If you’ve been keeping up with the ag news lately, chances are you’ve heard a lot about the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS). As a refresher, the RFS program “requires a certain volume of renewable fuel to replace the quantity of petroleum-based transportation fuel.” Renewable fuels include biofuels made from crops such as corn and soybeans. Lately, you may have heard discussion about a controversial new rule regarding the volumes of biofuels that are required to be mixed with oil. While all that talk has been going on, there has also been a lawsuit against the EPA for RFS exemptions given to certain oil refineries. Congress has been examining the exemptions as well. Having trouble keeping all of this RFS information straight? We’ll help you sort it out.
EPA proposes new RFS rule
As we explained in our last Ag Law Harvest post, available here, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently released a notice of proposed rulemaking, asking for more public comment on the proposed volumes of biofuels to be required under the RFS program in 2020 and 2021. Agricultural and biofuels groups are not pleased with the proposed blending rules, arguing that the way EPA proposes to calculate biofuel volumes would result in much lower volumes than they were originally promised by President Trump. (The original promise was made in part to make up for waivers the Trump EPA had given to oil refineries.) Conversely, EPA and the Trump administration contend that the proposed rule does meet the previously agreed upon biofuel volumes. A hearing on the proposed rule was held on October 30, where many agriculture and biofuels groups expressed their concerns. The oil industry was also represented at the hearing. Members of the oil industry feel that the cost of mixing in biofuels is too high. It is unlikely any deal was struck at the hearing, but there is still an opportunity to comment on the proposed rule if you wish. Comments are due on November 29, 2019. You can click here for commenting instructions, as well as for a link to submit your comment online.
Ag and biofuels groups sue the EPA
In the midst of the argument over how the volumes of biodiesel under the RFS will be calculated, another related quarrel has emerged. At the center of this dispute are exemptions EPA has given to “small refineries” in the oil industry. The number of exemptions given has increased drastically under the Trump administration, which in turn has lessened the demand for biofuels made from crops like corn and soybeans. On October 23, 2019, agriculture and biofuel groups filed a petition against the EPA in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. In the petition, the groups ask the court to review a decision made in August 2019 which retroactively exempted over 31 small refineries from meeting their 2018 biofuels requirements. The petitioning groups include Renewable Fuels Association, American Coalition for Ethanol, Growth Energy, National Biodiesel Board, National Corn Growers Association, and National Farmers Union.
How does the small refinery exemption work?
Typically, an oil refinery would have to mix a set volume of renewable fuels, like biofuels, into their gasoline or diesel fuel. The volumes are set annually. Small refineries, which are defined as refineries where “the average aggregate daily crude oil throughput does not exceed 75,000 barrels,” can petition the EPA for an exemption from meeting their renewable fuel obligations. Exemptions are typically given temporarily if the refinery can show they would suffer economic hardship if they were made to blend their fuel with biofuel. A refinery seeking an exemption has to include a number of records showing their economic hardship in their petition, such as tax filings and financial statements. EPA’s website explaining the small refinery exemption is available here.
Why are ag and biofuel groups asking for judicial review?
Why are the groups we mentioned above upset about this particular set of small refinery exemptions? Well, first of all, the groups point to the brevity of the EPA’s decision. (The decision document can be found in the link to the petition, listed above.) The EPA’s decision document uses only two pages to explain their decision on 36 small refinery petitions. Because the decision was so short, the groups feel that EPA did not include the analysis of economic hardship for each refinery that they believe is required by the Clean Air Act and RFS regulations. Essentially, the groups argue that the EPA has not provided enough evidence or explanation for awarding the exemptions. You can read the groups’ press release explaining their reasoning here.
Underlying all of this is the fact that more small refinery exemptions means lower demand for biofuels. In fact, the ag and biofuel groups claim that due to the 31 exemptions made in August alone, 1.5 billion gallons of renewable fuel were not used. In addition, the 31 exemptions are just a few of many awarded by Trump’s EPA. By all accounts, since Trump took office, there has been a sharp increase in exemptions granted. EPA has data on the number of exemptions available here. The first year the Trump administration made exemptions is 2016.
Congress gets in on the action
It seems as though the House Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change (part of the Committee on Energy and Commerce) is also worried about EPA’s exemptions, or waivers, for small oil refineries. On October 29, 2019, the Subcommittee held an oversight hearing entitled “Protecting the RFS: The Trump Administration’s Abuse of Secret Waivers.” In fact, in their memo about the hearing, the Subcommittee cited some of the same issues in the lawsuit we discussed above; namely the increase in waivers and the consequent effect on biofuel demand. Testimony was heard from both ag/biofuels and oil representatives.
In the hearing, the Subcommittee also considered the proposed “Renewable Fuel Standard Integrity Act of 2019.” The text of the bill is available here. The bill would require small refineries to submit petitions for exemptions from RFS requirements annually by June 1. Additionally, it would require information in the waiver petitions to be available to the American public. For information and documents related to the hearing, as well as a video stream of the hearing, click here.
What happens next?
As you can see, we’re playing a waiting game on three separate fronts. For the RFS rule, we’ll have to wait and see what kind of comments are submitted, and whether or not the EPA takes those comments into account when it writes the final rule. As for the lawsuit, all eyes are on the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. The court could determine that the law does indeed require EPA to include more information and analysis to explain their reasons for exemption. On the other hand, the court could find that EPA’s decision document is sufficient under the law. In Congress, we’ll have to wait and see whether the proposed bill gets out of the Committee on Energy and Commerce and onto the House floor. We will be keeping track of the RFS developments on all fronts and keep you updated on what happens!
With all the rain and delayed planting that Ohio farmers have experienced this spring, signing a solar lease has been a very appealing prospect for many farmland owners. While this may be the right decision for a farm, it is very important that the farmland owner understand exactly what he or she is signing. Once an energy developer offers to pay you to enter into an agreement, and you sign that agreement, its terms will be legally binding.
In our recent blog post on solar leasing, we discussed some of the early documents that a farmland owner is likely to receive from an interested solar energy developer. Further, we gave some general advice on what farmland owners should do if an energy developer wants to discuss leasing his or her land. One of our main suggestions was to take the time to fully understand what the farmland owner is getting into, and that is where this post comes in.
In this blog post, we highlight some of the important provisions of a solar lease that you as a farmland owner should look for in your solar lease, and understand what they mean. A good solar lease will be very thorough, and include a lot of legalese. Our upcoming Ohio Farmland Owner’s Guide to Solar Leasing, due out in the next month, will go more in depth than this blog post on the terms below and more. It would also be a wise decision to consult with an attorney to ensure that your understanding of your solar lease reflects what the documents say.
For now, here are a few provisions to be on the lookout for in your solar lease:
The term. How long does this lease last? Most solar leases last for 20 to 30 years. This is the time during which solar energy is being collected and sold. Solar energy developers like this multi-decade duration because it allows them to use of the solar panels for their expected productive lifespan.
Thirty years is a long time. Many careers are retirement-eligible after that period, and many farms will transition to the next generation in that amount of time. This long of a term is not necessarily a bad thing. It just means that a farmland owner should look back and look ahead. Think back 30 years to 1989. What all has changed on your farm? What would it have looked like to not be able to use this ground for the past 30 years? Now look ahead. What do you expect your needs and those of your family to look like when this lease ends in 2049? Only you can determine if not being able to use your land for that long is a good thing.
Phases. How is this lease broken up? We just explained that most solar leases will last for 20 to 30 years, but that clock usually starts ticking once construction has started on the project. Solar energy developers will often reserve a year or two during which they can conduct their final feasibility studies and obtain necessary permits. Some leases structure this pre-construction phase as merely an option phase, meaning that the energy developer will pay a small amount of rent to keep its option alive for that one or two-year period, but it does not necessarily have to commence construction.
Further, toward the end of the term, the energy developer may have written in an option to renew for another 5 or 10 years. These renewals are often structured as a right that the energy developer may exercise merely by giving notice to the landowner. Additionally, in the middle, if there is a natural disaster that puts the operation out of service for any period of time, a solar lease may stop the clock from ticking until the project is operational again and solar energy is being collected.
The important take-away for the phases is being able to know when each phase begins and ends. When all of the different phases are combined, instead of just a 30-year lease, you could be looking at a 42-year agreement. The only way to know how long it could last is to thoroughly read the entire lease.
A description of the premises. Every solar lease will contain a description of the premises. If an entire parcel is being leased, then this part is fairly easy. However, if only a portion of the parcel is being lease, the farmland owner will want to make sure that the lease provides an adequate description so that the leased portion can be easily determined on the ground. Often, this will include a survey and maps. Knowing the boundaries is important because these leases are often exclusive, such that the farmland owner has little or no use or access of the leased land throughout the term.
Easements. What rights are being granted to the solar energy developer? Solar leases include a series of easements that give the solar energy developer the right to use your land. Some of the common easements include a:
- Construction easement: a right to cross over portions of the farmland owner’s property in order to construct the solar facility
- Access easement: a right to cross over portions of the farmland owner’s property to reach the solar facility
- Transmission easement: a right to install power lines, poles, and other equipment to transmit the energy produced by the solar panels to the grid
- Solar easement: a right to unobstructed access to the sun without interference from structures or other improvements
- Catch-all easement: a general right to do whatever is necessary for the benefit of the project
Solar energy developers want their easements to be as broad and generous as possible in order to maximize their flexibility with the project. This is not always to the advantage of the farmland owner. If the lease is general enough to allow the solar energy developer to sub-lease to another entity such as a telecommunications company, the landowner will have a difficult time preventing the solar energy developer from doing so. The farmland owner wants to make sure that the easements being granted are specific enough to not result in any surprises.
Landowner obligations and rights. What does the lease require of you as the farmland owner? Usually private solar energy developers include a non-interference provision, a quiet enjoyment provision, and an exclusivity provision. All combined, these provisions are a promise by the farmland owner to not enter the solar facilities without prior permission, not interfere with the solar facilities, and not allow anyone else to do so for the duration of the term.
Further, solar leases often include a confidentiality provision that courts will enforce as legally binding. These provisions allow the solar energy developer to control the flow of its proprietary information, and also prevent landowners from talking with one another about topics such as rent rates. It is important to understand:
- What information is protected
- If there are any exceptions
- When consent might be granted
- If specific penalties apply
- How long confidentiality lasts
The solar lease may also include a provision about farmland owner improvements. These explain if and when the landowner needs to obtain prior approval of the solar energy developer in order to build a structure or plant something that may interfere with the solar project.
Property maintenance. Who is going to mow? Ohio landowners have a legal duty to cut noxious weeds, and a well drafted lease will cover which party to the lease bears responsibility for keeping the leased land clear. Usually, the solar energy developer will take this responsibility, but it helps to have this in writing.
Cleanup terms. Cleanup involves a lot of questions. Does the solar lease require the solar energy developer to restore the land to its previous state? If so, how is this measured? Will all stakes and foundations be removed? Will all improvements, like roadways, be removed? How will the solar energy developer guarantee that it will be able to pay for this cleanup in 30 years? Does it post a security, and if so, when? A thorough lease will answer these questions.
Tax and conservation penalties. Tax and conservation also involves a lot of questions because constructing and operating a solar facility will make the property ineligible for the full benefits of CAUV and most conservation programs. Does the lease require the solar energy developer to cover real estate taxes? Does the lease require the solar energy developer to cover the three-year lookback penalty for removing land from CAUV? What will the solar energy developer do toward the end of the lease so that the land can be put back into production and made CAUV eligible again? Similar questions must be asked for conservation programs.
Compensation. It’s not that we saved the fun and best part for last. We just wanted to make sure that compensation is not the first and only thing considered when deciding whether or not to enter into a solar lease. While it certainly is important, some of the issues discussed above must be just as carefully understood.
The solar leases that we have seen involve cash rent that increases over time based upon a fixed escalator. The escalator is a percent increase. If the escalator increases at a rate greater than inflation, then the farmland owner will receive more bang for his or her land. However, if the escalator increases at a rate lower than long-term inflation, then the solar energy developer will have to pay less over time.
Another point of compensation to consider is how damages will be calculated for harm to property and crops. When the solar energy developer decides it is time to start construction, its option and easements grant it the right to begin construction even if there is a crop already in the ground. This makes it in a farmland owner’s best interest to have this issue addressed up front. These damages will often be calculated my multiplying the number of acres by the average county yield for that crop by that crop’s commodity future price with the Chicago Board of Trade for a given date. This provides an objective calculation for damages.
Verbal promises. A note of caution: if the solar energy developer makes you a verbal promise, ask for that promise to be included in the written lease. If there is a conflict between what a representative of the solar energy developer tells you and what is written in the lease, the terms in the written lease are likely to prevail.
The activity we are seeing across Ohio right now with solar reminds us of the early stages of the recent wind and shale energy booms. Some of the biggest regrets that we hear about are from landowners who thought they were getting a better deal than they actually did. Reading through, understanding, and thinking about the lease is an essential part of calculating whether or not the lease being offered is actually a good deal for a farmland owner and his or her family. Don’t be afraid to reach out to your team of professionals in this process. Your attorney, tax professional, extension educator, and others can be a great resource.
We haven’t seen much sun in Ohio lately, but that hasn’t stopped the growth of solar energy development. In the past two years, the Ohio Power Siting Board has approved six large scale solar projects with generating capacities of 50MW or more, and three more projects are pending approval. These “solar farms” require a large land base, and in Ohio that land base is predominantly farmland. The nine solar energy facilities noted on this map will cover about 16,500 acres in Brown, Clermont, Hardin, Highland and Vinton counties. About 12,300 of those acres were previously used for agriculture.
We’re hearing that solar energy developers are on the lookout for more land in these and several other counties across the state. As the markets fluctuate and weather continues to prevent planting, leasing farmland to a solar energy developer might look pretty appealing. But we always urge caution and due diligence for any leasing situation, and solar energy is no exception.
What should you do if an energy developer wants to discuss leasing your farmland for a large scale solar energy facility? Our best advice is not to jump too quickly. Instead, take the time to fully understand what you’re getting into. A typical solar lease can last for 30 years and thus can have long term legal, financial and social implications for a farmland owner. An important initial question is how does this type of land use fit into your future vision for your land, your farm operation, and your family? If you don’t yet know much about large scale solar development and what it means for your land, give a listen to this webinar from our partner, the National Agricultural Law Center.
In this post, we’ll focus on the beginning of the solar leasing legal process. The large scale solar projects in Ohio range from 600 to 3,300 acres of land, so a developer first has to assemble the land base once it identifies an area for a solar development project. Leasing the land is the typical mechanism used for the solar projects in Ohio. If a developer is interested in leasing your land, the first documents you may receive from the developer are a letter of intent and/or an option to lease. These documents are the precursors to a solar lease but, like a lease, are written in favor of the developer and establish legal rights for the developer. Careful review is critical, as these documents can tie up the land and the landowner for several years or more.
The letter of intent. Some developers use a written letter of intent to notify a landowner of the developer’s interest in a parcel of land. The purpose of the letter is to begin the process of considering the land for a long term solar lease. Note, however, that a letter of intent might also contain a confidentiality clause that would prevent the landowner from talking with other developers about the land or sharing details of the developer’s interest with anyone. Be aware that courts will generally enforce a signed letter of intent as a legally binding contract if the developer has offered the landowner a payment or similar benefit for signing the letter. By signing confidentiality provisions in a letter of intent, a landowner can be foreclosed from considering other solar leasing opportunities.
The option to lease. More commonly, the first document a solar developer will ask a landowner to sign is an option to lease. Don’t be fooled by the name of this document and think that it’s not a legally binding agreement. While an option is not the same as a lease, it can have the same legal effect of tying up the land for a certain period of time and might also dictate many of the terms of the lease if the developer decides to move forward on the project.
An option to lease grants the solar developer rights to explore the possibility of using the land for a solar project, but the developer may choose not to lease the land or develop the project. The option period, typically up to five years, gives the developer time to conduct due diligence on the property, assemble other land parcels, secure financing, and obtain government approval for the project. At the end of the option period, the developer should decide whether or not to proceed with the project. An option also can give the developer the right to terminate and back out of the option at any time prior to the end of the option period.
On the other hand, a landowner doesn’t have an option to back out once he or she signs an option to lease. The landowner is bound for the entire option period. Like a letter of intent, an option can contain confidentiality and “exclusive dealing” provisions that prevent the landowner from sharing details or entering into leasing opportunities with other developers during the option period. The option might also require the landowner to cooperate with the developer’s due diligence and help the developer obtain approvals and permits. Many options also include language that allows the developer to assign the option to another solar developer.
Be aware that an option can also contain significant leasing terms that carry over if the developer proceeds with the project. For example, in addition to allowing the developer to consider the land for a project, the option to lease could also include provisions for the period of the actual long term solar lease, the lease payment amount, easement rights, and landowner obligations. Landowners might think that such terms could be negotiable later if the parties sign an “official” solar lease, but the option language may bind the landowner to the leasing terms that are presented in the option. Sometimes, the option itself becomes the lease. The net effect: a landowner who thinks he or she is just signing a five year option agreement might also be committing to a 30 year solar lease and a predetermined lease payment.
What about crop production during the option period? An option might contain language stating that the landowner may continue managing and operating the property in the same way after agreeing to the option. But the option might also allow the developer to enter the property and proceed with the project at any time, including when crops are in the ground, although the option might not provide the landowner payment for the lost production. In that case, the landowner simply loses out on the crop if the option doesn’t contain provisions for lost production.
As for payment for the option, a landowner usually receives an initial payment for signing the option, perhaps several thousand dollars or more. During the option period, the landowner also typically receives an annual payment that is based on number of acres, perhaps $20 dollars per acre or more.
Should you have an attorney review an option to lease? Yes. Option language can vary and we surely haven’t addressed all potential issues in this post. A close examination by an attorney shouldn’t take much time or cost a lot and will ensure that you fully understand the legal implications of entering into the option to lease.
Are the terms of an option negotiable? That’s up to the landowner and the developer, but don’t assume that the developer won’t negotiate. If you’re faced with an option to lease and don’t like the terms, try negotiating. An attorney can be helpful here, also.
In our next solar leasing post, we’ll review the terms of a solar lease and consider how the lease can impact agricultural landowners over the typical 30 year lease period. Watch also for our upcoming Ohio Farmland Owner’s Guide to Solar Leasing, due out in the next month, which will provide a detailed examination of the solar leasing process.