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Environmental groups challenge US FERC's signoff on Commonwealth LNG


Question cumulative impacts to burdened communities

Cite FERC chair to assert lack of 'coherent' approach

  • Author
  • Maya Weber
  • Editor
  • Valarie Jackson
  • Commodity
  • Energy Transition LNG Natural Gas Petrochemicals

Environmental groups are seeking a rehearing of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission's recent authorization of the Commonwealth LNG project, accusing the agency of an "ostrich-like" approach to gas projects that "falsely claims" powerlessness to evaluate environmental effects.

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The litigation continues the pattern of opposition confronting LNG projects and expansions along the US Gulf Coast and also delves into the environmental justice implications of cumulative fossil fuel, petrochemical, and other industrial facilities in the region.

The commission Nov. 17 unanimously approved the 8.4 million mt/year LNG export facility in Cameron Parish, Louisiana, despite some commissioners' concerns related to environmental justice impacts or other outstanding permitting matters (CP19-502).

At the time of the decision, Chairman Richard Glick said he voted in favor of authorizing the project because it falls under Section 3 of the Natural Gas Act, which requires approval unless the record suggests the project is contrary to the public interest.

In a concurring statement, he also spelled out his concerns that Section 3, which covers projects designed to export or import gas, "does not provide a sufficient framework for consideration of the adverse impacts associated with a proposed LNG facility."

Commissioners Allison Clements and Willie Phillips also expressed some discomfort with the environmental justice aspects of FERC's approach in the case.

Seeking reversal

Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Center for Biological Diversity, Healthy Gulf, the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, the National Audubon Society, and Turtle Island Restoration Network, filed a request for rehearing Dec. 19 on multiple grounds.

Seizing on Gilck's concurrence, the groups alleged that FERC failed to articulate a "coherent" standard for the exercise of its NGA Section 3 authority and failed to engage in a meaningful balancing of benefits and harms.

"As Chairman Glick's concurrence explicitly admits, FERC simply does not have a framework or reasoning for determining whether an LNG project is consistent with the public interest," they wrote. According to their line of reasoning, FERC shirks its duty when it relies on the Department of Energy's export approval of the commodity to establish the public benefit of the infrastructure.

Turning to environmental justice, they also alleged FERC was "uncritically" greenlighting yet another LNG facility in southwest Louisiana. They argued that increased nitrogen oxide levels, beyond levels that already exceed US Environmental Protection Agency standards, are of concern for already burdened communities. And they asserted FERC's analysis of air pollution impacts was arbitrary.

While FERC viewed the incremental pollution to be small, the environmentalists insisted that FERC "profoundly misunderstands" principles of environmental justice that are centrally concerned with cumulative impacts.

Among other topics covered in the request for rehearing were FERCs analysis of greenhouse gas impacts and its look at effects on sensitive species.

The challenge comes as FERC's Democrats, including Glick, have been openly grappling with how to take into account the environmental justice impacts of the gas projects under FERC's purview, particularly in areas that have a previous concentration of industrial facilities.

At the Nov. 17 meeting where FERC approved Commonwealth LNG, Glick noted the significant impacts flagged in the case related to visual resources, adding that "the record did not suggest that this particular project was going to significantly or substantially adversely impact the health of the folks in this particular area" near the project.

Glick aired concerns stretching beyond the case, however, about environmental justice impacts associated with the concentration of petrochemical facilities located in "cancer alley" in Louisiana and Texas, where many LNG facilities are also under development, and said he believes it is something FERC should take into account.

The action on Commonwealth LNG marked the first major new LNG project to gain FERC authorization in several years, although FERC has extended authorization for multiple LNG projects and authorized pipelines serving LNG facilities as well.

Commonwealth is one of several US LNG project developers to announce new long-term deals in recent months, offering relatively low fixed liquefaction fees and destination flexibility for cargoes amid intense global demand for LNG. The company has targeted a final investment decision in mid-2023 and has said it expected to start commercial operations three years later in mid-2026.