FERC, CFTC, and State Energy Law Developments

The US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit  resolved a question of first impression on February 11 on when the statute of limitations period commences for civil enforcement claims brought by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) under the Federal Power Act (FPA or the Act) when the alleged violator opts for adjudication in federal district court instead of an administrative proceeding. Siding with FERC, the Fourth Circuit held in FERC v. Powhatan Energy Fund that when an alleged violator decides to pursue adjudication in court, FERC’s claim accrues, and thus the statute of limitations commences, when the alleged violator fails to pay within 60 days the amount set forth in FERC’s Penalty Assessment Order. The decision means that when an alleged violator opts for the district court, FERC can enforce civil penalties for an FPA violation up to 10 years after the date of alleged unlawful conduct.

Legal Framework

The FPA creates two procedural options by which FERC can assess civil penalties. Under one option, the “Default Option,” a FERC Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) will hear the dispute. Under the second option, the “Alternate Option,” adjudication occurs in federal district court. The alleged violator may chose the path.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s (PHMSA’s) long-awaited final rule on the minimum safety standards for underground natural gas storage facilities (UNGSFs) was published in the February 12 Federal Register. The final rule amends the pipeline safety regulations applicable to depleted-hydrocarbon reservoirs, aquifer reservoirs, and solution-mined salt caverns used to store natural gas. These pipeline safety regulations were established in an interim final rule that PHMSA issued in December 2016 in response to a recent significant gas leak and the mandate in the Protecting Our Infrastructure of Pipelines and Enhancing Safety Act of 2016 (the PIPES Act). The PIPES Act directed PHMSA to establish minimum safety standards for depleted-hydrocarbon reservoirs, aquifer reservoirs, and solution-mined salt caverns used to store natural gas. The final rule becomes effective March 13, 2020.

A declaratory order issued by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (the Commission) on January 30 in Docket No. RP20-41-000 grants pipeline developers greater certainty in planning and siting construction. The order was issued after a split 2-1 vote. It may also significantly reduce pipeline developers’ expenses by avoiding costly disputes with states over the possession of state-owned land. The order resulted from a petition filed by a company (Pipeline) seeking to construct an approximately 116-mile greenfield natural gas pipeline designed to provide firm natural gas transportation service from receipt points in the eastern Marcellus Shale region, in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, to delivery points in New Jersey and Pennsylvania (the Project). The petition requested the Commission’s interpretation of the scope of the eminent domain authority in Section 7(h) of the Natural Gas Act (NGA).

In November 2019, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy issued Executive Order 92 increasing the state’s offshore wind generation goal from 3,500 MW by 2030 to 7,500 MW by 2035. To date, the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities (BPU) has approved only one 1,100 MW offshore wind project, but is expected to conduct additional solicitations in 2020 and 2022 and approve approximately 2,400 MW of additional offshore wind generation.

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed S. 2252 into law on January 17, 2020. The bill takes steps to advance electric vehicle (EV) goals proposed in the draft New Jersey Energy Master Plan (which was released in June 2019 but has not been posted in final form). By enacting this legislation, New Jersey joins several states, including Oregon and Colorado, that have taken action to encourage EV adoption in recent months.

The bill establishes statewide goals for EV growth in New Jersey and the development of statewide charging infrastructure, each of which will be supported by $300 million in state incentives over the next decade through programs to be established by the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities (BPU). The bill also advances electrification of the state’s transportation fleet by requiring state agencies to escalate purchases of EVs.

Morgan Lewis has been named Energy Group of the Year by Law360 for our work assisting energy clients in deploying innovative pricing models, navigating complicated regulatory requirements, and managing crises. Partners Kathryn Sutton and Richard Filosa discussed the firm’s significant victories for clients that earned the group a place among Law360’s Practice Groups of the Year in this profile. 

Read the Law360 article.  

The US Department of the Treasury’s Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) on January 13 published the final rules implementing the Foreign Investment Risk Review Modernization Act (FIRRMA). FIRRMA ushered in noticeable changes and higher awareness of CFIUS and its impact on foreign investment in the United States. The new rules are effective February 13.

A notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) titled, “Update to the Regulations Implementing the Procedural Provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act,” published today by the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), is likely to have far-reaching effects for the energy and public infrastructure sectors, and could facilitate more efficient implementation of energy production/generation projects for all major energy sources (i.e., renewable, fossil, nuclear, and hydroelectric sources) as well as transportation projects.

The proposed rule has four major elements: (1) to modernize, simplify, and accelerate the NEPA process; (2) clarify terms, application, and scope of NEPA review; (3) enhance coordination with states, tribes, and localities; and (4) reduce unnecessary burdens and delays.

It will be important for industry entities that depend on federal agency action when advancing projects and securing permits to actively participate in the proposed rulemaking, and to provide meaningful comments that will help the CEQ build a sufficient agency record to defend against any later litigation challenges to new regulations.

Read the full LawFlash.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) on December 19, 2019, directed PJM Interconnection to extend its minimum offer price rule (MOPR) from new natural gas–fired electric generators to also cover any generator that receives or is entitled to receive certain types of state subsidies. The rule aims at preserving competitive capacity auctions by preventing resources that receive subsidies from submitting bids that would otherwise be uneconomical—and therefore likely to “capture” a PJM capacity award based on a below-market capacity rate—if not for state support. The order means that existing or planned resources that expected to clear capacity markets with rates made economical by state subsidies will have to identify alternate strategies to generate revenue; so too will states seeking to promote the development or prevent the retirement of preferred but noncompetitive resources.

With the degree of scrutiny applied to H-1B petitions at an all-time high, it is important for employers, including those in the energy industry, to begin assessing their H-1B needs. Read the LawFlash prepared by our immigration lawyers for guidance on immigration status assessments.