Two notable developments in the past few weeks signal potential changes ahead to the policies and timeframes for pipeline approvals, particularly natural gas pipelines under Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (“FERC” or the “Commission”) oversight. These developments reflect both the increased public scrutiny of the pipeline approval process seen in recent years and the emphasis placed by the current administration on expediting review and approval of major infrastructure projects, two factors that are in some tension with each other. Continue Reading Recent Developments Signal Changes for Content and Timing of Pipeline Reviews
On January 11, 2018, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) denied Constitution Pipeline Company, LLC’s Petition for a Declaratory Order that New York had waived its ability to act under section 401 of the Clean Water Act (CWA) by failing to grant or deny Constitution’s application for a section 401 certification within a “reasonable period of time.” See In re Constitution Pipeline Co., LLC, 162 FERC ¶ 61,014 (Jan. 11, 2018). The decision is another in a sequence of decisions from FERC and the federal courts of appeals concerning the time period for States to act under section 401.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, the devastating storm that recently swept through central Texas, both the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) and the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) are urging special precautions to minimize the impact of the storm on pipeline and other energy infrastructure in the state.
A new Advisory on deactivation of threats for gas transmission lines was issued by PHMSA on March 15, 2017 (to be published in the March 16, 2017 Federal Register). Amidst uncertainty about the fate of various proposed and final rules issued by PHMSA and other federal agencies under the new Administration due to the Regulatory Freeze Executive Memorandum of January 20, 2017 and other executive orders, PHMSA’s issuance of this clarifying guidance regarding minimum criteria for deactivation of integrity threats is notable.
President Trump signed another Executive Order (EO) on January 30, 2017, entitled Reducing Regulation and Controlling Regulatory Costs. The new EO, applicable to the entire Executive Branch, including all federal administrative agencies, makes a straightforward directive: “…for every one new regulation issued, at least two prior regulations be identified for elimination.” The Order goes on to state that the costs associated with any new regulations may not exceed the savings realized by repealing at least two prior regulations (“the total incremental cost of all new regulations…shall be no greater than zero.”).
On the first day of the new Trump Administration, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus issued a Memorandum to the heads of all Executive Departments and Agencies, requesting that all federal agencies suspend transmittal of any new proposed or final rules to the Office of the Federal Register (OFR) until the new Administration’s Agency appointees have an opportunity to review such proposals. The Memo also asks all agencies to “immediately withdraw” any proposed or final regulations that have been sent to the OFR but not yet published in the Federal Register (there is always at least a several day delay between the time that new rules are sent to OFR and then published in the Federal Register). In addition, the Memo requests that Agencies postpone the effective date (by at least 60 days) of any rules that have been published in the Federal Register but have not yet become effective.
Citing concerns that intrastate and small gas transmission pipeline operators may not be accurately identifying high consequence areas (HCAs) as part of their integrity management programs (IMP), PHMSA issued yet another advisory to the industry on December 12, 2016. In its seventh advisory issued this year, PHMSA explains the need for further guidance on the methodology based on recent inspections as well as a Safety Recommendation issued by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in 2015 (NTSB Recommendation P-15-06, issued in conjunction with the Board’s Safety Study of implementation of gas transmission integrity management rules).
PHMSA has rescheduled the public meetings of the Gas Pipeline Advisory Committee (GPAC) for January 11-12, 2017. The purpose of these meetings is to discuss PHMSA’s proposed gas mega rule and the underlying regulatory analysis. The meetings were previously scheduled for December 7-8, 2016, but have been rescheduled based on the availability of committee members and resources.
On October 11, 2016, PHMSA released a Policy Statement notifying owners and operators of oil and gas pipelines that it is finally making its civil penalty framework publicly accessible, and that respondents may now request proposed civil penalty calculations in enforcement actions. The Agency is already projected to issue the highest amount of proposed civil penalties in a single year in 2016, and this notice signals that it will “as appropriate, issue higher penalties in order to apply stronger deterrence and drive down incident risk.” PHMSA also confirms the increased penalty amounts as adjusted for inflation for violations occurring on or after August 1, 2016, as a result of the Federal Civil Penalties Inflation Adjustment Act Improvements Act of 2015 (with maximum civil penalty per day now capped at $205,638 and $2,056,380 for a related series of violations).
PHMSA issued an advisory to operators regarding the applicability of its safety regulations to idled, inactive and abandoned pipe. Congress directed PHMSA to issue such an advisory in the recent PIPES Act of 2016, in response to several high profile incidents involving idled pipe. While operators frequently refer to idled, decommissioned, mothballed and/or inactive pipe, PHMSA does not recognize those terms. In its advisory, the Agency explains that it considers pipelines to be either active and subject to all relevant safety regulations or abandoned (i.e. permanently removed from service). With respect to a pipeline that is “purged” of all combustibles but not yet formally abandoned, PHMSA confirms its current practice of accepting deferral of certain activities, including inline inspection, as long as deferred activities are completed prior to or as part of returning a pipeline to service. This is consistent with prior PHMSA guidance.