Justia Energy, Oil & Gas Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit
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In three FERC orders, FERC found that the State Board had engaged in coordinated schemes with the Nevada Irrigation District, the Yuba County Water Agency, and the Merced Irrigation District (“Project Applicants”) to delay certification and to avoid making a decision on their certification requests. According to FERC, the State Board had coordinated with the Project Applicants to ensure that they withdrew and resubmitted their certification requests before the State’s deadline for action under Section 401 in order to reset the State’s one-year period to review the certification requests. FERC held that, because of that coordination, the State Board had “fail[ed] or refuse[d] to act” on requests and therefore had waived its certification authority under Section 401 of the Clean Water Act. See 33 U.S.C. Section 1341(a)(1).The Ninth Circuit granted petitions for review, and vacated orders issued by FERC. The court held that FERC’s findings of coordination were unsupported by substantial evidence. Instead, the evidence showed only that the State Board acquiesced in the Project Applicants’ own unilateral decisions to withdraw and resubmit their applications rather than have them denied. The court held that even assuming that FERC’s “coordination” standard was consistent with the statute, the State Board’s mere acquiescence in the Project Applicants’ withdrawals and resubmissions could not demonstrate that the State Board was engaged in a coordinated scheme to delay certification. Accordingly, FERC’s orders could not stand. The court remanded for further proceedings. View "CALIFORNIA STATE WATER RESOURC V. FERC" on Justia Law

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The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) awarded “incentive adders,” upward adjustments to utilities’ rate of return on equity, to three California-based public utilities. FERC regulations allow for incentive adders to induce voluntary membership in independent system operators. The Ninth Circuit previously concluded that FERC improperly awarded incentive adders to PG&E without considering the California Public Utilities Commission’s (CPUC) assertion that PG&E’s membership in the California independent system operator (CAISO) is mandated. The court directed FERC to “inquire into PG&E’s specific circumstances, i.e., whether it could unilaterally leave the C[AISO].” On remand, FERC concluded that membership in CAISO is voluntary.The Ninth Circuit upheld the decision, holding that its previous decision did not resolve whether California law prevented the utilities from leaving CAISO without approval. FERC did not deviate from the mandate on remand. There was no error in FERC’s conclusion that membership in CAISO was voluntary despite a contrary suggestion in a CPUC 1998 Decision. FERC was not required to apply the Erie doctrine and defer to California’s interpretation. The incentive adder and its requirements arose from federal law. The California Supreme Court has not decided whether membership in CAISO is voluntary; no California Code provision mandates CAISO membership, and no case law discusses whether CAISO members must remain such. California courts would not defer to the CPUC’s 1998 Decision because it was inconsistent with the statute. View "California Public Utilities Commission v. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission" on Justia Law

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Canyon Mine is located within the Kaibab National Forest, which has been withdrawn from new mining claims; the withdrawal did not extinguish “valid existing rights.” The Trust challenged the Forest Service’s determination that Energy Fuels holds a valid existing right to operate the uranium mine, alleging that in determining that there were “valuable mineral deposits,” 30 U.S.C. 22, the Service ignored sunk costs. The Ninth Circuit previously held that the Trust had Article III standing.The Ninth Circuit subsequently affirmed the summary judgment rejection of the claim. It was not arbitrary for the Service to ignore costs that have already been incurred and cannot be recovered. Applying Chevron analysis, the court held that the critical term in the Mining Act, “valuable mineral deposits,” was ambiguous. The Department of the Interior’s interpretation of the Act, in which sunk costs are not considered when determining whether a mine is profitable, was permissible and not manifestly contrary to the Act; it was consistent with the prudent person and marketability tests. It is a basic principle of economics that sunk costs should be ignored when making a rational decision about whether to make further expenditures. It was not arbitrary for the Forest Service to rely on the Department's interpretation. View "Grand Canyon Trust v. Provencio" on Justia Law

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The district court dismissed a suit alleging that a price plan adopted by Salt River Project Agricultural Improvement and Power District (SRP) unlawfully discriminated against customers with solar-energy systems and was designed to stifle competition in the electricity market.The Ninth Circuit affirmed in part, applying Arizona’s notice-of-claim statute, which provides that persons who have claims against a public entity, such as SRP, must file with the entity a claim containing a specific amount for which the claim can be settled.The district court erred in dismissing plaintiffs’ equal protection claim as barred by Arizona’s two-year statute of limitations. The claim did not accrue when SRP approved the price plan, but rather when plaintiffs received a bill under the new rate structure. The plaintiffs alleged a series of violations, each of which gave rise to a new claim and began a new limitations period.Monopolization and attempted monopolization claims under the Sherman Act were not barred by the filed-rate doctrine, which bars individuals from asserting civil antitrust challenges to an entity’s agency-approved rates. SRP was not entitled to state-action immunity because Arizona had not articulated a policy to displace competition.The Local Government Antitrust Act shielded SRP from federal antitrust damages because SRP is a special functioning governmental unit but the Act does not bar declaratory or injunctive relief. The district court erred in concluding that plaintiffs failed to adequately allege antitrust injury based on the court’s finding that the price plan actually encouraged competition in alternative energy investment. View "Ellis v. Salt River Project Agricultural Improvement and Power District" on Justia Law

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The Ninth Circuit concluded that the Commission did not act arbitrarily or capriciously, or abused its discretion, in denying the Association's motion to intervene in post-licensing deadline extension proceedings pertaining to the Eagle Mountain Pumped Storage Hydroelectric Project in California. The panel concluded that the Commission's interpretation of its Rule 214 deserves deference, and thus it may properly limit intervention in post-licensing proceedings. The panel further concluded that the Commission did not abuse its discretion in denying the Association's motion to intervene, where the only change sought by the licensee was an extension of time to commence construction.The panel also concluded that the Commission did not violate the Federal Power Act (FPA) in failing to provide public notice. In this case, based on longstanding interpretative precedent, the Commission determined that Eagle Crest's request was not a significant alteration of the License because the requested extensions were not inconsistent with the Project's plan of development or terms of the License. The panel concluded that the Commission's interpretation of Section 6 of the FPA is sufficiently persuasive as applied to deadline extension requests. Accordingly, the panel denied the petition for review. View "National Parks Conservation Ass'n v. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission" on Justia Law

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The Ninth Circuit reversed the district court's order denying the Board's petition to enforce five requests issued by the Board in subpoenas following an explosion and chemical release at an ExxonMobile refinery. The panel held that, although the district court did an admirable job, it erred in finding these five requests unenforceable. In this case, the five subpoena requests relating to the alkylation unit and the modified hydrofluoric acid stored there were relevant to the February 2015 explosion and accidental release of modified hydrofluoric acid. The panel held that a review of the specific disputed requests confirmed that each sought material that might cast light on the Board's investigation into the February 2015 release. View "United States v. Exxon Mobil Corp." on Justia Law

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The Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court's order directing the DOE to publish four energy conservation standards in the Federal Register and rejected DOE's challenges to the district court's assertion of jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. 6305(a)(2). The panel held that DOE relinquished whatever discretion it might have had to withhold publication of the rules when it adopted the error-correction rule. Furthermore, the absence of genuine ambiguity in the rule's meaning precluded the panel from deferring to DOE's contrary interpretation.The panel also held that section 6305(a)(2) provides the necessary "clear and unequivocal waiver" of sovereign immunity from citizen suits predicated on a non-discretionary duty imposed either by statute or regulation. Therefore, plaintiffs properly invoked the Energy Policy and Conservation Act's citizen-suit provision to challenge DOE's failure to perform its nondiscretionary duty to submit the four rules at issue. View "Natural Resources Defense Council v. Perry" on Justia Law

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The Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of Pit River Tribe and environmental organizations in an action under the Geothermal Steam Act, against federal agencies responsible for administering twenty-six unproven geothermal leases located in California's Medicine Lake Highlands. Pit River alleged that the BLM's decision to continue the terms of the unproven leases for up to forty years violated the Act.Determining that it had jurisdiction to hear this appeal, the panel held that the statutory meaning of 30 U.S.C. 1005(a) is clear and unambiguous: it only permits production-based continuations on a lease-by-lease basis, not on a unit-wide basis. In this case, BLM failed to meet its burden of providing a compelling reason for the panel to depart from the plain meaning of section 1005(a). Therefore, the panel rejected BLM's argument that section 1005(a) authorizes forty-year continuations on a unit-wide basis once a single lease in a unit is deemed productive. View "Pit River Tribe v. Bureau of Land Management" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs, small scale solar producers, filed suit alleging that CPUC's programs did not comply with the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act (PURPA), because CPUC incorrectly defined the amount that PURPA requires utilities to pay qualifying facilities (QFs). The district court dismissed plaintiffs' claims for equitable damages and attorney fees, entering summary judgment for CPUC on the PURPA challenges.The panel held that the district court erred in not interpreting FERC's regulations to require state utility commissions to consider whether a Renewables Portfolio Standard changed the calculation of avoided cost. Accordingly, the panel reversed as to this issue. The panel affirmed in all other respects, holding that utilities did not violate PURPA in not compensating QFs for Renewable Energy Credits and the Net Energy Metering Program did not violate PURPA's interconnection requirement. The panel also affirmed the dismissal of equitable damages and attorney fees claims. View "Californians for Renewable Energy v. California Public Utilities Commission" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs challenged California Air Resources Board regulations regarding the first Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS), which went into effect in 2011; the LCFS as amended in 2012; and the LCFS which replaced the first LCFS in 2015. The Ninth Circuit held that plaintiffs' challenges to previous versions of the LCFS have been made moot by their repeal. The panel affirmed the dismissal of plaintiffs' remaining claims against the present version of the LCFS as largely precluded by the panel's decision in Rocky Mountain Farmers Union v. Corey, 730 F.3d 1070 (9th Cir. 2013). The panel also held that plaintiffs' extraterritoriality claims against the 2015 LCFS were precluded by the law of the case and by recent circuit precedent in Am. Fuel & Petrochemical Mfrs. v. O'Keeffe, 903 F.3d 903 (9th Cir. 2018). Finally, the LCFS did not facially discriminate against interstate commerce in its treatment of ethanol and crude oil, and did not purposefully discriminate against out-of-state ethanol. View "Rocky Mountain Farmers Union v. Corey" on Justia Law