FERC, CFTC, and State Energy Law Developments

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.

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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.[1] 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.”

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC or the Commission) Office of Enforcement (OE) issued its 2018 Report on Enforcement on November 15. The report provides a review of OE’s activities during fiscal year 2018 (FY 2018), which begins October 1 and ends September 30 annually. Like last year, the report reveals likely areas of focus for FERC enforcement in the coming year, and provides guidance to the industry based on the wide variety of enforcement matters that are otherwise non-public by synthesizing some of the more disparate developments from audits, market surveillance, and other enforcement activities for the benefit of industry stakeholders.

The August 2018 enactment of the Foreign Investment Risk Review Modernization Act (FIRRMA) came after more than two years of debate over the appropriate scope of jurisdiction for the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS). Much has already been written about FIRRMA and its potentially ambitious reach, as well as about the interest by certain parties, including members of Congress, to keep CFIUS away from some transactions. The result was a law that amended a number of provisions defining CFIUS jurisdiction, both expanding and narrowing key parts of the Committee’s reach. The pilot program is focused on certain specific types of transactions, without regard to the country of the acquiring entity, that CFIUS can review under FIRRMA, including transactions involving “Nuclear Electric Power Generation;” “Petrochemical Manufacturing;” “Power, Distribution and Specialty Transformer Manufacturing;” “Storage Battery Manufacturing;” and “Turbine and Turbine Generator Set Units Manufacturing.”

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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.

On July 25, the Department of Energy (DOE) issued a final rule, effective August 24, to provide expedited authorization of applications to export liquefied natural gas (LNG) to non–Free Trade Agreement (FTA) countries (i.e., those countries with which the United States has not entered into an FTA) using “small-scale” natural gas export facilities. To qualify for expedited treatment, applicants must satisfy two criteria:

  1. The application must propose to export a volume of natural gas that does not exceed 51.75 Bcf/yr
  2. The application will not require DOE to issue an environmental impact statement (EIS) or an environment assessment (EA) pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA)

Any non-FTA application that satisfies these two criteria will qualify as a “small-scale natural gas export” and therefore will be deemed to automatically satisfy DOE’s Natural Gas Act (NGA) Section 3 public interest standard. Additionally, DOE will not provide a public notice and comment period for qualifying small-scale natural gas export applications, nor will it apply other procedures typically used during its review of large-scale LNG export applications to non-FTA countries.

Pursuant to Section 3 of the NGA, applications to export natural gas or LNG to FTA countries are automatically deemed to be in the public interest and do not require DOE to conduct a detailed review process. Thus, DOE’s final rule will significantly streamline the review process for qualifying small-scale applications by putting them on equal footing with large-scale and small-scale FTA applications.

In the final rule, DOE agreed that small-scale exports will provide a variety of benefits both to the United States and to importing countries primarily located in the Caribbean, Central America, and South America. For the United States, some of the anticipated benefits include stimulating the natural gas market, generating economic growth, strengthening the global natural gas market, and enhancing US national security interests abroad. Additionally, DOE determined that small-scale exports will not adversely affect the availability of natural gas supplies to domestic consumers.

DOE welcomes suggestions, data, and information on additional deregulatory efforts that it could undertake with respect to its NGA Section 3 authority.

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.

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