Wilderness Society v. Morton
(The TAPS Case)
479 F.2d 842 (D.C. Cir. 1973)

  • In order to get oil from northern Alaska back to civilization, the oil companies decided to build the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (aka TAPS). This required building a pipe all the way across the State, through a number of pieces of Federal land.
  • The Alyeska Pipeline Company applied for a right-of-way and special land-use permits (SLUPs) from the Dept. of the Interior (DOI) to allow them to build the pipe. DOI approved the permits.
  • Wilderness Society stepped in and sued for an injunction.
    • Wilderness Society argued that DOI had failed to comply with the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) when they issued the permits.
      • NEPA requires the preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which Alyeska didn't bother to prepare.
  • Alyeska went back, wrote an EIS, DOI approved it, Wilderness Society sued again for an injunction.
    • This time Wilderness Society argued that the SLUPs were in violation of the Mineral Leasing Act (30 U.S.C. 185) because 28 only allows a right-of-way of up to 25 feet on each side of the pipeline. DOI had granted Alyeska a right-of-way of 200-500 feet on each side.
      • Basically, Wilderness Society was saying that the Mineral Leasing Act put explicit limits on what kind of SLUPs DOI could issue, and DOI was ignoring that limitation.
    • Aleskya and DOI argued that TAPS was such a huge project that it would be impossible to build with only a 50 foot right-of-way.
  • The Appellate Court found for Wilderness Society and issued an injunction.
    • The Appellate Court found that 28 was very clear, and only allowed for 25 feet per side. DOI had no authority to grant more than that.
    • DOI argued that the courts should have maximum deference to administrative interpretations of regulations, but the Court found that the principle of administrative deference did not extend so far as to allow DOI to violate an explicit law.
      • See Chevron U.S.A. Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council (467 U.S. 837 (1984)).
    • The Court suggested that if DOI didn't like the way 28 was written, they should go to Congress and ask them to rewrite it. They did not have the authority to just ignore it.
      • DOI argued that since it was impossible to build TAPS without violating 28, and since the general feeling was that Congress wanted TAPS built, that Congress had implicitly acquiesced to DOI's interpretation. But the Court felt that since it was a rather obscure law, Congress probably didn't even know there was a problem, and so their silence could not be equated with acquiescence.
  • After this decision, Congress went back and amended 28 to allow for larger right-of-way in certain cases, and the pipeline was eventually built.