On May 25, 2023, the Supreme Court of the United States (“SCOTUS”) issued a decision, Sackett v. EPA, which dramatically curtailed the Environmental Protection Agency’s (“EPA”) authority to regulate certain wetlands under the Clean Waters Act (“CWA” or the “Act”).
The CWA, enacted in 1972, has been the primary federal law regulating water pollution in the United States for over half a century. The Act is generally enforced by the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers and has indisputably been effective in regulating water pollution in the United States.
The Act prohibits the discharge of pollutants into “navigable waters,” which it defines as “the waters of the United States, including the territorial seas.” 33 U.S.C. §§ 1311(a), 1362(7), (12)(A) (2018 ed.). However, since the Act’s inception, the meaning of this definition has been ambiguous and constantly evolving. Moreover, the Act broadly defines “pollutants” to include not only traditional notions of pollutants, but also more mundane materials like rock, sand, and dirt. 33 U.S.C. § 1362(6). The penalties for violating the CWA, negligently or knowingly, are often very severe, and include criminal charges or civil fines of over $60,000 per day for each violation.
On July 28, 2022, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (“FERC” or the “Commission”) issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (the “Notice”) in Docket No. RM22-20-000 to expand the scope of the duty of candor to all entities making communications on matters subject to the jurisdiction of the Commission.
Through the Notice, the Commission explains that it intends to fill in a “patchwork” of existing rules and regulations concerning a regulated entity’s obligation to provide accurate and truthful information to the Commission. For example, the Commission’s current rules require that a variety of submissions to FERC, such as periodic or annual reports, written statements in investigations, filings, and testimony and evidence, be submitted under oath. Similarly, Commission precedent imposes a requirement on pipeline applicants seeking certificates of public convenience and necessity under Section 7 of the Natural Gas Act (“NGA”) to disclose “fully and forthrightly . . . all information relevant to the application.” In addition, in any filing with the Commission, the signature required for each filing constitutes a certification that “[t]he contents are true as stated, to the best knowledge and belief of the signer.”
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* The views expressed in this publication are those of the authors only and do not necessarily reflect the views of the law firm of Blank Rome LLP or any entity represented by the firm.
After seven years, three presidential administrations, and two appearances before the Supreme Court, the Obama Administration’s “Clean Power Plan” (“CPP”)—a Clean Air Act regulation designed to limit carbon emissions from existing coal-fired power plants (and later revised by the Trump-era “Affordable Clean Energy” (“ACE”) rule)—was struck down by the Supreme Court on June 30, 2022. SeeWest Virginia et al. v. Environmental Protection Agency et al., No. 20-1530.
Relying on Section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act (“CAA”), the Environmental Protection Agency’s (“EPA’s”) CPP set a carbon emission limit that was essentially unattainable for existing coal-fired power plants. Consequently, EPA determined that the “best system of emission reduction” for carbon from these plants was to cause a “generation shift” from higher carbon emitting coal-fired sources to lower-emitting sources, such as natural gas plants or wind or solar energy facilities. Compliance with the CPP would have required a plant operator to: (1) reduce the amount of electricity the plant generated to reduce the plant’s carbon emissions; (2) build a new natural gas plant, wind farm, or solar installation, or invest in someone else’s existing facility and increase generation there; or (3) purchase emission allowances as part of a cap-and-trade regime. SeeWest Virginia at 8.
On February 19, 2021, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit (“D.C. Circuit”) upheld a decision by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (“FERC” or the “Commission”) cutting transmission incentives previously granted to three electric transmission companies.
The Energy Policy Act of 2005 amended the Federal Power Act to require FERC to promulgate a rule creating incentive-based rate treatment for electric transmission. The rule was intended to “promote reliable and economically efficient transmission and generation of electricity by promoting capital investment in the enlargement, improvement, maintenance, and operation of all [transmission] facilities, . . . provide a return on equity that attracts new investment in transmission facilities, . . . [and] encourage deployment of transmission technologies and other measures to increase the capacity and efficiency of existing transmission facilities and improve the operation of the facilities . . . .” FERC promulgated such a rule, which is codified in the Commission’s regulations. One incentive available to a stand-alone transmission company (a “Transco”) is “[a] return on equity [“ROE”] that both encourages Transco formation and is sufficient to attract investment.”
Because FERC has traditionally viewed independence as a hallmark of a Transco, it considers the ownership and business structure of the Transco to ensure that the Transco operates independently of other market participants when deciding whether to grant such incentives. FERC has declined to establish a particular methodology for reflecting the degree of a Transco’s independence or specific incentive levels. However, the Commission has made clear that it “will consider the level of independence of a Transco as part of our analysis when we determine the proper ROE for the Transco, and evaluate the specific attributes of a particular proposal, including the level of independence, to determine appropriate incentives.”Continue reading “D.C. Circuit Upholds Cutting of Transmission Incentives by FERC”
The energy industry has been at the forefront of the 2020 election, and energy development is an issue that polarizes Americans and our businesses and political leaders in choosing the path for the future. Energy developments are inextricably linked to our economy and national security, and the decisions and policies that will be implemented over the next four years are critical to the nation and our participation and role in world affairs.
On July 10, 2020, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit (“D.C. Circuit”) denied challenges1 to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s (“FERC” or “Commission”) final rule on electric storage participation in Regional Transmission Organization (“RTO”) and Independent System Operator (“ISO”) markets (“Order No. 841”).2
Order No. 841 aimed to facilitate the participation of electric storage resources (“ESRs”) in RTO/ISO markets, with the goals of removing barriers to participation by ESRs, increasing competition within RTO/ISO markets, and ensuring just and reasonable rates. Specifically, FERC ordered RTOs/ISOs to establish participation models that recognize the physical and operational characteristics of and facilitate participation by ESRs.3
An ESR for these purposes is defined as “a resource capable of receiving electric energy from the grid and storing it for later injection of electric energy back to the grid,”4 and encompasses storage resources located on the interstate transmission system, on a distribution system, or behind the meter.5 Order No. 841 declined to allow states to decide whether ESRs located behind a retail meter or on a distribution system in their state could participate in RTO/ISO markets.6 On rehearing, the FERC reiterated that it would not provide state opt-out rights, arguing among other things that “establishing the criteria for participation in the RTO/ISO markets of [ESRs], including those resources located on the distribution system or behind the meter, is essential to the Commission’s ability to fulfill its statutory responsibility to ensure that wholesale rates are just and reasonable.”7 FERC further concluded that it was not required under the Federal Power Act (“FPA”) or relevant precedent to provide an opt-out from ESR participation.8
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.
Stakeholders in the U.S. infrastructure industry should note that ongoing litigation and new court decisions issued in the first half of 2020 are reshaping the development of energy projects.
Energy developers should carefully review the impact of new rulings that have interpreted environmental analyses required for Clean Water Act (“CWA”) permitting as greenhouse gas emissions (“GHG”) on the complex regulation of infrastructure projects. At the same time, several other recent proceedings have raised questions about practices and procedures of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (“FERC” or “Commission”) regarding natural gas infrastructure.
Status of Nationwide Permit 12. In Northern Plans Resource Council v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Montana District Court vacated the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Nationwide (“Corps”) Permit 12 disrupting permitting and enforcement under the CWA. The court later clarified that the ruling applies to new projects and not existing pipeline projects and the Ninth Circuit recently denied a request to stay the implementation of the order pending appeal.
Navigable Waters Protection Rule. Significant litigation is expected to challenge a new restrictive rule of what constitutes “waters of the United States” under the CWA. Infrastructure projects will also be impacted by the Supreme Court’s recent decision in County of Maui v. Hawaii Wildlife Fund.
National Environmental Policy Act GHG Review. The District of Montana ruled in Wildearth Guardians et al. v. U.S. Bureau of Land Management, that the Bureau of Land Management must consider cumulative GHG impacts of oil and gas lease sales. Litigation is expected to challenge whether the Corps has adequately considered GHG for Section 404 permits.
Climate Change Litigation. Many state and local governments continue to file common law lawsuits against oil and gas companies seeking damages for climate change mitigation measures. The 9th and 4th Circuits have rejected arguments that federal law applies to these disputes and similar cases are pending in the 1st, 2nd, and 10th Circuits. Also, in v. Exxon, the District of Massachusetts ruled that a suit alleging Exxon violated state fraud statutes should be litigated in state court.
Precedent Agreements as Evidence of Market Need. In a 2019 case, City of Oberlin v. FERC, the D.C. Circuit held that FERC failed to adequately explain why it is lawful to consider a proposed pipeline’s precedent agreements with foreign shippers serving foreign customers as evidence of market need for the pipeline. FERC recently addressed City of Oberlin and explained why precedent agreements between a proposed pipeline and LNG terminal were lawfully credited as evidence of market need for the pipeline.
FERC’s Tolling Order Practice. In Allegheny Defense Project v. FERC, the D.C. Circuit granted en banc rehearing over whether FERC violated the Natural Gas Act (“NGA”) and landowners’ due process by issuing tolling orders to extend the time to consider rehearing requests of FERC’s pipeline approval, while allowing a pipeline to begin construction and exercise eminent domain. On June 9, FERC issued a final rule to preclude natural gas projects under sections 3 and 7 of the NGA from proceeding with construction until FERC issues a decision on the merits of any request for rehearing.
Pipeline Right-of-Ways (“ROWs”) through the Appalachian Trail. In February, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument over a 4th Circuit ruling that the U.S. Forest Service lacks authority to grant a pipeline ROW across the Appalachian Trail. On June 15, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that the Forest Service had authority to issue the pipeline ROW through the Appalachian Trail.
FERC Authority over Pipeline Transportation Service Agreements (“TSAs”) in Bankruptcy. Several pipelines recently have filed petitions for declaratory orders, requesting FERC to declare it has concurrent jurisdiction with bankruptcy courts over natural gas pipeline TSAs and that FERC approval is required to in order to modify or reject such contracts in bankruptcy. We are continuing to follow this area for developments.
We invite you to read, watch, and share the below resources from our recent webinar for further details. Contact any of us if you have questions about the impact of recent cases, decisions, and regulations on your energy project(s).
Please click here for the presentation materials and here to listen to the recording.
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. 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.
Twenty-two years after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Bestfoods, a government contractor—PPG Industries, Inc. (“PPG”)—comes face to face with one of the most important tenets of that court’s decision: operator liability under Superfund.Although the Supreme Court’s decision in Bestfoods focused on operator liability in the context of a parent and subsidiary relationship, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in PPG Industries, Inc. v. United States of America et al. relied on the Supreme Court’s analysis of operator liability in determining whether the United States should be held liable under CERCLA as an operator in connection with chromium production during World War II. This case serves as a reminder to private industry: you do not have to be physically operating a plant or facility in order to be liable as an “operator” under Superfund. Rather, you can acquire liability by managing, directing, or conducting activities specifically related to operations involving releases or disposal of hazardous substances, or by engaging in decisions regarding compliance with environmental regulations.
As the Third Circuit explained, chromium production was regulated by the government during both world wars given that chromium chemicals were designated as critical war materials for military use. Chromium distribution was controlled pursuant to orders issued during World War II by the Chemicals Bureau of the War Production Board (“Board”), although chromium production—including the processing of ore and management of waste—were not part of the government’s orders. PPG purchased a facility from a former chromium chemical manufacturer (Natural Products Refining Corporation or “NPRC”) in 1954, and continued to process chromium chemicals until 1963. PPG filed a private cost-recovery claim against the government seeking the recovery of CERCLA response costs that it expended ($367 million, to date), as well as contribution for past and future costs.
PPG’s main contention was that Bestfoods did not apply to its case since that ruling did not involve the government as an operator, and that if Bestfoods was applicable, operator liability should be imposed on those parties having “direction” or “general control” over a facility’s activities. The Third Circuit rejected these arguments and, applying Bestfoods’ definition of “operator” to the wartime operations conducted at the PPG facility, observed that although the government controlled certain aspects of chromium distribution, including pricing and quantities of chromite ore that NPRC could buy and to whom NPRC could sell, as well as what orders had priority, the government did not specifically control operations related to pollution. The Third Circuit considered evidence related to the stockpiling of waste outdoors (which caused the contamination) and rejected the proposition that the government was “directing” PPG to produce more wastes merely because of the government’s knowledge that ramping up chromium production would lead to an increased amount of chromium wastes to be managed. The court also noted that no court has said that the test for determining operator liability depends upon whether a potentially responsible party is a private party or a governmental entity, and cited its 1994 decision in FMC Corp. v. United States Department of Commerce (in which the court found the government liable as an operator based on its active involvement and substantial control of the facility). Further, the court noted that the FMC decision (which PPG argued was a similar case) was distinguishable because the government was directly involved with waste production and regulation at the plant.
The court’s decision and analysis in PPG offers some interesting insights to the concept of operator liability under Superfund and, further, provides instructive guidance to private industry on how to avoid CERCLA liability as an operator. Perhaps the most critical “takeaway” from this case is that operator liability depends on the relationship between the potentially responsible party and the waste-producing facility. “Actual control” of a facility is not necessary; the relevant inquiry will be whether an alleged operator exercises control over “operations having to do with the leakage or disposal of hazardous waste, or decisions about compliance with environmental regulations.” Under this analysis, the relationship between the potentially responsible party and the facility—and not the relationship between the potentially responsible party and the owner of the facility—is the focus of the inquiry. The Third Circuit has just reinforced the Supreme Court’s analysis of CERCLA operator liability as first explained in Bestfoods two decades earlier.