The Obama administration is resisting a congressional push to establish new natural gas pipelines on federal lands in the eastern United States.
Lawmakers have introduced legislation to establish pathways for future pipelines. Supporters say it'll speed up the permitting process for natural gas pipelines, helping the industry get its product to market more quickly and reducing energy prices for consumers.
“I think we need to make use of our God-given natural resources, and we need to do it in an environmentally-sound way,” said Rep. Tom MacArthur (R-N.J.), who is cosponsoring the measure with Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.).
But the Interior Department says it opposes the bill, arguing that it would limit public input on new pipeline projects, and calling its timelines too constricting.
MacArthur’s bill calls for establishing at least 10 “energy corridors,” swatches of land on which energy transmission lines would be set up, in the eastern United States within two years. It would also speed up the permitting process and environmental reviews.
In testimony to a House subcommittee this week, Timothy Spisak, a Bureau of Land Management official, said that is “too short a timeline to adequately coordinate with states, tribes, and other federal partners, and the public.”
“The department is committed to providing full environmental review and public involvement opportunities ... on proposals for the use of the nation’s public lands,” he said.
Environmental groups are standing with the administration.
“I think that corridors across federal lands make sense, but they have to be designed in an inclusive process that draws heavily on input from the public,” Greg Buppert, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, told the committee. “What this bill does is it cuts the public out of that process.”
There’s also the matter of how little federal land there is in the eastern U.S.
The federal government owns only 4.8 percent of the land east of Colorado or Wyoming, compared to up to 50 percent in western states,
Critics say there is no reason to tap public lands when there is so much private land for establishing energy transmission lines in the east.
Spisak said the Interior Department “has a significantly different role [in the east] than in the western United States.”
MacArthur’s bill has its origins in a 2005 law that directed the Interior Department to plan a series of energy corridors around the country.
The department followed through in the 11 western-most states, eventually creating a 6,000-mile system of corridors there. But in the eastern U.S., where the law only required advanced planning for potential corridors, none ever got off the ground.
In 2008, officials solicited comments on potential eastern U.S. corridors, but “there were relatively few and minor responses by the public, state and local government officials and interested stakeholders,” according to a 2011 Department of Energy report. Because of “the very limited public and/or stakeholder response,” the government decided not to pursue corridors in those states.
The natural gas industry, though, has changed since the 2008 review. Production is up, especially in the eastern U.S., and industry officials said there would be more demand for establishing energy corridors on public land now than six years ago.
Martin Edwards, the vice president of legislative affairs at the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, said there would be a higher demand for pipeline capacity east of the Mississippi River, where production is growing.
“While we’re fortunate in this country that we already have a lot of gas pipeline infrastructure that’s been built over a period of 70 years or so," he said, "that doesn’t mean that the pipelines are everywhere they need to be in order to adjust to this new supply reality we’re facing now."
In a letter to lawmakers last week, America’s Natural Gas Alliance said it supports “legislative efforts to provide greater certainty to the siting and permitting of energy infrastructure projects in a timely and cost-effective manner while maintaining a complete and appropriate opportunity for public engagement.”
Republican leaders say they intend to include the bill in a comprehensive energy package later this year, but disputes over pipeline placement — and other administration concerns about who approves those pipelines — would need to be resolved to move the package.
MacArthur said he’s willing to negotiate ways to improve the bill, be it in the amount of corridors established or the amount of time needed to approve them.
“I set a minimum of 10. There’s no magic to the number,” he said of the number of corridors.
“I keep my mind open for productive suggestions,” he said. “If they can demonstrate where a little more time would be helpful, then we’ll talk about it.
MacArthur remains optimistic about the bill.
"Directionally, it’s the right thing to do, to get the corridors identified and designated,” he said.