Saturday, July 16, 2011
FERC Rubber-Stamps Approvals for Natural Gas Industry
By Press Action
It’s a foregone conclusion the U.S. federal government will side with the natural gas industry when gas companies face any sort of opposition. In the case of a proposed natural gas pipeline in the Marcellus Shale region of Pennsylvania, it’s inevitable the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission will let the developer proceed with building the pipeline, even if it means cutting down acres of trees, disturbing large numbers of animal species, and generally waging war on the local ecosystem.
FERC oversees the permitting process, including environmental permits, for the construction of interstate natural gas pipelines and other gas infrastructure across the United States. It takes a whole lot for the agency to conclude that the environmental risks outweigh a natural gas project’s benefits. In fact, it never happens.
FERC is not in the business of protecting the environment, even though federal law requires the agency to assess a natural gas project’s environmental impact. The agency is not even in the business of serving as an honest broker in its regulation of the natural gas industry. FERC’s mission, with regard to the natural gas industry, simply is to ensure gas pipelines, storage facilities and LNG terminals get built as quickly and seamlessly as possible.
The agency doesn’t care if local residents deliver rock-solid evidence showing a natural gas project will cause irreparable harm to the environment. FERC exists to streamline the construction of gas infrastructure and to officiate disputes among the various sectors of the gas industry. The agency never lets the public, environmentalists or a rogue politician stand in the way of gas companies making a profit. The only time FERC ever listens to politicians is when they order the agency to speed up the approval process. That’s why natural gas companies often plead for FERC to declare jurisdiction over their projects rather than face state regulatory authorities. They understand FERC will give them a green light as long as their high-priced attorneys file the proper paperwork. They know FERC is a rubber stamp.
If you’re a developer who wants to build an LNG import terminal that will damage a local ecosystem, don’t worry. FERC will approve the project. And if you decide five years after getting FERC approval for your LNG import terminal project that you want to convert the facility into an LNG export terminal, don’t worry. FERC will give you permission to make the change, even though you argued five years earlier that the U.S. was in desperate need for your LNG import terminal in order to meet demand.
If you’re a developer who wants to build a 1,679-mile natural gas pipeline that will cause massive damage to the environment along the construction right of way, from Colorado to Ohio, don’t worry. FERC will approve the project. And if you recognize two years after finishing the final leg of your 1,679-mile pipeline that there is insufficient demand for natural gas on the eastern end of your pipeline and ask FERC for permission to reverse the flow on the pipeline, don’t worry. FERC will let you reverse the flow from east to west even though it was always apparent during the original permitting process that construction of the 1,679-mile pipeline was not in the public interest.
There are countless examples of FERC serving as a rubber stamp for the natural gas industry. The ongoing case of the MARC I Hub Line Project is one of those examples, clearly illustrating how FERC operates.
A company called Central New York Oil and Gas Co. wants to build a 43-mile natural gas pipeline in northeastern Pennsylvania. The pipeline, known as the MARC I Hub Line, would transport natural gas produced in Pennsylvania’s portion of the Marcellus Shale to even larger pipelines owned by major interstate pipeline companies.
The company’s proposal has sparked a firestorm of protest among local residents who oppose the pipeline project itself. Some residents also are hoping to throw a monkey wrench into the operations of Marcellus Shale gas producers who will use the MARC I Hub Line to move their product to market.
‘Single Largest Threat’ to Forest Habitat
State and national environmental groups are getting into the act, voicing concern about the project. Natural gas industry activity in the Marcellus Shale “presents the single largest threat to important interior forest habitat in Pennsylvania, both in the aggregate and in terms of threats to specific high value habitat acreage,” Audubon Pennsylvania, a state office of the National Audubon Society, said in a July 8 letter to FERC.
The proposed route for the MARC I pipeline “transects one of the most important forest communities in Pennsylvania in terms of richness of biodiversity of forest-obligate bird species,” Audubon explained in its letter.
“We believe that the construction of the new transmission pipeline proposed in the MARC I project will create significant new direct and indirect impacts and increased cumulative impacts which must be accounted for under the requirements of [the National Environmental Policy Act],” Audubon Pennsylvania said. “In this case, the proposed project will result in impacts to key habitat for migratory forest-dwelling birds; over time the cumulative impacts of this and related industry growth will cause degradation as well as loss of valuable habitat area.”
With a 30-inch-diameter pipeline, the MARC I project will likely require a permanent 110-foot-wide right of way. This will not include roughly 65 feet of temporary workspace next to the permanent right of way during the construction phase. The pipeline is designed to travel through forestland, which means construction contractors will need to cut down large numbers of trees in order to lay the pipeline. The company will not be allowed to plant new trees on top of the permanent right of way after the work is completed. Based on federal regulations, deep-rooted plants and trees are not permitted within pipeline rights of way.
In late May, FERC staff released an “environmental assessment” of the MARC I project. In the assessment, the federal agency’s staff concluded that the project “would not constitute a major federal action significantly affecting the quality of the human environment.” In other words, FERC staff gave the project its seal of approval, as long as the company followed a few minor conditions.
Audubon Pennsylvania said FERC staff, in preparing the environmental assessment, failed to properly assess the pipeline project’s impact on migratory birds. The federal agency also underestimated the project’s direct impact on forests. And lastly, but perhaps most important, the environmental group argued that “pertinent cumulative impacts” were excluded from the federal agency’s analysis.
The environmental assessment “is not only insufficient for issuing a finding of no significant impact, but deficient in meeting the requirements of NEPA,” Audubon Pennsylvania said. The group called on FERC to “revisit these shortcomings” and undertake a full and much more stringent environmental impact statement of the MARC I project.
“There is, in fact, evidence that pipeline infrastructure does increase proximal Marcellus gas drilling activity and, as such, creates a basis on which to treat such activity as ‘reasonably’ foreseeable,” the group said. It cited a recent analysis of gas industry activity in the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania that showed how proximity to existing pipelines was one of several statistically significant predictors of the location of permitted drilling sites.
“Since the MARC I project is routed through an area where there is very little drilling activity at present, it is reasonably foreseeable that gas industry activity will rise in the surrounding landscape as a result of the completion of the pipeline,” Audubon Pennsylvania said. “Based on present levels of industry activity in the area, this will consist of an accelerated impact in Lycoming County and an induced impact in Sullivan County in, we would note, high value forest habitat areas.”
In an earlier filing, environmental group Earthjustice argued that the MARC I project, together with gas drilling and gathering lines that will “inevitably” accompany it, will fragment intact forests, destroy and disturb wildlife habitat and increase noise, traffic, air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
Forest lands in Bradford, Sullivan and Lycoming counties, where the MARC I Hub Line project will be located, have been identified by the Pennsylvania Game Commission as “Critical Interior Forest Bird Habitat” for their value to a dozen interior forest dwelling bird species, Audubon said.
All 12 species analyzed in the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s habitat analysis are migratory birds, Audubon said. Of these, one has been proposed for federal listing as a threatened species, and three are Audubon WatchList species, which are of concern as a result of overall rarity or declining population levels. An additional Watchlist species, the Wood Thrush, is also found in the vicinity of the proposed route. While not federally listed, these species have been identified as increasingly imperiled and in need of immediate conservation action. For many, habitat loss is a principal cause of weakening population trends.
Scarring Hundreds of Thousands of Acres
Several Pennsylvania state lawmakers, in a July 11 letter to FERC, urged the agency to prepare a full environmental impact statement for the pipeline project. “The recent Marcellus Shale drilling in this region is similar to what occurred with another natural resource—coal—in other parts of our state in the late 19th and early 20th centuries,” the senators said. “As you may know, the strip mining of coal during that time scarred hundreds of thousands of acres in our Commonwealth. To this day, the ecosystem in many of these areas is permanently damaged from this activity.”
Whether or not FERC opts to prepare a more comprehensive environmental impact statement will make no difference to the agency’s final decision. FERC may add a few additional conditions to its certificate order for the MARC I Hub Line Project, slightly changing the route of the pipeline or ordering Central New York Oil and Gas Co. to take more precautions when laying pipeline underneath some of the many waterways the pipeline will traverse. In the end, though, FERC will award Central New York Oil and Gas Co. a certificate to build the MARC I Hub Line Project. And the natural world will suffer.
Therefore, if your goal is to slow down or stop natural gas infrastructure development, stay away from FERC. The agency is basically a wholly owned subsidiary of Natural Gas Incorporated. A better bet would be to work with state officials to get them to erect roadblocks during the regulatory review process. The well-coordinated opposition to the proposed Weaver’s Cove LNG import terminal in Fall River, Mass., offers a nice template to follow. Or some anti-natural gas industry activists, frustrated with the federal government disenfranchising them from the process, may decide to embrace various forms of direct action to stop natural gas development. Whatever path you decide to follow, make sure you understand that FERC exists to arbitrate disputes among natural gas industry members and keep each of them operating as profitably as possible. It does not exist to serve the needs of the general public or the natural world.Share