Justia U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Energy, Oil & Gas Law
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In 2019 the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin issued a permit authorizing two transmission companies and an electric cooperative to build and operate a $500 million, 100-mile power line. Environmental groups filed lawsuits in both federal and state courts, alleging that two of the three commissioners had disqualifying conflicts of interest and should have recused themselves.The Seventh Circuit affirmed the denial of the commissioners’ motion to dismiss based on sovereign immunity. The commissioners were sued in their official capacities, so sovereign immunity blocks this suit in its entirety unless it falls within the Ex parte Young exception, which authorizes a federal suit against state officials for the purpose of obtaining prospective relief against an ongoing violation of federal law. The environmental groups seek an order enjoining the permit’s enforcement, prospective relief; they contend that the violation is ongoing as long as the permit remains in force and effect and the commissioners have the power to enforce, modify, or rescind it. Ex parte Young applies.The court, sua sponte, remanded with instructions to stay the case pending resolution of the state proceedings. Both cases raise materially identical due-process recusal claims. The case implicates serious state interests regarding the operation of Wisconsin administrative law and judicial review. Litigating the same questions in both court systems is duplicative and wasteful; comity and the sound administration of judicial resources warrant abstention. View "Driftless Area Land Conservancy v. Valcq" on Justia Law

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Gasoline is subject to an excise tax. The combined fuel excise taxes account for more than 80% of the annual revenue collected for the Highway Trust Fund. The 2005 Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act. introduced new credits that fuel producers could use to offset their fuel excise taxes, including one for using “alternative fuels” to create “alternative fuel mixtures” (AFM credit), 26 U.S.C. 6426(e).U.S. Venture buys fuel from various suppliers and combines it with different additives before selling the finished product to retailers. Since 2012 U.S. Venture has commonly added butane to the gasoline it produces and sells. Butane is a type of gas, made from both natural gas and petroleum. It has long been considered a fuel additive, with suppliers adding it to gasoline since at least the 1960s.In 2017. U.S. Venture first sought an AFM tax credit for producing and selling fuel that contained a mixture of gasoline and butane. The IRS rejected its position. The district court and Seventh Circuit affirmed. There is nothing alternative about gasoline containing a butane additive, as indicated by a combination of statutory provisions defining the scope of the alternative fuel mixture tax credit. View "U.S. Venture, Inc. v. United States" on Justia Law

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In 1938, West’s predecessor granted Louisville Gas & Electric’s predecessor a perpetual easement permitting a 248-foot-tall tower carrying high-voltage electric lines. In 1990, Louisville sought permission to allow Charter Communication install on the towers a fiber-optic cable that carries communications (telephone service, cable TV service, and internet data); West refused. In 2000 Louisville concluded that the existing easement allows the installation of wires that carry photons (fiber-optic cables) along with the wires that carry electrons. West disagreed and filed suit, seeking compensation.The Seventh Circuit affirmed that the use that Louisville and Charter have jointly made of the easement is permissible under Indiana law. The court cited 47 U.S.C. 541(a)(2), part of the Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984, which provides: Any franchise shall be construed to authorize the construction of a cable system over public rights-of-way, and through easements, which is within the area to be served by the cable system and which have been dedicated for compatible uses, except that in using such easements the cable operator shall ensure…. The court examined the language of the easement and stated: “At least the air rights have been “dedicated” to transmission, and a telecom cable is “compatible” with electric transmission. Both photons and electrons are in the electromagnetic spectrum.” View "West v. Charter Communications, Inc." on Justia Law

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In 1999, after deregulation of the energy industry in Illinois, Exelon sold its fossil-fuel power plants to use the proceeds on its nuclear plants and infrastructure. The sales yielded $4.8 billion, $2 billion more than expected. Exelon attempted to defer tax liability on the gains by executing “like-kind exchanges,” 26 U.S.C. 1031(a)(1). Exelon identified its Collins Plant, to be sold for $930 million, with $823 of taxable gain, and its Powerton Plant, to be sold for $870 million ($683 million in taxable gain) for exchanges. Exelon identified as investment candidates a Texas coal-fired plant to replace Collins and Georgia coal-fired plants to replace Powerton. In “sale-and-leaseback” transactions, Exelon leased an out-of-state power plant from a tax-exempt entity for a period longer than the plant’s estimated useful life, then immediately leased the plant back to that entity for a shorter sublease term. and provided to the tax-exempt entity a multi-million-dollar accommodation fee with a fully-funded purchase option to terminate Exelon’s residual interest after the sublease. Exelon asserted that it had acquired a genuine ownership interest in the plants, qualifying them as like-kind exchanges.The Commissioner disallowed the benefits claimed by Exelon, characterizing the transactions as a variant of the traditional sale-in-lease-out (SILO) tax shelters, widely invalidated as abusive tax shelters. The tax court and Seventh Circuit affirmed, applying the substance over form doctrine to conclude that the Exelon transactions failed to transfer to Exelon a genuine ownership interest in the out-of-state plants. In substance Exelon’s transactions resemble loans to the tax-exempt entities. View "Exelon Corp. v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue" on Justia Law

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Regional transmission organizations manage the interstate grid for electricity, conduct auctions through which many large generators of electricity sell most or all of their power, and are regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) Illinois subsidizes nuclear generation facilities by granting “zero emission credits,” which generators that use coal or gas to produce power must purchase from the recipients at a price set by the state. Electricity producers and municipalities sued, contending that the price‐adjustment aspect of the system is preempted by the Federal Power Act because it impinges on the FERC’s regulatory authority. They acknowledge that a state may levy a tax on carbon emissions; tax the assets and incomes of power producers; tax revenues to subsidize generators; or create a cap‐and‐trade system requiring every firm that emits carbon to buy credits from firms that emit less carbon. They argued that the zero‐emission‐credit system indirectly regulates the auction by using average auction prices as a component in a formula that affects the credits' cost. The Seventh Circuit affirmed summary judgment for the defendants. Illinois has not engaged in discrimination beyond that required to regulate within its borders. All Illinois carbon‐emitting plants need to buy credits. The subsidy’s recipients are in Illinois. The price effect of the statute is felt wherever the power is used. All power (from inside and outside Illinois) goes for the same price in an interstate auction. The cross‐subsidy among producers may injure investors in carbon‐ releasing plants, but only plants in Illinois. View "Village of Old Mill Creek v. Star" on Justia Law

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Until 1997, Illinois residents could only purchase power from a public utility, with rates regulated by the ICC. The Electric Service Customer Choice and Rate Relief Law allows residents to buy electricity from their local public utility, another utility, or an Alternative Retail Electric Supplier (ARES). The ICC was not given rate-making authority over ARESs, but was given oversight responsibilities. The Law did not explicitly provide a mechanism for recovering damages from an ARES related to rates. Zahn purchased electricity from NAPG, after receiving an offer of a “New Customer Rate” of $.0499 per kilowatt hour in her first month, followed by a “market-based variable rate.” Zahn never received NAPG’s “New Customer Rate.” NAPG charged her $.0599 per kilowatt hour for the first two months, followed by a rate higher than Zahn’s local public utility charged. Zahn filed a class-action complaint, claiming violations of the Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act, breach of contract, and unjust enrichment. The court dismissed for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction, or for failure to state a claim. After the Illinois Supreme Court answered a certified question, stating that the ICC does not have exclusive jurisdiction to hear Zahn’s claims, the Seventh Circuit reversed. The district court had jurisdiction and Zahn alleged facts that, if true, could constitute a breach of contract or a deceptive business practice. View "Zahn v. North American Power & Gas, LLC" on Justia Law

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In 2005, Duke Energy bought, from Benton, renewable energy at a price high enough to enable construction of wind turbines, and acquired tradeable renewable‑energy credits. The contract requires Duke to pay Benton for all power delivered during the next 20 years. When Benton's 100-megawat facility started operating in 2008 it was the only area wind farm. Duke paid for everything Benton could produce. The regional transmission organization, Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO), which implements a bidding system for the network, cleared the power to the regional grid. By 2015, aggregate capacity of local wind farms reached 1,745 megawatts, exceeding the local grid’s capacity. At times, would‑be producers must pay MISO to take power; buyers get free electricity. Initially, MISO allowed wind farms to deliver to the grid no matter what other producers (coal, nuclear, solar, hydro) were doing, which meant that such producers had to cut back. On March 1, 2013, the rules changed to put wind farms on a par with other producers. Under MISO’s new system, with Duke’s responsive bid, Benton has gone from delivering power 100% of the time the wind allowed to delivering only 59% of the time. The district court agreed with Duke that, when MISO tells Benton to stop delivering power, it does not owe Benton anything, rejecting Benton’s claim that Duke could put Benton’s power on the grid by bidding to displace other power, and that when Duke does not, it owes liquidated damages. The judge found that bidding $0 is “reasonable” cooperation. The Seventh Circuit reversed; the contract implies that Duke must do what is needed to make transmission capacity available. View "Benton County Wind Farm LLC v. Duke Energy Indiana, Inc." on Justia Law

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After the 2012 enactment of the American Energy Manufacturing Technical Corrections Act, 42 U.S.C. 6313(c)(4)), the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) published two final rules in 2014, aimed at improving the energy efficiency of commercial refrigeration equipment (CRE). One adopted new energy efficiency standards for CRE, 79 Fed. Reg. 17,726. The second rule, issued a month later, clarified the test procedures that DOE uses to implement those standards, 79 Fed. Reg. 22,278. Trade associations of CRE manufacturers challenged the rules. The Seventh Circuit upheld the rules, rejecting challenges to DOE’s engineering analysis, economic analysis, regulatory flexibility analysis, and assessment of the cumulative regulatory burden. The court concluded that “DOE acted in a manner worthy of deference.” The first rule was premised on an analytical model that is supported by substantial evidence and was not arbitrary. DOE conducted a cost‐ benefit analysis that is within its statutory authority and is supported by substantial evidence. It gave appropriate consideration to the rule’s effect on small businesses and the role of other agency regulations. DOE similarly acted within its authority, and within reason, when it promulgated the Test Procedure Rule. View "Zero Zone, Inc. v. Dep't of Energy" on Justia Law

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MISO, a regional association, monitors and manages the electricity transmission grid in several midwestern and southern states, plus Manitoba, Canada, balancing the load, setting competitive prices for transmission services, and planning and supervising expansion of the system. Until 2011, if MISO decided that another transmission facility was needed in the region, the MISO member that served the area in which the facility would be built had the right of first refusal to build it, pursuant to the contract among the MISO members. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) Order No. 1000 required transmission providers to participate in regional transmission planning to identify worthwhile projects, and to allocate the costs of the projects to the parts of the region that would benefit the most from the projects. To facilitate its implementation, the order directed providers “to remove provisions from [FERC] jurisdictional tariffs and agreements that grant incumbent transmission providers a federal right of first refusal to construct transmission facilities selected in a regional transmission plan for purposes of cost allocation.” FERC believed that competition would result in lower rates to consumers of electricity. The Seventh Circuit denied petitions for review of the order. The electric companies did not show that the right of first refusal was in the public interest View "MISO Transmission Owners v. Fed. Energy Regulatory Comm'n" on Justia Law

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Until 1997, Illinois residents could only purchase power from the local public utility, whose rates were regulated by the Commerce Commission (ICC). The 1997 Electric Service Customer Choice and Rate Relief Law allows residents to buy electricity from their local public utility, another utility, or an Alternative Retail Electric Supplier (ARES). The ICC was not given rate-making authority over ARESs, but was given certain oversight responsibilities, 220 ILCS 5/16-115. The Law did not explicitly provide a mechanism for recovering damages from an ARES related to the rates. In 2012, Zahn began purchasing electricity from NAPG, after receiving an offer of a “New Customer Rate” of $.0499 per kilowatt hour in her first month of service, followed by a “market-based variable rate.” Zahn never received NAPG’s “New Customer Rate.” NAPG charged her $.0599 per kilowatt hour for the first two months, followed by a rate higher than Zahn’s local public utility charged. Zahn filed a class-action complaint, claiming violations of the Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act, breach of contract, and unjust enrichment. The court dismissed for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction, or for failure to state a claim. The Seventh Circuit certified, to the Illinois Supreme Court, the question of whether the ICC has exclusive jurisdiction to hear Zahn’s claims, noting that Illinois appellate courts are in conflict. View "Zahn v. N. Am. Power & Gas, LLC" on Justia Law