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.

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.

Currently at issue before the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit is whether the filed rate doctrine prevents a court from assessing the reasonableness of a utility’s rates in the retail market. Under the filed rate doctrine, any rate that is approved by the governing regulatory agency is per se reasonable in judicial proceedings. FERC holds exclusive authority to determine whether wholesale rates filed by utilities are just and reasonable. Therefore, if FERC determines that a rate is just and reasonable, a court does not approve a departure from that wholesale rate.

Recent developments over the last several weeks have intensified the ongoing struggle between the current administration of President Donald Trump and the federal judicial system concerning energy policy as it relates to the exploration and production of crude oil and natural gas. Below is a brief summary of these latest events.

Trump Issues New Presidential Permit Authorizing Construction of Keystone XL Pipeline

In the latest saga of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, US District Court Judge Brian Morris, sitting in the Great Falls Division of the District of Montana, issued an order on November 8, 2018, blocking early construction efforts on the project. In a case filed by several environmental groups, including the Indigenous Environmental Network, Judge Morris ruled that the environmental reviews conducted by the US Department of State had failed to consider the cumulative greenhouse gas emissions impacts of the Keystone XL project when combined with the expansion of another proposed Canadian pipeline, and also that the reviews failed to take into account updated information on the risk of leaks or spills. Accordingly, the court halted any further activities “in furtherance of the construction or operation of Keystone.”

In a decision with significant implication for international organizations as well as project opponents and counterparties, the US Supreme Court ruled on February 27 that, rather than an international organization’s immunities being at the zenith of those ever held by any foreign government, an international organization’s immunities can be no greater than those held by foreign governments, under US law, when those immunities are asserted.

The US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit on September 13 affirmed a decision of the US District Court for the Northern District of Illinois that dismissed two complaints seeking to invalidate the Illinois Zero Emission Credits (ZEC) program.

Read more about the decision on Up & Atom.

The US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit on July 11 affirmed the dismissal of a putative class action complaint seeking disgorgement and other relief from two Florida utilities (Utilities). The complaint also sought to invalidate provisions of a Florida statute relating to rate recovery for nuclear power projects on constitutional dormant Commerce Clause and preemption grounds.

The statute at issue in the proceeding—the Florida Renewable Energy Technologies and Energy Efficiency Act (Florida Act)—authorized the state regulatory body to incentivize investment in nuclear power plant construction. Acting on that authority in 2007, the Florida Public Service Commission promulgated the Nuclear Cost Recovery System (NCRS), a program that allows utilities to preemptively recover costs related to the construction of new nuclear power plant projects. The plaintiffs had sued the Utilities, arguing that the provisions authorizing the NCRS are invalid under the dormant Commerce Clause, which limits states from regulating interstate commerce, and preempted by federal statute. Plaintiffs argued that the Atomic Energy Act expressly reserves the authority to regulate nuclear power plant construction with the federal government, and that the provisions of the Florida Act that led to the creation of the NCRS were therefore preempted by federal law. The lower court dismissed these claims, and also denied plaintiffs’ motion to amend the complaint to join the State of Florida as a defendant.

President Donald Trump signed an executive order on July 10 to except the position of Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) from the federal government’s competitive service. This removes ALJs from the traditional “merit” selection process used for most federal government employees.

ALJs had been appointed through a competitive examination and competitive service selection process. However, pointing to the “expanding responsibility” that ALJs have for federal agency adjudications, and expanding on the US Supreme Court’s recent decision in Lucia v. Securities and Exchange Commission, the president concluded that all ALJs should be considered “Officers of the United States” subject to the Appointments Clause of the US Constitution and therefore be appointed by and serve at the discretion of the president or the head of the relevant agency. In Lucia, the Court had held that Securities and Exchange Commission ALJs are “Officers of the United States,” and are thus subject to the Appointments Clause.

The US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia affirmed the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s (FERC’s) decision to reject a transmission cost allocation proposal submitted by the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO). The court found that FERC adequately explained its decision to reject the proposal on the grounds that it undervalued interregional transmission projects.

Read the full LawFlash > >

The US Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) filed a joint brief on May 29 in the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, stating that Illinois’ zero emission credit (ZEC) program for eligible nuclear plants in Illinois is not preempted by the Federal Power Act (FPA). Because the panel in a substantially similar case pending in the Second Circuit has indicated that it would review the government’s filing in the Seventh Circuit case, the views of FERC and DOJ could be critical as this issue plays out in the federal court system.

The Illinois legislature passed a law in 2016 requiring utilities to purchase ZECs at administratively set prices from nuclear plants in the state. Generators that compete with the ZEC-receiving nuclear plants challenged the law, arguing that the ZEC program is preempted by the FPA. The district court upheld the program, and the generators appealed the decision to the Seventh Circuit. FERC did not take a position in the trial court but has now done so after the Seventh Circuit invited the US government to file a brief.