The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approved key pipeline projects Thursday during its first open meeting of 2024 — including a high-profile permit for the nation’s largest public power provider, which is seeking to transition away from coal.
FERC voted to approve a permit for a 32-mile natural gas pipeline that would help fuel proposed gas-fired generation at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Cumberland Fossil Plant. The commission also approved a Texas-to-Louisiana project by Williams Cos., which aims to expand an existing pipeline and boost gas flow to the Gulf Coast.
Both decisions saw FERC’s two Democrats diverge. Acting Chair Willie Phillips voted in favor of all pipeline certificates, while Commissioner Allison Clements dissented in part on the pipeline for TVA and in full on the Williams project. Commissioner Mark Christie, FERC’s lone Republican, voted the same as Phillips on the two projects and other commission business.
The outcome showed that the commission’s two Democrats aren’t bound to align on every vote as two FERC seats remain vacant. And it reinforced the continuing tussle over natural gas in major U.S. infrastructure projects.
While proponents say gas has helped slash power plant emissions, many environmental groups are calling on the U.S. to phase out fossil fuels — and not lock in new developments that could be in place for decades. TVA, in particular, has been under pressure to speed up plans to lower emissions as President Joe Biden seeks a carbon-free U.S. power grid by 2035.
The electric utility’s desired pipeline is part of a larger natural gas build-out. TVA has warned that if the pipeline were not built, it may have to keep some coal-fired generation online past its planned retirement date.
“The proposed pipeline is crucial for staying on track with our plans to retire the first [coal-fired] unit at Cumberland Fossil Plant and replace that generation with a combined cycle gas plant,” TVA spokesperson Elizabeth Gibson said in an email Thursday.
The public power provider, which serves Tennessee and parts of six neighboring states, “welcomes FERC’s decision,” Gibson said.
Kinder Morgan’s Tennessee Gas Pipeline plans to build the pipeline.
Kinder Morgan spokesperson Vicky Oddi said in an email that the company is “pleased with the Commission’s approval of the Cumberland Project certificate order at today’s meeting.”
Environmental advocates have warned that the Tennessee project would continue climate-warming emissions and a reliance on fossil fuels. Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) echoed those concerns in a post on X, the site formerly known as Twitter, as other FERC critics issued statements.
“FERC commissioners moved to recklessly rubberstamp this project without fully evaluating the harm this unnecessary pipeline would do to families throughout the Tennessee Valley,” Amanda Garcia, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, said in a statement.
The Southern Environmental Law Center has two lawsuits challenging the plant that are currently pending in federal court, the group said in its statement.
Clements issued a separate full dissent on FERC’s decision to green-light the Williams’ Texas-to-Louisiana Energy Pathway project. It would add 364,400 dekatherms per day of capacity — a measure of heat — to its existing 10,200-mile Transcontinental Gas Pipe Line system, which serves more than a dozen states from the Southeast to New York City.
Williams Cos. said in a statement to E&E News that FERC’s approval for the project “represents an important milestone” for “a critical project that will support reliability and diversification of energy infrastructure along the Gulf Coast.”
Clements said during FERC’s open meeting that she disagreed “with this order’s determination that there are no tools available to assess a project’s greenhouse gas emissions.”
“Second, and critically, there is insufficient record evidence to support the finding that the project is required by the public convenience and necessity,” she added.
Clements said that the Williams’ request violates a 1999 certificate policy that governs FERC’s review of gas pipelines. That is a policy she said she wants to modernize “to address the complexities of the momentous energy transition now underway.”
In a press briefing following FERC’s open meeting, Phillips said “we are currently using the 1999 policy statement, and it is working.”
Richard Glick, former FERC commissioner and chair, passed a modernized FERC’s pipeline review policy that considered the climate-warming emissions from new gas pipelines in 2022.
But Glick’s changes were revised into unenforceable “drafts” after FERC faced pushback from Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and from natural gas pipeline groups. Glick left his post at the start of 2023 after failing to secure renomination.
‘Very bad place’
Christie, while voting for each agenda item on FERC’s docket, expressed concerns that power providers are moving too quickly away from traditional sources of energy — coal, natural gas and nuclear power.
“The pace of retirements of dispatchable resources is unsustainable. And we’re heading towards a very bad place,” Christie said during Thursday’s meeting. “If the pace of retirements continues at the pace it is, the numbers just aren’t going to add up. And I think the last three days just show that — in PJM and MISO both.”
The North American Electric Reliability Corp. had warned in a Jan. 9 release that an “extreme weather pattern of arctic cold and heavy rain across most of the lower 48 states has the potential to create significant challenges, especially in major metropolitan areas.”
And low winter temperatures ended up sweeping of the Rocky Mountains, Great Plains, Midwest and other regions across the country earlier this week, straining parts of the grid. PJM saw a peak of around 135,000 megawatts, and the Midcontinent Independent System Operator saw a peak at around 105,000 MW, according to their dashboards.
TVA, for instance, set an “all-time, record peak of approximately 34,500 MW at 4 degrees,” according to TVA’s Gibson, breaking a previous record load for a winter day at 33,427 MW set Dec. 23, 2022.
MISO spokesperson Brandon Morris said in an email that MISO doesn’t favor one fuel over the other. “MISO relied on diverse resources to maintain reliability, but dispatchable energy sources generally make up the majority of our generation fleet,” he said.
PJM did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.
FERC also issued a one-year extension to Transco to complete its Northeast Supply Enhancement project — first approved by the commission in 2019.
That project aims to transport gas from Pennsylvania through New Jersey and includes 23.5 miles of underwater pipeline, with about 17.4 miles of the project running through New York waters.
Williams Cos. said the project will help transition toward natural gas away from oil and diesel home heating. It “can support affordable and reliable energy and support the buildout of renewables in the Northeast,” the company said in a statement.
Both New Jersey and New York have turned down certificates for the project.
FERC’s meeting was also briefly interrupted by a protester Thursday after commissioners voted to approve the certificates for gas pipeline projects.
Basav Sen, who is with the left-wing Institute for Policy Studies, told commissioners they “need to stop approving all fossil fuel infrastructure,” before being escorted out of the meeting.
“No more LNG export terminals. No more oil and gas pipelines,” Sen said.