FERC, CFTC, and State Energy Law Developments

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.

Regional transmission operator PJM Interconnection, L.L.C. imposed a new requirement that generating entities experiencing direct or indirect changes in ownership or control notify PJM of such changes immediately. The new requirement is effective as of June 1 and, while it may add to the paperwork of generators in the region, it is not likely to be significantly burdensome so long as the documentation requirements are carefully tracked. Whether and how these submissions will affect PJM’s regular involvement in Federal Power Act Section 203 proceedings at FERC remains to be seen. 

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The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) issued an order on the Minimum Offer Price Rule (MOPR) in the PJM Interconnection, L.L.C. (PJM) tariff on June 29, addressing recent controversies over the capacity market impact of some generators receiving state rate subsidies. In the June 29 order, FERC rejected two alternative proposals by PJM to modify the MOPR in response to concerns of state subsidization of new generation resources, granted a complaint filed by market participants against the MOPR, and instituted a paper hearing proceeding under Section 206 of the Federal Power Act (FPA) to determine the just and reasonable revisions to the PJM tariff that would be necessary to address the subsidization issues. The resulting FERC proceeding promises to significantly reshape the PJM capacity market, which has struggled for years to address in a manner that FERC would accept the market impacts of subsidies to specific resources. FERC’s decision, although limited to PJM, could also lead to widespread changes in other capacity markets dealing with the same issues.

Background

The MOPR is a feature of PJM’s Reliability Pricing Model (RPM), which is PJM’s capacity market. Through the RPM, PJM conducts a series of auctions to procure resources to meet regional reliability reserve requirements. A variety of resources may participate, including fossil-fuel, renewable, and demand response resources. Winners of the auction are awarded a fixed price for their capacity in exchange for a commitment to make their capacity available for dispatch by PJM.

Commissioner Robert Powelson announced on June 28 that he will step down from his position at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to lead the National Association of Water Companies. Commissioner Powelson was sworn in on August 10, 2017 for a term that was intended to last through June 30, 2020, but will be leaving this August.

One of three Republican appointees on the five-member Commission, Commissioner Powelson’s departure will leave FERC with two Republicans and two Democrats until another Republican is confirmed by the US Senate to assume the vacated seat (the majority of seats must be held by the party of the US president).

Given the number of high-profile issues under consideration at the Commission, including the emerging issue of resiliency (Docket No. AD18-7) and the hotly disputed reconsideration of FERC’s existing policy on certificating new interstate natural gas facilities (Docket No. PL18-1), an even split between the parties could make it difficult to issue a final policy or rule in these proceedings.

In response to concerns raised by authorization holders, potential liquefied natural gas (LNG) importers, and companies financing LNG export projects, the US Department of Energy’s Office of Fossil Energy (DOE/FE) issued a policy statement affirming its commitment to the non–free trade agreement (FTA) export authorizations it has granted and any export authorizations it grants in the future.

To date, DOE/FE has issued 29 final authorizations to export LNG to non-FTA countries. In each of the orders granting these authorizations, DOE/FE included a statement that it has the authority under Section 16 of the Natural Gas Act (NGA) to “make, amend, and rescind such [export] orders . . . as it may find necessary or appropriate.”

Commenters have asked DOE/FE to clarify the circumstances under which DOE/FE would exercise its authority to revoke an LNG export authorization. In response, DOE/FE has stated that it cannot identify all of the circumstances in which it would take such action but that it is authorized to exercise its authority to protect the public interest. DOE/FE noted that it has vacated one FTA order but that it was due to prolonged inaction by the authorization holder.

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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.

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The Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ)—the US federal agency responsible for coordinating and overseeing federal agency implementation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)—moved one step closer on June 20 towards revising its longstanding NEPA-implementing regulations. Those regulations, which last underwent a major revision in 1986, govern the environmental review process for all “major federal actions,” including Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) license reviews for hydroelectric projects and certificates for natural gas facilities.

Now, in an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPR), the CEQ signaled that it is ready to receive public comments on potential revisions that it hopes will “ensure a more efficient, timely, and effective NEPA process consistent with the national environmental policy stated in NEPA.” Comments are due July 20, 2018.

The Commissioners of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC or the Commission) testified on June 12 at an oversight hearing before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. They addressed FERC-jurisdictional issues, including grid modernization, resiliency, security, and enforcement, and President Donald Trump’s recent directive to US Department of Energy (DOE) Secretary Rick Perry to prepare immediate steps to stop the loss and retirement of nuclear and coal generation facilities. The Commissioners’ testimony provides an insight into the issues that FERC may prioritize in the near future.