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EPA steps up pressure on FERC over new pipeline assessment

The EPA ramped up pressure on FERC to conduct a tougher look at pipeline projects such as this one in Susquehanna County.

Keith Srakocic / AP Photo

The EPA ramped up pressure on FERC to conduct a tougher look at pipeline projects such as this one in Susquehanna County.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has accused the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission of failing to fully address climate change in its assessment of a new plan to build a natural gas pipeline through three states including Pennsylvania, adding a powerful new voice to claims that FERC takes a permissive approach to gas-industry projects.

The EPA said FERC made a “significant omission” from its analysis of a plan by Columbia Gas to build the Leach Xpress pipeline and associated facilities, and failed to comply with guidance by the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality to properly take greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions into account when assessing the merits of the project.

The absence of a thorough climate analysis was one of a series of criticisms that EPA made in June in response to FERC’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) on the project.

FERC addressed many of those concerns in the final version (FEIS) of its statement, EPA said, but still failed to meet the climate-change requirements under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

“The FEIS perpetuates the significant omission documented through our comments on the DEIS with respect to a proper climate-change analysis to inform the decision-making process,” EPA said in a letter to FERC’s Secretary, Kimberly Bose, on Oct. 11. “We view FERC’s response to our comments as very concerning in light of CEQ’s GHG guidance.”

The final statement, issued in September, failed to discuss how the pipeline project would affect climate change, or any measures to protect people or the environment, the EPA said.

It also accused FERC of failing to provide a mitigation plan for streams and wetlands; a conservation plan for migratory birds, or documentation to support its assertion that another proposed pipeline is not a viable alternative.

The EPA has now asked for a meeting with senior staff from both agencies in an attempt to resolve the issue before FERC publishes a Record of Decision, “and so that you do not continue to take this approach in additional NEPA documents.”

The Leach Xpress pipeline would stretch 160 miles from Marshall County, WV, through southwestern Pennsylvania and southeast Ohio, to Wayne County, WV, and would include three new compressor stations. The project is designed to link natural gas from the Marcellus and Utica shales with markets, Columbia Gas said on its website.

FERC spokesman Craig Cano declined to comment, saying that Leach Xpress is a “pending matter” before the commission. EPA spokesman Nick Conger also refused to comment beyond what was in the letter, saying only that the two agencies were in “deliberative discussions.”

The EPA’s intervention on the Leach Xpress project ratchets up pressure on FERC, which critics have long accused of being a rubber stamp for the gas industry.

While EPA has previously leveled some criticism at FERC for its handling of pipeline applications, the latest letter marks a significantly stronger critique, environmental groups said.

“This certainly represents a change in tone, a much more forceful tone from EPA,” said Moneen Nasmith, a staff attorney with the environmental law nonprofit, Earthjustice. “The fact that they said ‘we want to meet with you before you publish a final decision’, to my knowledge, that has never happened before.”

Nasmith said the EPA’s new approach likely indicates an increasing focus on climate change in the final months of the Obama Administration, and FERC’s history of downplaying climate change when assessing pipeline projects. She said it probably does not reflect the details of the Leach Xpress project.

“FERC has for a long time really ignored a lot of the climate impacts of the pipelines they approved,” she said. “This is attempting to push back on an agency that has really been quite behind the times in its climate analysis. This has been building inside the EPA, and they have finally let FERC have it in a more critical way.”

Amy Mall, senior policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the EPA’s increased pressure on FERC is likely the result of the White House guidance document, which was issued in final form on Aug. 1 this year.

The fact that the guidelines were coming from the White House and not just the EPA probably explains the EPA’s tougher approach, she said. “I do think this is much stronger.”

This is not the first time EPA has criticized FERC’s environmental impact assessments. In December 2015, the EPA said FERC had not considered GHG emissions from the production, transportation and combustion of natural gas from a new LNG plant in Magnolia, Louisiana, even though it had done so for the liquefaction facility itself.

In January this year, EPA said that FERC had incorrectly concluded that there was no available methodology to determine how an individual project would contribute to the global level of greenhouse gases.

Cathy Landry, a spokeswoman for the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, a trade group for interstate pipelines, defended FERC’s analysis of the Leach Xpress application, calling it “thorough and consistent with federal NEPA law.”

Landry said INGAA does not oppose the inclusion of greenhouse gas emissions in environmental analyses by FERC or any other federal agency but she argued that the CEQ’s guidelines on climate-change analysis exceed a federal agency’s obligations under NEPA.

“We feel confident that FERC will address the scope of its NEPA analysis in the final certificate order on this project,” Landry wrote in an email.

Other environmental groups welcomed the EPA’s apparent escalation of its efforts to persuade FERC to conduct more rigorous reviews of pipeline projects.

Maya van Rossum, head of the environmental group Delaware Riverkeeper Network (DRN), said: “This is an important progression for EPA in stepping in to protect communities and the environment from the devastation inflicted by pipelines.”

In September, more than 175 groups including DRN called on Congress to schedule hearings on FERC’s implementation of the Natural Gas Act, accusing the agency of “unparalleled bias in favor of the industry it is supposed to regulate.”

In March, the Delaware Riverkeeper sued FERC for alleged corruption and bias, saying it is unable to make objective decisions about the industries it regulates, including the natural gas industry, because they are the source of its funding.

Lynda Farrell, executive director of the Pennsylvania-based Pipeline Safety Coalition, said the EPA’s comments in the Leach Xpress case may signify a new, tougher approach.

“They haven’t weighed in as significantly as they did in this case,” Farrell said. “We’re hoping that this will be the beginning of more collaborative efforts between EPA and other agencies.”

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