FERC, CFTC, and State Energy Law Developments

On June 24, the US Supreme Court issued its opinion in Food Marketing Institute v. Argus Leader Media, expanding the scope of information protected under Exemption 4 of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). FOIA establishes an expansive right for the public to access records from executive agencies to hold the government accountable. Limiting that broad right, FOIA includes several broadly worded exceptions whereby the release of certain information may not be compelled under FOIA. One such exemption, Exemption 4, states that “trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a person” that are “privileged or confidential” are protected from mandatory public disclosure. The statute does not define “confidential,” so the question of what “commercial or financial information” is protected from disclosure has resulted in much litigation.

When a business entity that is regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is closely related to another business entity, FERC takes the position that under some circumstances it may treat the two different legal entities as if they were one single entity.  FERC ruled recently that it “may disregard the corporate form in the interest of public convenience, fairness, or equity” and “[t]his principle of allowing agencies to disregard corporate form is flexible and practical in nature.”  As a result, a new power marketer could be barred by a Regional Transmission Organization (RTO) from participating in the market unless it paid off the debts to the RTO owed by another power marketer with the same business objectives and the same contacts and administrators as the bankrupt entity. This decision could make it difficult for public utilities to avoid the debts of their bankrupt affiliates, which could be attributed to the entire enterprise regardless of the final plan of bankruptcy, including the liquidation of the bankrupt entity.

When a debtor in bankruptcy is liquidated, or successfully emerges from bankruptcy, certain unsatisfied, unsecured pre-bankruptcy debts of that bankrupt debtor are discharged. The discharge functions as a defense by the debtor against the claims of the debtor’s creditors. Similarly, when a debtor in bankruptcy is affiliated (such as by common upstream ownership) with a non-bankrupt entity, the non-bankrupt affiliate is typically not presumed to be responsible for that bankrupt debtor’s unsatisfied obligations, unless some statutory, contractual or security arrangement makes the non-bankrupt affiliate liable for those obligations or one entity is viewed to be the “alter ego” of the other under applicable state law.

FERC recently approved proposed Reliability Standard CIP-008-6, which expands the mandatory reporting requirements for Cyber Security Incidents that attempt to compromise the operation of the bulk power system. Under the new standard, electric utilities will need to implement more comprehensive internal controls for identifying, reviewing, and reporting cyber incidents and attempted cyber intrusions than are currently required. The new standard goes into effect on January 1, 2021.

As we reported, NERC developed the revised standard in response to the Commission’s directive to broaden the scope of mandatory reporting of Cyber Security Incidents. In particular, the Commission was concerned with the risk posed by malicious intrusion attempts that might facilitate subsequent efforts to harm the reliable operation of the bulk power system.

On June 14, the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit vacated and remanded two challenged orders and directed FERC to explain or reconsider whether data made available after a challenged rate increase becomes effective (i.e., post–rate increase information) should be considered. The court found that, prior to the challenged orders, FERC only reviewed the data from the two years preceding the rate increase (i.e., pre–rate increase information) to determine whether rate increases were substantially in excess of the actual cost increases that the pipeline incurred. The court did not opine on whether FERC’s consideration of post–rate increase data was appropriate, but held that FERC failed to explain why it departed from its practice of considering only pre–rate increase data, and why it considered post–rate increase data in evaluating the rate increases at issue.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued three rules on June 19 that may give utilities new reasons to consider investing in certain plant modifications and reassessing the projected lifespans of their facilities. The rules also affect each state’s resource planning process and may contribute to changes in a state’s projected energy resource mixes. In response to the rules, utilities should be prepared for possible changes to state policies defining what constitutes “clean” energy and supporting reliability. The rules are intended to go into effect 30 days from their issuance. However, the implementation timeline for the rules is not certain because several states and organizations have stated they intend to challenge the rules in the federal courts.

The US Department of Energy (DOE) issued Order No. 486.1 on June 7 prohibiting DOE employees and contractors from participating in the foreign government “talent recruitment programs” of countries designated by the DOE as a “foreign country of risk,” which apparently include China and Russia. The order aims to balance the DOE’s broad scientific mission with national security interests by preventing the unauthorized transfer of scientific and technical information to certain foreign entities. DOE contractors and subcontractors within the utility and nuclear sectors should be prepared to implement controls to ensure that neither they nor their employees or subcontractors participate in these foreign-sponsored programs for identified countries.

Consolidated Edison Company of New York, Inc. (Con Edison) and Orange and Rockland Utilities, Inc. (O&R) issued a draft joint Request for Proposals (RFP) on May 31 to competitively procure scheduling and dispatch rights from new energy storage projects. Through this initial solicitation, Con Edison and O&R are targeting at least 300 megawatts (MW) and 10 MW, respectively, of new energy storage facilities to meet the in-service deadline of December 31, 2022, set by the New York Public Service Commission (NYPSC) in its December 2018 Order (Storage Order) establishing New York’s three gigawatt (GW) energy storage deployment goal.

Both utilities will accept bids only for new storage projects sized over five MW and connected to the transmission or distribution system that can directly participate in New York Independent System Operator (NYISO) markets and provide distribution benefits, if applicable. These front-of-meter systems must be able to discharge for at least four hours 100 to 350 times per year, have at least 85% roundtrip efficiency, and maintain 98% availability for dispatch each contract year.

The supply chain risks facing electric utilities have long been a concern for industry stakeholders and regulators alike. Reflecting those concerns, NERC submitted a report on May 28 to FERC recommending the expansion of requirements addressing supply chain cybersecurity risks for electric utilities, concluding that the scope of those requirements needed to expand to match the scope of the cybersecurity risk. The development of such revised standards will itself be a lengthy process and subject to additional FERC review.

A recent grid reliability report issued by staff members of the Offices of Electric Reliability and Enforcement within FERC evaluating the upcoming operating season underscored the changing generation resource mix in the United States and its implications for grid operations.