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Oceana v. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management

United States District Court, District Circuit

August 23, 2013

OCEANA et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
BUREAU OF OCEAN ENERGY MANAGEMENT et al., Defendants, and AMERICAN PETROLEUM INSTITUTE et al.,

MEMORANDUM OPINION

RUDOLPH CONTRERAS, District Judge.

Four national environmental groups brought this suit against several federal agencies to challenge the approval of two oil and gas lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico. The agencies have moved to transfer the case to the Southern District of Alabama. Their motion will be denied.

I. BACKGROUND

After the oil rig known as the Deepwater Horizon exploded and sank into the Gulf of Mexico, releasing almost five million barrels of oil over many weeks, the agency now known as the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management reconsidered the environmental hazards of oil and gas exploration on the outer continental shelf. The Bureau (as the court will refer to the agency) asked the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service to begin another consultation regarding the effects of such activity on species and habitats protected by the Endangered Species Act, which those services agreed to do. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 80-81. The Bureau also decided to prepare a supplemental environmental impact statement to "consider new circumstances and information arising... from the Deepwater Horizon blowout and spill" before resuming the series of lease sales that had authorized that operation. See 75 Fed. Reg. 69, 122 (Nov. 10, 2010). The Bureau issued draft supplemental environmental impact statements for Lease Sale 218, on the continental shelf off the coast of Texas and Louisiana, see 76 Fed. Reg. 22, 139 (Apr. 20, 2011), and Lease Sale 216/222, off the coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, see 76 Fed. Reg. 38, 676 (July 1, 2011). Public meetings were held in Houston and New Orleans to obtain comments on Lease Sale 218, see 76 Fed. Reg. at 22, 139, and in those cities as well as Mobile to obtain comments on Lease Sale 216/222, see 76 Fed. Reg. at 38, 676.

The Bureau published final supplemental environmental impact statements for both lease sales, see 76 Fed. Reg. 50, 245 (Aug. 12, 2011) (Lease Sale 218); 77 Fed. Reg. 2, 991 (Jan. 20, 2012) (Lease Sale 216/222), then released its records of decisions, which authorized (with certain exceptions) the "offer for lease... for oil and gas operations" of "all unleased blocks" in two regions of the outer continental shelf in the Gulf of Mexico, see 76 Fed. Reg. 70, 478, 70, 479 (Nov. 14, 2011) (Lease Sale 218); 77 Fed. Reg. 29, 682 (May 18, 2012) (Lease Sale 216/222). Notices of sale were published on the same days as the records of decision. See 76 Fed. Reg. 70, 473 (Nov. 14, 2011) (Lease Sale 218); 77 Fed. Reg. 29, 683 (May 18, 2012) (Lease Sale 216/222).

The plaintiffs brought suit to vacate Lease Sale 218, alleging that the Bureau had violated the National Environmental Policy Act ("NEPA"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 4321 et seq., by relying on an inadequate supplemental environmental impact statement, as well as the Endangered Species Act, 16 U.S.C. §§ 1531 et seq., by failing to complete a consultation with the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service before approving the lease sale. See Am. Compl. ¶¶ 2-4, Oceana v. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, No. 11-cv-2208 (D.D.C. Feb. 17, 2012). The plaintiffs then brought this suit, alleging that the Bureau had violated NEPA in approving Lease Sale 216/222 and seeking to vacate the sale on that basis. Compl. ¶¶ 2-3. The plaintiffs dismissed their NEPA challenge to Lease Sale 218 with prejudice but preserved their Endangered Species Act challenge, see Stipulation of Dismissal, Oceana v. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, No. 11-cv-2208 (D.D.C. Sept. 27, 2012), and amended their complaint in this case. The plaintiffs now allege that Lease Sale 216/222 violated NEPA, Am. Compl. ¶ 2, that both lease sales violated the Endangered Species Act, id. ¶ 3, and that the National Marine Fisheries Service violated the Administrative Procedure Act, 5 U.S.C. § 706(1), by unreasonably delaying the completion of its duty to consult with the Bureau about protected species and habitats, id. ¶ 4. The defendants have moved to transfer venue to the Southern District of Alabama pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1404(a).

II. LEGAL STANDARD

"For 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). "The idea behind s. 1404(a) is that where a civil action' to vindicate a wrong-however brought in a court-presents issues and requires witnesses that make one District Court more convenient than another, the trial judge can, after findings, transfer the whole action to the more convenient court." Continental Grain Co. v. Barge F.B.L.-585, 364 U.S. 19, 26 (1960). "[T]he main purpose of section 1404(a) is to afford defendants protection where maintenance of the action in the plaintiff's choice of forum will make litigation oppressively expensive, inconvenient, difficult or harassing to defend." Starnes v. McGuire, 512 F.2d 918, 927 (D.C. Cir. 1974) (en banc); accord Van Dusen v. Barrack, 376 U.S. 612, 616 (1964) ("[T]he purpose of the section is to prevent the waste of time, energy and money' and to protect litigants, witnesses and the public against unnecessary inconvenience and expense.'" (quoting Continental Grain, 364 U.S. at 26, 27)). When venue is properly laid in this district, "[t]ransfer elsewhere under Section 1404(a) must... be justified by particular circumstances that render [this] forum inappropriate by reference to the considerations specified in that statute. Absent such circumstances, transfer in derogation of properly laid venue is unwarranted." Starnes, 512 F.2d at 925-26.

Section 1404(a) "vests discretion in the district court to adjudicate motions for transfer according to an "individualized, case-by-case consideration of convenience and fairness."'" Reiffin v. Microsoft Corp., 104 F.Supp.2d 48, 50 (D.D.C. 2000) (quoting Stewart Org., Inc. v. Ricoh Corp., 487 U.S. 22, 29 (1988) (quoting Van Dusen, 376 U.S. at 622)). And it "directs a district court to take account of factors other than those that bear solely on the parties' private ordering of their affairs. The district court also must weigh in the balance the convenience of the witnesses and those public-interest factors of systemic integrity and fairness that, in addition to private concerns, come under the heading of the interest of justice.'" Stewart Org., 487 U.S. at 30. The precise "standards to be considered in determining whether to grant or deny a section 1404(a) motion to transfer are generally... left to the discretion of the trial court, " SEC v. Page Airways, Inc., 464 F.Supp. 461, 463 (D.D.C. 1978), which is "broad" but "not untrammeled, " Fine v. McGuire, 433 F.2d 499, 501 (D.C. Cir. 1970) (per curiam) (noting that the trial court must "give consideration to the traditional [forum non conveniens] factors, including the plaintiff's choice of forum").

III. ANALYSIS

A. Proper Venue

The defendants agree that venue is proper in this district, Defs.' Br. at 4 n.1, but argue for transfer to the Southern District of Alabama to promote "the interest of justice." 28 U.S.C. § 1404(a).[1] They first must show that this suit "might have been brought" there. Id.; see Pres. Soc'y of Charleston v. U.S. Army Corps of Eng'rs, 893 F.Supp.2d 49, 53 (D.D.C. 2012). The plaintiffs do not dispute that the Southern District of Alabama would have jurisdiction over the case and the parties. The defendants argue that venue would also be proper in that court, because "a substantial part of the events or omissions giving rise to the claim[s] occurred" there. 28 U.S.C. § 1391(e)(1). The defendants note that the case concerns the effects of the Deepwater Horizon disaster and the potential impact of additional offshore oil and gas drilling and extraction on environmental resources, species, and habitats in the Gulf of Mexico and its estuary systems. They reason that, because some of those effects were felt in Alabama and some of those resources, species, and estuary systems are located in Alabama, venue would be proper there. In a footnote, the plaintiffs dispute the sufficiency of this showing, but offer no argument against it, Pls.' Br. at 4 n.2; the defendants note that one plaintiff organization challenged an earlier Gulf of Mexico lease sale in the Southern District of Alabama, where it argued that venue was proper. In the face of such a weak opposition, the court considers the point effectively conceded, and goes on to decide, "by reference to the considerations specified in" section 1404(a), whether the "particular circumstances" of this case "render [this] forum inappropriate." Starnes, 512 F.2d at 925.

B. Transfer in the Interest of Justice

Although "plaintiff's choice of forum is normally to be preferred, " Starnes, 512 F.2d at 927, there is a "local interest in having localized controversies decided at home, " Am. Dredging Co. v. Miller, 510 U.S. 443, 448 (1994) (quoting Gulf Oil Corp. v. Gilbert, 330 U.S. 501, 509 (1947)) (discussing the doctrine of forum non conveniens). When plaintiffs bring suit in this district to challenge federal decisions about the use of land and the management of environmental resources located elsewhere, these principles come into tension. Presented with a section 1404(a) motion, courts typically assess the relative strength of the connection between the case and this district, as opposed to the district to which transfer is sought. Sometimes that balancing is explicit.[2] Other times courts ...


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