The D.C. Circuit concluded that sovereign immunity prevents FERC and NERC from imposing monetary penalties on federal agencies that violate Reliability Standards.
Resolving a dispute between the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and the Southwestern Power Administration (SWPA), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit concluded that federal sovereign immunity prevents FERC, as well as the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), from imposing monetary penalties on federal agencies that violate mandatory Reliability Standards. As a result of the August 22 decision, federal agencies that are users, owners, and operators of the bulk-power system, such as the various federal power marketing administrations, will not be subject to fines if they violate any of the dozens of Reliability Standards that regulate everything from real-time power system operations to electric utility cybersecurity. Although these agencies are still subject to other enforcement mechanisms, such as compliance directives, the major enforcement tool available to FERC and NERC no longer applies to them.
In this case, the SWPA, which markets hydroelectric power, was fined $19,500 for violating Reliability Standards. FERC upheld the penalty, which had been filed by NERC, on the grounds that section 215 of the Federal Power Act requires the SWPA to comply with Reliability Standards and FERC has the authority to enforce those standards, including through monetary fines, against any entities subject to FERC’s reliability jurisdiction.