Tuesday, January 13, 2015
The Supreme Court heard oral arguments yesterday in Oneok v. Learjet, the case testing whether the federal Natural Gas Act preempts state antitrust claims arising from a conspiracy among natural gas companies to inflate retail natural gas prices.
The dispute arose when natural gas companies reported false natural gas sales prices to industry publications used to set gas prices in retail and wholesale contracts, artificially inflating those prices, and resulting in the Energy Crisis in 2000 to 2002. Retail gas purchasers brought state antitrust cases in several states. The gas companies moved to dismiss, arguing that the Natural Gas Act preempted those claims.
Indeed, the Gas Act grants FERC authority to regulate wholesale sales of natural gas (called "jurisdictional" sales) and any practice that "directly affect[s] jurisdictional rates." So the question in the case is this: Does that authority reach, and preempt state-law claims based upon, the gas companies' false reporting of gas prices to industry publications, thus affecting retail and wholesale gas prices?
The arguments didn't reveal any significant new points (that weren't briefed), and revealed only a little about the Court's likely direction in the case.
The parties agreed that the Gas Act field-preempts state-law claims for some field, but the predictably disagreed about the scope of that field. Oneok, represented by Neal Katyal, argued that the field includes practices like false reporting of gas prices that affect retail sales, because the false reporting also affected wholesale sales (or jurisdictional sales, within FERC's bailiwick). Learjet, represented by Jeffrey Fisher, argued that the Act doesn't sweep that far, and that FERC's authority does not field-preempt the state-law claims here.
Oneok also argued that the Gas Act could conflict-preempt state-law claims (an issue, it said, that would have to be decided on remand), because state-law claims could conflict with the Act and the nationwide uniformity in reporting that FERC encourages. Learjet said that the state-law antitrust claims were congruent with a federal antitrust claim (that everyone says was available to Learjet and the other plaintiffs), so there's no conflict between the state-law claims and federal law.
Questions from the bench revealed little. The progressives on the bench were by far the most active, pressing Katyal the hardest (and seemingly least persuaded by his points), but also probing Fisher (especially Justice Breyer). Conservatives were largely silent, except that Justice Scalia seemed inclined to accept Katyal's point about how price reporting affects wholesale rates (and therefore preempts state-law claims as to retail rates), and Chief Justice Roberts seemed skeptical of Fisher's argument that a ruling for the gas companies would allow them to manipulate and transform any non-jurisdictional practice into one that "directly affect[s] jurisdictional rates."
Justice Kennedy seemed to straddle, and maybe hinted at a result. He asked Katyal whether the Gas Act would preempt a state-law claim that was "exactly the same as the Sherman Act." Katyal responded:
And I think that is complementary authority, which, Justice Kennedy, your opinion in Arizona v. United States decried. Once we're in the field, once Congress has said to a federal agency, as it is here, FERC is regulating the very practice that they are seeking to regulate three different ways, then you can't tolerate states in the area. Why? Because states will have all sort --
Justice Kennedy then asked if Katyal had a back-up conflict-preemption argument, in case his field-preemption point didn't pan out. Katyal: Yes, but for remand.
The outcome will obviously be important to the parties and anyone else worried about accountability for the Energy Crisis in 2000-2002, but probably won't be too important to anyone else. That's because Congress increased FERC's authority in 2005--prompting the government to argue against cert. in the first place.