Yesterday, the US Trade Representative announced that President Trump approved recommendations to impose a safeguard tariff on imported solar cells and modules under Section 201 of the Trade Act of 1974. The tariff will be in effect for the next four years at the following rates:

This tariff is the result of petitions filed in May 2017 by two US solar cell manufacturers at the (ITC under Section 201 of the Trade Act of 1974. The petitions alleged that a global imbalance in supply and demand in solar cells and modules and a surge of cheap imports caused serious injury to the domestic solar manufacturing industry. In September, the ITC found injury to the US solar equipment manufacturing industry and, in October, released its recommendations to the White House to impose tariffs. The President’s final decision was in line with the ITC’s recommendations.The first 2.5 gigawatts (GW) of imported solar cells will be exempt from the safeguard tariff in each of those four years. According to the International Trade Commission (ITC), the United States imported approximately 12.8 GW of solar cells in 2016, which was expected to grow in 2017.

Supporters hope the tariff will encourage increased domestic solar manufacturing. Reports are circulating that a solar manufacturer is considering opening a new module factory in Florida. However, critics of the tariff like the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) say that the tariff will result in a loss of 23,000 domestic jobs this year, including many in manufacturing, and will result in the delay or cancellation of billions of dollars in solar investments. The U.S. solar energy industry currently employs 260,000 Americans in jobs ranging from installation to manufacturing racking systems and inverters. The industry created 1 out of every 50 new US jobs in 2016. According to SEIA, only 2,000 people in the United States are employed manufacturing solar cells and panels.

The tariff is also expected to increase solar module costs, with early estimates predicting an increase of 10 to 12 cents per watt based on current US import prices of 35 to 40 cents per watt.

The US Trade Representative’s press release and fact sheet took clear aim at China, singling it out as a major cause of injury to the domestic solar manufacturing industry: “Today, China dominates the global supply chain and, by its own admission, is looking to increase its capacity to account for 70 percent of total planned global capacity expansions announced in the first half of 2017.” The US Trade Representative also stated that it will “engage in discussions among interested parties that could lead to positive resolution of the separate antidumping and countervailing duty measures currently imposed on Chinese solar products and U.S. polysilicon.” Despite the aggressive rhetoric, the tariff will not be limited to Chinese imports.

Additional details on whether any countries will be exempted from the tariff and how the 2.5 GW exemption is determined should be available upon publication of a Presidential Proclamation finalizing the tariff.

Alongside the tariff on solar cells, the Trump Administration also announced a tariff on imported residential washing machines.

Last week, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published a request for comment asking for “input on regulations that may be appropriate for repeal, replacement, or modification.” EPA’s request is part of a federal government initiative under Executive Order 13777, “Enforcing the Regulatory Reform Agenda,” which established a federal policy “to alleviate unnecessary regulatory burdens” on the American people. The Executive Order directs federal agencies to establish a Regulatory Reform Task Force that will evaluate existing regulations and make recommendations on repeal, replacement and modification.

Pursuant to the Executive Order, the Task Force will identify regulations that:

  1. Eliminate jobs, or inhibit job creation;
  2. are outdated, unnecessary, or ineffective;
  3. impose costs that exceed benefits;
  4. create a serious inconsistency or otherwise interfere with regulatory reform initiatives and policies;
  5. are inconsistent with the requirements of section 515 of the Treasury and General Government Appropriates Act, 2001 (44 U.S.C. 3516 note), or the guidance issued pursuant to that provision in particular those regulations that rely in whole or in part on data, information, or methods that are not publicly available or that are insufficiently transparent to meet the standard of reproducibility; or
  6. derive from or implement Executive Orders or other Presidential directives that have been subsequently rescinded or substantially modified.

EPA’s request comes on the heels of the Department of Commerce’s request for comments from manufacturers asking what regulations the government could repeal to benefit domestic manufacturing. Commerce received approximately 170 responsive comments, nearly half of which targeted various environmental regulations for amendment or repeal.

EPA offices are conducting various outreach programs designed to engage the public. These include public teleconferences, public meetings and contact with key stakeholders. Outreach efforts will begin on April 24 with a public meeting via teleconference held by the Office of Air and Radiation. Other divisions of EPA, such as the Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization, Office of Water, Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, and Office of Land and Emergency Management will hold scheduled outreach sessions through May 9.  Comments are due to EPA by May 15.

Two environmental organizations, Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), have weighed in to defend the legality of New York State’s Zero Emissions Credit (ZEC) program in ongoing litigation concerning that program.  This blog is tracking the ongoing litigation and this article summarizes the arguments made by EDF and NRDC in their recent filings.

The ZEC program, which was approved by the New York Public Service Commission (NYPSC) in August 2016, compensates eligible facilities for the zero-emissions attributes of produced nuclear energy through long-term contracts with New York State Energy Research & Development Authority (NYSERDA) for the purchase of ZECs.  New York’s load-serving entities are required to purchase those ZECs from NYSERDA in proportion to their share of statewide load. The NYPSC determined that New York’s FitzPatrick, Ginna and Nine Mile facilities were eligible to participate in the ZEC program.

In October 2016, various electric generators in New York and surrounding states filed a complaint against the NYPSC in federal court, asserting that the ZEC program intrudes on the exclusive authority of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) by “effectively replacing the [wholesale electricity market] auction clearing price” received by the nuclear facilities with a higher price and thus artificially suppressing wholesale electricity prices in the New York market.  The NYPSC and the owners of the New York nuclear facilities moved to dismiss the complaint in December and both EDF and NRDC recently filed briefs in support of the motions to dismiss.

The environmental organizations (like the NYPSC) deny that the ZEC program intrudes on FERC’s authority.  They argue that the program compensates the nuclear power providers for the environmental attributes of their electricity, rather than sets wholesale electricity prices.  The environmental organizations’ support stems from the similarities between the ZEC program and renewable energy credits, which are a key component of many state renewable energy programs and might be threatened by a judicial opinion extending FERC’s exclusive jurisdiction to the sale of unbundled environmental attributes.

The outcome of litigation over New York’s ZEC program will likely have impacts outside New York.  In Illinois, the recently enacted Future Energy Jobs Bill establishes a Zero Emission Standard program that utilizes the same framework to support nuclear generation facilities in Illinois.  Illinois and other states considering such programs will be watching the outcome of the litigation in New York to determine whether and how to implement their own programs to support struggling nuclear facilities.

On December 15, 2016, the Internal Revenue Service released Notice 2017-04, which provides welcome guidance on how to meet the “beginning of construction” requirements for wind and other qualified facilities. There has been much uncertainty about when construction of these types of facilities begins for renewable energy tax credit purposes. The Notice (1) extends the “Continuity Safe Harbor” placed in service date for projects that started construction before 2014; (2) provides that the “combination of methods” rule set forth in prior guidance only applies to facilities on which construction begins after June 6, 2016; and (3) clarifies that for purposes of the 80/20 Rule, the cost of new property includes all costs properly included in the depreciable basis of the new property.

Read the full article here.

The US Court of Federal Claims awarded damages of more than $206 million to the Plaintiffs in a case with respect to the cash grant program under Section 1603 of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (the Section 1603 Grant). In its opinion, which was unsealed on Monday, October 31, the Court held that the US Treasury Department (Treasury) had underpaid the Section 1603 Grants arising from projects in the Alta Wind Energy Center because it had incorrectly reduced the Plaintiffs’ eligible basis in the projects. The Court rejected Treasury’s argument that the Plaintiffs’ basis in the facilities was limited to development and construction costs, and accepted Plaintiffs’ position that the arm’s-length purchase price of the projects prior to their placed-in-service date was a reasonable starting place for the projects’ value. The Court determined that the facilities, having not yet been placed in service and having only one customer pursuant to a master power purchase agreement (PPA), could not have any value assigned to goodwill or going concern value which would reduce the amount of eligible costs for purposes of the Section 1603 Grant. The Court noted that the transactions surrounding the sales of the facilities were conducted at arm’s length by economically self-interested parties and that the purchase prices and side agreements were not marked by “peculiar circumstances” which influenced the parties to agree to a price highly in excess of fair market value. Importantly, the Court also held that PPAs were more like land leases which should not be viewed as separate intangible assets from the underlying facilities, and are thus eligible property for purposes of the Section 1603 Grant. Finally, the Court accepted the Plaintiffs’ pro rata allocation of costs between eligible and ineligible property.

This significant decision is welcomed by the renewable energy industry and is an affirmation of a long held view by many taxpayers as to an appropriate measure of cost basis in the context of the Section 1603 Grant. The decision may also serve as much-needed guidance for determining cost basis for purposes of the investment tax credit under Code Section 48.

McDermott will be issuing a full On the Subject review and analysis of the Court’s opinion in the coming days.

Last week’s article discussed New York’s Zero-Emissions Credit (ZEC) for nuclear power. The ZEC is one component of New York’s Clean Energy Standard (CES). The other major component of the CES is the new Renewable Energy Standard (RES). In the RES, the New York Public Service Commission (PSC) formally adopted the goal set by Governor Cuomo in December 2015: 50 percent of all electricity used in New York by 2030 should be generated from renewable resources. This goal builds on the State’s previous goal of achieving total renewable generation of 30 percent by 2015.

The RES consists of a Tier 1 obligation on load-serving entities (LSE) to support new renewable generation resources through the purchase of renewable energy credits (REC), a Tier 2 program to support existing at-risk generation resources through maintenance contracts, and a program to maximize the potential of new offshore wind resources.

The goal of the RES is to reduce carbon emissions and ensure a diverse generation mix in New York. The state’s existing nuclear facilities, supported by the ZEC program, will close in 2030 (absent a renewal of their licenses) and the RES aims to ensure that the electricity provided by those units is replaced with new renewable resources.

Continue Reading New York’s New Renewable Energy Standard

The New York Public Service Commission’s (PSC) Clean Energy Standard (CES), adopted in August, includes a new emissions credit—the ZEC. The ZEC, or zero-emissions credit, is the first emissions credit created exclusively for nuclear power.

The ZEC is the result of a highly politicized effort to support New York’s struggling nuclear power plants. New York’s four nuclear plants account for 31 percent of the state’s total electric generation mix. According to the PSC, “losing the carbon-free attributes of this generation before the development of new renewable resources between now and 2030 would undoubtedly result in significantly increased air emissions due to heavier reliance on existing fossil-fueled plants or the construction of new gas plants to replace the supplanted energy.” The ZEC Program is intended to keep the state’s nuclear plants open until 2029 and provide an emissions-free bridge to renewable energy.

Continue Reading NY Creates New Emissions Credit for Nuclear Plants

In the United States, the federal Clean Air Act (CAA) requires all “major sources” of air pollution, such as power plants, refineries and other large industrial facilities, to obtain permits detailing the conditions under which those sources are allowed to operate. Such “Title V” operating permits, as they are commonly known, are typically issued by state environmental agencies but are subject to pre-issuance review by the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In fact, EPA is required to object to any proposed permit that it determines is inadequate, and the CAA also contains a public participation backstop to EPA’s oversight: where EPA fails to object to a permit, any member of the public that believes the permit is inadequate can petition EPA to make an objection.

In recent years, environmental organizations have increasingly used the petition process to challenge proposed permits, especially with respect to alleged inadequacies concerning greenhouse gas emissions. By statute, EPA is supposed to respond to such petitions within 60 days. But EPA routinely misses that deadline and now faces a sizeable backlog of pending petitions.

In late August, EPA published a proposed rule, which, if finalized, would create a series of new requirements for the submission and handling of Title V petitions. Most notably, the proposed rule would:

  • Create a new, mandatory, procedure for submitting Title V petitions to EPA;
  • Require each petition to follow a standardized format and contain certain minimum content; and
  • Impose a new requirement on state permitting agencies—a requirement that those agencies prepare written responses to all “significant comments” received from the public during the permit drafting stage.

EPA’s announcement of the proposed rule also includes a summary of EPA’s general approach to handling Title V petitions. The announcement includes, for example, a short summary of prior EPA applications of the CAA’s Title V provisions, as well as a list of “recommended practices” for state permitting agencies to follow when preparing proposed permits.

EPA is soliciting comments on its proposed rule. Comments must be received on or before October 24, 2016.

In the United States, federal agencies that license, permit or finance energy and infrastructure projects must, with some limited exceptions, analyze the environmental impacts of those projects before they approve them, pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA).  But to what extent must those agencies consider climate change impacts as part of their NEPA reviews? The President’s Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) has just issued a guidance document that addresses that question.

CEQ’s guidance document—an August 1 memorandum addressed to the heads of all federal departments and agencies—urges federal agencies to consider two climate change-related topics when conducting NEPA reviews.

The first topic is the impact of a proposed project on climate change, and the memorandum urges federal agencies to approach that topic by focusing on the project’s direct, and indirect, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Agencies are encouraged to calculate a project’s anticipated emissions using existing government resources and calculators, and to draw upon existing government literature on the impacts of such emissions. The memorandum acknowledges that “the totality of climate change impacts is not attributable to any single action,” but concludes that climate-related impacts are exacerbated by some government actions and encourages agencies to compare the level of emissions expected from a proposed project to the level expected under alternative project scenarios. The memorandum provides scant details on how to calculate “indirect” GHG emissions but does suggest that for projects involving fossil fuel extraction, the indirect impacts turn, at least in part, on the anticipated ultimate use of the extracted fuel.

The second topic is the impact of climate change on the project, and on the project’s impacts.Here, CEQ’s memorandum encourages federal agencies to consider a proposed project’s impacts not simply on environmental conditions as they currently exist but as they will exist in the future and reflecting any changes that are expected as a result of climate change. Thus, if a project will draw water from a river that is already being, or that will be, diminished because of changing snowfall or rainfall patterns, that is an impact that should be acknowledged. The memorandum also encourages agencies to incorporate climate change resiliency and adaptation planning into their NEPA reviews, especially when analyzing project alternatives and potential mitigation measures. The memorandum suggests, for example, that agencies consider whether a proposed project’s design makes it more vulnerable to changing climate conditions (such as, in some areas of the country, increased risk of wildfires) than alternative projects.

CEQ’s memorandum applies to all new NEPA reviews and states that agencies “should exercise judgment” when considering whether to apply the guidance to currently ongoing reviews. CEQ states in the memorandum that it “does not expect agencies to apply” the guidance to projects for which a final environmental impact statement or environmental assessment has already been issued.

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.