U.S. Supreme Court Holds Public Interest Standard Applies When A Contract Rate Is Challenged By A Third Party

Author:Mr Loeb & Loeb's Energy Practice Group
Profession:Loeb & Loeb LLP

On January 13, 2010, the United States Supreme Court issued its decision in NRG Power Marketing, LLC v. Maine Public Utilities Commission, 558 U.S. ____ (2010). The case addresses whether the public interest standard, as established under the Mobile-Sierra doctrine, applies when a contract rate is challenged by an entity that was not a party to the contract. The Supreme Court concluded that the Mobile-Sierra doctrine does apply to challenges from third parties, and reversed the decision of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. The issue arose in connection with the development of the electric capacity market in New England. A lengthy and highly contested case led to an eventual settlement, under which the parties agreed to conduct annual auctions to set the market price, which would take effect three years later. In the meantime, the parties to the settlement agreed to employ a transitional pricing structure. Further, the settlement contained a provision requiring that any challenges to the transition payments and the subsequent auction-clearing prices were to be subject to Mobile-Sierra's "public interest" standard, regardless of whether the challenge is brought by a settling party, a non-settling party, or by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). All but eight of the 115 parties joined in the settlement. The Supreme Court first announced the Mobile-Sierra doctrine in 1956 in United States Gas Pipe Line Co. v. Mobile Gas Service Corp., 350 U.S. 332 (1956) and FPC v. Sierra Pacific Power Co., 350 U.S. 348 (1956). In those cases, the Supreme Court established that, notwithstanding the just and reasonable standard established by the Federal Power Act, parties to a bilateral contract cannot seek to change its terms unless the public interest so requires. In its January 13 decision, the Court explained that the goal of the doctrine, as reaffirmed in Morgan Stanley Capital Group Inc. v. Public Util. Dist. No. 1 of Snohomish Cty., 554 U.S. ____ (2008), is to provide stability in the marketplace. To avoid undermining that goal, when the parties to a contract agree that the Mobile-Sierra doctrine applies, FERC and any non-contracting parties...

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