FERC, CFTC, and State Energy Law Developments

The August 2018 enactment of the Foreign Investment Risk Review Modernization Act (FIRRMA) came after more than two years of debate over the appropriate scope of jurisdiction for the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS). Much has already been written about FIRRMA and its potentially ambitious reach, as well as about the interest by certain parties, including members of Congress, to keep CFIUS away from some transactions. The result was a law that amended a number of provisions defining CFIUS jurisdiction, both expanding and narrowing key parts of the Committee’s reach. The pilot program is focused on certain specific types of transactions, without regard to the country of the acquiring entity, that CFIUS can review under FIRRMA, including transactions involving “Nuclear Electric Power Generation;” “Petrochemical Manufacturing;” “Power, Distribution and Specialty Transformer Manufacturing;” “Storage Battery Manufacturing;” and “Turbine and Turbine Generator Set Units Manufacturing.”

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An amendment to FERC’s M&A statute, Section 203 of the Federal Power Act, was signed into law on September 28. Public Law 115-247 (PL 115-347 or the amendment) makes a minor but helpful change to one provision of FPA Section 203 by immunizing one particular class of transactions from pre-consummation FERC M&A application and approval requirements.

Section 203’s sweep is broad; essentially any direct or indirect “disposition” of voting control over any FERC-jurisdictional “public utility” (almost every US generating company, wholesale power marketer, transmission provider, and traditional franchised utility) requires pre-consummation Section 203 authorization. Only selected types of transactions are exempt, usually those involving smaller “qualifying facility” generators and purely retail businesses and facilities. Some classes of “holding companies” of electric power businesses and assets are also subject to Section 203’s requirements. Numerous technically defined classes of transactions, such as many internal reorganizations, are blanket-authorized under FERC regulations and require no Section 203 applications or orders.

The US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia affirmed the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s (FERC’s) decision to reject a transmission cost allocation proposal submitted by the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO). The court found that FERC adequately explained its decision to reject the proposal on the grounds that it undervalued interregional transmission projects.

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The Commissioners of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC or the Commission) testified on June 12 at an oversight hearing before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. They addressed FERC-jurisdictional issues, including grid modernization, resiliency, security, and enforcement, and President Donald Trump’s recent directive to US Department of Energy (DOE) Secretary Rick Perry to prepare immediate steps to stop the loss and retirement of nuclear and coal generation facilities. The Commissioners’ testimony provides an insight into the issues that FERC may prioritize in the near future.

The commissioners from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) held a joint meeting on June 7 to discuss grid reliability and cybersecurity. FERC and NRC staff provided presentations on the recent and ongoing activities of both agencies to promote a stable, resilient, and secure grid. The presentations were largely a summary of recent agency activities and served to continue the practice of both independent regulatory agencies meeting to discuss items of common interest.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issued a final rule revising the Large Generator Interconnection Procedures and Large Generator Interconnection Agreement. The changes are intended to provide increased certainty and additional interconnection service options to generation interconnection customers, while also enhancing the information available for interconnection decisionmaking. Transmission providers will be required to submit compliance filings. Read the full LawFlash.

The heads of 12 federal agencies signed an MOU on April 9 committing to “a more predictable, transparent and timely Federal review and authorization process for delivering major infrastructure projects.” The signatory agencies, all of which have responsibilities to review or authorize infrastructure projects, agreed to take certain steps to create a more coordinated and streamlined federal environmental review process. Although the commitments in the MOU are voluntary and not mandated by statute, adherence to them could shorten the period of time required by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to perform National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) reviews.

Background

President Donald Trump signed Executive Order (EO) 13807 (“Establishing Discipline and Accountability in the Environmental Review and Permitting Process for Infrastructure Projects”) in August 2017. This EO was intended to speed up the environmental reviews required for major infrastructure projects by mandating additional coordination and planning activities among various federal agencies. The EO defines “major infrastructure project” as “an infrastructure project for which multiple authorizations by Federal agencies will be required to proceed with construction, the lead Federal agency has determined that it will prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) under [NEPA] . . . and the project sponsor has identified the reasonable availability of funds sufficient to complete the project.”

Nineteen states have asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to modify public utilities’ FERC-regulated cost-of-service revenue requirements to reflect the recent reduction in the federal corporate income tax rate. The states claimed that “[t]he Tax Cuts and Jobs Act significantly reduces the marginal federal corporate income tax rate from 35 to 21 percent. Unless the Commission adjusts… revenue requirements to reflect this federal corporate income tax reduction, utility customers nationwide will be overpaying for their electric and gas service by hundreds of millions of dollars.”

According to the states, the level of current corporate income tax expense incorporated into public utilities’ rates could render those rates unjust and unreasonable, and if FERC does not proactively reduce those rates, a significant amount of money would need to be refunded to customers in the future.

On July 7, the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit issued its opinion in NRG Power v. FERC, vacating in part and remanding a May 2013 order by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) that had accepted PJM Interconnection, L.L.C.’s (PJM’s) revisions to the Minimum Offer Price Rule (MOPR) in the PJM electricity capacity market subject to PJM’s acceptance of certain modifications.

The court held that in directing the modifications to the PJM proposal, FERC created “a new rate scheme that was significantly different from [both PJM’s proposed and existing rate designs],” thereby exceeding FERC’s authority under Section 205 of the Federal Power Act (FPA). The court also held that PJM’s consent to FERC’s modifications did not cure FERC’s regulatory overreach because utility customers did not receive an opportunity for notice and comment on the modified rate.

Following this most recent decision, FERC will need to exercise caution in proposing modifications to a utility’s filing under Section 205.

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On April 14, the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit issued its opinion in Emera Maine v. FERC, vacating and remanding FERC’s Opinion No. 531 in which FERC established a just and reasonable rate of return on equity (ROE) for transmission-owning utilities in the Northeast (NETOs) and adopted a new methodology for determining the ROE for FERC-jurisdictional electric utilities.

The DC Circuit found two grounds for sending the case back to FERC. First, because the proceeding began through a complaint filed under section 206 of the Federal Power Act (FPA), the court found that FERC failed to find that the existing ROE for the NETOs was unjust and unreasonable before proceeding to set a new just and reasonable ROE. Second, the court found that FERC had not adequately justified its determination of the new just and reasonable ROE.

The court’s decision creates significant uncertainty in FERC ROE policy.