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How Energy Company Buyers Can Limit Environmental Liability Risk

Many energy companies may be driven into bankruptcy because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Third parties seeking to purchase those companies’ assets may be concerned about potential successor liability for the seller’s environmental obligations. This article highlights some steps that asset purchasers in bankruptcy can take to reduce the risk of such liability.

Successor liability exists under each of the major federal environmental laws. Four especially important statutes for energy companies are the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, or CERCLA, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act.

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Bankruptcy Courts Fail to Enlighten on Electricity as Goods or Services

Is electricity goods or services?  That seemingly simple yet confounding question is illustrated by three recent bankruptcy cases (all of which consider whether an electricity provider is entitled to an administrative expense priority under Bankruptcy Code Section 503(b)(9) for “the value of goods received by the debtor” in the ordinary course within 20 days prior to the automatic stay):

  • In Hudson Energy Services, LLC v. Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co, Inc., 2013 WL 5212141 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 16, 2013) (A&P), the court held that because electricity is consumed only after it is measured (at the customer’s meter), electricity is a “thing that is movable at the time of identification” (UCC 2-105) and accordingly should be characterized as goods under the UCC, which is the reference standard for Section 503(b)(9).
  • The bankruptcy court in In re NE OPCO, Inc., 501 B.R. 233 (Bankr. D. Del. 2013), agreed with A&P that the meaning of goods under Section 503(b)(9) “is primarily informed by the meaning of goods under the UCC,” but disagreed with A&P  that electricity is goods, holding that because “the period between identification and consumption must be meaningful,” the “infinitesimal delay” between those acts in the case of electricity makes it unidentifiable and thus not goods.
  • In contrast to A&P and OPCO, the lower bankruptcy court in Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority v. Rentas, B.A.P. 1st Cir. No. PR 13-050 (Sept. 23, 2014) (PREPA), rejected the UCC definition as controlling § 503(b)(9) and relied instead on the public utility’s monopoly status as the basis for denying the administrative expense priority.  The First Circuit Bankruptcy Appellate Panel rejected that reasoning and remanded with instructions to determine whether furnishing electricity is goods, but declined to instruct the lower court to use the UCC definition (with the exception of PREPA, nearly all bankruptcy courts have agreed that the UCC controls the §503(b)(9) definition of “goods”).

This lack of agreement on a seemingly elementary question is not confined to bankruptcy — it existed before Section 503(b)(9) was enacted (2005) and continues.  Courts peering into the sub-atomic qualities of electricity have reached opposite conclusions whether electricity is goods or services.  Other courts have gone the opposite direction, eschewing quantum physics and comparing the “common understanding of electricity” (which is to say the common misconception that an electricity customer is buying a “stream of electrons”) to severed oil, gas and other things that are UCC goods in hopes of finding the UCC equivalent of a “unified field theory” (as in physics, that search continues).  Still other courts have concluded that electricity in “its raw state” is a service, but when it passes the end user’s meter it becomes goods.

This leaves lawyers with the quandary of identifying (a) which state’s laws do or should apply to the power purchase transaction (keeping in mind that not always will the forum court enforce a contractual choice of law if that foreign state’s substantive law fails to bear a reasonable relationship to the transaction) and (b) whether that [...]

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