Will the High Court Permit Backdoor Regulation of Natural Gas Industry Via State-Law Antitrust Suits?

oneokEarlier this month, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in ONEOK v. Learjet, an important case that hinges on the scope of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s (FERC) field preemption under the Natural Gas Act (NGA). I attended to hear the argument in person because Washington Legal Foundation has been quite active in the case.

While it is undisputed that the NGA preempts state-law claims directed at conduct affecting the wholesale rates for natural gas, the Court must now consider whether such claims are preempted when the same alleged conduct affects both wholesale and retail rates. Reversing the district court, the Ninth Circuit rejected ONEOK’s preemption argument on the basis that the state-law claims brought by the plaintiff-purchasers arose from retail gas transactions.

On behalf of ONEOK, Neal Katyal argued that even though the alleged conduct at issue in this case affected both retail and wholesale rates, it still counts as a practice that affects wholesale rates for preemption purposes. The only relevant question, then, is whether plaintiffs’ state-law claims are directed at conduct in the field that the NGA occupies—and they are. The United States, representing FERC’s regulatory interests, filed an amicus brief and argued on the merits in support of ONEOK’s position.

From his questions, Justice Breyer seemed to appreciate the difficulty in setting a strict boundary between wholesale and retail sales in cases where the retail and wholesale prices are both affected by the same conduct. He could prove to be the decisive vote in the case.

Plaintiffs’ attorney Jeffrey Fisher insisted that FERC has no power over antitrust claims tied to retail prices, which the NGA excepts from federal regulation. The State of Kansas as amicus curiae, joined by 20 other states, argued in support of Plaintiffs, with attorney Steven McAllister emphasizing the states’ strong interest in policing antitrust violations.

Justice Kagan seemed fully prepared to side with the Plaintiffs, explaining that so long as no conflict exists between state antitrust liability and regulation by FERC, “I don’t really see a reason … why you would exclude the state entirely, even if nothing the state was doing was conflicting with federal regulation or federal policy.”

In all likelihood, the Supreme Court will issue its decision within the next few months. As WLF’s amicus brief argued, the stakes for the natural gas industry are high. The NGA promotes uniformity, not random regulation by jury verdicts in 50 states. Permitting private plaintiffs to pursue state-law antitrust remedies that second-guess FERC—including in states where antitrust remedies dwarf those available under federal law—would create industry-wide chaos and an unnecessary drag on investment in a vibrant and growing sector of the economy.

The Court agreed to grant review in the case following WLF’s brief in support of the petition for certiorari—and WLF’s separate online analysis of the Solicitor General’s unusual advice to the Supreme Court about (not) granting review in the case. WLF’s brief on the merits provides the Court with additional policy reasons to overrule the Ninth Circuit.

Also published by Forbes.com at WLF’s contributor page

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