit River Tribe and several local and regional environmental organizations (collectively, Pit River). We have jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1291 and we affirm the district court's judgment.

         I. Background

         Pit River filed this action against the federal agencies responsible for administering twenty-six unproven geothermal leases located in California's Medicine Lake Highlands. We refer to these leases as "unproven" because BLM has not determined that they are capable of producing geothermal steam in commercial quantities. See Pit River Tribe v. Bureau of Land Mgmt., 793 F.3d 1147, 1149–50 (9th Cir. 2015) (Pit River III).[1] Calpine Corporation, the current leaseholder, was also named as a defendant but it did not appeal the judgment the district court entered on remand from our court. The operative complaint alleges that BLM's decision to continue the terms of the unproven leases for up to forty years violated the Geothermal Steam Act (GSA), the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), and the Indian-fiduciary-trust doctrine.[2] Id. at 1148.

         The subject leases are located within the Glass Mountain Unit Plan. The parties agree that the GSA requires that any lease be allowed to continue if it is producing geothermal steam in commercial quantities, or is shown to be capable of doing so, within its primary ten-year term. See 30 U.S.C. § 1005(a) (1994).[3] The parties' dispute centers on whether all leases committed to a "unit plan" may be collectively continued for up to forty years if any single lease in the unit becomes productive during the primary term. Pit River argues that § 1005(a) allows production-based continuations to be granted only on an individual basis. BLM argues that § 1005(a) allows production-based continuations to be granted to all leases in a unit if any one of them becomes productive during the primary term. BLM's interpretation of the GSA is heavily informed by its view that the Mineral Leasing Act (MLA), 30 U.S.C. §§ 221i–236a (1964), provides an important backdrop against which the GSA must be analyzed.[4]

         II. Procedural History

         This is the second time our court has addressed the controversy concerning the duration of the leases in the Glass Mountain Unit. See Pit River III, 793 F.3d at 1148. In July of 2013, the district court granted judgment on the pleadings in favor of BLM on the grounds that Pit River lacked prudential standing to assert its GSA claim. Id. at 1154–55. We reversed the district court's judgment, ruling that Pit River's claim fell within the GSA's "zone of interests," id. at 1155–58, and we remanded to the district court so it could consider the merits of the claims.

         On remand from Pit River III, the district court granted summary judgment in favor of Pit River. The court ruled that, as it was written in 1994, the GSA's primary term provision was unambiguous and did not authorize BLM to continue the twenty-six unproven leases for forty years simply because they were part of a unit that contained a single proven lease. The district court reasoned that because Congress referred to "unit plans" in § 1005(c) and (g), but omitted this term from § 1005(a), "Congress did not contemplate the additional [forty]-year term for nonproductive leases committed to a unit plan under [§] 1005(a)." In an amended judgment, the district court vacated and set aside BLM's May 18, 1998 decision granting the lease continuations, and remanded the proceedings to the agency to determine whether to extend or cancel the twenty-six leases pursuant to the GSA and the implementing regulations in effect as of May 1998. The district court observed that its judgment did not affect BLM's decision to continue the single proven lease, and that Pit River's NEPA, NHPA, and fiduciary duty claims were mooted by the court's vacatur of BLM's 1998 decision letters. BLM appeals the district court's judgment.

         III. Standard of Review

         We review de novo an order granting summary judgment. Cty. of Amador v. U.S. Dep't of the Interior, 872 F.3d 1012, 1020 (9th Cir. 2017).

         IV. Jurisdiction

         We must first assure ourselves of our jurisdiction to hear this appeal because the district court's order granting summary judgment vacated BLM's 1998 decision letters and remanded to the agency. See Pit River Tribe v. U.S. Forest Serv., 615 F.3d 1069, 1075 (9th Cir. 2010). "[R]emand orders are generally not 'final' decisions for purposes of section 1291[,]" id., but a remand order is considered final and appealable where: "(1) the district court conclusively resolves a separable legal issue, (2) the remand order forces the agency to apply a potentially erroneous rule which may result in a wasted proceeding, and (3) review would, as a practical matter, be foreclosed if an immediate appeal were unavailable." Id. (quoting Alsea Valley All. v. Dep't of Commerce, 358 F.3d 1181, 1184 (9th Cir. 2004)). Here, because the district court determined that 30 U.S.C. § 1005(a) did not authorize BLM to continue the unproven leases based on the single proven lease, BLM will be constrained by this interpretation on remand. If the district court's interpretation is incorrect, the remand will result in a wasted proceeding. Moreover, review of the district court's interpretation will be foreclosed absent immediate appeal because, after remand to the agency, BLM cannot later appeal the result of its own agency decision. See Alsea Valley All., 358 F.3d at 1184; Chugach Alaska Corp. v. Lujan, 915 F.2d 454, 457 (9th Cir. 1990). For these reasons, we conclude that we have jurisdiction to hear this appeal.

         V. Discussion

         A. The ...


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