The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals recently issued an opinion holding that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) when it segmented its evaluation of the environmental impact of four separately proposed but connected projects to upgrade the “300 Line” on the Eastern Leg of Tennessee Gas Pipeline Company’s natural gas pipeline system.  Going forward, the court’s ruling will likely compel proponents of interrelated or complimentary pipeline projects to seek their certification on a consolidated basis and will require FERC to evaluate their cumulative impact.

Tennessee Gas’s challenged Northeast Project was the third of four proposed upgrade projects to expand capacity on the existing Eastern Leg of the 300 Line.  The Northeast Project added only 40 miles of pipeline, while the four proposed projects combined to add approximately 200 miles of looped pipeline.  FERC approved Tennessee Gas’s first proposed upgrade, the “300 Line Project,” in May 2010.  While that project was under construction, Tennessee Gas proposed three additional projects to fill gaps left by the 300 Line Project, one of which was the Northeast Project.   As part of its review of the Northeast Project, FERC issued an Environmental Assessment (EA) required by NEPA that recommended a Finding of No Significant Impact.  The EA for the Northeast Project, however, addressed only the Northeast Project’s environmental impact without reviewing the cumulative impact of all four projects.

The D.C. Circuit held that FERC was in error for failing to consider the cumulative impact.  Under NEPA, the D.C. Circuit explained, FERC must consider all connected and cumulative actions.  The D.C. Circuit found no “logical termini,” or rational endpoints to divide the four projects and found the projects were not financially independent.  Rather, the court found the Northeast Project was “inextricably intertwined” with the other three improvement projects that, taken together, upgraded the entire Eastern Leg of the 300 Line.  The court held that FERC must analyze the cumulative impact of the four projects and remanded the case to FERC for consideration.

The Court emphasized that in this case, “FERC was plainly aware of the physical, functional, and financial links between the two projects.”  Regardless of whether an interstate pipeline initially plans to embark on a series of related upgrades, once FERC is aware of the interrelatedness of proposed expansion projects, it must take care to review any cumulative environmental impacts that may arise.

The D.C. Circuit’s decision may also be a warning that FERC must pay greater attention to the NEPA review in pipeline construction projects.  The D.C. Circuit also has before it this term a case alleging that FERC did not sufficiently consider the environmental review of the siting of a new pipeline compressor station in light of less environmentally intrusive alternatives.  See Minisink Residents for Environmental Preservation and Safety v. FERC, Case No. 12-1481.  Both cases take issue with the rigor of FERC’s environmental review under NEPA, and the D.C. Circuit’s decisions may signal a new era of increased focus on the environmental review process.

For more information, please contact your regular McDermott lawyer or:

Karol Lyn Newman: + 1 202 756 8405  knewman@mwe.com
Dan Watkiss: + 1 202 756 8144  dwatkiss@mwe.com

President Obama recently released a Strategy to Reduce Methane Emissions (Strategy) that sets forth a multi-pronged plan for reducing methane emissions both domestically and globally.  Domestically, the plan is to focus on four sources of methane—the oil and gas sector, coal mines, agriculture and landfills—and to pursue a mix of regulatory actions with respect to those sources.  Energy companies now have the opportunity to help influence exactly what those actions will be.

For the oil and gas sector, the Strategy indicates that the federal government will focus primarily on encouraging voluntary efforts to reduce methane emissions—such as bolstering the existing Natural Gas STAR Program and promoting new technologies.  But the Strategy also identifies two areas of potential mandatory requirements.  First, later this year, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) will issue a draft rule on minimizing venting and flaring on public lands.  Regulated parties will have the opportunity to submit comments after the proposed rule is released.  Second, the Strategy confirms that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will decide this fall whether to propose any mandatory methane control requirements on oil and gas production companies.  Consistent with that announcement, on April 15, 2014, EPA released five technical whitepapers discussing methane emissions from the oil and gas production process.  The agency is soliciting comments on those whitepapers—they are due by June 16, 2014.

For coal mines, the Strategy indicates that BLM will soon be seeking public input on developing a program to capture and sell methane from coal mines on public lands.  The Strategy further indicates that EPA will continue promoting voluntary methane capture efforts.

For landfills, the Strategy calls for public input on whether EPA should update its regulations for existing solid waste landfills, indicates that EPA will be proposing new regulations for future landfills, and indicates that EPA will continue to support the development of voluntary landfill gas-to-energy projects.

For agriculture, the Strategy does not suggest any new regulatory requirements.  Instead, it indicates that EPA and the Department of Energy will work to promote voluntary methane control efforts and that those agencies will place special emphasis on promoting biogas—starting with the release of a “Biogas Roadmap” in June 2014.

In addition to these sector-specific approaches, the Strategy emphasizes the need for improved methane measurement and modeling techniques, both domestically and globally.  All of the topics covered by the Strategy are ones about which regulated parties may want to submit comments—to EPA, BLM and/or the Office of Management and Budget.

The Massachusetts Energy Facilities Siting Board (Siting Board) approved a certificate for a 630-megawatt natural gas-fired power plant in Salem last month.  The certificate is unique in that it incorporates the terms of a settlement agreement that imposes greenhouse gas emissions caps and requires the plant to sunset operations no later than 2050.

The facility is scheduled to begin operations in 2016 and will replace a 63-year-old oil- and coal-fired plant.  The emissions caps, which would gradually decrease beginning in 2026, could be satisfied by emissions reductions from reduced operations or carbon-capture systems; credits or allowances from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI); Renewable Energy Certificates; or investment in Massachusetts Renewable Portfolio Standard-eligible local renewable generation, energy efficiency or demand-response measures.

The certificate is the result of a settlement reached between the developer and an environmental organization.  The project is the first request to construct a generating facility since the state’s enactment of the Global Warming Solutions Act in 2008 (GWSA).  The GWSA requires greenhouse gas emissions reductions from all sectors of the economy to reach a target of a 25 percent reduction from 1990 levels by 2025 and an 80 percent reduction by 2050.  However, there are currently no regulations implementing the act with respect to Siting Board decisions.  The Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs produced a Climate Plan that indicates at least some natural gas-fueled electric generation could comport with the GWSA targets.

The Siting Board initially approved the construction of the project and determined that it complied with the GWSA without the conditions of the settlement agreement, indicating that decreasing emissions caps or an expiration date may not be necessary for Siting Board approval of other projects.  However, after that decision was appealed by the environmental organization, the developer acceded to the environmental conditions in the hopes that they will demonstrate that the fossil fuel-fired plant can meet the requirements of the GWSA.  The settlement agreement was incorporated as a condition of the final certificate issued by the Siting Board.

Yesterday, the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) proposal to set greenhouse gas emissions limits for new coal-fired and natural gas-fired power plants was published in the Federal Register.  This proposal was originally posted on EPA’s website on September 20, 2013; however, the formal publication triggers the start of a 60-day public comment period.  The publication also suggests that EPA is still on track to meet President Obama’s June 2014 deadline for publishing an initial proposal to regulate emissions from existing power plants.

The proposed rule would limit new coal plants to 1,100 pounds of CO2 emissions per megawatt-hour (lbs/MWh) of electricity produced, with compliance measured on a rolling average basis during each 12-operating month period.  The proposal would also require new small natural gas plants to meet a 1,100 lbs/MWh emission limit, while requiring larger, more efficient natural gas plants to meet a limit of 1,000 lbs/MWh.  The proposed rule will not regulate greenhouse gas emissions from existing or modified power plants.

Comments on the proposed rule are due by March 10, 2014, although EPA noted in the proposal that a comment will be “best assured of having its full effect” if received by February 7, 2014.  EPA will also hold a public hearing on January 28, 2014 in Washington, D.C. from 9:00 am to 8:00 pm, during which interested parties will be able to present their views (limited to 5 minutes each) concerning the proposed rule.  Given that EPA received over 2.5 million comments on its initial April 2012 proposal, a large number of stakeholders are likely to voice comments.

Primary regulators of energy transactions, the Federal Energy Regulatory and Commodity Futures Trading Commissions (FERC, CFTC or jointly Participating Agencies) began the new year by entering on January 2 two overdue Memoranda of Understanding (MOU), one on overlapping jurisdictions, the other on sharing of information generated in connection with market surveillance and investigations into suspected market manipulation, fraud or abuse.  Both MOUs became effective immediately.

FERC, with jurisdiction over physical natural gas and power transactions, and the CFTC, with jurisdiction over financially settled products such as energy futures and swaps, had battled in recent years over the reach of each other’s jurisdiction, culminating in a March 2013 decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit finding that FERC improperly invaded CFTC’s jurisdiction when, under authority of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, it sought to fine Amaranth Advisors trader Brian Hunter for allegedly manipulating  natural gas futures in order to increase the profitability of corresponding physical natural gas transactions.  When the Participating Agencies failed to meet the 2011 deadline of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act for reaching the jurisdictional understanding, a troika of western-state senators with energy committee portfolios – Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) – expressed concern and called on the two commissions to expedite action on an MOU.

The MOUs put in place procedures that replace a reactive status quo ante in which the two agencies collaborated and shared information, if at all, only upon the request of one or the other, with a proactive framework that obliges the staffs of both agencies to notify each other of requests from within their regulated community for authorizations or exemptions from authorization requirements that may implicate the other’s regulatory responsibilities.  Once so notified, the Notified Agency must promptly inform the Notifying Agency that it (1) has no interest, (2) has an interest, triggering a consultative process between the staffs of the Participating Agencies, or (3) wants to revisit the issue once a regulated company has filed request for an authorization or exemption or the Notifying Agency has instigated sua sponte an authorization or exemption.  If (2) is selected, then the triggered consultative process will seek to determine whether the CFTC has jurisdiction under the Commodity Exchange Act or FERC has jurisdiction under the Federal Power, Natural Gas or Natural Gas Policy Acts, with disputes elevated from staff to directors and ultimately to the respective commissioners.  While the jurisdictional MOU imposes these obligations on the Participating Agencies, it expressly creates no private right of action that could be enforced by a regulated company or other third party.

The MOU on information sharing obligates the Participating Agencies to share information needed in connection with each other’s market surveillance or investigations into suspected manipulation, fraud or market power abuse in markets that the requesting Participating Agency regulates.  FERC is authorized to seek from the CFTC information from (1) designated contract markets, (2) registered swap execution facilities, (3) registered derivatives clearing organizations, (4) boards of trade and (5) market participants.  The CFTC, on the other hand, is authorized to seek from FERC information from (1) regional transmission organizations or independent system operators, (2) the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, (3) interstate natural gas pipelines and storage facility operators, and (4) market participants.  Specific provisions of the MOU obligate both Participating Agencies to take all actions reasonably necessary to preserve, protect and maintain privileges and claims of confidentiality for non-public information.  Sharing information pursuant to the MOU expressly does not constitute a waiver of any privilege or protection attached to the shared information.

Last week the Mexican Congress approved legislation including Constitutional amendments that were approved by the required number of Mexican states on December 16 that will bring changes to the nation’s energy laws that exploration and production companies have hoped for ever since Mexico nationalized the oil and natural gas industry in 1938.  But the legislature did not just stop there – the legislative changes have also opened the door to private investment in the midstream and downstream oil and natural gas sectors and increased opportunities for private investment in the electric power sector as well.  There will undoubtedly be myriad devils in the details of the implementing legislation, not least of which will be developing forms of contract that will be needed in a very short time frame under the law.

Since nationalization, Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex) has enjoyed a monopoly over all oil and natural gas exploitation in Mexico, although it has for several years been permitted to award service contracts to private contractors under which it paid fees but did not share in production or profits.  Under the new regime, Pemex will have the right under a “Round Zero” to pick fields it wishes to develop on its own and those for which it wishes to seek partners, and it will also be allowed to migrate from sole development to a partner model for specific fields.  Mexico is also planning to offer fields to private companies without Pemex participation and to new exploration and production (E&P) entities to be formed by the government.  Secondary legislation will be needed to define the rules applicable to these different approaches to development, but the law provides for use of service contracts, profit-sharing contracts, production-sharing contracts, license agreements or a combination of these structures.  Of great importance to many investors, the new law also allows companies to book reserves in accordance with United States Securities and Exchange Commission regulations.

The Mexican Congress has expanded the reach of these reforms beyond E&P.  The Ministry of Energy will now be able to issues permits to private industry for refining and petrochemical activities, and the Energy Regulatory Commission will now issue permits to private companies for transportation, storage and distribution of hydrocarbons.  Although the reforms maintain Comisión Federal de Electricidad (CFE) control over transmission and distribution of electric power, the new law aims to encourage private investment in generation.  The new law provides that power generation is no longer a public service, with the implication that private participants will now have greater opportunities to pursue power projects in Mexico.  Significantly, the reforms establish a path for the creation of an independent system operator, which will remove the control the CFE currently has over that sphere.

The Mexican Congress has 120 days to enact the supporting legislation, and the executive branch has 365 days to create a regulatory regime.  Beyond that, regulators will also have to develop contracts for the new structures.  The direction these details will need to take from the bill that has just been passed, though, gives industry participants a great deal to celebrate.

Nearly six months after passage of the much touted Illinois Hydraulic Fracturing Regulation Act (225 ILCS 732/1-1 et seq.) (the Act), the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) issued proposed regulations implementing the Act (the HFRA Regulations) and scheduled two public hearings to receive public input (one in Chicago on November 26, 2013 and the second in Ina (downstate Illinois) on December 3, 2013).  In addition, the IDNR will accept written comments to the HFRA Regulations until January 3, 2014 (the IDNR has created an online public comment forum).

The HFR Regulations are subject to the Illinois Administrative Procedure Act’s (IAPA’s) two-step process.  The first step is to obtain public comment no less than 45 days after issuance of notice of the proposed rule in the Illinois Register, and the second step is to finalize the regulations upon a maximum of 45 days’ written notice to the Illinois Joint Committee on Administrative Rules (JCAR).  Critics of the Act have complained that the two  public hearings (with none in central Illinois) and the January 3, 2014 deadline for comments are inadequate.  Under the IAPA, the IDNR has until November 15, 2014 to issue final HFRA Regulations.

Substantively, critics, including environmental groups who originally supported the Act, have questioned several aspects of the HFRA Regulations including: (1) the process that a health professional must take, even in an emergency, to obtain information about hydraulic fracturing chemicals furnished to the IDNR under a claim of trade secret (Section 245.730); (2) what they perceive as a relaxation of the time in which hydraulic fracturing treatment flowback may be temporarily stored in open pits (Section 245.850); and (3) what they perceive as inadequate potential monetary penalties for administrative violations (starting at $50) and operating violations (starting at $100) (Section 245.1120).

The environmental groups are not the only critics of the HFRA Regulations.  The Illinois Oil and Gas Association, which has cast the state as hostile to the oil and gas exploration and production industry, has blamed the Act’s “onerous” nature on driving more than one E&P firm to abandon Illinois in favor of Indiana, which shares the New Albany Shale formation with Illinois and Kentucky.

The IDNR also issued proposed seismicity regulations for Class II Underground Injection Control (UIC) disposal wells that are intended to receive flowback from a high volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing well.  In order to receive a permit under the Act, the operator must identify an existing Class II UIC disposal well that will receive the flowback from the production well.  The proposed regulations implement the Act’s “traffic-light” seismicity reporting and enforcement authority, and add new injection recordkeeping requirements for permittees.

Before applying for a permit under the Act, an applicant must first be registered with the IDNR for at least 30 days.  So far, no firm has registered.  IDNR officials recently predicted that it will be at least a year until hydraulic fracturing begins in Illinois.

by Daryl Kuo

As the world’s largest producer of natural gas, the United States has the potential to also become the world’s leading exporter of liquefied natural gas (LNG).  The Department of Energy (DOE), however, continues to proceed extremely cautiously with respect to authorizing LNG exports, particularly to countries that have not signed free trade agreements (FTA) with the United States.

To approve a project, the DOE must determine that it is not contrary to the public. While exports are presumed to be in the public interest, this presumption can be rebutted in comments filed by opponents to the proposed exports. The public interest test balances various factors, including (i) the impact of the liquefaction project on domestic natural gas demand, supplies, prices and resource base, (ii) the benefits of international trade, and (iii) the benefits to the domestic economy, national energy security and the global environment. The approval process is further impeded by the fact that the applications are processed in the order in which they are received, pursuant to an Order of Precedence issued by the DOE in December 2012. The DOE will not change this order absent a change in policy.

To date, the DOE has only approved two projects to export LNG to non-FTA-signatory countries.  In August 2012, the DOE authorized the Sabine Pass Liquefaction project, and in May 2013, the DOE conditionally approved the Freeport LNG Expansion project, which permits the export of 511 billion cubic feet of gas per year for a twenty year period.  The delay between both approvals stemmed from the DOE’s commissioning of two studies to assess the potential impact of LNG exports on domestic gas prices and the national economy.  Both studies yielded positive findings that encouraged LNG exports.

Although over twenty LNG export applications to non-FTA-signatory countries remain pending before the DOE, the Freeport approval may be indicative of the DOE’s shifting position regarding LNG exports to non-FTA countries.  The DOE’s review of the Freeport application focused on comparing Freeport’s arguments with the objections made by an opponent to the project, taking stock of concurrences by commentators and acknowledging the favorable study findings.  The DOE applied the rebuttable presumption standard strictly and held that the protestor’s evidence was insufficient to rebut the statutory presumption that LNG exports are consistent with public interest.  The DOE did not debate the validity of the arguments made by Freeport or the pro-export commentators; it did not question the significance and accuracy of the studies (in fact, it dedicated over 50 pages to justifying the studies’ methodologies and findings); and, most importantly, it did not lend much weight to the protestor’s objections.

Despite the pro-export tone of the Freeport approval, the DOE indicated that it would proceed cautiously in reviewing pending applications by assessing the cumulative impact of each application.   Energy Secretary Moniz has not commented on the timeline for reviewing pending applications, and some companies are threatening to go to court to speed up the approval process and strike down the Order of Precedence, which was issued after many companies had already applied.  While the Freeport approval is a victory for proponents of LNG exports, the path forward remains rife with uncertainty.

Jennifer Arnel, a summer associate in McDermott’s Houston office, contributed to this article.

by Jon B. Dubrow and Cerissa Cafasso

On Monday, April 22, 2013, after rejecting the initial settlement agreement, Judge Richard Matsch (D. Colo.) approved a revised settlement of a suit brought by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) against two energy companies for conspiring not to compete for mineral rights leases.  Gunnison Energy Corp. (GEC) and SG Interests I Ltd. and SG Interests VII Ltd. (collectively "SGI”) will each pay a fine of $275,000 to the DOJ to settle allegations of agreeing not to bid against each other in violation of antitrust law for natural gas leases on government land in western Colorado.  These fines are in addition to those related to alleged False Claims Act violations, for which SGI and GEC paid government fines of $206,250 and $245,000 respectively.  The new settlement is twice the amount of the fines in the original settlement.

McDermott Will & Emery wrote an article in February 2012 analyzing the DOJ’s initial complaint against the parties, and the competitive implications of joint bidding.  At the time, the parties had agreed to pay a total of $550,000 in fines.  The court rejected the settlement in December 2012 finding that it was not in the public interest.  "There is no basis for saying that the approval of these settlements would act as a deterrence to these defendants and others in the industry, particularly as GEC considers ‘joint bidding’ to be common in the industry."  Further, the settlement amount was "nothing more than the nuisance value of [the] litigation."  Additionally, as reflected in the newly approved deal, the court wanted the alleged Sherman Act violations and False Claims Act violations settled separately, with a payment for the Sherman Act claims separate from, and in addition to, any amount due under the False Claims Act.  At heart, it appears Judge Matsch wanted any settlement he approved to be meaningful enough to have a deterrent effect on future agreements.

This was the DOJ’s first challenge to an anti-competitive bidding agreement for mineral rights leases, but it is just one of the recent cases in which joint bidding activities have become the focus of antitrust scrutiny.  In Summer 2012, the DOJ opened an investigation into Chesapeake Energy’s acquisition of oil and gas properties in Michigan and the possibility that Chesapeake conspired with Encana Corp. to allocate bids on those properties.  In 2006, the DOJ began investigating the joint bidding practices of private equity firms in connection with leveraged buyouts.  That investigation led to class action suits against private equity firms.  One of those suits survived a motion for summary judgment last month.

It is important to note that the DOJ is paying attention to joint bidding practices and taking action.  As noted in the SGI/GEC matter, while joint bidding may in fact be common practice in the energy field, it is not necessarily lawful.  Each arrangement should be evaluated for potential anticompetitive effects.

by Thomas L. Hefty

The Illinois General Assembly could be on the verge of enacting legislation, the Hydraulic Fracturing Regulatory Act (H.B 2615), that some environmental groups are touting as an environmental best practices for regulating the shale oil and gas recovery method known as horizontal hydraulic fracturing (fracing). H.B. 2615, the result of months of negotiations between environmental groups and the oil and gas exploration and production (E&P) industry, was set to be voted on in the Illinois General Assembly in late March, but a last second amendment (favoring in-state licensed drilling companies) has stalled the bill’s progress. 

While HB 2615 is laudable for setting robust regulations on horizontal fracing operations, what should make it the betting favorite is that it is also a revenue bill – the second half of H.B. 2615 contains the Illinois Hydraulic Fracturing Tax Act. Under H.B. 2615, Illinois would finally join the majority of drilling states that tax severed oil and gas. Each Illinois well using horizontal hydraulic fracturing could produce several million dollars in severance taxes during the span of the well’s productive life.

Illinois is one of the few drilling states not to impose any severance or gross production taxes on its substantial oil and gas production. Illinois currently has about 32,000 wells producing between 10 and 11 million bbls of oil (15th nationally) and 2,120 million cubic feet of natural gas, ranking it 26th. That production would increase significantly if large-scale horizontal hydraulic fracturing were introduced in Illinois to the New Albany Shale formation. Technically recoverable shale gas in the New Albany Shale is estimated at up to 11 trillion cubic feet (for comparison, the Marcellus Shale in the East has 84 TCF). A majority of the drilling states, including Indiana and Kentucky, tax oil and gas production. Several others, most prominently Pennsylvania, are currently considering adopting oil and gas severance taxes.

Competing with H.B. 2615 are three other bills: two bills favored by those environmental groups not supporting H.B. 2615 that would put a two-year moratorium on any hydraulic fracturing and an E&P industry-sponsored bill that environmental and community groups strenuously oppose. One would think that with the support of the E&P industry and some environmental groups (including the Natural Resources Defense Council), plus the revenue enhancement features of the severance tax, H.B. 2615 should be a done deal. But given the current state of Illinois politics, taxes might not be the certainty that Ben Franklin once thought they were.