Justia Utilities Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Environmental Law
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The Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the trial court dismissing Plaintiff's administrative appeal from the decision of the Connecticut Siting Council approving the application of NTE Connecticut, LLC (NTE) seeking a certificate of environmental compatibility and public need for the construction of an electric generating facility in the town of Killingly, holding that there was no error.Plaintiff, a nonprofit organization, appealed the council's decision to the trial court, arguing that the council improperly refused to consider the environmental impact of installing a gas pipeline to its proposed facility when weighing the public benefit of the facility against its probable environmental impact. The trial court dismissed the appeal, concluding that the council was not required to consider the impact of the gas pipeline. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that the trial court correctly determined that the council’s refusal to consider the potential environmental impact of the gas pipeline during the proceedings on NTE’s application for a certificate was not arbitrary or capricious. View "Not Another Power Plant v. Connecticut Siting Council" on Justia Law

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Environmental groups challenged the constitutionality of Public Resources Code section 25531, which limits judicial review of decisions by the Energy Resources Conservation and Development Commission on the siting of thermal power plants. Section 25531(a) provides that an Energy Commission siting decision is “subject to judicial review by the Supreme Court of California.” The plaintiffs contend this provision abridges the original jurisdiction of the superior courts and courts of appeal over mandate petitions, as conferred by California Constitution Article VI, section 10. Section 25531(b) provides that findings of fact in support of a Commission siting determination “are final,” allegedly violating the separation of powers doctrine by depriving courts of their essential power to review administrative agency findings (Cal. Const., Art. III, section 3; Art. VI, section 1).The court of appeal affirmed summary judgment in favor of the plaintiffs. The Article VI grant of original jurisdiction includes the superior courts and courts of appeal and may not be circumscribed by statute, absent some other constitutional provision. Legislative amendments to section 25531 have broken the once-tight link between the regulatory authority of the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) and Energy Commission power plant siting decisions, such that the plenary power Article XII grants the Legislature over PUC activities no longer authorizes section 25531(a). Section 25531(b) violates the judicial powers clause by preventing courts from reviewing whether substantial evidence supports the Commission’s factual findings. View "Communities for a Better Environment v. Energy Resources Conservation & Development Commission" on Justia Law

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After years of investigation, the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board (Regional Board), issued a cleanup and abatement order (CAO) to San Diego Gas & Electric Company (SDG&E) and several other entities, in connection with a power plant’s operations that discharged waste into the San Diego Bay. The Regional Board found that SDG&E caused or permitted waste to be discharged into the Bay and thereby created, or threatened to create, pollution and nuisance conditions. SDG&E contested its designation as a responsible "person" under Water Code section 13304 (a), and petitioned for a writ of mandate to have the CAO vacated. The superior court denied the writ. SDG&E argued then, as it did before the Court of Appeal, that shipyard companies comparatively discharged greater amounts of pollutants into the Bay and that two appellate opinions required application of the "substantial factor" causation test to determine whether SDG&E created or threatened to create a condition of pollution or nuisance. The Court of Appeal found it was undisputed that SDG&E directly discharged and thus "caused or permitted" waste to enter the Bay, distinguishing the aforementioned appellate cases. Further, the Regional Board adequately demonstrated that the waste discharged by SDG&E created, or threatened to create, a condition of pollution or nuisance. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the judgment. View "San Diego Gas & Electric Co. v. San Diego Regional Water etc." on Justia Law

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This appeal focused on circumstances in which local water and irrigation districts were entitled to subvention for unfunded state mandates. The Commission on State Mandates (Commission). The Commission denied consolidated test claims for subvention by appellants Paradise Irrigation District (Paradise), South Feather Water & Power Agency (South Feather), Richvale Irrigation District (Richvale), Biggs-West Gridley Water District (Biggs), Oakdale Irrigation District (Oakdale), and Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District (Glenn-Colusa). The Commission determined the Water and Irrigation Districts had sufficient legal authority to levy fees to pay for any water service improvements mandated by the Water Conservation Act of 2009. The trial court agreed and denied a petition for writ of mandate brought by the Water and Irrigation Districts. On appeal, the Water and Irrigation Districts presented a question left open by the Court of Appeal’s decision in Connell v. Superior Court, 59 Cal.App.4th 382 (1997). Based on the statutory language, Connell held local water districts were precluded from subvention for state mandates to increase water purity levels insofar as the water districts have legal authority to recover the costs of the state-mandated program. In so holding, Connell rejected an argument by the Santa Margarita Water District and three other water districts that they did not have the “practical ability in light of surrounding economic circumstances.” This appeal considered whether the passage of Proposition 218 changed the authority of water and irrigation districts to recover costs from their ratepayers so that unfunded state mandates for water service had to be reimbursed by the state. The Court of Appeal affirmed, finding the Water and Irrigation Districts possessed statutory authority to collect fees necessary to comply with the Water Conservation Act. Thus, under Government Code section 17556(d), subvention was not available to the Water and Irrigation Districts. The Commission properly denied the reimbursement claims at issue in this case because the Water and Irrigation Districts continued to have legal authority to levy fees even if subject to majority protest of water and irrigation district customers. View "Paradise Irrigation Dist. v. Commission on State Mandates" on Justia Law

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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

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Regional transmission organizations manage the interstate grid for electricity, conduct auctions through which many large generators of electricity sell most or all of their power, and are regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) Illinois subsidizes nuclear generation facilities by granting “zero emission credits,” which generators that use coal or gas to produce power must purchase from the recipients at a price set by the state. Electricity producers and municipalities sued, contending that the price‐adjustment aspect of the system is preempted by the Federal Power Act because it impinges on the FERC’s regulatory authority. They acknowledge that a state may levy a tax on carbon emissions; tax the assets and incomes of power producers; tax revenues to subsidize generators; or create a cap‐and‐trade system requiring every firm that emits carbon to buy credits from firms that emit less carbon. They argued that the zero‐emission‐credit system indirectly regulates the auction by using average auction prices as a component in a formula that affects the credits' cost. The Seventh Circuit affirmed summary judgment for the defendants. Illinois has not engaged in discrimination beyond that required to regulate within its borders. All Illinois carbon‐emitting plants need to buy credits. The subsidy’s recipients are in Illinois. The price effect of the statute is felt wherever the power is used. All power (from inside and outside Illinois) goes for the same price in an interstate auction. The cross‐subsidy among producers may injure investors in carbon‐ releasing plants, but only plants in Illinois. View "Village of Old Mill Creek v. Star" on Justia Law

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Allco Renewable Energy Limited (Allco) appealed the Vermont Public Utility Commission’s (PUC) denial of Allco’s motion to intervene as a party in proceedings concerning whether Green Mountain Power Corporation (GMP) could purchase power generation facilities outside of Vermont. Allco argued that it should have been allowed to intervene because it meets the criteria for intervention set out in the PUC’s own rules. In particular, Allco argued it had a substantial interest in the proceedings both as a ratepayer and as a competing supplier of power. Allco also appealed the PUC’s eventual decision to allow the purchases. The Vermont Supreme Court affirmed the PUC’s denial of Allco’s motion to intervene and accordingly dismissed Allco’s second appeal. View "In re Petition of Green Mountain Power Corp. for Approval to Invest in Hydroelectric Generation Facilities Located Outside Vermont (Allco Renewable Energy Limited, Appellant)" on Justia Law

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Petitioners sought to prevent the expansion of Transco’s interstate natural gas pipeline facilities, arguing that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) violated the Natural Gas Act (NGA), 15 U.S.C. 717–717z and environmental protection statutes, by arbitrarily approving Transco’s proposed project. Petitioners also argued that the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) violated state law by improperly issuing permits required under federal law before commencement of construction activities and by denying the petitioners’ request for an adjudicatory hearing to challenge the permits, based only on the NJDEP’s allegedly incorrect belief that the New Jersey regulations establishing the availability of such hearings were preempted by federal law. The Third Circuit concluded that the challenges to FERC’s orders lacked merit because no discharge-creating activity can commence without New Jersey independently awarding Transco with a Section 401 permit; no activities that may result in a discharge can follow as a logical result of just FERC’s issuance of the certificate. FERC adequately addressed the need for the project and its cumulative impacts, as required by the National Environmental Policy Act. The court remanded to NJDEP. NJDEP misunderstood the scope of the NGA’s assignment of jurisdiction to the federal Courts of Appeals, rendering unreasonable the sole basis for its denial of the petitioners’ request for a hearing--preemption. View "Township of Bordentown v. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission" on Justia Law

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The Natural Gas Act (NGA) requires a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, 15 U.S.C. 717f(c)(1)(A), for construction or operation of a natural gas pipeline, which requires compliance with other legal mandates. Transco sought a Certificate for expansion of its natural-gas distribution network, then received Water Quality Certification under the Clean Water Act, (CWA) 33 U.S.C. 1341(a)(1) from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP), subject to conditions requiring a permit under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, for discharges of water during hydrostatic pipeline testing, and state permits, covering erosion and sediment disturbance and obstructions and encroachments on Pennsylvania waters. Transco challenged the conditions in the Third Circuit under the NGA and before the Pennsylvania Environmental Hearing Board.The Third Circuit concluded that it has jurisdiction; NGA provides “original and exclusive jurisdiction" to review a state agency’s “action” taken “pursuant to Federal law to issue . . . any . . . concurrence” that federal law requires for the construction of a natural-gas transportation facility. PADEP issues Water Quality Certifications “pursuant to federal law," which requires PADEP concurrence before construction can proceed. The court then rejected claims that PADEP failed to provide public notice the CWA requires and acted arbitrarily by issuing a Certification that was immediately effective despite being conditioned on obtaining additional permits; that PADEP’s decision violated the Due Process and Takings Clauses, given that the approval was necessary for Transco to begin eminent domain proceedings; and that the approval violated PADEP’s obligation to safeguard the Commonwealth’s natural resources. View "Delaware Riverkeeper Network v. Secretary Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection" on Justia Law

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Crown proposed to install 13 microcell transmitters on utility poles, primarily in the public right of way, as part of a Distributed Antenna System (DAS) in the Day Valley area, a rural portion of unincorporated Aptos. A staff report characterized the microcells as “relatively visually inconspicuous” small structures Santa Cruz County concluded that Crown’s DAS project was categorically exempt from the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) (Pub. Resources Code 21000) and rejected a claim that an exception to the exemption applied for “unusual circumstances” or “cumulative impact.” The court of appeal affirmed the superior court in upholding the approval. The court rejected arguments that the county: failed to consider the entire project and instead improperly segmented the project by considering each microcell individually; in determining that the “cumulative impact” exception did not apply, failed to consider information submitted by opponents that AT&T was interested in putting cell transmitters in the Day Valley area; erroneously concluded that the “location” exception and the “unusual circumstances” exception did not apply based on the residential agricultural nature of the area. Opponents produced no evidence that it is unusual for small structures to be used to provide utility extensions in a rural area. View "Aptos Residents Association v. County of Santa Cruz" on Justia Law