Fifty years ago, the Supreme Court held that in the Federal Power Act (FPA), Congress had drawn a “bright line, easily ascertained, between federal and state jurisdiction…by making [federal] jurisdiction plenary and extending it to all wholesale sales in interstate commerce except those which Congress has made explicitly subject to regulation by the States.” FPC v. Southern California Edison Co. (Colton), 376 U.S. 205, 206-07 (1964). Several recent federal court decisions, including two decisions addressing the implementation of Zero Emissions Credits (ZECs) by New York and Illinois, highlight just how blurred that “bright line” has become in an era where Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) regulation relies primarily on markets, rather than cost-of-service ratemaking, to ensure just, reasonable and not unduly discriminatory electricity prices. For good measure, these decisions also break new ground on the justiciability of FPA preemption claims brought by private parties in federal court.

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Environmental groups are raising the stakes for power companies facing allegations of coal-ash liability. Power plants that burn coal to produce electricity also create byproducts in the process, known as “coal combustion residuals,” or CCRs. CCRs go by several names, but are commonly known as “coal ash.”

Historically, power companies have stored CCRs in settling ponds, also known as “coal-ash basins.” Coal-ash storage and disposal can lead to allegations of groundwater contamination and environmental contamination claims. Environmental groups have sought to require companies to pay for remediation of disposal sites and alleged groundwater contamination; address alleged natural resource damages; and conduct extensive monitoring and sampling of onsite and offsite sediments, groundwater, fish, and other wildlife.


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On August 23, the Department of Energy (DOE) released a study entitled “Staff Report to the Secretary on Energy Markets and Reliability.” This is the so-called “DOE grid study” that Secretary of Energy Rick Perry ordered his chief of staff Brian McCormack to produce in an April 14 memorandum, noting that “Over the last few years…grid experts have expressed concerns about the erosion of critical baseload resources.”

These concerns have been simmering for several years. As the US Environmental Protection Agency was developing the rule that became the Mercury and Air Toxics Standard, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC)—prompted by then-Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Ranking Republican Lisa Murkowski—held a multi-day meeting to evaluate potential electric reliability impacts from anticipated closings of coal-fired power plants prompted by the rule.


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Since President Trump’s inauguration and the beginning of Scott Pruitt’s tenure as administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), much of the focus of Clean Air Act activity in the new administration has been on global climate change issues. As more time passes, however, EPA is beginning to address other areas of Clean Air Act regulatory policy, and, in some respects at least, charting a new course that departs from the record of the Obama administration. One of the areas to which EPA has started to give renewed attention is the regional haze program.
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Throughout the Obama administration, federal officials from the President on down touted an “all of the above” approach to energy policy.  At the same time, they pressed forward with environmental regulations—climate change rules in particular—that would have made a seismic shift in the role fossil fuels play in the nation’s energy mix.

We all know the Trump administration is poised to make major changes.  A shakeup for the EPA was a consistent theme of the Trump campaign. The President made things official in March when he signed an executive order that, among other things, called for a “review” of the Clean Power Plan (CPP), the EPA’s program to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants, and a proposed rule regarding the CPP is now under review at the White House Office of Management and Budget. The administration has also announced plans to cut the EPA’s budget, to take a new “red team-blue team” approach to climate change science, and to pull the U.S. out of the Paris climate accord. That’s quite a lot of activity for an administration that is often accused of moving too slowly.
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Earlier this week, July 4, 2017, was the nation’s 241st birthday. In Washington, DC, and in countless other places across the country, the event was celebrated with dazzling fireworks displays. My childhood days are long behind me. But, a good fireworks display still evokes awe and gives me goose bumps. Although fireworks are synonymous with the 4th of July, Americans are not alone in their appreciation of fireworks. All across the globe—from Europe, to Asia, to South America and back again—fireworks are a universal symbol of celebration.
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In a surprising turn of events, the Board of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) voted to delay adoption of first-of-its-kind caps on refinery greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. As we reported just three weeks ago, the Board was slated to adopt Regulation 12, Rule 16: Petroleum Refining Facility-Wide Emissions Limits (Rule 12-16), a regulation that would establish refinery-specific, facility-wide caps on GHG emissions from the five Bay Area refineries and three support facilities.  At a public hearing last week, in what initially looked to be a sure thing, the Board pivoted.  Signaling unease about legal vulnerabilities surrounding procedure, the Board voted to delay adoption of the regulation until at least September 2017.

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Despite oil already flowing through the pipeline, federal litigation involving the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) took another turn last week when partial summary judgment was granted to tribes challenging the adequacy of the US Army Corps of Engineers’ review of DAPL under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and other statutes. Two tribes, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, filed suit in July 2016 attempting to block construction of the last remaining segment and operation of DAPL. As sometimes is the case, agency approvals came faster than the court’s opinion, and without a stay of proceedings DAPL began operating in early June 2017. Having granted partial summary judgment, the court did not require pipeline operations to cease, instead delaying the question of an appropriate remedy until after further briefing by the parties.

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Last week at the 2017 Chambers USA Awards, Hunton & Williams’ environmental team was recognized as the team of the year in the environment practice area. Chambers USA evaluated our practice as “preeminent” in the environmental area and “highly esteemed.” Chambers USA also noted our “fine track record” for our utility and energy work and our “noteworthy expertise across air, water, waste and climate change matters.”
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Over the past several years, the EPA and states have wrestled with the controversial question of how to manage ash and other residual materials produced by the combustion of coal in coal-fired power plants. The Water Infrastructure Improvements Act (“WIIN Act”), signed by President Obama on December 16, 2016, should help provide clarity to address this question by creating a state permitting program for managing coal ash based on site-specific conditions and potential risk to human health and the environment.
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