FERC, CFTC, and State Energy Law Developments

Following the declaration of a global pandemic due to the widespread transmission of the coronavirus (COVID-19), the issuance of shutdown and/or stay-at-home directives cascaded from commercial enterprises and state and local governments across the United States. During this period of extreme disruption to daily routine, the continuity and integrity of energy operations were necessary to ensure that the massive shift to home-based life could exist with minimal business disruption. Front- and back-office personnel engaged in trading energy commodities quickly transitioned to a work-from-home (WFH) posture, ensuring that their firms could preserve market access for production or output while also consummating the transactions needed to procure an adequate fuel source, managing price exposure to highly volatile commodity prices, or executing preexisting trading strategies.

The IRS proposed a draft rule on May 28 covering the qualification for carbon capture and sequestration tax credits under Section 45Q of the Internal Revenue Code. The proposed regulations could provide financial benefits to energy projects that will enhance the spread of that technology and the reduced carbon release that it promises.

FERC issued a proposal on May 21 to modify its policy regarding requests for waiver of public utility tariff provisions that are subject to FERC’s review and approval under the Federal Power Act and the Natural Gas Act.

In light of federal court opinions that have discussed FERC’s authority to change a filed rate, the Commission acknowledged that past orders approving tariff waivers have “drifted beyond the limits imposed by the filed rate doctrine” and the related rule against retroactive ratemaking.

The US Department of the Treasury issued a letter on May 7 stating that it plans to modify the continuity safe harbor for both the production tax credit (PTC) and the energy investment tax credit (ITC). Under the current law, taxpayers seeking to claim a PTC for electricity produced from qualifying facilities or an ITC for qualifying energy property must generally begin construction on the qualifying facility or property by specified dates.

To be considered to have begun construction, the taxpayer must start physical work of a significant nature, or must satisfy the safe harbor requirements by incurring 5% or more of the total cost of the facility or property. The taxpayer must then demonstrate continuous efforts to complete construction, and must place the facility or property in service within four years to meet the requirements for a continuity safe harbor.

The US Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) issued Version 3.0 of its guidance on April 17 on identifying essential critical infrastructure workers amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. The revised guidance adopts the latest safety recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and builds on prior versions of the guidance by providing an expanded breakdown of job roles that CISA considers essential, particularly in the energy sector. The guidance also addresses the manner in which localities can ensure that essential workers can travel to and perform their jobs.

Recognizing that employers of essential workers have had difficulty ensuring that those workers can physically travel as needed for their jobs, the revised guidance urges that such workers be “exempted from curfews, shelter-in-place orders, and transportation restrictions or restrictions on movement.” The guidance also urges local governments to establish guidance that lets essential workers cross jurisdictional boundaries with neighboring jurisdictions.

Functioning critical infrastructure is crucial during the response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) emergency for public health and safety reasons. And as noted in the Coronavirus Guidelines for America issued on March 16, US President Donald Trump has recommended that workers in critical infrastructure industries have a “special responsibility” to maintain normal work schedules. The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) on March 19 issued guidance on defining the Essential Critical Infrastructure Workforce. That guidance explicitly discusses workers in the nuclear and electric industries.

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.

In an effort to address anticipated electricity shortages and reliability challenges in California, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) voted on November 7 to authorize the procurement of 3,300 MW of energy by 2023. The CPUC also intends to seek extensions of certain compliance deadlines from the State Water Resources Control Board for almost 4,800 MW of gas generation units due to retire soon because they use ocean water for so-called “once-through cooling,” which can have a detrimental impact on marine life.

For more details on the CPUC’s actions, 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.