Like elementary school classes, weddings and birthday parties, another kind of large gathering — public hearings — has been put on hold or forced online by the novel coronavirus pandemic.
The interruption is relevant for the energy world, where regulators and public officials from sprawling federal agencies and tiny townships must take public input before making key decisions on siting multimillion-dollar projects.
That poses a challenge for American energy projects, from pipelines to wind farms, as the monthslong pandemic rolls on and governors weigh reopening the country. So far, the disruption has resulted in the postponement of already-scheduled hearings or left officials scrambling for alternatives. Whether development of certain projects could be slowed will hinge on the ability of states to overcome social distancing conundrums in weeks and months to come.
While some agencies are holding regular meetings via Zoom or other videoconferencing platforms, public hearings — a pillar of the democratic process — present a bigger obstacle. Sometimes overlooked, they can be emotionally charged, draw hundreds of people and last half a day or more.
"How does the public have its right to participate, have its voice heard in a virtual world?" asked Matt Schilling, spokesman for the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio and its sister agency, the Ohio Power Siting Board, which canceled all five public hearings on its calendar from March 18 through early May involving projects including a wind farm and transmission line.
"Our legal team is very actively researching how to conduct the board's and commission's business and do so in a remote environment," Schilling said. So far, none of the hearings has been rescheduled and no new ones put on the calendar.
Not only is it a technical challenge, it raises questions of fairness. The stakes are high for developers. And government bodies don't want to needlessly stall projects that could bring investments and jobs to their regions. But they also must make sure no voice is ignored because projects can have lasting impacts on communities.
Along with Ohio, postponed hearings are occurring across the country in regions with different fuel mixes.
The North Carolina Utilities Commission, for instance, postponed all hearings until April 29.
And Maryland's Public Service Commission has canceled at least three public hearings for wind and solar projects and is in the process of moving those meetings online, spokeswoman Tori Leonard said. In neighboring Virginia, regulators are making decisions to cancel public hearings on a case-by-case basis, State Corporation Commission spokesman Ken Schrad said.
"We may put off the public hearing aspect of a case until more is known about the virus, or we may come up with another way for the public to participate through Skype technology," Schrad said.
Minnesota's Public Utilities Commission canceled all meetings from mid-March through the first week of April. The commission resumed planning and agenda meetings via Webex, but it's still evaluating with partner agencies such as the Office of Administrative Hearings and Department of Commerce on how to push ahead with public hearings.
"We're moving through those questions right now," said Will Seuffert, the commission's executive secretary.
'It's called democracy'
One of the questions involves technology. Use of video platforms like Zoom has grown exponentially since stay-at-home orders were imposed by states, and some services have periodically crashed from overwhelming demand.
Some teleconferences have been plagued by "Zoombombers" who disrupt virtual gatherings with profanities or shocking imagery, a phenomenon that has drawn warnings from the FBI. An online meeting of the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission early this month was delayed by a barrage of loud noises and racist and sexual comments (Energywire, April 2).
Access is another key concern. Utility commissions are especially aware that not all residents have access to high-speed internet service.
"We recognize that broadband access is not ubiquitous," Seuffert said. "We want to make sure the new normal ... doesn't create advantages and disadvantages."
Elsewhere, citizen groups, environmental advocates and some legislators are voicing concerns about their ability to be heard on projects including wind farms, pipelines and nuclear waste.
Proposals for two interim used-fuel storage facilities are pending before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which could approve the license applications as soon as next year.
Opponents have balked at the plans and said they pose safety risks. And a number of parties are asking for more time to vet a proposal in New Mexico — including through public meetings.
New Mexico's congressional delegation is calling for extending a 60-day public comment period on a draft environmental impact statement until it's safe to attend public meetings, noting that any decision on nuclear waste storage may have long-lasting consequences.
Beyond Nuclear, a frequent industry critic, is part of a coalition seeking a 199-day comment period and meetings in a number of states that could occur once it's safe to gather at public events.
Kevin Kamps, a radioactive waste specialist with Beyond Nuclear, called in-person public meetings an "important American tradition."
"You know," he said, the "Norman Rockwell town hall meeting where people can look at each other in the eye and can say what they have to say. And it's called democracy."
For its part, Holtec International, the company proposing the New Mexico site, doesn't object to having the NRC consider more time for comments.
"Stakeholder participation is an important part of the regulatory approval process and Holtec welcomes continued feedback," spokesman Joe Delmar said in an email. "An extension is the NRC's prerogative and considering the current environment it seems appropriate for the NRC to give ample opportunity for public comment."
Calls for a moratorium
The economic shutdown from the pandemic has opponents of natural gas pipelines and liquefied natural gas export terminals asking federal and state agencies to halt project approvals or extend public comment periods, citing their inability to voice opposition.
"A moratorium on pipeline and export facility approvals is necessary to help ensure that Americans are not excluded from a decision-making process that has profound and irreversible consequences for their lives and communities," a group of 29 House Democrats said in a letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
FERC Chairman Neil Chatterjee has dismissed such calls as counterproductive to ensuring reliability and economic progress through the pandemic.
"At this critical time, it's imperative the commission operate as close to normal as positive so industries we regulate are well-positioned to contribute to the nation's economic recovery when we all return to work," Chatterjee said last week during FERC's monthly tele-meeting.
Similar calls for delay have popped up from more than 60 environmental groups in New Jersey, which urged Gov. Phil Murphy (D) to stop any fossil fuel-related infrastructure approvals in a letter on March 30.
Pressure over the public comment process has also mounted over two high-profile pipeline fights in Pennsylvania and Minnesota.
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency announced it would extend by a week the public comment period for the Enbridge Line 3 project to April 10. That extension included three new 90-minute statewide telephone town hall meetings as the agency canceled all in-person meetings.
Pennsylvania, meanwhile, canceled three public hearings for proposed modifications for the Mariner East 2 pipeline project outside Philadelphia. The comment period will now focus on written comments, which are due by May 8.
'This won't last forever'
While some states are researching how to conduct hearings online, others are forging ahead.
The North Dakota Public Service Commission held an all-day hearing Friday on the proposed 200-megawatt Northern Divide wind farm and related 41-mile transmission line being developed by NextEra Energy Resources.
Ordinarily, the hearing would be held in the host county — remote Burke County on the Saskatchewan border. Instead, an administrative law judge appeared in the PSC hearing room, and commissioners, company officials and other parties appeared from their homes or offices via a GoToMeeting videoconference.
The public was invited to participate and watch on the PSC's website. People could call in and comment, or chime in electronically or by mail.
Commissioners acknowledged the extraordinary circumstances at the beginning of the hearing.
"A goal of the commission is to try to continue to provide the service that we're obligated to provide under the law despite the challenging times," Commissioner Julie Fedorchak told parties. "Necessity is the mother of invention, they say, and here's what we came up with for this hearing."
In many states, it's local governments that oversee siting of some energy projects.
The Iowa City Council earlier this month took public comment via a Zoom meeting and via telephone on a proposed utility-scale solar project proposed by MidAmerican Energy Co. The council ultimately voted to reject the project.
The council took comments from a half dozen residents over a 30-minute public comment session moderated by the mayor, who unmuted speakers when it was their turn. Except for the screen going dark briefly at one point, the hearing went smoothly.
Many other cities and counties have postponed meetings while they weigh alternatives.
Sarah Mills is a University of Michigan professor who, through a state grant, provides technical assistance to communities in the state that are developing zoning ordinances for wind and solar projects. She's witnessed one township after another cancel meetings since stay-at-home orders took effect.
"All of that stuff is just on hold," she said.
Mills said she doesn't believe the postponements have had a material effect on project development — at least not yet. In fact, she sees an opportunity for communities to work on land use and zoning issues and be prepared to address developer proposals when the stay-at-home order is lifted.
"This won't last forever," Mills said. "And it will take time to get the clean energy supply chain to recover. Maybe this pause gives people a little bit of time to get their ducks in a row."
She's not the only one who sees a potential silver lining to unwelcome circumstances.
Fedorchak, the North Dakota regulator, said she's been interested in expanding electronic access to meetings "for quite some time."
"This really just provided a trigger," she said.
Reporters Jeremy Dillon, Edward Klump, Arianna Skibell and Kristi E. Swartz contributed.