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Southeast Market Pipelines await action by federal appeals court

Washington — A major natural gas pipeline project in the US Southeast was awaiting court action Tuesday that could determine whether gas flows are interrupted and construction halted, though sources said procedural steps are available that could hold off that outcome.

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At issue are the 1.1 Bcf/d, 515-mile Sabal Trail Transmission project, Transcontinental Gas Pipe Line's Hillabee Expansion and the Florida Southeast Connection. The pipelines, known collectively as the Southeast Market Pipelines, are mostly operating with some remaining segments to be constructed.

Now that Sierra Club has made a key reply filing, the US DC Circuit Court of Appeals could decide at any time whether to make effective its August decision to vacate orders for the pipelines, removing authority for them to operate or continue construction.

Sabal Trial deliveries have averaged 108 MMcf/d to Florida Southeast Connection and Gulfstream Natural Gas in February, up from 93 MMcf/d in January.

Over 99% of February deliveries have been made to FSC, which subsequently delivers to the Martin power plant near Indiantown, Florida.

S&P Global Platts Analytics sample Florida power demand is averaging 2.9 Bcf/d in February, in line with the January average, while population weighted temperatures are averaging 8 degrees above normal, likely contributing to lower current utilization of the pipelines.

The DC Circuit Court in August found the US Federal Energy Regulatory Commission provided too little information about the downstream greenhouse gas emissions from the power plants the pipelines would supply.

While FERC and the pipelines asked the court on rehearing to remand rather than vacate the orders, the court January 31 held firm to its remedy.

But the court's mandate stripping authority for the pipelines has not yet gone into effect. February 6 motions to stay the mandate by FERC and the natural gas companies appeared to hold that off temporarily, until Sierra Club could file its reply, which was due February 16.

FERC spokeswoman Tamara Young-Allen said the court has discretion to act at any time. There also is a seven-day reply period in which FERC could answer, should it choose to do so, she said.

The pipeline companies may also file for a stay of the mandate with the US Supreme Court.

One source suggested that if the court issues the mandate, the pipelines would have another seven days to shut down or cease operations, during which time the owners could consider options such as filing the Supreme Court stay request.

Any interruption might be temporary, as FERC is poised to issue remand orders providing new certificate authority that could moot the mandate in the case.

In a bid to keep gas flowing, FERC on February 6 asked the court to stay the mandate, pointing out that it had issued a final supplemental environmental impact statement a day earlier and planned to issue an order on remand regarding the projects within 45 days.

The pipeline companies in the case also filed February 6 seeking a 90-day stay while FERC completed its work on remand, and in the alternative suggested a stay to prevent harm during a potential Supreme Court appeal.

Sierra Club responded Friday, reiterating that the companies and FERC had failed to establish good cause for a stay.

"Their goal is to push the mandate off until after FERC can issue a new certificate, rendering vacatur moot and achieving the same result they sought with their petitions for hearing," the group argued. "But for the same reasons the court denied their petitions for rehearing, it should not permit them to skirt the vacatur through motions to stay issuance of the mandate."

Separately, FERC on Friday released the environmental review schedules for one of the remaining pieces to be built for the project. The Okeechobee Lateral would be capable of transporting up to 400 MMcf/d to the Okeechobee Clean Energy Center, which is also under construction.

FERC said the environmental assessment is likely to be issued March 16, with a June 14 deadline for federal authorization decisions.

-- Maya Weber,
-- Edited by Kevin Saville,