In the April 27, 2019 edition of the Energy Bar Association’s Energy Law Journal, FERC Commissioner Richard Glick and legal advisor Matthew Christiansen published an article titled “FERC and Climate Change,” describing that the actions of the Commission, as well as the family of federal and state agencies, have “substantial consequences” for climate change.  The authors argue that the threat of climate change does not necessitate “a wholesale reinterpretation of the Commission’s jurisdiction or a novel regulatory paradigm,” but rather a consistent application of FERC’s existing mandate.  In addition to discussing the Commission’s role in wholesale electric markets in enabling competition for zero-and-low carbon-emitting technologies (such as solar, wind, batteries and even distributed energy resources), the authors place emphasis on hydroelectric generation as an effective resource for grid decarbonization and that such benefits should be considered in FERC’s existing “public interest” analysis.
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On April 18, 2019, FERC issued a unanimous order, supported by all FERC Commissioners, ruling that the California State Water Resources Control Board (“SWRCB”) waived authority to issue a water quality certification under Section 401 of the Clean Water Act (“CWA”), 33 U.S.C. § 1641, in the pending hydropower relicensing of the Middle Fork American River Project (“Project”).  Applying the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit’s (“D.C. Circuit”) seminal opinion in Hoopa Valley Tribe v. FERC issued in early 2019 (see January 30, 2019 edition of the WER), FERC held that SWRCB’s “active[] participation” in the applicant’s annual withdrawal-and-resubmittal of the license applicant’s request for Section 401 certification since 2012, “on occasion directly requesting the withdrawal and refiling,” constituted an agreement between the applicant and SWRCB that does not re-start the maximum one-year time period for states to act on a request for water quality certification under Section 401.
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On January 25, 2019, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia (“D.C. Circuit”) in a unanimous decision granted a petition for review in Hoopa Valley Tribe v. FERC, No. 14-1271 (D.C. Cir., Jan. 25, 2019).  The key holding in the case, which concerns the ongoing FERC’s relicensing of the Klamath Hydroelectric Project, is that the States of California and Oregon waived their authorities under section 401 of the Clean Water Act (“CWA”), 33 U.S.C. § 1341, by failing to rule on the applicant’s submitted application for water quality certification within one year from when it was initially filed in 2006.  The applicant for many years had followed, at the request of the States, the common industry practice of “withdraw-and-resubmit” of its water quality certification application in an attempt to annually reset the one-year time period for the States to act, as established under CWA section 401.  The D.C. Circuit in Hoopa Valley Tribe invalidated this practice as a means of resetting the statutory clock, instead holding that the clear text of CWA establishes that “a full year is the absolute maximum” time for a state to decide on a water quality certification application.
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On December 11, 2018, the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) and the Department of the Army (together, “Agencies”) released their much-anticipated Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“Proposed Rule”), which if adopted would scale back the jurisdictional reach of the Clean Water Act (“CWA”) by narrowing the definition of “Waters of the United States” (“WOTUS”) to include only those waters that are oceans, rivers, streams, lakes, ponds, and wetlands, and their “naturally occurring surface water channels.”  The practical implications of the Proposed Rule for hydropower project owners and energy project developers are that ephemeral streams and many ponds and ditches used in agricultural, industrial, and construction activities would no longer be within the jurisdictional reach of the CWA, alleviating the requirement for and uncertainty surrounding permitting requirements and related mitigation measures.
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Three recent FERC staff decisions (“Decisions”) confirm that, for purposes of establishing the mandatory licensing requirements under the Federal Power Act (“FPA”), groundwater is not a “non-navigable Commerce Clause stream.”  Thus, a hydropower project—and particularly a closed-loop pumped storage project—that uses only groundwater as its water source will not require FERC licensing if the project does not trigger other jurisdictional tests under the FPA.
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On June 7, 2018, the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Energy held a hearing to review improving interagency coordination for the timely processing of environmental reviews and authorizations for non-Federal hydropower projects.  The hearing focused on delays in the licensing process and how interagency coordination can improve licensing reviews.
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