Massachusetts Limits The Standing of Businesses to Challenge Permits Issued to Competitors

In an important decision yesterday, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the operator facility participating in the renewable portfolio standard program did not have standing to challenge a state decision authorizing other facilities to participate in the RPS program. The decision may have broad implications regarding when businesses may challenge the issuance of permits or other approvals to competitors in Massachusetts.

In Indeck Maine Energy v. Commissioner of Energy Resources, the plaintiffs operated biomass facilities which were authorized to sell renewable energy credits. When the Department of Energy Resources authorized two other biomass facilities to sell RPS credits, plaintiffs sued.

As the SJC noted up front, to establish standing, a plaintiff must “allege an injury within the area of concern of the statute or regulatory scheme under which the injurious action has occurred.” At least in Massachusetts, an injury from business competition does not confer standing. However, prior cases held that this rule “does not apply … to competitors in a regulated industry.” The question is thus: What does it mean to be in a regulated industry?

After analyzing the purpose of the RPS statute and its prior cases on this issue, the court came to a relatively simple conclusion:

The question of standing in the context of competitive injury turns not simply on whether an industry is regulated, but rather on how that industry is regulative. The common threat present in the cases in which standing has been found is regulatory schemes that contemplated some form of protection of the competitive interests of the respective plaintiffs.

Accordingly, if an industry is regulated in such a way that it can be said that the protection of competitors is within the regulatory scheme’s area of concern, such a competitor alleging harm deriving from business competition would have standing to sue.

Applying the rule here, the SJC concluded that the plaintiffs did not have standing, because the Legislature “did not seek to protect and thereby confer standing to sue on existing competitors, thereby creating a barrier to market entry.” In other words, a business does not have standing to challenge an approval issued to a competitor unless the very purpose of the regulatory scheme was to protect the competitive position of the plaintiff.

This decision has potentially significant impacts on other permitting regimes, such as those implemented by MassDEP.  Following Indeck, a business harmed by the issuance of an environmental permit issued to a competitor will not have standing to challenge the permit, because it is not the purpose of any of the environmental permitting regimes to create barriers to market entry.

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