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Environmental and climate justice: Moment of truth for FERC

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When the White House nominated Willie Phillips in 2021 to serve as a member of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), many of my allies and I were both excited and concerned. While Phillips’s addition to the five-member commission gave the body a Democratic majority and its only Black member, we also knew that Phillips had worked for law firms Balch & Bingham as well as Van Ness Feldman, where he advised energy companies.

We’re still concerned, but I hope we can get excited again.  

FERC regulates every interstate gas pipeline and every gas export terminal. Its decisions can help or hurt residents of Louisiana, Texas and elsewhere who are affected by local pollution; and by residents of the entire world who must be protected from climate pollution caused by burning and leaking of gas. 

FERC had a history of approving one pipeline and one liquefied natural gas (LNG) facility after another. But once Phillips arrived on the commission this year, it appeared that FERC had finally shifted course. 

On Feb. 17, FERC adopted two new gas policy statements on a party-line vote. The first, approved as a final policy, committed the commission to consider a wide range of impacts of pipeline construction.  

It looked as if FERC would finally consider whether these pipelines were really needed and take environmental justice seriously. It appeared that impacts on landowners whose property the pipelines would run through, including Black rural landowners whose forebears had often owned affected land for generations, would finally be considered. Many landowners, both Black and of every other background, have seen their property taken from them against their will by pipeline companies authorized to do so, through the use of eminent domain.  

The second statement, approved in draft form, would require FERC to consider the climate-pollution impacts of pipelines and gas export facilities that leak climate-polluting gas and are designed to bring gas to locations where the gas will be burned, causing the release of even more climate pollution. 

Louisiana has the fifth-highest rate of cancer in the entire country. The town of Reserve, where residents are dying of cancer at alarming rates, has been the topic of reports by cable news and respected publications alike. Louisiana also ranks as the 47th or even the 50th state in terms of its economy, depending on who you ask. The gas industry may be doing well, but our state is at the bottom rung when it comes to our economy, our roads, our health care and our education systems. This has to change. 

Despite the momentum of the two new gas policy statements, movement in the right direction came to a full stop. Now, we have to make sure that the full stop doesn’t turn into a U-turn. 

At its March 24 meeting, FERC decided not to move forward with the new policy statements, at least for now. FERC has now started the clock ticking on a new public comment period for the statements. 

Some might see the war in Europe as a reason to reconsider the policy statements. I don’t see it that way at all. 

War or not, building dangerous gas export terminals along the Gulf Coast right in the middle of a hurricane zone is a bad idea. I saw what Hurricane Katrina did to the coast. Building even more industrial facilities along the coast doesn’t make any sense. 

Similarly, destroying people’s land and livelihoods just so pipeline companies can make even more money is not right. Portions of Louisiana and Texas have served as national sacrifice zones for far too long. That needs to stop. 

Phillips and his colleagues on FERC can make this right. They can promptly approve both policy statements. Even that wouldn’t mean they are sprinting in the right direction, but even just walking in the right direction would make an important contribution to climate and environmental sanity. 

It’s time for them to get moving.  

Lt. General Russel L. Honoré (U.S. Army Ret.) served as commander of Joint Task Force Katrina in 2005 and currently leads the Green Army, finding solutions for pollution.

Tags Climate change FERC Fossil fuel Natural gas

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