Energy & Environment

Gas pipeline regulators to consider climate impacts for new projects

A federal agency that considers whether to approve or reject natural gas pipelines will now weigh the projects’ contributions to climate change as part of their decisions.

In determining whether a project is in the public interest, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) voted on Thursday to examine greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the project’s construction and operations — as well as the emissions from when the gas is ultimately burned to make electricity. 

Environmental advocates have long criticized the agency for not considering these impacts in its reviews, and have more broadly argued that it should stop approving as many pipelines as it has in the past. 

According to a 2020 investigation by House Democrats, the agency has, over the past 20 years, approved more than 99 percent of the pipeline projects that have come before it. 

While FERC’s three Democratic commissioners supported the proposal, its two Republican members opposed it. 

Chairman Richard Glick (D) said that under the new policy, even if a project will have significant climate change impacts, the commission could still find that its benefits outweigh those costs. 

He also argued that the decision will add legal certainty, as courts can block FERC-approved projects based on environmental concerns. 

“If we were to continue the commission’s turning a blind eye to climate change and greenhouse gas emissions, we would simply be adding to the legal uncertainty of each commission order approving a project,” Glick said. 

Republican Commissioner James Danly disagreed. 

“The contents are very amorphous,” he said. “It is very difficult for us to achieve the objectives of the Natural Gas Act, which is to encourage the orderly development of natural gas infrastructure…when we’re adopting policies that are either vague or make it difficult to rationally allocate capital.”

The new guidance will be applied immediately, though it was only issued on an interim basis. The agency is currently accepting public comments on it, and may make changes down the line based on that feedback. 

The move is already meeting some opposition from industry.

Amy Andryszak, president and CEO of the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, which represents pipeline interests, said in a statement that the guidance “does not add clarity to the certification process, but instead creates more questions.”

“In the interim GHG policy statement, the majority established a seemingly arbitrary number to determine the significance of incremental GHG emissions from a project,” Andryszak said. “Further, it is uncertain how much mitigation will be required of developers to satisfy the Commission.”

Meanwhile, the agency also announced that it would update guidelines for its reviews overall, including by taking on “robust consideration” of impacts to communities that are disproportionately harmed by pollution. 

Gillian Giannetti, a senior attorney in the Sustainable FERC Project at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said she hopes the changes will bring more balance to how the commission considers projects. 

“The immediate impact is, hopefully, that FERC will no longer be a rubber stamp for pipelines, and that could cause some projects to be rejected,” Giannetti told The Hill. 

While many of the Capitol Hill reactions were divided along party lines, swing vote Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) argued that the commission went “too far.”

“The Commission went too far by prioritizing a political agenda over their main mission –  ensuring our nation’s energy reliability and security. The only thing they accomplished today was constructing additional road blocks that further delay building out the energy infrastructure our country desperately needs,” said a statement from the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee chairman. 

FERC has jurisdiction over pipeline projects that cross state lines.

The commission is made up of no more than three members of the same political party. The presidentially-appointed commissioners serve five year terms. 

Updated: 6:43 p.m.

Tags Climate change Joe Manchin Natural gas pipelines

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