Chatterjee blames national environmental groups for delaying pipeline approvals
- The acting chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission blamed national environmental groups for delaying the approval of natural gas pipelines Thursday in a speech before gas industry executives.
- In the past, most pipeline opposition came from individual land and property concerns, Chairman Neil Chatterjee said. But today, "we see well funded, sophisticated national environmental organizations that understand how to use all the levers of state and federal government to frustrate pipeline development."
- Chatterjee after the event also told reporters he would not rule out running for political office in the future, though he is not considering it today. His comments came after FERC approved dozens of pipeline projects since regaining its quorum in August — a total of 8 Bcf/d — and Chatterjee floated a short-term plan to save at-risk coal and nuclear generators.
The outgoing chairman of FERC offered a lengthy critical description of the anti-pipeline movement in a speech before the Natural Gas Association's annual roundtable event on Thursday.
For most of FERC's history, pipeline opposition came from the "local interests of individuals and communities," Chatterjee said. "That is, these parties' opposition grew from their desire to avoid construction of a pipeline in their community or from their desire to avoid the exercise of eminent domain on their land."
But today, he said, "increasing anxiety about carbon emissions has given rise to a national keep-it-in-the-ground movement resisting any natural gas project as a matter of principle."
Comparing the movement to the "determined opposition" faced by the civilian nuclear industry, Chatterjee said FERC has seen a "sea change" in the identity and number of stakeholders in pipeline cases.
"Now we see well-funded, sophisticated national environmental advocacy organizations who understand how to use all of the levers of federal and state law to frustrate pipeline development," Chatterjee said. "These groups have good lawyers who can exert pressure on FERC review processes and the legal strategies they employ are clever ones, targeting a variety of avenues including laws such as [the National Environmental Policy Act], [the Endangered Species Act], and the Clean Water Act."
Chatterjee did not name any organizations, but some national green groups such as the Sierra Club and 350.org have started campaigns in recent years to oppose the expansion of gas pipelines. Building more fossil fuel infrastructure, the activists argue, could "lock in" levels of carbon emissions that would make it impossible for the U.S. to deeply decarbonize for decades to come.
Acknowledging that many activists feel "shut out" of the federal pipeline approval process, Chatterjee noted green groups are increasingly targeting the courts to stop pipelines — "particularly the D.C. Circuit and other federal appellate courts."
In August, the D.C. Circuit rejected FERC’s approval of the Southeast Market Pipelines Project, writing that FERC should have more fully calculated the carbon emission impacts of the three-pipeline project. Chatterjee brushed off that ruling, writing in subsequent pipeline approvals that carbon impacts "cannot be determined" and telling reporters the D.C. Circuit ruling would not change FERC's consideration process.
The result of the increased pipeline opposition is longer timelines for project approvals, Chatterjee said. The Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines — two controversial projects approved by FERC this month — took about two years for final approval.
Increasing anti-pipeline activism has also "emboldened" state efforts to delay or block projects, Chatterjee said. Last month, FERC also overruled the denial of a water permit for a pipeline project in New York, arguing the state government took too long to issue its decision. The state sued FERC, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit will hear oral arguments Dec. 5.
The acting chairman said his Thursday comments represent his — and not the full commission's — personal opinion on pipeline development. The speech was unusual for a regulatory official, Reuters noted, but past FERC regulators have noted a similar shift in anti-pipeline activism. Former Commissioner Tony Clark noted at a regulatory conference last November that the "savvier" pipeline protestors were already using NEPA review to challenge approvals.
Chatterjee gave little credence to the arguments of the environmental movement in his speech, never directly acknowledging the carbon "lock in" argument. But asked after the event if those concerns play into his decisions on pipelines, Chatterjee replied, "of course."
"I listen to everybody," he said before getting into a car.
Chatterjee offered more details on his perspective on pipelines in an interview last month with Utility Dive. The Natural Gas Act, a 1938 law that governs FERC’s pipeline approval process, does not allow the commission to take into account broader environmental impacts, he argued.
“We have to follow the statutes that govern us,” Chatterjee said. “If an application is lawfully submitted and dutifully executed, we will evaluate it — and if the parameters are met under our statutes, we have to approve it.”
If activists feel hard done by that process, Chatterjee said they should direct their ire "down the street” at Congress.
“I understand and empathize with their frustrations,” he said. “But the reality is, to change the process, there have to be statutory changes.”
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