Rick Perry suggests using ‘national security’ to override opposition to pipelines

Energy secretary comes from a state very protective of its sovereignty.

Energy Secretary Rick Perry, testifying before a House committee on May 9, 2018, suggested national security could take precedent over states' role in pipeline review process. CREDIT: Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Energy Secretary Rick Perry, testifying before a House committee on May 9, 2018, suggested national security could take precedent over states' role in pipeline review process. CREDIT: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

With states standing in the way of new natural gas pipelines, Energy Secretary Rick Perry on Wednesday suggested elevating the role of national security when regulators consider whether to approve pipeline project applications.

Testifying on Capitol Hill, Perry expressed frustration with the failure of pipelines to get built due to opposition from state officials. Perry — Texas’ longest-serving governor — questioned the power that states hold over the construction of oil and natural gas pipelines. “Do states have the right to block a pipeline across their state that will have a national security implication or an economic implication on individuals?” Perry asked.

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Perry told members of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, that he believes a fight is brewing over “a state’s sovereign ability to make a decision versus the national security of this country.”

New York regulators, in particular, have most recently been taking a closer look at the environmental impact of natural gas pipelines that would travel through their state. Most states, in contrast, offer lax oversight of pipeline construction.

In 2016, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation denied a water quality certificate for the Constitution Pipeline. The natural gas pipeline’s developers appealed the decision all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. But late last month, the high court rejected Constitution Pipeline’s bid to challenge New York’s refusal to grant the permit.

Suggesting that the federal government usurp the role of states in the pipeline review process could be seen as hypocritical coming from the former governor of Texas, a state greatly protective of its sovereignty. Early in the 20th century, when the nation’s electric grid was getting built out, Texas wanted to make sure its system stayed out of the reach of the federal government. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, formed in 1970s to manage the state’s grid, has succeeded in keeping the system beyond the jurisdiction of federal regulators.

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Lorne Stockman, senior research analyst at anti-fossil fuel research and advocacy group Oil Change International, said it is disturbing how the Trump administration is prepared to take away “a state’s right to protect it’s water, air, land and property rights in order to protect the profits of oil, gas and pipeline companies.”

“The current push to expand oil and gas production and the pipeline network that enables it has nothing to do with national security and everything to do with lining the pockets of corporate donors that support this corrupt administration,” Stockman said in a May 9 email to ThinkProgress. “As we saw with the attempt to shore up coal and nuclear in the name of grid stability, there’s no market analysis, just rhetoric, fearmongering, and chest-beating.”

Over the past year, controversy has surrounded efforts by the Trump administration and industry to prop up coal and nuclear power plants that are financially struggling. As other methods have failed, they have resorted to citing “national security” as a reason to prevent these plants from shutting down.

Critics have accused power plant owners, such as FirstEnergy Corp., of creating a “manufactured crisis” to keep its power plants open. In March, the company asked the Department of Energy to issue an emergency order, claiming in its letter to Perry that “the nation’s security is jeopardized if DOE does not act now” to keep the plants open.

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NRG Energy, one of FirstEnergy’s power plant competitors in the mid-Atlantic and Midwest, described the emergency request as a “manufactured crisis.”

Earlier this decade, during the debate over the Keystone XL pipeline, Daniel Kish, senior vice president of policy for the Institute for Energy Research, a Koch-funded pro-fossil fuels think tank, also adopted “national security” as a mantra to approve the Keystone XL pipeline. He wrote that decreasing U.S. dependence on overseas sources “makes good sense for our economy and our national security.”

Keystone XL opponents dismissed this “energy independence” argument, pointing out that the tar sands pipeline would primarily serve as an export pipeline through the United States, designed to increase the Canadian tar sands industry’s access to the international market through export terminals along the U.S. Gulf Coast.

With the election of Donald Trump as president, several former officials with the Institute for Energy Research and an affiliate joined the Department of Energy, hoping to implement their right-wing, anti-clean energy policy prescriptions.

But New York isn’t the only state that has recently proved troublesome for pipeline developers. They’ve also run into a roadblock in Massachusetts. Last summer, two of Massachusetts’ largest utility companies halted a $3.2 billion natural gas pipeline project after a plan to have electricity ratepayers shoulder the cost was shot down by the state Supreme Judicial Court.

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Clean energy advocates contend that instead of building expensive natural gas pipelines, the deployment of renewables and energy efficiency in New England region will improve grid reliability and reduce fuel security risks.

“Perry talks as if the only energy sources that matter are the dirty fossil fuels his administration’s donors own,” Stockman said. “But states like New York are forging ahead with clean energy and efficiency. These are the sources of the future that will bring both security and affordability, while protecting the state’s natural resources and citizens.”