Lawmakers look to take Congress out of pipeline approval process

Lawmakers want to give the Department of Interior the power to approve new natural gas pipelines on National Park Service (NPS) land, but an Interior official told a House committee Wednesday that the department doesn’t want it. 

Under current law, Congress needs to pass a bill allowing natural gas pipelines to pass through NPS lands, even though the Interior Department can approve other infrastructure projects on its own. 

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A House Natural Resources Committee panel held a hearing on a bill Wednesday that would take Congress out of that process, giving the department the power to approve natural gas pipelines on its own and requiring it to establish 10 new corridors for natural gas delivery within two years. Lawmakers could try to integrate the bill into a broader energy reform measure this session.

Bill sponsor Rep. Tom MacArthur (R-N.J.) said it would create jobs and help the American energy sector. 

“It’s environmentally sensitive,” he said. “It’s natural gas only, it’s planned, intentional and it’s a cohesive approach. It ends this willy-nilly, haphazard approach of approving one pipeline at a time through an act of Congress.”

But the Interior Department doesn’t want that authority. In testimony to the committee, Timothy Spisak, a Bureau of Land Management energy, minerals and realty management senior advisor, said that the Interior Department has concerns about the infrastructure associated with building too many pipelines on NPS lands and the environmental risks that come with transporting the gas.

At the same time, he said, the department has endorsed a handful of pipeline projects that have come before Congress for approval.

“We have supported legislation authorizing rights of way for oil and gas pipelines on a park-by-park basis when it has been appropriate to do so,” Spisak told the Natural Resources Committee’s energy and mineral resources subcommittee. “The Department has a proven record of responsible siting of oil and gas pipelines.”

Congress has had to approve NPS pipelines since about the 1980s, when an Interior Department analysis found that it didn’t have specific authority to approve natural gas projects on its own. Since then, Congress has approved five such pipelines.

MacArthur and committee Republicans said the measure would speed up the approval process of pipelines at a time of growing natural gas production in the United States. They said it would help provide more natural gas to consumers — who would in turn see lower energy costs — and provide more certainty for energy companies looking to move their product.

Jim Moore, the vice president of commercial development at Texas-based Williams Gas Pipelines, said his company recently needed to deliver more natural gas to New York City, but the only way to do so was to run a pipeline through the Gateway National Recreation Area, which is managed by the Park Service.

The company began working with members of Congress on legislation to approve the pipeline in 2009. Lawmakers approved the project in 2012.

“It’s difficult to say with certainty exactly how much time the requirement for congressional approval of the agreement added to the project but the project ultimately took six years to complete, at leas two years more than planned,” he said.

Along with BLM, Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.), the panel’s ranking Democrat, said he opposed the bill, but not the push to speed up the pipeline approval process. He suggested tweaking the bill to incorporate Obama administration energy infrastructure proposals, such as a “permitting improvement center” to coordinate faster permitting between agencies. 

“We’re on the same page, supporting natural gas pipelines,” he said. “The question is, what’s the best way to move forward?”

Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, plans to insert the pipeline bill into a broader energy reform package that members hope to push this year. 

In a statement, he said the bill “will address a critical infrastructure gap on federal lands and ensure natural gas production is capable of reaching communities that are currently underserved. 

“These bipartisan bills have a path forward, and we will work with the Obama Administration and members of the House and Senate to see that they are signed into law,” he said.