Justia U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Energy, Oil & Gas Law
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The Sabine–Neches Waterway is vitally important to the local, state, and federal economies. Despite its importance, sixty years have gone by without much effort to maintain or otherwise improve it. The Sabine–Neches Navigation District (District) set out to change that. Congress covered most of the cost with the District left to cover the rest. The District planned to cover its share through port fees. But the same federal law that led to congressional funding also sets limits on how costs can be passed onto consumers by local entities. Two energy companies sued the District, claiming that the port fees exceeded those limits. The district court concluded that they failed to state plausible claims and dismissed the case.   The Fifth Circuit affirmed. The court explained that the statute, properly construed, allows the District to finance its share of the project once a usable increment of the project is completed. Because Anchorage Basin No. 1 has been completed, subsection (a)(1) permitted the District to pass the Ordinance containing the User Fee. Further, Plaintiffs’ argument hinges on a strict reading of “necessary.” But context is needed to determine whether “necessary” means “absolute physical necessity” or merely “conducive to the end sought.” Under these circumstances, it is the latter. Thus, the District can cover more than 25% of the cost with the User Fee proceeds. View "BG Gulf Coast LNG v. Sabine-Neches" on Justia Law

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Loggerhead Holdings, Inc., a holding company that owned a scuba diving cruise business, was one of many plaintiffs who brought suit against an oil company because of the explosion of an offshore drilling rig and the resulting discharge of a massive quantity of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Loggerhead’s claims were dismissed on summary judgment.   The Fifth Circuit affirmed in part and reversed in part. The court explained that Loggerhead had been able to continue operations for several years despite its fraught financial condition, and indeed despite reporting net losses on its taxes for the three years preceding the disastrous events of April 2010 in the Gulf. Whether it could have continued to survive, if not thrive, had the April events not occurred presents a fact question. Thus, the court concluded that a reasonable factfinder could find the requisite causal link between the Deepwater Horizon disaster and Loggerhead’s demise. Summary judgment should not have been granted.   However, because Loggerhead was not able to offer more than Dixon’s allegations and an unsupported estimate — evidence “so weak or tenuous on an essential fact that it could not support a judgment in favor of the nonmovant” — the district court properly granted BP’s motion for summary judgment on the Section 2702(b)(2)(B) claim. View "Loggerhead Holdings v. BP" on Justia Law

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Texas recently enacted such a ban on new entrants in a market with a more direct connection to interstate commerce than the drilling of oil wells: the building of transmission lines that are part of multistate electricity grids. The operator of one such multistate grid awarded Plaintiff NextEra Energy Capital Holdings, Inc. the right to build new transmission lines in an area of east Texas that is part of an interstate grid. But before NextEra obtained the necessary construction certificate from the Public Utilities Commission of Texas, the state enacted the law, SB 1938, that bars new entrants from building transmission lines. NextEra challenges the new law on dormant Commerce Clause grounds. It also argues that the law violates the Contracts Clause by upsetting its contractual expectation that it would be allowed to build the new lines   The Fifth Circuit concluded that the dormant Commerce Clause claims should proceed past the pleading stage. But the Contracts Clause claim fails as a matter of law under the modern, narrow reading of that provision. The court explained that limiting competition based on the existence or extent of a business’s local foothold is the protectionism that the Commerce Clause guards against. Thus, the court reversed the Rule 12(b)(6) dismissal of the claim that the very terms of SB 1938 discriminate against interstate commerce. Further, the court held that SB 1938 did not interfere with an existing contractual right of NextEra. NextEra did not have a concrete, vested right that the law could impair. It thus fails at the threshold question for proving a modern Contracts Clause violation. View "NextEra, et al v. D'Andrea, et al" on Justia Law

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Midship Pipeline Company, L.L.C. challenged part of a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) order directing an administrative law judge to determine the “reasonable cost” for Midship to complete remediation activities at Sandy Creek Farms in Oklahoma.The Fifth Circuit disagreed with the FERC, finding that the matter was ripe for appeal. Further, the Fifth Circuit determined that the FERC order directing an administrative law judge to determine the “reasonable cost” of remediation activities was ultra vires because the FERC lacked authority under the Natural Gas Act (NGA) to do so. Thus, the court held that the FERC's action was ultra vires and vacated that portion of the Commission's order. The court remanded the remaining portion of the order to the FERC for further proceedings. View "Midship Pipeline v. FERC" on Justia Law

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On January 20, 2021, Acting Secretary of the Interior Scott de la Vega suspended delegated authority “[t]o issue any onshore or offshore fossil fuel authorization . . . .” On January 27, 2021, President Biden issued Executive Order 14,008.   The district court issued a nationwide preliminary injunction enjoining President Biden and various Department of Interior officials (the “Government”) from pausing oil and gas lease sales. The Fifth Circuit vacated and remanded, holding that the district court’s order and accompanying memorandum lack specificity. The court explained that to comply with Rule 65(d) a district court’s order should state its terms specifically and describe in reasonable detail the conduct restrained or required. The court wrote that the present injunction fails to meet Rule 65(d) requirements. View "State of Louisiana v. Biden" on Justia Law

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The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (“FERC”), anticipating Petitioner Gulfport Energy Corporation’s (“Gulfport”) insolvency, issued four orders purporting to bind the petitioner to continue performing its gas transit contracts even if it rejected them during bankruptcy. Petitioner asked the Fifth Circuit to vacate those orders. The court granted the petitions and vacated the orders holding that FERC cannot countermand a debtor’s bankruptcy-law rights or the bankruptcy court’s powers.   Gulfport attacked attacks FERC’s orders on two fronts. Gulfport first says that FERC lacked authority to issue them. It then contends that the orders are unlawful because they violate the Bankruptcy Code and purport to restrain Gulfport’s bankruptcy-law rights and the powers of the bankruptcy court. The court explained that FERC did have authority to issue the orders. But because the orders rested on an inexplicable misunderstanding of rejection, the court must vacate them all. The court wrote that each order rests on the incorrect premise that rejecting a filed-rate contract in bankruptcy is something more than a breach of contract.   The court further wrote that FERC can decide whether actual modification or abrogation of a filed-rate contract would serve the public interest. It even may do so before a bankruptcy filing. But rejection is just a breach; it does not modify or abrogate the filed rate, which is used to calculate the counterparty’s damage. So FERC cannot prevent rejection. It cannot bind a debtor to continue paying the filed rate after rejection. And it cannot usurp the bankruptcy court’s power to decide Gulfport’s rejection motions. View "Gulfport Energy Corporation v. FERC" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs, a group of individuals affected by power outages during Hurricane Ida, filed a state court class-action lawsuit against various energy companies. The energy companies removed the case to federal court. The district court then granted Plaintiff's motion to remand the case back to state court. The energy companies appealed on various grounds, including under the Class Action Fairness Act ("CAFA").The Fifth Circuit dismissed the portion of the energy companies' appeal that did not fall under CAFA, finding a lack of jurisdiction. However, CAFA permits a district court to review a district court's decision to remand a case. Thus, the court held that it had jurisdiction to review the CAFA-related bases for the energy companies' appeal. Upon a review of the proceedings below, the court held that the district court properly remanded the case back to state court. View "Stewart v. Entergy Corporation" on Justia Law

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Defendants, ERR, LLC; Evergreen Resource Recovery, LLC (collectively “ERR”), owns and operates a wastewater treatment facility. One of ERR’s spill contractors, Oil Mop, performed oil removal and soil remediation. Oil Mop submitted a claim to the National Pollution Funds Center (“NPFC”) for reimbursement of removal costs after ERR refused to pay. The NPFC reimbursed Oil Mop and billed ERR for what it paid Oil Mop.   ERR refused to pay and the Government then sued ERR for what it paid Oil Mop. The Government moved to strike ERR’s demand for a jury trial.  The district court held a bench trial after concluding that the Government’s Oil Pollution Act (“OPA”) claims sound not in law but in equity.   On appeal, the Fifth Circuit addressed ERR’s Seventh Amendment challenge and held that the Seventh Amendment guarantees ERR’s right to a jury trial of the Government’s OPA claims. The court explained that it must consider two factors when determining whether a right of action requires a jury trial. First, the court compared the statutory action to 18th-century actions brought in the courts of England prior to the merger of the courts of law and equity. Second, the court examined the remedy sought and determined whether it is legal or equitable in nature.   Here, the court concluded that the Recoupment Claim sounds in law and hence triggers ERR’s Seventh Amendment right to a jury. Next, the court held that both the nature of the Government’s action and the type of remedy sound in law. View "USA v. E.R.R." on Justia Law

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The Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court's denial of partial summary judgment in an action brought by Vitol against the United States, seeking an $8.8 million tax refund. The court concluded that the plain language of the statute, taken in context, excludes butane from the definition of a liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) under 26 U.S.C. 6426(d)(2).In this case, the court applied the standard tools of statutory interpretation in their proper order, and the court need not consider legislative history or abstract congressional purpose. The court explained that, although the common meaning of LPG includes butane, section 6426(d)(2) is a subsidiary part of a broader statutory framework that treats a given fuel as either a taxable fuel or an alternative fuel, but not both. Therefore, the statutory context of section 6426 provides sound reason to depart from butane's common meaning. Furthermore, section 4083 defines butane as a taxable fuel for purposes of the excise tax imposed at section 4081. The court reasoned that, if butane is a taxable fuel, it cannot be an alternative fuel and thus it is not an LPG under section 6426(d)(2). View "Vitol, Inc. v. United States" on Justia Law

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The Fifth Circuit affirmed the bankruptcy court's judgment and held that, under the particular circumstances presented here, Ultra Resources is not subject to a separate public-law obligation to continue performance of its rejected contract, and that 11 U.S.C. 1129(a)(6) did not require the bankruptcy court to seek FERC's approval before it confirmed Ultra Resource's reorganization plan.Applying In re Mirant Corp., 378 F.3d 511 (5th Cir. 2004), the court concluded that the power of the bankruptcy court to authorize rejection of a filed-rate contract does not conflict with the authority given to FERC to regulate rates; rejection is not a collateral attack upon the contract's filed rate because that rate is given full effect when determining the breach of contract damages resulting from the rejection; and in ruling on a rejection motion, bankruptcy courts must consider whether rejection harms the public interest or disrupts the supply of energy, and must weigh those effects against the contract's burden on the bankrupt estate. Because Mirant clearly holds that rejection of a contract is not a collateral attack on the filed rate, the court concluded that FERC does not have the authority to compel continued performance and continued payment of the filed rate after a valid rejection. The court rejected any further arguments to the contrary. View "Federal Energy Regulatory Commission v. Ultra Resources" on Justia Law