Justia U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Energy, Oil & Gas Law
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The case involves Mountain Valley Pipeline, LLC (Appellee), which is constructing an interstate natural gas pipeline. The company acquired easements on properties along the pipeline’s route through condemnation actions under the Natural Gas Act. One such property was owned by Frank Terry, John Coles Terry, and Elizabeth Terry (Appellants), which was encumbered by temporary and permanent easements on 8.37 acres. After the district court granted Appellee immediate possession of the easements, the case proceeded to a jury trial to determine the amount of just compensation owed by Appellee to Appellants for the easements. The jury rendered a $523,327 verdict, which Appellee challenged, arguing that the verdict resulted from the jury improperly mixing expert testimony. The district court agreed with Appellee and granted judgment as a matter of law, vacating the jury verdict and entering a judgment for $261,033.The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed the district court’s judgment as a matter of law and remanded with instructions to reinstate the $523,327 verdict. The court held that the jury’s verdict was within the range of credited testimony and could be supported using residential values alone, without the need to venture beyond the credited testimony. The court also reversed the district court’s grant of a new trial. Additionally, the court vacated and remanded the district court’s order denying Appellants’ second motion for attorney’s fees and costs, leaving these issues for the district court to consider in the first instance. View "Mountain Valley Pipeline, LLC v. 8.37 Acres of Land" on Justia Law

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The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's decision to remand two lawsuits back to Maryland state court. The lawsuits were brought by the City of Annapolis and Anne Arundel County against more than 20 energy companies, including BP P.L.C. The local governments accused the companies of misrepresenting and concealing information about the environmental impact of their fossil fuel products in violation of Maryland's Consumer Protection Act and various state tort laws. The companies tried to remove the cases to federal court, arguing that because they had acted under federal authority in their operations, the court had federal question jurisdiction. However, the appeals court found that the company's activities related to fossil fuel production were not relevant to the claims brought by the local governments, which were based on alleged concealment or misrepresentation of information about fossil fuel products. The court also rejected the companies' argument that the First Amendment question related to their right to free speech provided a basis for federal jurisdiction, as this question was a defense rather than a necessary element of the plaintiffs' state-law claims. View "Anne Arundel County v. BP P.L.C." on Justia Law

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In the case before the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, plaintiffs Scott Sonda and Brian Corwin, both mineral rights owners in West Virginia, challenged Senate Bill 694, which amended the State's oil and gas conservation law to permit the unitization of interests in horizontal well drilling units, even for nonconsenting mineral rights owners. The plaintiffs claimed that this law constituted a taking of their property and deprived them of property without due process, in violation of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution. The West Virginia Oil and Gas Conservation Commission filed a motion to dismiss, asserting that the plaintiffs lacked standing, that the Commission was immune under the Eleventh Amendment, and that the complaint failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted.However, the district court abstained from ruling on the federal constitutional claims, citing the Pullman abstention doctrine, and ordered the proceeding stayed pending the outcome of a state court action that the plaintiffs may file. The Commission appealed the district court's abstention order.The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the district court's order and remanded for further proceedings, noting that the district court had erred by applying the Pullman abstention doctrine without first ensuring it had jurisdiction. The court directed the district court to first address the Commission's argument challenging the plaintiffs' Article III standing. The court did not express an opinion about the merits of the standing issue or any others before the district court. View "Sonda v. West Virginia Oil & Gas Conservation Commission" on Justia Law

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These consolidated cases present weighty and important questions involving the separation of powers as it relates to a project of national interest. Petitioners are environmental groups challenging federal agency actions that will enable the final construction and initial operation of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a 300-plus-mile underground pipeline that will transport natural gas from West Virginia to Virginia. But during the pendency of this matter before the Fourth Circuit, Congress proactively intervened by legislation and enacted the Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023. Section 324 of that Act purports to ratify the agencies’ actions regarding the Mountain Valley Pipeline and remove our jurisdiction over the underlying petitions. Respondents—the federal agencies and the Mountain Valley Pipeline—moved in for the dismissal of the petitions.   The Fourth Circuit granted Respondents’ motions to dismiss. In sum, with Section 324, Congress removed our jurisdiction in a way that mandates the dismissal of the underlying petitions, which challenge agency actions that grant necessary approvals for the completion of the Mountain Valley Pipeline. The court explained that “no court” has jurisdiction to review these approvals, including the DC Circuit, whose jurisdiction is limited to “claims alleging the invalidity of [Section 324] or that an action is beyond the scope of authority conferred by [Section 324].” But Congress left in place the general grant of jurisdiction to this Court under the Natural Gas Act over challenges to future pipelines or other natural gas facilities in this circuit, as well as future challenges to operations of the Mountain Valley Pipeline not covered by the express terms of Section 324. View "Appalachian Voices v. United States Department of the Interior" on Justia Law

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These consolidated cases involve a dispute between Antero Resources Corporation (“Antero”) and a group of landowners (“Lessors”) over the payment of natural gas royalties under several oil and gas leases. The leases permit Antero to extract and sell natural gas owned by the Lessors in exchange for royalty payments. Antero appealed from the district court’s summary judgment order, which held that Antero breached the terms of the leases by deducting certain “post-production costs” from the royalties it paid Lessors and awarded damages. Lessors cross-appeal the district court’s earlier dismissal of their fraud and punitive damages claims against Antero.   The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s summary judgment order in part and vacated in part. The court concluded that some of the leases prohibit Antero from deducting any post-production costs from Lessors’ royalties, but other leases—namely, those that contain a “Market Enhancement Clause”—do authorize deductions in certain circumstances. Separately, the court affirmed the dismissal of the fraud and punitive damages claims because Lessors did not plead them with sufficient particularity. View "Gerald Corder v. Antero Resources Corporation" on Justia Law

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A real estate development company PEM Entities LLC (PEM), asserts a North Carolina county violated the Federal Constitution and state law by imposing new rules for getting water and sewage services. The district court dismissed the complaint, concluding the company lacked standing to bring its takings and due process claims, its equal protection claim was too insubstantial to raise a federal question, and the court should not exercise jurisdiction over the state law claims once the federal claims were dismissed.   The Fourth Circuit affirmed. The court explained that without a constitutionally protected property interest, PEM’s takings and due process claims fail as a matter of law. Accordingly, the court affirmed the district court’s dismissal of PEM’s takings and due process claims because they fail to state a claim on which relief can be granted. Further, the court concluded the district court was right to dismiss PEM’s equal protection claim but should have done so for failure to state a claim rather than lack of jurisdiction. Thu, having concluded the district court correctly dismissed all of PEM’s federal claims, the court saw no abuse of discretion in the district court’s decision not to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the state law claims. View "PEM Entities LLC v. County of Franklin" on Justia Law

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The Tennessee Valley Authority sells its power to the BVU Authority in Virginia, one of its many customers. The BVU Authority in turn sells its power to local consumers who need electricity. Among those local consumers is Plaintiff, who believes that the TVA has a statutory duty to use the fruits of its sales to large industrial buyers to subsidize consumers’ electricity consumption. Plaintiff believes that a string of TVA rate changes, shifting costs from industry to consumers, were illegal. So he sued BVU Authority and TVA under three theories, which all more or less amount to claims that the TVA failed to live up to its statutory duties under Section 11. The district court dismissed all three claims because TVA’s rate-making authority is committed to agency discretion and thus unreviewable.   The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal of all three of Plaintiff’s claims. The court explained that Section 11 of the TVA Act lays out broad policies and goals that operate more like aspirations than commands. It does not support any of the claims that Plaintiff offers against TVA or BVU Authority. TVA rate-making is a presumptively unreviewable category of agency action under 701(a)(2), and the policy-laden language of Section 11 does not provide any guidelines or limits to overcome that presumption. Because the TVA-BVU contract simply repeats the vague statutory language, Plaintiff’s contract claim is really a statutory claim in disguise, and Section 11 of the TVA Act does not provide a private cause of action. View "David Holbrook v. Tennessee Valley Authority" on Justia Law

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The Fourth Circuit considered two petitions for review challenging FERC's issuance of a license to McMahan, authorizing McMahan to operate the Bynum Hydroelectric Project on the Haw River in North Carolina. Assuming without deciding that a state may waive its certification authority under section 401 of the Clean Water Act by coordinating with an applicant in a scheme to defeat the statutory review period through a process of withdrawing and resubmitting the certification application, the court concluded that FERC's finding of coordination between McMahan and NCDEQ is not supported by substantial evidence. Furthermore, without evidence of improper coordination, the court concluded that FERC erred by determining that North Carolina waived its certification authority under section 401.In Case No. 20-1655, the court granted NCDEQ's petition for review of FERC's determination that NCDEQ waived its rights under the Clean Water Act to issue a water quality certification for the Project. The court vacated the license issued by FERC and remanded with instructions for FERC to reissue the license to include the water-quality conditions imposed by NCDEQ. In Case No. 20-1671, the court dismissed for lack of jurisdiction that portion of PK Ventures' petition for review challenging the validity of McMahan's state applications for a section 401 certification. Finding no merit to the remaining claims, the court otherwise denied the petition for review. View "North Carolina Department of Environmental Equality v. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission" on Justia Law

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MVP asked two Army Corps districts to verify that, pursuant to the Clean Water Act, MVP's proposed discharge of dredged and/or fill material into waters of the United States in furtherance of construction of a natural gas pipeline in those districts could be governed by the Army Corps' 2017 nationwide permit (NWP) referred to as NWP 12. The Huntington District issued a verification, determining that the Pipeline project met the criteria for operation under the NWP 12, excusing the project from the individual permitting process (the "Verification"). The Norfolk District did the same, issuing a reinstatement of its prior verification allowing MVP to use NWP 12 in that district (the "Reinstatement"). Petitioners filed petitions for agency review of the Verification and Reinstatement pursuant to the Natural Gas Act (NGA) and filed the instant motions to stay.The Fourth Circuit concluded that petitioners are likely to succeed on the merits of their petitions for review, and other equitable factors weigh in favor of granting the motions for stay. The court explained that the Verification was likely issued in contravention of applicable law because the Army Corps impermissibly incorporated into NWP 12 a modified permit condition from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP). Furthermore, because the Verification was likely issued in contravention of law, the Reinstatement (which necessarily depends on the validity of the Verification) is likely defective as well. Therefore, the court granted petitioners' motions for a stay of the Huntington District's Verification and the Norfolk District's Reinstatement until such time as the court may consider the petitions for review on their merits. However, the court concluded that petitioners are not likely to succeed on the merits of their challenges to the Army Corps' 2017 issuance of NWP 12 itself because the court likely lacks jurisdiction to entertain such challenges. View "Sierra Club v. U. S. Army Corps of Engineers" on Justia Law

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The Fourth Circuit vacated the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of plaintiffs in an action brought against Equinor and SWN, challenging the deduction of post-production costs from royalties paid to plaintiffs pursuant to an oil and gas lease between the parties. The district court held that the lease failed to properly provide for the method of calculating post-production costs.The court held, however, that the lease provisions regarding royalty payments satisfy Estate of Tawney v. Columbia Natural Resources, LLC, 633 S.E.2d 22 (W. Va. 2006), and are otherwise consistent with West Virginia law. In this case, the lease suffices under Tawney to indicate the method for calculating the amount of post-production costs to be deducted when calculating plaintiffs' royalties; that method is simply to add up all of the identified, reasonable, and actually incurred post-production costs, and deduct them from SWN and Equinor's gross proceeds; and the amount is then adjusted for plaintiffs' fractional share of the total pooled acreage and their royalty rate. Especially in light of Leggett v. EQT Production Co., 800 S.E.2d 850 (W. Va. 2017), the court concluded that West Virginia law demands nothing more. The court found it unnecessary to certify any issue of law. View "Young v. Equinor USA Onshore Properties, Inc." on Justia Law