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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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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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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.

Court Finds Washington Public Records Act Applies to Personal Email Accounts of Elected Officials

November 5, 2013

In a decision issued late last week, the Kitsap County Superior Court concluded that, under Washington's Public Records Act, public agencies must produce emails sent or received from the private accounts of elected officials, as well as from City-owned servers. The case underscores the importance of having clear upfront policies in place limiting the use of personal devices to conduct official business and confining official communications to agency-owned equipment, or at least to segregated email accounts designated for official business.

In September, two local citizens sought the disclosure of emails between members of the City Council of the City of Bainbridge Island and the City's Utility Advisory Committee, as well as Council member emails addressing the City's utility department or city employees. The City produced responsive emails from its own servers but argued that it was not obligated to provide emails from the individual computers of Council members who do not consent to releasing records from their person computers. Litigation followed.

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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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Washington Supreme Court Rejects Legal Liability Defense for Utilities and Municipalities Where Criminally Negligent Drivers Cause Accidents

August 8, 2013

The Washington Supreme Court today found that utilities and municipalities may be liable for injuries sustained in car-pole accidents even where the driver is criminally negligent. While a range of defenses remain in such cases, today's ruling as a practical matter makes it considerably more difficult for municipalities and utilities to obtain summary judgment where a claim of negligent design can be made, even where the immediate cause of an injury is gross or criminal misconduct. Lowman v. Wilbur, No. 86584-1 (issued August 8, 2013).

The Supreme Court's opinion addresses a claim for injuries as a result of a car-pole accident, one of the most common tort claims brought against utilities using above-ground lines and government agencies involved in road design and maintenance. In this case, the plaintiff had been drinking with a companion at a bar in Skagit County. After leaving the bar, the plaintiff got into a car with his drinking companion, who was visibly impaired, taking the wheel. Later, the driver lost control on a curvy, two-lane country road near Anacortes and hit a Puget Sound Energy ("PSE") utility pole at a speed 10-15 miles per hour above the posted limit. The driver, whose blood alcohol content was far above the legal limit, was later convicted of vehicular assault.

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Jefferson County PUD Prevails In Tax Dispute; GTH Successfully Defends Summary Judgment Dismissal of Class Action Lawsuit

June 11, 2013

The Washington Supreme Court recently handed a significant victory to Washington's Public Utility Districts when it denied a petition for review of Shoulberg v. Public Utility District No. 1 of Jefferson County. Pursuing a long-standing grievance, taxpayers in Port Townsend filed a class-action lawsuit challenging the PUD's taxation of Port Townsend property owners. The Superior Court and the Washington Court of Appeals (169 Wn. App. 173, 280 P.3d 491 (2012)) rejected the challenge. With the Supreme Court's denial of the petition for review, the Court of Appeals decision is now the final word.

The case involves interpretation of RCW 54.04.030, the section of the PUD statute aimed at preventing duplication of services when PUDs are established in counties with municipal utility systems. The taxpayer plaintiffs argued that property taxes imposed on Port Townsend property owners by the PUD violated the statute's prohibition on duplicative taxation, which prohibits taxation of "property situated within" any city to "pay for any utility, or part thereof, of like character to any utility, owned or operated by such [city]."

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"EIM, RTOs, and FERC Jurisdiction: Does Participation in a Regional Energy Imbalance Market Subject Public Power to FERC Jurisdiction?": Eric Christensen Publishes Article in May NWPPA Bulletin

May 15, 2013

We're proud to announce that GTH partner Eric Christensen penned the cover story in the May 2013 issue of the Northwest Public Power Association Bulletin. Here is the text of the article:

EIM, RTOs, AND FERC JURISDICTION:

Does Participation in a Regional Energy Imbalance Market
Subject Public Power to FERC Jurisdiction?

By Eric Christensen, Partner Gordon Thomas Honeywell


The rapid rise of variable renewable resources, especially wind power, has put increasing pressure on the West's electric system to balance the rapidly fluctuating output often produced by these resources. In response, a regional Energy Imbalance Market ("EIM") is now under active consideration. The EIM would allow Balancing Area Authorities ("BAAs") to obtain balancing reserves from across a broad region, in theory allowing more economic and reliable operation of the region's balancing capacity. Public power has greeted EIM with considerable skepticism, observing that Regional Transmission Organizations ("RTOs") and other "organized markets" have often failed to produce expected benefits.

Public power is equally concerned that an EIM could subject public power systems to Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ("FERC") jurisdiction. Centralized control by FERC is, of course, the antithesis of local control, one of public power's keystone values. FERC's recent tendency to pursue its jurisdiction aggressively on behalf of renewable producers heightens this concern. For example, FERC in 2011 for the first time asserted its "FERC-lite" jurisdiction, invalidating the Bonneville Power Administration's approach to managing periods of excess wind generation.
As this article explains, public power is right to be concerned that an EIM could result in both expanded FERC jurisdiction and a broader push toward a West-wide RTO. Both risks, however, can be mitigated by insisting on specific structures and conditions for EIM participation.

Relevant Precedents: FERC Jurisdiction Over Consumer-Owned Utilities Operating in Organized Markets

In the industry's first few decades, federal jurisdiction was of little concern to public power. Public power operated in its own sphere, governed by elected representatives of the citizens it serves, generally free from either state or federal rate regulation. With increasing integration of the industry and regulatory restructuring, these jurisdictional lines have blurred. In some cases, Congress added new statutory authority giving FERC jurisdiction over specific aspects of consumer-owned systems. In other cases, FERC leveraged its existing statutory authority. For example, to enforce its "open access" transmission regime, FERC required consumer-owned transmission systems to adopt "Safe Harbor" open access tariffs so that they could obtain "reciprocal" access to IOU-owned transmission facilities.

An examination of recent precedents from Western RTOs and cooperative transmission ventures demonstrates that there is some basis for concern that participation in an EIM could subject a consumer-owned utility to new FERC jurisdiction. Perhaps most notoriously, after the meltdown of Western power markets in 2000-01, FERC attempted to force public power entities that had participated in the California ISO and PX markets to disgorge refunds. Ultimately, the Ninth Circuit rejected those attempts, concluding that the Federal Power Act plainly prohibits FERC from exercising its refund authority over public power entities. The Court, however, left the door open for California to pursue refunds in court. This opening has proved costly for public power. For example, in April, the U.S. Court of Claims allowed California's contract-based lawsuit against the Bonneville Power Administration ("BPA") to move forward. This is a particularly bitter pill for Northwest public power ratepayers, many of whom suffered greatly from California's missteps during the 2000-01 market meltdown and were generally denied relief by FERC. They now face the prospect of paying again for California's mistakes, this time through inflated BPA rates.

The Courts have also concluded that consumer-owned utilities participating in the California Independent System Operator ("ISO") may be subject to just-and-reasonable rate regulation where the rates charged by the consumer-owned utility affect the FERC-jurisdictional rates charged by the ISO. When the City of Vernon, California's municipal utility joined the ISO, the rates charged by Vernon for ISO-administered access to Vernon's transmission system became an element of the transmission rates charged by the ISO. FERC concluded that, because Vernon's transmission rates were an element of the ISO's transmission rates, Vernon's rates must be subject to FERC oversight to ensure that the resulting transmission rates charged by the ISO are just and reasonable. After extended litigation, the Ninth Circuit ultimately upheld this result.
FERC has asserted a similar form of jurisdiction over public power entities in other regions, as well. For example, where Basin Electric Cooperative entered into a joint-use transmission arrangement with a FERC-jurisdictional IOU, FERC asserted jurisdiction to review Basin's transmission rates because Basin's rates are a component of the rates charged by the joint-use system.

On the other hand, the courts have flatly rejected FERC attempts to force changes in the management structure of the RTOs and ISOs. Following the 2000-01 crisis, FERC concluded that the ISO's management structure was partly to blame for market dysfunctions, and attempted to force a change in the composition of the ISO Board. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit rejected FERC's assertion of authority. Of particular interest, the Court of Appeals rejected FERC's claim that its authority to regulate the "practices" of jurisdictional utilities allows FERC to order specific changes in the management of those utilities. FERC's reading of the statute, the Court concluded, ignores the surrounding statutory language, which is aimed at providing FERC with authority to regulate rates, not every aspect of utility operations. Thus, the Court reasoned, FERC can regulate utility "practices" only if they are directly connected with the utility's rates. Because there was no clear connection between the structure of the ISO's board and the rates it charged, the Court concluded, FERC's attempt to dictate the structure of the ISO's governing board exceeded its statutory authority.
In summary, the participation of consumer-owned utilities in "organized markets" such as the California ISO is a mixed bag. FERC has on a number of occasions asserted jurisdiction over consumer-owned utilities participating in ISOs or RTOs. And, while the Courts have rejected some of these assertions, they have upheld others. Consumer-owned utilities contemplating participation in the EIM are therefore well-advised to exercise caution if they wish to avoid becoming subject to increased FERC jurisdiction.

Limiting FERC Jurisdiction in an EIM
While exposure to FERC jurisdiction is a valid concern, expanding FERC jurisdiction need not follow inevitably from a decision to participate in the EIM. For example, a number of consumer-owned utilities participate along with FERC-jurisdictional IOUs in regional transmission bodies such as ColumbiaGrid and WestConnect. FERC precedent regarding these and similar regional ventures demonstrate that, with appropriate safeguards, FERC's assertion of jurisdiction over consumer-owned participants can be limited.

Such safeguards include:

Defining off-ramps for consumer-owned utilities. Perhaps the best safeguard for consumer-owned utilities is a clear "off-ramp," allowing them to terminate their participation in EIM if FERC attempts to extend its jurisdiction over them. For example, WestConnect proposed a transmission pilot project aimed at reducing the "pancaking" of transmission rates across the systems of its members, which included both jurisdictional IOUs and non-jurisdictional co-ops and consumer-owned utilities. FERC approved an agreement allowing participants to withdraw at any time prior to the start-up of the pilot, at any time after start-up as a result of adverse regulatory action, and after ninety days' notice for any other reason occurring after start-up. Similarly, the Nebraska Public Power District ("NPPD") and Omaha Public Power District ("OPPD") in the Southwest Power Pool are authorized to withdraw from the Southwest Power Pool if FERC does not accept their rates or transmission revenue requirements. The ability to withdraw from the organization administering EIM in response to an unjustified claim of FERC jurisdiction gives consumer-owned participants powerful leverage to prevent FERC from overstepping its bounds.

De-coupling jurisdictional and non-jurisdictional rates. It may be possible to structure an EIM so that the rates paid to non-jurisdictional utilities remain separate and distinct from the rates paid to FERC-jurisdictional IOUs. For example, before the WestConnect transmission pilot discussed above went into effect, FERC declared that the rates charged by non-jurisdictional utilities were not subject to FERC review because they did not affect rates charged by jurisdictional IOUs and additional safeguards, such as rate caps, were in place to ensure that jurisdictional rates remain just and reasonable. Similarly, FERC has approved participation of NPPD and OPPD in the Southwest Power Pool subject to agreements that explicitly limit FERC's authority to review the NPPD's and OPPD's rates or revenue requirements. As these examples demonstrate, it may be possible to limit FERC jurisdiction by separating EIM rates paid to non-jurisdictional utilities from rates paid to jurisdictional utilities, or by insisting upon specific contractual limits on FERC jurisdiction over public power.

De-coupling the EIM market from transmission rates. The EIM should be limited to the specific function of allowing regional exchange of regulating reserves and other sub-hourly products. It should not operate a centrally-administered transmission market. Limiting the EIM's functions in this manner will prevent FERC from attempting to leverage its jurisdiction over interstate transmission.

Recognizing public power authorities. The authority of public power governing bodies to set their own rates and policies is, of course, a cornerstone of the public power movement. Similarly, consumer-owned utilities operate under unique limitations arising from, for example, state law and from federal rules governing municipal bonds. Consumer-owned utilities participating in the EIM should insist on language in governing agreements that will prevent the actions of the EIM from violating state law, putting tax-exempt financing at risk, or displacing the basic functions of publicly-elected governing bodies. Such mechanisms not only assure consumer-owned utilities that they are operating within the boundaries of existing law, but also serve to limit FERC jurisdiction by requiring FERC to abide by the legal limits faced by consumer-owned utilities.

It is important to recognize that, in the Energy Policy Act of 2005, Congress granted FERC new refund authority over consumer-owned utilities. This new authority allows FERC to order refunds from consumer-owned utilities for short-term sales (sales for periods of less than one month) if the sales are "through an organized market in which the rates for sale are established by [FERC]-approved tariff (rather than by contract)" and the sale violates that tariff. FERC has yet to provide any clear guidance as to the meaning of this new authority. Hence, consumer-owned entities contemplating participation in an EIM must recognize the existence of the new authority, devise strategies for limiting the authority, and consider the possibility that their short-term sales on the EIM could be subject to FERC-ordered refunds.

Limiting EIM Expansion
As with FERC jurisdiction, public power is rightly concerned that, even if an EIM is wise, it could pave the way for a full-fledged RTO, with its attendant costs, complications, and market manipulation risks. In the same way that public power participants in an EIM should insist on limits to FERC jurisdiction, they should also insist on limits that prevent EIM from becoming a "slippery slope" to a West-wide RTO.

Two considerations are key. First, there is no reason that the EIM itself should be considered an RTO. On the contrary, if the functions of the EIM are strictly limited to its core mission, it would not be an RTO because it would not operate all the functions of an RTO. Rather, it would be more like ColumbiaGrid or WestConnect, organizations which perform limited transmission functions but are neither registered as an RTO nor considered to be an RTO by FERC.

Second, the governing documents of EIM should either prohibit expansion of the organization or else require a supermajority to move forward with any new functions. For example, ColumbiaGrid's governing documents allow it to take on new functions only with a super-majority vote of its members. Such a supermajority requirement can prevent movement toward in RTO unless a strong regional consensus, which necessarily must include public power, develops in favor of RTOs.

Conclusion
Public power has good cause to be concerned that participation in an EIM could result in expanded FERC jurisdiction over consumer-owned utilities and could be a step toward a West-wide RTO. These are not inevitable consequences of an EIM, however, and a number of proven safeguards are available to prevent these outcomes if consumer-owned utilities elect to participate in the EIM.

(Note: While the article is officially the "Cover Story" of the May NWPPA Bulletin, the photo on the cover is in fact a vendor from NWPPA's recent Engineering and Operations Conference. This is because, despite a valiant effort, NWPPA's editors could not find a compelling graphic concerning the EIM or FERC jurisdiction.)

Public Records at the Intersection of Personal Privacy, Public Disclosure, and Litigation: Washington Supreme Court Clarifies Public Records Act Obligations

May 13, 2013

The Washington Supreme Court late last week issued a pair of opinions that provide a road map for public agencies struggling to reconcile disclosure obligations under the Washington Public Records Act ("PRA") with the thicket of state and federal laws protecting information from public disclosure. Read together, the decisions clarify how public agencies should treat information that is protected from disclosure under either federal law or under the multitude of exemptions from public disclosure provided by Washington law. The cases also serve as a powerful reminder that Washington public agencies must have public disclosure policies in place and carefully follow those policies -- with assistance from legal counsel, if required -- when responding to requests for disclosure of public records. Finally, the Court seems to have gone out of its way to provide guidance on its view of how the Public Records Act should be applied. It may therefore be advisable for public agencies with a disclosure policy in place to review the policy in light of the Court's new guidance.

The opinion in Resident Action Council v. Seattle Housing Authority leaves the reader with a sense of the Court's frustration that Washington public agencies seem regularly to misunderstand or misapply the PRA. The Court seems to imply that such errors help make the PRA one of the most litigated statutes before the Court. Despite Chief Justice Madsen's concurrence arguing that the Court goes well beyond what is required to decide the case, the opinion expends a good deal of ink setting forth the analytical framework the Court believes public agencies should follow when responding to PRA requests.

As an over-arching framework, the Court identifies five "indispensable steps" an agency must go through in responding to a PRA request, and even includes a flow chart to illustrate these steps. In essence, the flowchart is simply a way to illustrate the familiar principle that public agencies have an obligation to disclose public records unless the record is subject to an exemption and, if the record is subject to an exemption, to disclose redacted records. If the agency has properly determined that the information is protected, it can be released only "in rare cases" where a judge concludes that continued protection of the information is "clearly unnecessary."

The Court adds a new step to this analytical framework, identifying a system for classifying the PRA's141 exemptions and explaining how the different classes of exemptions should be analyzed. The Court divides the PRA's exemptions into "categorical" exemptions and "conditional" exemptions. Categorical exemptions are those that "exempt without limit a particular type of information or record." For example, RCW 42.56.230(a) categorically exempts debit card numbers from public disclosure. Conditional exemptions are those that exempt a particular type of information from public disclosure, "but only insofar as an identified privacy right or vital governmental interest is demonstrably threatened in a given case." For example, the PRA exempts from disclosure the identity of crime victims but only "if disclosure would endanger any person's life, physical safety, or property." RCW 42.56.240(2). The Court's opinion includes an appendix that categorizes all 141 PRA exemptions as either categorical, conditional, or, in the case of four exemptions, "ambiguous."

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Washington Appeals Court Finds PUDs Have Authority to Condemn Public Trust Lands

May 7, 2013

The Washington State Court of Appeals today issued an opinion finding that Washington Public Utility Districts ("PUDs") have the statutory authority to condemn state school trust lands in order to construct transmission lines and other utility infrastructure. Today's opinion is the latest chapter in a twisting saga that began in 1996, when Okanogan County PUD began planning a new transmission line between existing substations in Pateros and Twisp in the Methow Valley. The opinion confirms that, unless state lands have been dedicated to a particular public use, PUDs have authority to condemn those lands for utility purposes. By extension, the opinion should allow other Washington municipalities, such as Port Districts, cities, and towns, to condemn state lands for public purposes because they have statutory condemnation authority similar to that of PUDs.

The long and winding road of litigation began with a decade of environmental review, culminating in a Court of Appeals opinion confirming that Okanogan PUD's environmental review met required standards and that the PUD did not act arbitrarily in selecting the route for the transmission line. (Gebbers v. Okanogan County Public Util. Dist. No. 1, 144 Wn.App. 371, 183 P.3d 324, rev. denied, 165 Wn.2d 1004, 198 P.3d 511 (2008)). The PUD then began obtaining easements covering the selected route. After negotiating easements for about 85% of the required land, the PUD then filed a petition for condemnation against the remaining property owners. Among the parcels involved in the condemnation proceeding was a tract of state school trust lands.

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Washington Supreme Court Rejects EMF Damages Claim Against PSE and Kirkland, Relieving Major Liability Concern

March 7, 2013

The Washington Supreme Court today rejected tort claims based on exposure to Electromagnetic Fields ("EMF") from a utility substation. The Court's rejection of the EMF claim, which is consistent with similar conclusions reached by, for example, the California Supreme Court, is perhaps the final brick in the wall for EMF claims against electric utilities. The decision is therefore an important milestone in the effort, played out over the last several decades, to protect electric utilities from EMF claims with dubious scientific support. In addition, the Court rejected an inverse condemnation claim against the City of Kirkland, broadly protecting local land use decision-makers against tort liability.

The case, entitled Lakey v. Puget Sound Energy, arises from Puget Sound Energy's ("PSE") routine upgrade of an electric substation in a Kirkland, Washington neighborhood. Because the upgrade required relatively minor variances from the local zoning code, PSE sought variances from the City of Kirkland. Neighboring property owners unsuccessfully fought the variance. They then sued PSE, seeking damages for exposure to EMF from the substation and the City of Kirkland under an inverse condemnation theory. The trial court rejected both claims. After a Frye hearing, the trial court rejected the plaintiffs' expert scientific testimony as unreliable. And it rejected the inverse condemnation claim on legal grounds. The Court of Appeals certified the case for direct appeal to the Washington Supreme Court, which heard argument on October 18, 2012.

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U.S. Supreme Court Narrows Antitrust Exemptions for Local Government Entities

February 22, 2013

In a decision of great interest to Washington's Public Hospital Districts, Public Utility Districts, Port Districts, and many other state and local government entities, the Supreme Court this week issued an opinion clarifying and narrowing antitrust immunity for state and local governments. As a result of the decision, public agencies will need to exercise great care when taking actions that could restrict competition.

Under the "state-action immunity doctrine," the courts have long recognized that local government entities are immune from federal antitrust liability if they act under state law intended to restrict competition. But, for immunity to apply, a local government entity must act under a "clearly articulated and affirmatively expressed state policy to displace competition." This week's Supreme Court decision, FTC v. Phoebe Putney Health System, Inc., clarifies how this "clearly articulated and affirmatively expressed" test should be applied. The Court concludes that, while state legislatures need not explicitly state that they intend to restrict competition, limitation of competition must be the natural and logical consequence of the policy adopted by the state.

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Rushing the Spring? PacifiCorp, California ISO Announce Energy Imbalance Market

February 13, 2013

At this time of year here in the Pacific Northwest, months of damp and dreary weather leave even the hardiest natives yearning for the brighter days of spring and summer. In February, Northwest gardeners can often be found digging, planting, composting, and weeding in the hope that this will somehow hasten the coming of more pleasant weather. Of course, spring cannot be rushed, but comes only in its own time. Yesterday, PacifiCorp and the California ISO ("CAISO") announced a Memorandum of Understanding ("MOU") committing the two entities to implementing a real-time Energy Imbalance Market ("EIM") by October of 2014. Like Northwest gardeners attempting to rush the spring, the MOU appears to be an attempt to jumpstart an EIM in the West. Because PacifiCorp and the CAISO are two of the largest transmission operators in the West, the effort must be taken seriously.

The EIM is one proposed solution to the problems of integrating increasing volumes of variable generation from renewable resources such as wind power. The core aim of EIM is to establish a market for regulating and balancing reserves that would allow system operators to draw on a wide range and diversity of resources to maintain electric system balance as renewable generation rises and falls, which theoretically will improve the efficiency of balancing operations. The EIM idea has been under consideration in the Northwest for the last couple of years, and has advanced to the point that detailed studies are being performed.

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FERC Extends Power Trade Reporting Requirements to Public Power

September 26, 2012

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ("FERC") last week issued a Final Rule extending its long-standing requirements for reporting data on wholesale power trading to PUDs, municipal power providers, rural electric coops, and other publicly-owned utilities. While investor-owned utilities ("IOUs") have been required to file power trading data in Electronic Quarterly Reports ("EQRs") since 2001, that requirement was not extended to public power utilities until now. But, beginning with the third quarter of 2013, public power agencies engaging in more than 4 million MWh of wholesale transactions will be required to file EQRs with FERC.

FERC's action is based on Section 220 of the Federal Power Act ("FPA"), which was added to the FPA in the Energy Policy Act of 2005. In Section 220, Congress directed FERC to "facilitate price transparency in markets for the sale and transmission of electric energy" by prescribing rules for reporting information about "availability and prices" of wholesale energy and transmission service. Section 220 authorizes FERC to obtain market information from "any market participant" except for those having a "de minimis market presence." By extending the reach of Section 220 to "any market participant," Section 220 explicitly sweeps in public power entities that are engaged in wholesale transactions. The jurisdictional sweep of Section 220 is therefore much broader than most other provisions of the FPA, which generally apply only to IOUs.

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