United States: Supreme Court Holds That Federal Natural Gas Act Does Not Preempt State Antitrust Claims

In Oneok, Inc. v. Learjet, Inc., Case No. 13-271 (Apr. 21, 2015), the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Natural Gas Act did not preempt retail customers' state law antitrust claims against interstate gas pipeline operators for price manipulation.  A copy of the decision is available here.

Historically, the gas industry in the United States has been divided into three segments: (i) natural gas producers, (ii) interstate pipelines that ship the gas from gas fields to distant markets, and (iii) local gas distributors.  In the 1920s, Congress enacted the Natural Gas Act to regulate interstate gas shipments.  The Act created a regulator, now known as the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ("FERC"), which has jurisdiction (including rate-setting authority) over interstate gas transportation.

Over time, the interstate gas pipelines were deregulated, with FERC adopting an approach that relied on the competitive marketplace, rather than classical regulatory rate-setting, as the main mechanism for keeping wholesale natural gas rates at a reasonable level.  The interstate pipeline operators also began to ship gas directly to retail consumers for direct consumption rather than resale.  FERC does not regulate retail rates.

In Oneok, a group of these retail customers claimed that they overpaid for natural gas due to the interstate pipelines' alleged manipulation of certain natural gas price indices.  The Ninth Circuit held that their state law claims were not preempted by the Natural Gas Act.  The Supreme Court affirmed.

The pipelines (supported by the Solicitor General) did not argue that the Natural Gas Act expressly preempted state antitrust laws.  Nor did they argue that compliance with those laws would conflict with the Act.  Instead, they argued that the Natural Gas Act preempted the field of state regulation.  The Supreme Court rejected field preemption, noting that "where (as here) a state law can be applied to nonjurisdictional as well as jurisdictional sales, we must proceed cautiously, finding pre-emption only where detailed examination convinces us that a matter falls within the pre-empted field as defined by our precedents."

In determining whether state law is preempted, the Court focused on the "target" at which the state law "aims."  This focus on the "target" of state law is appropriate, the Court held, because the question of preemption cannot be resolved by looking only to the physical activity that a state regulates.  "After all, a single physical action, such as reporting a price to a specialized journal, could be the subject of many different laws – including tax laws, disclosure laws, and others . . . . no one could claim that FERC's regulation of this physical activity for purposes of wholesale rates forecloses every other form of state regulation that affects those rates."  In Oneok, the state lawsuits were directed at practices affecting retail natural gas rates – which are "firmly on the States' side of [the] dividing line."  "Antitrust laws, like blue sky laws, are not aimed at natural-gas companies in particular, but rather all businesses in the marketplace . . . . . This broad applicability of state antitrust law supports a finding of no pre-emption here."

Because the case was presented to the Court as raising the issue of field preemption, the Court did not resolve conflict of law issues.  "To the extent any conflicts arise between state antitrust law proceedings and the federal rate-setting process, the doctrine of [conflict] preemption should prove sufficient to address them."

Justice Thomas concurred in the Court's judgment, but wrote separately to question the continuing vitality of implied preemption doctrines.  Justice Scalia and Chief Justice Roberts dissented, noting that the Natural Gas Act makes exclusive FERC's powers in general, not just its rate-setting power in particular.  "The Act does not give the Commission the power to aim at particular effects; it gives it the power to regulate particular activities.  When the Commission regulates those activities, it may consider their effects on all parts of the gas trade, not just on wholesale sales."  In the dissent's view, the test for preemption in this setting is whether the matter on which the State asserts the right to act is in any way regulated by federal statute.  "Because the Commission's exclusive authority extends to the conduct challenged here, state antitrust regulation of that conduct is preempted."

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