For the first time, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on Thursday considered how pipeline-related greenhouse gas emissions might contribute to the climate crisis — and determined emissions were not significant enough to deny certification of the project.
FERC approved the certification of Northern Natural's pipeline replacement, after assessing how emissions related to the project might impact the climate, representing a significant break from previous assessments. FERC Chair Richard Glick has long argued the commission should be considering climate impacts as part of its assessment of environmental impacts and whether a project is in the public interest.
Commissioner James Danly, in his dissent, argued that such a move is a "drastic departure" from how FERC assesses pipeline certification, and exceeds the commission's authority under the Natural Gas Act. Further, he argued, it was unfair to oil and gas companies for FERC to change tactics without providing notice.
FERC's decision to consider climate impacts when approving a pipeline certificate marks a significant compromise between Glick and Commissioner Neil Chatterjee, who had indicated in the weeks leading up to the meeting that he might be willing to consider such factors.
"I give [Chatterjee] a lot of credit," said Glick. "He approached me a while back and said 'Hey, I think we can work out some sort of compromise here on this issue.'"
Danly, in his dissent, accused the commission of a "dramatic change" inconsistent with long-standing precedent that the commission does not have the right tools to properly assess the impact of projects' greenhouse gas emissions. Further, he expressed concern that oil and gas companies were not sufficiently involved in the process.
"I've told basically everyone who listened to me the same message that I deliver now: which is that every single natural gas pipeline company, every LNG company, and every shipper should intervene in every single certificate proceeding pending before the commission," he said.
"It appears to me that the financial gas industry and its customers are on the verge of experiencing some dramatic changes in the coming months and years, and we've learned that those changes can come from unexpected proceedings," he said.
FERC's Thursday meeting followed the commission's first listening session of the Office of Public Participation, wherein commissioners listened to hours long testimony from landowners and others who had been negatively impacted by gas infrastructure development and, they felt, left out of FERC's proceedings. Glick pointed out that Danly's arguments disregard those stakeholders.
"You had suggested that everyone should intervene in all these natural gas pipeline proceedings," he said. "Well, I would say the same for not just the pipeline companies, but for all the other people that have been screwed by the Commission," Glick said, calling Danly's stance "the height of hypocrisy."
"You were the general counsel, Mr. Danly, when the Commission … without any notice, without telling landowners, without telling people that are concerned about climate change" repeatedly chose not to examine the climate impacts of infrastructure, despite a 2017 ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit that found that FERC's environmental impact assessment for pipelines was "inadequate."
"Absolutely, if you're a pipeline company, and you want to intervene in a proceeding, go for it … but I would say that everyone else, please you intervene too, because we need to hear your voices as well," Glick said. "Not just the voices that can afford high-priced Washington D.C. law firms to participate in these proceedings."
It's too early to say if FERC will issue a formal policy statement on the issue, or continue to assess climate impacts on a case-by-case basis, Glick told reporters. In the instance of Northern Natural, the project did not call for new construction but rather replacement of an existing pipeline, so based on the commission's analysis no additional downstream emissions would come from approving the project.
"We essentially used the eyeball test," he said, adding that based on that analysis, "it didn't seem significant in terms of the impact of those emissions on climate change."