Recently in appellate litigation Category

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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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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SLAPP Suit Blocked: Court of Appeals Rejects SLAPP Claim in Public Records Act Case

February 3, 2014

The Washington Court of Appeals today concluded that Washington's "anti-SLAPP" statute cannot be invoked when a municipality seeks a declaratory judgment to clarify its obligations under the Public Records Act. The Court's conclusions should be a welcome relief for Washington municipalities seeking to clarify their obligations under the Public Records Act and thereby to minimize their exposure to the substantial penalties that are sometimes imposed under the Act. City of Seattle v. Egan, No. 69129-5-I (Wash. App. Div. I, filed Feb. 3, 2014).

The Court of Appeal's decision arises from a Public Records Act request for documents related to an internal investigation of complaints filed against four Seattle police officers. Among the documents requested are 36 "dash-cam" videos. Believing the videos are exempt from disclosure under RCW 9.73.090(1)(c), which prohibits cities from providing videos to the public when legal action involving those videos is pending, the City withheld 35 of the 36 videos. In the face of threat of lawsuit seeking to force disclosure of the videos, the City filed a motion for declaration and preliminary injunction, asking the lower court to declare that the 35 videos are exempt from Public Records Act disclosure. The Public Records Act authorizes this procedure under RCW 42.56.540.

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Washington Supreme Court Limits Recreational Immunity Statute

January 30, 2014

In a decision of great importance to major Washington landowners, including local governments, major private landowners such as forest products companies, and operators of water projects, the Washington Supreme Court today issued an opinion that may limit the state's recreational immunity statute. As a result of the decision, the immunity conferred by the statute is clouded in mixed-use situations, where access to land is granted for both recreational and other uses, such as transportation. Camicia v. Howard S. Wright Constr. Co., No. 85583-8 (issued Jan. 30, 2014).

First passed in 1967, the recreational immunity statute is intended to encourage landowners to open lands, as well as waterways associated with hydroelectric projects and similar facilities, to recreational users. The statute encourages recreational access by immunizing those landowners from liability for unintentional accidents where no fee is charged for recreational access.

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Over Heated Dissent, Ninth Circuit Rejects Rehearing in Low Carbon Fuel Standards Challenge, Setting Up Possible Supreme Court Commerce Clause Showdown

January 23, 2014

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit today rejected petitions for rehearing of its decision in Rocky Mountain Farmers Union v. Corey, the opinion issued last September which rejected constitutional challenges to California's low-carbon fuel standard. Seven judges dissented from the decision and took the unusual step of publishing their dissent which, in strongly-worded language, accused the majority of disregarding "longstanding dormant Commerce Clause doctrine" and placing the circuit "squarely at odds with Supreme Court precedent." This prompted Judge Ronald Gould to take the equally unusual step of issuing a written opinion defending the majority's decision to deny the petitions for rehearing.

As we have previously discussed, last fall, the Ninth Circuit, in a 2-1 split decision, upheld California's low-carbon fuel standard against challenges brought by out-of-state ethanol manufacturers, farmers, and allied interests. The challengers argued that, by using a geographically-based system for assessing the carbon footprint of different sources of ethanol and assigning higher default scores to Mid-Western producers than to California producers, California's system discriminated on its face against these out-of-state producers, and therefore violated the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Under a doctrine known as the "dormant Commerce Clause," the courts have long held that states are prohibited from imposing constraints on interstate commerce that discriminate against out-of-state economic interests and artificially favor in-state interests. The panel's majority concluded that the low-carbon fuel standard is not facially discriminatory because California's system for assessing the carbon footprint of different ethanol sources is based on objective scientific evidence rather than on impermissible discrimination against out-of-state producers. Nonetheless, the Court remanded the case to the trial court to review evidence that might prove whether the low-carbon fuel standard discriminates against out-of-state producers in practice.

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Okanagan Odyssey Goes On: Washington Supreme Court to Review Case Involving Condemnation of State Lands for Transmission Right of Way

November 12, 2013

The long litigation road walked by Okanogan County PUD to build a short transmission line has just gotten a bit longer. On November 7, the Washington Supreme Court granted review of a Court of Appeals decision concluding that Washington's Public Utility Districts have statutory authority to condemn state school lands if those lands have not been withdrawn for a particular purpose. As explained here, this is the latest development in Okanagan PUD's attempt to build a segment of lower-voltage transmission line covering roughly 35 miles between Pateros and Twisp. The PUD started planning the line in 1996 in order to maintain reliable electric service in Okanogan County.

The Supreme Court will review the Appeals Court's determination that Washington's PUD statute allows Okanogan PUD to condemn state school trust lands by authorizing PUDs to "condemn . . . public and private property . . . including . . . school lands" for transmission lines and other facilities "necessary or convenient" for the PUD to carry out its statutory purposes and the Department of Natural Resource's countervailing argument, based on its own statute, that school trust lands are not subject to condemnation. The question is important not just to PUDs, but also to other Washington municipalities such as cities, towns, and Port Districts, all of which have similar statutory condemnation authority. The Court will hear oral argument in late February of 2014, with a decision likely following several months thereafter.

If you have any questions about the Court of Appeals opinion discussed in this post, the Washington PUD statutes, condemnation, or Washington real property law, please contact a member of GTH's Energy, Telecommunications, and Utilities practice group or Environment & Natural Resources practice group. These practice groups are consistently recognized as among the best, both nationally and in the Pacific Northwest. In addition, our Real Estate & Land Use practice group is recognized as one of the region's best and our partner Warren Daheim, who specializes in condemnation and eminent domain matters, was recently recognized as the best lawyer in the South Puget Sound region by South Sound Magazine.

End of a Litigation Era? Ninth Circuit Upholds Bonneville Power's Residential Exchange Settlement

October 29, 2013

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit on Monday approved a Bonneville Power Administration settlement of the "Residential Exchange" litigation, which may finally bring a few years of peace to a decades-long legal war over the distribution of benefits from the low-cost resources of the federally-owned hydroelectric dams on the Columbia River system. The Ninth Circuit's opinion rejects a number of challenges to the settlement under the Northwest Power Act, putting to rest most questions about the Residential Exchange for the settlement's duration, through 2028. (Association of Public Agency Customers v. Bonneville Power Administration, No. 11-73178 (issued Oct. 28, 2013)).

The Residential Exchange is the result of a "grand bargain" between Bonneville's public agency customers and the region's investor-owned utilities ("IOUs"), which was encapsulated in Sections 5(c) and 7(b) of the Northwest Power Act of 1980. The Residential Exchange was intended to allow the IOUs a share of the benefits of low-cost power from the federal hydroelectric system. The language of the Act is quite turgid, but at base, the Exchange provides the residential and small farm customers of the IOUs with a cash subsidies from Bonneville. But those benefits are subject to a "ceiling," set forth in Section 7(b)(2). The 7(b)(2) rate ceiling is the keystone of the "grand bargain," and is intended to protect Bonneville's public customers, who pay for most costs of the Residential Exchange as an element of their wholesale power rates, by ensuring that their rates are no higher than they would have been had the Residential Exchange not been enacted. Rather than a direct sale of power, the Exchange is a paper transaction in which the IOUs "exchange" power with Bonneville, and receive a cash payment from Bonneville which is calculated as the difference between the IOU's average power cost ("Average System Cost" in Bonneville-speak) and Bonneville's wholesale rate, as adjusted in accordance with the rate cap and other requirements of Section 7 (the "PF Exchange Rate"). The IOUs are then obligated to pass this cash payment through to their residential and small farm customers through rate reductions for these customer classes.

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Ninth Circuit Rejects Petition Seeking Regulation of Greenhouse Gases in Washington

October 25, 2013

Two October decisions of the federal courts are likely to have significant implications for regulation of greenhouse gases ("GHG") under the Clean Air Act. Of greatest note for the State of Washington, the Ninth Circuit last week overturned a lower court's order that would have required the Washington Department of Ecology ("Ecology") to set standards limiting GHG emissions from Washington's five oil refineries. The Court of Appeals concluded that the environmental plaintiffs lacked standing to bring their complaint. (Washington Environmental Council v. Bellon, No. 12-35323 (issued Oct. 17, 2013)).

In that case, two environmental groups filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court under the Clean Air Act's citizen suit provisions arguing that Ecology, which administers the Clean Air Act in Washington under an EPA-approved State Implementation Plan, is obligated to set GHG emissions limits on the five refineries under the Act's "Reasonably Available Control Technology" requirements. The District Court agreed, ordering Ecology to develop GHG emissions limits for the five oil refineries by 2014.

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Washington Supreme Court: Executive Privilege Allows Governor To Withhold Documents Under Public Records Act

October 17, 2013

In a milestone decision, the Washington Supreme Court today upheld Gov. Christine Gregoire's assertion of executive privilege to prevent disclosure of documents under the Washington Public Records Act. Concluding that the "cardinal and fundamental" constitutional principle of separation of powers overrides the Public Records Act's "strongly worded mandate for broad disclosure of public records," today's decision permits the Governor to assert executive privilege over documents created in the process of formulating policy and prevent disclosure of those documents under the Public Records Act. The decision effectively creates a new Public Records Act exemption for documents created in the executive branch policy formulation process. It also shifts the burdens of proof that generally apply under the Public Records Act. (Freedom Foundation v. Gregoire, Wa. Sup. Ct. No. 86384-9 (decided Oct. 17, 2013)).

Today's decision arose from a dispute over a half-dozen documents created by Governor Gregoire and her senior advisory staff discussing controversial topics such as replacement of Seattle's Alaska Way Viaduct, the Columbia River Biological Opinion, and medical marijuana legislation. An employee of the Freedom Foundation requested eleven documents on these subjects under the Public Records Act, which generally requires all government documents to be released upon request unless a specific exemption applies. Gov. Gregoire released five of the documents and a redacted version of a sixth. The remaining documents were withheld, but rather than following the usual course of relying on a specific statutory exemption to justify withholding, the Governor's office asserted executive privilege over the documents. The Governor argued that executive privilege is inherent in the separation of powers scheme implied in the Washington constitution, and the documents were subject to executive privilege because they were used by the Governor to formulate policy. The lower court agreed with these arguments and the Supreme Court accepted direct review.

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Minimum Streamflows: Washington Supreme Court Rejects Claim of Broad Authority to Override Minimum Streamflow Requirements

October 3, 2013

The Supreme Court of Washington today issued an opinion sharply limiting the Department of Ecology's authority to limit minimum streamflow requirements to serve "overriding considerations of the public interest." Today's decision, arising from a long-running conflict concerning minimum streamflows on the Skagit River, finds that this statutory language is "very narrow" and Ecology can override minimum streamflows only in "extraordinary circumstances." The Court therefore rejects Ecology's conclusion that it is authorized to make exceptions to minimum flow requirements on a demonstration that net economic benefits will result. As a result, it will be much more difficult for Ecology to accommodate new water withdrawals to support economic development in those basins where withdrawal limits imposed by minimum streamflows have been reached. (Swinomish Indian Tribal Community v. Department of Ecology, No. 87672-0 (issued Oct. 3, 2013)).

In 1969, the legislature adopted a minimum streamflow statute authorizing Ecology to implement minimum streamflows to protect fish, wildlife, water quality, and aesthetic values of the state's streams and rivers. A minimum streamflow is functionally equivalent to any other water right in that it is subject to the venerable "first in time, first in right" principle of Western water law. That is, water users with rights arising after the minimum streamflow is established cannot withdraw water if the withdrawal would impair the minimum streamflow. Today's Supreme Court decision defines the scope of Ecology's authority to authorize water withdrawals that conflict with minimum streamflows "only in those situations where it is clear that overriding considerations of the public interest will be served." RCW 90.54.020(3)(a).

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Will Protectionism Foil California's Increased RPS Mandate?

September 23, 2013

Under AB 327, passed this month by the California legislature, California has cleared the way to ratchet up its aggressive Renewable Portfolio Standard ("RPS") mandate beyond the 33% it already requires. But the legislature did nothing to address the most troubling aspect of California's RPS program, the "Portfolio Content Categories" -- commonly referred to as "buckets" -- which systematically favor in-state renewable resources over out-of-state resources. A recent report from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory ("NREL") shows, however, that California is rapidly running out of easily-developed in-state resources. It is therefore becoming increasingly clear that, unless California lowers the wall it has erected around its renewable energy market, it will either be unable to meet its ambitious renewable energy goals or else meeting those goals will come at an exorbitant cost to the state's consumers.

On the other hand, if California lowers or eliminates barriers to outside resources, access to huge and highly desirable resources in other parts of the West will allow California to achieve its ambitious climate and renewable energy goals in the most economically efficient manner. Even if California's legislature is unwilling to lower these barriers voluntarily, recent decisions from the federal courts demonstrate that its protectionist policies can be overcome through a legal challenge under the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

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Ninth Circuit Orders Amendments to Northwest Power & Conservation Council's Sixth Power Plan

September 19, 2013

While rejecting the potentially most far-reaching claim of the environmental petitioners, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit yesterday remanded the Northwest Power and Conservation Council's ("Council") Sixth Power Plan to correct two perceived errors. The opinion is the latest chapter in the Pacific Northwest's "salmon wars," a decades-long political and legal struggle to balance the health of the region's iconic salmon runs with its economically vital hydroelectric power system. Northwest Resource Information Center, Inc. v. Northwest Power & Conservation Council, No. 10-72104 (issued September 18, 2013).

The Council is the body designated under the Northwest Power Act to develop a plan that provides a robust regional fish and wildlife conservation program, while preserving the value of the regional hydroelectric system. The power planning process is the core mechanism employed by the Council to achieve this balance. Hence, changes to power planning process can have far-reaching consequences.

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Ninth Circuit Upholds California's Low Carbon Fuel Standard, Finding No Discrimination Against Out-of-State Fuel Producers

September 18, 2013

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit today issued what may prove to be a landmark decision concerning California's efforts to regulate emissions of greenhouse gases ("GHG"). The Appeals Court concludes that California's Low-Carbon Fuel Standard ("LCFS") does not violate the Commerce Clause even though California uses a life-cycle analysis of carbon intensity that penalizes, for example, ethanol from the Midwest produced using coal-fired electricity, and favors ethanol using less carbon-intensive methods of production. Concluding that California's ambitious efforts to address GHG emissions should not be limited by "archaic formalism," the opinion allows states considerable room to experiment with new approaches to GHG regulation. That being said, the opinion also makes clear that environmental protection cannot be used as an excuse to arbitrarily burden interstate energy transactions. Rocky Mountain Farmers Union et al. v. Corey et al., No. 12-15131 (issued Sept. 18, 2013).

The LCFS, adopted as part of the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 (commonly referred to as "AB 32"), is aimed at reducing GHG emissions from California's transportation sector, which account for about 40% of the state's total GHG emissions. Using 2010 carbon intensity as a baseline, the LCFS requires fuel producers and blenders to meet specific carbon intensity limits, which decline annually from the 2010 baseline through 2020. Producers that exceed the limits are awarded credits that can be sold to producers that fail to meet the limits. For gasoline producers, blending gasoline with ethanol is the only practicable way to meet the LCFS.

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Fish Hatcheries, the Federal Reclamation Act, and State Water Law: Ninth Circuit Rejects Lawsuit, Reaffirming Primacy of State Water Law

September 11, 2013

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit today rejected a claim brought by environmental advocates who asserted that the Leavenworth National Fish Hatchery has been operating illegally because it has not obtained permits to divert water as required under Washington law. While the decision leaves the door ajar for the environmental advocates to pursue their claims in state forums, the decision strongly reinforces the long-held principle that federal reclamation facilities must abide by state law governing water rights. Wild Fish Conservancy v. Jewell, No. 10-3503 (issued Sept. 11, 2003).

The central question raised by the environmental plaintiffs is weather the Leavenworth hatchery, which was constructed to mitigate for damage to fisheries caused by construction of the Grand Coulee Dam, is required by Section 8 of the Reclamation Act of 1902 to obtain water rights under Washington law before it can divert water from Icicle Creek. Icicle Creek is a major tributary of the Wenatchee River, which, in turn, is a major tributary of the Columbia River. Reflecting a long-held tenet of federal policy that federal projects should generally comply with state water law, Section 8 requires the federal government to "proceed in conformity" with state water law and also includes strong language protecting the water rights of landowners, appropriators, government entities, and others established under state law. The court rejected the environmental plaintiffs' claim, concluding that the plaintiffs lacked standing. While standing decisions often leave the substantive question unaddressed, the court's reasoning in today's case reinforces the primacy of state law under Section 8. The decision therefore is likely to prove significant for federal facilities constructed under the Reclamation Act, as well as for facilities subject to other federal statutes containing language similar to Section 8. These include, among many others, Section 27 of Federal Power Act (16 U.S.C. Sec. 812) and Section 10(h) of the Northwest Power Act (16 U.S.C. Sec. 839g(h).

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