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
The extent of information available on the effects of a
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
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
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
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.