Court Rejects FERC Pipeline Approval


A panel of federal judges ruled Tuesday (Aug. 22) to order a new review of a 685-mile, three-part natural gas pipeline expansion project that was approved in early 2016 by the Federal Energy Regulatory Committee.

The Southeast Market Pipelines Project, which includes three new stretches of pipeline in Alabama, Georgia and Florida, was given the green light by FERC, the federal body that’s required to approve interstate transmission lines, in February 2016.

But a challenge from parties including the Sierra Club resulted in Tuesday’s ruling, in which two of three judges agreed that FERC did not give proper consideration to greenhouse gases that would be created when the natural gas transported by the new pipelines is burned. The panel ordered the federal commission to reconsider the pipeline permit, taking a climate review into account.

Much of the pipeline expansion has already been built; it is unclear at this time whether the ruling will affect operations of those segments.

The Project

The Southeast Market project includes, most notably, the Sabal Trail project, a joint venture of Spectra Energy (now part of Enbridge), NextEra Energy and Duke Energy. Sabal Trail includes 515 miles of pipeline across the three states, which the companies say will eventually move over 1 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day.

Its first phase—the construction of the actual pipeline, three compressor stations and six meter stations—was completed earlier this year, and the pipeline went into service in July. Phases II and III will involve adding additional compressor stations and more horsepower.

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Analysts say the new ruling could set a precedent expanding the scope of environmental reviews for pipeline projects, as climate ramifications have not played a role in the FERC approval process in the past.

A representative of the Sabal Trail project told the Alexander City Outlook that the decision would not immediately impact operations.

Two other pipelines are part of the expansion as well: the Hillabee Expansion, owned by the Williams Companies, and the Florida Southeast Connection, owned by NextEra.

The first 20-mile phase of Hillabee has already been put into service by Williams; two more phases totaling just over 22 miles of line are still to come. The 126-mile Florida Southeast went into service in June.

Ruling Rationale

Judge Thomas B. Griffith, writing for the court, said in the ruling that FERC’s “assessment of the environmental impact of the pipelines was inadequate” because the commission’s environmental impact statement “did not contain enough information on the greenhouse-gas emissions that will result from burning the gas that the pipelines will carry.”

Analysts say the new ruling could set a precedent expanding the scope of environmental reviews for pipeline projects, as climate ramifications have not played a role in the FERC approval process in the past.

“For too long FERC has abandoned its responsibility to consider the public health and environmental impacts of its actions, including climate change,” said Sierra Club attorney Elly Benson. “Today's decision requires FERC to fulfill its duties to the public, rather than merely serve as a rubber stamp for corporate polluters' attempts to construct dangerous and unnecessary fracked gas pipelines."

In a statement issued to PaintSquare Daily News, American Petroleum Institute spokesperson Sabrina Fang said, "We are currently evaluating this decision. We believe the FERC properly evaluated and permitted the natural gas infrastructure projects at issue in the case. Regulatory certainty is critical to ensuring that infrastructure is constructed efficiently. Further delays due to needless regulatory hurdles will slow consumer access to reliable, affordable natural gas and opportunities for job creation."

The potential expansion of FERC’s purview comes as the Trump administration moves to streamline the federal permitting process for infrastructure projects. Last week, President Donald J. Trump signed an executive order calling for a “One Federal Decision” process for permitting, and ordering that permit reviews take no more than two years.


Tagged categories: Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC); Government; NA; North America; Oil and Gas; Pipelines; Program/Project Management

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