Energy & Environmental Law Blog

Energy & Environmental Law Blog

Analyzing the critical energy and environmental issues of the day

Davis Wright Tremaine LLP’s Environmental Partners to Discuss the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act During American Bar Association Webinar 10.20.16

Posted in California, Environmental Quality

Davis Wright Tremaine LLP partners Kerry Shea and Larry Burke to join the American Bar Association webinar on the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, along with Hope Schmeltzer, Assistant Regional Counsel at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and Thomas Fusillo, Managing Principal at Ramboll Environ.

This webinar will address the management of hazardous waste, solid waste, and universal waste, respectively. Panelists will also discuss the legal requirements of determining whether material is a waste, and then the proper steps to characterize, handle, store and dispose of such waste. The law will be presented in a step-by-step process guiding the participants through the life span of the waste: (1) identifying waste streams; (2) determining if the material is waste; and (3) characterizing the waste as “hazardous” or not.

The webinar will take place on October 20, 2016, from 10:00 a.m. – 11:30 a.m. PT. To join, please register here.

Pennsylvania Federal Court Decides a Novel CERCLA Issue: When Is the Current Owner Not the Current Owner?

Posted in CERCLA

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania issued a decision on an aspect of CERCLA for which it found almost no prior court precedent – the temporal aspect of the term “current owner or operator” – holding that the current owners at the time of suit were not liable for response costs incurred before they took title to the facility. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Department of Environmental Protection v. Trainer Custom Chemical LLC, et al.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PaDEP) had filed suit against a company and its two owners for recovery of cleanup costs expended by the State in addressing a facility owned by the company. The cleanup had commenced when the facility was owned by another company, and virtually all of the costs for which reimbursement was sought related to electrical power paid for by the PaDEP, which the prior owner of the property had failed to pay. Those costs were incurred more than three years before the defendants (i.e., the current owners) purchased the site. The court held that the defendants were not liable for response costs incurred prior to their purchase of the property – that CERCLA intended that the “current owner or operator” was the owner or operator at the time the response costs were incurred, not the owner or operator at the time the suit was filed.

In its ruling, the court noted that it had found no cases directly on point in the Third Circuit, but that the Ninth Circuit had addressed the issue in California DTSC v. Hearthside Residential Corporation. The Ninth Circuit opinion itself noted the lack of any controlling precedent on the issue, but concluded that using the date of response costs to identify a current owner was consistent with the statute of limitations, which begins with the incurrence of costs, and the intent to foster early settlement. The Pennsylvania court agreed that the Ninth Circuit analysis made “common sense” and reasoned that, while CERCLA is a broad statute, “strict liability is not limitless liability.”

That last point is one that countless sophisticated defendants have tried to make in CERCLA actions. And while the defendants in this case may not have been sophisticated in some of their arguments, they convinced the District Court on the issue central to their monetary liability. Alas, they may now have to also convince the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, as the PaDEP has requested certification for an interlocutory appeal.

FERC Seeks Comments on Potential Changes to Review of Mergers and Acquisitions

Posted in Federal, FERC

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (“FERC” or “Commission”) has asked for comments on procedures established for its review of mergers and acquisitions pursuant to section 203 of the Federal Power Act (“FPA”). In a Notice of Inquiry (“NOI”) issued on September 22, 2016, the Commission explained that it is seeking to “harmonize” its analysis of its 203 transactions with its market-based rate analysis under section 205 of the FPA.

Among other things, the FERC regulations do not require a utility seeking to engage in a transaction for which its authorization is required under Section 203 of the FPA to submit a horizontal Competitive Analysis Screen if pre-merger business transactions between the merging entities are shown to be non-existent or de minimis. Currently, FERC accepts representations from an applicant that the proposed transaction’s effect on horizontal competition is de minimis if the combined share of post-transaction installed capacity in the relevant geographic market will be relatively small or if the increase in an applicant’s post-transaction installed capacity is relatively small. However, the FERC is considering the development of a more precise definition or test of what is de minimis in determining when a full Competitive Analysis Screen is unnecessary. Accordingly, the NOI seeks comment on whether a bright line market share threshold should be established to determine whether a transaction’s impact can be determined to be de minimis and, if so, how that threshold should be calculated. The NOI also asks for comments on how FERC should analyze so called “serial de minimis” transactions in which an entity makes incremental acquisitions of generating capacity that cumulatively could lead to market power, but where no individual transaction raises a competitive concern.

In addition, the Commission has asked for comments on the potential benefits of expanding FERC’s section 203 analysis to include both a pivotal supplier screen and a market share analysis, similar to the preliminary screens used to evaluate requests for market-based rate authorization, to assess whether the merged entity would have the potential ability to exercise horizontal market power after the transaction has been consummated. The FERC has also asked for comments on whether, if it does so, the pivotal supplier analysis and the market share analysis used to evaluate mergers under section 203 of the FPA should be different from the pivotal supplier screen and the market share analysis used to evaluate market-based rate applications under section 205 of the FPA.

The NOI also addresses the Commission’s potential modification on how it accounts for control of capacity under long-term power purchase agreements (“PPAs”) in its horizontal market power analysis. Currently, if a purchasing applicant entered into a long-term firm PPA to acquire the output of a generating facility, the Commission has generally considered the generation capacity of that facility to be attributed to the purchasing utility’s pre-acquisition market share. If the entity is proposing to acquire ownership of that generating facility, such transactions would be considered to have no adverse effect on competition because there would be no change in the amount of generating capacity controlled by the acquiring entity. However, FERC is concerned about changes in market concentration after the PPA has expired and seeks comments on whether it should use “alternative methodologies” in its review of a section 203 application to account for the capacity associated with long-term firm PPAs in order to increase the accuracy of its market power analyses. For example, the Commission is considering whether to require the applicant to submit a delivered price test analysis showing certain HHI impacts and/or requiring applicants to submit a detailed explanation as to why the PPA’s capacity should be attributed to the purchaser.

Lastly, the NOI asks for comments on whether applicants should submit consultant reports that are prepared for submission to the Department of Justice and/or the Federal Trade Commission. The Commission believes that such documents could be “useful” for additional information such as the relevant geographic market definition or anticipated unit retirements. The Commission has also inquired about potential changes to its regulations governing the grant of blanket authorization for certain types of transactions under section 203 of the FPA.

The NOI is set forth in Modifidcations to Commission Requirements for Review of Transactions under Section 203 of the Federal Power Act and Market-Based Rate Applications under Section 205 of the Federal Power Act, Docket No. RM16-21-000, 156 FERC ¶ 61,214 (2016). Comments on the NOI are due 60 days from the date of publication of the NOI in the Federal Register.

Senate Approves $4.9 Billion for Drinking Water

Posted in Federal, Water Law

Congress in recent years has not really been in the business of solving core public welfare problems like safe drinking water.  Today the Senate, however, has taken a major step forward by passing the 2016 Water Resources and Development Act, S. 2848.  WRDA bills are the annual appropriations bills to shore up the nation’s water service infrastructure.  The Senate bill would provide $9.4 billion for water projects, hydrology and flood control, including $4.9 billion to address aging municipal water systems.

By and large, Americans take for granted that their municipal water supply systems deliver abundant, wholesome and safe drinking water.  Water borne illnesses are rare in this country, and the professionals I know that operate these systems take their jobs seriously and feel the weight of the responsibility.  And yet, there are colossal failures putting public health at risk—like Flint.

The Flint debacle reflects a complete absence of professional water management.  The problem there was a change in water supply, and the failure to add commonly available corrosion inhibiting chemicals to the water to prevent lead pipelines from leaching lead into Flint homes.  What should have been an inexpensive operational measure became a billion dollar pipe replacement project.  And that figure doesn’t include the long-term costs to address health effects of drinking the water, not to mention the cost of a different kind of corrosion, that of the public trust.

But even well-managed municipal water systems, including those that tout the high quality of the supply, can have serious lead problems.   My town of Portland, Oregon, has one of the purest water sources in the country, the Bull Run water shed on Mt. Hood.  The water is so soft, however, that it has a corrosive effect.  Luckily, Portland doesn’t have lead service pipes like Flint, but many older homes have lead solder in their plumbing, resulting in Portland exceeding lead drinking water standards in high risk households and schools.

The Portland Water Bureau is taking steps to address the lead problem, like raising the pH level in the water to minimize lead leaching.  But Portland’s water rates are among the highest in the country, and the cost of maintaining safe water supplies is only going up.  There is a practical limit to how high water rates can go, and communities with fewer resources than Portland struggle to keep up.

This is where the federal government is supposed to step in, to address problems that exceed local capacities to protect the public.  Although a little late in coming, S. 2848 is a mostly bipartisan bill, which if enacted could move the needle in the right direction.  Let’s hope this bill gets through the House and to the President for signing without further delay.

California’s New Climate Change Law Tempered by Uncertainty About Its Cap and Trade Program

Posted in California, Cap and Trade, Climate Change

California Governor Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 32 last week codifying into law his office’s emission reduction goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions to 40% below the 1990 level by 2030. By signing this bill, Governor Brown made his prior Executive Order B-30-15 part of California’s overall climate change law by adding a new section to the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 (See California Health & Safety Code § 38566).  As before, the California Air Resource Board (“CARB”) is the state agency charged with ensuring that the new greenhouse gas emission reduction goal is met.

Senate Bill 32 is accompanied by a companion bill, Assembly Bill 197, which passed in late August (though language in each bill prevented either from reaching the governor’s desk without the passage of the other).  As codified, Assembly Bill 197 adds two members of the Legislature to the CARB Board as ex-officio, nonvoting members and creates staggered six-year terms for the voting members of the CARB Board.  It also creates the Joint Legislative Committee on Climate Change Policies to provide oversight for state programs, policies, and investments related to climate change.

Notably, neither bill extends California’s current Cap and Trade program past 2020.  The Cap and Trade program is a preeminent piece of the state’s overall Greenhouse Gas reduction program but it faces an uncertain future. Ongoing litigation challenging CARB’s authority to raise revenue through the program’s auctions of greenhouse gas allowances remains active at various trial and appellate court levels.

The state Cap and Trade program’s uncertainty could place a significant restraint on the effectiveness and viability of Senate Bill 32’s new emission reduction goal. All eyes are turning toward the Legislature in 2017 for a definitive sign that California will continue its Cap and Trade program past 2020.  Despite this uncertainty, California moves forward full steam ahead — the law of the land now requires a 40% reduction below 1990 levels of greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2030.

CPUC Hosts Workshop for New Safety Intervenor

Posted in California, Electric Power, Federal, Rulemakings

Earlier in 2016, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) received approval from the Legislature to establish its own Office of Safety Advocates (OSA) as an effort to expand the participation of safety related intervenors in relevant CPUC proceedings.  This month, the CPUC is hosting a workshop to: (i) allow stakeholders to brainstorm an effective way to establish the OSA, and (ii) discuss opportunities and challenges surrounding the potential participation of OSA in relevant CPUC proceedings. The workshop will be held on September 15, 2016, 1-4:30pm, at the CPUC Courtyard Room, 505 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, CA.

CPUC Cracks Down on Secrecy of Utility Data

Posted in California, Electric Power, Federal, Rulemakings


For California utilities, ensuring their information stays confidential just got harder. On August 25, 2016, the California Public Utilities Commission issued a decision updating the process for submitting potentially confidential documents to the Commission. The Commission intended for this process to ensure consistency across industries and to expedite Commission review of California Public Records Act requests.

On balance, the new process shifts the burden for preserving confidential documents to the utilities. In the past, utilities would submit data to the Commission either with a marking to show it was confidential, or with the unspoken agreement with Commission staff that certain types of documents were confidential even without a marking. In light of this new decision, utilities now have to mark all documents, specify the reason it’s confidential, and, depending on whether the document is submitted within or outside of a formal proceeding, file a motion or declaration certifying the confidentiality of the documents. Further, if only certain information in a document is confidential, utilities must designate as confidential only that information rather than the entire document.

Moreover, the Commission has “greased the wheels” for handing Public Records Act request, and releasing utility data. The Commission has delegated authority for reviewing requests for confidential treatment of documents to the Commission’s Legal Division, rather than requiring the Commission itself to review and issue and an order regarding the release of potentially confidential information.

While this decision presents a significant challenge for many utilities, this shift in Commission policy is not entirely surprising. In the wake of the San Bruno gas pipeline explosion in 2010, public outcry and litigation cropped up over the Commission’s Public Records Act request process. While trying to balance the requirements of the Public Records Act and its statutory duty to preserve confidential utility data, under Public Utilities Code§ 583, the Commission has seemingly responded to pressure from the public, and shifted towards the Public Records Act side of the scale.

This decision was an interim decision, and the proceeding remains open for further refinement and improvement of the Commission’s processes (e.g. updating General Order 66-C).

“The War Is Over”: Assemblymember Gatto Introduces Bill to Memorialize CPUC Reform Package

Posted in California, Renewables

At an August 11th conference organized by the Advanced Energy Economy, Assemblymember Mike Gatto (D-Los Angeles), Chair of the Utilities and Commerce Committee, and California Public Utilities Commission (“CPUC”) President Michael Picker participated in a panel discussion on CPUC reform efforts.

Gatto declared that “the war is over,” referencing the sparring between the Legislature and CPUC over agency reforms in the wake of numerous CPUC controversies, including improper ex parte communications between regulators and utility executives surrounding the shuttered San Onofre nuclear power plant, the San Bruno gas pipeline explosion, and the Aliso Canyon gas leak.

Gatto explained that utilities are at the forefront of people’s minds at an unusual level, which has motivated the  lawmakers’ reform efforts.  And not just energy utilities — Gatto explained that he received more emails from the public about the Frontier Communications/Verizon merger than both the San Bruno and Aliso Canyon disasters combined.  By having a substantive CPUC reform package, Gatto explained that the Legislature can “hold its head high” and let constituents know that it has heard them and has produced legislation that will move the ball forward.

Gatto acknowledged, however, that reform efforts have been a “distraction” to the CPUC and stated that the time had come to move away from CPUC reform efforts to enable the CPUC to “get back to work” and focus on what it needs to be doing — ensuring that customers have safe, reliable utility service at reasonable rates, protecting against fraud, and promoting the health of California’s economy.

CPUC Reform Package

The day before the panel event, Gatto had released bill language for AB 2903, which is part of a sweeping package of reforms announced in June by Governor Brown, Assembly member Gatto, and Senators Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo) and Mark Leno (D-San Francisco).  As the primary vehicle for reforms, AB 2903 makes changes to CPUC governance, accountability, transparency, and oversight and safety.  (AB 2903, along with the three other bills comprising the reform package will be examined in a subsequent blog post.)  Gatto remarked that he doesn’t think any of the reform measures should be difficult for the CPUC to implement.

President Picker, who was asked by Governor Brown to “fix the CPUC,” expressed support for Gatto’s and the Legislature’s efforts, which he believes are helping to advance this objective.  While the concept of CPUC reform has long been discussed, the challenge from Picker’s perspective is that “no one sees the same thing” when it comes to differing notions of reform.

For example, one major sticking point is the process by which the CPUC conducts rulemakings.  The existing process is quite formal, requiring parties to obtain permission to participate and commit to participating in a range of activities across time, such as entering evidence into the record and submitting to cross-examination.  Picker has heard from some who are calling for a more fluid process similar to conventional notice-and-comment rulemakings that may be more accessible to the public.  Others have asked Picker to champion an even more formal process that restricts access to decisionmakers.  Picker believes the reform package has focused on finding ways to modernize the rulemaking process to give more people an opportunity to participate.

As another example, Picker pointed to the perception by many that the CPUC is too cozy with the utilities it regulates. He believes that a bigger problem is the CPUC’s failure to work well with other state agencies, and supports the legislative reform effort to increase inter-agency coordination and information sharing.

FERC Requires New England Generators to Reveal How Bids Formulated

Posted in Electric Power, FERC

On August 8, 2016, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) issued its order on remand from the D.C. Circuit on FERC’s approval of ISO New England’s (ISO-NE) 2013-14 winter reliability program, results, and rates. (TransCanada Power Marketing Ltd v. FERC, No. 14-1103). In a ruling that could have a significant impact on the rates that were charged, as well as the rules that will be applied to subsequent winter reliability programs in the region, FERC required generators to disclose how they formulated their winter reliability program bids.

ISO-NE adopted its winter reliability program to help assure reliability during periods of stressed system conditions by providing compensation to oil-fired and dual-fuel generators, as well as demand response resources, agreeing to provide oil inventory service or demand response for the duration of the program.  Resources were selected through a bidding process and were compensated based on their prices “as-bid,” rather than by using a uniform market clearing price.  Although ISO-NE’s estimated cost for the program was $16-$43 million, it ended up costing $78.8 million.  The court found that without evidence regarding how much of that cost was attributable to profit and mark-up, FERC could not make a reasoned determination as to the justness and reasonableness of the rates charged.

In its order on remand, FERC directs ISO-NE to obtain from each bidder the basis for its bid, including the process it used to formulate the bid.  FERC further requires that, within 120 days, ISO-NE make a compliance filing consisting of: (1) a compilation of this bidder information; (2) an analysis of the bidder information by ISO-NE’s Independent Market Monitor (IMM), including the IMM’s conclusions as to the competitiveness of the program and the exercise of market power; and (3) ISO-NE’s recommendation as to the reasonableness of the bids that were accepted.

Because the information to be obtained from bidders is commercially sensitive, ISO-NE can be expected to seek privileged treatment when it makes its filing.  Nonetheless, the New England generators who bid should weigh their disclosure obligations carefully.  The story their submissions tell could impact not just the compensation they have been paid under this program, but the rules for winter reliability programs going forward.

State Water Board Cleans Up Its Water Quality Enforcement Policy

Posted in California, Rulemakings, Water Law

 On August 4, 2016, the California State Water Resources Board (State Water Board) issued a draft rule amending its 2010 Water Quality Enforcement Policy. The proposed amendments are intended to provide additional clarity, allow disadvantaged communities to receive assistance with compliance matters akin to that provided under the current policy to facilities serving small communities, and to establish a process for coordination within and among Regions to improve transparency, uniformity and fairness.  Written comments on the Draft Policy are due no later than September 13, 2016 at noon.

The Water Quality Enforcement Policy was promulgated in 2010, to provide a degree of uniformity in enforcement priorities and penalties among California’s nine Regional Water Quality Control Boards.  However, experience under the Policy indicated that problems of consistency continued, due to ambiguities and gaps in the language.  Accordingly, this new draft is largely an effort to provide more guidance and clarity.

The draft provides a definition of “fairness” that is based on eliminating any benefit received by the violator in comparison to voluntarily compliant entities, clarifies the definitions for various penalty factors, and expands the explanations of their application.  One example is that the treatment of “high volume” releases now includes a definition of “high volume” along with specific examples of its application.  With respect to other penalty calculations, the draft eliminates Class 3 (minor) violations because it was often conflated with Class 2 (moderate) violations, and discontinued the use of algorithms in the calculation of penalties.  The most notable substantive change is that unlike the 2010 policy, this draft is clear in not allowing the Board to recover attorney fees and costs associated with preparing for or attending a hearing.

The Notice for the proposed amendments states that the proposed penalty policy is not a significant alteration of the current methodology.  On review, that conclusion appears to be accurate.  The changes appear aimed at providing more certainty in the process, rather than on imposing new or greater burdens.  However, practitioners should look the changes over carefully, to see how they might impact their clients in dealings with their local Regional Board, and make comments as appropriate.