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Opinions differ on expected White House energy infrastructure order

Highlights

State Clean Water Act denials, delays targeted

Questions over hurdles for pending projects

Interagency review of LNG exports eyed

Washington — With the White House close to releasing an executive order to facilitate energy infrastructure approvals, analysts and advocates differed over how far it can go to lift obstacles in some Northeast states and end other legal roadblocks.

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A major natural gas pipeline buildout has been underway to move Appalachian shale gas to markets, but some Northeast projects have stalled over state permit denials, or amid environmental group challenges to multiple permits.

The White House order may frame that as a national security risk, pointing to coal and nuclear power plant retirements, and it may sweep together initiatives meant to promote prompt energy infrastructure reviews.

SCOPE OF STATE REVIEWS

One key target is water quality reviews delegated to states under Clean Water Act Section 401. State denials or delays under CWA authority have rankled gas pipeline developers and drawn repeated pushback from Energy Secretary Rick Perry and others in the administration.

The order could seek to trim the state review time from one year, or at least reign in efforts to stretch out that period.

The Environmental Protection Agency could be tasked with reworking guidance, now more than 10 years old, to constrain the scope of what states can consider in reviewing water quality impacts. The US Army Corps of Engineers could also revise guidance.

William Scherman, partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, said Monday that it could help even those projects with pending applications, because courts look to guidance as important parameters around which states can act lawfully.

Height Securities analysts said the new guidance "would give pipelines more ammunition to push back against states like New York and New Jersey, who've begun using the [Section] 410 authority to assert their own political goals."

FATE OF PENDING PROJECTS

Some analysts saw limits on how far this can go within the existing legal framework.

"Practically speaking, though, this is ... unlikely to change the fate of pipelines that are under threat of being denied permits by state officials," Rob Rains and Gianna Kinsman of Washington Analysis said in a research note Friday.

They suggested that Williams' Constitution Pipeline, if revived at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, could face further legal challenges in New York, which could also seek to revoke other permits. And they suggested odds lean against approval of Williams' Northeast Supply Enhancement Project in a decision by New York regulators expected by May 15 -- with potential hurdles in New Jersey as well. Both states will also be making Coastal Zone Management Act determinations.

ClearView Energy Partners does not expect the announcements to resolve delays faced by Mid-Atlantic natural gas projects, Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Mountain Valley Pipeline. "Both projects are currently experiencing court-driven delays related to inadequate Interior Department environmental reviews, and Atlantic Coast's crossing of the Appalachian Trail has been vacated," ClearView said in a note.

While there has been talk of an interagency rulemaking to resolve questions of Appalachian Trail oversight, one industry official cautioned that may not be included. "There is a much higher focus on the legal defensibility now" within the administration, he said.

The order could also seek to bolster interagency coordination on Department of Energy LNG export reviews, and shorten review and comment periods for crossborder oil pipeline reviews. Other areas might include parameters for consideration of greenhouse gas emissions, and more widespread use of cost-benefit analysis in regulation.

In the near term, the administration's delay in nominating a third Republican at FERC could run counter to the infrastructure goals. Differences over GHG considerations have sometimes divided commissioners at FERC and added uncertainties for pipeline and LNG approvals.

-- Maya Weber, maya.weber@spglobal.com

-- Edited by Pankti Mehta, newsdesk@spglobal.com