Breaking with Precedent, D.C. Circuit Holds FERC Lacks Authority to Issue Tolling Orders under the Natural Gas Act

Mark R. HaskellBrett A. Snyder, and Lamiya N. Rahman

On June 30, 2020, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit (“D.C. Circuit”) struck down the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s (“FERC” or “Commission”) practice of issuing tolling orders that extend the time FERC may take to consider applications for rehearing of its orders under the Natural Gas Act (“NGA”). In a recent decision on en banc rehearing in Allegheny Defense Project v. FERC,1 the D.C. Circuit ultimately denied landowners’ and environmental groups’ challenges to FERC’s approval of the Atlantic Sunrise interstate natural gas pipeline on the merits. However, the court’s rejection of FERC’s tolling order practice—which breaks with longstanding precedent and creates a circuit split—significantly affects proceedings under the NGA and likely implicates FERC’s rehearing procedures under the Federal Power Act (“FPA”).

The NGA requires natural gas companies to obtain a certificate of public convenience and necessity from FERC in order to construct and operate an interstate natural gas pipeline.2 Once such a certificate is issued, the NGA confers upon certificate holders eminent domain authority to obtain necessary rights-of-way.3

The NGA further provides that before a party can seek judicial review of a FERC order, it must apply for rehearing of the order.4 Upon receiving such an application, the NGA provides FERC the “power to grant or deny rehearing or to abrogate or modify its order without further hearing.”5 If FERC does not act on the application for rehearing within 30 days, the application “may be deemed to have been denied.”6 Given the complexities inherent in its proceedings, FERC’s practice has often been to issue tolling orders intended to “act upon” the rehearing requests within the 30-day timeframe (i.e., to avoid the requests from being deemed denied), without making a substantive merits decision on such requests. Petitioners in Allegheny Defense Project argued that FERC’s tolling order process unfairly stalls judicial review of FERC’s pipeline approvals, while pipelines are permitted by FERC and district courts to proceed with construction and exercise eminent domain authority, respectively, in the interim.

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