Justia Utilities Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit
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The Adorers, an order of nuns whose religious beliefs require them “to protect and preserve Earth,” own property in Pennsylvania. When Transco notified them that it was designing a 42-inch diameter interstate gas pipeline to cross their property, the Adorers explained that they would not sell a right-of-way through their property. Transco sought a certificate of public convenience and necessity. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) published notices and hosted open meetings to discuss the pipeline. The Adorers neither provided comments nor attended meetings. When FERC contacted the Adorers directly, they remained silent. Transco altered the pipeline’s route 132 times in response to public comment. FERC issued the requested certificate, which authorized Transco to use eminent domain to take rights-of-way 15 U.S.C. 717f(c)(1)(A). Transco sought an order of condemnation to take rights-of-way in the Adorers’ property. The Adorers failed to respond to the complaint.Days after the district court granted Transco default judgment, the Adorers sought an injunction under the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act (RFRA) 42 U.S.C. 2000bb-1(c). The Third Circuit rejected the Adorers’ contention that RFRA permitted them to assert their claim in federal court rather than before FERC. After the pipeline was put into service, the Adorers sought damages under RFRA. The Third Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the suit. To permit a party to reserve a claim, the success of which would imperil a FERC decision to certify an interstate pipeline, by remaining silent during the FERC proceedings and raising the claim in separate litigation would contravene the Natural Gas Act’s exclusive review framework. View "Adorers of the Blood of Christ United States Province v. Transcontinental Gas Pipe Line Co., LLC" on Justia Law

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Warren tenders gasoline products to Colonial (a common carrier) for shipment on Colonial’s pipeline from Texas to New Jersey, where Warren has a gasoline-blending operation. The rates and conditions for the transportation services are specified in tariffs approved by the Federal Energy Regulation Commission (FERC). The tariff recognizes that the gasoline batches Colonial transports for Warren are fungible and allows Colonial to comingle gasoline from many shippers during transport. Colonial must deliver gasoline of the same volume and grade as the gasoline that was entrusted to it, with the same characteristics that influence the gasoline’s combustion performance (octane rating and distillation value), and its environmental impact, such as volatility. The tariff does not state whether “on specification” gasoline includes any “blend margin.” In 2016, FERC determined that the regulation of in-pipeline blending was outside its jurisdiction. Colonial continued giving Warren gasoline that complies with the relevant tariff but Warren claims that Colonial’s in-line blending of the gasoline with butane diminishes Warren’s ability to blend cheaper blendstocks into the gasoline. Warren regularly blends cheaper gasoline with more expensive gasoline to increase the amount of on-specification gasoline that it can sell,Warren sued for loss of profits (Carmack Amendment 49 U.S.C. 1590), conversion, unjust enrichment, and tortious interference. The Third Circuit affirmed the summary judgment rejection of the claims. Warren’s request seeks an enlargement of its rights under the FERC-approved tariff and violates the filed-rate doctrine’s nondiscrimination principle. View "George E. Warren LLC v. Colonial Pipeline Co" on Justia Law

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The New Jersey Board of Public Utilities (BPU) ordered Altice, a cable service provider, to prorate its bills for the month in which a cable customer cancels his service, as required by New Jersey law. In federal court, Altice argued that the Proration Requirement is preempted by the Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984.The district court granted Altice judgment on the pleadings, concluding that “Younger” abstention was not warranted and that the Proration Requirement was preempted. The Third Circuit vacated. The Younger ruling was incorrect. BPU’s civil enforcement proceeding was quasi-criminal in nature and, thus, the type of proceeding to which Younger applies. BPU commenced the action against Altice by filing a formal complaint, a Show Cause Order with attributes similar to the filing of formal charges, and did so in its sovereign capacity. The proceeding was judicial in nature and ongoing when the federal complaint was filed; the proceeding implicates important state interests; and Altice has an adequate opportunity to raise its federal claims in the state proceeding. View "Altice USA Inc v. New Jersey Board of Public Utilities" on Justia Law

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The Natural Gas Act (NGA), 15 U.S.C. 717, allows private gas companies to exercise the federal government’s power to take property by eminent domain, if the company has a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC); was unable to acquire the property by contract or reach agreement about the amount to be paid; and the value of the property exceeds $3,000. PennEast, scheduled to build a pipeline through Pennsylvania and New Jersey, obtained federal approval for the project and filed suit under the NGA to condemn and gain immediate access to properties along the pipeline route, including 42 properties owned, at least in part, by New Jersey or arms of the state. New Jersey sought dismissal, citing the Eleventh Amendment. The district court ruled in favor of PennEast. The Third Circuit vacated. The Eleventh Amendment recognizes that states enjoy sovereign immunity from suits by private parties in federal court. New Jersey has not consented to PennEast’s condemnation suits and its sovereign immunity has not been abrogated by the NGA. The federal government’s power of eminent domain and its power to hale sovereign states into federal court are separate and distinct. In the NGA, Congress has delegated only the power of eminent domain. View "In re: PennEast Pipeline Co. LLC" on Justia Law

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The Natural Gas Act (NGA), 15 U.S.C. 717f(h) gives natural gas companies that hold certificates of public convenience and necessity from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) the power of eminent domain but does not provide for “quick take” to permit immediate possession. Transcontinental is building a natural gas pipeline through Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina and needed rights of way. Transcontinental met the requirements of section 717f(h). The administrative review leading up to the certificate of public convenience and necessity lasted almost three years and included extensive outreach and public participation and an Environmental Impact Statement. Transcontinental extended written offers of compensation exceeding $3000 to each Landowner, but these offers were not accepted. The Landowners had all participated in the FERC administrative process. Transcontinental, planning to begin construction in fall 2017, filed condemnation suits The district court granted Transcontinental summary judgment, effectively giving it immediate possession, concluding that the Landowners had received “adequate due process.” The Third Circuit affirmed, rejecting an argument that granting immediate possession violated the separation of powers because eminent domain is a legislative power and the NGA did not grant “quick take.” Transcontinental properly obtained the substantive right to the property by following the statutory requirements, which are not similar to “quick take” procedures, before seeking equitable relief to obtain possession. View "Transcontinental Gas Pipe Line Co., LLC v. Permanent Easements for 2.14 Acres" on Justia Law

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After initiating Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings, Debtors entered into an Agreement: NextEra would acquire Debtors’ 80% interest in Oncor, the largest electricity transmission and distribution system in Texas, for approximately $9.5 billion. The Agreement obligated Debtors to pay NextEra $275 million if NextEra did not ultimately acquire Debtors’ interest in Oncor and Debtors either sold to someone else or otherwise emerged from bankruptcy, with several exceptions. If the Public Utility Commission of Texas (PUCT) did not approve the merger, payment would not be triggered if the Agreement was “terminated . . . by [NextEra] . . . and the receipt of PUCT Approval (without the imposition of a Burdensome Condition) [wa]s the only condition . . . not satisfied or waived in accordance with this Agreement.” About a year after approving the Agreement, and after PUCT expressed concern about the condition, the bankruptcy court granted a motion for reconsideration and disallowed the Termination Fee in the event that the PUCT declines to approve the transaction and, as a result, the agreement is terminated, regardless of whether the Debtors or NextEra subsequently terminates the agreement. Were it not for that order, NextEra would be entitled to the $275 million. The Third Circuit affirmed, rejecting NextEra’s arguments that the motion was untimely and, alternatively, that the motion should have been denied on the merits because the termination fee provision, as originally drafted, was an allowable administrative expense under 11 U.S.C. 503(b). View "In re: Energy Future Holdings" 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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Adorers, a religious order of Roman Catholic women, owns land in Columbia, Pennsylvania affected by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) decision under the Natural Gas Act, to issue a certificate of public convenience and necessity to Transco, authorizing construction of a roughly 200-mile-long pipeline. Adorers claim that their deeply-held religious beliefs require that they care for the land in a manner that protects and preserves the Earth as God’s creation. Despite receiving notice of the proposed project, Adorers never raised this objection before FERC. More than five months after FERC granted the certificate, Adorers filed suit under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, 42 U.S.C. 2000bb-1. The district court dismissed, citing the Act: If FERC issues a certificate following the requisite hearing, any aggrieved person may seek judicial review in the D.C. Circuit or the circuit wherein the natural gas company is located or has its principal place of business. Before seeking judicial review, that party must, within 30 days of the issuance of the certificate, apply for rehearing before FERC. Anyone who fails to first seek a rehearing is barred from seeking judicial review, 15 U.S.C. 717r(a). The Third Circuit affirmed the dismissal. A RFRA cause of action, invoking a court’s general federal question jurisdiction, does not abrogate or provide an exception to a specific jurisdictional provision prescribing a particular procedure for judicial review of an agency’s action. View "Adorers of Blood of Christ v. Federal Energy Regulatory Commisson" on Justia Law

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A Pennsylvania municipal lien is automatic; it is perfected by filing with the local court, without notice or a hearing, where it is publicly docketed. Until filed, a municipal lien may not be enforced through a judicial sale. Municipalities can delay filing a lien indefinitely, but it is not enforceable against subsequent purchasers until filed. A municipality can petition the court for a sale. Property owners may request a hearing on the legality of a lien at any time by paying the underlying claim into the court with a petition. PGW, a public utility owned by the city, scans its billing database, identifies delinquent accounts, then sends a pre-filing letter. If full payment is not made, the system automatically files the lien and sends another notice. Landlords are not normally apprised of tenants' growing arrearages. An exception is entered if the name/address associated with an account does not match the property tax records. PGW frequently enters “exceptions,” which do not prevent arrearages from continuing to grow nor do they interrupt service but prevent the lien from being filed. Landlords who learned of thousands of dollars of liens against their properties, due to nonpayment by tenants, filed suit. The court certified a class and held that the City had violated the landlords’ due process rights. The Third Circuit reversed. Whether the lien procedures comport with due process depends on three factors: the private interest that will be affected; the risk of an erroneous deprivation and the value of other procedural safeguards in avoiding errors; and the governmental interest. Although the filing of a lien is “significant” enough to trigger due process protections, it is a relatively limited interference with the landlords’ property. None of the plaintiffs have suffered injury to their credit. Nor have the liens interfered with their ability to maintain their properties or collect rents. Risks associated with an erroneous lien are mitigated by the statute's post-deprivation remedies. View "Augustin v. City of Philadelphia" on Justia Law