Last week, the Delaware Riverkeeper Network charged a pipeline company and federal regulators with sidestepping an in-depth environmental review of a natural gas pipeline project by understating its size and scope to the public. The Millennium pipeline company received the ok from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to build 7.8 miles of pipeline in New York from its Corning Compressor Station to the Algonquin Gas Transmission pipeline in Ramapo. The Eastern System Upgrade Project would also include upgrading another compressor station, building a third, and making modifications to two metering stations.
FERC based its approval on the environmental assessment it conducted of the proposed plan. The Delaware Riverkeeper Network (DRN) contends the project currently proposed is part of a larger plan that will ultimately involve the construction of a second pipeline and that, taken as a whole, a more exhaustive review called an Environmental Impact Statement was warranted. An expert analysis commissioned by the organization noted that the high level of compression on the proposed line and the diameter of the pipeline indicated it was part of something bigger. Compressor stations generally sit every 40 to 100 miles along natural gas pipelines to keep the gas flowing by compressing it using turbines. It’s very unusual to have so much compression within the span of just a few miles. As for the pipeline’s size, the existing line is 30” in diameter, but this new stretch is 36”. The analysis noted that there was no need to use a bigger pipe on the upgrade project if it’s the only project in the works.
DRN is justified in its concerns because what is happening with the Millennium project is something the organization has seen before. It’s called segmentation. Pipeline companies propose large projects in piecemeal fashion to avoid the Environmental Impact Statement and FERC lets them get away with it. In 2014, a federal district court found in favor of DRN in its case against FERC for approving the Tennessee pipeline in segments. It is now against the law for companies to segment and for FERC to let them, but that hasn’t stopped it from happening.
Segmentation is just one of many problems with FERC’s oversight of natural gas interstate transmission pipelines. DRN and more than 180 organizations representing 35 states, including my own organization Berks Gas Truth, submitted a letter last September calling on Congress to investigate FERC’s many abuses of its power. In December, several of our groups organized a People’s Hearing at the National Press Club. Sixty-five people from across the country testified to problems ranging from conflicts of interest within the Commission to unfair practices, like issuing something called a tolling order that puts landowners and communities in a state of legal limbo while FERC considers an appeal of a pipeline approval it has granted, but allows companies to proceed with construction while they think it over.
FERC was set up as an independent commission so it would not become politicized. Instead, it has become corporatized. It gets its funding from the fees it charges of companies it is supposed to be regulating. Its authority over natural gas pipeline projects is limited to the period when a project is being proposed, sited, and assessed for environmental impacts. In the 30 years the Commission has had oversight of natural gas pipeline proposals, it has only rejected one. And that was days after it was sued by DRN for conflict of interest.
At present, FERC is a commission that is largely out of commission. Three of its five commissioners have left, leaving only two commissioners, one of whom just announced she won’t re-up when her term expires in June. Since the departure of the third commissioner, FERC has not had a quorum. No pipelines can be approved until one is restored. It’s the perfect time for those Congressional hearings we’ve been asking for since last year.
That’s the message we’re taking with us on May 22nd and 23rd when we head to Capitol Hill to lobby members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, the Committee that will be tasked with approving Trump’s nominees to fill the vacancies before they’re sent for a vote of the full Senate. If you’d like to join us, please let us know!
By the way, the three names that have been floated now for weeks are Kevin McIntyre, an attorney who has represented pipeline companies for years, Neil Chatterjee, Mitch McConnell’s energy guy who was ardently and energetically in favor of the Keystone XL pipeline and pulling out of the Paris climate agreement, and, finally, Robert Powelson, known to Pennsylvanians as former head of the PUC where he still sits as a Commissioner. He’s the one who made headlines a few weeks ago by saying that pipeline opponents are “engaged in jihad.”
Yes, Pennsylvania taxpayers, you pay his salary.