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Natural gas industry called on to provide stronger advocacy to counter environmental attacks

Washington — Natural gas advocates can no longer sit on the sidelines while applications for pipeline certificates make their way through FERC's permitting process, industry stakeholders said at a conference last week. Rather, they need to be proactive and loud in their support to counter the growing Keep It In The Ground movement.

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Opposition to interstate natural gas pipeline projects has grown to unprecedented levels in recent years, panelists said November 14 during the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners' annual committee meetings in California.

They noted protests of late that have included interrupting FERC's monthly public meetings, showing up at commissioners' doors and laying in trenches to halt construction work on approved pipelines.

Dena Wiggins, president of the Natural Gas Supply Association, said the opposition was "a real problem" not just for the project developers, but for policymakers, electric utilities, industrial end-users and consumers as well.

Policymakers become tied up in protracted proceedings delaying the siting and construction of needed infrastructure; utilities have a harder time accessing a resource vital to lowering emissions while providing affordable energy; industrial end-users have a more difficult path to bringing manufacturing jobs back to the US and competing both domestically and abroad; and consumers are faced with higher energy bills as gas cannot flow to their communities, Wiggins explained.

As a result, pipeline and natural gas advocates must do a better job educating others about the value of natural gas, and must get involved in pipeline proceedings, she said.

"For years and years and years, it has been the case that if there was a pipeline application filed at FERC under Section 7, it might take a while and there might be some bumps along the way, but if it was a viable project and there was support contractually for having that pipeline project go through, ultimately it would be proposed and built," Wiggins said. "And those of us that supported that project had the luxury of sitting on the sidelines and waiting for the pipeline project to wind its way through the process and then we could reap the benefits. I don't think we can do that anymore."

Instead, producers, industrial end-users, utilities, communities and anyone with a "stake in getting a pipeline project through the process needs to go in and support proactively, loudly" to counteract what has proven to be a very vocal and well-funded anti-gas movement.

Richard Kruse, Spectra Energy's vice president of regulatory and FERC compliance officer, agreed, saying that pipeline developers "need all the help we can get."

"At Spectra Energy, we're very cognizant of our need to have aggressive stakeholder outreach," he said, noting early visits the company has engaged in to educate residents living in the rights-of-way of proposed projects, others along proposed pipeline routes, local politicians and state and federal regulators with jurisdiction over aspects of their projects.

Kevin Reilly, an international representative of the Laborers' International Union of North America, said that the construction workers who actually build the pipeline can also be allies in the fight to move the development of gas infrastructure forward.

He noted that "it has become commonplace to forget that there are jobs at stake with these projects." LIUNA boasts about half a million members in the US and Canada, with many working to build pipelines and power plants.

"In light of the challenge we face with the decline in the market as well as the rising protests that have slowed down development, our union is not one to sit back," Reilly said. "So our members have gotten very proactive in approaching how to drive investment in this sector and facilitate the approvals process."

Taking lessons learned from the failed fight over the Keystone XL pipeline, Reilly said LIUNA has since been "a strong partner in driving a number of projects forward," and intends to continue that work.

The group even launched a campaign with messaging regarding gas' ability to lower the country's carbon emissions. In addition to explaining gas' role in promoting clean air, the campaign also argued that it would be "impossible to build solar and wind infrastructure to replace [gas] anytime soon," Reilly said.

Construction workers also benefitted from the shale revolution. While the construction of mainline pipelines historically created about 3 million man hours per year of work for the union, that figure tripled in 2007 and doubled again in 2008 to around 15.5 million man hours of pipeline construction. The last two years have seen a 20% reduction in man hours for each year, but the pipeline sector still provides 10 million man hours per year of work, well above levels prior to the shale boom, Reilly said.

Further, the number of apprentices trained in West Virginia, for instance, jumped from about 10 to 15 each year to almost 150.

"Obviously, our concern is we've built this workforce and have a generation of workers and now they are depending on that as their lifeline," Reilly said of the union's stake in the gas industry.

In one illustration of groups organizing in support of a project, the Virginia Chamber of Commerce last week released a letter from 31 Virginia businesses, labor groups and business groups applauding the state's governor, Terry McAuliffe, for standing up for Dominion's Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

The letter, on behalf of the "EnergySure coalition," pointed to economic and environmental benefits of the natural gas project and argued that while a vocal minority of critics have dominated media attention over Atlantic Coast, McAuliffe's continued efforts to support the project "are appreciated and have not gone unnoticed by the vast majority of Virginians."

At the NARUC meeting, former FERC Commissioner Tony Clark added to the discussion that the loudest and most vocal opposition to gas pipeline projects tends to revolve around issues that the commission is not able to address through the regulatory process.

Those voices tend to represent "a proxy fight about the exploration and production of natural gas or oil," he said. "It's an attempt to collaterally attack the midstream infrastructure projects as a means of getting at E&P, which is handled by the states and separate regulatory agencies. The Natural Gas Act and most state siting acts are not designed to handle that type of protest."

Clark said those protests, while attracting attention and media coverage, are often the least effective as FERC's permitting process does not take concerns about E&P into account when considering new pipelines or capacity expansions projects.

Those "expressing concern about the placement of a particular line" because it would disturb certain cultural, historic or environmental resources or because a re-route to a different parcel of land would protect a landowner's agricultural operations, for instance, "can be more adequately accommodated through the regulatory process," Clark said.

While some NIMBY issues prove to be parochial, the regulatory process is designed to sort those out and use the meaningful complaints to inform the regulatory record and help commissioners make a decision, Clark said. But the challenge for regulators, he said, is sorting through the haystack to weed out the majority of comments that may be inflammatory but cannot be statutorily addressed by the commission and find the few items that should be addressed.

Wiggins said there are people with legitimate questions when a pipeline is slated to run through their land or community as they want to ensure that the project will be built safely, won't contaminate their water supply and has no other health or safety implications from the dust, road construction and other work that goes into a project.

"We have to be better and more proactive about engaging and answering those questions," she said. "We just can't stand on the sidelines, and I think we have to have a call to action to get people who are supportive of these projects to participate and to convey that to local officials, to regulators, to anyone who will listen and act as a reasonable counterweight to those that are trying to oppose those projects."

--Jasmin Melvin,