House GOP wants faster ‘rubber-stamping’ of fossil fuel pipeline projects

Pipeline supporters want to give their ‘go-to-commission’ even more power.

Demonstrators march against the Keystone XL Pipeline outside the White House. CREDIT: AP Photo/Evan Vucci
Demonstrators march against the Keystone XL Pipeline outside the White House. CREDIT: AP Photo/Evan Vucci

The House of Representatives voted late Wednesday to pass two bills, pushed by Republicans, that would expedite approval of domestic natural gas pipelines and fast-track approval of cross-border energy transportation projects.

The House voted 248–179 to approve the “Promoting Interagency Coordination for Review of Natural Gas Pipelines Act,” which would reinforce the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s role as the lead agency for permitting interstate gas pipelines and allow the agency to impose deadlines on other federal and state regulators.

FERC has become the “go-to commission” for Republican lawmakers “because they know they’re going to get what they want,” said Karen Feriden, founder of Berks Gas Truth, a grassroots organization opposed to shale gas drilling, and co-founder of Pennsylvanians Against Fracking. FERC officials “pretty much haven’t ever found a pipeline they didn’t like,” she said.

The bill limits the participation and input of other state and federal agencies with relevant expertise in reviews required under the National Environmental Policy Act, League of Conservation Voters President Gene Karpinski wrote in a letter sent to members of Congress on Tuesday. “Given FERC’s history of rash approval of pipelines, H.R. 2910 is unnecessary, dangerous, and nothing more than a handout to the oil and gas industry at the expense of the health and safety of our communities,” he said.

Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY), speaking on the House floor on Wednesday, said domestic energy development suffered during the Obama administration and the measure would remove the bureaucracies that delay projects. The current pipeline approval process is “arduously burdensome,” with multiple permits required under the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, and Endangered Species Act, Cheney said.

Democrats have a completely different view of how FERC reviews pipeline applications. The pipeline approval process is already streamlined, with 88 percent of projects submitted to the commission getting approved within one year, Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY) said on the House floor in opposition to the bill.

The Sierra Club’s Kelly Martin contended that FERC already acts as a “rubber stamp” for gas pipelines. Martin, deputy director of the group’s Beyond Dirty Fuels campaign, insisted that empowering the agency to fast-track pipeline approval and ignore public input and environmental consequences would do “a serious disservice to the health and safety of the public and our climate.”

The other pipeline-related bill approved by the House, the “Promoting Cross-Border Energy Infrastructure Act,” would eliminate the current requirement that cross-border oil and hazardous liquids pipeline projects obtain a presidential permit from the U.S. Department of State. The bill, which passed in a 254–175 vote, instead would give that permitting responsibility to FERC.

In November 2015, President Barack Obama announced that he agreed with the State Department’s conclusion that the Keystone XL pipeline “would not be in the country’s national interest.” Environmental groups celebrated Obama’s refusal to grant TransCanada Corp., the pipeline developer, a presidential permit to the cross the border into the United States.

Ever since Obama rejected Keystone XL, industry officials, together with Republicans in Congress, have been trying to take the authority from the president and transfer it to an agency they believe will not cave to pressure from environmental organizations or other public interest groups.

In a report published in April, the Congressional Research Service explained the review process for issuing presidential permits. It outlined which agencies are involved and their responsibilities:

  • The Department of State for pipelines and similar facilities that transport liquids such as petroleum, petroleum products, and other hazardous liquids.
  • The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for natural gas pipelines and associated facilities.
  • The Department of Energy for electricity transmission lines and associated facilities.

Under H.R. 2883, FERC would be responsible for granting presidential permits for cross-border natural gas pipelines as well as oil and other hazardous liquids pipelines. The Department of Energy would continue to handle presidential permits for cross-border electric transmission lines.

Feriden sees a contradiction in the current push to get FERC to handle cross-border permitting for oil pipelines. The pipeline industry often depicts information contained in its project applications as a matter of national security. But these same industry officials are now lobbying to transfer review of cross-border pipelines from the State Department, an agency with deep experience in addressing national security issues, to FERC, which “isn’t exactly in the business of national security,” she said.

Rep. Marc Veasey (D-TX) was successful in getting an amendment placed in the final bill that would not limit the scope of reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act to only the portion of pipeline at the border crossing. Environmental groups had expressed concern that the original bill severely limited the review of pipeline projects to only the section that crosses the border, ignoring the potential harmful impacts from the project as a whole.

Neither bill has companion legislation in the Senate. FERC also currently does not have a quorum of commissioners that would allow it to make major decisions related to pipeline projects.

The full Senate has not voted on the two Republican nominees for FERC — Robert Powelson and Neil Chatterjee — who were moved out of committee last month. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee has yet to hold confirmation hearings for President Donald Trump’s nomination of Richard Glick to fill Colette Honorable’s Democratic position on the commission or his nomination of Kevin McIntyre, a Republican, to serve as commission chairman.