After a string of highly publicized attacks on energy pipelines in different areas of the country, several Congressmen addressed a letter to US Attorney General Jeff Sessions last month, asking that the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) respond to several questions concerning the ability and intent of the DOJ to investigate and prosecute criminal activity against energy infrastructure at the federal level. The letter also asks for DOJ clarification on whether attacks against the nation’s energy infrastructure fall within the DOJ’s understanding of 18 U.S.C. § 2331(5), which defines “domestic terrorism” to include activities that “involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State” and that “appear to be intended to . . . influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion.”
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.
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).
On September 15, 2017, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC or the Commission) issued an order in which it concluded that delays by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (NYDEC or the Department) in processing Millennium Pipeline Company’s application for Clean Water Act (CWA) water quality certification constituted a waiver of the certification requirement. The order resolves a lengthy saga regarding water quality certification for Millennium’s Valley Lateral Project. It reaffirms previous FERC precedent establishing that the one-year waiver period for CWA water quality certification decisions by state agencies begins when the state agency receives a written application for certification, regardless of the state agency’s determination that the application is incomplete or requests for further information.
As previously reported on PipelineLaw, the ongoing controversy over an April 2016 decision by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (NYDEC or the Department) to deny a Clean Water Act (CWA) water quality certification to Constitution Pipeline Company (Constitution or the Company) for its interstate natural gas pipeline project in Pennsylvania and New York highlights tensions between federal and state oversight of such projects. In the latest chapter of this controversy, the Second Circuit recently denied Constitution’s petition for review of the NYDEC decision, concluding that (1) the Court lacked jurisdiction over the Company’s claims to the extent that they challenged the timeliness of the decision; and (2) the Department acted within its statutory authority in denying the certification, and its denial was not arbitrary or capricious.
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.
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.
Click here to read the full post.
Despite oil already flowing through the pipeline, federal litigation involving the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) took another turn last week when partial summary judgment was granted to tribes challenging the adequacy of the US Army Corps of Engineers’ review of DAPL under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and other statutes. Two tribes, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, filed suit in July 2016 attempting to block construction of the last remaining segment and operation of DAPL. As sometimes is the case, agency approvals came faster than the court’s opinion, and without a stay of proceedings DAPL began operating in early June 2017. Having granted partial summary judgment, the court did not require pipeline operations to cease, instead delaying the question of an appropriate remedy until after further briefing by the parties.
PHMSA is extending the deadline for comments due today (March 21, 2017) on the Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM) issued on January 18, 2017. The new deadline for comments is May 19, 2017. The ANPRM was issued in response to a petition for rulemaking filed by state of New York, enquiring about risks posed by transport of petroleum by means other than pipeline, specifically by rail, and whether to establish vapor pressure standards for the transportation of crude oil. The ANPRM requested comments on whether a national standard should be developed for vapor pressure of crude oil, including the potential safety benefits and costs of establishing a standard. The intent of the ANPRM is to evaluate measures to reduce risk of fire and explosion in non-pipeline transport of crude oil such as a national vapor pressure standard and, if so, adopt appropriate threshold recommendations for the standard.
The state of Texas and the Texas Railroad Commission have petitioned the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals to review PHMSA’s interim final rule regulating underground natural gas storage facilities. As required by the Protecting our Infrastructure of Pipelines and Enhancing Safety Act of 2016, PHMSA published an interim final rule last December establishing minimum federal safety standards for underground natural gas storage facilities, which became effective in January. Such facilities have come under increased scrutiny since the 2015 Aliso Canyon storage field leak that lasted almost four months.