Commonwealth Court Confirms Affirmative Public Benefits Standard Still Has Teeth in Fair Market Value Acquisitions (Reversing PA PUC Approval of Aqua Acquisition of East Whiteland Township)

In Cicero v. Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission,  ___ A.3d ___, (Pa. Cmwlth., No. 910 C.D. 2022, filed July 31, 2023) (“Cicero”), the court reversed the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission’s (PUC) approval of Aqua Pennsylvania Wastewater Inc.’s acquisition of East Whiteland Township’s wastewater system assets.  The court found Aqua had not proven that the acquisition would provide affirmative public benefits and confirmed that proving net benefits outweigh detriments of a transaction remains the standard for approving fair market value (FMV) acquisitions of municipal assets.  Cicero, slip op. at 21 (“[I]n every Section 1329 case, it must be shown that the affirmative public benefits that arise from and are specific to a transaction outweigh the harms of the transaction, such that approval of the transaction will ‘affirmatively promote the service, accommodation, convenience, or safety of the public in some substantial way.’”).

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Commonwealth Court Finds Environmental Rights Amendment Requires PUC Environmental Impact Review of Public Utility Facility Siting

         On March 9, 2023, the Commonwealth Court issued a memorandum opinion reversing and remanding a Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) decision that approved a natural gas company’s plan for siting facilities.[1]  The court held that the PUC failed to fulfill its duties under the Pennsylvania Constitution’s Environmental Rights Amendment (ERA) because the PUC did not conduct a review or analysis of the environmental impacts of the proposed facilities, including explosion impact radius, noise, or heater emissions.  The decision opens the door for environmental activists and municipalities to oppose siting of utility buildings on environmental impact issues and places increased burdens on utilities and the PUC for utility facility siting.

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Pennsylvania Marijuana Grower Industry Must Be Energy Savvy

The energy-intensive marijuana industry is having a significant impact on electricity usage in states where it is legalized.  Some states worry that this drastic increase in electricity demand will negatively impact both their infrastructure and carbon footprint while increasing costs. Some state and local governments have reacted to these electricity usage impacts by implementing new taxes, fees, and other regulatory measures.  However, the naturally energy-intensive process for growing marijuana is sometimes exacerbated by each state’s own regulations.  For instance, Pennsylvania, which legalized medical marijuana in 2016, requires growers to contain their entire grow operation indoors.  While the Pennsylvania Act is specific about how growers must run their operations, this Act is frighteningly silent on how Pennsylvania will cope with the corresponding energy drain on local infrastructure or on how such increase in electricity usage might impact Pennsylvania’s carbon footprint.  But whether Pennsylvania, or any other state, has considered the impact of these energy issues or not, it is absolutely critical for every marijuana grower to consider the impact its energy consumption has on its overall operation.  To reduce operating costs and hence gain a competitive advantage, marijuana operators, especially grower/processors, should seek ways to reduce both the price of energy and the amount they use.  Pennsylvania’s energy industry provides a plethora of creative ways to achieve both of these goals and more.

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Department of the Interior Finalizes Stream Protection Rule for Coal Mining Industry


Today the Department of the Interior (Department), announced that it has finalized regulations that it has been working on since 2009,[1] which aim to “protect streams, fish, wildlife, and related environmental values from the adverse impacts of surface coal mining operations and provide mine operators with a regulatory framework to avoid water pollution and the long-term costs associated with water treatment”[2] by overhauling 30-year-old regulations.  Highlights include:

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PA Supreme Court Further Demolishes Act 13 in Robinson Township Remand Appeal


On September 28, 2016, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court (Court) ruled[1] on a Commonwealth Court remand decision[2] of the Robinson Township 2013 Court decision,[3] where the Court held key provisions of Act 13[4] (the statute implementing major changes in Pennsylvania’s oil and gas laws and the ability of local government to regulate this industry) were unconstitutional (HMS Blog).  In the 2016 Robinson Township decision, the Court:  (1) upheld the Commonwealth Court’s holding that provisions related to Public Utility Commission (PUC) review of local ordinances are unseverable from unconstitutional provisions and thus unenforceable, and (2) held four additional provisions of Act 13, including the grant of eminent domain, unconstitutional. 

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Uber Update – PUC Upholds $11M Penalty


Last week, the Public Utility Commission (PUC) sustained the $11 million fine it imposed against ride-sharing service Uber, voting 4-1 to deny reconsideration of its May 2016 order imposing this penalty against Uber for its unprecedented number of violations of PUC regulations, including operating without PUC authority via a certificate of public convenience.  

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PUC Requests Comments on Taxi Regulations


            On August 11, 2016, The PUC acting pursuant to Act 85 of 2016, which requires the PUC to promulgate new regulations in response to changes in the industry, requested public comment on ride sharing companies such as Uber and Lyft.  Uber and Lyft have spurred and created controversy  in both the Public Utility Commission (PUC)  and Commonwealth Courts.  The PUC requested comments include “specific suggestions for any proposal, including suggested regulatory language, with appropriate citations to current regulations that address the particular comment.  Additionally, comments must provide the underlying rationale to support any suggested temporary regulations.”  Comments are due 30 days from publication in the Pennsylvania Bulletin, which is published each Saturday.  The rulemaking is docketed at L-2016-2556432.

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Uber Week for Uber in PA - Commonwealth Court Affirms PUC’s Authorization of Raiser’s Service (an Uber Subsidiary) and PUC Decreases Recommended $49 Mil Civil Penalty to $11 Mil


            In an April 19, 2016 Opinion, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court[1] affirmed the Public Utility Commission’s (PUC) grant of a certificate of public convenience (CPC) for experimental authority to operate as a common carrier to Raiser-PA, LLC (Raiser) in Pennsylvania, excluding Philadelphia.[2]  Raiser is a subsidiary of Uber Technologies, Inc. (Uber), which licenses the technology to Raiser that allows users to request a ride via smartphone app. 

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PHMSA Proposes Significant New Regulations Regarding Transmission and Gathering Pipelines


            On March 17, 2016 Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) released a 549 page Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) that significantly changes regulations for transmission lines and imposes regulations on previously unregulated gathering lines carrying, inter alia, natural gas and petroleum products. 

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PA Supreme Court Upholds Narrow Application of the Service Point Doctrine to Impose Duty to Warn of Danger on Customer Premises Where Utility Has Actual or Constructive Knowledge of Danger


In a 4-2 decision,[1] the Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld a Superior Court decision overturning the trial court and denying Duquesne Light summary judgment on the issue of whether a utility has a duty to warn a customer of potential danger on the customer’s side of the service point where the utility has taken affirmative action to restore service and has actual or constructive knowledge of such danger.  Alderwoods, Inc. v. Duquesne Light Co., No. 12 WAP 2013 (Pa. December 15, 2014).  The case arose from a fire caused by an electrical panel in the basement of Alderwoods’ funeral home after Duquesne restored service to the premises by making substantial repairs to a utility pole downed by a car crash outside the funeral home.   Slip op. at 2. 

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Victory For Sunoco Pipeline in Second Round Before PUC


Public Utility Commission (PUC) Commissioners gave Sunoco Pipeline a fighting chance at exemption from local zoning for outbuildings housing utility structures on the Mariner East Pipeline, finding prima facie evidence that Sunoco is a public utility and overruling the ALJs’ July 23, 2014 Initial Decision granting preliminary objections finding to the contrary. 

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EPA Proposes 30% Reduction on Existing Generation


On June 2, the EPA released its much anticipated proposed rule mandating a reduction in carbon emissions from existing power plants.[1]  The rule requires an overall national decrease in carbon emissions by 30% from existing plants by 2030.  The proposed rule instructs states to submit plans to achieve state specific goals for emission reductions.  Alternatively, states may collaborate with other states and submit a joint plan.  Plans must be submitted by 2017, or 2018 if collaborating with other states.[2]

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The Defense of Act 13 Continues: Robinson Township Update.


On January 2, 2014 the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission and Department of Environmental Protection (“Applicants”) filed an Application for Reargument of Robinson Township,1 in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, requesting reconsideration of the December 19, 2013 plurality opinion and remand to the Commonwealth Court for an evidentiary hearing and findings of fact.  The Applicants argue that the plurality of the Court, in applying its newly coined Environmental Rights Amendment balancing test, adopted novel and unsupported findings of fact, contrary to established Supreme Court principle against taking on a fact finding role in its appellate jurisdiction.  Robinson Township, et al., (“Townships”) answer that no disputed facts were necessary to the Court’s balancing test, and in the alternative, judicial estoppel precludes Applicants from requesting an evidentiary hearing because Applicants successfully argued in the Commonwealth Court that the Act’s constitutionality was purely a question of law.  Applicants also request remand to have the Commonwealth Court determine whether the unconstitutional set back provisions are severable from the rest of Act 13.

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Pennsylvania Supreme Court Held Key Provisions of Act 13 Unconstitutional under the Environmental Rights Amendment (ERA)


The Pennsylvania Supreme Court held key provisions of Act 13 unconstitutional under the Environmental Rights Amendment (ERA) of the Pennsylvania Constitution in a plurality opinion on December 19, 2013.  Act 13 was designed to streamline regulation of the oil and gas industry by setting statewide zoning standards and administrative review procedures, which posed significant financial ramifications for non-compliant municipalities.  The Court specifically held that the provisions mandating municipal zoning standards, such as permitting industrial oil and gas operations as a use of right in every zoning district throughout the state, are unconstitutional. These provisions were overturned because the legislature has abrogated constitutionally proscribed municipal duties to protect the rights guaranteed by the ERA.  The Court also held that provisions of the act imposing a waiver process for mandatory setback from waterways, administered by DEP, also violated the ERA.

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