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DOE, EPA officials offer advice as FERC turns focus to environmental justice

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DOE, EPA officials offer advice as FERC turns focus to environmental justice

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Urge outreach to prepare communities to engage

Focus on data about share of energy burden

In a further sign of a shift in focus at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the agency got advice from US Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Agency officials about how to improve engagement and better consider environmental justice issues as the commission makes key energy infrastructure decisions.

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"I think this office can be a holder and keeper of data to ensure that the same communities are not sought out again and again for infrastructure," Shalanda Baker, DOE's new deputy director for energy justice told commissioners.

The suggestions came during a daylong workshop FERC held April 16 to solicit input on a plan for a new FERC Office of Public Participation. Feedback during the day centered on FERCs energy project work as well as its rate setting and power market decision making.

Ongoing engagement, technical support

Baker, a co-founder of the Initiative for Energy Justice, emphasized a need to fund interveners within affected communities, to provide technical support, and to pursue early and sustained engagement.

FERC Chairman Richard Glick told participants of his realization that "a lot of matters that come before this commission affect, and disproportionately affect, environmental justice communities." And he asked panelists how FERC can ensure it adequately considers the impact on environmental justice communities before it makes decisions.

Baker, in response, urged that a new environmental justice official, whom Glick already has promised to appoint, "be at the decision making table,...have your ear and be an advisor." She also encouraged that metrics related to environmental justice be embedded in FERC's decisions.

For example, she said, the commission could expand upon a climate and economic justice screening tool, now under development at the Office of Management and Budget and White House Council on Environmental Quality, to include FERC-specific indicators that show burden.

"I think you'll be shocked when you begin to sort of unpack the impacts of infrastructure on certain communities," she said. "I want to point out that these communities have been shouldering the burden of keeping our energy system afloat but often lack access to electricity. They're paying more for energy."

During a later panel, Boardwalk Pipelines Vice President of Regulatory Affairs Kyle Stephens, who spoke on behalf of the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, also suggested the office could help project applicants finalize identification of environmental justice communities. EPA's current EJ Screen often relies on large polygons using census and broad emissions exposure data divorced from the community on the ground, he said.

Matthew Tejada, director of EPA's Office of Environmental Justice, said it was important that FERC not only hold hearings to seek community views at the moment when it needs feedback, but that it lay the groundwork to prepare communities to meaningfully engage, through outreach as well as training on the complex matters before the commission.

Adding accountability

"If you've really made the commitments to pursuing and advancing environmental justice, that means you'll be building those relationships with the communities, and you'll establish the feedback loop," he said. "They're going to let you know if you haven't gotten there yet."

Jacqueline Patterson, director of the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program, offered her view that "first and foremost, the engagement of communities must have teeth."

"If input does not lead to decision making, please don't waste the time of already beleaguered communities in performative action," she said. She highlighted data submitted to the House Oversight and Reform Committee indicating FERC over a 20-year period approved more than 99% of gas project applications.

Commissioner Allison Clements, who is leading FERC's efforts on the new public participation office, said she felt "a tremendous amount of pressure not to make things worse from the start."

Baker described agencies as being in uncharted territory, with a potential to "exacerbate harm," given that the energy transition crisscrossing the country will also come with a cost.

FERC should look into "how much you can push the benefits framework," she said. "Are there authorities that FERC can activate to really push those developers and push those parties and stakeholders to give more?"

Commissioner Neal Chatterjee asked about differences in addressing energy and environmental justice at a small, quasi-judicial, independent regulator like FERC, versus a large agency like EPA that is both a regulatory body and a grant-making entity.

Tejada replied that he hoped it would be easier for a message to be received by the entire organization at FERC, and that it would become an organizing principle, and "that thinking about justice and thinking about meaningful engagement of communities is not seen as this boutique thing."