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Judges address 'public utility' questions

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In a case of first impression in this state, the Indiana Court of Appeals has determined that BP Products North America Inc.'s petroleum refinery plant in northern Indiana isn’t a public utility as defined by state statute when it acts as a sort of conduit and provides natural gas and other services such as steam and wastewater to other private companies nearby.

But that ruling also affirmed a regulatory commission’s finding that the oil company is serving as an indirect public utility when it sells water to a local city for processing and sale to local customers.

The unanimous ruling came today in BP Products North America, Inc. and United States Steel Corp. v. Indiana Office of Utility Consumer Counselor and Northern Indiana Public Service Co., No. 93A02-0905-EX-490, as an appeal from the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission’s decisions in 2009.

In 2008, the IURC received a request from BP relating to its operations at the Whiting refinery plant along Lake Michigan. As part of its crude oil refining operation, BP generates electricity and natural gas obtained from Northern Indiana Public Service Co. to power its plant and it also transmits excess gas, electricity, steam, and water to adjacent and on-site entities through private contracts – such as the nearby U.S. Steel plant and other companies. The refinery also sends low pressure raw service water to the city wastewater treatment facility to process and pass along to customers.

The BP request asked the IURC to determine that it wasn’t acting as a public utility in providing these materials or services or alternatively that it could be considered a "public utility" under Indiana Code Section 8-1-2-1(a).

The state commission determined in May and June 2009 that BP was not a public utility in connection to its natural gas transportation to a tenant on its property, but that it was considered a public utility with its provision of steam, electricity, water, and wastewater and sewer services. The commission also found that BP was acting as a public utility when selling water to the city.

On appeal, the state’s intermediate appellate court disagreed, reversing the IURC decision on those points and finding the commission misapplied state statute and relevant caselaw.

The judges found that caselaw doesn’t support the principle that an entity that serves only itself isn’t a public utility, but that it’s one that is dedicated to public use under a common law duty to serve all who apply or an entity that may be “impressed with public interest.” Finding no Indiana cases directly on point, they turned to several from other jurisdictions such as Wisconsin and Pennsylvania that have interpreted what constitutes a public utility.

“Because BP served these selected companies – a special class of entities that did not make up the indefinite public – it was engaged in a private activity, not the provision of services directly or indirectly to the public,” Senior Judge John Sharpnack wrote for the panel, which included Judges Nancy Vaidik and Cale Bradford. “Thus, as to these entities, the Commission which erroneously interpreted both the controlling statutes and related caselaw, must vacate its orders and allow BP to proceed outside its jurisdiction.”

The judges saw BP’s contract with the City of Whiting in a different light. "The contract provides for the provision of water to an entity that is a mere conduit serving the undifferentiated public, at least indirectly. Accordingly, BP is acting as a public utility when it sells water to the City," wrote the judge.

On the issue of supplying electricity, the appellate court also found that the IURC had erred in determining that BP is an “electricity supplier” as defined by I.C. Section 8-1-2.3-1 – in large because it wasn’t a “public utility.”

The case is affirmed on the city water aspect and reversed and remanded on the other issues.

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  1. Well, maybe it's because they are unelected, and, they have a tendency to strike down laws by elected officials from all over the country. When you have been taught that "Democracy" is something almost sacred, then, you will have a tendency to frown on such imperious conduct. Lawyers get acculturated in law school into thinking that this is the very essence of high minded government, but to people who are more heavily than King George ever did, they may not like it. Thanks for the information.

  2. I pd for a bankruptcy years ago with Mr Stiles and just this week received a garnishment from my pay! He never filed it even though he told me he would! Don't let this guy practice law ever again!!!

  3. Excellent initiative on the part of the AG. Thankfully someone takes action against predators taking advantage of people who have already been through the wringer. Well done!

  4. Conour will never turn these funds over to his defrauded clients. He tearfully told the court, and his daughters dutifully pledged in interviews, that his first priority is to repay every dime of the money he stole from his clients. Judge Young bought it, much to the chagrin of Conour’s victims. Why would Conour need the $2,262 anyway? Taxpayers are now supporting him, paying for his housing, utilities, food, healthcare, and clothing. If Conour puts the money anywhere but in the restitution fund, he’s proved, once again, what a con artist he continues to be and that he has never had any intention of repaying his clients. Judge Young will be proven wrong... again; Conour has no remorse and the Judge is one of the many conned.

  5. Pass Legislation to require guilty defendants to pay for the costs of lab work, etc as part of court costs...

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