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FERC, CFTC, and State Energy Law Developments

The US Department of Energy (DOE) has released the Hydrogen Program Plan, a strategic framework that intends to “accelerate research, development, and deployment (RD&D) of hydrogen and related technologies in the United States.” The plan communicates DOE’s plan to focus on conducting coordinated RD&D activities to enable the adoption of hydrogen across multiple domestic applications and sectors. DOE will implement those efforts through the DOE Hydrogen Program, an existing program that facilitates hydrogen research and development activities and that spans multiple DOE offices.

President Donald Trump signed an executive order on May 1 declaring that the use of bulk-power system equipment supplied by companies controlled by certain foreign nations poses an extraordinary threat to the US power grid. The order observes that the bulk-power system is a valuable target for malicious actors, and any attack on that system could pose serious risks to the economy, public health and safety, and national security.

In light of those risks, the executive order declares a national emergency with respect to the power grid and moves to ban the unrestricted import or use of bulk-power system electric equipment from foreign adversaries. Although the order calls for coordination among multiple executive branch heads, including the Director of National Intelligence and the Secretary of Homeland Security, it primarily tasks the Secretary of Energy with fulfilling the President’s directives.

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.

FERC issued guidance on October 17, 2019, that may significantly aid hydroelectric developers in planning and siting potential projects. FERC issued a list, jointly developed with the secretary of the US Army, secretary of the US Department of the Interior, and secretary of the US Department of Agriculture (collectively, the Secretaries), of 230 existing nonpowered federal dams that FERC and the Secretaries agree have the greatest potential for nonfederal hydropower development. FERC also issued guidance to assist applicants for licenses or preliminary permits for closed-loop pumped storage projects at abandoned mine sites. These actions fulfill FERC’s requirements under the America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2018 (AWAI) and are intended to encourage development of renewable energy resources by developing hydroelectric power at sites where the addition of hydroelectric capabilities would not add significant additional environmental impacts.

The US Department of Energy (DOE) issued Order No. 486.1 on June 7 prohibiting DOE employees and contractors from participating in the foreign government “talent recruitment programs” of countries designated by the DOE as a “foreign country of risk,” which apparently include China and Russia. The order aims to balance the DOE’s broad scientific mission with national security interests by preventing the unauthorized transfer of scientific and technical information to certain foreign entities. DOE contractors and subcontractors within the utility and nuclear sectors should be prepared to implement controls to ensure that neither they nor their employees or subcontractors participate in these foreign-sponsored programs for identified countries.

The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report on December 18, 2018, identifying significant weaknesses in the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) Pipeline Security Program management and recommending improvements to address those weaknesses. The report was driven by a recognition that “pipelines increasingly rely on sophisticated networked computerized systems and electronic data, which are vulnerable to cyber attack or intrusion,” and that “new threats to the nation’s pipeline systems have evolved to include sabotage by environmental activists and cyber attack or intrusion by nations.”

A new report by the National Infrastructure Advisory Council (NIAC) concludes that the nation is not prepared to adequately respond to a catastrophic power outage. The NIAC is a special advisory council composed of representatives from private industry, state and local government, and academia that is tasked with providing the president with advice on issues facing the nation’s 16 federally designated critical infrastructure sectors. The NIAC issued the report after it was tasked with examining the nation’s ability to respond to and recover from a “catastrophic power outage of a magnitude beyond modern experience, exceeding prior events in severity, scale, duration, and consequence.” The NIAC generally considers these to be limited- or no-notice events with a long duration (i.e., lasting weeks or months due to damage) impacting a broad geographic area (e.g., multiple states and affecting tens of millions of people) that could be further complicated by a cyber or physical attack.

Central to the NIAC’s report is examining the extent to which a catastrophic power outage that causes a failure in one critical infrastructure sector could lead to severe cascading impacts and force other critical sectors to operate in a degraded state for an extended period of time. The report reflects the NIAC’s view that, while the roles and responsibilities for emergency authorities are understood generally, the actual implementation of roles and responsibilities in response to a catastrophic power outage (e.g., cyber and physical attacks and larger-scale disasters) is still very much unclear. In this regard, the report stresses the importance of strong federal leadership in responding to and recovering from large-scale emergencies.

Eighteen governors, members of the Governors’ Wind & Solar Energy Coalition, issued an open letter on November 9 to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to encourage the development of needed electric transmission that they claim existing federal efforts are insufficient to address.

Public comments made last week by Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) Chief of Staff Anthony Pugliese before the American Nuclear Society indicate that the agency is working with other federal government officials to identify power plants that are “absolutely critical” to the grid, E&E News reported. In particular, Mr. Pugliese revealed that the US Department of Energy and the National Security Council are coordinating with FERC to classify those generators that are vital to ensuring that critical infrastructure, such as hospitals and military bases, remain online and operational. The comments also reflect a related concern that many large gas-fired generators could pose reliability and resiliency risks, as the natural gas infrastructure supporting those plants could be susceptible to physical attacks or cyberattacks.

On July 25, the Department of Energy (DOE) issued a final rule, effective August 24, to provide expedited authorization of applications to export liquefied natural gas (LNG) to non–Free Trade Agreement (FTA) countries (i.e., those countries with which the United States has not entered into an FTA) using “small-scale” natural gas export facilities. To qualify for expedited treatment, applicants must satisfy two criteria:

  1. The application must propose to export a volume of natural gas that does not exceed 51.75 Bcf/yr
  2. The application will not require DOE to issue an environmental impact statement (EIS) or an environment assessment (EA) pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA)

Any non-FTA application that satisfies these two criteria will qualify as a “small-scale natural gas export” and therefore will be deemed to automatically satisfy DOE’s Natural Gas Act (NGA) Section 3 public interest standard. Additionally, DOE will not provide a public notice and comment period for qualifying small-scale natural gas export applications, nor will it apply other procedures typically used during its review of large-scale LNG export applications to non-FTA countries.

Pursuant to Section 3 of the NGA, applications to export natural gas or LNG to FTA countries are automatically deemed to be in the public interest and do not require DOE to conduct a detailed review process. Thus, DOE’s final rule will significantly streamline the review process for qualifying small-scale applications by putting them on equal footing with large-scale and small-scale FTA applications.

In the final rule, DOE agreed that small-scale exports will provide a variety of benefits both to the United States and to importing countries primarily located in the Caribbean, Central America, and South America. For the United States, some of the anticipated benefits include stimulating the natural gas market, generating economic growth, strengthening the global natural gas market, and enhancing US national security interests abroad. Additionally, DOE determined that small-scale exports will not adversely affect the availability of natural gas supplies to domestic consumers.

DOE welcomes suggestions, data, and information on additional deregulatory efforts that it could undertake with respect to its NGA Section 3 authority.