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Industry, opponents both concerned about changes to FERC's gas pipeline policy

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Industry, opponents both concerned about changes to FERC's gas pipeline policy

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission's announcement that it will review an 18-year-old policy has prompted both the pipeline industry and its opponents to worry what changes it might bring to the commission's natural gas pipeline review process.

Chairman Kevin McIntyre said at the commission's monthly meeting Dec. 21 that FERC would review the 1999 Policy Statement on Certification of New Interstate natural Gas Pipeline Facilities to "take another look at the way in which we assess the value and the viability of our pipeline applications." The commission's approaches to assessing the need for proposed pipeline projects and their environmental impacts would be on the table. FERC said it will collect input from all stakeholder groups.

Rob Rains and Whitney Stanco with the public policy research firm Washington Analysis LLC said in an alert titled "Will this help or hurt?" that the review could result in FERC asking pipeline developers to coordinate to avoid redundant infrastructure, a concern of both project opponents and Democratic Commissioner Cheryl LaFleur. She was joined during the meeting by Commissioner Richard Glick, also a Democrat, in supporting the review.

On one hand, the analysts said the review might also allow FERC to look for ways to avoid situations that threaten pipeline projects' journey to active status.

But on the other hand, "[T]his effort may ultimately yield more ways for pipeline opponents to challenge project approvals, but the odds of successfully preventing a pipeline approval should remain low," they said.

These alternate possibilities have caused concern among stakeholders at opposite ends of the debate over fossil fuel transportation infrastructure. The pipeline industry, which has supported legislative efforts to stop what it sees as stalling actions by opponents and states in the review of pipeline projects, did not see the FERC policy review as helpful.

"We believe that it will be demonstrated that the 1999 policy statement has withstood the test of time quite well," Interstate Natural Gas Association of America CEO Donald Santa said in a statement after the FERC announcement. Santa said criteria in the policy statement provide the commission with a "robust framework" to evaluate proposed pipelines.

For those fighting against pipeline projects, the FERC announcement "should not be any more welcome than the recent restoration of a quorum," Maya van Rossum, the leader of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, said in an interview. A quorum is the minimum of three of five commissioners needed to vote on major business, including pipeline certificates, and FERC reclaimed quorum in August after six months with fewer than three commissioners.

Delaware Riverkeeper has led legal challenges to FERC and its decisions. According to van Rossum, FERC is likely to try to undermine the reviews of states like New York, which has blocked permits for gas pipeline projects that have already received FERC approval. FERC is also likely to roll back extra greenhouse gas emissions reviews that have been mandated in one case by a federal appeals court, she said.

"Further, while some point to Commissioner LaFleur's recent dissent, when one looks at her entire history and even the specifics of that particular decision, there is no reason to believe she in any way doubts FERC's abuse of its power and authority over the years," van Rossum said. "Indeed, even the recent statements of concern by Commissioner [Norman] Bay only came when he was on his way out the door."

LaFleur dissented from recent approvals of the $5.1 billion Atlantic Coast and $3.7 billion Mountain Valley pipelines, saying the commission should have done more to ensure that environmental impacts were balanced with economic need for the two Appalachian pipeline projects. Her recommendation that the commission use evidence other than precedent agreements between pipelines and potential customers to establish the need for such projects was similar to one that Bay made as he left the commission in February. Pipeline opponents such as the Sierra Club have cited LaFleur's and Bay's comments in subsequent challenges.