FERC, CFTC, and State Energy Law Developments

FERC has provided specific, detailed guidance for the first time on the use of voting trusts to eliminate ownership affiliation.

Direct and indirect owners of 10% or greater voting interests in FERC-regulated “public utilities” are typically treated by FERC as “affiliates” and as “holding companies” of their public utilities. These owners become subject to FERC regulation with respect to some mergers, acquisitions, divestitures, and changes in control, and with respect to their and their affiliates’ FERC-conferred right to sell electricity at wholesale.

The Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) filed and settled charges on October 24 against Upstream Energy Services LLC (Upstream Energy) for acting as an unregistered futures commission merchant. The Commission’s order raises several important points for energy companies. First, while energy companies may view the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) as their primary federal regulatory agency, certain types of transactions involving energy resources may fall under the purview of another regulatory authority, such as the CFTC. Second, a company that accepts and places futures and options order on behalf of another party must register as a futures commission merchant. Third, voluntary and full cooperation with an enforcement action can reduce greatly the nature and severity of any penalty sought.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC or Commission) on July 18 issued a rule, initially proposed in July 2016,[1] restructuring the way it collects certain data for market-based rate (MBR) purposes and significantly expanding the information it collects from MBR holders. Under the Final Rule, FERC will now collect MBR application and certain compliance information in a new database with multiple data tables relating to one another via entity-specific, unique identification numbering (FERC’s new “relational database”), an intricate and entirely new electronic reporting system that will become compulsory in early 2021.[2] Order 860 also adopts changes to the ownership and the gas and electricity “affiliate” information required in an MBR Seller’s compulsory disclosures.

The Final Rule will take effect on October 1, 2020, and baseline submissions will be due by February 1, 2021.[3] As of February 1, 2021, prior to filing an application for initial MBR authority, a new Seller will be required to make a submission into the relational database, which will itself create the required asset appendices and indicative screens that filers had previously prepared independently. FERC affirmed that after January 31, 2021, a Seller will no longer report its affiliated generating and related electric and gas assets in the current .XLS format (an Appendix B Excel spreadsheet).[4] Instead, the information will now be submitted in XML format and the data to be collected in the relational database, which the Final Rule claims will generate an asset appendix.[5]

For the second time, PJM Interconnection, LLC (PJM) has suspended its 2019 Base Residual Auction (BRA) as directed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). FERC found that delaying the auction until the Commission establishes a replacement rate would provide greater certainty to the market than conducting the auction under the existing rules.

PJM previously suspended the 2019 BRA when FERC granted PJM’s request to waive the auction timing requirements of its tariff to allow for a delay from May to August 2019.

Read FERC’s order.

Wholesale electricity sellers that are not government owned are subject to regulation by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Obtaining FERC approval to sell wholesale electricity at “market-based rates” (which is nearly any sale regulated under the Federal Power Act that is not based on cost-of-service accounting) can be an intricate exercise, requiring the applicant to submit statistical horizontal market power screens. Within the FERC-regulated organized markets, the independent system operators and regional transmission organizations (ISOs/RTOs), monitoring staff and procedures, and transparent real-time and long-term demand and pricing information have led many market participants to conclude that the required market power statistical screen studies are of little value and function merely as an administrative impediment to doing business. On July 18, FERC issued a final rule, Refinements to Horizontal Market Power Analysis for Sellers in Certain Regional Transmission Organization and Independent System Operator Markets, Order No. 861, that relieves market-based rate (MBR) entities of the statistical screen requirements in some—but not all—of the ISO/RTO markets. This should streamline both the regulatory approval process for prospective MBR entities and the ongoing compliance process for MBR entities that file notices, triennial renewal applications, and similar documents with FERC.

Order No. 861 relieves MBR entities (most of which are independent generating companies and/or power marketers, and some of which are traditional franchised utilities) of the need to prepare and submit statistical screen analyses if the MBR applicant or holder is within the Northeastern and Central ISO/RTO markets—that is, ISO New England, New York ISO, PJM Interconnection, or Midcontinent Independent System Operator. In these ISO/RTOs, FERC found that the existence of both capacity and energy markets and the vigor of market monitoring and mitigation were sufficient to permit applicants to dispense with the horizontal screen studies.

When a business entity that is regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is closely related to another business entity, FERC takes the position that under some circumstances it may treat the two different legal entities as if they were one single entity.  FERC ruled recently that it “may disregard the corporate form in the interest of public convenience, fairness, or equity” and “[t]his principle of allowing agencies to disregard corporate form is flexible and practical in nature.”  As a result, a new power marketer could be barred by a Regional Transmission Organization (RTO) from participating in the market unless it paid off the debts to the RTO owed by another power marketer with the same business objectives and the same contacts and administrators as the bankrupt entity. This decision could make it difficult for public utilities to avoid the debts of their bankrupt affiliates, which could be attributed to the entire enterprise regardless of the final plan of bankruptcy, including the liquidation of the bankrupt entity.

When a debtor in bankruptcy is liquidated, or successfully emerges from bankruptcy, certain unsatisfied, unsecured pre-bankruptcy debts of that bankrupt debtor are discharged. The discharge functions as a defense by the debtor against the claims of the debtor’s creditors. Similarly, when a debtor in bankruptcy is affiliated (such as by common upstream ownership) with a non-bankrupt entity, the non-bankrupt affiliate is typically not presumed to be responsible for that bankrupt debtor’s unsatisfied obligations, unless some statutory, contractual or security arrangement makes the non-bankrupt affiliate liable for those obligations or one entity is viewed to be the “alter ego” of the other under applicable state law.

Electric power generation and sale customarily fall within the scope of FERC jurisdiction under the Federal Power Act, as amended, as do generator investment and ownership. Qualifying small power production facilities (Small Power QFs) of no larger than 20 MW (net AC) are usually exempt from FERC regulation of mergers, acquisitions, divestitures, power sale rates, and related regulation under the Public Utility Holding Company Act. Small Power QFs are also normally exempt from state utility commission regulation of corporate, financial, and power sales rate matters. These Small Power QF regulatory exemptions are widely viewed as helpful and appropriate by industry stakeholders ranging from generation investors to traditional franchised utilities, and residential and commercial generation users.

A recent advisory published by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission’s Division of Enforcement and comments of the division director have highlighted the CFTC’s attention toward investigating potential violations of the Commodity Exchange Act (CEA) that involve foreign corrupt practices. On March 6, CFTC Director of Enforcement James M. McDonald addressed this very issue in remarks before the ABA National Institute on White Collar Crime. At the same time, the division issued an Enforcement Advisory providing guidance on how the CFTC will treat instances of self-reporting and cooperation concerning CEA violations that also involve foreign corrupt practices.

Read the full LawFlash.

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.

FERC adopted a new rulemaking on February 21 that will substantially simplify requirements applicable to persons holding “interlocking” director and/or officer positions involving more than one public utility, or a public utility and an electric equipment supplier.[1]

Under the Federal Power Act, a person may not hold a director or officer position with one public utility and simultaneously hold another “interlocking” director or officer position with (1) any other public utility; or (2) certain suppliers of electrical equipment, without first receiving FERC authorization.[2] Pre-incumbency applications to FERC are required for interlocks, except in cases in which only certain positions with affiliated public utilities are held, and in those cases pre-appointment affidavit filings and disclosures must be publicly submitted to FERC as “informational reports.”[3] In general, even affiliated utility appointments must also be annually reported to FERC; FERC’s interlock requirements include both initial application (or informational reports) and annual disclosure filings.[4] If an incumbent position-holder is to be appointed to a new entity within a group of affiliated public utilities, then new affidavit filings and “informational reports” will typically be required.