WASHINGTON — Tensions over the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s tougher approach on climate change are flaring up, as Republicans look to put a halt to lengthy environmental reviews that have resulted in the cancellation of two pipeline projects.
Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., ranking member on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said in a letter this week that the climate policies undertaken by FERC’s Democratic chairman, Richard Glick, had the potential to diminish American natural gas supplies in the years ahead.
“The impression — if not the reality — that the commission is sympathetic to efforts to ‘keep natural gas in the ground’ will inflict more harm on the nation,” he wrote. “It is increasingly clear that the commission’s current posture toward its natural gas docket may jeopardize, rather than enhance, America’s energy security.”
The letter comes as FERC’s Republican and Democratic members spar over Glick’s commitment to analyzing greenhouse gas emissions produced by natural gas pipelines and liquefied natural gas facilities, which require FERC approval to begin construction.
So far no project has been rejected for its contribution to climate change, but pipeline companies are undergoing more rigorous review than they are used to.
In a letter to Barrasso last month, Commissioner James Danly, a Republican and former FERC chairman, claimed that rigor has resulted in extending what was essentially a 12-month review process to 18 months or longer.
Talking to reporters Thursday, Glick questioned that analysis, suggesting Danly had cherry picked his data and saying he would conduct his own review.
“Slowed from what?” Glick said. “I would say we’ve slowed from what when Commissioner Danly was chair and we looked the other way.”
But the new approach on climate change is getting the attention of pipeline companies. This fall, both New Jersey Resources and Berkshire Hathaway Energy GT&S, which is based in Virginia, withdrew their applications for projects to expand their pipeline networks, citing the slow approval process at FERC.
“The project has been delayed well beyond (our) expectations,” a lawyer for New Jersey Resources wrote in October. “There is significant uncertainty regarding when an order will issue in this docket.”
FERC is in the middle of revising the criteria natural gas projects need for approval. But in the meantime companies are left to try to navigate a stop-gap process that changes case by case, said Robin Rorick, a vice president at the American Petroleum Institute.
“Having a clear and consistent permitting process in place ensures that needed infrastructure can be built to provide the affordable, reliable energy Americans rely on every day,” she said in an email.
Since the Supreme Court ruled in 2007 the federal government must regulate carbon dioxide emissions, the question of how FERC should consider pipelines and other facilities that transport natural gas has been the subject of regular debate, not only within FERC but in the courts.
This summer the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals found that FERC failed to adequately consider greenhouse gas emissions in approving the Texas LNG Brownsville facility on the Gulf Coast, likely tying up the project for years. The review was completed in 2019, when Republican Neil Chatterjee was chairman.
“It’s a lot longer (timeline) than if we did it right the first time,” Glick said. “If we don’t cross our T’s and dot our I’s in our environmental reviews we’re not going to achieve what we want to achieve, which is more certainty.”
But Republicans say Glick and other Democratic commissioners, one of whom is a former attorney for the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council, are going far beyond what is required under court rulings.
In his letter last month, Danly argued that the ruling on the Brownsville LNG facility was the result of FERC failing to adequately explain its decision, not because it had not conducted adequate environmental review.
And he questioned the legal reasoning behind the D.C. Circuit’s contention that FERC must consider the emissions from the natural gas that pipelines transport, suggesting it was only a matter of time before the Supreme Court, with its new conservative majority, took up the question.
“I am not at all confident that its holding would survive review at the Supreme Court,” he wrote.