FERC, CFTC, and State Energy Law Developments

In response to the US president’s declaration of a national emergency due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, on March 20 the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) issued a notice to operators stating that, effective immediately and until further notice or modification, PHMSA does not intend to take any enforcement action with respect to operator qualification (OQ) and control room management (CRM) requirements, and will consider exercising enforcement discretion regarding certain drug testing requirements.

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 (PHMSA) will hold a two-day public meeting on February 26–27, 2020, to discuss with pipeline safety stakeholders the implementation of two final rules published in the Federal Register on October 1, 2019: the Safety of Gas Transmission Pipelines final rule (published at 49 CFR Parts 191–192) and the Safety of Hazardous Liquid Pipelines final rule (published at 49 CFR Part 195). PHMSA has made available for comment and discussion in Docket PHMSA-2019-0225 the meeting agenda draft, frequently asked questions (FAQs), and answers for both rules.

According to PHMSA, “the FAQs are intended to assist in the implementation of these final rules by providing clarification, guidance, information sources, and affirmation to operators as they strive to comply with the new safety regulations.” During the first day of the meeting, PHMSA also is planning to discuss the benefits of pipeline operators developing an effective safety culture. The agenda, however, is less clear on this portion of the meeting.

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).

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.”

On June 14, the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit vacated and remanded two challenged orders and directed FERC to explain or reconsider whether data made available after a challenged rate increase becomes effective (i.e., post–rate increase information) should be considered. The court found that, prior to the challenged orders, FERC only reviewed the data from the two years preceding the rate increase (i.e., pre–rate increase information) to determine whether rate increases were substantially in excess of the actual cost increases that the pipeline incurred. The court did not opine on whether FERC’s consideration of post–rate increase data was appropriate, but held that FERC failed to explain why it departed from its practice of considering only pre–rate increase data, and why it considered post–rate increase data in evaluating the rate increases at issue.

Recent developments over the last several weeks have intensified the ongoing struggle between the current administration of President Donald Trump and the federal judicial system concerning energy policy as it relates to the exploration and production of crude oil and natural gas. Below is a brief summary of these latest events.

Trump Issues New Presidential Permit Authorizing Construction of Keystone XL Pipeline

In the latest saga of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, US District Court Judge Brian Morris, sitting in the Great Falls Division of the District of Montana, issued an order on November 8, 2018, blocking early construction efforts on the project. In a case filed by several environmental groups, including the Indigenous Environmental Network, Judge Morris ruled that the environmental reviews conducted by the US Department of State had failed to consider the cumulative greenhouse gas emissions impacts of the Keystone XL project when combined with the expansion of another proposed Canadian pipeline, and also that the reviews failed to take into account updated information on the risk of leaks or spills. Accordingly, the court halted any further activities “in furtherance of the construction or operation of Keystone.”