Environmentalists notched a win yesterday when the U.S. Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia issued a ruling finding that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) had failed to properly take into account the impact of greenhouse gas emissions on climate change when approving the Southeast Markets Pipeline Project more than a year ago.
“Today, the D.C. Circuit rejected FERC’s excuses for refusing to fully consider the effects of this dirty and dangerous pipeline,” said Staff Attorney Elly Benson with the Sierra Club, the plaintiff, in a prepared statement. “Even though this pipeline is intended to deliver fracked gas to Florida power plants, FERC maintained that it could ignore the greenhouse gas pollution from burning the gas. … Today’s decision requires FERC to fulfill its duties to the public, rather than merely serve as a rubber stamp for corporate polluters’ attempts to construct dangerous and unnecessary fracked gas pipelines.”
Could this spell Doomsville for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Mountain Valley Pipeline here in Virginia?
Probably not. I asked for a response from Kate Addleson, director of the Sierra Club Virginia Chapter. She was tied up in meetings today so she couldn’t talk, but she forwarded me the national Sierra Club press release. That document did not speculate whether the D.C. federal court ruling would apply to other pipeline projects.
Also, Dominion Energy, managing partner of the ACP, has reviewed the ruling and concluded that it does not apply. “We … don’t believe it will have any impact on the ACP,” said spokesman Aaron Ruby. When reviewing the Southeast Markets Pipeline Project, FERC did not ask what the pipeline complex meant for greenhouse gas emissions. But in the 18 months since approving that project, federal regulators have become more attuned to climate-change impact, and FERC did examine the issue in the environmental impact statement it wrote for the ACP.
“Based on its analysis, FERC concluded that the ACP would not significantly contribute to climate change and could potentially offset some regional greenhouse gas emissions since much of the gas will be used to replace higher-emitting coal plants,” Ruby said.
While acknowledging that gas-fired plants generate less carbon dioxide per unit of energy than coal, environmentalists contend that gas-fired plants provide no net improvement when one considers the full life-cycle of gas production. Life-cycle analysis counts natural gas leaks from the production, collection and transportation of gas burned in the gas-fired power plants. Methane, a main component of natural gas, has a far greater greenhouse effect than carbon dioxide.
However, FERC rejected life-cycle analysis. Federal law, said the ACP environmental impact statement, “does not .. require us to engage in speculative analyses or provide information that will not meaningful inform the decision-making process. Even if we were to find a sufficient connected relationship between the proposed project and upstream development or downstream end-use, it would still be difficult to meaningfully consider these impacts, primarily because emission estimates would be largely influenced by assumptions rather than direct parameters about the project.”
Federal rule-making moves much slower than environmentalist thinking. When the Obama administration acted to decarbonize the U.S. economy in order to ward off climate change, official government policy allowed a large role for both natural gas and nuclear power. Many environmental organizations now disapprove of both energy sources, preferring renewable power like wind and solar instead. In the past half year, the Trump administration has positioned itself as a champion of fossil fuels. The D.C. Court of Appeals ruling may represent the legal high water mark for environmentalists for the foreseeable future.