FERC approves wave of gas projects as Democrats fume

By Jason Plautz, Zach Bright | 10/20/2023 06:59 AM EDT

Federal regulators gave a green light Thursday to a major natural gas pipeline expansion and a liquefied natural gas project.

Federal Energy Regulatory Commission acting Chair Willie Phillips.

Willie Phillips, acting chair of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, testifies during a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing in May. Francis Chung/POLITICO

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approved a controversial natural gas pipeline expansion project in the Pacific Northwest on Thursday, despite opposition from Democrats who said the project would imperil their states’ climate goals.

The $75 million Gas Transmission Northwest XPress Project from TC Energy was one of several natural gas projects approved by FERC at its monthly meeting. Commissioners also advanced the Plaquemines LNG terminal project in Louisiana, as well as a new rule to protect grid reliability amid an influx of renewable resources.

The gas project known as GTN Xpress would expand an existing pipeline system in parts of Idaho, Washington state and Oregon to export natural gas from British Columbia, increasing the system’s capacity by 150 million cubic feet of gas per day. The developer says the expansion is necessary to meet growing fuel demand, while some elected officials from the region have expressed concerns about greenhouse gas emissions.


The project was approved by all four commissioners.

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) said in an interview that the GTN Xpress decision showed that FERC was a “completely captured agency” that is “one huge rubber stamp” for fossil fuel projects. Merkley said he intends to hold conversations in Congress about changing FERC, which is an independent commission whose members are appointed by presidents and confirmed by senators.

“I think they need to be scrapped so we can start over with an agency that actually exists in sync with our need to take on climate change,” Merkley said. “If our national policy is that we are going to take on climate change, we have to dump an agency that greenlights fossil fuel project after fossil fuel project.”

FERC has been blasted by Republicans and Democrats over the years over which projects were approved or rejected and whether climate-warming emissions were adequately considered. Currently, the two parties each have two seats on the commission. One spot is vacant.

Merkley — along with Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) — sent a letter this week asking FERC to reject the project, citing the climate impacts, potential safety risks and a lack of consultation with tribes. In previous comments on the pipeline docket, the attorneys general of California, Oregon and Washington said FERC had not done enough to evaluate the pipeline’s climate change impacts by not accounting for emissions associated with natural gas after it is shipped.

“It’s just inconsistent with what the West Coast is doing in trying to develop a clean energy economy,” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) said in an interview Thursday. “It strikes right at the heart of our West Coast plans.”

Speaking to reporters after the meeting, FERC acting Chair Willie Phillips said that the commission understood the concerns but had to “act on the record.” There was nothing in the agency’s environmental review, he said, that indicated the project would “significantly increase greenhouse gas emissions” since there were agreements to purchase all gas going through the pipeline.

Idaho, which will purchase at least half of the gas, supported the project, said Phillips, a Democrat. “We considered and balanced all the information on the record, and the commission determined this project was needed and therefore we supported its approval,” he said.

FERC spokesperson Mary O’Driscoll said the agency did not have a response to Merkley’s comments.

Some Republicans from the region applauded the decision, which was delayed after being put on FERC’s agenda in July. Rep. Lori Chavez-DeRemer (R-Ore.) said in a statement that the pipeline “will support domestic energy production, which boosts our energy security while also helping lower utility bills for Oregon families.”

The current GTN pipeline is 1,377 miles long and transports natural gas from Canada to communities in Washington, Oregon and California. Canada-based TC Energy has said the project will deliver enough gas to serve half a million homes and meet regional demand that has grown more than 26 percent since 2014.

“The GTN XPress project will play a critical role in keeping energy affordable and reliable for consumers in California and the Pacific Northwest,” said TC Energy spokesperson Michael Tadeo in an email. “We appreciate FERC’s bipartisan action today to approve the project and will work diligently to place it into service as soon as possible.” 

In a statement Thursday, several environmental groups led by Columbia Riverkeeper said they intended to file a petition for rehearing to challenge FERC’s ruling. Inslee likewise said he is talking with his state’s attorney general about legal options.

Gas approvals, Phillips’ future

In addition to the GTN Xpress project, FERC on Thursday approved several other fossil fuel projects. That includes approval for accelerated construction of a liquefied natural gas export facility from Venture Global LNG south of New Orleans that could ship 20 million metric tons of LNG per year. Local community groups have long fought the project, saying the terminal site threatens wetlands and is at risk during a hurricane.

The commission also approved a certificate for approximately 60 miles of new pipeline sought by North Dakota’s WBI Energy to expand gas delivery in the state.

And FERC approved a Midwest pipeline from Tallgrass Energy to transport carbon dioxide from ethanol plants and inject it underground. The plan to convert the Trailblazer natural gas pipeline to carry carbon dioxide has raised questions about what federal or state agencies would regulate it. Speaking to reporters, Phillips said the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration is still reviewing how its regulations might apply.

Commissioner Allison Clements, a Democrat, and Commissioner James Danly, a Republican, issued partial dissents on the fossil fuel project certificates.

Also Thursday, Phillips addressed a debate over his official title as the head of FERC — which he has led since January.

The White House confirmed earlier this month that Phillips is “acting” chair, even though a document signed by President Joe Biden lists him as chair.

“I’m proud of the fact that I’m chairman of FERC. I’m proud of the fact that we’re doing the work that we’re doing. I’m also proud of the fact that I have the support of the Congressional Black Caucus to continue this work,” Phillips said to reporters after Thursday’s meeting.

“And that’s all I have to say about it.”

Solar ‘tripping’ standards

FERC also approved a final rule Thursday designed to improve electric reliability as more solar, wind and battery storage resources come online in what Phillips called an “unprecedented” grid transition.

The rule tasks the North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC), a grid watchdog, with making new or improved reliability standards to prevent clean energy resources from “tripping,” or going offline when the flow of electricity gets disrupted.

During Thursday’s meeting, Phillips called the final rule a “great step” toward addressing new clean energy coming online. Danly said it was “the most important action we’ve taken in reliability in the last year or two.”

Julia Matevosyan, chief engineer at the Energy Systems Integration Group, said previously that FERC’s proposal had good intentions but could be improved.

Instances of solar “tripping” have cropped up in grids in Texas and California, where clean energy resources to power homes and businesses have been coming online in droves.

Clean and renewable resources use inverters to convert direct current power into alternating current power that can power homes and businesses. And grid disturbances affect these resources differently from hydropower facilities or fossil fuel-fired plants — traditional power sources that are governed by their own standards.

The rule aims to better integrate clean and renewable resources with new data sharing, modeling and performance standards.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the cost of the Gas Transmission Northwest XPress Project.