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Public input can be part of efficient pipeline permitting, Dominion says

A Dominion Energy Inc. representative said conversations with stakeholders early in the development of a natural gas transportation project are important, even as the federal government wants to reduce opportunities for opposition groups to stall projects and as environmental groups criticize the approach of pipeline developers and regulators.

Laura Vaught, a federal affairs policy advisor for Dominion, said transparency by pipeline developers and consultation with communities and local groups are key components of the permitting process, and the federal government should not disregard these things as it considers changes to project reviews.

"Retaining that is not incompatible with having ... a more efficient process," Vaught said at an Environmental Law Institute conference May 10.

Vaught's comments seemed to share sentiments with a push for more public involvement by various environmental and citizen groups, but her comments also made it clear that Dominion wants a process that still works for developers. Opponents of the Dominion-led Atlantic Coast pipeline project continue to try to stall or stop it. In August 2017, North Carolina agencies said they were disappointed over a lack of communication with Native American groups before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission's approval.

The Atlantic Coast pipeline will transport 1.5-Bcf/d of gas about 600 miles through parts of West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina. FERC authorized the project in October 2017 and granted the developers permission to begin construction on parts of it in April. Dominion and the other developers, which include Duke Energy Corp., Southern Co. Gas and Piedmont Natural Gas Co. Inc., said they cooperated with state agencies and listened to local stakeholders, making adjustments to construction methods and route. (FERC docket CP15-554)

In an April 18 letter to FERC, a coalition of environmental groups asked the commission to preserve the opportunity for public comment as it considers possible changes to its 1999 policy statement governing reviews of pipeline projects. Among the issues that could benefit from such input is whether a pipeline is in the public interest, the groups said. The groups included the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club, Earthjustice, GreenFaith, Southern Environmental Law Center, Conservation Law Foundation, Public Citizen, Catskill Mountainkeeper, New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Riverkeeper and the Acadia Center.

"[I]t is critical to ensure that every stakeholder ... has the tools to fully participate in FERC proceedings," the groups said.

The examination of federal infrastructure permitting goes beyond FERC. In April, the Trump administration announced plans to streamline environmental reviews for major infrastructure projects at many federal agencies. In August 2017, President Donald Trump signed a related executive order to speed up federal authorizations for electric transmission projects and oil and gas pipelines. Under the plan, one primary agency will be responsible for leading certain categories of infrastructure projects through permitting.

In April, Republican lawmakers said they are considering changes to the National Environmental Policy Act that would limit the ability of project opponents to challenge and slow down infrastructure projects.

Allowing parties to raise concerns about a pipeline can slow a project's trip through the permitting process, even if they are not set against it. But Vaught said involving local people at the beginning of the planning and permitting processes is helpful for all sides. A "full conversation about the scope" can help the developer prepare a timeline for a project and can give the developer sufficient time to reach agreements with interested parties.