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Wolf administration criticizes federal pipeline approval process

  • Marie Cusick
Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline construction in Lancaster County. (March 2018)

Marie Cusick / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline construction in Lancaster County. (March 2018)

Governor Tom Wolf’s administration is calling for more federal oversight on the buildout of new natural gas pipelines, including how they can facilitate greenhouse gas emissions, disrupt forest ecosystems, and impact private property owners.

The administration is responding to a request from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which was seeking public comments on its review of the nearly 20-year-old policy regarding how it evaluates pipeline proposals.

Critics have accused FERC of being a rubber stamp for the energy industry and of failing to adequately assess the public need for new natural gas pipelines, as well as their impacts on the environment and landowners.

A 2017 investigation by StateImpact Pennsylvania and the Center for Public Integrity found FERC has denied only two pipeline proposals in the past 30 years.

In a letter to the commission last week, the secretaries of Pennsylvania’s departments of Environmental Protection, Community and Economic Development, and Conservation and Natural Resources offered several critiques.

They said FERC’s process “does not adequately consider public and private landowner concerns related to tree clearing” that happen before the final approval of a project.

For example, in the case of the Constitution Pipeline, hundreds of trees were cut down in 2016 on a maple syrup farm in northeastern Pennsylvania. The pipeline had received FERC approval but lacked necessary permits from New York State. It may never be built, and landowners are now suing the pipeline company.

The secretaries go on to say that FERC should pay more attention to how, or if, pipelines provide benefits to local communities.

“Pennsylvania is currently being ‘built out’ in a complex web of greenfield pipeline infrastructure with little consideration … of how local communities will benefit, other than the short term economic impact of temporary pipeline construction jobs and associated retail activity,” they write.

They also ask the commission to distinguish between pipelines serving foreign and domestic markets.

“There should be a clear distinction… for those projects where there is a clear and compelling domestic need, and those projects where our natural gas resources are being exported to meet international demand.”

On environmental issues, the administration says FERC should look beyond the pipeline itself and “consider conducting a comprehensive analysis of externalities, including greenhouse gas emissions.” They also caution against siting pipelines in the state’s large swaths of contiguous forest. Such regions, known as “core forests,” can be particularly susceptible to disruptions.

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