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 May 21, 2020, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (“FERC”) issued two orders addressing methodologies for analyzing the base return on equity (“ROE”) components of rates of FERC-regulated entities. In Opinion No. 569-A, FERC revised the methodology used under section 206 of the Federal Power Act (“FPA”) to evaluate the base ROEs of public utilities.1 In a separate Policy Statement, FERC clarified that the methodology established in Opinion No. 569-A applies, with certain exceptions, to natural gas and oil pipelines.2
To change a public utility’s rates, including ROE, in a complaint proceeding under section 206 of the FPA, FERC must (i) make a finding that an existing rate is unjust and unreasonable; and (ii) determine a just and reasonable rate.3
FERC’s recent order arose from two complaint proceedings challenging the base ROE of Midcontinent Independent System Operator, Inc. (“MISO”) transmission owners.4 In November 2019, FERC issued Opinion No. 569, establishing a revised methodology to determine whether the existing base ROE was unjust and unreasonable under the first prong of FPA section 206, and if so, to establish a new just and reasonable replacement ROE under the second prong.5
Among other things, Opinion No. 569 relied on the discounted cash flow model (“DCF”)6 and capital-asset pricing model (“CAPM”)7 in the first prong of its FPA section 206 analysis, and declined to use two other models—i.e., the Expected Earnings8 and Risk Premium9 models. FERC adopted the use of ranges of presumptively just and reasonable ROEs that would be based on the risk profile of a utility or group of utilities. FERC gave equal weight to the DCF and CAPM models to establish composite zones of reasonableness. Absent evidence to the contrary, an ROE within the zone of reasonableness would be presumptively just and reasonable while an ROE outside this range would be presumptively unjust and unreasonable. FERC also relied on the DCF and CAPM models (and declined to use the Expected Earnings and Risk Premium models) in the second prong of its section 206 analysis in order to establish a new just and reasonable ROE.10
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.
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:
Form Nos. 60 (Annual Report of Centralized Service Companies) and 61 (Narrative Description of Service Company Functions);
Form No. 552 (Annual Report of Natural Gas Transactions); and
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:
interventions, protests, or comments to a complaint;
briefs on and opposing exceptions to an initial decision;
answers to complaints and orders to show cause; and
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.
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.
FERC is conducting a comprehensive review of its method for determining the appropriate return on equity in jurisdictional rates across the energy industry. Comments are due no later than 90 days, and reply comments no later than 120 days, after the publication of the NOI in the Federal Register.
Right now, cases involving climate change are being heavily litigated in courts across the United States. Hundreds of climate change-related cases have been filed in both federal and state courts, where parties are challenging governments’ and industry’s knowledge of and contribution to climate change. In the abstract, one would think that litigation involving emissions of greenhouse gases (“GHG”) linked to climate change would largely focus on the federal Clean Air Act. Yet, climate change-related cases now involve ever-expanding causes of action, including not only claims under the federal Clean Air Act and other federal statutes, but claims under the U.S. Constitution, state law claims, and common law claims.
There are several active cases that may have major implications on the government’s role in determining the direction of climate change policy, and on private companies’ past and future liability for alleged contributions to climate change, as well as knowledge of climate change impacts on business decision-making. This article discusses notable current cases involving climate change. Continue reading “Charting Climate Change Cases: A Survey of Recent Litigation”
Citing distinctions between hydraulic fracturing and conventional gas drilling, the Pennsylvania Superior Court held on April 2, 2018, in Briggs v.Southwestern Energy Production Company that the rule of capture does not preclude liability for trespass due to hydraulic fracturing, reversing a summary judgment that had been granted by the trial court in favor of Southwestern Energy Production Company. The Briggs ruling exposes operators to potential tort liability where subsurface fractures, fracturing fluid, and proppant cross boundary lines and extend into the subsurface estate of an adjoining property, resulting in the extraction of natural gas from the adjoining property. Continue reading “Pennsylvania Superior Court Fractures Long-Standing Rule of Capture”
Jeremy A. Mercer, Amy L. Barrette, and Elizabeth E. Klingensmith
Yes, a federal court made the determination in 2014 and 2015 that hydraulic fracturing associated with unconventional oil and gas development in Pennsylvania is not an abnormally dangerous activity that is subject to strict liability. See Ely v. Cabot Oil & Gas Corp., 38 F. Supp. 3d 518 (M.D. Pa. 2014) (Report & Recommendation issued in January; adopted in April); see also Kamuck v. Shell Energy Holdings GP, LLC, Civil No. 4:11-CV-1425, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 37538 (M.D. Pa. March 25, 2015) (concluding hydraulic fracturing is not abnormally dangerous or subject to strict liability). In the Ely decision, the court undertook an extensive review of the factual record developed after years of discovery and concluded that there simply was no support for a view that hydraulic fracturing was an abnormally dangerous activity. Now, a Pennsylvania appellate court has reached the same conclusion—twice. Continue reading “It’s Catching On—Hydraulic Fracturing Is Not an Abnormally Dangerous Activity in Pennsylvania”
Lessees of oil and gas leases in Pennsylvania who have been assigned or are assigning less than all of the geologic strata under lease should give careful attention to whether those leases have been severed vertically by unilateral actions. A lease may not be held by production if that production is in a geologic strata not included in the assignment of rights. This article explains a recent decision on the issue.