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Environmentalists sue FERC over Cove Point LNG project

Twenty-four protesters were arrested for blocking a public passageway outside the Washington D.C. headquarters of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in July, 2014.

Marie Cusick / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Twenty-four protesters were arrested for blocking a public passageway outside the Washington D.C. headquarters of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in July, 2014.

Environmental groups filed a lawsuit in federal court today challenging the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s decision to approve Dominion Energy’s Cove Point LNG export terminal in Lusby, MD. FERC had granted approval to the $3.8 billion project back in September, and construction on expanding the idled import terminal into an export terminal began in October. But environmental groups had sought to halt construction, and force FERC to consider the upstream impacts of an export facility on Marcellus Shale development. FERC rejected those arguments in a decision posted Monday.

The environmental law firm Earthjustice filed the lawsuit in D.C. circuit court on behalf of a number of groups including the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, Patuxent Riverkeeper, and the Sierra Club.

“After months of delay, we will finally get our day in court to challenge the fundamentally flawed approval of Dominion’s climate- and community-wrecking project,” said Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, in a release. “Time and again, FERC has shown a blatant disregard for the health and safety of people and the climate and, we believe, the law. Tragically, FERC’s foot-dragging has allowed Dominion bulldozers to start construction before Calvert County residents had legal recourse to challenge the agency’s decision.”

Dominion issued a statement saying the company is confident that the appeals court will uphold FERC’s decision.

“The FERC recently denied appeals by these groups to stop the project, which has consistently been upheld in the courts as well as by federal and state regulators, so  we expect a similar outcome.”

Frustration and anger among activists has mounted against FERC in recent years as the natural gas industry expands infrastructure to serve the booming Marcellus Shale production in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Protests against the agency have grown. Lawsuits have been filed against FERC’s approval of several pipeline projects. And suits are pending against other planned export terminals. Environmentalists say FERC simply rubber stamps natural gas pipeline and export projects.

Dominion employees and future leaders tour the offshore loading pier at Cove Point.

Lindsay Lazarski / WHYY

Dominion employees tour the offshore loading pier at Cove Point.

“They want to get as much infrastructure into the ground as fast as possible before the public figures out whats going on,” said Ryan Talbott, director of the Allegheny Defense Project, which had also appealed to FERC to halt construction at Cove Point based on the impact in the Marcellus Shale fields.

Talbott says the export terminal is directly related to the shale gas boom because it will lead to increased production, which will create more air and water pollution.

But FERC ruled that natural gas production is not connected to the export terminal. The agency says Marcellus Shale production would continue with or without the existence of Cove Point. And it says Cove Point could export gas from other parts of the country.

Lawyers for the environmental groups also say FERC’s delays in responding to their appeals puts them at a disadvantage.

“They sit on [the appeals] for months,” said Talbott. “And the whole time, they let Dominion continue construction and we can’t go to the federal courts until after they rule. This brings up serious due process issues.”

A spokesperson for FERC says the agency doesn’t comment on pending litigation. But says several recent federal court decisions confirmed that FERC’s review process is not biased toward industry.

Dominion spokesman Karl Neddenien says the project can operate with minimal impact on the environment and says the FERC process was “extremely detailed and thorough.”

“It had us filing 20,000 pages [of information] to FERC alone over two years,” he said. “We feel FERC’s decision was reached after careful analysis.”

The Department of Energy also took action regarding Cove Point on Thursday by issuing final approval to Dominion to export to non-free trade nations.

*This post has been updated with a statement from Dominion Energy

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