FERC, CFTC, and State Energy Law Developments

Facing what it deems an “unprecedented number of FOIA requests” for nonpublic information related to utility violations of the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) critical infrastructure protection (CIP) requirements governing cybersecurity compliance for critical electric infrastructure, FERC Staff has issued a white paper proposing to make publicly available additional information regarding those violations, including the names of the utilities involved. If adopted, this proposal could increase the risk of a serious and successful attack on the nation’s electric infrastructure with no benefit other than a “name and shame” approach to CIP enforcement.

For the first time, FERC has found that significant investments in an existing licensed hydroelectric facility by a licensee will be considered when establishing the license term in a relicensing proceeding, potentially aiding the licensee in obtaining a longer license term.

Section 15(e) of the Federal Power Act (FPA) provides that any license issued shall be for a term that FERC determines to be in the public interest, but no less than 30 years or more than 50 years. Under its 2017 Policy Statement on Establishing License Terms for Hydroelectric Projects, FERC established a 40-year default license term policy for original and new licenses. The Policy Statement included exceptions to the 40-year license term under certain circumstances, including establishing a longer license term upon a showing by the license applicant that substantial voluntary measures were either previously implemented during the prior license term, or substantial new measures are expected to be implemented under the new license.

The Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) published draft guidance on June 26 to address how agencies implementing environmental reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) should consider greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The new guidance would replace the Obama administration’s 2016 guidance, which has been on hold since April 5, 2017, pending “further consideration” pursuant to Executive Order 13783, Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth.

If adopted, the guidance could impact every federal agency proceeding that requires a NEPA analysis, including FERC natural gas pipeline certificate proceedings, liquefied natural gas (LNG) facility certificate proceedings, nuclear power plant decommissioning projects, and independent spent fuel storage installation facilities.

The guidance specifies that under the NEPA “rule of reason,” which defers to agency expertise in conducting NEPA analyses, as well as existing CEQ regulations, “[a]gencies preparing NEPA analyses need not give greater consideration to potential effects from GHG emissions than to other potential effects on the human environment.”

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC or Commission) on July 18 issued a rule, initially proposed in July 2016,[1] restructuring the way it collects certain data for market-based rate (MBR) purposes and significantly expanding the information it collects from MBR holders. Under the Final Rule, FERC will now collect MBR application and certain compliance information in a new database with multiple data tables relating to one another via entity-specific, unique identification numbering (FERC’s new “relational database”), an intricate and entirely new electronic reporting system that will become compulsory in early 2021.[2] Order 860 also adopts changes to the ownership and the gas and electricity “affiliate” information required in an MBR Seller’s compulsory disclosures.

The Final Rule will take effect on October 1, 2020, and baseline submissions will be due by February 1, 2021.[3] As of February 1, 2021, prior to filing an application for initial MBR authority, a new Seller will be required to make a submission into the relational database, which will itself create the required asset appendices and indicative screens that filers had previously prepared independently. FERC affirmed that after January 31, 2021, a Seller will no longer report its affiliated generating and related electric and gas assets in the current .XLS format (an Appendix B Excel spreadsheet).[4] Instead, the information will now be submitted in XML format and the data to be collected in the relational database, which the Final Rule claims will generate an asset appendix.[5]

For the second time, PJM Interconnection, LLC (PJM) has suspended its 2019 Base Residual Auction (BRA) as directed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). FERC found that delaying the auction until the Commission establishes a replacement rate would provide greater certainty to the market than conducting the auction under the existing rules.

PJM previously suspended the 2019 BRA when FERC granted PJM’s request to waive the auction timing requirements of its tariff to allow for a delay from May to August 2019.

Read FERC’s order.

Wholesale electricity sellers that are not government owned are subject to regulation by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Obtaining FERC approval to sell wholesale electricity at “market-based rates” (which is nearly any sale regulated under the Federal Power Act that is not based on cost-of-service accounting) can be an intricate exercise, requiring the applicant to submit statistical horizontal market power screens. Within the FERC-regulated organized markets, the independent system operators and regional transmission organizations (ISOs/RTOs), monitoring staff and procedures, and transparent real-time and long-term demand and pricing information have led many market participants to conclude that the required market power statistical screen studies are of little value and function merely as an administrative impediment to doing business. On July 18, FERC issued a final rule, Refinements to Horizontal Market Power Analysis for Sellers in Certain Regional Transmission Organization and Independent System Operator Markets, Order No. 861, that relieves market-based rate (MBR) entities of the statistical screen requirements in some—but not all—of the ISO/RTO markets. This should streamline both the regulatory approval process for prospective MBR entities and the ongoing compliance process for MBR entities that file notices, triennial renewal applications, and similar documents with FERC.

Order No. 861 relieves MBR entities (most of which are independent generating companies and/or power marketers, and some of which are traditional franchised utilities) of the need to prepare and submit statistical screen analyses if the MBR applicant or holder is within the Northeastern and Central ISO/RTO markets—that is, ISO New England, New York ISO, PJM Interconnection, or Midcontinent Independent System Operator. In these ISO/RTOs, FERC found that the existence of both capacity and energy markets and the vigor of market monitoring and mitigation were sufficient to permit applicants to dispense with the horizontal screen studies.

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.