On Friday, August 9, the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) unveiled a pre-publication version of a notice of proposed rulemaking (“NOPR”) to clarify state water quality certification (“certification”) procedures under Section 401 of the Clean Water Act (“CWA”) to allow for increased regulatory certainty in federal licensing and permitting activities, and particularly authorization of infrastructure projects.  

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) is close to finalizing a rule applicable to the safety of natural gas transmission pipelines that has been nearly eight years in the making. Both Congress and the industry have urged PHMSA to issue a final rule and PHMSA has now signaled that the rule is currently awaiting final approval by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). With a final rule that could be published in the coming weeks or months, pipeline operators should be prepared to review and modify their compliance programs as appropriate.
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With an increased interest in the resolving disputes efficiently and avoiding litigation where possible, the time may be right for the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) to clarify the process for settlement of pipeline safety compliance issues, whether through new rules or a written settlement policy. On the hazardous materials regulatory front, PHMSA has historically engaged in settlements that are guided by an express allowance for settlement under the regulations. The Agency has also engaged in settlements in at least some pipeline safety cases over the years and more so in the last year. Without specific rules or a written settlement policy in place, however, settlements of pipeline safety matters in practice may not be consistently implemented.

Many federal agencies have settlement policies that encourage parties in enforcement actions to discuss issues before progressing to full administrative hearings. Such policies offer the possibility of narrowing, if not resolving, legal disputes, which can benefit all parties by realizing efficiencies and avoiding the cost of protracted disputes. These efforts are analogous to pre-trial conferences in federal courts, where a court may ask the parties to discuss whether issues can be narrowed or resolved without full adjudication, in order to ‘expedite disposition of the action’ and ‘facilitate settlement’ (see Fed.R.Civ.Proc. 16(a)).
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Congress recently convened its third Committee Hearing on reauthorization of the Pipeline Safety Act, before the House Energy and Commerce Committee.  Much of the discussion of focused on pipeline security, among other issues that have been discussed in prior hearings. Adding to the focus was the absence of an invited representative from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the agency who is tasked with sharing oversight of pipeline security with PHMSA. The TSA has come under criticism in light of a recent Government Accountability Office report that was critical of the agency’s Pipeline Security Division and its ability to ensure the safety and reliability of pipeline energy network from both cyber and physical security saboteurs. That report cited “significant weaknesses” in TSA’s program and pointed to, among other challenges, a shortage of qualified inspectors to address cyberattacks and other physical intrusions facing pipelines.
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The Executive Order (EO) “Promoting Energy Infrastructure and Economic Growth,” issued by the White House on April 10, 2019 has primarily been heralded as an effort to prevent states from blocking pipelines under their Clean Water Act Section 401 certification authority. President Trump addressed a number of other energy issues in the same Executive Order, however, all attempting to remove barriers to energy projects in the U.S. As summarized below, these include a call for updating regulations governing LNG facility safety regulations, addressing sunset provisions in agreements for energy infrastructure on federal lands, and requesting reports assessing impediments to fuel supply in New England and export efforts in West Coast, and ways to promote economic growth in Appalachia.

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President Trump recently issued two much anticipated Executive Orders aimed to streamline the permitting of U.S. energy infrastructure. One Executive Order (EO) focuses primarily on Clean Water Act (CWA) state issued water quality certifications and associated EPA guidance and regulations. In “Executive Order on Promoting Energy Infrastructure and Economic Growth,” the Administration takes aim at “outdated Federal guidance and regulations” under Section 401 of the CWA that are “causing confusion and uncertainty and are hindering the development of energy infrastructure.” While states and environmental organizations are concerned that the EO will limit a state’s authority under the CWA, the impact of the EO at least initially appears to be limited, as the statute and the case law on point already establish certain limits regardless of the EO. What remains to be seen is the import of any proposed rulemakings issued as a result of this EO, or whether these issues prompt any legislation that proposes to amend Section 401 of the CWA.

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The first Congressional Hearing on Pipeline Safety Act Reauthorization for 2019 was held this week before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.  The Hearing did not have as much drama as last summer’s Hearing before the same Committee, where PHMSA Administrator Skip Elliott was asked sharply to explain why the Agency had failed to fulfill so many Congressional mandates and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Recommendations.  In his written testimony at this week’s Hearing, Administrator Elliott stated that “When I spoke [here] last year, I heard clearly from [Committee] members that finalizing outstanding Congressional mandates must be a top priority.”   The Committee staff report issued for the Hearing listed 12 “unmet mandates,” and Administrator Elliott’s written testimony conceded that PHMSA yet to address 8 mandates from the 2011 Pipeline Safety Act (PSA) reauthorization, and another 4 from the 2016 PSA reauthorization.  Of that dozen outstanding mandates, 4 relate to reports and 8 involve rulemaking.  Jennifer Homendy, a member of the NTSB, testified that the NTSB has 24 “open” recommendations to PHMSA, several on the Board’s “most wanted” list for completion.  Homendy previously served as the Democratic Staff Director of the Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

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For at least the past 35 years, federal courts have generally allowed an administrative agency’s interpretation of a regulation or statute that it administers to prevail when challenged by a member of the regulated community or any other interested party. The ‘agency deference’ doctrine has been questioned in recent years, however, and a new case pending review before the Supreme Court may reverse or revise the doctrine as it relates to an agency’s interpretation of its own regulation. Whether a court defers to an agency’s interpretation of a statute or regulation defines the standard of review with which it will review the Agency’s decision. For that reason, whether agency deference remains in place or not, regulated entities should focus on the importance of creating a record for judicial review of agency action.
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DOT’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) issued a Final Rule titled “Oil Spill Response Plans and Information Sharing for High Hazard Flammable Trains.” Among other requirements, certain rail trains carrying petroleum oil will be required to prepare comprehensive oil spill response plans to address a worst case discharge.  Modifications to the existing

The federal Pipeline Safety Act (PSA or the Act) mandates minimum safety standards for pipelines and certain associated storage and facilities (including LNG and other terminals). Congress should take up legislation to reauthorize the Act this year. Since the last reauthorization in 2016, there have been several noteworthy developments that have affected the industry, the