Last week the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) made some headway in how it evaluates greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from natural gas-related projects. In recent FERC pipeline certification proceedings, the two Democrats on the Commission have been critical of how FERC addresses a project’s potential GHG emissions and climate change impacts. With only four active commissioners, this dispute has made it difficult to obtain the majority needed for FERC approval. In last week’s order, however, the two Republicans were joined by Commissioner Cheryl LaFleur, a vocal critic of the Commission’s approach, in authorizing a new liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminal and associated natural gas pipeline in Louisiana. The commissioners were able to persuade LaFleur to issue a concurring opinion by expanding the environmental analysis of GHG emissions. This suggests that FERC’s commissioners may have found some new common ground that could serve as a model for the evaluation of future projects.

The project at issue involved the construction and operation of an LNG export terminal and associated facilities along the Calcasieu Ship Channel in Cameron Parish, Louisiana. FERC’s National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) analysis evaluated the annual direct GHG emissions from the terminal’s construction and operation and compared them to national GHG emissions data compiled by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). According to this analysis, the project would emit nearly 4 million tons of GHGs annually, potentially increasing national CO2 emissions by 0.07 percent. Due to the pending repeal of EPA’s Clean Power Plan and the pending withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, FERC noted that there are currently no national emissions targets to use as a benchmark for the project. The environmental analysis acknowledged that the construction and operation of the project would contribute incrementally to climate change, but concluded that FERC could not determine whether such a contribution would be significant. Ultimately, because it found that the project would be in the public interest, FERC approved the LNG terminal.

Commissioner LaFleur’s concurring opinion first notes the Natural Gas Act (NGA) provides the US Department of Energy (DOE) with exclusive authority over the export of natural gas, including the responsibility to consider whether the exportation is in the public interest. In terms of its environmental review, Commissioner LaFleur states that DOE, rather than FERC, has the responsibility to assess indirect impacts of LNG exports, but FERC must still satisfy its obligations under NEPA. Within that context, LaFleur expressed her appreciation for disclosing the direct GHG emissions of the project and for comparing them to national levels. Yet, she was critical of the Commission for not making a significance determination, stating “The magnitude of the direct GHG emissions from the Calcasieu Pass Project certainly appear to be significant, as contemplated by NEPA [but] the Commission has not identified a framework for making a significance determination.” LaFleur called on FERC to use the Social Cost of Carbon, which assigns a dollar amount to each ton of CO2 emissions, to assess the significance of the climate change impacts. Thus, while Commissioner LaFleur ultimately approved the project, she did so recognizing that FERC’s LNG export responsibilities are different than its responsibilities for pipelines and encouraged the Commission to adopt a framework to make a significance determination.

Commissioner Richard Glick was the lone dissenter. He repeated his past arguments that the Commission’s public interest determination must include an assessment of a project’s impact on climate change. “Neither the NGA nor NEPA permit the Commission to assume away the climate change implications of constructing and operating an LNG facility.” While Glick found that quantifying the project’s GHG emissions is a “necessary step” toward meeting FERC’s NEPA requirements, he argued that simply counting the volume of emissions is insufficient. Glick also echoed LaFleur’s recommendation to monetize the harms of climate change by using the Social Cost of Carbon, concluding that a rigorous examination of a project’s impacts on climate change would reduce the legal risk on appeal.

FERC’s approach of calculating and disclosing potential GHG emissions and then comparing those totals to state, regional and/or national climate change goals may serve as a model for FERC’s environmental analysis going forward. For some interstate natural gas pipeline projects the DC Circuit has upheld a similar approach. For example, as recently as February 19, 2019, the DC Circuit dismissed claims that FERC failed to adequately consider the downstream climate impacts of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, noting that “FERC provided an estimate of the upper bound of emissions resulting from end-use combustion….” Given DOE’s substantial role in approving LNG terminals, however, it remains to be seen whether Commissioner LaFleur will concur with similar environmental analyses of GHG emissions in the context of interstate natural gas pipeline projects.

On Friday, a court ruling provided some clarity regarding the Clean Water Act (CWA) § 401 water quality certification process. As forecasted in our November 1, 2018 blog post (below), the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit has ruled that a state waives its CWA § 401 authority when, pursuant to a written agreement, an applicant repeatedly withdraws and resubmits its request for water quality certification in order to restart the one-year waiver clock. Hoopa Valley Tribe v. FERC, No. 14-1271 (D.C. Cir. Jan. 25, 2019). According to the Court’s opinion, this sort of arrangement serves to circumvent the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s (FERC) “congressionally granted authority over the licensing, conditioning, and developing of [the] project,” and “if allowed, the withdrawal-and-resubmission scheme could be used to indefinitely delay federal licensing proceedings and undermine FERC’s jurisdiction to regulate such matters.” Continue Reading UPDATE: During Oral Argument, DC Circuit Suggests Waiver Period for State Water Quality Certification May Be Less Than One Year

In recent litigation involving the development of interstate natural gas pipelines, one of the key issues has been whether the state has waived its authority under Clean Water Act (CWA) section 401 by exceeding the one-year time period.[1] In a separate case involving a series of hydroelectric facilities, the waiver period was again directly at issue. On October 1, at oral argument before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, the parties addressed whether California and Oregon had waived their water quality certification authority by having the applicant withdraw and resubmit its request for certification over a number of years. Notably, the judges seemed to agree that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) could make a waiver determination before the end of the one-year time limit and that withdrawing and resubmitting an application may not always restart the clock.

Continue Reading During Oral Argument, D.C. Circuit Suggests Waiver Period for State Water Quality Certification May Be Less Than One Year

The US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit recently issued two decisions concerning the relationship between the Natural Gas Act (NGA) exclusive jurisdiction provision at 15 U.S.C. § 717r(d)(1) and the administrative review process for state-issued environmental permits for interstate natural gas pipeline projects. These decisions are briefly described as follows:

  • In Delaware Riverkeeper et al. v. Sec PA Dept. Env. Protection, et al. (Sept. 4, 2018), the court held that only “final” state agency actions are reviewable under the NGA’s exclusive jurisdiction provision. The court determined, however, that the state-issued water quality certification at issue was reviewable “final” action even though it was subject to further administrative review because, under the relevant state law, the certification had legal effect as issued and was the final action of the agency that issued it.
  • In Township of Bordentown, New Jersey et al. v. FERC et al. (Sept. 5, 2018), the court held that state administrative review of environmental permits issued for natural gas pipeline projects is not preempted by the NGA’s exclusive review provision, as the NGA only eliminates state court review of interstate pipeline-related state agency orders.

Continue Reading Third Circuit Decisions “Clarify” the Extent of Federal Appellate Court Jurisdiction Over Appeals of Pipeline Permits That Are Subject to State Administrative Review

As we highlighted in our March 2, 2018, post, the US District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana ordered the $750 million Bayou Bridge pipeline to halt construction within the Atchafalaya Basin when it concluded that the US Army Corps of Engineers’ environmental analysis likely violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Clean Water Act (CWA) due to the following deficiencies:

  • The Corps did not provide sufficient explanation for how the proposed off-site mitigation would compensate for the loss of wetlands impacted by construction; and
  • The Corps failed to sufficiently consider and address historical impacts to wetlands from past pipeline projects in the cumulative effects analysis.

Continue Reading Fifth Circuit Vacates Preliminary Injunction on Appeal, Allowing Bayou Bridge Pipeline to Proceed

On March 12, 2018, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) order finding that delays by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (NYDEC) in reviewing Millennium Pipeline Company’s application for water quality certification constituted waiver of NYDEC’s authority under the Clean Water Act (CWA). As we detailed in an earlier blog post, FERC found that NYDEC’s delay exceeded the one-year statutory period established by CWA Section 401. The Millennium case is just one of several interstate natural gas pipeline projects that have faced delays associated with the CWA Section 401 permitting process. (See, e.g., Atlantic Bridge Project, Atlantic Sunrise Project, Constitution Pipeline, Northern Access Project, PennEast Pipeline, and Spire STL Pipeline.) The Court’s decision resolves the nearly three-year permitting process for the Millennium Valley Lateral Pipeline and clarifies for other projects (and state agencies reviewing those projects) that the one-year waiver period begins when the state agency receives the initial request for certification. Continue Reading Second Circuit Affirms Waiver Period for State Water Quality Certification Begins Upon Receipt of Request for Certification

This week, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana granted a preliminary injunction, halting construction of the $750 million Bayou Bridge Pipeline. Judge Shelly D. Dick concluded that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in authorizing the project, did not provide sufficient explanation for how the proposed off-site mitigation would compensate for the loss of wetlands impacted by construction. In addition, the Court found the Corps’ environmental analysis failed to sufficiently consider and address historical impacts to wetlands from similarly situated pipelines. Thus, the Court held that these deficiencies likely violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and ordered the 162-mile oil pipeline to halt construction within the Atchafalaya Basin, a large wetland habitat for a variety of fish and wildlife species and a critical component of regulating flooding and stream recharge in the region. As we recently saw with the D.C. Circuit’s decision to vacate authorizations for the Sabal Trail Pipeline, this is another example of courts and environmental organizations relying on errors in a federal agency’s NEPA analysis to justify enjoining pipeline construction or operations. Continue Reading Federal District Court Halts Construction of Louisiana Pipeline Due to Corps’ Failure to Explain Off-Site Mitigation

Federal agencies that authorize or permit large infrastructure projects, like interstate natural gas pipelines, are often subject to the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and environmental organizations frequently rely on NEPA to challenge a project. The D.C. Circuit recently struck down a decision by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to approve the construction and operation of three interstate natural gas pipelines because the Court found defects in FERC’s NEPA analysis. The court’s decision to vacate FERC’s authorization now threatens to shut down the pipelines, including the Sabal Trail pipeline currently supplying natural gas to newly constructed power plants in Florida.

See the full report on The Nickel Report blog.

Once large infrastructure projects, such as oil and natural gas pipelines, receive federal government approval, they are often the target of legal challenges from opposition groups.  Opponents repeatedly argue that the environmental review, pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), was insufficient. If a court finds deficiencies in the government’s NEPA analysis, can a court halt construction or cease operations even after years of project design, permit approvals at all levels of government, and tens of millions of dollars in investment? This question was at the heart of the ongoing litigation involving the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), and, on October 11, Judge James Boasberg determined “no,” the court would not shut down the pipeline. This case is important precedent for projects being challenged under NEPA. The same issue is at play in the Sabal Trail case currently under review by the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit.  See Sierra Club, et al. v. FERC, No. 16-1329 (D.C. Cir. filed Sept. 21, 2016).

Continue Reading Federal Judge Declines to Shut Down Dakota Access Pipeline While Corps Corrects Errors in Environmental Review

As reported in The Nickel Report, the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit last week dismissed an interstate natural gas pipeline company’s challenge to the State of New York’s delay in issuing a water quality certification under section 401 of the federal Clean Water Act (CWA). The case is one of several pending across the country that involve a state’s authority to issue, deny, or waive a CWA water quality certification for interstate natural gas pipeline projects.

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