CWA Update: Two Recent Cases Impact CWA Permitting and Enforcement

Margaret Anne Hill, Frank L. Tamulonis III, and Stephen C. Zumbrun

Two recent cases have the potential to dramatically alter the state of permitting and enforcement under the federal Clean Water Act (“CWA”) with far reaching implications to energy infrastructure project proponents and the regulated community.

In the first case, Northern Plans Resource Council v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, No. 4:19-cv-00044-BMM (D. Mont), the Montana District Court last month vacated the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nationwide Permit 12 (“NWP 12”) for the Keystone XL Pipeline Project, concluding that the Corps failed to consult under the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”) Section 7 when it reissued NWP 12 in 2017. Although that case involved only the Keystone XL Pipeline Project, the Order enjoined the Corps from authorizing any work under NWP 12 until an ESA consultation is completed, effectively resulting in a nationwide injunction of work permitted under NWP 12. NWP 12 provides a streamlined CWA permitting process for thousands of linear “utility line activities” (i.e., pipelines and electrical or communication transmission lines) that would otherwise be forced to apply for numerous individual CWA permits to complete a single project. The nationwide vacatur of NWP 12 created significant uncertainty for project proponents who were left with three options: 1) apply for other potentially applicable nationwide permits, 2) apply for individual CWA Section 404 permits, or 3) redesign a project to avoid impacts to regulated waters.

Just last week, however, the court clarified and slightly narrowed the scope of the April Order. Specifically, the court clarified that NWP 12 cannot be used for new oil and gas pipelines, but the permit remains otherwise valid for 1) maintenance, inspection, and repair activities on existing pipelines, and 2) non-pipeline constructive activities (i.e., electric, Internet, and other cable lines; certain renewable energy projects). The court reasoned that large-scale oil and gas pipeline projects pose the greatest threat to ESA-listed species, and the public interest in ensuring that the Corps complies with ESA trumps the tax and energy benefits of the new pipelines. The court further reasoned that the potential disruption to pipeline projects is overblown in light of the continued availability of the more cumbersome individual Section 404 permit process.

The court’s clarification provides relief to proponents of linear projects that do not involve the construction of new oil and gas lines. The wind industry, for example, which is heavily reliant on the installation of utility transmission lines, is no longer impacted by the ruling. Thousands of other oil and natural gas pipeline projects, however, remain impacted by the decision.

The second case involves the Supreme Court decision of County of Maui v. Hawaii Wildlife Fund, No. 18–260, __ S. Ct. ____, 2020 WL 1941966 (Apr. 23, 2020), where the Supreme Court created a “functional equivalent test” to analyze when discharges to groundwater require a CWA permit.[1] Only weeks after that decision, we are starting to see the “functional equivalent test” in practice. Last week, in a case where a party was attempting to settle Clean Water Act violations with the United States and the State of Indiana, an intervening party argued that the County of Maui decision renders the current settlement insufficient because the settlement did not include penalties for discharges to groundwater. See U.S. et al. v. U.S. Steel Corp., 2:18-cv-00127 (N.D. Ind., Dkt. No. 74).

The important takeaway here is that parties looking to settle Clean Water Act violations should expand their focus beyond just a “direct” discharge to surface water violation (i.e., from a pipe or trench, etc.), but also ensure that a settlement would include violations for “functionally equivalent” direct discharges (i.e., discharges that may have been to soil or groundwater that eventually travelled to surface water). In practice, this will ensure that settlements attempt to resolve as much liability as possible for a site on the front-end. If these “functional equivalent” discharges are not included, then a party could instead possibly face additional CWA liability—perhaps years later—if groundwater, arguably contaminated by a point source, migrates to a CWA navigable water.

As discussed, both Northern Plans Resource Council and County of Maui cases are going to have immediate impacts on the regulated community, but the full story is far from over. For Northern Plans Resource Council, an appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is already underway. Last week, the government filed an emergency motion for stay pending appeal and requested an immediate administrative stay while the motion was being decided. The Ninth Circuit rejected the government’s request for an immediate administrative stay during the pendency of the motion, but granted an expedited briefing schedule requiring all briefs to be submitted by the end of this week. If granted, the district court’s partial injunction and vacatur of NWP 12 will be stayed while the Ninth Circuit resolves the appeal. On the current briefing schedule, we expect a decision from the Ninth Circuit on the emergency motion on or before May 29. And as we previously wrote about, we anticipate that the EPA may issue guidance to address the “functional equivalent discharge” test. Stay tuned for further developments.


[1] We previously wrote about the County of Maui decision in more depth, available here: https://energytrendswatch.com/2020/04/27/the-supremes-weigh-in-on-superfund-and-the-clean-water-act/

EPA Reverses Course with the Mercury and Air Toxics Regulations for Power Plants

Margaret Anne Hill, Frank L. Tamulonis III, and Stephen C. Zumbrun

The saga for regulating mercury and air toxics from coal- and oil-fired power plants continues with a final rule promulgated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) on April 16, 2020. EPA initially determined that it was “appropriate and necessary” under Section 112 of the Clean Air Act to regulate hazardous air pollutants (“HAPs”)—including mercury—for these types of power plants, commonly referred to as electric utility steam generating units (“EGUs”).[1] In a change of policy, EPA has now decided that the “appropriate and necessary” determination to regulate HAPs for these power plants—after two decades of additional EPA rules, and corresponding litigation—is no longer correct.[2]

A significant part of the backstory here is related to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in 2015 in Michigan v. EPA.[3] Briefly, the Court held that the EPA needed to consider costs in evaluating whether it was “appropriate and necessary” to regulate HAP emissions from coal- and oil-fired EGUs, especially the costs associated with compliance. Following the Supreme Court’s decision, EPA, under the Obama Administration, conducted a study in 2016 to evaluate these costs and concluded that it was still “appropriate and necessary” to regulate HAPs emitted from these sources.[4] The Trump Administration has now reversed course in issuing the April 16 final rule, effectively concluding that the EPA’s decision in 2016 was wrong. Continue reading “EPA Reverses Course with the Mercury and Air Toxics Regulations for Power Plants”

FERC Provides Additional Regulatory Relief and Guidance in Response to Coronavirus Pandemic

Mark R. Haskell, Brett A. Snyder, and Lamiya N. Rahman

On April 2, 2020, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (“FERC” or “Commission”) announced several measures intended to provide relief to regulated entities responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. A summary of FERC’s previous COVID-19-related relief and guidance can be found here.

In a Policy Statement, the Commission indicated it will prioritize and expeditiously act on requests for relief filed by regulated entities in connection with ensuring business continuity of their energy infrastructure. In a series of notices and orders, the Commission also extended or clarified the relief available to regulated entities that are unable to meet certain deadlines or regulatory requirements as a result of their COVID-19 response. This relief includes:

    • Extension to June 1, 2020 for the following deadlines:
      1. Form Nos. 60 (Annual Report of Centralized Service Companies) and 61 (Narrative Description of Service Company Functions);
      2. Form No. 552 (Annual Report of Natural Gas Transactions); and
      3. Electric Quarterly Report Form 920.
    • Extensions to May 1, 2020 for the following deadlines for categories of filings that would otherwise be due on or before May 1, 2020:
      1. interventions, protests, or comments to a complaint;
      2. briefs on and opposing exceptions to an initial decision;
      3. answers to complaints and orders to show cause; and
      4. initial and reply briefs in paper hearings.
    • Waiver of FERC regulations governing the form of filings submitted to the Commission (e.g., provision of sworn declarations) through May 1, 2020.
    • Shortening of the answer period to three business days for motions for extensions of time due to COVID-19 emergency conditions. The Commission indicated it will also consider requests to shorten the comment period for motions seeking waiver of requirements in Commission orders, regulations, tariffs, rate schedules, and service agreements to as short as five days.
    • Temporary blanket waivers from document notarization and in-person meeting requirements established under open access transmission tariffs, or other tariffs, rate schedules, service agreements, or contracts subject to the Commission’s jurisdiction. These waivers are effective through September 1, 2020.
    • Extension of time for filing regional transmission organization (“RTO”)/independent system operator (“ISO”) Uplift Reports and Operator Initiated Commitment Reports required pursuant to Order No. 844 that were originally due between April and September 2020. These reports are now due to be posted on the RTOs/ISOs websites by October 20, 2020.

Please click here for the full client alert.

FERC Issues Guidance and Regulatory Relief in Connection with Coronavirus Response

Mark R. Haskell, Brett A. Snyder, Lamiya N. Rahman, and Jane Thomas

On March 19, 2020, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (“FERC” or “Commission”) announced several regulatory responses to the coronavirus pandemic and FERC Chairman Neil Chatterjee held a press conference to discuss the agency’s initiatives. The Chairman emphasized the capabilities of the Commission and its staff to work in a timely manner throughout the pandemic response, while striving to provide necessary flexibility to regulated entities.

The Chairman named Caroline Wozniak, a Senior Policy Advisor in the Office of Energy Market Regulation, as the point of contact for all energy industry inquiries related to the impacts of COVID-19. Members of the regulated community may e-mail PandemicLiaison@FERC.gov with questions for Commission staff.

Chairman Chatterjee clarified that the Commission will provide regulated entities with flexibility when needed, but emphasized the Commission is fully functioning and will try not to delay decisions. Chairman Chatterjee also stated his goal is to issue certain rehearing orders involving pipeline certificate projects challenged by affected landowners within 30 days, consistent with guidance from the Chairman issued on January 31, 2020.

Please click here for the full client alert.

FERC Further Clarifies Its Orders Reforming Generator Interconnection Procedures and Agreements

Mark R. Haskell, George D. Billinson, and Lamiya N. Rahman

On August 16, 2019, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (“FERC” or “the Commission”) issued an order granting in part and denying in part requests for further clarification of its reform of Large Generator Interconnection Agreements (“LGIA”) and Procedures (“LGIP”).[1] Order No. 845-B affirms FERC’s prior findings that the expansion of an interconnection customer’s option to build does not impede transmission owners’ ability to recover a return of and on network upgrades. The order also reiterates FERC’s determination not to revise the pro forma LGIA’s indemnity provisions.

Order No. 845—FERC’s Final Rule revising the pro forma LGIP and LGIA—made various reforms to “improve certainty for interconnection customers, promote more informed interconnection decisions, and enhance the interconnection process.”[2] Among these changes, the Commission expanded interconnection customers’ ability to exercise the option to build transmission providers’ interconnection facilities and standalone network upgrades beyond instances where the transmission provider is unable to meet the interconnection customer’s preferred construction timeline.

A subsequent decision, Order No. 845-A, among other things, rejected arguments that the option build revisions contradicted the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit’s (“D.C. Circuit”) decision in Ameren Services Co. v. FERC. According to the Commission, “Ameren stands for the principle that the Commission cannot prohibit a transmission owner from earning a return of, and on, the cost of its network upgrades.”[3] In that case, the D.C. Circuit vacated FERC’s orders requiring the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, Inc. (“MISO”) to remove an option under its tariff allowing transmission owners to unilaterally elect to initially fund network upgrades and to thereafter recover the interconnection customer’s portion of the cost burden through periodic network upgrade charges that included a return on the capital investment (i.e., the “transmission owner initial funding option”). Although the Commission initially found the transmission owner initial funding option unjust and unreasonable, the D. C. Circuit remanded the orders directing the Commission to “explain how investors could be expected to underwrite the prospect of potentially large non-profit appendages with no compensatory incremental return.”[4] The Commission reinstated the transmission-owner initial funding option on remand.

Please click here for the full client alert. 

Council on Environmental Quality Seeks Public Comment on Draft NEPA Greenhouse Gas Emission Guidance

Brett A. Snyder and Lamiya N. Rahman

The Council on Environmental Quality has published Draft Guidance to federal agencies to evaluate the effects of greenhouse gas emissions under the National Environmental Policy Act. The Draft Guidance is largely consistent with the approach taken by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in recent natural gas infrastructure orders. Comments are due on July 26, 2019.

Introduction

On June 26, 2019, the Council on Environmental Quality (“CEQ”) published new draft guidance to clarify the scope of review federal agencies should undertake when considering the effects of greenhouse gas (“GHG”) emissions under the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”) and related regulations.The Draft Guidance is intended to replace CEQ’s prior GHG-related guidance, which was adopted in 2016 and later rescinded pursuant to an Executive Order in 2017.2 The Draft Guidance is largely consistent with the approach taken by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (“FERC”) in recent natural gas infrastructure orders.

CEQ’s Draft Guidance

NEPA is a procedural statute that requires federal agencies to analyze the environmental impacts of any major federal action significantly affecting the quality of the human environment.3 Although NEPA does not mandate any particular substantive outcomes, it requires an agency to consider the direct and reasonably foreseeable indirect effects of a proposed action.4

The Draft Guidance states that “[a] projection of a proposed action’s direct and reasonably foreseeable indirect GHG emissions may be used as a proxy for assessing potential climate effects.”5 While direct effects are caused by an action and occur at the same time or place, indirect effects are caused by the action and are later in time or farther removed in distance but are still reasonably foreseeable. Thus, the proposed guidance suggests that quantification of emissions is sufficient to meet an agency’s obligation to assess effects of emissions.

Please click here for the full client alert. 

FERC Issues Notice of Inquiry Regarding Electric Transmission Incentives Policy

Mark R. Haskell, George D. Billinson, and Lamiya N. Rahman

According to FERC Chairman Chatterjee, the electric transmission incentives NOI and a concurrently-released NOI on the Commission’s ROE policy “will be critical to ensuring that the energy revolution we’re currently undergoing results in more reliable services and lower prices for customers.” The electric transmission incentives NOI “asks very important questions about whether the Commission should be focused on incentivizing projects with risks and challenges or thinking more broadly about the reliability and economic benefits that transmission projects can provide.” Comments are due 90 days, and reply comments are due 120 days, after publication in the Federal Register.

On March 21, 2019, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (“FERC” or “the Commission”) issued a Notice of Inquiry Regarding the Commission’s Electric Transmission Incentives Policy (the “NOI”) in Docket No. PL19-3-000.1 The NOI seeks comments on the scope and implementation of the Commission’s transmission incentives policy, citing numerous developments in transmission planning and development in the 13 years since FERC first promulgated its electric transmission incentives regulations and the seven years since FERC issued its last policy statement on the topic.

Section 219 of the Federal Power Act (“FPA”) requires the Commission to establish rules providing incentive-based rate treatment for electric transmission in interstate commerce by public utilities, for the purpose of benefitting consumers by ensuring reliability and reducing the cost of delivered power by reducing transmission congestion.2 Continue reading “FERC Issues Notice of Inquiry Regarding Electric Transmission Incentives Policy”