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FERC Discusses ‘Heightened Infrastructure Opposition’ Before House Committee

With world leaders gathered in Paris to address climate change, FERC Commissioner Tony Clark told members of Congress Tuesday that the demands of current proposed carbon regulations could outpace the development of natural gas and electric infrastructure needed to maintain reliability in a changing energy grid.

And a recent increase in opposition to infrastructure projects under review by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission threatens to further impede this development, Clark said.

FERC Chairman Norman Bay, fielding a question from an Energy and Power Subcommittee member, noted the increase in opposition to infrastructure projects, including protesters attempts to disrupt recent FERC meetings.

“I think at FERC we have clearly seen increased opposition to infrastructure. One of the things that has happened at FERC over the last, at this point it’s probably been 15 months or so, is that our open meetings have been interrupted by protesters who will suddenly stand up during our meeting and try to interfere with our meeting, so we are clearly seeing that,” Bay said. “Even in the field when we’re holding scoping hearings, it is not uncommon for the staff who do those hearings to report back that there seems to be a great deal of opposition in many communities to the construction of more infrastructure.”

The four FERC commissioners testified on a number of issues facing both the electric power and natural gas industries during an Energy and Power Subcommittee oversight meeting. Clark said it will be a challenge for industry to build out new pipelines and transmission lines to meet timelines set by the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Clean Power Plan.

“Final state implementation plans would not be due, in many cases, until 2018. Compliance targets begin in 2022. Yet major pipeline and transmission projects can take anywhere from three to 12 years, or longer, to accomplish from concept to in-service completion,” Clark said.

Many of the questions posed by lawmakers Tuesday focused on how FERC will work to maintain electric reliability as the nation moves forward under the Clean Power Plan, a topic that frequently came back to a need to site and permit pipelines to supply additional natural gas for electric generation to offset baseload retirements.

A recent increase in natural gas pipeline applications to FERC reflects the “impact of low-cost natural gas and environmental regulations which are shutting down coal and really requiring utilities to have some combination of natural gas and renewables,” Clark said. In August 2014, FERC had pending applications for 24 Bcf/d and 1,000 miles of new capacity, compared to 50 Bcf/d and 4,600 miles of pending pipeline applications as of last month, according to Clark.

Federal and state energy regulators will have to “grapple with this tension of dealing with policies that necessitate large infrastructure projects in an era of heightened infrastructure opposition,” he said.

Some in the natural gas industry have noted recently that FERC’s pipeline certification process has become a venue for environmental advocates to challenge the use of fossil fuels generally (see Shale Daily, Nov. 13; Nov. 2; Oct. 28).

Clark offered a similar assessment in his testimony to the Energy and Power subcommittee Tuesday.

“In years gone by, intervention in regulatory proceedings tended to be driven by those most directly affected by the energy project…but today there is an increasing trend towards ‘just say no’ intervention. This intervention is designed to block entire classes of infrastructure projects -- either through outright denial or through a strategy of defeat through delay,” Clark said. “It is not opposition based on a particular project or its location; it is an opposition to all infrastructure as a matter of ideology. Often this opposition is from those expressing concern about climate change and carbon emissions.

“The irony is that much of this infrastructure is being necessitated by the very regulations that are being promulgated in the name of reducing carbon intensity in the electric generating sector.”

Lawmakers on the committee had varying takes on the opposition to the recent wave of proposed pipeline projects.

“It’s out of control,” Rep. Pete Olson (R-TX) said. “We’re going from ‘not in my backyard’ to ‘not in anybody’s backyard.’”

But others, such as Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY) said that while some might have a “just say no” attitude to new infrastructure, there are “many, many people that have legitimate concerns and believe the public has been shut out of the process.” Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-VA) also raised concerns about residents in his district that “just want answers to questions” about proposed pipelines that could potentially affect them.

For his part, Clark said the increased participation in FERC scoping meetings has made it more difficult to gather project-specific input from landowners and those directly affected by proposed infrastructure.

“There’s a lot more interest in these hearings than we’ve had in the past. Sometimes it’s from interveners and folks who simply don’t want infrastructure at all, but what I think is very important from a staff standpoint is that we continue to ensure that the actual landowner who’s affected...has that opportunity to speak on the record so they can have their views known about a particular infrastructure project that is directly affecting them,” Clark said. “It’s getting to be more of a challenge, because...there are a certain number of hours and there are a lot of people that show up.”

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