Justia Energy, Oil & Gas Law Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit
MRP Properties Co., LLC v. United States
During World War II, the federal government played a significant role in American oil and gasoline production, often telling refineries what to produce and when to produce it. It also rationed crude oil and refining equipment, prioritized certain types of production, and regulated industry wages and prices. This case involves 12 refinery sites, all owned by Valero, that operated during the war, faced wartime regulations, and managed wartime waste. After the war, inspections revealed environmental contamination at each site. Valero started cleaning up the sites. It then sought contribution from the United States, arguing that the government “operated” each site during World War II. It did not contend that government personnel regularly disposed of waste at any of the sites or handled specific equipment there. Nor did it allege that the United States designed any of the refineries or made engineering decisions on their behalf.The Sixth Circuit reversed the district court. The United States was not a refinery “operator” under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980, 42 U.S.C. 9601–75. CERCLA liability requires control over activities “specifically related to pollution” rather than control over general pricing and product-related decisions. View "MRP Properties Co., LLC v. United States" on Justia Law
Wolverine Pipe Line Co. v. United States Department of Transportation, Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration
Wolverine transports refined petroleum products in its 700-mile pipeline system. These pipelines run from refineries in the Chicago area to terminals and other pipelines in and around Indiana and Michigan. Because Wolverine transports refined petroleum, a hazardous liquid, the company is subject to safety standards, 49 U.S.C. 60101, and falls into the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s (PHMSA) regulatory orbit. A few years ago, PHMSA conducted a routine inspection of Wolverine’s records, procedures, and facilities and identified several issues. PHMSA sent Wolverine a Notice of Probable Violation, which acts as an informal charging document, and described nine potential violations of PHMSA’s regulations, including a dent with metal loss on the topside of a pipe segment, with respect to which Wolverine did not meet an “immediate repair” requirement. Wolverine missed a 180-day repair requirement for other deficiencies.The Sixth Circuit affirmed a $65,800 civil penalty. The court rejected Wolverine’s arguments that PHMSA’s action was arbitrary and violated its due process rights. Wolverine had adequate notice and, to the extent Wolverine believes another approach would better achieve PHMSA’s desired policy outcomes, its argument is one for resolution by PHMSA. View "Wolverine Pipe Line Co. v. United States Department of Transportation, Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration" on Justia Law
Foresight Coal Sales, LLC. v. Chandler
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
Bluegrass Materials Co., LLC v. Freeman
The 1985 “Manning Lease” granted the lessee rights to oil and gas on an approximately 100-acre tract of land in Bowling Green that is adjacent to a quarry. There is a long-expired one-year term, followed by a second term that conditions the maintenance of the leasehold interest on the production of oil or gas by the lessee. Bluegrass now owns the property. Believing that lessees were producing an insufficient quantity of oil to justify maintaining the lease, Bluegrass purported to terminate the lease and sought a declaration that the lease had terminated by its own terms while asserting several other related claims.The district court found that Bluegrass’s termination of the lease was improper and granted the lessees summary judgment. The Sixth Circuit reversed and remanded. There is a factual dispute regarding whether the lease terminated by its own terms. The trier of fact must determine if the lessee has produced oil in paying quantities after considering all the evidence. There is a material factual dispute about whether the lessee ceased producing oil for a period of time, and, if so, whether that period of time was unreasonable. View "Bluegrass Materials Co., LLC v. Freeman" on Justia Law
Delek US Holdings, Inc. v. United States
Downstream fuel producers pay an excise tax, 26 U.S.C. 4081(a)(1)(A). Revenues from the tax fund the Highway Trust Fund. In 2004, Congress sought to incentivize renewable fuels without undermining highway funding. Under the American Jobs Creation Act, a fuel producer can earn the “Mixture Credit” by mixing alcohol or biodiesel into its products. The Mixture Credit applies “against the [excise] tax imposed by section 4081,” section 6426(a)(1). Under section 6427(e), a producer can also receive the Mixture Credit as direct, nontaxable payments, to the extent the Mixture Credit exceeds the excise tax liability. The Highway Revenue Act now appropriates the full amount of a producer’s section 4081 excise tax to the Highway Trust Fund “without reduction for credits under section 6426,” section 9503(b)(1).In 2010-2011, Delek claimed $64 million in Mixture Credits and subtracted that amount from its cost of goods sold, increasing Delek’s gross income and its income tax burden. In 2015, Delek filed a refund claim (more than $16 million), arguing that its Mixture Credits were “payments” that could only satisfy, but not reduce, the excise tax amount, so that subtracting the Mixture Credit from its cost of goods sold was a mistake. The IRS denied the claim. The Sixth Circuit affirmed summary judgment in the government’s favor, rejecting Delek’s “novel theory: The credit is a “payment” that satisfies, but does not reduce, its excise tax liability.” View "Delek US Holdings, Inc. v. United States" on Justia Law
Ammex, Inc. v. Michigan Department of Agriculture
Ammex operates a duty-free gas station in Wayne County, Michigan, near the bridge to Canada, but positioned “beyond the exit point” for domestic commerce established by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. In 2012, the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) sought to enforce an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rule requiring Wayne County gas stations to dispense low-pressure gasoline in the summer. MDARD, in conjunction with the EPA, implemented this rule to bring Southeast Michigan’s ozone levels into compliance with the Clean Air Act.Because of its unique location and certain sales privileges granted to it by U.S. customs law, Ammex resisted efforts to apply the rule to its gasoline sales. In 2019, the Sixth Circuit determined that MDARD was enforcing federal regulatory law, and was not in violation of the Supremacy Clause or dormant Foreign Commerce Clause. Ammex then argued that the environmental rule, properly construed, did not apply to Ammex and that the customs statute giving Ammex the right to sell duty-free goods supersedes the environmental regulation and renders it unenforceable against Ammex. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of those claims. the Summer Fuel Law unambiguously applies to Ammex and does not impact Ammex’s ability to sell gas duty-free. View "Ammex, Inc. v. Michigan Department of Agriculture" on Justia Law
Matthews v. Centrus Energy Corp.
The 1954 Atomic Energy Act allowed private construction, ownership, and operation of commercial nuclear power reactors for energy production. The 1957 Price-Anderson Act created a system of private insurance, government indemnification, and limited liability for federal licensees, 42 U.S.C. 2012(i). In 1988, in response to the Three Mile Island accident, federal district courts were given original and removal jurisdiction over both “extraordinary nuclear occurrences” and any public liability action arising out of or resulting from a nuclear incident; any suit asserting public liability was deemed to arise under 42 U.S.C. 2210, with the substantive rules for decision derived from state law, unless inconsistent with section 2210.The Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant enriched uranium for the nuclear weapons program and later to fuel commercial nuclear reactors. Plaintiffs lived near the plant, and claim that the plant was portrayed as safe while it discharged radioactive material that caused (and continues to cause) them harm.Plaintiffs, seeking to represent a class, filed suit in state court asserting claims under Ohio law. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the removal of the case on the grounds that the complaint, although it did not assert a federal claim, nonetheless raised a federal question under the Price-Anderson Act, and affirmed the subsequent dismissal. The Act preempted plaintiffs’ state law claims and the plaintiffs did not assert a claim under the Act but asserted that their “claims do not fall within the scope of the Price-Anderson Act.” View "Matthews v. Centrus Energy Corp." on Justia Law
In re: FirstEnergy Solutions Corp.
FES distributes electricity, buying it from its fossil-fuel and nuclear electricity-generating subsidiaries. FES and a subsidiary filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The bankruptcy court enjoined the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) from interfering with its plan to reject certain electricity-purchase contracts that FERC had previously approved under the Federal Power Act, 16 U.S.C. 791a or the Public Utilities Regulatory Policies Act, 16 U.S.C. 2601, applying the ordinary business-judgment rule and finding that the contracts were financially burdensome to FES. The counterparties were rendered unsecured creditors to the bankruptcy estate. The Sixth Circuit agreed that the bankruptcy court has jurisdiction to decide whether FES may reject the contracts, but held that the injunction was overly broad (beyond its jurisdiction) and that its standard for deciding rejection was too limited. The public necessity of available and functional bankruptcy relief is generally superior to the necessity of FERC’s having complete or exclusive authority to regulate energy contracts and markets. The bankruptcy court exceeded its authority by enjoining FERC from “initiating or continuing any proceeding” or “interfer[ing] with [its] exclusive jurisdiction,” given that it did not have exclusive jurisdiction. On remand, the bankruptcy court must reconsider and decide the impact of the rejection of these contracts on the public interest—including the consequential impact on consumers and any tangential contract provisions concerning such things as decommissioning, environmental management, and future pension obligations—to ensure that the “equities balance in favor of rejecting the contracts.” View "In re: FirstEnergy Solutions Corp." on Justia Law
M.L. Johnson Family Properties, LLC v. Bernhardt
The surface and mineral estates of “Tract 46” in Pike County, Kentucky have been severed for a century. Pike and Johnson own the surface estate as tenants in common. Pike also owns the entirety of the coal below and wants to mine. In 2013, Pike granted its affiliate a right to enter the land and commence surface mining. Despite Johnson’s protestations, Kentucky granted a surface mining permit. Mining commenced in April 2014. In 2014, as the result of a federal lawsuit, the Secretary of the Interior determined that the permit violated the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 (SMCRA), 30 U.S.C. 1250. The deficiencies in the original permit were remedied; Kentucky issued an amended permit the same year. The Secretary then confirmed that the permit complied with federal law. Johnson sued again. An ALJ, the district court, and the Sixth Circuit affirmed, first finding that Johnson exhausted its administrative remedies to the extent required by SMCRA. The ALJ’s application of Kentucky co-tenancy law, instead of the state’s rules of construction for vague severance deeds, to uphold the issuance of Elkhorn’s permit and the Secretary’s termination of the cessation order was not arbitrary, capricious, or contrary to law. View "M.L. Johnson Family Properties, LLC v. Bernhardt" on Justia Law
Kentucky Waterways Alliance v. Kentucky Utilities Co.
Kentucky Utilities (KU) burns coal to produce energy, then stores the leftover coal ash in two man-made ponds. Environmental groups contend that the chemicals in the coal ash are contaminating the surrounding groundwater, which in turn contaminates a nearby lake, in violation of the Clean Water Act (CWA), 33 U.S.C. 1251(a), and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), 42 U.S.C. 6902(a). The Sixth Circuit affirmed, in part, the dismissal of their suit. The CWA does not extend liability to pollution that reaches surface waters via groundwater. A “point source,” of pollution under the CWA is a “discernible, confined and discrete conveyance.” Groundwater is not a point source. RCRA does, however govern this conduct, and the plaintiffs have met the statutory rigors needed to bring such a claim. They have alleged (and supported) an imminent and substantial threat to the environment; they have provided the EPA and Kentucky ninety days to respond to those allegations, and neither the EPA nor Kentucky has filed one of the three types of actions that would preclude the citizen groups from proceeding with their federal lawsuit, so the district court had jurisdiction. View "Kentucky Waterways Alliance v. Kentucky Utilities Co." on Justia Law