What FERC Is And Why It Matters

The Commission never factors into its decisions any climate impacts.
05/30/2017 06:28 pm ET Updated May 30, 2017
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We have reviewed the information and analysis contained in the final [Environmental Impact Statement] regarding potential environmental effects of the Rover Pipeline, Panhandle Backhaul, and Trunkline Backhaul Projects. Based on our consideration of this information and the discussion above, we agree with the conclusions presented in the final EIS and find that the projects, if constructed and operated as described in the final EIS, are environmentally acceptable actions. ― Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, February 2, 2017

Decisions like these keep environmental advocates up at night. Headlines like this one from the “Washington Post” earlier this month explain why, “U.S. blocks major pipeline after 18 leaks and a 2 million gallon spill of drilling mud.” Turns out the Rover Pipeline, approved just one day shy of 15 weeks earlier, isn’t so “environmentally acceptable” after all. About 6.5 acres of pristine wetland along the Tuscarawas River in Ohio were covered in bentonite clay and bore-hole cuttings that, according to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, “coated wetland soils and vegetation.”

For three decades, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), the independent commission tasked with regulating the nation’s energy markets, has had the added responsibility of considering applications for new interstate natural gas pipelines and some other natural gas infrastructure projects. The Commission’s website lists all of the pipeline projects it has approved for twenty of those years. In that time, the Commission has approved 450 natural gas pipeline projects or, put another way, 23,467.16 miles of pipelines cutting through communities, forests, farmland, preserved land, and bodies of water. Since FERC was first given this authority, it has rejected only one pipeline project.

After a pipeline is built, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has no authority over its operation. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), a division of the Department of Transportation, takes over. Its website happens to provide data for the same twenty year period during which the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approved 450 pipelines. During that same span of years, PHMSA has recorded 11,462 pipeline incidents. Of those, 5,678 have been significant, defined by PHMSA as involving one or more of the following:

1. Fatality or injury requiring in-patient hospitalization

2. $50,000 or more in total costs, measured in 1984 dollars

3. Highly volatile liquid releases of 5 barrels or more or other liquid releases of 50 barrels or more

4. Liquid releases resulting in an unintentional fire or explosion

PHMSA was already an underfunded and understaffed agency when budget cuts resulted in a nine percent reduction of the staff in 2014. Quartz Media reported earlier this year that there is one inspector for every 5000 miles of pipeline in this country, or, as they put it,” more than twice the length of the United States, per inspector.”

More than 23,467 miles of pipeline in the past twenty years, resulting in 11,462 pipeline incidents, almost half of them ‘significant” with staffing cuts to boot – makes you wonder why FERC keeps approving pipelines, doesn’t it? After all, natural gas customers aren’t complaining of shortages in supply.

The answers, at least many of them, can be found within pages of a dossier of testimony recorded at a People’s Hearing on FERC Abuses at the National Press Club last December. The dossier was shared with members of Congress who have yet to respond to calls for hearings on the problems at FERC and actions to address them.

FERC, whose acronym is handy for detractors who use it in everything from chants (FERC Doesn’t Work) to off-color puns (FERC Us), has been abusing its authority to consider new pipeline projects since it was first handed that responsibility. Among the problems cited are the use of eminent domain by private pipeline companies that are not providing a public benefit, the stalling tactics the Commission employs to slow down appeals to pipeline approvals that allow projects to completed before they can be challenged, and the all-too-cozy relationship between the regulators and the regulated.

Days after Trump took office, he announced that he wanted the former chair of the Commission to resume her seat on an interim basis, something that angered the guy who happened to be in that seat at the time. Norman Bay immediately announced his resignation. Because two of other five seats on the Commission were open, Bay’s departure deprived FERC of the quorum it needs to approve pipeline projects. A fourth commissioner announced at the beginning of the month that she would be leaving the Commission when her term ends in June.

Earlier this month, Trump officially nominated Robert Powelson and Neil Chatterjee. Powelson is the former chair and current member of the Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission. He recently made headlines when he said that pipeline fighters were “engaged in jihad.” Chatterjee is Mitch McConnell’s climate-denying energy aide who is unabashedly in favor of the Keystone XL pipeline and against the Paris climate agreement. The pair would move the commission that is already failing the public in an even more extreme direction.

Senator Lisa Murkowski made good on her vow to get confirmation hearings set up quickly. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held its hearings last Thursday. Murkowski expects the committee to vote as soon as June 5th. In spite of intense lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill last week and disruptions of the hearings on Thursday, the nominees didn’t get many hardball questions from the Senators present.

With less than a week before the committee vote, networks like Stop the Pipelines and Beyond Extreme Energy are encouraging everyone to call, email, fax, and tweet at their Senators and tell them to reject Powelson and Chatterjee and hold the long overdue hearings on FERC. For more information on the action and others that may be planned, visit the groups’ websites or their Facebook event page.

By the way, FERC doesn’t believe that climate change considerations are in its purview. Although the Commission acknowledges the methane leaks that occur along pipeline routes and at compressor stations, well pads, processing facilities, and power plants, the Commission never factors into its decisions any climate impacts, nor does it consider whether or not energy needs presumably fulfilled by building more pipelines could be fulfilled instead by renewable resources. Climate change is everyone’s issue. Whether or not your community has been threatened directly by the rapid proliferation of natural gas infrastructure, you’re affected and you need to make your voices heard.

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