FERC, CFTC, and State Energy Law Developments

Following the declaration of a global pandemic due to the widespread transmission of the coronavirus (COVID-19), the issuance of shutdown and/or stay-at-home directives cascaded from commercial enterprises and state and local governments across the United States. During this period of extreme disruption to daily routine, the continuity and integrity of energy operations were necessary to ensure that the massive shift to home-based life could exist with minimal business disruption. Front- and back-office personnel engaged in trading energy commodities quickly transitioned to a work-from-home (WFH) posture, ensuring that their firms could preserve market access for production or output while also consummating the transactions needed to procure an adequate fuel source, managing price exposure to highly volatile commodity prices, or executing preexisting trading strategies.

FERC issued a proposal on May 21 to modify its policy regarding requests for waiver of public utility tariff provisions that are subject to FERC’s review and approval under the Federal Power Act and the Natural Gas Act.

In light of federal court opinions that have discussed FERC’s authority to change a filed rate, the Commission acknowledged that past orders approving tariff waivers have “drifted beyond the limits imposed by the filed rate doctrine” and the related rule against retroactive ratemaking.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) issued a notice on May 20 that it will convene a Commissioner-led technical conference to consider the ongoing, serious impacts that the emergency conditions caused by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic are having on the energy industry. The conference will be free, open to the public, and held remotely on Wednesday and Thursday, July 8-9, 2020. Attendees may preregister online here.

In mid-March the Commission began issuing guidance to address the immediate needs of FERC-jurisdictional entities, including various waivers and extensions necessary to assist energy companies with managing their regulatory responsibilities while dealing with the pandemic. The conference will be more forward-looking, and is expected to focus on the potential longer-term impacts from the pandemic on energy companies, energy markets, energy system reliability, and consumer protection.

In response to President Donald Trump’s declaration of a national emergency due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) issued a notice that it does not intend to take enforcement action related to certain new gas pipeline safety regulations with which gas pipeline operators must comply by July 1, 2020.

PHMSA stated that it will resume its normal enforcement processes and sanctions after December 31, 2020, but retains the discretion to enforce the July 1, 2020 compliance deadlines in the event of a significant safety issue or if otherwise warranted. Similar to PHMSA’s prior notice of enforcement discretion (which we discussed in our March 27 posting), this notice recognizes that gas pipeline operators may be facing personnel resource constraints due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) indicated on April 24 that it is conducting a review of the $40-per-barrel plunge in the WTI crude price that occurred on April 20. The CFTC stated that it is conducting the review to understand why the pricing happened, to ensure that the market functioned properly, and to rule out foul play.

As market participants are no doubt aware, the WTI May contract ultimately settled at negative $37.63 at the close of April 20. That price occurred just the day before the May contract expiry, which reflects the market realization that traders holding long May futures positions must either be prepared to take delivery of the physical WTI following expiry and settlement or find a buying counterparty through which the long position could be liquidated. Given the ongoing international production dispute, the collapse of domestic demand, and the tight storage market at Cushing, Oklahoma (and elsewhere), the inability to take delivery seemingly prompted the historic price crash.

The US Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) issued Version 3.0 of its guidance on April 17 on identifying essential critical infrastructure workers amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. The revised guidance adopts the latest safety recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and builds on prior versions of the guidance by providing an expanded breakdown of job roles that CISA considers essential, particularly in the energy sector. The guidance also addresses the manner in which localities can ensure that essential workers can travel to and perform their jobs.

Recognizing that employers of essential workers have had difficulty ensuring that those workers can physically travel as needed for their jobs, the revised guidance urges that such workers be “exempted from curfews, shelter-in-place orders, and transportation restrictions or restrictions on movement.” The guidance also urges local governments to establish guidance that lets essential workers cross jurisdictional boundaries with neighboring jurisdictions.

Although the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act signed into law on March 27  does not expressly provide relief for energy companies, many of its provisions impact energy sector companies. Read our recent LawFlash to learn more.

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).