Federal Energy Regulatory Commission

Last week the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) made some headway in how it evaluates greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from natural gas-related projects. In recent FERC pipeline certification proceedings, the two Democrats on the Commission have been critical of how FERC addresses a project’s potential GHG emissions and climate change impacts. With only four active

“According to FERC, it is now commonplace for states to use Section 401 to hold federal licensing hostage.”

These are the words the DC Circuit used in Hoopa Valley Tribe v. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, No. 14-1271, p. 10 (D.C. Cir., Jan. 25, 2019), to describe the state of play on § 401 certifications affecting hydroelectric facility licensing or re-licensing applications. CWA § 401(a)(1) requires, as a prerequisite for federal permits for activities that may result in a discharge into the navigable waters, that affected states certify that any such discharge will comply with applicable, enumerated provisions of the Clean Water Act. But, if a state fails or refuses to act on a request for certification within “a reasonable period of time (which shall not exceed one year) after receipt of such request,” the statute deems the certification requirements waived.
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On Friday, a court ruling provided some clarity regarding the Clean Water Act (CWA) § 401 water quality certification process. As forecasted in our November 1, 2018 blog post (below), the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit has ruled that a state waives its CWA § 401 authority when, pursuant to a written agreement, an applicant repeatedly withdraws and resubmits its request for water quality certification in order to restart the one-year waiver clock. Hoopa Valley Tribe v. FERC, No. 14-1271 (D.C. Cir. Jan. 25, 2019). According to the Court’s opinion, this sort of arrangement serves to circumvent the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s (FERC) “congressionally granted authority over the licensing, conditioning, and developing of [the] project,” and “if allowed, the withdrawal-and-resubmission scheme could be used to indefinitely delay federal licensing proceedings and undermine FERC’s jurisdiction to regulate such matters.”
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In recent litigation involving the development of interstate natural gas pipelines, one of the key issues has been whether the state has waived its authority under Clean Water Act section 401 by exceeding the one-year time period. In a separate case involving a series of hydroelectric facilities, the waiver period was again directly at issue. On October 1, at oral argument before the D.C. Circuit, the parties addressed whether California and Oregon had waived their water quality certification authority by having the applicant withdraw and resubmit its request for certification over a number of years. Notably, the judges seemed to agree that FERC could make a waiver determination before the end of the one-year time limit and that withdrawing and resubmitting an application may not always restart the clock.
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On July 10, 2018, a panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit rejected an environmental group’s claim that FERC’s funding mechanism results in unconstitutional bias in favor of the pipeline industry. The court also rebuffed a due process attack on the Commission’s use of “tolling orders” to avoid automatic denial of rehearing requests after 30 days. The decision is noteworthy as it represents the latest rejection of similar constitutional challenges to FERC’s operations and practices that pipeline opponents have been raising with increasing frequency. The ruling also highlights the difficulty of bypassing the Natural Gas Act’s administrative rehearing and judicial review process through novel broadside attacks on the Commission’s general practices and procedures.

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Two notable developments in the past few weeks signal potential changes ahead to the policies and timeframes for pipeline approvals, particularly natural gas pipelines under Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (“FERC” or the “Commission”) oversight. These developments reflect both the increased public scrutiny of the pipeline approval process seen in recent years and the emphasis placed by the current administration on expediting review and approval of major infrastructure projects, two factors that are in some tension with each other.
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On March 12, 2018, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) order finding that delays by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (NYDEC) in reviewing Millennium Pipeline Company’s application for water quality certification constituted waiver of NYDEC’s authority under the Clean Water Act (CWA). As we detailed in an earlier blog post, FERC found that NYDEC’s delay exceeded the one-year statutory period established by CWA Section 401. The Millennium case is just one of several interstate natural gas pipeline projects that have faced delays associated with the CWA Section 401 permitting process. (See, e.g., Atlantic Bridge Project, Atlantic Sunrise Project, Constitution Pipeline, Northern Access Project, PennEast Pipeline, and Spire STL Pipeline.) The Court’s decision resolves the nearly three-year permitting process for the Millennium Valley Lateral Pipeline and clarifies for other projects (and state agencies reviewing those projects) that the one-year waiver period begins when the state agency receives the initial request for certification.
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Federal agencies that authorize or permit large infrastructure projects, like interstate natural gas pipelines, are often subject to the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act, and environmental organizations frequently rely on NEPA to challenge a project. The D.C. Circuit recently struck down a decision by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to approve the construction and operation of three interstate natural gas pipelines because the Court found defects in FERC’s NEPA analysis. The court’s decision to vacate FERC’s authorization now threatens to shut down the pipelines, including the Sabal Trail pipeline currently supplying natural gas to newly constructed power plants in Florida.
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