No Effect on Pipelines Despite Pause on Dakota Project: EPA

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By Amena H. Saiyid

Dec. 5 — Oil and gas pipeline developers in the remainder of the country need not worry about the Obama administration’s decision to “pause” construction of the proposed $3.8 billion Dakota Access Pipeline to transport crude oil, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency said Dec. 5.

“I think the decision is just a signal that we are just doing our job. I think questions have arisen as to whether or not the environmental reviews were substantive enough, and a decision was made that a more thorough review would be more appropriate,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said.

She was responding to a question about whether the decision by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to “pause” construction of the crude oil pipeline would have a chilling effect on other oil and gas projects.

The corps a day earlier decided not to approve an easement that would allow the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline to cross under Lake Oahe in North Dakota in lieu of conducting an environmental impact statement that would evaluate alternative routes and would not threaten the water supplies of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

At a Christian Science Monitor forum in Washington, D.C., McCarthy said the corps’ decision doesn’t send a “policy signal” on oil and gas infrastructure other than the fact that issues have been raised that are of concern to many people.

McCarthy said the Dakota Access Pipeline has been “paused” because the administration decided a more robust review process was needed. She said the Keystone XL pipeline decision was distinct from the Dakota Access Pipeline project.

Neither decision should be seen as being applicable to a broad range of oil and gas infrastructure decisions that will be made across the country, McCarthy said.

Natural Gas Not Chosen Fuel

McCarthy said the Obama administration did not prioritize natural gas over all other renewable fuels.

She said the energy markets drove the push toward natural gas-fired power generation, and that the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which limits carbon dioxide emissions from new and existing power plants, was merely following the market trends toward clean energy that was driven by costs and technology.

“The shift to clean energy is a train that already has left the station” no matter what the EPA does, McCarthy said.

The currently stayed Clean Power Plan was singled out by McCarthy as the Obama administration’s most effective rule at reducing pollution. Second to that rule were the National Ambient Air Quality Standards issued by the EPA for particulate matter.

She said greenhouse gas emissions from power plants in 2015 already are lower than anticipated in 24 states and below the levels expected in 2022, seven years before the first Clean Power Plan deadline.

Total carbon dioxide emissions fell about 11.3 percent from 2011 to 1,969.3 million metric tons in 2015, according to the EPA’s annual greenhouse gas reporting program.

Infrastructure is not what is stopping anyone, she said.

On the currently stayed Clean Water Rule, which President-elect Donald Trump singled out for elimination, McCarthy’s only regret was that “I wish we could have our day in court already.” The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit is reviewing briefs that oppose the rule, but government’s brief is not due until Jan. 18.

She reminded everyone that even now many streams don’t have a living ecosystem. “That’s not a statistic I am proud to cite,” she said.

In its overall push to invest in infrastructure, the Trump administration ought to look at water and wastewater infrastructure seriously as opportunities to grow the economy, McCarthy said.

‘No New Surprises’

In her remaining time at the agency, McCarthy said to expect “no new surprises from EPA.” She said the agency would follow the regulatory agenda and not take on any additional rulemaking. But, she refused to say whether the EPA has taken off the table the Clean Air Act rule to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from existing petroleum refineries, except to say that the rule is currently at the White House Office of Management and Budget.

A month ago, the EPA asked oil and gas companies to provide data about methane emissions from existing wells under a formal information collection request as a prelude to setting emissions limits.

“The good news is we will have some information available to us before this administration rides off into the sunset,” said McCarthy, adding that this data would be shared with the new administration. McCarthy declined to answer any questions about how the new administration would roll back climate regulations or pursue a strategy that undermines climate science.

Find Common Ground

Following McCarthy’s exchange, policy experts discussed how the Trump administration would work with Congress in preserving or rolling back the energy and environmental initiatives put forth by the Obama administration.

Jason Grumet, president of the Bipartisan Policy Center, said that the Trump administration is inheriting a very strong energy sector. He said to expect greater emphasis on production in the next four years as opposed to reduction of greenhouse gases.

Bob Perciasepe, former EPA deputy administrator, said Republicans and Democrats can find common ground on nuclear power, infrastructure, carbon capture and storage and generally on innovation and advances in technology.

However, the Trump administration would have to strike a balance between using innovative technologies in manufacturing versus retaining jobs in that sector, said Perciasepe, who is the president of the Center for Energy and Environment Solutions. The challenge for Republicans irrespective of whether they are in Congress or the White House is to spell out what it is they want to do rather than saying “no” to everything, he said.

Scott Segal, co-head of the federal government relations and strategic communications practices at Bracewell LLP, was of the opinion that the Congressional Review Act as well as policy riders blocking certain rules from taking effect would be used more frequently. Segal said he expects more appropriations riders because it would give everyone a “breather” from the regulations before a solution could be crafted.

To contact the reporter on this story: Amena H. Saiyid in Washington at asaiyid@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

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