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Rules Committee Advances NatGas Pipeline Permitting Bill to House Floor

The House Rules Committee on Tuesday voted to advance to the House floor a bill that would establish a set deadline for federal and state agencies to approve pipeline applications, despite a veto threat issued by the White House.

The "Natural Gas Pipeline Permitting Reform Act," (HR 161) would establish a 12-month deadline for FERC to approve gas pipeline applications, and other federal permitting agencies would have 90 days (with a potential extension of 30 days) to complete a separate review of the project.

"We've got domestic natural gas production at all-time highs here in America," the bill's author, Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KS), told the committee. "We now have to get that energy from the places it’s produced to the places it’s consumed. Primarily, this is the Northeast...a place where we have enormously high natural gas costs that are making it very expensive for the least amongst us to do the simple task of heating their home in the wintertime, and we can fix that by streamlining a permitting process that today allows folks who want to invest tens and sometimes hundreds of millions of dollars in new pipeline infrastructure to get hung up by a federal government that simply refuses to make a decision."

A previous iteration of the bill (HR 1900), also sponsored by Pompeo, was introduced in 2013 and voted out of the House 252-165, with most of the support coming from Republicans (see Daily GPI, Nov. 21, 2013). But that bill stalled in the then Democratically controlled Senate.

But HR 161, like its predecessor, is problematic, according to Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY). "Although perhaps well intentioned, it would disrupt a functioning permitting process, and it would put the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in charge of making permitting decisions within the jurisdiction of other federal agencies," Tonko told the committee. "The best way to describe this legislation is that it is a solution in search of a problem."

The committee voted along party lines to approve a motion to move the bill to the House floor under a closed rule, restricting debate to one hour and limiting amendments. An amendment put forward by Louise Slaughter (D-NY) that would have allowed for more debate was voted down along party lines, as was a second amendment, put forward by James McGovern (D-MA) that would have exempted from the bill's timelines pipelines passing through lands required under federal, state or local law to be managed for purposes of natural resource conservation or recreation.

The Obama administration signaled its opposition to the legislation in the previous Congress, and on Tuesday again said the president intends to veto the bill if it makes it to his desk in its current form.

"The bill's requirements could force agencies to make decisions based on incomplete information or information that may not be available, including potential environmental and community impacts of the proposed pipelines, within the stringent deadlines, and to deny applications that otherwise would have been approved, but for lack of sufficient review time," the White House said.

Donald Santa, president of the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, has applauded Pompeo for reintroducing the bill (see Daily GPI, Jan. 9).

"It is important to note that the time allowed for action by permitting agencies prescribed by the legislation does not begin to toll until after FERC has completed its environmental review under NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act]," Santa said in a letter to Pompeo. "By that point in the process, a pipeline project developer has been in consultations with both FERC and the permitting agencies for 12 to 18 months, and sometimes longer. It is therefore entirely reasonable to expect that a permitting agency will be in a position to make a final decision within 90 days of completion of the NEPA review."

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