Regulators violated federal law by not considering the cumulative environmental impacts of multiple upgrades to a natural gas pipeline that runs from Pennsylvania to New Jersey, a federal appeals court said on Friday.
Three environmental groups argued the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) should not have been allowed to conduct an environmental review for one expansion project on the Tennessee Gas Pipeline without considering three other proposed upgrades on the same line.
The U.S. Court of Appeals agreed.
The judges ruled that FERC failed “to include any meaningful analysis of the cumulative impacts of the upgrade projects.” The judges also found that by segmenting the environmental review process, FERC violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
Delaware Riverkeeper Maya Van Rossum said the result was a weaker assessment of the total environmental impacts of the project. By conducting separate reviews, she said, FERC avoided preparing a more comprehensive environmental impact statement.
“One fourth of a pie is going to have a whole lot less calories. The whole pie is really going to fatten you up.”
The court has sent the project back to FERC for further review.
Through a spokesperson, the commission declined to comment on the decision.
Speaking at a shale industry conference in Pittsburgh on Thursday, one of the four FERC commissioners cautioned against “wrong-headed interpretations of existing [federal] statutes, such as NEPA regulations.”
Commissioner Tony Clark said opponents will often try “to use the permitting process to delay and stall projects that are otherwise absolutely in the public interest or perfectly safe and need to be built.”
In this case, all four upgrades to this leg of the Tennessee Gas Pipeline have now been completed. The environmental groups that challenged the project failed to get a federal court to issue an injunction to halt it.
The $500 million project expanded the pipeline’s capacity to deliver natural gas to Northeast markets, according to Kinder Morgan which owns Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co.
Spokesman Larry Pierce said the company is still reviewing the court’s ruling.
“However, whether the completed expansion projects are considered individually, as FERC did, or cumulatively, we do not expect any change in the ultimate conclusion that there was no significant environmental impact resulting from the projects,” Pierce said in a written statement.
Delaware Riverkeeper Maya Van Rossum hopes that on second look, FERC demand more environmental remediation in the streams, forests and wetlands crossed by the project.
She believes the court’s decision set important legal precent.
“There’s going to be a lot of far reaching implications for projects across the country,” Van Rossum said.
You can read the U.S. Court of Appeals’ ruling below.