Following years of complaints from environmental groups, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is reviewing its decades-old pipeline approval process.
On Thursday, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission unanimously voted to initiate a review into how it approves natural gas pipeline projects — a process the agency hasn’t changed since 1999. The vote begins a 60-day public comment period where people from all corners of the energy debate can voice their opinion. At the heart of the inquiry is whether FERC is too loose with their approval process — an accusation environmental groups have continually leveled at the agency in recent years.
The commission, made up of five members, is tasked with regulating interstate oil, gas and electric transmission. Energy companies must earn FERC’s approval before moving forward with construction of any natural gas pipeline. In the modern age of the U.S. shale boom, the natural gas industry is proliferated. Largely due to the implementation of hydraulic fracturing in the excretion process, natural gas emerged as a cheaper and cleaner alternative to other fossil fuel sources. For the first time in 60 years, the U.S. has now become a net exporter of natural gas.
Because of the industry’s revolution, numerous new pipeline projects have materialized. And with many pipeline requests come numerous approvals. From 1999 to 2016, FERC has green-lighted over 400 pipeline projects — a number that has alarmed groups concerned with climate change. Environmental organizations have routinely taken FERC to court for various approval decisions.
In the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals’ 2017 decision, the Sierra Club successfully sued the commission, forcing it to review the environmental effects of pipelines. Until that ruling, FERC had only considered the environmental effects of constructing a pipeline, not the use of fuel a pipeline transports.
Other changes may soon follow.
Members of the commission spoke Thursday on the necessity to re-examine their approval process to keep pace with the changing industry. However, they also made clear a review will not necessarily result in a change in their process.
“1999 was quite some time ago. Much has changed since that time,” FERC Chairman Kevin McIntyre said at the meeting. “Good governance calls for considering whether policies currently in place remain effective and look for opportunities for improvements. By issuing a [notice of inquiry] we are posing questions. It should not be read as a forecast of policy direction or indication of any action the commission may take. It should not suggest the current statement has been ineffective or changes will be made. I have an open mind on these issues.”
FERC is considering reform on four major parts of their approval process: landowners’ interest, specifically in regard to eminent domain; the environmental impact of pipeline construction; how to determine if a pipeline project is needed; how to increase overall efficiency in their approval process.
Numerous environmentalist leaders are welcoming the review, stating a change is needed. In a letter sent to FERC Chairman McIntyre on Wednesday, 11 environmentalist groups stated the commission conducts an approval process that encourages rather than restrains overbuilding of pipelines — a situation that further harms the environment.
Not everyone is unhappy with how the commission doles out approval, however. FERC has allowed for the shale oil boom the U.S. is now benefiting from, resulting in cheaper electricity bills and a plethora of new job opportunities, industry leaders counter.
“The ability to expand and modify interstate natural gas pipelines under FERC’s existing policy has served the nation well,” Interstate Natural Gas Association of America president Don Santa said at the Thursday meeting. “This pipeline infrastructure has facilitated the world’s most competitive natural gas commodity market and has enabled American consumers and industry to benefit from our natural gas abundance.”
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