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By Rebecca Kern
A push to shorten the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission environmental review timelines for natural gas pipelines could limit the public’s and environmentalists’ involvement in the process, some energy specialists said.
FERC Chairman Kevin McIntyre signed the memorandum of understanding April 9, along with 11 other federal agencies. The memorandum, under President Donald Trump’s One Federal Decision policy, aims to limit the federal environmental reviews of infrastructure projects to two years by setting permitting timetables.
Environmental groups have increased their opposition, including public protests and lawsuits against pipelines under review at FERC to account for downstream greenhouse gas emissions.
Analysts and attorneys said that speeding up environmental reviews could cut out public participation.
“If the environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act is at two years, that might adversely affect citizen participation,” Joel Eisen, who teaches energy law at the University of Richmond School of Law, told Bloomberg Environment.
For example, he said, FERC may just give the minimum amount of time for public comment at a particular stage of the project review, instead of providing more time to accommodate all perspectives.
The memorandum reiterates FERC’s obligations under NEPA as the lead federal agency in charge of environmental reviews for natural gas pipelines. It directs agencies to complete their reviews within two years “to the extent consistent with applicable law.”
The memorandum is in line with the Trump administration’s push for quicker agency action, Susan Tierney, a senior adviser with the Analysis Group who was the Energy Department’s assistant secretary for policy under the Clinton administration, said.
“This really appears to put a thumb on the speed and efficiency over a fulsome record,” Tierney told Bloomberg Environment. A “fulsome record” is “important because often the public finds out about projects late in the process,” she said.
Others took a different view.
The memorandum will be “important and helpful on the margins,” James Lucier, a managing director at Capital Alpha Partners LLC, a policy research firm, said. It’s directed against inertia, lack of communication, and “foot-dragging” between agencies.
The memorandum implements Executive Order No. 13807, issued in August 2017, which aims to streamline infrastructure review timetables that require environmental impact statements under NEPA.
Cathy Landry, a spokeswoman for the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, a trade organization representing natural gas pipelines, said the group views “better cooperation and concurrent review by participating agencies as important to the timely review of proposed pipeline projects.”
But Earthjustice said the memorandum sets arbitrary timelines that go against FERC mandates, which require a thorough review of the entire project.
The shortened time frames “run the danger of curbing public participation, which is really necessary for FERC to understand the impacts these projects could have on the ground,” Moneen Nasmith, a staff attorney at Earthjustice’s New York office, told Bloomberg Environment.
Public participation is primarily accomplished using formal commenting.
Separately, FERC is currently reviewing how it issues natural gas pipeline certificates.
It is assessing the emphasis it puts on agreements signed between pipeline owners and customers—who sometimes are affiliates of the owners—versus other factors like other pipelines in the area and environmental impacts.
“I would really hope that FERC is using its intention to review its policy statement on gas pipeline certification to talk about how they will really beef up early public engagement,” Tierney said.
Likewise, Montina Cole, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, told Bloomberg Environment, “There’s a real issue of there being a meaningful opportunity for public participation, particularly when you talk about stakeholders who lack resources.”
Christine Tezak, managing director for ClearView Energy Partners LLC, an energy analysis group, predicts that FERC can shorten reviews without sacrificing public input.
FERC on average takes slightly more than two years—approximately 25 months—to issue a natural gas pipeline certificate, according to Tezak’s research.
This review period starts when FERC issues a notice of intent to prepare an environmental impact statement and ends when FERC issues the natural gas certificate, Tezak told Bloomberg Environment.
The notice of intent is issued during the informal pre-filing stage of the FERC review process before the pipeline company formally submits their application for review, which is the time frame tracked under the memorandum.
Right now, FERC starts its review clock at a later point: When a pipeline formally submits its application.
FERC takes on average 18 months to two years to approve natural gas pipelines from application submission to issuance of the natural gas certificate, Tamara Young-Allen, a FERC spokeswoman, told Bloomberg Environment.
Tezak said that if FERC were to revisit when it issues the notice of intent to prepare an environmental impact statement, it would likely shave off a month.
She also said time could be saved between issuing an environmental impact statement and when FERC generates a final certificate.
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