John Abbe hadn't heard of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission until a few weeks ago.
Like many protesters rallying before the agency in Washington, D.C., this morning, he's now convinced the little-known commission is rubber-stamping a wave of gas projects tied to a national oil and gas boom.
Abbe actually set out from California eight months ago with more than 600 activists on a cross-country trek to raise awareness about climate change -- a movement that led him and other protesters to FERC's doorstep today.
"We were hitting all cylinders on the climate crisis," said Abbe, a lanky, bearded man wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the word "endangered," a backpack and tennis shoes.
Abbe, linking arms with protesters chanting, "This is what democracy looks like," said he left Wilmington, Calif. -- he lives in Eugene, Ore. -- to join the Great March for Climate Action, headed by Ed Fallon, a former Iowa politician who served seven terms in the state Legislature and ran in the Democratic gubernatorial primary in 2006.
Participants were asked to raise $20 a day -- an amount that was later decreased to $10 a day -- and slept at churches, schools and homes along the way, Abbe said.
Fallon was inspired to organize the climate march after he was arrested during an Occupy Des Moines protest near the Iowa Capitol. And 25 years before that, Fallon said he helped organize the Iowa leg of the Great Peace March for Global Nuclear Disarmament, in which hundreds of people marched from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., to protest nuclear proliferation (ClimateWire, June 7, 2013).
The movement would later receive endorsements from 350.org leader Bill McKibben; climate scientist James Hansen; and two Iowa politicians, state Sen. Rob Hogg (D) and U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley (D).
Abbe said he ended up walking almost 1,500 miles, culminating in a weeklong protest before FERC's headquarters this week, when climate activists joined forces with Beyond Extreme Energy and other organizations opposed to hydraulic fracturing and fossil fuels. Abbe said the event -- at which 11 people today were arrested -- is aimed at drawing attention to FERC's approval of a wave of proposed gas pipelines, compressor stations and export terminals.
Abbe said FERC is too reluctant to consider methane leaks and the increased use of hydraulic fracturing when approving new projects and is too close to the industry it regulates. "It's like the fox guarding the henhouse," Abbe said. "I think we need to change those hurdles [in environmental reviews], we need to consider climate."
FERC, for its part, has said there's no reliable formula for weighing the impacts on the environment of cumulative emissions from any pipeline, compressor station or export terminal. The agency also says it can't measure a project's indirect effects, such as how one pipeline might spur more drilling for gas. The courts, it adds, are on its side (Greenwire, Oct. 20).
The commission wasn't new to everyone.
Beth Henry, 60, from Charlotte, N.C., was dressed as an oil rig in front of FERC's entrance this morning before being asked to take off her costume and arrested. Henry, a retired lawyer, said she traveled to Washington, D.C., because she "woke up" to climate change issues a decade ago and is now worried about the agency's approval of projects that can exacerbate methane leakage and climate change.
Henry said she was released and must now pay a $50 fine.
"I'm worried about all of the infrastructure that's getting built for more fossil fuels," Henry said, adding that she's not surprised protesters weren't aware of FERC's existence before the climate march. "That's what we're doing here, letting people know about these agencies that have the power to destroy the future."
'We're certainly not going away'
Scrutiny of FERC has increased since it approved Dominion Resources Inc.'s $3.8 billion liquefaction project for Cove Point, Md., about 60 miles northeast of Washington, D.C., in September (Greenwire, Sept. 30).
In that decision, FERC reiterated it was unable to determine whether the terminal's emissions would be "significant" because there's no formula for analyzing a project's "incremental" contributions to climate change and how they would affect the environment.
FERC said its hands were also tied on upstream and downstream effects.
"The future development of upstream production is speculative and not reasonably foreseeable," the commission wrote. "Upstream production is therefore outside the scope of our environmental analysis. The same principle holds true for potential downstream GHG emissions."
Ted Glick, the national campaign coordinator for the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, one of the leading groups opposed to Cove Point, said his group is supporting the protests before FERC this week.
"We're certainly not going away, there will be discussions about how to move forward," he said.
Glick said he's encouraged FERC is entering into activists' lexicon.
Other protesters were still learning -- or less sure -- about the focus on FERC.
Jeffrey Czerwiec, 33, a former restaurant manager and server from Des Moines, Iowa, said he hadn't heard of FERC when he set off on the climate march in Los Angeles on March 1.
Czerwiec said he walked the entire stretch from California to Washington, D.C., having discussions about climate change with people at coffee shops, businesses and homes along the way. Standing before a crowd chanting "FERC doesn't work," Czerwiec said he learned of the agency once he got to Ohio and Pennsylvania, where he saw injection wells.
"I soon learned FERC is a rubber-stamp agency that approves all projects without much review from the administration or Congress," he said. "We need to bring light to their role in promoting fossil fuels."
Czerwiec said he plans to continue marching after the week of protests ends in Washington and potentially return to Iowa to protest oil pipelines.
Michael Clark, 29, of Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, said he started marching in Cleveland when his brother asked him to join.
He also hadn't heard of FERC but learned about the agency when visiting agency-approved projects, including a methane gas storage project near Seneca Lake in New York state that FERC approved earlier this month (Greenwire, Oct. 6).
Clark said he was disheartened that the community couldn't stop the project. But whether the group's protests would shine a brighter light on FERC, Clark couldn't say.
"I don't know how far this will go," Clark said.