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FERC, CFTC, and State Energy Law Developments

FERC has issued an order extending the blanket waivers of all requirements to hold meetings in person and/or to provide or obtain notarized documents in open-access transmission tariffs through January 29, 2021. The order continues the blanket waivers first issued on April 2, 2020, in response to requests from regulated entities, which were set to expire on September 1, 2020. FERC cites the coronavirus (COVID-19) national emergency proclamation issued by President Trump on March 13, 2020; the continued risk to health and safety currently presented by personal contact; and guidance from public health officials on social distancing as good cause for the waivers.

FERC has issued a final rule, Order No. 872, revising the Commission’s regulations governing qualifying small power producers and co-generators (collectively, qualifying facilities or QFs) under the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act of 1978 (PURPA). The Commission stated that the rule addresses significant changes that have occurred in the US energy markets and the Commission’s desire to modernize its PURPA regulations to protect consumers and preserve competition while meeting the Commission’s statutory obligations. The revisions will have significant implications for all utilities required to purchase the output of QFs, as well as generators that rely on PURPA rates and obligations. The final rule takes effect 120 days after publication in the Federal Register.

FERC recently dismissed the New England Ratepayers Association’s petition for declaratory order requesting FERC to exert jurisdiction over certain net-metering transactions. The decision leaves some key legal and jurisdictional questions about net metering unanswered. For now, FERC’s existing view that net-metering transactions are subject to state commissions’ retail sales jurisdiction, unless a customer sells more power back to the utility than it consumes in the applicable retail billing period (usually one month), remains intact.

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On July 10, the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit found that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission was well within its rights to prevent states from prohibiting energy storage resources from participating in wholesale (i.e., sales for resale) energy markets. The court’s order is the latest judicial affirmation of FERC’s authority to regulate activities on wide portions of the electric grid, including facilities reserved to state regulators, if those activities affect wholesale rates.

Background

The case arose following challenges to FERC’s Order No. 841 (and its order on rehearing), a 2018 rulemaking requiring grid operators (i.e., regional transmission organizations (RTOs) and independent system operators (ISOs)) to implement rules to facilitate the participation of electric storage resources in wholesale capacity, energy, and ancillary service markets.

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.