EPA Raises Statutory Civil Monetary Penalty Amounts

On July 1, 2016, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued an interim final rule that modifies statutory civil monetary penalty amounts for statutes administered by the agency. EPA’s interim final rule, which becomes effective on August 1, 2016, implements requirements of the Federal Civil Penalties Inflation Adjustment Act Improvements Act of 2015 (the 2015 Act) and, according to EPA, is designed to increase EPA’s statutory civil monetary penalties to reflect inflation – significantly, in some cases – and to ensure civil penalties maintain their deterrent effects. EPA has stated that its adjusted civil penalty amounts will not necessarily affect the process it uses to assess penalties or the amounts it will ultimately assess, but EPA’s adjusted statutory penalty amounts could result in significant penalties in some enforcement cases. In some cases, EPA now has authority to impose penalties of hundreds of thousands of dollars per day per violation.

Since 1990, the EPA, like other federal agencies, has been required to review and, as appropriate, to revise its statutory monetary penalty amounts every four years to account for inflation. In practice, however, certain agencies did not follow this quadrennial requirement. The 2015 Act provides that, beginning on January 15, 2017, federal agencies, including the EPA, will be required to provide for annual cost-of-living adjustments to their statutory penalty amounts to reflect inflation.

In the interim, however, the 2015 Act requires agencies to provide for initial “catch-up” cost-of-living adjustments for civil penalty amounts through their interim final rulemakings. The “catch-up” amounts may not, by statute, exceed 150 percent of the penalty amounts in effect on November 2, 2015.

Consistent with the 2015 Act and the Office of Management and Budget’s (OMB) February 24, 2016 guidance, EPA calculated “catch-up” amounts for over 66 statutory penalties and announced the adjusted penalties in Table 2 of the interim final rule. EPA’s new, adjusted statutory civil penalty amounts vary by penalty. For example, the interim final rule increases the previous maximum $37,500 per-day penalty for violating requirements of implementation plans or permits for affected sources, major emitting facilities, or major stationary sources under the Clean Air Act (CAA) to a maximum of $93,750 per day per violation. Similarly, the interim final rule increases EPA’s civil monetary penalty under the Clean Water Act (CWA) for oil or hazardous substance discharges – previously set at a maximum of $37,500 per day per violation – to $44,539 per day per violation.

The ranges of statutory civil penalties under Table 2 of the interim final rule are, by statute:

EPA-Administered Statute Range of Statutory Civil Penalties for Violations that Occurred After November 2, 2015 and Assessed on or After August 1, 2016
Clean Air Act $8,908 – $356,312
Clean Water Act $1,782 – $257,848
Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act $53,907 – $161,721
Resource Conservation and Recovery Act $14,023 – $93,750
Safe Drinking Water Act $9,375 – $1,311,850
Toxic Substances Control Act $8,908 – $37,500

EPA can assess its adjusted penalty amounts on or after August 1, 2016 for statutory violations that occurred after November 2, 2015; parties should consult Table 2 of the interim final rule for guidance on penalty amounts for such violations. However, for statutory violations that occurred on or before November 2, 2015, or for violations that occurred after November 2, 2015 but for which EPA assesses penalties before August 1, 2016, parties should continue to consult EPA’s existing civil penalty amounts, located in Table 1 of 40 C.F.R. § 19.4.

Transmission Planning and Construction Right of First Refusal Ruled Unduly Discriminatory, Not Mobile-Sierra Protected

The provision contained in incumbent electric utility tariffs—conferring on the holder the right of first refusal (ROFR) to construct additions to the high-voltage electrical grid, regardless of who conceived of and proposed the addition—is unduly discriminatory, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit held in a July 1 decision in Oklahoma Gas & Electric Co. v. FERC, No. 14-1281.   The court’s decision upheld utility-specific applications of the FERC mandate—a central open-access innovation of the agency’s Order No. 1000 (Transmission Planning and Cost Allocation by Transmission Owning and Operating Public Utilities)—that directed independent system operators and regional transmission organizations (ISO/RTO) to remove from their existing tariffs and membership agreements the ROFR provision (Removal Mandate).

Earlier in South Carolina Public Service Authority v. FERC, 762 F.3d 41 (D.C. Cir. 2014), the same court generally had upheld the Removal Mandate as applied to ISO/RTOs but had reserved judgment on whether the 60-year-old Mobile-Sierra presumption that the rates in negotiated arm’s length natural gas and power sales agreements are just and reasonable applied to the ROFR provisions of the ISO/RTO tariffs and membership agreements.  In Sierra, the Supreme Court of the United States held that the presumption applies against not only the parties to a negotiated agreement but against FERC itself; thus, if it were found to apply to the ROFR, FERC could overcome the presumption only by showing that the ROFR seriously harmed the public interest.

The court could have resolved ISO/RTO and incumbent utilities’ challenges to the Removal Mandate in either of two ways.  First, it could have determined that the context in which the ROFR provision was included in the tariffs and membership agreements prevented the presumption from applying in the first instance because of infirmities or unfair dealings in contract formation, such as fraud or duress.   Second, it could determine that the presumption did apply and then address the question of whether FERC had overcome the presumption with evidence that the ROFR in member agreements seriously harmed the public interest.  The court took the former course.  It ruled that the Mobile-Sierra presumption never applied in the first instance because (quoting Order No. 1000 and citing South Carolina), the ROFR “created ‘a pre-existing [i.e., not negotiated] barrier to entry’ for nonincumbent transmission owners.”  Citing precedent from the Seventh Circuit, the court found that “such terms” as the ROFR are “self-protective and anti-competitive [and] cartel-like.”

By cabining its holding to the anticompetitive effects of the ROFR, the court was able to bypass two other and possibly more complicated issues.  First, it bypassed the issue of whether the Mobile-Sierra presumption applies not only to the rates in regulated natural gas and power sales agreements, but also to agreement terms that affect rates.  As the court noted, both the petitioners and FERC argued the case based “on the premise” that the presumption applies to both to rates and agreements terms that affect rates.  Second and possibly more nettlesome is whether the Mobile-Sierra presumption would protect other provisions of ISO/RTO tariffs even though (quoting the court) “[t]ariffs are the mechanism through which regulated utilities unilaterally set their rates and terms of service,” whereas Mobile-Sierra protects contracts negotiated bilaterally between sophisticated parties at arm’s length.  The court held open resolution of this issue for future unilateral challenges to other ISO/RTO tariff or member agreements.

Energy Tax Extenders in FAA Bill Unlikely

As discussed in our post on April 7, US Congress extended the Production Tax Credit (PTC) under Internal Revenue Code (IRC) Section 45 and the Investment Tax Credit (ITC) under IRC Section 48 in December 2015, but failed to include extensions for certain types of renewable energy property, including fuel cell power plants, stationary microturbine power plants, small wind energy property, combined heat and power system property, and geothermal heat pump property. Some congressional leaders had stated that the omission was an oversight that would be addressed in 2016.

In March, President Barack Obama signed an extension of certain Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) programs and revenue provisions through July 15, 2016. This legislation was apparently crafted with an intentionally short timeframe to allow inclusion of the omitted PTC and ITC provisions in long-term FAA reauthorization legislation.  However, Senate Finance Committee members have indicated that the long-term FAA legislation will not include energy tax incentives. According to Tax Analysts, Senate Finance Committee member John Thune (R-SD) recently indicated that the extenders will not make it into the FAA reauthorization bill. Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) also said that the most likely vehicle for energy tax incentives would be an end-of-the-year tax bill.

IRS Revises Recent Begin Construction Guidance

On May 18, 2016, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) revised Notice 2016-31 (Notice), its recent guidance on meeting the beginning of construction requirements for wind and other qualified facilities (including biomass, geothermal, landfill gas, trash, hydropower, and marine and hydrokinetic facilities). For a discussion of the Notice, click here. The revisions clarify that the Continuity Safe Harbor is satisfied if a taxpayer places a facility into service by the later of (1) the calendar year that is no more than four calendar years after the calendar year during which construction of the facility began, or (2) December 31, 2016. The revisions also include additional language that the Notice applies to any project for which a taxpayer claims the Section 45 production tax credit (PTC) or the Section 48 investment tax credit (ITC) that is placed in service after January 2, 2013.

The revised Notice also corrects mathematical errors in an example illustrating the application of the begin construction guidance in the Notice to retrofitted facilities. The revised example is as follows:

A taxpayer owns a wind farm composed of 13 turbines, pad and towers that no longer qualify for either the PTC or the ITC. Each facility has a fair market value of $1 million. The taxpayer replaces components worth $900,000 on 11 of the 13 facilities at a cost of $1.4 million for each facility. The fair market value of the remaining original components at each upgraded facility is $100,000. Thus, the total fair market value of each upgraded facility is $1.5 million. The total expenditures to retrofit the 11 facilities are $15.4 million. The taxpayer applies the single project rule. Because the fair market value of the remaining original components of each upgraded facility ($100,000) is not more than 20 percent of each facility’s total value of $1.5 million, each upgraded facility will be considered newly placed in service for purposes of the PTC and the ITC. Accordingly, if the taxpayer pays or incurs at least $770,000 (or 5 percent of $15.4 million) of qualified expenditures in 2016, the single project will be considered to have begun construction in 2016. Provided the taxpayer also meets the Continuous Efforts Test, each upgraded facility will be treated as a qualified facility for purposes of the PTC. However, no additional PTC or ITC will be allowed with respect to the two facilities that were not upgraded.

Taxpayers should consider talking with their advisors to discuss the application of these rules to their projects.

CFTC Proposes Reversing Course, Granting Private Right of Action in Energy Market Manipulation

Last week the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) issued a notice of proposed order and request for comment proposing to allow a private right of action to enforce violations of the anti-manipulation, anti-fraud or scienter based provisions (Anti-fraud provisions) of the Commodity Exchange Act (CEA) in organized electricity markets.  The proposal is a controversial reversal of policy that critics say could open electricity market participants to increased costs and liability. Continue Reading

Key Developments in the Photovoltaic Sector in Italy

The regulatory framework for solar photovoltaic plants in Italy is constantly evolving. Plant owners, asset managers and investors need to stay informed in order to adapt to developments in this sector and avoid adverse outcomes. The following highlights the key updates in this market in the last 12 months.

Read the full article.

IRS Issues Guidance on the Beginning of Construction Rules for Renewable Projects

The Internal Revenue Service recently issued Notice 2016-31, which provides much-needed guidance for wind and other qualified facilities on meeting the beginning of construction requirements in light of the 2015 statutory extension and modification of the production tax credit and the investment tax credit. The Notice also revises and adds to the list of excusable disruptions that will not be taken into account when determining whether the continuity requirement has been met, and provides additional examples demonstrating “physical work of a significant nature” for different types of qualified facilities.

Read the full article.

Short-Term Reauthorization of FAA Programs Potentially Paves the Way For Omitted Energy Credit Extenders

As discussed in our post on March 16, the Congressional extension of the Production Tax Credit (PTC) under Internal Revenue Code (IRC) Section 45 and the Investment Tax Credit (ITC) under IRC Section 48 in December 2015 failed to include extensions for certain types of renewable energy property, including fuel cell power plants, stationary microturbine power plants, small wind energy property, combined heat and power system property, and geothermal heat pump property. Congressional leaders have stated that the omission was an oversight that would be addressed in 2016.

On March 30, 2016, President Barack Obama signed into law the Airway and Airport Extension Act of 2016 (H.R. 4721) (the Act), which extends certain Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) programs and revenue provisions only through July 15, 2016. Expiring in less than four months, the FAA extension was apparently crafted with an intentionally short timeframe to allow inclusion of the omitted PTC and ITC provisions in long-term FAA reauthorization legislation that will likely follow this summer.  Accordingly, while the Act does not directly address the energy tax provisions omitted from last year’s extenders package, experts hope that it paves the way to addressing the omission in a few months.

Senator Ron Wyden (D-WY) has said that he hopes to introduce a long-term FAA bill addressing the omitted energy tax credit extenders after the Senate returns this week. House Ways and Means Committee Chair Kevin Brady (R-TX) has expressed opposition to attaching energy credit tax extenders to the FAA reauthorization legislation. As developments occur, we will update this blog.

President Obama Signs Consolidated Appropriations Act

Renewable Energy Industry Seeks Additional Energy Credit Clarifications

On December 18, 2015, President Barack Obama signed into law the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2016 (H.R. 2029) (the Act). The Act includes multi-year extensions of the Production Tax Credit (the PTC) under Internal Revenue Code (IRC) Section 45 and the Investment Tax Credit (the ITC) under IRC Section 48 for wind and solar projects—both of which are gradually phased out. The Act, however, did not extend the ITC for other types of renewable energy property, including fuel cell power plants, stationary microturbine power plants, small wind energy property, combined heat and power system property, and geothermal heat pump property. Read further discussion of the Act’s extension of renewable energy tax incentives. Continue Reading

Timing Is (Almost) Everything: FERC Implements D.C. Circuit Guidance on NEPA Review of Multiple Pipeline Construction Projects

In the wake of two recent D.C. Circuit decisions, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has begun to implement its new policy concerning the review of natural gas pipeline construction proposals under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). To decide whether a NEPA review must include other projects proposed by the pipeline, FERC will look at the timing and maturity of other proposals and the independence of the projects.

In the first decision, Delaware Riverkeeper Network, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit held that FERC failed to consider the cumulative environmental impact of four projects that had been separately proposed by the same pipeline. The D.C. Circuit held that the projects were not financially independent and were “a single pipeline” that was “linear and physically interdependent,” so the cumulative environmental impacts must be considered concurrently.

In the second decision, Minisink Residents for Environmental Preservation and Safety, the D.C. Circuit held that FERC had properly considered and rejected an alternative site to build a natural gas pipeline compressor station. Contrasting the decision to Delaware Riverkeeper, the court clarified that the “critical” factor in the previous decision was that all of the pipeline’s projects were either under construction or pending before FERC for environmental review at the same time.

In several recent orders, FERC has implemented the D.C. Circuit’s guidance in addressing claims of improper segmentation.  For example, FERC recently authorized Transcontinental Gas Pipe Line Company (Transco) to construct and operate the Leidy Southeast Project. The Leidy Southeast Project will include nearly 30 miles of new pipeline loop and four compressor stations to provide capacity from supply areas in Pennsylvania to various receipt points as far south as Choctaw County, Alabama. Opponents of the pipeline project (coincidentally Delaware Riverkeeper Network) claimed that FERC should have also considered in its NEPA review three other Transco projects—one already constructed and two proposed projects.

FERC rejected opponents’ request to conduct a joint NEPA review. FERC emphasized that (1) the first Transco project was approved nearly a year before Transco proposed the Leidy Southeast Project; (2) the other two Transco projects “were not fully defined ‘proposals’ at any time during the period that the Leidy Southeast Project was receiving consideration;” and (3) the Leidy Southeast Project was not “connected” to the other Transco projects, as it did not “rely on” other projects for its operation and “would have been built even if” the first project had not been constructed.

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