U.S. District Court Rejects Broad Commerce Clause Attack on Colorado's Renewable Portfolio Standard

May 13, 2014

On May 9, the Judge William J. Martinez of the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado summarily dismissed a broad-based challenge to the Colorado Renewable Portfolio Standard ("RPS"), which argued that the RPS per se violates the "dormant" Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution. The decision supports the view that a RPS will pass muster under the Commerce Clause as long as it regulates in-state and out-of-state generators in an even-handed way, and does not impose restrictions on RPS eligibility that favor in-state generators over out-of-state generators. Energy & Environmental Legal Inst. v. Epel et al., No. 11-cv-00859-WJM-BNB (issued May 9, 2014).

Enacted by Colorado voters in 2004 and amended several times since, the Colorado RPS now requires Colorado's investor-owned utilities to obtain 30% of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020, while cooperatives serving 100,000 or more meters must meet a 20% standard, and smaller cooperatives and municipal utilities must meet a 10% standard. In 2011, plaintiff Energy and Environmental Legal Institute (then known as the American Traditions Institute) filed a lawsuit seeking to invalidate Colorado's RPS statute on Commerce Clause grounds. Last week's decision rejects that challenge in its entirety, although plaintiffs have indicated they plan to appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit.

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Governor Inslee Issues Comprehensive Executive Order on Climate Change

April 29, 2014

Washington Governor Jay Inslee today issued an Executive Order that will address Washington's greenhouse gas ("GHG") emissions on many different fronts. Issued in apparent response to the legislative logjam that has developed around the Climate Legislative and Executive Workgroup, the Executive Order (No. 14-04), requires actions in the following areas:

Cap-and-Trade Legislation: The Executive Order creates a new Carbon Emissions Reduction Task Force to develop a legislative recommendation for a "cap and-market" mechanism, which would limit carbon emissions and establish an emissions allowance trading system designed to achieve GHG reductions in the most efficient manner. The Task Force, which includes 21 members from business, labor, health, and public interest organizations, meets for the first time today. It is instructed to provide recommended legislative by November 21, 2014.

Coal-Fired Electricity: The Executive Order directs the Governor's Legislative Affairs and Policy Office ("LAPO") to seek "negotiated agreements with key utilities and others" to reduce coal-fired electricity imported from outside the state and transition to cleaner sources. With the transition of Washington's only coal-fired plant at Centralia now well underway, Washington's remaining sources of coal-fired electricity will be generators located in states to the east, such as the Colstrip plant in Montana. Addressing the "coal-by-wires" issue is therefore the last remaining front for attacking significant GHG emissions in the electricity sector. The Executive Order requests help from the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission ("UTC") and the Northwest Power and Conservation Council to "actively assist and support" the transition away from coal-fired electricity, although, as we've previously discussed, the UTC has already moved significantly in this direction.

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Getting a CLEW from the IPCC: Can IPCC's Policy Analysis Break the Olympia Logjam on Climate Policy?

April 25, 2014

The recently-released Fifth Assessment Report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change ("IPCC") has received widespread coverage for its conclusion, expressed with "high confidence," that global emissions of greenhouse gases ("GHG") are continuing to grow and that "without additional mitigation," will "result in global mean surface temperature increases in 2100 from 3.7 to 4.8°C compared to pre‐industrial levels." Similarly, the IPCC's conclusion that limiting GHG emissions will have relatively modest impacts on global economic growth, well below the costs of unmitigated climate change, has been widely reported.

The IPCC's conclusions regarding climate mitigation policy have, regrettably, received very little coverage in the popular press. This lack of attention is unfortunate because IPCC's report provides a detailed and well-documented discussion of many different climate change policies that have been tried around the world. Here in Washington State, the IPCC's report may offer a way forward for climate policy, which is currently bogged down in a partisan impasse reached by the Climate Executive Workgroup ("CLEW").

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Complicating "Coal By Wires" Regulation, Minnesota Court Strikes Down Greenhouse Gas Regulation

April 21, 2014

In a ruling with potentially far-reaching consequences for state-level attempts to regulate greenhouse gases, the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota on April 18 issued a ruling striking down key elements of Minnesota's Next Generation Energy Act ("NGEA"). For the Pacific Northwest, in particular, the ruling could complicate efforts by Washington, Oregon, and California to limit "coal by wires" -- the importation of coal-generated electricity from plants located in states like Montana and Arizona. State of North Dakota et al. v. Heydinger et al., No. 11-cv-3232 (SRN/SER) (issued April 18, 2014).

Passed by Minnesota's legislature in 2007, the NGEA is aimed at reducing the carbon footprint of electricity consumed in the state. The statute prohibits new power plants within Minnesota that "would contribute to state power sector emissions." To address the "coal by wires" problem, the statute also broadly prohibits importing power generated outside Minnesota if that generation "would contribute to statewide power sector carbon dioxide emissions," and also prohibits long-term power purchase contracts from facilities larger than 50 MW that would contribute to Minnesota's power sector carbon dioxide emissions.

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Pot, Power & Pollution: The Overlooked Impacts of Marijuana Legalization on Utilities and the Environment

April 17, 2014

Last month, Washington issued its first license for a legal marijuana grow operation under Initiative 502 ("I-502"), the marijuana legalization measure adopted by Washington voters in November 2012. A wave of additional operations will follow, as about 2,800 producers have applied for licenses to grow marijuana. While the implications of I-502 for the criminal justice system, land use, taxation and many other issues have been widely debated, the potentially significant changes in electricity and water use that are likely to follow from I-502's implementation have received almost no scrutiny. Nor have the important implications for environmental protection. Given the stakes, Washington utilities and environmental regulators should pay close attention to I-502 and the ongoing process of implementing the initiative.

At the outset, it is important to understand that the United States already produces huge amounts of cannabis. Official estimates suggest that U.S. production was somewhere in the range of 10,000 to 24,000 metric tons in 2001, making it America's largest cash crop by value. A more recent study suggests that production may actually be far higher - 69,000 metric tons. Given that marijuana production generally remains illegal, these estimates are highly uncertain. But there is little doubt that, as marijuana production comes out of the shadows and into the realm of legitimate business, power and water utilities will need to confront a number of serious and complex issues.

Implications for Electric Utilities
For electric utilities, legalization is a major concern because cannabis production, which generally relies on energy-intensive indoor growing operations, uses huge amounts of electricity. One recent study estimates that marijuana production may account for as much as 1% of the nation's entire electric consumption, accounting for a total bill of approximately $6 billion. In California, the numbers are even higher. Marijuana production in that state is estimated to use 3% of all electricity consumed there, equivalent to 9% of all residential electricity use.


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I-937 Updates: New Legislation and New Administrative Rules May Alter Washington's Renewable Portfolio Standard

April 7, 2014

As a result of both legislative and administrative action, several notable changes to Washington's Initiative 937 ("I-937", also known as the Washington Energy Independence Act) are on the horizon. While rejecting large-scale reform, the legislature made significant course corrections related to treatment of conservation and conduit hydro projects under the initiative. Those changes, and possibly several others, will be addressed in ongoing rulemaking proceedings at the Washington Department of Commerce and Washington Utilities & Transportation Commission ("UTC").

Two changes to I-937 were enacted in the 2014 session of the Washington Legislature. First, HB 1643, popularly known as the "conservation smoothing" legislation, allows utilities that achieve conservation in excess of specified targets to credit the excess toward future compliance periods, within limits. As originally enacted by the voters in 2006, I-937 required all covered utilities to obtain all "achievable cost-effective conservation." This mandate was carried out in a two-year process, which requires utilities first to identify conservation targets, then to adopt a plan to achieve those targets. In carrying out this mandate, many utilities, especially smaller utilities, found that conservation is not achieved in neat blocks, but instead is often achieved in major increments that may exceed specific biennial conservation targets. In these circumstances, I-937 both denied utilities the benefit of conservation achieved above biennial targets and created a perverse incentive to delay these conservation achievements.

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Texas Supreme Court Blows Away Wind Generator Claims, Finds Contracts Assigned Risk of Transmission Congestion to Generators

April 2, 2014

Transmission congestion between the wind-rich plans of western Texas and population centers to the east frequently force curtailment of deliveries of electricity from Texas wind farms. In a contract dispute worth tens of millions of dollars, the Supreme Court of Texas recently concluded that wind energy producer FPL Energy assumed the risk of transmission curtailments and therefore must pay contractual damages for delivery failures caused in large part by transmission curtailments. The decision, which turns on specific language addressing transmission curtailments in a contractual "Uncontrollable Forces" clause, once again underscores the peculiar importance of such clauses in energy contracts.

The Court also disallowed a lower court's $29 million judgment against FPL Energy under the liquidated damages provisions of the relevant contracts. The Court found that the liquidated damages clause was intended to compensate the purchaser for undelivered Renewable Energy Credits ("RECs"). The clause provided for recovery of $50 per each undelivered REC, an amount based on the penalty to be paid by utilities in Texas if they do not purchase enough RECs or renewable energy to satisfy the state's Renewable Portfolio Standard. The Court concluded that the liquidated damages provision crossed the line from an acceptable estimate of actual contract damages to an unacceptable contractual penalty for breach because it assumed TXU would pay the $50 penalty rate for all RECs not delivered, but in fact the Texas regulatory scheme excuses compliance for any RECs not delivered because of transmission constraints or curtailments. As a result, the liquidated damages provision required FPL Energy to pay approximately $29 million, whereas the actual losses suffered because the RECs were not delivered was only about $6 million, possibly less. Thus, there is an "unacceptable disparity" between the results of the liquidated damages provision and the actual damages incurred by TXU as a result of FPL's failure to deliver.

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Please Join Us for "Clean Water and Stormwater" Conference

March 25, 2014

We're pleased to announce that Eric Christensen will be speaking at Law Seminars International's 14th Annual Comprehensive Conference on Clean Water and Stormwater. Eric will be participating in a panel discussing renewal of the Columbia River Treaty and how this may affect water flows and water quality in the Columbia. We hope to see you there!

More Clouds for Coal: Oregon PUC Questions PacifiCorp Expenditures on Coal Fleet

March 24, 2014

March 17 was not a happy St. Patrick's Day for PacifiCorp's coal fleet. Echoing recent actions by the Washington Utilities & Transportation Commission ("WUTC"), the Oregon Public Utility Commission ("OPUC") expressed serious reservations about the assumptions embedded in PacifiCorp's Integrated Resource Plan ("IRP") concerning anticipated expenditures for pollution control equipment at its fleet of coal-fired generators. While the OPUC did not take any specific action, it made clear that PacifiCorp will be required to engage in a substantially more robust modeling of the costs of pollution control and other upgrades for its coal generators.

The stakes for PacifiCorp's coal fleet, which consists of 26 units scattered across five Western states, are substantial. According to current estimates, PacifiCorp will be required to invest more than $4.2 billion for pollution control retrofits before 2023, not including any upgrades that may be required to comply with limits on greenhouse gas emissions. Based on a report from the Commission's staff, as well as comments from interest groups ranging from the Oregon Department of Energy to the Sierra Club, the OPUC raised a number of serious questions about the IRP's economic modeling, baseline assumptions, and timing of proposals for coal-related upgrades embedded in PacifiCorp's 2013 IRP update.

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LEO Still Roars: FERC Declares Montana PURPA Rules Illegal

March 21, 2014

After the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission's ("FERC") recent lawsuit against the Idaho Public Utilities Commission ended in something of a whimper, many industry observers speculated that FERC would retreat from aggressively challenging states that attempt to unduly restrict the rights of power sellers on the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act of 1978 ("PURPA"). A long-awaiting FERC decision, issued yesterday, suggests this speculation may have been premature. The decision declares that Montana's PURPA program, which requires many PURPA-eligible projects to win irregularly-scheduled competitive bidding processes and also imposes a 50-MW limit on wind generation acquired under PURPA, does not comply with FERC's "legally enforceable obligation" or "LEO" rules. Hydrodynamics, Inc., 146 FERC P 61,193 (issued March 20, 2104).

The controversy centers on how to interpret PURPA's basic mandate, which requires utilities to purchase power from PURPA-eligible generators, called "Qualifying Facilities" or "QFs", at avoided-cost rates. Generally, QFs are small, renewable generators owned by independent power producers. The law was designed to help non-utility developers overcome barriers to entry in the power generation market created by vertically-integrated utility monopolies. Hence, a basic requirement of FERC's PURPA rules is that, if an independent producer presents a utility with a PURPA-eligible contract, it creates a LEO, requiring the utility to honor the contract, even if the utility refuses to sign the contract. This prevents utilities from defeating PURPA's intent by dragging their feet on signing contracts that otherwise meet all PURPA requirements.

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BPA Attempts to Split the Baby on Oversupply Management Costs

February 28, 2014

In its latest effort to put to rest the years-long controversy that has swirled around its efforts to address excessive electricity production during periods when high winds coincide with high water in the Columbia River system, the Bonneville Power Administration ("BPA") recently issued a draft Record of Decision ("ROD") allocating the costs of such events. While wind generators argued for allocating all such costs to BPA's power customers and BPA's power customers urged BPA to assign all such costs to its transmission customers, BPA chose a third path. In the recent draft ROD, issued by newly-minted BPA Administrator Elliot Mainzer, BPA concluded that it should allocate oversupply costs to those generators operating within its balancing authority area that have scheduled power during an oversupply event. BPA's chosen alternative was supported by only one out-of-region entity, so it is unlikely to end either the controversy or the protracted litigation that has resulted.

As we have previously reported, the oversupply problem is an unintended consequence of the rapid expansion of wind generation in the Pacific Northwest. The wind fleet's capacity in the region now exceeds 7,000 MW, with 4,500 operating in BPA's balancing authority area. The oversupply problem arises when strong spring winds coincide with high spring runoff in the Columbia River Basin. In this situation, the combined electric power produced by federal dams on the Columbia River and wind generators in the region can exceed electrical loads. Further, the obligation to maintain dissolved gases within limits set by environmental authorities in order to avoided gas bubble trauma in fish (especially endangered salmon and steelhead runs), limits the amount of water dam operators can release over spillways, which adds to dissolved gas loads, requiring them instead to run the water through generators.

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Bully for Biomass: Washington Supreme Court Rejects Greenhouse Gas Claims, Upholds Finding of No Significant Environmental Impact for Biomass Facility

February 27, 2014

The Washington Supreme Court today rejected claims that the potential for greenhouse gas ("GHG") from a biomass facility triggers the requirement to prepare a full Environmental Impact Statement under Washington's State Environmental Protection Act ("SEPA"). Today's decision promises to greatly simplify the permitting process for projects planning to use woody biomass and should help clarify how GHG emissions are treated for biomass-fired facilities, a question that has bedeviled courts and regulators in other contexts. PT Air Watchers et al. v. State of Washington et al., No. 88208-8 (issued Feb. 27, 2014).

The controversy arose from Port Townsend Paper Company's plans to modernize the boiler at its paper mill by increasing the use of woody biomass to fuel the boiler, increase the boiler's firing efficiency, and adding a 25 megawatt generator to produce electricity. The paper company prepared a SEPA "checklist" in accordance with WAC 197-11-960. The checklist concluded that, because the project would reduce burning of fossil fuels by burning woody biomass instead, it would produce a net reduction in GHG emissions. The Department of Ecology agreed, concluding that no EIS was required because the project would not produce significant environmental impacts. A coalition of local environmental groups challenged this finding, but the challenges were rejected both in an administrative appeal and by the reviewing courts. The Washington Supreme Court accepted review and today affirmed Department of Ecology's finding that no significant environmental impacts requiring preparation of an EIS would result from the project.

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Ninth Circuit Denies Rehearing in Greenhouse Gas Case, Continues to Struggle With Standing in Climate Litigation

February 13, 2014

A recent order of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit illustrates the extent to which courts continue to struggle with otherwise routine legal issues when confronting claims related to climate change and greenhouse gas emissions. The order denies rehearing of last year's Ninth Circuit panel decision in Washington Environmental Council v. Bellon, which concluded that a group of environmental plaintiffs seeking to force the Washington Department of Ecology to issue greenhouse gas regulations lacked standing to bring the claim.

The rehearing order was unusual in several respects. Ordinarily, a dissatisfied party to the case seeks rehearing and, in nearly all cases, rehearing is denied in a short order simply noting that an insufficient number of judges supported the request for rehearing. Perhaps the most unusual aspect of the Ninth Circuit's order is that it arose from a Ninth Circuit judge seeking rehearing, rather than from one of the parties. This suggests that at least some of the Ninth Circuit's judges view the October panel opinion as not just incorrect, but so seriously wrong that the Court should re-examine the decision even in the absence of any request to do so by the losing parties. The order is also unusual in that it included two impassioned opinions alternatively defending and attacking the October panel opinion.

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The Department of Defense Seeks Contracts for Purchase of Renewable Energy Credits

February 11, 2014

The Defense Logistics Agency today issued a presolicitation notice indicating that it will seek Basic Ordering Agreements ("BOAs") for the purchase of Renewable Energy Certificates ("RECs") by the Department of Defense and associated civilian agencies. RECs will be purchased from solar, wind, geothermal, and biomass generators during the five-year period from May 2014 through May 2019. The notice indicates that a formal Request for Proposals will be issued in March.

A BOA is akin to the master agreements, such as the WSPP Agreement, familiar to many in the power industry. While the BOA does not guarantee that any particular quantity of RECs will be purchased, it sets forth the basic terms of the contract so that purchases can be made on an expedited basis.

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Transmission Terrorism: As Details of Substation Attack Come to Light, Senators Call for Action

February 7, 2014

Just before 1 a.m. on April 16, 2013, as-yet unidentified assailants launched an attack on the Metcalf substation in Silicon Valley. The attack lasted nearly an hour, disabling ten high-voltage transformers and three high-voltage transformer banks. Occurring just hours after the Boston Marathon bombings, the attack garnered little press coverage at the time and, as a federal investigation dragged on, details were slow to emerge. Beginning with an article published in Foreign Policy magazine in late 2013, information suggesting that the attack may have been the work of terrorists rather than vandals has started to come to light. In response to these revelations, group of four U.S. Senators today sent a letter to federal regulators calling for swift action to address the threat.

Earlier this week, the Wall Street Journal published a long article providing many details of the attack. In the article, former Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chairman Jon Wellinghoff noted several pieces of evidence suggesting that the attack was carefully orchestrated. For example, before the attack began, someone lifted a large cover off an underground vault and cut communications cables, knocking out communications in the area around the substation and interfering with emergency response. More than 100 empty shell cases, likely from AK-47 assault rifles, were found in the area around the substation. None had fingerprints and military experts found small piles of rocks that may have been left by an advance scout to mark the best vantage points for the attack. The number of shell cases and the fact that the vault cover probably could not have been lifted by a single person suggest that multiple individuals were involved in the attack. Many of these details were corroborated in subsequent accounts from media outlets such as National Public Radio and Bay Area newspapers.

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