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EPA tells energy regulators that previous offer of climate tools wasn’t Trump-approved

Political appointee walks back colleague's comments on measuring climate impact.

Spectra Energy works on construction of a natural gas pipeline under the Hudson River in Verplanck, New York on August 26, 2016.. CREDIT: Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images
Spectra Energy works on construction of a natural gas pipeline under the Hudson River in Verplanck, New York on August 26, 2016.. CREDIT: Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

An Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) political appointee walked back comments made by one of her colleagues — a senior career agency employee — on how the EPA could help federal energy regulators analyze the climate impact of proposed natural gas pipelines.

The political appointee, EPA Associate Administrator of Policy Brittany Bolen, said in a letter to the Federal Energy Regulation Commission (FERC), dated July 25, that she wanted to “clarify” comments submitted by another top EPA staffer as part of the commission’s inquiry into whether it should change its policy on how it reviews pipeline applications.

In the letter, first reported by E&E News, Bolen emphasized that the EPA’s previous comments submitted by the career staffer only sought to address questions raised by FERC in its inquiry into how it reviews pipeline applications. Those comments on possible methods of greenhouse gas analysis “did not speak to the question of whether and when FERC should engage in such analysis” and did not identify “any deficiency in FERC’s policies or specific past analyses,” Bolen wrote.

Natural gas industry officials have held up FERC as a model regulatory agency because of its long history of approving almost every natural gas pipeline application it receives. The commission has resisted calls from environmental advocates to measure the level of greenhouse gas emissions expected to be caused by a proposed pipeline when deciding whether or not to grant a permit to a project.

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On Thursday, the Sierra Club expressed concern with the EPA’s decision to engage in a “rolling back” of previous suggestions from its own experts on how FERC could evaluate the environmental impact of natural gas pipelines.

“Bolen’s declaration is another example of Trump administration political appointees ignoring widely accepted science-based tools to better evaluate environmental and climate impacts of proposed projects,” the Sierra Club said in a statement.

“FERC should be using every tool at its disposal to protect our air, water, climate, and communities from the effects of fracked gas pipelines, but the EPA’s political appointees show it’s still business as usual to put polluters’ profits over people’s health,” the group added.

Bolen joined the EPA in 2017 and became the head of policy for the agency earlier this month, succeeding Samantha Dravis, who left the agency in the spring under a cloud of controversy. Bolen previously served as Republican counsel to climate denier Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

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In the earlier letter to FERC, Robert Tomiak, a member of the EPA’s career staff and director of EPA’s Office of Federal Activities, recommended “a number of available tools that can be used.”

Methods are available, for example, to quantify the greenhouse gas emissions associated with a natural gas pipeline project, including emissions caused by natural gas drilling and emissions caused by the burning of natural gas, Tomiak wrote. To calculate the upstream and downstream greenhouse gas emissions associated with a proposed pipeline, he recommended that FERC consider using tools such as the EPA’s greenhouse gas inventory and greenhouse gas reporting programs.

Tomiak also explained that estimates of the social cost of carbon and other greenhouse gases allow analysts to incorporate the societal value of changes in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions to a cost-benefit analysis of actions, such as pipeline construction, on global greenhouse gas emissions. The social cost of carbon measures carbon emissions’ long-term harm.

Over the past year, FERC Commissioner Cheryl LaFleur, a Democratic appointee to the commission, has undergone a change of heart on the role that climate impacts should play when reviewing pipeline applications. LaFleur previously could always be counted on to approve every pipeline application that came before the commission.

But in June, LaFleur announced she will consider the broader climate impacts of new natural gas infrastructure when voting on new projects. Richard Glick, the other Democratic appointee at FERC, has emphasized the agency’s failure to address broad climate impacts in each major pipeline decision since his appointment in late 2017, Utility Dive reported last month.

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On Thursday, six Democratic senators — Sheldon Whitehouse (RI), Jeff Merkley (OR), Ben Cardin (MD), Chris Van Hollen (MD), Ed Markey (MA), and Brian Schatz (HI) —  sent a letter to FERC calling for it to incorporate the social cost of carbon in its evaluation of natural gas pipeline projects. The social cost of carbon “is commonly used to evaluate the economic costs of greenhouse gas pollution, but FERC continues to reject it, effectively taking the position that carbon pollution has no cost on society,” the senators wrote in their letter.

A group of state attorneys general also urged FERC to do a better job of considering the impact of natural gas pipeline projects on the environment and climate. In comments filed on Wednesday with FERC, seven attorneys general raised concerns that FERC’s process is giving a green light to pipelines that are not needed and may be environmentally damaging.

“The AGs are demanding that FERC not approve new gas pipeline requests without probing ‘affiliate’ corporate relationships between regulated utilities and gas pipeline proponents, evaluating regional energy needs, and undertaking comprehensive environmental analyses that include evaluations of potential climate impacts,” David Hayes, executive director of the State Energy and Environmental Impact Center, said Thursday in a statement. The center, based at the New York University School of Law, supports state attorneys general in defending and promoting climate and environmental laws.

In its own comments on FERC’s pipeline permitting policy, the Sierra Club said the commission’s current approach discounts environmental impacts and doesn’t consider the effects of greenhouse gases produced by using natural gas for fuel, “even though they have the tools to measure these effects and a recent court order required them to do so.”