FERC sidesteps broader issues in approvals of pipelines

In approving 900 miles of new natural gas pipelines through West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina, federal regulators rejected proposals that they conduct a broader examination of where those projects fit in a national energy policy and sidestepped some major questions about their long- term environmental effects.

A split Federal Energy Regulatory Commission explained that the agency’s role and practice are not to examine groups of proposed projects in such a wholesale manner, but simply to separately review whatever individual applications industry submits.

“We have explained that there is no commission plan, policy, or program for the development of natural gas infrastructure,” FERC said in its order approving the Mountain Valley Pipeline. “Rather, the commission acts on individual applications filed by entities proposing to construct interstate natural gas pipelines.”

Late Friday, the commission approved on a 2-1 vote certificates of “public convenience and necessity” for the Mountain Valley Pipeline, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, and two smaller pipeline projects related to the MVP and ACP.

“We find that the benefits that the MVP project will provide to the market outweigh any adverse effects on existing shippers, other pipelines and their captive customers, and landowners or surrounding communities,” the commission said in a statement it repeated almost word-for-word in its ACP project order.

FERC approved the projects on what it calls “notational orders,” and rejected requests that public evidentiary hearings be held in both cases.

“All interested parties have been afforded a full complete opportunity to present their views to the commission through numerous written submissions,” FERC said.

FERC in both rulings explained that it would not, as some citizen groups had requested, conduct broad “programmatic” environmental impact studies looking at a collection of pipelines proposed across the region as part of the boom in natural gas drilling in the Marcellus and Utica shale formations.

“The commission is not engaged in regional planning,” Commissioners Neil Chatterjee and Robert Powelson said in rulings on both MVP and ACP. “Rather, the commission processes individual pipeline applications in carrying out its statutory responsibilities under the [Natural Gas Act].”

Among other things, the commission rejected a call from the Sierra Club that the agency more concretely estimate and analyze the eventual climate change potential downstream greenhouse gas emissions of the natural gas that would be transported by MVP and related projects.

“Because the projects’ incremental physical impacts on the environment caused by climate change cannot be determined, it also cannot be determined whether the projects’ contribution to cumulative impacts on climate change would be significant,” the 141-page FERC order on MVP said.

The $3.7 billion Mountain Valley Pipeline, a joint venture between EQT Midstream Partners, LP; NextEra US Gas Assets, LLC; Con Edison Transmission, Inc.; WGL Midstream; and RGC Midstream, LLC, would run about 300 miles from Wetzel County, West Virginia, to Pittsylvania County, Virginia. Dominion Energy’s $5 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline would run about 600 miles from Harrison County to southeast North Carolina.

In a statement issued Saturday, the West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association called the FERC approval of the projects “a milestone in the evolution of West Virginia’s natural gas industry” that “offers the promise of economic opportunity for the state and its residents for generations to come.”

“These crucially important projects have been planned and studied exhaustively for several years and will offer transportation for West Virginia-produced natural gas to markets across the southeast,” the association said. “This new infrastructure will allow our state to more fully develop its natural gas resources, leading to more jobs throughout the economy.”

MVP said in a statement that the FERC approval of its project “recognizes the clear public need for this important energy infrastructure project.” Dominion said that the FERC review of the ACP project involved “unprecedented scrutiny” that would ensure “the project will be built in a way that protects public safety and the environment.”

Citizen groups and environmental organizations, though, argued that the FERC approvals amounted to nothing more than a “rubber stamp” for the pipelines.

“The agency has utterly failed to account for the harmful impacts to water resources, private property, local economies and the climate from the proposed pipeline,” said a statement from Protect Our Water, Heritage, and Rights, a coalition opposing the MVP project. “In fact, FERC has yet to competently assess whether the pipeline is even needed.”

Commissioner Cheryl LaFleur cited that same issue — whether FERC had adequately considered whether MVP and ACP are both needed — in voting against approval of the pipeline certificates.

FERC Commissioner Cheryl LaFleur

“Both projects appear to be receiving gas from the same location, and both deliver gas that can reach some common destination markets,” LaFleur said. “Given these similarities and overlapping issues, I believe it is appropriate to balance the collective environmental impacts of these projects on the Appalachian region against the economic need for the projects. In so doing, I am not persuaded that these projects as proposed are in the public interest.”

LaFleur said alternatives that were not fully considered might have been able to meet the natural gas transportation needs that exist, but had lesser impacts, including avoiding the Monongahela and George Washington national forests and reducing the crossings of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail and Blue Ridge Parkway.

“I believe that these alternatives demonstrate that the regional needs that these pipelines address may be met through alternative approaches that have significantly fewer environmental impacts,” LaFleur said.

The FERC approval is not the final word on either pipeline. Among other government approvals still needed, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline has not yet received a water quality certification from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection. DEP issued such a certification for MVP, but then backed off when challenged in court by the public interest law firm Appalachian Mountain Advocates. DEP says it is re-examining MVP’s water quality impacts.

MVP is also facing a federal court lawsuit over the ability of the FERC certiXcate to allow it to condemn private land for the pipeline construction. A hearing is scheduled for Nov. 3 in U.S. District Court in Roanoke on FERC’s motion to have that suit dismissed.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-1702 or follow

@kenwardjr on Twitter.