FERC, CFTC, and State Energy Law Developments

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and the US Department of Transportation’s (DOT’s) Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) released a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on August 31 to improve coordination throughout the Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) permit application process for FERC-jurisdictional LNG facilities. The MOU describes FERC and PHMSA’s respective roles and responsibilities concerning siting, construction, and operation of LNG facilities pursuant to currently applicable statutory and regulatory law, and establishes a new coordination framework to streamline the approval process for those facilities. The agencies’ coordination has already helped streamline the environmental review schedules for 12 LNG export terminal applications pending before FERC. Those updated schedules were also released on August 31. The MOU supersedes and provides an updated and more concrete coordination framework than the prior iteration of the agreement between the two agencies that was signed in 1985.

On August 1, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC or the Commission) issued a notice establishing the dates by which certain jurisdictional natural gas pipeline companies must file FERC Form No. 501-G, the “one-time” informational filing the Commission plans to review to ascertain whether the pipelines have, in light of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, accounted for reduced federal corporate income taxes in their cost-of-service rates (one-time report). The notice revises the submission dates in FERC Form No. 501-G’s Implementation Guide, which was released alongside FERC’s final rule in Order No. 849, the decision directing the natural gas companies to submit the one-time reports. The final rule is described in more detail in our previous LawFlash.

Under the revised Implementation Guide, natural gas pipeline companies that are required to FERC Form No. 2 or 2-A for calendar year 2017 are organized into three distinct groups. Group I must file FERC Form No. 501-G by October 11, 2018; Group II, by November 8, 2018; and Group III, by December 6, 2018. In its final rule, FERC explained that if a pipeline refuses to promptly submit the one-time report, or fails to correct a patently erroneous or incomplete one-time report, the Commission could consider the pipeline to be in violation of its reporting obligation under FERC’s rules and regulations, provided the Commission does not otherwise grant a waiver for good cause. FERC also emphasized that pipelines may file FERC Form No. 501-G earlier than these dates.

FERC is allowing interested parties to file interventions, protests, and comments in response to the submissions. Those filings will be due 12 days after each pipeline’s one-time report due date.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission recently issued two orders intended to alleviate concerns that jurisdictional natural gas pipelines may be over-recovering cost-of-service rates due to (1) a reduction of the federal corporate income tax rate from 35% to 21% under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act and (2) the DC Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision in United Airlines Inc. v. FERC, which found that FERC’s existing income tax allowance policy, when applied to pass-through entities such as master limited partnerships, creates a possibility of double recovery for income tax allowances under cost-of-service rates. The Commission will now require pipelines to submit informational filings identifying whether the benefits of federal tax reform have been passed on to ratepayers, and has also clarified its guidance that pass-through entity pipelines may eliminate the accumulated deferred income tax component from their rates when they exclude income tax allowances from their costs of service.

Read the full LawFlash.

In response to concerns raised by authorization holders, potential liquefied natural gas (LNG) importers, and companies financing LNG export projects, the US Department of Energy’s Office of Fossil Energy (DOE/FE) issued a policy statement affirming its commitment to the non–free trade agreement (FTA) export authorizations it has granted and any export authorizations it grants in the future.

To date, DOE/FE has issued 29 final authorizations to export LNG to non-FTA countries. In each of the orders granting these authorizations, DOE/FE included a statement that it has the authority under Section 16 of the Natural Gas Act (NGA) to “make, amend, and rescind such [export] orders . . . as it may find necessary or appropriate.”

Commenters have asked DOE/FE to clarify the circumstances under which DOE/FE would exercise its authority to revoke an LNG export authorization. In response, DOE/FE has stated that it cannot identify all of the circumstances in which it would take such action but that it is authorized to exercise its authority to protect the public interest. DOE/FE noted that it has vacated one FTA order but that it was due to prolonged inaction by the authorization holder.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is seeking stakeholder comments through a Notice of Inquiry as it contemplates updating its policy statement on how FERC-jurisdictional facilities are reviewed and authorized, a move that could revamp the FERC’s 19-year-old policy statement on its certification of new natural gas transportation facilities.

Read the full LawFlash.

Over a half dozen natural gas rate proceedings are expected to be initiated at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in 2018, many of which will raise issues that are historically addressed in pipeline general rate case proceedings, as well as novel issues such as the impact of the new tax laws on rates and the inclusion of a pipeline modernization tracker in rates.

Read the full LawFlash.

On December 15, 2017, the California Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District, issued its opinion in Southern California Gas Co. v. Superior Court of Los Angeles County. In reversing the lower court’s decision, the appeals court concluded that Southern California Gas Co. (SoCalGas) could not be held liable in tort for economic damages in the absence of a transactional relationship unless its actions caused personal injury or property damage. This case underlines the importance of familiarity with the state legal protections that can shield utilities from claims for damages due to the indirect harms stemming from major service or infrastructure disruptions.

The Court of Appeal held that SoCalGas owed no duty to the business plaintiffs in the class action, who “claimed no injury to person or property. Instead, they alleged the gas leak and subsequent relocation of [nearby] residents caused crushing economic loss to their businesses.” The court explained that, under California law, “[g]enerally a defendant owes no duty to prevent purely economic loss to third parties under any negligence theory.” The appeals court determined that none of the various exceptions to this general rule applied to SoCalGas’s actions because those exceptions generally held true only when there was a direct injury to persons or property. Accordingly, SoCalGas could not be held liable to the plaintiffs because no injury to persons or property occurred and no transactional relationship existed that was intended to “directly” affect the plaintiffs.

Today, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) Office of Enforcement (OE) issued its 2017 Report on Enforcement. The report provides a review of OE’s activities during fiscal year 2017, which begins October 1 and ends September 30 annually, revealing likely areas of focus for FERC enforcement in the coming year.

The report indicates that even though FERC lacked a quorum for much of 2017, OE continued to focus on the same areas of market and operational risk that have traditionally captured its attention, which include (i) fraud and market manipulation; (ii) anticompetitive conduct; (iii) conduct that threatens transparency in regulated markets; and (iv) serious violations of mandatory reliability standards. OE does not anticipate that its priorities will change for fiscal year 2018. FERC also addresses its continued litigation of contested cases in federal courts. Additionally, similar to fiscal year 2016, the report indicates that the vast majority of alleged violations that come to OE’s attention are addressed informally through corrective actions voluntarily implemented by the subject of the investigation, without the need for a formal settlement. But this year, OE provides detailed examples of surveillance inquiries initiated by its Division of Analytics and Surveillance that are closed without referral to the US Department of Justice. Details on the topics in the 2017 Enforcement Report will be further described in a future LawFlash that will be posted as part of Morgan Lewis’s Power & Pipes energy law web postings. These issues will also be discussed in further detail during an upcoming webinar hosted by Morgan Lewis linked below.

2017 Year in Review: FERC Enforcement Webinar >>

Although FERC remains hobbled by its continued lack of quorum since then-Commissioner Norman Bay’s departure earlier this year, recent ratemaking challenges remind the industry that the specter of FERC’s unresolved income tax allowance policy for pass-through entities (e.g., master limited partnership pipelines) remains an ever-present conundrum for the industry and the Commission. Two protests submitted earlier this week in response to Great Lakes Transmission, LP’s (Great Lakes’) rate case filed in March raised the issue of FERC’s unresolved income tax allowance policy. The challenges demonstrate that the income tax allowance policy for pass-through entities can, and in many cases, is likely to, be disputed by customers involved in proceedings seeking to amend the rate structures of pass-through entity pipelines.