Washington — A federal appeals court has vacated the air permit for an Enbridge Energy compressor station under construction in Weymouth, Massachusetts, that would enable northbound natural gas flows on Maritimes & Northeast Pipeline and into Canada.
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The ruling, while narrow, is a setback for the highly contested project that finally entered construction late 2019, after a lengthy state air permit appeals process that ensued following the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission's certificate authorization in early 2017.
The compressor is part of the Atlantic Bridge project, designed to expand Algonquin Gas Transmission system capacity by 132,705 Dt/d from receipt points in New York and New Jersey along the mainline, which extends to the north of Boston.
In its ruling June 3, the 1st US Circuit Court of Appeals found the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection "did not follow its own established procedures for assessing whether an electric motor was the best available control technology," as opposed to the "SoLoNOx" turbine, a dry low nitrogen oxide combustion turbine which was selected for the project and which would use small amounts of natural gas.
DECISION TO VACATE
The court vacated the permit and remanded the analysis for the agency to redo for limited purposes. Vacating the permit, rather than a straight remand, will allow the DEP to reopen the record to fill evidentiary gaps, the court said. It expected the DEP proceeding to be expedited and limited in purpose and suggested a 75-day time frame, unless the DEP makes a showing that more time is needed.
During the state proceedings, an Algonquin witness testified that an electric motor would require construction of a new substation and laying of half a mile of underground electric transmission, for an estimated cost of between $9 million and $12 million.
But the DEP erred, the court found, when it eliminated electric motor technology without calculating the cost effectiveness of an electric motor, or comparing that figure to the range established in its technology guidance for cost per ton of NOx removed.
"And even in their briefs before us, DEP and Algonquin do not attempt to perform the required mathematical calculations," said the ruling penned by Judge William Kayatta. "Instead, DEP states that 'the full calculation was unnecessary because the infrastructure costs were so obviously substantial.'"
The opinion then goes through a process of attempting to do the calculations. Annual costs of SoLoNOx may in fact be far less, "but not so obviously that can we shrug off the lack of data in the record," the ruling said. "In any event, it is DEP's job, not ours, to do these calculations properly," it said.
Enbridge said June 4 it was still reviewing the opinion.
"We remain committed to placing the Weymouth Compressor Station in service as soon as possible, in compliance with applicable regulations, to deliver much-needed natural gas to project customers, including local gas utilities in Maine and Atlantic Canada," the company said in a statement.
FERC approved the compressor station as part of the Atlantic Bridge project in January 2017, conditioned on Algonquin's compliance with the Massachusetts and federal clean air acts.
The case consolidated challenges by the Town of Weymouth, state and local officials and residents of the nearby towns (Town of Weymouth, et al v. Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, 19-1794).
Natural gas infrastructure has faced increasing headwinds in New England, with multiple objections facing even small projects.
The court decision comes as project opponents filed repeated requests for FERC to halt work on the compressor on the ground that construction at this time increased risk of spreading the coronavirus (CP16-9).