Bad Senate Bill Would Clear the Way for Pipelines

The bill intends to make it easier for natural gas pipelines to get approved. It’s a bad bill, and a bad idea.
Pipeline Construction Near Stream
Pipeline Construction Near Stream
Credit: Tom Berlin

A new bill, S.1844, was recently introduced in the U.S. Senate. The bill intends to make it easier for natural gas pipelines to get approved. It’s a bad bill, and a bad idea.

S. 1844 would weaken provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). I’ve blogged about NEPA before, so I’ll be brief here. NEPA was created with bipartisan support in Congress almost fifty years ago and establishes a process through which federal agencies identify and consider the environmental impacts of projects that involve federal resources, permits or licenses. The law then requires an agency to thoroughly consider all costs and benefits of a proposed project, develop alternatives that maximize benefits while minimizing costs, and provide the public with an opportunity to review and comment. It improves collaboration, consensus, accountability and transparency in government decision-making.

Some politicians and industry officials blame NEPA for delaying projects and would like to shortcut environmental review and public input. However, the vast majority of new natural gas pipeline proposals are already approved within one year, and any delays in processing applications usually result from applicants submitting incomplete or inaccurate information to the regulatory body that governs natural gas projects, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). A full review process is not only reasonable, but it’s essential to ensure the best outcomes, including cleaner air, cleaner water, safer communities, and protection of public lands and wildlife.

During a NEPA review, in addition to the lead federal agency, other federal agencies as well as state, local, and tribal agencies may wish to participate in the review process. S. 1844 would establish new, unnecessary processes that would make it more difficult for other agencies to provide valuable expertise and input on environmental impacts. In other words, S. 1844 would limit thorough and comprehensive environmental reviews of natural gas pipelines. Given the climate and other impacts of these massive multi-billion dollar projects, they should be getting more review, not less.

In addition, S. 1844 would allow for the approval of natural gas pipelines before environmental review is even completed. The bill would do this by permitting “conditional approval” when the only information gathered has been by remote means, such as from a plane flying overhead, instead of actual on-the-ground surveys. But remote surveys can’t evaluate all the resources and impacts that need to be assessed in a pipeline project, such as the presence of threatened and endangered species, archeological sites, forested wetlands, and other sensitive features. In testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power, FERC itself noted that “Some resources are either difficult or impossible to assess remotely.”

In my last blog, I laid out ten reasons why two proposed pipelines—the Mountain Valley Pipeline and Atlantic Coast Pipeline—should not receive a permit from FERC to go forward. These reasons apply to many other new pipeline proposals, too. These massive dirty energy projects threaten rivers, streams, wetlands, drinking water wells, clean air, wildlife habitat, private property, public safety, farms, and the climate.

The co-sponsor of this new bill, Senator Angus King of Maine, said that the bill is needed to deliver natural gas to Maine consumers more efficiently. But a recent report found that two New England utilities have been tying up natural gas pipeline capacity in a way that reduced effective capacity on one pipeline by an average of about 14% of the daily volume over a 3-year period. The report also found that wholesale electricity prices in the New England region were about 20% higher on average over the study period due to higher gas prices from the unused pipeline capacity tied up by these two companies’ practices. The bottom line is that New England customers spent an extra $3.6 billion in artificially inflated electricity bills, and more pipeline capacity would not bring the relief that New Englanders seek.

In sum, this bill is not needed, would weaken environmental review and lead to environmental harms, and wouldn’t even solve the problem of consumers needing cleaner energy at an affordable price. Before weakening our bedrock environmental laws, Congress should instead ensure that FERC promotes efficient use of existing pipelines, which have significant excess capacity, before approving any new ones.

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