Anti-pipeline protesters disrupted the first open meeting of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission since January on Wednesday, calling for changes in agency processes to allow it to more fully consider the environmental impacts of energy infrastructure projects.
More than two dozen protesters representing environmental groups from across the country rallied outside of FERC headquarters. A small number even interrupted the meeting — shouting that FERC was enabling natural gas developers to seize private land — but were then escorted from the room.
“People are against [FERC] rubber-stamping pipeline upon pipeline upon pipeline,” Rev. Lennox Yearwood, climate activist and CEO of the Hip Hop Caucus, said at a rally before the meeting. “We as the people, we must stand up.”
The Sept. 20 meeting itself was less contentious than the protests surrounding it. FERC approved a number of minor orders, including rate authority for a SunZia transmission line and two new rulemakings on reliability, but Acting Chairman Neil Chatterjee said he would like to wait for the confirmation of two remaining agency nominees to take on the most contentious issues facing the federal energy agency.
“FERC speaks loudest when it speaks with one voice,” Chatterjee told reporters after the meeting, “and for some of the major issues before the commission, it would certainly be my preference that we tackle those when we do have FERC at full strength.”
“FERC speaks loudest when it speaks with one voice."
Acting Chairman, FERC
The agency is set to consider more than 40 pipeline proposals in the coming months, working through a backlog that built up after former Chairman Norman Bay resigned in February, leaving the agency without the quorum needed to issue decisions. Last month, Chatterjee and Commissioner Robert Powelson were confirmed by the Senate, giving FERC the quorum it previously lacked. The remaining nominees to the commission, Richard Glick and Kevin McIntyre, currently await votes from the full chamber.
While not on the meeting agenda, FERC in recent weeks has taken multiple actions to accelerate gas pipeline development, overturning New York’s denial of a water quality permit for Millennium Pipeline, allowing the Rover Pipeline in West Virginia to continue construction and approving the 257-mile Nexus gas pipeline that would run from Ohio to Michigan.
Protesters say the decisions are indicative of a FERC that is too deferential to industry desires as it disregards landowner opposition and risks to water quality, land use and the climate.
“FERC is a joke,” said Malinda Clatterbuck, founder of Lancaster Against Pipelines. “We’d like to see a change in the system."
“They shouldn’t pretend that the people in the community have a voice when they disregard their voices."
Founder, Lancaster Against Pipelines
Clatterbuck and fellow activists in Lancaster, Pa., are preparing to engage in direct action to block construction of the Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline, which was approved by FERC in February. She said FERC’s infrastructure approval process “facilitates the desires of the industry” while marginalizing critical voices.
“The [stakeholder] comments don’t mean anything,” she told Utility Dive outside the meeting. “They shouldn’t pretend that the people in the community have a voice when they disregard their voices."
Protests have become commonplace at FERC meetings and legislative hearings. Protestors are often present when commissioners do make a public appearance, and demonstrators have even showed up at commissioners’ houses in recent years.
Asked about the demonstrations after the meeting, Chatterjee endorsed the same stakeholder process that activists say has failed them.
“We have a process in place in which people can go through to have their voices heard and voice their critiques that they have about the actions the commission takes,” he said. “Again, I would stress that the commission doesn’t promote projects; it simply evaluates the applications that are submitted to us.”
Activists like Clatterbuck say that evaluation process is precisely the problem, as it defines environmental risks too narrowly and focuses on mitigating the impacts of infrastructure projects, rather than weighing whether to reject them outright.
“They have never found the impacts to the environment so great that they refused the project,” Clatterbuck said. “They require the industry to perhaps pay a little bit of money for mitigation of damage done but there's no assessment of, is this damage too much damage?”
Of the many pipeline proposals that have come before the commission, FERC has only rejected two in the past 30 years, according to a report from the Center for Public Integrity published in July. The Natural Gas Act of 1938 requires the body to approve projects that would serve “the present or future public convenience and necessity,” but environmentalists have long pushed FERC to widen its interpretation of the statute to consider ecological risks.
FERC regulators from both parties have largely resisted those changes, holding fast to the mantra that the agency is an economic — not an environmental — regulator. But that may be set to change. Last month, the D.C. Circuit Court rejected FERC’s approval of three Florida pipelines, saying regulators should have further evaluated their impacts on the climate.
FERC has only rejected two gas pipeline proposals in the past 30 years, according to a report from the Center for Public Integrity.
Clatterbuck said a first step for FERC would be to heed the directives in the court decision.
“They need to take into account the Sierra Club's recent win in Florida calling on the FERC to consider broader [climate] impacts than just the immediate impact of one project in what area,” she said. “I think that's really important and something they haven’t been forced to do in the past.”
FERC is still evaluating the court ruling, Chatterjee said. He declined to comment on how it would affect infrastructure evaluations.
The ruling from Judge Thomas Griffith, a George W. Bush appointee, said FERC “should have either given a quantitative estimate of the downstream greenhouse emissions that will result from burning the natural gas that the pipelines will transport or explained more specifically why it could not have done so.”
Chatterjee also declined to elaborate on how FERC would treat conflicts between state and federal pipeline approvals in the future. In the Millennium Pipeline decision, FERC ruled that New York regulators had waived their right to regulate the pipeline by waiting too long to issue permit decisions.
The move raised questions about how deferential the newly constituted FERC would be toward states looking to slow pipeline development, but the acting chairman did not elaborate beyond the facts of the New York case.
“The order itself very clearly lays out the law and precedent and states that New York had one year in which to act,” he said. “The order then very clearly lays out the process under the law under which FERC acted, so this was FERC acting fully within the Clean Water Act.”
More contention at the commission and throughout the country is expected as natural gas pipelines come up for evaluation and begin construction. Unless Pennsylvania takes action to block construction, Clatterbuck said her organization will take action on the ground to prevent Atlantic Sunrise from being built.
“We will be doing actions and getting arrested in the next few weeks.”
Founder, Lancaster Against Pipelines
“We have 1000 people who have pledged to do nonviolent direct action with us and 600 people who have gone through training to understand what we mean by nonviolence,” she said. “We will be doing actions and getting arrested in the next few weeks.”
While pipeline protests often bridge into personal attacks, Clatterbuck emphasized that her main battle is with the foundations of a regulatory system that prioritizes infrastructure deployment over ecological protection.
“I don’t doubt people get into the work thinking they're doing something good … I think people feel like they're helping the environment and then they realize they have no power,” she said. “If the industry meets all it's required to meet, then you have to give that permit. So it's a messed up system.”