In a change that could speed natural gas project review timelines, the US Federal Energy Regulatory Commission appears to be pulling back from a practice of conducting environmental impact statements for most projects that add capacity and have incremental greenhouse gas emissions.
The potential shift comes as Democrat Willie Phillips settles in as acting chairman at FERC, following a period when the agency at times faced criticism for slowing project reviews from gas sector allies in the US Congress.
In a sign it may be adjusting the approach, the commission Jan. 27 released revised notices scheduling environmental assessments for three pipeline expansion projects, setting dates several months earlier than the previously planned EISs.
Those expansions include Transcontinental Gas Pipe Line's 150,000 Dt/d Southeast Energy Connector Project (CP22-495); Transco's 364,400 Dt/d Texas to Louisiana Energy Pathway Project (CP22-486); and Texas Eastern's 55,000 Dt/d Appalachia to Market II and Entriken HP Replacement (CP22-486). As an example of the change in the time frame, the Texas to Louisiana Energy Pathway Project, which could help feed Gulf Coast LNG demand, will receive an EA June 9, compared with an EIS Nov. 30, under the prior schedule, according to FERC's Jan. 27 notice.
In addition, on Jan. 30, FERC also scheduled a July 21 EA in Wisconsin Reliability Project, another project that would add about 150,000 Dt/d.
FERC's recent practice of often turning toward EISs, even for some smaller projects with potential added GHG emissions, grew out of efforts under Chairman Richard Glick to sort out how the commission will consider GHG and climate impacts associated with gas infrastructure expansions. Glick contended that conducting the EISs when there were added GHG emissions would help make FERC's decisions more legally durable in the face of legal challenges and in response to the direction from federal appeals courts.
Gary Kruse of ArboIQ called the action a "bold" step by Phillips to alter the timing of reviews previously scheduled under his predecessor. And Kruse asserted a shift to EAs more generally would likely mean a faster process for applicants.
"Our data shows that an EIS takes about 18 months to prepare and that an EA takes nine months to prepare" from the filing of an application to the release of the report, he said in a Jan. 30 interview.
An EIS carries more procedural requirements for public comment and is often contracted to an outside consultant to complete, according to Kruse. "It's a huge difference," he said.
Christi Tezak, managing director of ClearView Energy Partners, said the change in schedules for the three projects could be an early sign that Phillips is heading toward a "middle ground" on where he wants to take the gas project certificate reviews and FERC's draft policy statements and may focus on the direct emissions and mitigation related to that, without ignoring indirect impacts.
Still, Moneen Nasmith, senior attorney with Earthjustice, said the shift in the schedule for the three projects raises "serious concerns," although she hesitated to assume that signaled a broader change in FERC's practice.
For the three projects with altered schedules, it creates a "real issue for purposes of participation" by the public, because of the differences in the deadlines for parties to intervene, she said. Nasmith also worried that reverting to an EA suggests a predetermination that the projects have no significant environmental impact.
The commission has been stalled in its efforts to craft a policy for considering GHG emissions, after pulling back an interim policy and converting it to draft form in March 2022.
Instead, FERC has settled into a recent pattern of steering clear of making a finding of whether climate impacts are "significant" in its orders while providing information about the GHG emissions it deems to be reasonably foreseeable.
A shift from the approach pursued under Glick would still leave FERC the option of performing an EIS on a case-by-case basis, depending on the scale of a range of other impacts associated with the projects. FERC also has the option of turning to an EIS depending on what impacts are unearthed during the EA process.
INGAA President and CEO Amy Andryszak said her group anticipated the shift could reduce the length of each certificate proceeding by about five months.
"INGAA was encouraged by the commission staff's actions which seem to indicate that FERC staff will analyze on a case-by-case basis whether the project's [National Environmental Policy Act] review warrants an EA versus an EIS based on its determination of the significance of the project's environmental impacts rather than an arbitrary, unscientific GHG emissions volumetric threshold," she said in an emailed statement Jan. 30.
Katharine Ehly, senior policy adviser at the Center for LNG, said "the most important consideration for project permitting is a safety-focused, streamlined, predictable, and timely process," whether the reviews performed are EISs or EAs.
"Longer permitting timelines increase project costs and keep customers from getting the services and products that they need," she said in an emailed statement Jan. 30.