Trump executive order could affect future of stalled Constitution Pipeline

  • Amy Sisk/WESA

President Donald Trump wants to make it easier for companies to transport natural gas from places like Pennsylvania to the Northeast.

He signed an executive order this week that would speed up pipeline permitting. It takes aim at states like New York that have blocked pipeline projects that would carry Marcellus Shale gas to markets in the Northeast, where gas is not always readily available. Trump’s order also opens the door to natural gas being transported by rail.

“Too often, badly needed energy infrastructure is being held back by special interest groups, entrenched bureaucracies and radical activists,” the president told a crowd gathered Wednesday at an International Union of Operating Engineers facility in Crosby, Texas before he signed several executive orders related to oil and gas.

Trump’s directive stems in part from New York’s denial of a water quality permit for the Constitution Pipeline, among other projects blocked by states under the federal Clean Water Act.

New York in 2016 halted the Constitution project, which would carry gas north from Susquehanna County. The fight over the pipeline continues to play out in court and among regulatory agencies.

In his executive order, Trump directs the Environmental Protection Agency to issue new permitting guidance to states. He did not explicitly say how states’ authority should change, but he said the EPA’s review should focus on “the need to promote timely Federal-State cooperation and collaboration” and “the appropriate scope of water quality reviews.”

Trump also asked the EPA to go a step further by formally revising its rules surrounding that portion of the Clean Water Act.

Pennsylvania’s natural gas industry welcomed Trump’s order.

“If you have the rules in place where the game is fair in terms of siting pipelines and critical infrastructure projects, then I think it opens the door for new development,” said David Spigelmyer, president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry trade group.

Still, the fate of the Constitution Pipeline is unclear.

Williams, the lead developer of the project, said in a statement that it “supports efforts to foster coordination, predictability and transparency in federal environmental review and permitting processes for energy infrastructure projects.” The company, however, declined to comment specifically on the president’s order and what it means for the future of the pipeline.

Mark Szybist, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said he anticipates the legal battle over the pipeline will continue following Trump’s order.

“I suspect that was at least the intent of this executive order, to change the outcome of projects like the Constitution Pipeline,” he said. “How well that intent will succeed I think remains to be seen.”

He pointed to a statement from New York’s governor, Democrat Andrew Cuomo, who called Trump’s executive order a “gross overreach” of federal power.

“States must have a role in the process for siting energy infrastructure like pipelines, and any efforts to curb this right to protect our residents will be fought tooth and nail,” Cuomo said.

Szybist also questioned to what extent pipeline permitting in Pennsylvania will be affected by the order, given that the state has not experienced some of the same high-profile fights over pipelines as its neighbors that have denied projects under the Clean Water Act. Nevertheless, he said it would be concerning if the order changes the way Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection issues water quality certifications, should it result in less protection.

For years, the gas industry in Pennsylvania has sought to build more pipelines to reach New England, where residents tend to face higher heating prices than the rest of the nation and rely more on fuels like heating oil.

Spigelmyer said some in the region last year used gas supplied by a ship that anchored in Boston Harbor. The gas it carried came from Russia.

“That’s not a good thing when you’re bolstering your nation’s energy supply from out of the country,” he said.

As an alternative to transporting gas by pipeline, Trump’s order also directs the U.S. Department of Transportation to propose a rule allowing liquefied natural gas to be carried by rail.

For that to happen, gas would need to be cooled until it liquefies, at which point it would be carried on tank cars and delivered to a facility that would heat it again to return to gas form.

Such a form of transportation is legal in Canada, and trains already carry liquefied gas on a limited basis in Alaska and Florida, according to Bloomberg.

“We move oil that way, we move other liquids that way,” Spigelmyer said. “It is a safe form of transportation, and it is an alternate form of transportation that also makes sense.

Still, he said, pipelines are the cheapest and most efficient way to move natural gas.

If gas-by-rail becomes a reality, it will likely draw an outcry over the potential for derailments, given that trains have crashed while carrying crude oil from North Dakota. One such derailment that occurred in Canada in 2013 resulted in a fiery explosion that killed 47 people.

“My guess is there would be a huge amount of pushback from communities that would be affected by those kinds of projects,” Szybist said, adding that he wondered whether the proposal is meant to prompt states to view pipelines more favorably.

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