Federal Energy Regulatory Commission members sparred over assessment of greenhouse gas emissions from natural gas pipelines and other policies during a tense meeting yesterday that included accusations of "deception" and unfairness.
The friction among the FERC commissioners reflects a high-stakes debate at the independent agency: What role should it play in regulating climate pollution tied to the energy projects it oversees?
The outcome could have dramatic implications for President Biden’s zero-carbon goals, natural gas companies and the future of the U.S. energy mix. But FERC watchers said yesterday’s back-and-forth muddied the waters on where the commission will move next under Democratic Chairman Richard Glick.
FERC approved the expansion of two natural gas projects after a fiery exchange regarding the commission’s new policy of assessing greenhouse gas emissions associated with gas infrastructure — a shift that analysts have said could make project rejections more likely moving forward (Energywire, April 13). The agency also weighed grid reliability in the western U.S. and disputed a natural gas facility that has raised environmental justice concerns.
Commissioners James Danly, Neil Chatterjee and Mark Christie, all Republicans, voted to grant certificates for Northern Natural Gas’ Northern Lights Expansion in Minnesota and the Tuscarora Xpress Project in Nevada. Glick and Commissioner Allison Clements (D) dissented in part on both orders because they said the projects could have "substantial" greenhouse gas emissions.
Danly initially intended to vote against the orders because of language regarding the projects’ climate impacts, which he described as a "serial departure" from the commission’s duty.
But he then proposed a last-minute amendment stating that the commission’s analysis of greenhouse gas emissions for both projects is "for information purposes only, does not inform any part of this order’s holding and shall not serve as a precedent for any future certificate order." With the addition of the amendment, he said he would approve the projects.
"This was a solution that arrived at me late last night, and I think that it is a way to get three votes," Danly said.
The amendment was approved, and certificates for the two projects granted along party lines, but only after strong rebukes from Glick and Chatterjee, who said the amendment should have been offered prior to the meeting.
"I don’t think we should be engaging in deception, and we need to be upfront with our colleagues about what we intend to do," Glick said. "I intend to work with my colleagues to smooth the road and move forward in a better manner, but today was unacceptable."
Danly rebuffed the criticism, saying that an open meeting was the appropriate forum to introduce an amendment.
Considering the commission’s tussle over the two gas projects, the orders "provide less information" than expected regarding the agency’s new direction on greenhouse gas emissions in its National Environmental Policy Act reviews, ClearView Energy Partners wrote in a research note yesterday.
"We think it is possible that pipeline certificate approvals may stop altogether for projects that … have drawn protests on the GHG component of the NEPA review," ClearView wrote. "Those without objections might be approved as Northern Lights and the Tuscarora expansion were today, but we are not certain that would prove to be the case."
Environmental justice and compressor station clash
Commissioners also traded barbs over an order issued Wednesday regarding Enbridge Inc.’s Weymouth Compressor Station, a natural gas compressor facility in Massachusetts that has been opposed by local and state officials as well as environmental justice advocates.
Having initially approved the facility in 2016, FERC issued a briefing order in February to collect more information about its emissions and public safety impacts. The project has been up and running since January.
The Weymouth Compressor Station has enabled the delivery of "much-needed" natural gas to customers in Maine and Canada, according to Enbridge. But critics say it has increased pollution in a neighborhood that is already burdened by other industrial and energy facilities and that the area is too densely populated for a compressor station.
In a 3-2 vote on Wednesday, the commission dismissed a request for rehearing on its February briefing order from Enbridge subsidiary Algonquin Gas Transmission LLC. Glick, Clements and Chatterjee concurred, and Danly and Christie dissented. Algonquin had argued that the briefing order created uncertainty for the gas industry and project investors.
FERC concluded that Algonquin and the natural gas trade associations supporting its rehearing bid failed to demonstrate that the briefing order would "inflict irreparable injury."
"While I appreciate that project developers prefer to have as few questions as possible, we have certain obligations to affected local communities and the health and safety to their citizens," Glick said during the meeting.
Danly and Christie argued in their dissenting comments that the commission overstepped its authority by launching a new review of a project that had been approved years ago. In comments submitted to FERC in response to the briefing order, a bipartisan group of former commissioners had also expressed concerns with the agency’s decision to reconsider the environmental impacts of an approved project.
"I will point out that there were more than 70 interventions [in the Algonquin case], and it was not just by pipelines," Danly said.
Since his appointment as chairman in January, Glick has said that he intends to better address environmental justice issues as they relate to the commission’s decisions. Environmentalists and community activists have long accused FERC of undervaluing the concerns of communities affected by compressor stations, pipeline projects and other facilities that it oversees.
To that end, the commission yesterday announced the appointment of Montina Cole, a sustainability adviser and former senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, as its first senior counsel for environmental justice and equity.
Cole is principal of Jai Green Consulting LLC and has most recently run her own law practice focused on "the intersection of climate policy, racial equity and resilience," according to an announcement from the commission. At NRDC, she oversaw advocacy efforts relating to FERC’s natural gas pipeline review policy.
Montina will work across FERC’s departments to help the commission integrate environmental justice and equity concerns into its processes, the announcement said.
"I’ve had the chance to work with Montina, and she’s excellent — she’s a sharp lawyer, a wise advisory and a really great person," said Clements, who is also a former senior attorney at NRDC.
Grid reliability concerns
The commission was also briefed on threats to electric reliability in the western U.S. due to extreme weather and wildfire forecasts this summer — an issue FERC will take up at a conference early next month.
After a heat wave last August led to rolling blackouts in California, the state’s main grid operator has been working to increase its available electric resources.
The California Independent System Operator expects 2,300 megawatts of battery capacity by the end of summer 2021, more than five times what it had last summer, according to staff. Nonetheless, temperatures throughout the U.S. are forecast to be higher than average in the next several months, and as of May 11, California’s snowpack was at 6% of normal levels, staff said. Drought conditions are expected to impact hydropower generation in the West and force some utilities to shut off power to curb wildfire risks.
"Although CAISO and others have taken significant steps to improve resource availability during the summer, significant challenges do remain," said Gilberto Gil, a staff member at FERC.
CAISO has acknowledged the risk but said in a report this month that it is "guardedly optimistic" it will be able to avoid imposing rolling blackouts (Energywire, May 13).
FERC will host a two-day technical conference on June 1 and 2 to discuss the threats that climate change and extreme weather pose to electric reliability. The projections for potential extreme weather conditions this summer reinforce the need for the commission to consider those issues, Glick said.
"It’s timely that the commission will be hosting a staff-led technical conference in a couple of weeks to examine issues associated with extreme weather and grid resilience," he said.