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The Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) published draft guidance on June 26 to address how agencies implementing environmental reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) should consider greenhouse gas (GHG)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.”
The US Supreme Court has denied a petition for certiorari filed by the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, which challenged a decision by the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit concerning Pennsylvania’s water quality certification for Transcontinental Gas Pipe Line Company LLC’s (Transco’s) Atlantic Sunrise Project. The project expands Transco’s interstate pipeline network in Pennsylvania and on the East Coast. The Supreme Court’s April 29 denial comes as another success for the project, which has been defending against several challenges, first at the agency level and now at the appellate level, since Atlantic Sunrise first filed its FERC application to construct and operate the expansion facilities in March 2015.
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.
Concurring and dissenting statements issued with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s (FERC’s) February 21 order granting construction and operating authorization for a liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminal highlight the increased scrutiny that gas construction projects are receiving concerning their potential effects on climate change. Despite misgivings from some Commissioners, FERC issued a 3-1 decision conditionally authorizing the construction and operation of the Calcasieu Pass Terminal and TransCameron Pipeline Project (Project), an LNG export terminal and an associated lateral pipeline project that will be located along the Calcasieu Ship Channel in Cameron Parish, Louisiana. The decision found that FERC Staff’s quantitative and qualitative assessments of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions impacting the climate on a regional and global scale were sufficient. However, even if FERC would like to use the decision as a blueprint to greenlight similarly stalled or pending terminal construction and expansion projects, it is unclear whether appellate courts might have the appetite to agree in analogous cases.
The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) updated its website on January 7 to report that, once all its data is finalized, natural gas prices, production, consumption, and exports will reflect record increases in 2018. According to the preliminary release, the average annual Henry Hub natural gas spot price in 2018 went up 15 cents from the 2017 average. Simultaneously, consumption, production, and exports all saw a rise in 2018.
The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report on December 18, 2018, identifying significant weaknesses in the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) Pipeline Security Program management and recommending improvements to address those weaknesses. The report was driven by a recognition that “pipelines increasingly rely on sophisticated networked computerized systems and electronic data, which are vulnerable to cyber attack or intrusion,” and that “new threats to the nation’s pipeline systems have evolved to include sabotage by environmental activists and cyber attack or intrusion by nations.”