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/

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.

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 Reaffirms Its Final Rule on Rate Changes Relating to Federal Income Tax Rates for Natural Gas Pipelines

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

The Commission’s recent order upholds the Form No. 501-G filing requirement, which was designed to determine whether pipelines are over-recovering on their cost of service in light of recent federal income tax rate and policy changes. Thus far, the Commission has initiated investigations into the rates of six pipelines pursuant to its authority under section 5 of the Natural Gas Act. These proceedings are ongoing.

On April 18, 2019, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (“FERC” or “the Commission”) issued an order (“Order No. 849-A”)1 denying requests for rehearing of its final rule on federal income tax rates for jurisdictional natural gas pipelines (“Order No. 849”).2 Order No. 849 adopted procedures for determining whether pipelines may be collecting unjust and unreasonable rates in light of income tax reductions established by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act and the Commission’s revised tax allowance policy following the United Airlines, Inc. v. FERC decision.3 These procedures included a requirement that certain interstate natural gas pipelines file a FERC Form No. 501-G to estimate cost of service reductions and changes in returns on equity (“ROE”) resulting from the income tax changes. Continue reading “FERC Reaffirms Its Final Rule on Rate Changes Relating to Federal Income Tax Rates for Natural Gas Pipelines”

FERC to Review Its Policies Regarding the Determination of the Return on Equity in Jurisdictional Rates

Mark R. Haskell, Brett A. Snyder, and George D. Billinson

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.

On March 21, 2019, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (“FERC” or “the Commission”) issued a Notice of Inquiry (“NOI”) as to whether it should modify its policies (and, if so, how) for calculating the return on equity (“ROE”) for jurisdictional rates.1 Although ostensibly directed at policies applicable to public utilities, the NOI also seeks comment as to whether those policies should also be applied to interstate natural gas pipelines and oil pipelines. Continue reading “FERC to Review Its Policies Regarding the Determination of the Return on Equity in Jurisdictional Rates”

Charting Climate Change Cases: A Survey of Recent Litigation

Margaret Anne Hill and Stephen C. Zumbrun

Introduction

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”