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Federal pipeline regulator will consider climate change in assessing new projects
Federal Pipeline Regulator Will Consider Climate Change In Assessing New Projects

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission will now consider how pipelines and related natural gas projects affect climate change and environmental justice communities, the commission ruled in a 3-to-2 vote on Thursday.

The ruling marks the first time that FERC, an independent agency that regulates the interstate transmission of electricity, oil, and natural gas, has updated its policy for reviewing gas projects since 1999.

Environmental advocates hailed the move, saying it will provide a crucial new avenue for blocking new fossil fuel infrastructure and staving off the worst effects of the climate crisis. But conservatives and industry groups slammed the decision, asserting that it will prevent millions of Americans from accessing affordable energy.

Here’s what to know:

What happened

At its meeting on Thursday, the commission voted to approve two policy statements related to its assessment of pending and future gas projects. The new guidance will be applied immediately, although the commission will solicit public comments and could make changes in the future based on that feedback.

The vote was split along party lines. All three Democrats — Chairman Richard Glick and Commissioners Allison Clements and Willie L. Phillips — voted in favor of the policy statements, while Republican Commissioners James Danly and Mark Christie dissented.

Under the Natural Gas Act, the commission must evaluate whether projects are in the public interest when deciding whether they are needed. The guidance clarifies that as part of this evaluation, the commission will consider how projects contribute to climate change and affect low-income and minority communities.

The guidance also states that if a project’s emissions are expected to exceed 100,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year, the commission will prepare an environmental impact statement under the National Environmental Policy Act — a much more comprehensive document than an environmental assessment.

In theory, the guidance means that FERC could block the construction and operation of interstate natural gas pipelines, storage facilities and liquefied natural gas terminals if it finds that their climate damages outweigh their benefits.

In practice, Glick told reporters after the meeting that companies will be encouraged — but not required — to propose ways of mitigating their projects’ planet-warming emissions.

“The focus of the policy statement is suggesting to the companies they should come forward if they believe their emissions are going to be significant and might outweigh the benefits of the project,” Glick said.

“What we do in many cases is companies come forward with mitigation techniques, whether it be for wetlands, forests, species, things like that,” he said. “So I think we would just encourage companies to come forward and do the same with regard to greenhouse gas emissions.”

The clash between Democrats, Republicans

Democratic commissioners said the guidance would foster greater legal certainty for companies, noting that courts have rebuked FERC for failing to consider projects’ climate effects.

In 2017, for example, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit vacated FERC’s approval of the Sabal Trail gas pipeline, saying the commission had ignored its massive “downstream” greenhouse gas emissions.

“If we were to continue the commission turning a blind eye to climate change and greenhouse gas emissions,” Glick said, “we would definitely be adding to the legal uncertainty of each commission order approving a project.”

However, Christie and Danly argued that the D.C. Circuit got it wrong in the Sabal Trail case. And they asserted that FERC had overstepped its authority without congressional approval.

“What the majority does today is essentially assume it has the power to rewrite both the Natural Gas Act and the National Environmental Policy Act,” Christie said. “But that is a power that we do not have. Only legislators in Congress have that power, and they have not delegated it to us.”

The reaction

Bernard McNamee, a former FERC commissioner who was nominated by Donald Trump, told The Climate 202 that he thinks the agency should leave climate policy to Congress, even as President Biden’s climate and social spending package stalls in the Senate.

“There’s been frustration among Democrats on Capitol Hill that they’ve been unable to pass climate legislation, and now you have three members of FERC suddenly taking on this authority that’s going to impact not only natural gas access but also electricity access,” said McNamee, who is now a partner at McGuireWoods and a senior adviser at McGuireWoods Consulting.

Adam Carlesco, a staff attorney at the environmental group Food and Water Watch, said FERC has been rubber-stamping new pipelines for years, and the ruling could finally change that. “Climate science tells us that we cannot build new fossil fuel projects if we are to have a chance at averting real climate chaos,” he said in a statement.

But Amy Andryszak, president and CEO of the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, which represents pipeline interests, said in a statement that the guidance “does not add clarity to the certification process, but instead creates more questions.”

On the Hill, Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) called the ruling “just the latest attack in Biden’s war on American energy.” And Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), the holdout vote on Biden’s spending package who hails from a fossil-fuel-rich state, said the decision “puts the security of our nation at risk.”

Environmental justice

The White House Council on Environmental Quality is urging Americans to use a “beta version” of the tool over the next 60 days to reveal communities affected by health threats such as tainted water and poor air quality.

“Too many American communities are still living with water that isn’t safe to drink, housing that isn’t built to withstand climate change-fueled storms, and too few opportunities to benefit from the nation’s bright and clean future,” Council on Environmental Quality Chair Brenda Mallorysaid in a statement.

However, the administration is not relying on race as a factor in deciding where to focus environmental justice efforts for fear of legal challenges, despite evidence that people of color are disproportionately exposed to environmental hazards, the New York Times‘s Lisa Friedman reports.

Agency alert

The Biden administration could fulfill its promise to create a Senate-confirmed position to elevate environmental justice considerations at the Environmental Protection Agency as early as next month, E&E News’s Kevin Bogardus and Kelsey Brugger report. 

President Biden’s first budget blueprint last year called for appointing a new assistant administrator for environmental justice, who would elevate environmental justice initiatives so that they are considered across all of the agency’s regional offices, programs and authorities. The budget proposal also included an additional $287 million and at least 171 full-time employees for environmental justice programs at the EPA.

The omnibus bill, an appropriations package for the entire federal government, could provide the money to establish the new position as early as next month. Although the agency already has an Office of Environmental Justice within the administrator’s office, the post suggested by Biden would receive an influx of appropriated funds and could have a more lasting and powerful impact at the EPA.

Biden and EPA Administrator Michael Regan visited Ohio on Thursday to tout $1 billion from the bipartisan infrastructure law that will be used to clean and restore the Great Lakes, which provide drinking water to about 40 million people, The Washington Post’s John Wagner reports.

“It’s going to allow the most significant restoration of the Great Lakes in the history of the Great Lakes,” Biden told a crowd of about 60 people, including members of Congress, local elected officials and labor leaders. The president added that the funds would make “the water safer for swimming and fishing, drinking, providing habitats for wildlife and wildfowl.”

Extreme events

High-risk fire days in Southern California could nearly double if climate change remains unchecked, according to a study published Thursday in the journal Communications Earth & Environment, The Post’s Diana Leonard reports. 

The study predicts that the fire season will soon expand to last all year, with more large fires occurring during historically cooler and wetter months. Scientists say this trend is particularly concerning in autumn, when conditions such as strengthened Santa Ana winds and dry vegetation could cause the blazes to ignite more easily and burn more intensely. And under the world’s current emissions reduction trajectory, Southern California could be about 5 degrees warmer than it was at the end of the 20th century by 2100, creating even higher temperatures ripe for wildfires.

Climate solutions

Skiers across the globe are racing to save the future of their favorite sport from climate change,Denise Hruby reports for The Post. As the athletes fly down slopes blanketed by artificial snow because of global warming, they are becoming more aware of the sport’s climate effects, such as an excess of electricity needed to run cable cars and the carbon-intensive travel to far-flung mountains.

Some skier environmentalists say the key to reducing the sport’s climate impact is to stop traveling by car or airplane to chase wintry conditions across the globe. Instead, they are urging fellow skiers to arrive by bike, electric bus or train.

Some local governments are also taking matters into their own hands. In the Alps, which have been warming at twice the global average, the Austrian province of Tyrol ordered all ski resorts to become climate-neutral by 2035, prompting the construction of wind farms and solar panels.

 The International Ski Federation is taking a different tone, too. Johan Eliasch, the president of the federation, said he thinks that skiing needs to “act in harmony with nature and not against it” and that he feels a “personal responsibility to reduce the impact of our activities on the climates.”


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