The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on Thursday approved two liquefied natural gas export facilities as the agency was again beset by protestors calling on it to halt fossil fuel permits and boost renewable energy.
Two anti-fossil fuel protestors scaled an awning above the entrance of FERC headquarters in Washington during the early hours of Thursday morning. They unfurled a banner calling on FERC to become the "Federal Renewable Energy Commission."
But later at the agency’s monthly open meeting, regulators approved two large LNG export facilities in a 3-1 vote — the Driftwood terminal in Louisiana and the Port Arthur facility in Texas.
Democrat Commissioner Cheryl LaFleur crossed the aisle to vote for the export facilities with FERC’s Republican members — just as she did in February, when their compromise on how to consider climate impacts of LNG exports allowed the agency to approve its first terminal in two years.
Due to a vacancy on the five-member commission, LaFleur is the swing vote on LNG exports, and has since pushed FERC to expand its climate considerations. In opening comments at the meeting, she said striking climate compromises with the Republican members is getting "harder, not easier."
"Despite my considerable and even growing concerns about the commission’s current approach to analyzing climate impacts in these cases, I’m trying to supplement that analysis myself and decide case-by-case so I don’t become paralyzed into dissenting in every case because I don’t like the way the commission is doing it," she said.
For protestors from the group Beyond Extreme Energy, the approvals represent the commission again kowtowing to fossil fuel interests. The group of mid-Atlantic environmental activists has fought FERC for years over natural gas pipelines, disrupting commission meetings and even blockading FERC’s underground parking garage during one action last year.
"It's just locking in fossil fuel infrastructure for the next 40 or 50 years," Melinda Tuhus, a spokesperson for Beyond Extreme Energy, said of the LNG orders.
About a dozen protestors turned out for the action at FERC headquarters, dispensing leaflets outside the building and disrupting the open meeting three times with chants decrying fossil fuels. The group says it wants to see Congress turn FERC into "FREC" as part of a Green New Deal package.
"The FREC agency would be an important part of plans to regulate our nation’s electrical grid, prioritize the growth of renewable energy, and reject all gas industry expansion and other fossil fuel projects," the organization said in a release Thursday.
While the activists want to see an immediate halt to all fossil fuel infrastructure approvals, LaFleur has taken a more incremental approach to addressing climate change at the commission.
The Democrat voted for multiple export facilities approved under the Obama administration, but she has recently called for FERC to include more analysis of the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions resulting from both LNG facilities and other gas infrastructure, like pipelines.
That position contributed to a months-long standoff at FERC when no major pipelines or export facilities were approved. It was broken in February when LaFleur agreed to a compromise on the Calcasieu Pass LNG export facility Louisiana.
Under that deal, FERC’s approval order estimated the direct GHG emissions could raise total U.S. carbon pollution 0.07% from 2016 levels. The order did not, however, assess whether those emissions were significant enough to warrant rejection of the project.
At the time, LaFleur said that compromise was a "first step" toward getting FERC to fully consider both the direct and cumulative GHG emissions of natural gas infrastructure, which Republicans say is beyond the agency’s mandate. She said Thursday’s orders take another step in that direction because the Driftwood approval acknowledges the cumulative emissions of the facility.
A commenter in the Driftwood proceeding asked about the cumulative GHG emissions of the project, LaFleur explained, but FERC’s environmental impact statement on the project, issued in January, said that "because it's global rather than regional, cumulative isn’t meaningful," she said.
The ultimate approval order, however, acknowledges there are five other LNG export facilities nearby that will also contribute to cumulative GHG emissions — though it also stops short of attributing significance to the pollution
"[R]esponding to my concerns, the Commission in today’s order acknowledged that there are five other proposed or authorized LNG export projects within the geographic scope of the Driftwood LNG Project and that each will have varying levels of direct and indirect CO2 emissions associated with the operations of the facilities," LaFleur wrote in her concurrence. "Because the Commission fails to disclose the actual emissions numbers, I have included an estimate of them in Table 1 attached to this concurrence."
LaFleur said those emissions disclosures were "critical" in getting her to vote for the LNG facilities and that she hopes to one day push the GOP regulators to fully consider climate impacts before her term is up this year.
"I would love to think that some meeting I will still be here and we will say we've reached a new agreement as to how to do it," she said. "I don’t know whether that will happen, all I can control is my vote."
LaFleur’s disclosure victory seemed like a pyrrhic one to Tuhus, who is worried the planet will already be committed to runaway climate change by the time LaFleur’s strategy potentially plays out.
"It's going to be too late if she approves them," Tuhus said. "It's going to happen if they keep doing this, and they are."
While FERC Chairman Neil Chatterjee has consistently supported the buildout of gas infrastructure, he said after the Thursday meeting that he has "sympathy" for the concerns of the Beyond Extreme Energy protestors.
"I so greatly respect the passion and commitment that these individuals have, particularly the folks who risked their physical safety to climb the building to make the point they felt was important to make," he said. "I have deep respect for that."
Over the last year, Chatterjee has repeatedly said that he accepts the scientific consensus on climate change and wants to see regulators address the issue. It’s rhetoric that many environmentalists feel is empty so long as the commission continues approving fossil fuel infrastructure.
"It’s not sustainable," Tuhus said. "We can’t keep doing this, and anybody like Chatterjee who says he’s concerned and accepts the science is not being honest."
Asked after the meeting how he could combat climate change as FERC chairman, Chatterjee pointed to FERC’s LNG approvals, saying that the gas exported from the U.S. will displace "dirtier sources of energy in other parts of the world."
"This is a global crisis that we all must collectively address," Chatterjee said. "If people roll their eyes at me because I'm saying that the U.S. LNG has a positive environmental impact and a positive impact on carbon emissions, we're never going to be able to have a reasonable conversation here."
Despite his confidence in LNG’s environmental benefits, Chatterjee said he would continue to resist considering GHG emissions for export facilities, reiterating his argument that it is beyond the agency’s jurisdiction.
"I’m concerned about the legal durability of these project orders," he said. "I am not certain that we have the capacity to do that, it could potentially jeopardize our orders in court."
But to many climate change activists, continuing to approve fossil fuel infrastructure is akin to climate denial, as the facilities are likely to be used for decades — well after climate scientists say developed nations should phase out GHG-emitting resources.
"What he’s doing about it is exacerbating climate change in a huge way and making it worse," Tuhus said. "Somebody who says that, I'd almost rather they blatantly deny climate change because it's so obviously not true what he's saying."
"That could have been an argument 30 years ago," she added, "There was a period where if we had done it in a reasonable, rational way we could have much more easily transition off the fossil fuels ... we just need to speed it up now."
While the climate divide between FERC and activists is unresolved, the rooftop protest came to a peaceful conclusion Thursday. After the open meeting, activists voluntarily descended a ladder with their banner and were allowed to go on their way without arrest.