What’s FERC Got to Do with It?

Fractivists and climate campaigners have besieged the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission of late, charging that the independent agency is erecting barriers to combating global warming by granting approval for new natural gas pipelines and LNG export terminals. Activists have appeared at FERC’s normally dry-as-dust monthly public meetings to make their claims that the agency is a tool of the fossil-energy devil. They have blocked agency parking garages and engaged in other 1960s-1970s protest acts.

Protests outside FERC

Protests about natural gas

Here is a typical rant from an activist website, Truth-Out.org: “Many people question whether these gas infrastructure projects are even necessary. ‘FERC just fast-tracked the pre-filing for the Tennessee Gas Pipeline that’s slated to go to Massachusetts, a project that’s not needed and would put 2.2 billion cubic feet of gas per day through the state,’ said protestor Dineen O’Rourke.”

Just ask folks in New England whether they need more natural gas this winter, after last winter’s experience.

FERC correctly responds that the complaints about its actions are bogus. Chairman Cheryl LaFleur notes that her agency’s responsibilities are to judge the environmental impacts of the projects that come before it under the terms of the National Environmental Policy Act. It does. All of the major actions it takes come after extensive staff reviews under NEPA. The agency follows the rules and standards for evaluation laid out in the law, with guidance that comes from the Environmental Protection Agency.

In a statement reported in E&E news, LaFleur said, “To the extent an environmental regulator were to establish new rules or guidelines relating to emissions analyses, the commission would take that into account in performing its NEPA review.” If FERC concludes that a project meets the terms and conditions of NEPA review, then it moves on to its determination of whether the project is in the public interest.

Simple enough. That’s the way it has worked for decades. Nor has FERC been a rubber stamp for energy projects. Its staff routinely imposes environmental conditions on projects, and, although rarely, rejects projects entirely. In the 1980s, the FERC staff turned thumbs down on a large hydropower project on Alaska’s Suisitna River on environmental grounds. The developers have been trying to resurrect the billion-dollar project to meet FERC’s objections ever since.

The anti-natural gas activists may be getting some aid and comfort from EPA. There is widespread speculation that the two agencies don’t exactly get along well. E&E’s Hannah Northey reports that EPA spokeswoman Monica Lee said in an email that there are “many well developed tools for estimating greenhouse gas emissions from projects, which agencies, including FERC, can draw on in considering environmental impacts in the NEPA process.” Lee cited DOE analyses of the impacts of energy projects on greenhouse gas emissions that FERC could use in its assessments of environmental impacts.

Northey reported, “FERC insists it doesn’t have a way to gauge the effects that emissions from one project will have on the environment. And the commission has said it has found the DOE study Lee mentioned to be of little use in its NEPA analyses.”

All this suggests that FERC and EPA are not collaborating closely on a broad range of issues that touch both agencies. That connects to other evidence that the two agencies are not walking hand-in-hand. At a recent Energy Bar Association meeting, FERC Commissioner Tony Clark complained that EPA has not been working closely with FERC on reliability issues related to the EPA and Obama administration’s plan to control greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants. Clark’s comments followed complaints from the North American Electric Reliability Corp. that EPA’s greenhouse rules could compromise electric reliability. EPA said it will address those concerns.