FERC, CFTC, and State Energy Law Developments

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.

Commission Chairman Neil Chatterjee held a press conference on March 19 to discuss FERC’s work during the current pandemic, provide updates regarding the coronavirus (COVID-19), and respond to questions from the media. According to today’s announcements, FERC plans to keep operating as usual but will provide extensive flexibility to the regulated industry in addressing the effects of the pandemic on FERC-jurisdictional activities.

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).

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 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued three rules on June 19 that may give utilities new reasons to consider investing in certain plant modifications and reassessing the projected lifespans of their facilities. The rules also affect each state’s resource planning process and may contribute to changes in a state’s projected energy resource mixes. In response to the rules, utilities should be prepared for possible changes to state policies defining what constitutes “clean” energy and supporting reliability. The rules are intended to go into effect 30 days from their issuance. However, the implementation timeline for the rules is not certain because several states and organizations have stated they intend to challenge the rules in the federal courts.

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.

FERC issued an order on May 16 rescinding its 2009 policy[1] of issuing Notices of Alleged Violations (NAVs) after the subject of an investigation is given an opportunity to respond to FERC Enforcement Staff’s preliminary findings (the NAV Policy).[2] NAVs typically identify FERC’s targets (by name), and set forth abbreviated information concerning the subject matter of FERC’s enforcement attention, the time frame, and the particular statutes relevant to the alleged violations. Since FERC began implementing the NAV Policy in 2011, it has been monitoring its implementation and has now determined that the potential adverse consequences that NAVs pose for the subjects of FERC investigations are no longer justified in light of the limited transparency that NAVs provide.

A few years after FERC received enhanced enforcement authority in 2005, it instituted the NAV Policy to increase the transparency of the nonpublic investigations that its Staff conducts under Part 1b of FERC’s regulations. When it issued the NAV Order, FERC explained that issuing the NAVs after the preliminary findings stage balances “the need to protect the subject’s confidentiality in the early stages of an investigation with the public interest of promoting additional transparency during investigations.”[3] FERC has since determined that NAVs provide only limited guidance and information to market participants and that the various orders on enforcement matters and the reports and white papers its Staff issues are more informative and provide more transparency.

In a decision with significant implication for international organizations as well as project opponents and counterparties, the US Supreme Court ruled on February 27 that, rather than an international organization’s immunities being at the zenith of those ever held by any foreign government, an international organization’s immunities can be no greater than those held by foreign governments, under US law, when those immunities are asserted.

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.