The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on Thursday voted unanimously to reopen its review of a 1999 policy statement that guides how the commission approves gas infrastructure.
A notice of inquiry (NOI) was most recently opened on this question in 2018, under the leadership of former Chairman Kevin McIntyre, and received more than 3,000 comments. Now, the commission is updating the NOI to include questions about how its actions may adversely affect environmental justice communities, and how FERC might mitigate those impacts.
Though the vote was unanimous, commissioners had differing opinions on the necessity of proceeding, and to what extent policy should change. "I, for one, don't believe that there is any need whatsoever to revisit our certificate policy," said Commissioner James Danly, adding that his affirmative vote was merely an acknowledgement that "there's certainly nothing legally infirm about the commission examining its policies and asking questions."
The 2018 NOI opened under McIntyre asked stakeholders to consider four general areas where the commission could modernize its approach to gas terminal and pipeline certifications: reliance on precedent agreements to demonstrate need for a proposed project, eminent domain and landowner interests, environmental impacts, and the efficiency/effectiveness of the broader process. It followed a 2017 decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, which found that FERC's environmental impact assessment for pipelines was "inadequate" and directed the commission to consider downstream greenhouse gas emissions in considering whether a pipeline is necessary and in the public interest.
Thursday's NOI opens up a fifth question: How the commission considers environmental justice communities, which includes populations or communities of color, Native American communities, and "low-income rural and urban communities, who are exposed to a disproportionate burden of the negative human health and environmental impacts of pollution or other environmental hazards." The proceeding will still keep previous comments in the record, but "given the time that has elapsed since we first received these comments, we thought it would be appropriate to allow interested parties, to the extent they have something new to add, the opportunity to update their comments," said FERC Chair Richard Glick.
Glick told reporters last week he was committed to moving the commission toward examining environmental justice and greenhouse gas impacts more carefully, and had indicated he felt there would be some consensus among commissioners on revisiting FERC's certification policy.
"I'm very pleased that we were able to figure out a way to get unanimity on this," he said during the commission meeting.
"I know different people have different views about where this should go, or whether it should even go forward at all," he added, "but very much appreciate the input of all of my colleagues and I'm glad that we are able to work together on it."
Danly, said he was "skeptical" of what conclusions might be drawn, based on the questions asked, but added he was appreciative of Glick ensuring his input was included.
"I don't have any particular point to make about the substance of the NOI, other than to say that it's obviously rather contentious, and I will likely oppose most of the initiatives that the chairman is likely to embark upon," he said. "Nevertheless, I want to take a moment to recognize the extraordinary lengths that Chairman Glick went to in order to accommodate my input on this item, knowing full well what my general outlook is on the subject."
Commissioner Neil Chatterjee said he was "eager" to take up the NOI again, emphasizing that the only reason he had not revisited the issue as chair was because the commission was never at its full capacity of five under his leadership.
"I welcome comments, both on how some of these ideas might work, and, on which ideas simply aren't practical," he said. "As we've seen this week, natural gas, and natural gas infrastructure is essential to heat people's homes and fuel electric generation."
Commissioner Allison Clements, in her concurrence, said she felt "strongly" that the commission's gas certification policy does need reform.
"I support this notice of inquiry because we need an updated record that will allow us to complete a long overdue modernization on the certification of natural gas pipelines," she said. "In particular, I encourage stakeholders to provide in depth, practical, how-to recommendations for ensuring that our decisions are based on a complete analysis of the need for proposed facilities on environmental justice concerns, and on approaches to greenhouse gas emissions impacts."
Commissioner Mark Christie said he was "just glad it went out on a 5-0 vote."
"We'll see what comes in, in the comments," he said.