Under Obama, this agency says it made strides on climate, but enviros say it wasn’t enough

Soon-to-be-former commissioner solicits help from public on environmental impacts.

Marchers head to the headquarters of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to protest the agency’s handling of Dominion Energy’s Cove Point LNG export application. CREDIT: Mark Hand/ThinkProgress
Marchers head to the headquarters of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to protest the agency’s handling of Dominion Energy’s Cove Point LNG export application. CREDIT: Mark Hand/ThinkProgress

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has been criticized by environmentalists, federal judges, and even the EPA for failing to fully account for the greenhouse gas emissions of the projects it approves.

But soon-to-be-former Commissioner Colette Honorable says during her tenure the agency made strides toward giving the public more information that helps explain why it approves highly controversial natural gas pipeline and liquefied natural gas (LNG) export projects.

The agency is improving how it assesses the climate and environmental impacts of natural gas projects and is including that information in its written decisions, Honorable said. Getting answers to key questions — “What are the greenhouse gas emissions?” and “What will be the impact on local communities?” — will remain a priority for the commission, she said this week at the Energy Information Administration’s annual energy conference in Washington, D.C.

But there’s still work to be done, she said, in understanding a project’s full environmental impact. Honorable, who will be leaving FERC on Friday when her term as a commissioner expires, emphasized the agency’s work is “evolving and it needs to continue as we learn more.”

But while environmental groups say the agency has already failed to address its shortcomings, the question now arises whether it will continue the steps Honorable says it has taken.

For years, environmental groups have asked FERC to conduct more in-depth analysis of the upstream and downstream impacts of natural gas pipelines and LNG export projects. One of the most prominent cases in recent years was the battle over whether to grant Dominion Energy permission to add liquefaction and export facilities to its Cove Point LNG terminal in Maryland. FERC ultimately approved the project without even preparing an environmental impact statement.

The way in which FERC evaluates the environmental impacts of projects also drew a rebuke from the EPA. Under President Barack Obama, the EPA accused the agency of failing to fully address climate change in its assessment of a pipeline project — called Leach Xpress — proposed by Columbia Gas Transmission LLC.

In spring 2016, the President’s Council for Environmental Quality released new guidance that directed federal agencies to consider climate change during environmental reviews. The Obama administration’s EPA stated in filings submitted to FERC that the agency failed to conduct a proper climate-change analysis required under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), as outlined in the CEQ guidance, for the Leach Xpress project. Despite the EPA’s concerns, FERC approved construction of the project in January.

Federal judges have also said the agency could be doing a better job at measuring the estimated greenhouse gas emissions from natural gas projects. In April, in a hearing on the agency’s approval of the Sabal Trail pipeline, judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit expressed concerns about how FERC treats downstream greenhouse gas emissions. A ruling in the case, brought by the Sierra Club and other environmental groups, is expected soon.

Questions over whether a federal agency erred in not following the CEQ’s guidance on greenhouse gas emissions are now moot. In March, President Donald Trump issued an executive action that revoked the CEQ guidance to agencies on how to include climate change during environmental reviews.

In its approval of the Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline project in Pennsylvania, for example, the agency offered a detailed explanation of why it could not easily measure the amount of natural gas production — hence the potential greenhouse gas emissions from those drilling activities — that would occur after the new pipeline is built.

In case after case, FERC has concluded that production of gas will continue whether or not the agency approves a pipeline project. But environmental groups have urged the agency to look at the environmental and climate effects of natural gas production that would not be allowed to occur without the construction of new pipelines.

With the Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline project, though, the Sierra Club accused the agency of violating the National Environmental Policy Act by “failing to take a hard look” at the indirect effects of additional shale gas development that would be induced by the project. “The Atlantic Sunrise Project and upstream shale gas development are ‘two links of a single chain,’” the environmental group stated.

The Sierra Club has been at the forefront of challenging the nation’s ongoing natural gas infrastructure build-out and has initiated legal appeals of several recent FERC decisions. Kelly Martin, deputy director of Sierra Club’s Beyond Dirty Fuels, told ThinkProgress that FERC continues to approve natural gas projects without adequate oversight and that she has not noticed a shift in how the agency explains its decisions.

“Unfortunately, we have not seen FERC doing a better job explaining its thinking around greenhouse gases. In fact, we think they absolutely need to, under the law, be more thorough in reviewing the upstream and downstream greenhouse gas impacts of the pipelines,” Martin said.

FERC Commissioner Colette Honorable. CREDIT: Mark Hand/ThinkProgress
FERC Commissioner Colette Honorable. CREDIT: Mark Hand/ThinkProgress

While confusion still surrounds whether the agency should be measuring the upstream and downstream climate impacts of natural gas projects, Honorable contends FERC is doing a more thorough job of reaching out to impacted communities.

As part of her outreach efforts with citizens and lawmakers, Honorable said she recently met with Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ) to discuss how FERC reviews natural gas pipeline applications. Watson Coleman is especially concerned about the PennEast Pipeline, a proposed natural gas line that would run from Pennsylvania to New Jersey. The agency is set to make a final decision on PennEast once it regains a quorum.

Watson Coleman reintroduced legislation this spring to toughen FERC oversight by requiring it to apply more comprehensive procedures to its review of proposed pipeline applications. The legislation, H.R. 2649, or the “Safer Pipelines Act,” would require the agency to monitor the environmental impacts of approved and constructed projects for five years after they are completed.

In her speech, Honorable urged citizens to engage in the regulatory process at FERC and make sure they submit comments in cases that concern them. “We could certainly use all the help we can get in understanding more what the true impacts are and how that will impact our environment, local communities, and our climate at large,” she said.

According to Honorable, a Democrat who joined the agency in late 2014, FERC is seeking to do a better job at explaining the reasoning that goes into its decision-making. “I hope those who follow our work have seen how we’ve attempted to include more information and analysis in our orders that more clearly demonstrate the sorts of things that we considered when we made decisions,” she told reporters after her presentation at the EIA conference.

Upon Honorable’s departure, the agency will have only one commissioner — acting chairwoman Cheryl LaFleur. The agency has lacked a quorum since Norman Bay, who served as FERC chairman, resigned earlier this year. Trump has nominated a pair of Republicans to fill two of the four seats at the commission. The nominees still need to be confirmed by the Senate.

On Wednesday, Trump nominated Richard Glick, a senior Democratic Senate aide to replace Honorable. Glick is general counsel for Democrats on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, led by ranking member Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA).