Justia Energy, Oil & Gas Law Opinion Summaries

by
The Kentucky Public Service Commission's “fuel adjustment” regulation allows utilities to adjust the rates they charge customers to account for fluctuating fuel costs. Unreasonable charges are disallowed. The Commission considers the price the utility paid for raw materials, like coal. Kentucky utilities are encouraged to buy cheaper coal. Kentucky coal producers, however, pay a severance tax. Compared to states with no severance tax, Kentucky coal is expensive. The Kentucky House of Representatives encouraged the Commission to consider all costs, including fossil fuel-related economic impacts within Kentucky, when analyzing coal purchases under the regulation. The Commission issued a new regulation under which it would artificially discount a utility’s fuel costs by the amount of the severance tax paid to any jurisdiction.Foresight, an Illinois coal producer, challenged the regulation under the Commerce Clause. The district court denied a preliminary injunction. While an appeal was pending, the Commission rescinded the regulation. A subsequent statute required the Commission to evaluate the reasonableness of fuel costs based on the cost of the fuel less any severance tax imposed by any jurisdiction. Foresight sued; the district court again denied the preliminary injunction. The Sixth Circuit remanded. Foresight is likely to be able to show that the law discriminates against interstate commerce. The Commission proffered no explanation for the statute except that it is designed to nullify the competitive disadvantages created by Kentucky’s severance tax. Illinois coal is worse off as a matter of basic economics and Supreme Court precedent; the law is purposefully discriminatory. View "Foresight Coal Sales, LLC. v. Chandler" on Justia Law

by
Citizen groups challenged the Bureau of Land Management’s (“BLM”) environmental assessments (“EAs”) and environmental assessment addendum analyzing the environmental impact of 370 applications for permits to drill (“APDs”) for oil and gas in the Mancos Shale and Gallup Sandstone formations in the San Juan Basin of New Mexico. These challenges came after a separate but related case in which the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals remanded to the district court with instructions to vacate five EAs analyzing the impacts of APDs in the area because BLM had failed to consider the cumulative environmental impacts as required by the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”). BLM prepared an EA Addendum to remedy the defects in those five EAs, as well as potential defects in eighty-one other EAs that also supported approvals of APDs in the area. Citizen Groups argued these eighty-one EAs and the EA Addendum violated NEPA because BLM: (1) improperly predetermined the outcome of the EA Addendum; and (2) failed to take a hard look at the environmental impacts of the APD approvals related to greenhouse gas (“GHG”) emissions, water resources, and air quality. BLM disagreed, contending the challenges to some of the APDs were not justiciable because the APDs had not yet been approved. The district court affirmed the agency action, determining: (1) Citizen Groups’ claims based on APD’s that had not been approved were not ripe for judicial review; (2) BLM did not unlawfully predetermine the outcome of the EA Addendum; and (3) BLM took a hard look at the environmental impacts of the APD approvals. The Tenth Circuit agreed with BLM and the district court that the unapproved APDs were not ripe and accordingly, limited its review to the APDs that had been approved. Turning to Citizen Groups’ two primary arguments on the merits, the appellate court held: (1) BLM did not improperly predetermine the outcome of the EA Addendum, but, even considering that addendum; (2) BLM’s analysis was arbitrary and capricious because it failed to take a hard look at the environmental impacts from GHG emissions and hazardous air pollutant emissions. However, the Court concluded BLM’s analysis of the cumulative impacts to water resources was sufficient under NEPA. View "Dine Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment, et al. v. Haaland, et al." on Justia Law

by
This matter arose from a 2006 class action suit instituted by Steve Crooks and Era Lee Crooks (“Class Plaintiffs”) against the State through the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources (“LDNR”) concerning the ownership of riverbanks in the Catahoula Basin and subsequent mineral royalty payments. The Louisiana Supreme Court granted review in this case to address whether mandamus may lie to compel the State to pay a judgment rendered against it for mineral royalty payments. Finding that the payment of a judgment concerning the return of mineral royalties received by the State required legislative appropriation, an act that is discretionary in nature, the appellate court erred in issuing the writ of mandamus. View "Crooks, et al. v. Louisiana, Dept. of Nat. Resources" on Justia Law

by
In 2020, an accident, fire, and explosion occurred in the hydrocracker unit at a Valero Refining-Meraux, LLC refinery in Meraux, Louisiana. No significant levels of chemicals were detected as a result of the explosion. Multiple residents in the vicinity of the refinery filed suit for the negligent infliction of emotional distress. Plaintiff Brittany Spencer and her two minor children, Chloe LaFrance and Lanny LaFrance III, were at home sleeping when the explosion occurred. Their residence was approximately 2,000 feet from the epicenter of the explosion. Spencer and Chloe were unexpectedly awakened by a loud sound of unknown origin and a significant shockwave and vibration of unknown origin. Lanny was not awakened. The sound and/or shockwave shook Spencer’s bedroom window. Spencer went outside and observed a large flame of the fire coming from the refinery, and the sky was lit up. Almost immediately after the explosion, Spencer began to hear police vehicles, fire trucks, and ambulances as part of the emergency response that lasted for several hours. Spencer went back inside, and she and Chloe went back to sleep. On the morning of the explosion, Spencer and her children left their residence out of an abundance of caution and did not return until two days later. Spencer eventually returned to her normal sleep schedule, albeit with some trouble; she did not allow her children to play outside due to concerns for their safety. Thereafter, Spencer and her children began staying at their residence less and later moved away from the refinery in June 2020. Spencer, individually and on behalf of her minor children, and Lanny LaFrance, Jr. on behalf of his minor children, filed suit against Valero alleging damages for emotional distress, but did not allege physical injury, property damage, or financial loss. Valero appealed when a trial court awarded damages to plaintiffs for negligent infliction of emotional distress. The Louisiana Supreme Court found no Plaintiff met their burden of proving they were entitled to such an award, and reversed the trial court. View "Spencer v. Valero Refining Meraux, LLC" on Justia Law

by
Continental Resources, Inc. operates an input well on Timothy and Tracy Browns’ land in Harding County, South Dakota. The Browns sued Continental, seeking compensation for damage to the surface of their land and Continental’s use of their pore space. Continental removed the case to federal court and twice moved for partial summary judgment. The district court granted both motions, finding that Plaintiffs: (1) released Continental from liability for surface damage; and (2) could not recover damages under South Dakota law for Continental’s pore space use.   The Eighth Circuit affirmed. The court explained that section 45-5A-4 clearly articulates three categories of compensable harm. Plaintiffs sought damages for lost use, which is not one of the categories. They try to infuse ambiguity into the statutory scheme by pointing to Chapter 45-5A’s purpose and legislative findings sections. While these sections may help a court interpret ambiguous statutory language, the court found none in Section 45-5A-4. Accordingly, the court held that Plaintiffs have not suffered compensable harm under South Dakota law, so the district court did not err in granting summary judgment. View "Timothy Brown v. Continental Resources, Inc." on Justia Law

by
The petitions for review sought reversal of a refund order by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC or Commission) upon finding a discrepancy in petitioner Ameren Illinois’s self-reported operational costs. Instead of reporting construction-related materials and supplies costs on line 5 of page 227 of Form 1, Ameren Illinois reported these costs on line 8 with the result that it over-collected for transmission costs. The Commission found that this reporting error was contrary to Ameren Illinois’s filed rate, which, prior to June 1, 2020, did not allow it to recover costs recorded to line 5 of page 227.   The DC Circuit affirmed the Order, denying review and reconsideration. The court explained that the Commission’s decision that Ameren lacked the discretion to report construction-related costs on line 8 was not unreasonable, arbitrary and capricious, or otherwise contrary to law. The court reasoned that although the Commission “may not retroactively alter a filed rate to compensate for prior over- or underpayments,” Exxon Mobil Corp. v. FERC, 571 F.3d 1208, 1211 (D.C. Cir. 2009), that is not what occurred here. All the Commission has done is require Ameren Illinois to correct a reporting error that resulted in overcharging customers for expenses not allowed under Ameren Illinois’s then-registered formula rate. Its contrary arguments fail to demonstrate that the refund order was unjust or contrary to the law. View "Ameren Illinois Company v. FERC" on Justia Law

by
The Louisiana Public Service Commission (“LPSC”) petitioned the Fifth Circuit for a writ of mandamus compelling the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (“FERC”) to resolve several of its complaints before the agency related to a ratemaking dispute with System Energy Resources, Inc. (“SERI”), operator of the Grand Gulf Nuclear Station.   The Fifth Circuit concluded that FERC has yet to provide the court with sufficient explanation for its delay despite ongoing irreparable harm to consumers. Accordingly, the court ordered FERC to provide the court—within 21 days—with a meaningful explanation for the length of time the Commission takes for final action in Section 206 complaint proceedings, including those at issue here. View "In re: LA Pub Svc Comm" on Justia Law

by
Plaintiffs Citizens for Constitutional Integrity and Southwest Advocates, Inc. appealed the rejection of their challenges to the constitutionality of the Congressional Review Act (CRA), and Senate Rule XXII, the so-called Cloture Rule, which required the votes of three-fifths of the Senate to halt debate. The Stream Protection Rule, 81 Fed. Reg. 93,066 (Dec. 20, 2016), heightened the requirements for regulatory approval of mining-permit applications. The Rule was promulgated by the Department of the Interior’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (the Office) in the waning days of the Obama Administration. Within a month of the Stream Protection Rule taking effect on January 19, 2017, both Houses of Congress had passed a joint resolution disapproving the Rule pursuant to the CRA, and President Trump had signed the joint resolution into law. According to Plaintiffs, the repeal of the Rule enabled the approval of a 950.55-acre expansion of the King II Coal Mine (the Mine), located in La Plata County, Colorado, and owned by GCC Energy. Plaintiffs filed suit in the United States District Court for the District of Colorado against the federal government and several high-ranking Department of the Interior officials in their official capacities (collectively, Defendants) seeking: (1) a declaration that the CRA and the Cloture Rule were unconstitutional and that the Stream Protection Rule was therefore valid and enforceable; (2) vacation of the approval of the King II Mine permit modification and an injunction against expanded mining activities authorized by the modification; and (3) attorney fees. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected plaintiffs' challenges to the CRA and held that they lacked standing to challenge the Cloture Rule. View "Citizens for Constitutional, et al. v. United States, et al." on Justia Law

by
The original proceedings involve efforts by the Public Utilities Commission (PUC or the Commission) to discover whether the political activities of Southern California Gas Company (SCG) are funded by SCG’s shareholders, which is permissible, or ratepayers, which is not. The Commission propounded several discovery requests (called “Data Requests”) on SCG, and when SCG failed fully to comply, moved to compel further responses that ultimately resulted in an order to comply or face substantial penalties. SCG seeks a writ of mandate directing the Commission to rescind its order on the ground that the discovery requests infringe on SCG’s First Amendment rights.   The Second Appellate District granted the petition. The court held that SCG has shown that disclosure of the requested information will impact its First Amendment rights, and the Commission failed to show that its interest in determining whether SCG’s political efforts are impermissibly funded outweighs that impact. The court explained that the Commission argues that sometimes SCG misclassifies expenditures, and has at times moved expenditures from ratepayer to shareholder accounts. But this just shows that a less invasive discovery process is working, and the PAO can confirm that no funds have been misclassified to ratepayer accounts by reviewing above-the-line accounts. Further, because the court will vacate Resolution ALJ-391 insofar as it compels disclosure of shareholder expenditures, no basis for sanctions exists. View "So. Cal. Gas Co. v. P.U.C." on Justia Law

by
Electric Reliability Council of Texas, Inc. (“ERCOT”) determines market-clearing prices unless otherwise directed by the Public Utility Commission of Texas (“PUCT”). ERCOT is the sole buyer and seller of all energy in Texas. According to the operative complaint, during winter storm Uri ERCOT and the PUCT allegedly “intervened in the market for wholesale electricity by setting prices [that were] orders of magnitude higher than what market forces would ordinarily produce.”   Just Energy, a retail energy provider, purports that after the storm, ERCOT “floored” it with invoices totaling approximately $335 million. Just Energy commenced bankruptcy proceedings in Canada and filed this Chapter 15 case in the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of Texas, Houston Division. Just Energy challenges its invoice obligations. At the hearing on ERCOT’s motion to dismiss, the bankruptcy court stated that it would strike various language like, “subject to reduction only after a finding by the Court concerning a legally appropriate energy price per megawatt hour as proven by expert testimony, if appropriate, but in no event greater than the price per megawatt hour in effect after market forces took effect.” By striking this and similar language sprinkled throughout the complaint, the court concluded that “this change solves the abstention problem.”    The Fifth Circuit disagreed and vacated the bankruptcy court’s order and remanded with instructions to determine the appropriate trajectory of this case after abstention. The court explained that abstention under Burford6\ is proper because: (1) the doctrine applies in the bankruptcy context; and (2) four of the five Burford factors counsel in favor of abstention. View "Electric Reliability v. Just Energy" on Justia Law