Articles Posted in Utilities Law

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The Natural Gas Act (NGA), 15 U.S.C. 717f(h) gives natural gas companies that hold certificates of public convenience and necessity from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) the power of eminent domain but does not provide for “quick take” to permit immediate possession. Transcontinental is building a natural gas pipeline through Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina and needed rights of way. Transcontinental met the requirements of section 717f(h). The administrative review leading up to the certificate of public convenience and necessity lasted almost three years and included extensive outreach and public participation and an Environmental Impact Statement. Transcontinental extended written offers of compensation exceeding $3000 to each Landowner, but these offers were not accepted. The Landowners had all participated in the FERC administrative process. Transcontinental, planning to begin construction in fall 2017, filed condemnation suits The district court granted Transcontinental summary judgment, effectively giving it immediate possession, concluding that the Landowners had received “adequate due process.” The Third Circuit affirmed, rejecting an argument that granting immediate possession violated the separation of powers because eminent domain is a legislative power and the NGA did not grant “quick take.” Transcontinental properly obtained the substantive right to the property by following the statutory requirements, which are not similar to “quick take” procedures, before seeking equitable relief to obtain possession. View "Transcontinental Gas Pipe Line Co., LLC v. Permanent Easements for 2.14 Acres" on Justia Law

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After initiating Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings, Debtors entered into an Agreement: NextEra would acquire Debtors’ 80% interest in Oncor, the largest electricity transmission and distribution system in Texas, for approximately $9.5 billion. The Agreement obligated Debtors to pay NextEra $275 million if NextEra did not ultimately acquire Debtors’ interest in Oncor and Debtors either sold to someone else or otherwise emerged from bankruptcy, with several exceptions. If the Public Utility Commission of Texas (PUCT) did not approve the merger, payment would not be triggered if the Agreement was “terminated . . . by [NextEra] . . . and the receipt of PUCT Approval (without the imposition of a Burdensome Condition) [wa]s the only condition . . . not satisfied or waived in accordance with this Agreement.” About a year after approving the Agreement, and after PUCT expressed concern about the condition, the bankruptcy court granted a motion for reconsideration and disallowed the Termination Fee in the event that the PUCT declines to approve the transaction and, as a result, the agreement is terminated, regardless of whether the Debtors or NextEra subsequently terminates the agreement. Were it not for that order, NextEra would be entitled to the $275 million. The Third Circuit affirmed, rejecting NextEra’s arguments that the motion was untimely and, alternatively, that the motion should have been denied on the merits because the termination fee provision, as originally drafted, was an allowable administrative expense under 11 U.S.C. 503(b). View "In re: Energy Future Holdings" on Justia Law

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Petitioners sought to prevent the expansion of Transco’s interstate natural gas pipeline facilities, arguing that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) violated the Natural Gas Act (NGA), 15 U.S.C. 717–717z and environmental protection statutes, by arbitrarily approving Transco’s proposed project. Petitioners also argued that the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) violated state law by improperly issuing permits required under federal law before commencement of construction activities and by denying the petitioners’ request for an adjudicatory hearing to challenge the permits, based only on the NJDEP’s allegedly incorrect belief that the New Jersey regulations establishing the availability of such hearings were preempted by federal law. The Third Circuit concluded that the challenges to FERC’s orders lacked merit because no discharge-creating activity can commence without New Jersey independently awarding Transco with a Section 401 permit; no activities that may result in a discharge can follow as a logical result of just FERC’s issuance of the certificate. FERC adequately addressed the need for the project and its cumulative impacts, as required by the National Environmental Policy Act. The court remanded to NJDEP. NJDEP misunderstood the scope of the NGA’s assignment of jurisdiction to the federal Courts of Appeals, rendering unreasonable the sole basis for its denial of the petitioners’ request for a hearing--preemption. View "Township of Bordentown v. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission" on Justia Law

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The Natural Gas Act (NGA) requires a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, 15 U.S.C. 717f(c)(1)(A), for construction or operation of a natural gas pipeline, which requires compliance with other legal mandates. Transco sought a Certificate for expansion of its natural-gas distribution network, then received Water Quality Certification under the Clean Water Act, (CWA) 33 U.S.C. 1341(a)(1) from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP), subject to conditions requiring a permit under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, for discharges of water during hydrostatic pipeline testing, and state permits, covering erosion and sediment disturbance and obstructions and encroachments on Pennsylvania waters. Transco challenged the conditions in the Third Circuit under the NGA and before the Pennsylvania Environmental Hearing Board. The Third Circuit concluded that it has jurisdiction; NGA provides “original and exclusive jurisdiction" to review a state agency’s “action” taken “pursuant to Federal law to issue . . . any . . . concurrence” that federal law requires for the construction of a natural-gas transportation facility. PADEP issues Water Quality Certifications “pursuant to federal law," which requires PADEP concurrence before construction can proceed. The court then rejected claims that PADEP failed to provide public notice the CWA requires and acted arbitrarily by issuing a Certification that was immediately effective despite being conditioned on obtaining additional permits; that PADEP’s decision violated the Due Process and Takings Clauses, given that the approval was necessary for Transco to begin eminent domain proceedings; and that the approval violated PADEP’s obligation to safeguard the Commonwealth’s natural resources. View "Delaware Riverkeeper Network v. Secretary Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection" on Justia Law

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Adorers, a religious order of Roman Catholic women, owns land in Columbia, Pennsylvania affected by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) decision under the Natural Gas Act, to issue a certificate of public convenience and necessity to Transco, authorizing construction of a roughly 200-mile-long pipeline. Adorers claim that their deeply-held religious beliefs require that they care for the land in a manner that protects and preserves the Earth as God’s creation. Despite receiving notice of the proposed project, Adorers never raised this objection before FERC. More than five months after FERC granted the certificate, Adorers filed suit under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, 42 U.S.C. 2000bb-1. The district court dismissed, citing the Act: If FERC issues a certificate following the requisite hearing, any aggrieved person may seek judicial review in the D.C. Circuit or the circuit wherein the natural gas company is located or has its principal place of business. Before seeking judicial review, that party must, within 30 days of the issuance of the certificate, apply for rehearing before FERC. Anyone who fails to first seek a rehearing is barred from seeking judicial review, 15 U.S.C. 717r(a). The Third Circuit affirmed the dismissal. A RFRA cause of action, invoking a court’s general federal question jurisdiction, does not abrogate or provide an exception to a specific jurisdictional provision prescribing a particular procedure for judicial review of an agency’s action. View "Adorers of Blood of Christ v. Federal Energy Regulatory Commisson" on Justia Law

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A Pennsylvania municipal lien is automatic; it is perfected by filing with the local court, without notice or a hearing, where it is publicly docketed. Until filed, a municipal lien may not be enforced through a judicial sale. Municipalities can delay filing a lien indefinitely, but it is not enforceable against subsequent purchasers until filed. A municipality can petition the court for a sale. Property owners may request a hearing on the legality of a lien at any time by paying the underlying claim into the court with a petition. PGW, a public utility owned by the city, scans its billing database, identifies delinquent accounts, then sends a pre-filing letter. If full payment is not made, the system automatically files the lien and sends another notice. Landlords are not normally apprised of tenants' growing arrearages. An exception is entered if the name/address associated with an account does not match the property tax records. PGW frequently enters “exceptions,” which do not prevent arrearages from continuing to grow nor do they interrupt service but prevent the lien from being filed. Landlords who learned of thousands of dollars of liens against their properties, due to nonpayment by tenants, filed suit. The court certified a class and held that the City had violated the landlords’ due process rights. The Third Circuit reversed. Whether the lien procedures comport with due process depends on three factors: the private interest that will be affected; the risk of an erroneous deprivation and the value of other procedural safeguards in avoiding errors; and the governmental interest. Although the filing of a lien is “significant” enough to trigger due process protections, it is a relatively limited interference with the landlords’ property. None of the plaintiffs have suffered injury to their credit. Nor have the liens interfered with their ability to maintain their properties or collect rents. Risks associated with an erroneous lien are mitigated by the statute's post-deprivation remedies. View "Augustin v. City of Philadelphia" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs assert that they developed cancer after being exposed to excessive radiation emissions from the Nuclear Material and Equipment Company’s Apollo, Pennsylvania facility. The district court held that their common-law claims against were preempted by the Price-Anderson Nuclear Industries Indemnity Act and rejected their Price-Anderson “public liability” claims on summary judgment. The Third Circuit affirmed. Although the Act preempted common-law negligence claims, the public liability claims require Plaintiffs to prove versions of the traditional negligence elements: duty, breach, causation, and damages. With respect to duty, the court noted the restrictions on access to the facility; Plaintiffs did not establish the existence of excessive radiation outside the restricted area. The facility’s license did not establish a tort duty. Even with state-of-the-art data, it is impossible to determine with certainty that radiation is the cause of a given incidence of cancer. Plaintiffs failed to offer evidence from which a jury could find that each plaintiff was exposed to radiation from Defendants’ uranium effluent sufficiently frequently, regularly, and proximately to substantially cause their illnesses. View "McMunn v. Babcock & Wilcox Power Generation Group, Inc." on Justia Law

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Transco, which operates the 10,000-mile-long Transcontinental Pipeline from South Texas to New York City, sought a certificate of public convenience and necessity for the Leidy Southeast Expansion Project, including construction of four new pipeline “loops” and the upgrade of turbines at four compressor stations. The Skillman Loop and the Pleasant Run Loop, totaling 13.23 miles, would be located in New Jersey; the Franklin Loop and Dorrance Loop, totaling 16.74 miles, would be located in Pennsylvania. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) completed the requisite Environmental Assessment and issued the certificate in December 2014, conditioned on Transco’s receipt of “all applicable authorizations under federal law” enumerated in the Environmental Assessment, including from New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Pursuant to the Clean Water Act, the Pennsylvania and New Jersey Departments of Environmental Protection (PADEP, NJDEP) reviewed Transco’s proposal for potential water quality impacts and issued. In consolidated appeals, the Third Circuit upheld the approvals. NJDEP and PADEP did not act arbitrarily or capriciously in issuing the permits. View "New Jersey Conservation Foundation v. New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection" on Justia Law

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Columbia, an interstate natural gas company subject to the jurisdiction of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), seeks to replace a portion of a natural gas pipeline that runs in and around York County, Pennsylvania. Because the original location of the pipeline has become heavily populated, the replacement will not track the original line but will be outside the existing right of way. To obtain easements necessary to complete construction of the replacement, in 2013, Columbia filed Complaints in Condemnation against four Landowners in federal court. The district court held that Columbia did not have the right of eminent domain required to condemn the easements, reasoning that 18 C.F.R. 157.202(b)(2)(i), was ambiguous. The Third Circuit reversed, finding that the regulation clearly anticipates replacement outside the existing right of way and contains no adjacency requirement. The district court erroneously adopted its own definition of “replace” and concluded that a “notice” of “proposed rulemaking” for “Emergency Reconstruction of Interstate Natural Gas Facilities” promulgated by FERC after 9/11 was relevant. View "Columbia Gas Transmission, LLC v. 1.01 Acres in Penn Twp" on Justia Law

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The Federal Power Act, 16 U.S.C. 791a., authorizes federal regulation of transmitting and selling electric power in interstate commerce and grants the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) jurisdiction over transmission of electric energy in interstate commerce and sale of such energy at wholesale in interstate commerce. The “filed rate doctrine” requires that interstate power rates filed with or fixed by FERC be given binding effect by state utility commissions determining intrastate rates. The electric companies suffered $250 million in “line losses,” energy lost when electricity travels over power lines, and interest related to those costs. Their line losses had increased under a mandate by FERC relating to calculation. The companies attempted to recover those costs on their customers’ utility bills. The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) rejected their proposal to classify line-loss costs as a cost of transmission (as opposed to a cost of electricity generation), preventing them from passing those costs through to their customers. The companies lost in Pennsylvania state courts; the U.S. Supreme Court denied review. The companies then sought declaratory judgment and injunctive relief in federal court against the PUC. The district court held that their unsuccessful state efforts precluded relief in federal court under the doctrine of issue preclusion. The Third Circuit affirmed. View "Metro. Edison Co. v. PA Pub. Util. Co." on Justia Law