Recent months have seen the appointment and confirmation of top posts in key pipeline regulatory agencies, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). While developments are generally good news for the pipeline industry—in that they are likely to mean expeditious project approvals and a clear chain of command at the agencies—the past few weeks have seen interesting departures from past practices, as discussed in more detail below.
FERC Regains a Quorum
After functioning without a quorum for months, FERC is now able to resume its approval of interstate natural gas pipelines and other energy infrastructure projects. The unanimous confirmations of Neil Chatterjee and Robert Powelson, both Republicans, have restored the quorum of the Commission. This was the first time that FERC has operated without a quorum in its 40-year history, which has caused a billion dollar backlog of regulatory approvals for market-ready projects. Among the priorities outlined by FERC Chairman Chatterjee are the improvement of the Commission’s project review processes and increased focus on the defense against “ever-changing cyber threats.”
Prior to joining FERC, Commissioner Chatterjee served as the energy policy advisor to U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Commissioner Powelson came to FERC from the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission. Chatterjee and Powelson join sitting Commissioner Cheryl LaFleur, a Democrat nominated to FERC by former President Obama. President Trump has also nominated two lawyers to fill the remaining openings of the five-member bipartisan board of Commissioners: Kevin McIntyre, a Republican and energy lawyer, and Richard Glick, a Democrat who is serving as general counsel for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, both of whom are awaiting Senate confirmation.
Since regaining a quorum, the commissioners have been steadily working their way through the backlog of projects and proposals pending before the Commission. Notably, however, Commissioner LaFleur has dissented from the majority on several recent orders on natural gas pipeline projects, finding, for example, that certain pipeline projects are not in the public interest given their aggregate environmental impacts. It is unclear what the impact of these dissents will be in the future work of the Commission in reviewing and approval natural gas pipeline or other energy projects.
PHMSA Administrator Confirmed
PHMSA has a newly confirmed Administrator, 40-year railroad industry veteran Howard Elliott. Elliott recently retired from CSX Transportation as their Vice President of public safety, health and environment. As PHMSA Administrator, Elliott has stated that he is committed to encouraging “research and development efforts that will create and apply new and cutting-edge technology and automation to safety solutions.” At his confirmation hearing before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, he stated that the promotion of and improvements to pipeline safety is absolutely critical, and advancements in technology will be prioritized. He signaled that that pending rulemakings from the Obama administration may be parsed to focus on those provisions that deliver the greatest safety measures. Elliott also plans to focus on first responders’ needs, improvements in communications and outreach with all PHMSA stakeholders, and the aggressive recruitment of candidates to fill PHMSA’s open positions. Drue Pearce, who was serving as acting administrator of PHMSA, will assume the title of Deputy Administrator of PHMSA.