Kleppe v. Sierra Club
427 U.S. 390 (1976)

  • The Department of the Interior (DOI) was interested in developing coal reserves in four northwestern States.
    • The DOI plan included granting leases, approving mining plans, and issuing permits to a number of small, private coal mining companies to develop mines.
  • The Sierra Club sued DOI (via the Secretary of the Interior, Kleppe) to stop development until a comprehensive Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) was prepared.
    • DOI had already prepared three studies of potential coal development in the region and a national coal EIS that examined the impact of coal leasing throughout the entire country.
    • Sierra Club argued that an EIS needed to be performed on this specific project, and that a nationwide, generic EIS was not sufficient to meet the requirements of the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA).
  • The Trial Court found for DOI and dismissed the lawsuit. Sierra Club appealed.
  • The Appellate Court reversed and found that DOI was required to perform an EIS. DOI appealed.
    • The Trial Court found there were four factors that governed when a EIS was required:
      • The likelihood and imminence of a program's coming to fruition.
      • The extent of information available on the effects of a program.
      • The extent to which irretrievable resource commitments are being made.
      • The potential severity of environmental effects.
  • The US Supreme Court reversed.
    • The US Supreme Court looked to NEPA 102(2)(C), which requires an EIS for all "major Federal actions."
      • In this case, the Supreme Court found that there were no major Federal actions. The DOI plan involved many many minor projects by private companies. None of the leases or permits were for very large projects.
      • Therefore, none of the individual projects that DOI was developing was major enough to require an EIS.
      • Sierra Club unsuccessfully argued that in aggregate, the DOI plan was a "major Federal action," since all the mining activity was related.
    • The US Supreme Court rejected the Appellate Court's four factors and found that the statutory language in the NEPA only requires an EIS be prepared by an agency at the time "at which it makes a recommendation or a report on a proposal for Federal action."
      • Basically, the proper time for an EIS to be prepared would be just as DOI is about to issue a permit for coal mining, not at the time when they are contemplating the idea of accepting permit applications.
    • The US Supreme Court suggested that when a number of proposals for coal-related actions that will have cumulative or synergistic environmental impact upon the region are pending concurrently before an agency, their environmental consequences must be considered together.
  • In a dissent it was argued that the Court should have the ability to remedy violations of NEPA earlier in the process than the majority held. Waiting until after the agency makes its recommendation severely hampers the Court's ability to ensure that environmental impacts are properly considered.