FERC, CFTC, and State Energy Law Developments

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 cyberattack on a single gas compression facility resulted in the shutdown of a natural gas pipeline for two days, according to a recent alert from the US Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA).

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s (PHMSA’s) long-awaited final rule on the minimum safety standards for underground natural gas storage facilities (UNGSFs) was published in the February 12 Federal Register. The final rule amends the pipeline safety regulations applicable to depleted-hydrocarbon reservoirs, aquifer reservoirs, and solution-mined salt caverns used to store natural gas. These pipeline safety regulations were established in an interim final rule that PHMSA issued in December 2016 in response to a recent significant gas leak and the mandate in the Protecting Our Infrastructure of Pipelines and Enhancing Safety Act of 2016 (the PIPES Act). The PIPES Act directed PHMSA to establish minimum safety standards for depleted-hydrocarbon reservoirs, aquifer reservoirs, and solution-mined salt caverns used to store natural gas. The final rule becomes effective March 13, 2020.

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).

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.

At its open meeting on November 21, FERC announced organizational changes to enhance the agency’s focus on cybersecurity threats and challenges to electric infrastructure. Commission staff unveiled five “focus areas” related to grid cybersecurity and announced organizational changes within the Office of Energy Projects (OEP) and Office of Electric Reliability (OER) designed to better position Commission resources to address cybersecurity concerns.

New Strategic Focus Areas

Commission staff developed the following five focus areas based on their review of threat reports (public and nonpublic), global cybersecurity events, North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) CIP standards, and OEP’s specialized security program for hydropower projects.

  1. Supply Chain/Insider Threat/Third-Party Authorized Access

    This is not the first time the Commission has made supply chain and third-party (or vendor) management security a priority. In 2016, the Commission directed NERC to develop mandatory supply chain risk management controls, which have since been approved and are set to take effect next year.

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.

A proposed rule by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) could reduce costs for oil and gas producers and processors by eliminating certain air emission requirements. The EPA issued a proposed rule on August 29 to roll back new source performance standards (NSPS) established in 2012 and 2016 by removing sources in the transmission and storage segment from the source category; rescind the NSPS applicable to those sources, including methane and volatile organic compounds requirements; and rescind the methane-specific requirements of the NSPS applicable to sources in the production and processing segments. The proposed rule also includes an alternate proposal to rescind the methane-specific requirements of the NSPS applicable to all oil and natural gas sources, without removing any sources from the source category.

The Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) published draft guidance on June 26 to address how agencies implementing environmental reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) should consider greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The new guidance would replace the Obama administration’s 2016 guidance, which has been on hold since April 5, 2017, pending “further consideration” pursuant to Executive Order 13783, Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth.

If adopted, the guidance could impact every federal agency proceeding that requires a NEPA analysis, including FERC natural gas pipeline certificate proceedings, liquefied natural gas (LNG) facility certificate proceedings, nuclear power plant decommissioning projects, and independent spent fuel storage installation facilities.

The guidance specifies that under the NEPA “rule of reason,” which defers to agency expertise in conducting NEPA analyses, as well as existing CEQ regulations, “[a]gencies preparing NEPA analyses need not give greater consideration to potential effects from GHG emissions than to other potential effects on the human environment.”

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.