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THE WILDERNESS SOCIETY v. BABBITT

May 23, 2000

THE WILDERNESS SOCIETY, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
V.
BRUCE BABBITT, SECRETARY OF THE INTERIOR, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Roberts, District Judge.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiffs brought this action alleging that defendants violated the National Environmental Policy Act ("NEPA"), 42 U.S.C. § 4321 et seq. (1994), and the Administrative Procedure Act, 5 U.S.C. § 701-706, by filing an inadequate Final Integrated Activity Plan/Environmental Impact Statement ("FEIS") and by failing to address properly the environmental impact of oil and gas development in a portion of the National Petroleum Reserve planning area in Alaska ("NPR-A").*fn1 Defendants move to transfer this case to the District of Alaska pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1404. The State of Alaska ("Alaska") and the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation ("ASRC")*fn2 move to intervene. Because the balance of interests does not favor transfer, defendants' motion will be denied. Consistent with this Circuit's liberal approach to intervention, the motions to intervene will be granted.

I. Motion to Transfer Venue

A. Legal Standard

Defendants contend that, although venue is proper here, this case should be transferred to Alaska pursuant 28 U.S.C. § 1404(a). That section provides that "[f]or the convenience of parties and witnesses, in the interest of justice, a district court may transfer any civil action to any other district or division where it might have been brought." 28 U.S.C. § 1404(a). When a genuine choice of venue exists,*fn3 the decision to transfer must be made "according to an `individualized, case-by-case consideration of convenience and fairness.'" Stewart Org., Inc. v. Ricoh Corp., 487 U.S. 22, 29, 108 S.Ct. 2239, 101 L.Ed.2d 22 (1988) (quoting Van Dusen v. Barrack, 376 U.S. 612, 622, 84 S.Ct. 805, 11 L.Ed.2d 945 (1964)). In exercising its broad discretion under section 1404(a), the court must balance a number of case-specific factors which include the private interests of the parties as well as public interests such as efficiency and fairness. See id. at 30, 108 S.Ct. 2239. In summary:

The private interest considerations include: (1) the plaintiffs' choice of forum, unless the balance of convenience is strongly in favor of the defendants; (2) the defendants' choice of forum; (3) whether the claim arose elsewhere; (4) the convenience of the parties; (5) the convenience of the witnesses . . ., but only to the extent that the witnesses may actually be unavailable for trial in one of the fora; and (6) the ease of access to sources of proof. The public interest considerations include: (1) the transferee's familiarity with the governing laws; (2) the relative congestion of the calendars of the potential transferee and transferor courts; and (3) the local interest in deciding local controversies at home.

Trout Unlimited v. U.S. Dep't of Agric., 944 F. Supp. 13, 16 (D.D.C. 1996) (footnotes omitted).

B. Private Interest Considerations

1. Plaintiff's Choice of Forum

It is settled that a case should not be transferred "from a plaintiff's chosen forum simply because another forum, in the court's view, may be superior to that chosen by the plaintiff." Pain v. United Technologies Corp., 637 F.2d 775, 783 (D.C.Cir. 1980). Absent specific facts that would cause a district court to question plaintiffs' choice of forum, plaintiffs' choice is afforded substantial deference. See Shapiro, Lifschitz & Schram, P.C. v. Hazard, 24 F. Supp.2d 66, 71 (D.D.C. 1998) (citing Int'l Bhd. of Painters and Allied Trades Union v. Best Painting and Sandblasting Co., 621 F. Supp. 906, 907 (D.D.C. 1985); Gross v. Owen, 221 F.2d 94, 95 (D.C.Cir. 1955)). Likewise, "[i]n weighing claims of convenience, the Court recognizes the diminished consideration accorded to a plaintiff's choice of forum where . . . that forum has no meaningful ties to the controversy and no particular interest in the parties or subject matter." Islamic Republic of Iran v. Boeing Co., 477 F. Supp. 142, 144 (D.D.C. 1979); see also Hawksbill Sea Turtle v. FEMA, 939 F. Supp. 1, 3 (D.D.C. 1996) (noting that plaintiff's choice of forum is entitled to less deference when there is "an insubstantial factual nexus with the plaintiff's choice") (internal citations omitted); Trout Unlimited, 944 F. Supp. at 17; Armco Steel Co. v. CSX Corp., 790 F. Supp. 311, 323 (D.D.C. 1991) ("[D]eference is `greatly diminished when the activities have little, if any, connection with the chosen forum'") (quoting Consolidated Metal Products, Inc. v. American Petroleum Inst., 569 F. Supp. 773, 775 (D.D.C. 1983)); Citizen Advocates for Responsible Expansion, Inc. v. Dole, 561 F. Supp. 1238, 1239 (D.D.C. 1983) (deference to plaintiffs' choice is diminished when "transfer is sought to the forum where plaintiffs reside . . . and the connection between plaintiffs, the controversy and the chosen forum is attenuated."). The degree of deference accorded to these plaintiffs' choice of forum therefore depends upon the nexus between plaintiffs' chosen forum — the District of Columbia — and the dispute over the Department of Interior's ("DOI") decision to commence oil and gas leasing in the NPR-A.

Defendants argue that "this case has no meaningful connection to the District of Columbia." (Defs.' Mem.Supp. Transfer at 12-13.) Because the specific lands at issue are in Alaska, the management of those lands are governed by federal statutes unique to Alaska and the NPR-A planning effort was undertaken in Alaska, defendants claim that Alaska is a more appropriate venue for this lawsuit. Defendants also note that the extensive eighteen-month administrative process that led to the FEIS for the NPR-A was conducted almost entirely in Alaska, and the FEIS was prepared in Alaska. (Id. at 5, 9.) DOI's Bureau of Land Management and Minerals Management Service offices in Alaska were responsible for the DOI's environmental assessment. (Id. at 9.) Those offices consulted with federal and State of Alaska resource agencies, municipal governments on the Northern Slope of Alaska, and Alaska Native organizations. (Id. at 5.) In addition to focusing on the process, Defendants argue that the case should be transferred to Alaska because the environment and the communities affected by Secretary Babbitt's disputed decision are in Alaska. (Id. at 11.)

While this case does present a controversy that will have an impact on the residents of Alaska, plaintiffs argue that the future of oil and gas leasing in the NPR-A is not an isolated, local environmental issue. Plaintiffs convincingly characterize the NPR-A as a national resource and argue that the DOI's decision to commence oil and gas leasing in the NPR-A is a national policy decision determining the use of scarce national resources. In deciding to transfer to Colorado an environmental dispute over the granting of a private easement for continued operation of a reservoir on public land, the court in Trout Unlimited noted that "[i]mportantly, the people who are concerned about the easement's potentially negative impact upon wildlife are located in Colorado." Trout Unlimited, 944 F. Supp. at 17. In the case of the NPR-A, by contrast, the land at issue has consistently been treated as a national resource despite the special interest of the Alaskan people. For instance, when Congress transferred management of the NPR-A to the Secretary of the Interior in 1976, it was to ensure that the reserve would "be regulated in a manner consistent with the total energy needs of the Nation." Naval Petroleum Reserves Production Act, Pub.L. No. 94-258, 90 Stat. 303 (1976).

Defendants also contend that "the only connecting factor between the District of Columbia and this case is that the District is the location of the statutory home of DOI and the location of the Secretary." (Defs.' Mem.Supp. Transfer at 13.) However, the connection appears to be more substantial than that. Secretary Babbitt's involvement in the DOI's review of the impact of oil and gas leasing on the environment in the NPR-A was far from routine. He made a six-day visit to the area, and met with and was briefed by local Inupiaq Eskimo residents, government and industry officials, and scientists. NPR-A Planning Team, BLM, NPR-A Update, Issue 3, Aug. 1997 at 1 (Pls.' Opp'n, Ex. D.) The DOI literature covering the event reported Secretary Babbitt to have said that he would prevent leasing if the environmental impact study conducted by his department did not support his general impression that oil and gas development was compatible with subsistence. Id. at 2. Secretary Babbitt also signed the Record of Decision in the District of Columbia and briefed the public on his decision here. See Press Release, News, Babbitt Presents Biologically Based NPR-A Plan That Balances Protection for Wildlife Habitat With Oil and Gas Development, Aug. 5, 1998 (Pl.'s Opp'n, Ex. F.) Secretary Babbitt's heavy involvement thus highlights the significance of this issue to the entire nation. By contrast, the Secretary of the Interior was not directly involved in the local environmental controversies at issue in Trout Unlimited and Hawksbill, and all decision-making in those cases took place outside of the District of Columbia.

Secretary Babbitt's personal involvement is not the only link between this controversy and the District of Columbia. Two of the seven policymakers who comprised the DOI's NPR-A policy group reside here. (Decl. of Gene R. Terland, Defs.' Mem.Supp. Transfer, Attach. A at ΒΆ 3.) Because of interest in the NPR-A outside of Alaska, DOI held a public meeting in Washington, D.C. to solicit comments on the draft FEIS. While seven of the nine public meetings were held in Alaska, it is significant that, according to one of its press releases, DOI held hearings in Washington, D.C. and San Francisco "because of the national public interest in this resource issue." Press Release, SLM Plans San Francisco Public Hearing for Alaska Petroleum Reserve, Dec. 23, 1997 (Pls.' Opp'n, Ex. E.) The Bureau of Land Management received 7,000 comments on their draft FEIS from all fifty states. ...


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