Federal Power Commission v. Hope Natural Gas Co City of Cleveland v. Same

Citation88 L.Ed. 333,64 S.Ct. 281,320 U.S. 591
Decision Date03 January 1944
Docket NumberNos. 34 and 35,s. 34 and 35
PartiesFEDERAL POWER COMMISSION et al. v. HOPE NATURAL GAS CO. CITY OF CLEVELAND v. SAME
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

Mr. Francis M. Shea, Asst. Atty. Gen., for petitioners Federal Power Com'n and others.

[Argument of Counsel from page 592 intentionally omitted] Mr. Spencer W. Reeder, of Cleveland, Ohio, for petitioner City of cleveland.

Mr. William B. Cockley, of Cleveland, Ohio, for respondent.

Mr. M. M. Neeley, of Charleston, W. Va., for State of West Virginia, as amicus curiae by special leave of Court.

Mr. Justice DOUGLAS delivered the opinion of the Court.

The primary issue in these cases concerns the validity under the Natural Gas Act of 1938, 52 Stat. 821, 15 U.S.C. § 717 et seq., 15 U.S.C.A. § 717 et seq., of a rate order issued by the Federal Power Commission reducing the rates chargeable by Hope Natural Gas Co., 44 P.U.R.,N.S., 1. On a petition for review of the order made pursuant to § 19(b) of the Act, the Circuit Court of Appeals set it aside, one judge dissenting. 4 Cir., 134 F.2d 287. The cases are here on petitions for writs of certiorari which we granted because of the public importance of the questions presented. City of Cleveland v. Hope Natural Gas Co., 319 U.S. 735, 63 S.Ct. 1165.

Hope is a West Virginia corporation organized in 1898. It is a wholly owned subsidiary of Standard Oil Co. (N.J.). Since the date of its organization, it has been in the business of producing, purchasing and marketing natural gas in that state.1 It sells some of that gas to local consumers in West Virginia. But the great bulk of it goes to five customer companies which receive it at the West Virginia line and distribute it in Ohio and in Pennsylvania.2 In July, 1938, the cities of Cleveland and Akron filed complaints with the Commission charging that the rates collected by Hope from East Ohio Gas Co. (an affiliate of Hope which distributes gas in Ohio) were excessive and unreasonable. Later in 1938 the Commission on its own motion instituted an investigation to determine the reasonableness of all of Hope's interstate rates. In March 1939 the Public Utility Commission of Pennsylvania filed a complaint with the Commission charging that the rates collected by Hope from Peoples Natural Gas Co. (an affiliate of Hope distributing gas in Pennsylvania) and two non-affiliated companies were unreasonable. The City of Cleveland asked that the challenged rates be declared unlawful and that just and reasonable rates be determined from June 30, 1939 to the date of the Commission's order. The latter finding was requested in aid of state regulation and to afford the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio a proper basic for disposition of a fund collected by East Ohio under bond from Ohio consumers since June 30, 1939. The cases were consolidated and hearings were held.

On May 26, 1942, the Commission entered its order and made its findings. Its order required Hope to decrease its future interstate rates so as to reflect a reduction, on an annual basis of not less than $3,609,857 in operating revenues. And it established 'just and reasonable' average rates per m.c.f. for each of the five customer companies.3 In response to the prayer of the City of Cleveland the Commission also made findings as to the lawfulness of past rates, although concededly it had no authority under the Act to fix past rates or to award reparations. 44 P.U.R.,U.S., at page 34. It found that the rates collected by Hope from East Ohio were unjust, unreasonable, excessive and therefore unlawful, by $830,892 during 1939, $3,219,551 during 1940, and $2,815,789 on an annual basis since 1940. It further found that just, reasonable, and lawful rates for gas sold by Hope to East Ohio for resale for ultimate public consumption were those required to produce $11,528,608 for 1939, $11,507,185 for 1940 and $11.910,947 annually since 1940.

The Commission established an interstate rate base of $33,712,526 which, it found, represented the 'actual legitimate cost' of the company's interstate property less depletion and depreciation and plus unoperated acreage, working capital and future net capital additions. The Commission, beginning with book cost, made certain adjustments not necessary to relate here and found the 'actual legitimate cost' of the plant in interstate service to be $51,957,416, as of December 31, 1940. It deducted accrued depletion and depreciation, which it found to be $22,328,016 on an 'economic-service-life' basis. And it added $1,392,021 for future net capital additions, $566,105 for useful unoperated acreage, and $2,125,000 for working capital. It used 1940 as a test year to estimate future revenues and expenses. It allowed over $16,000,000 as annual operating expenses—about $1,300,000 for taxes, $1,460,000 for depletion and depreciation, $600,000 for exploration and development costs, $8,500,000 for gas purchased. The Commission allowed a net increase of $421,160 over 1940 operating expenses, which amount was to take care of future increase in wages, in West Virginia property taxes, and in exploration and development costs. The total amount of deductions allowed from interstate revenues was $13,495,584.

Hope introduced evidence from which it estimated reproduction cost of the property at $97,000,000. It also presented a so-called trended 'original cost' estimate which exceeded $105,000,000. The latter was designed 'to indicate what the original cost of the property would have been if 1938 material and labor prices had prevailed throughout the whole period of the piece-meal construction of the company's property since 1898.' 44 P.U.R.,N.S., at pages 8, 9. Hope estimated by the 'percent condition' method accrued depreciation at about 35% of reproduction cost new. On that basis Hope contended for a rate base of $66,000,000. The Commission refused to place any reliance on reproduction cost new, saying that it was 'not predicated upon facts' and was 'too conjectural and illusory to be given any weight in these proceedings.' Id., 44 P.U.R.,U.S., at page 8. It likewise refused to give any 'probative value' to trended 'original cost' since it was 'not founded in fact' but was 'basically erroneous' and produced 'irrational results.' Id., 44 P.U.R.,N.S., at page 9. In determining the amount of accrued depletion and depreciation the Commission, following Lindheimer v. Illinois Bell Telephone Co., 292 U.S. 151, 167-169, 54 S.Ct. 658, 664—666, 78 L.Ed. 1182; Federal Power Commission v. Natural Gas Pipeline Co., 315 U.S. 575, 592, 593, 62 S.Ct. 736, 745, 746, 86 L.Ed. 1037, based its computation on 'actual legitimate cost'. It found that Hope during the years when its business was not under regulation did not observe 'sound depreciation and depletion practices' but 'actually accumulated an excessive reserve'4 of about $46,000,000. Id., 44 P.U.R.,N.S., at page 18. One member of the Commission thought that the entire amount of the reserve should be deducted from 'actual legitimate cost' in determining the rate base. 5 The majority of the Commission concluded, however, that where, as here, a business is brought under regulation for the first time and where incorrect depreciation and depletion practices have prevailed, the deduction of the reserve requirement (actual existing depreciation and depletion) rather than the excessive reserve should be made so as to lay 'a sound basis for future regulation and control of rates.' Id., 44 P.U.R.,N.S., at page 18. As we have pointed out, it determined accrued depletion and depreciation to be $22,328,016; and it allowed approximately $1,460,000 as the annual operating expense for depletion and depreciation.6

Hope's estimate of original cost was about $69,735,000 approximately $17,000,000 more than the amount found by the Commission. The item of $17,000,000 was made up largely of expenditures which prior to December 31, 1938, were charged to operating expenses. Chief among those expenditures was some $12,600,000 expended in well-drilling prior to 1923. Most of that sum was expended by Hope for labor, use of drilling-rigs, hauling, and similar costs of well-drilling. Prior to 1923 Hope followed the general practice of the natural gas industry and charged the cost of drilling wells to operating expenses. Hope continued that practice until the Public Service Commission of West Virginia in 1923 required it to capitalize such expenditures, as does the Commission under its present Uniform System of Accounts.7 The Commission refused to add such items to the rate base stating that 'No greater injustice to consumers could be done than to allow items as operating expenses and at a later date include them in the rate base, thereby placing multiple charges upon the consumers.' Id., 44 P.U.R.,N.S., at page 12. For the same reason the Commission excluded from the rate base about $1,600,000 of expenditures on properties which Hope acquired from other utilities, the latter having charged those payments to operating expenses. The Commission disallowed certain other overhead items amounting to over $3,000,000 which also had been previously charged to operating expenses. And it refused to add some $632,000 as interest during construction since no interest was in fact paid.

Hope contended that it should be allowed a return of not less than 8%. The Commission found that an 8% return would be unreasonable but that 6 1/2% was a fair rate of return. That rate of return, applied to the rate base of $33,712,526, would produce $2,191,314 annually, as compared with the present income of not less than $5,801,171.

The Circuit Court of Appeals set aside the order of the Commission for the following reasons. (1) It held that the rate base should reflect the 'present fair value' of the property, that the Commission in determining the 'value' should have considered reproduction cost and trended original cost, and that 'actual legitimate cost' (prudent investment) was not the...

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