Justia U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in Energy, Oil & Gas 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
Zurich American Insurance Group v. Duncan
Raymond, a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, was born in 1947 and was a long-term resident of Middlesboro, Kentucky. He worked in the coal-mining industry for over 20 years and developed severe respiratory issues. Raymond, a non-smoker, sought benefits under the Black Lung Benefits Act, 30 U.S.C. 901, but died while his claim was pending. Raymond’s claim was consolidated with a claim for survivor’s benefits submitted by his widow, Joanna. The ALJ awarded benefits to Joanna, on both Raymond’s behalf, and as his surviving spouse. The Benefits Review Board affirmed. Zurich, the insurer of Straight Creek Coal, sought review. The Sixth Circuit denied Zurich’s petition, upholding the ALJ’s conclusions that Zurich failed to rebut the presumption of timeliness, that Raymond had worked for at least 15 years in qualifying employment, and that Raymond had a total respiratory disability. Raymond worked only in surface mines or coal-preparation plants during his career; the ALJ properly relied on 20 C.F.R. 718.305(b)(2) and determined whether Raymond’s mining employment was “substantially similar” to underground mining. View "Zurich American Insurance Group v. Duncan" on Justia Law
MISO Transmission Owners v. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission
MISO, a nonprofit association of utilities, manages electrical transmission facilities for its members. Beginning in 2006, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) approved changes to MISO’s Tariff that enabled it to authorize network expansion projects and divide the costs among the member utilities. Duke and American own Ohio and Kentucky utilities. In July 2009, American gave notice that it planned to withdraw from MISO. Duke followed suit in May 2010. Under the Tariff, a utility cannot withdraw from MISO any earlier than the last day of the year following the year it gives notice. Two months after Duke announced its intention to withdraw, MISO proposed a new category of more expensive expansion projects. FERC approved this revision to the Tariff. In August 2010, MISO authorized the first Multi-Value Project. In December 2011, weeks before Duke’s scheduled departure, MISO approved 16 projects, to cost billions of dollars. MISO proposed amending the Tariff, so that ex-members could be charged for the costs of Multi-Value Projects approved before their departure. FERC approved that revision prospectively, holding that the revision imposed new obligations on withdrawing members and could not apply to Duke and American to charge them for the Multi-Value Projects. Other MISO Transmission Owners appealed, claiming that FERC departed from the reasoning of its prior orders. The Sixth Circuit denied a petition for review, stating that there is no presumption that costs for the Multi-Value Projects should be allocated up front. View "MISO Transmission Owners v. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission" on Justia Law
Wilmington Trust Co. v. AEP Generating Co.
Nearly 20 years after defendants built, sold, and leased back a Rockport Indiana coal-burning power plant, they committed, in a consent decree resolving lawsuits involving alleged Clean Air Act violations at their other power plants, to either make over a billion dollars of emission control improvements to the plant, or shut it down. The sale and leaseback arrangement was a means of financing construction. Defendants then obtained a modification to the consent decree providing that these improvements need not be made until after their lease expired, pushing their commitments to improve the air quality of the plant’s emissions to the plaintiff, the investors who had financed construction and who would own the plant after the 33-year lease term. The district court held this encumbrance did not violate the parties’ contracts governing the sale and leaseback, and that plaintiff’s breach of contract claims precluded it from maintaining an alternative cause of action for breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing. The Sixth Circuit reversed, holding that a Permitted Lien exception in the lease unambiguously supports the plaintiff’s position and that the defendants’ actions “materially adversely affected’ plaintiff’s interests. View "Wilmington Trust Co. v. AEP Generating Co." on Justia Law
Maxxim Rebuild Co., LLC v. Mine Safety & Health Administration
Maxxim’s Sidney, Kentucky repair shop makes and repairs mining equipment and machine parts, employing seven workers. Roughly 75% of the shop’s work is for equipment that Alpha (Maxxim’s parent company) uses to extract or prepare coal at several mines. The rest of the work is for other mining companies and for repair shops that might sell the equipment to mining or non-mining companies. The Maxxim facility does not extract coal or any other mineral, and it does not prepare coal or any other mineral for use. Sidney Coal, another Alpha subsidiary, owned the property and had an office in the upper floor of the Maxxim shop. The Mine Safety and Health Administration had asserted jurisdiction (30 U.S.C. 802(h)) over the Sidney shop and, in 2013, issued several citations. Maxxim challenged the Administration’s power to issue the citations. An administrative law judge’s ruling that the Sidney shop was “a coal or other mine” was upheld by the independent agency responsible for reviewing the Administration’s citations. The Sixth Circuit reversed. The definition of “coal or other mine” refers to locations, equipment and other things in, above, beneath, or appurtenant to active mines; the Maxxim facility is not a mine subject to the Administration’s jurisdiction. View "Maxxim Rebuild Co., LLC v. Mine Safety & Health Administration" on Justia Law
Energy Conversion Devices Liquidation Trust v. Trina Solar Ltd.
The defendant companies, based in China, produce conventional solar energy panels. Energy Conversion and other American manufacturers produce the newer thin-film panels. The Chinese producers sought greater market shares. They agreed to export more products to the U.S. and to sell them below cost. Several entities supported their endeavor. Suppliers provided discounts, a trade association facilitated cooperation, and the Chinese government provided below-cost financing. From 2008-2011, the average selling prices of their panels fell over 60%. American manufacturers consulted the Department of Commerce, which found that the Chinese firms had harmed American industry through illegal dumping and assessed substantial tariffs. The American manufacturers continued to suffer; more than 20 , including Energy Conversion, filed for bankruptcy or closed. Energy Conversion sued under the Sherman Act, 15 U.S.C. 1, and Michigan law, seeking $3 billion in treble damages, claiming that the Chinese companies had unlawfully conspired “to sell Chinese manufactured solar panels at unreasonably low or below cost prices . . . to destroy an American industry.” Because this allegation did not state that the Chinese companies could or would recoup their losses by charging monopoly prices after driving competitors from the field, the court dismissed the claim. The Sixth Circuit affirmed. Without such an allegation or any willingness to prove a reasonable prospect of recoupment, the court correctly rejected the claim. View "Energy Conversion Devices Liquidation Trust v. Trina Solar Ltd." on Justia Law
Journey Acquisition-II, L.P. v. EQT Prod.Co.
In 2001, EQT sold or leased to Journey several oil- and natural-gas-producing properties in Kentucky. Both parties continued to conduct oil and natural-gas operations in the state, but Journey later concluded that EQT was operating on some of the lands that had been conveyed to Journey. Journey sought a declaration that it owned or controlled those properties and that EQT was liable for the oil and natural gas that EQT had removed from those properties. The district court concluded on summary judgment that the parties’ 2001 contract had unambiguously conveyed the disputed properties to Journey. A jury found that EQT’s trespasses on Journey’s lands were not in good faith. The court subsequently required EQT to pay $14,288,432 in damages and transfer certain oil and natural-gas wells to Journey. The Sixth Circuit affirmed, rejecting arguments that the district court erred in construing the parties’ contract, in excluding portions of EQT’s proffered evidence, and in crafting the remedy for EQT’s trespasses. EQT carried out its drilling despite obvious indicators that its ownership of the underlying property was doubtful, establishing an ample basis to conclude that EQT’s trespasses were not in good faith. View "Journey Acquisition-II, L.P. v. EQT Prod.Co." on Justia Law
Sierra Club v. United States Forest Serv.
Pursuant to 30 U.S.C. 185(a), in 1953, the U.S. Forest Service issued Enbridge’s predecessor a permit for use of an 8.10-mile strip within the Lower Michigan National Forest for a crude oil pipeline (Line 5). In 1992, USFS reissued the permit through December 2012, noting that USFS “shall renew the authorization” if the line "is being operated and maintained in accordance with" the authorization and other applicable laws. In 2011-2012, after a different Enbridge pipeline spilled oil into the Kalamazoo River, Enbridge obtained permit amendments to install “emergency flow release device[s]” on Line 5. In 2012, Enbridge requested permit renewal for Line 5. USFS conducted field studies on the potential impact on wildlife and vegetation; contacted the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to confirm compliance with pipeline regulations; and accepted public comments. USFS proposed a categorical exclusion under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), 42 U.S.C. 4332(2)(C), from the requirement of an Environmental Impact Statement or Environmental Assessment, categorizing the application as replacement of an existing or expired special use authorization, "the only changes are administrative, there are not changes to the authorized facilities or increases in the scope or intensity of authorized activities, and the holder is in full compliance." Sierra Club objected, noting that no EA or EIS had ever been completed for Line 5 because the original permit issued before enactment of NEPA and that intensity of activities along the pipeline had increased. USFS granted a categorical exclusion after considering biological assessment reports and finding “no extraordinary circumstances which may result in significant individual or cumulative effects on the quality of the environment.” The Sixth Circuit affirmed summary judgment, upholding re-issue of Enbridge’s permit. USFS followed appropriate decision-making processes and reached a non-arbitrary conclusion. View "Sierra Club v. United States Forest Serv." on Justia Law