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Petition Calls on FERC to Form Office of Public Participation, Cites 1978 Law

A coalition of consumer and environmental advocacy groups filed a petition Monday calling on FERC to establish an office of public participation, arguing that the public’s interests are currently underrepresented in the Commission’s regulatory process.

The petition, led by Washington, DC-based left-leaning think-tank Public Citizen Inc., points to existing language in the Public Utilities Regulatory Policies Act (PURPA) of 1978 that instructed the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to create an “Office of Public Participation” to “coordinate assistance available to persons intervening or participating or proposing to intervene or participate in proceedings before the Commission.”

Under the section of PURPA outlining the office’s creation, FERC would also “provide compensation for reasonable attorney’s fees, expert witness fees, and other costs of intervening or participating in any proceeding before the Commission” in select cases where the “proceeding is significant” and where the intervenor’s participation “without receipt of compensation constitutes a significant financial hardship.”

Public Citizen’s Tyson Slocum, energy program director, told NGI Monday that it’s common for Congress to set up the rules for a regulatory entity and then “for whatever reason, executive branch agencies don’t follow up.” In the case of FERC’s public participation office, “the agency just never did it. Congress never followed up, so that provision is still there.”

The petition focuses on FERC’s expanded jurisdiction over electric power markets, asserting that the Commission needs the equivalent of the publicly funded consumer advocacy groups that participate in state-level utility regulation.

The petition calls for FERC to pay for the office through its existing fee-based funding mechanism, saying the agency “can itself finance not only the Office of Public Participation but also compensation to intervenors or participants in proceedings.”

Though the details of the Office of Public Participation are written under the Federal Power Act, “when you look at the duties and responsibilities of this office, it pertains to all FERC jurisdictional activities,” including infrastructure siting, Slocum said.

The language in PURPA puts the petitioners “on extremely solid footing here, legally,” he said. FERC “really doesn’t have a choice but to respond affirmatively to our petition.”

When asked about the petition, FERC spokeswoman Tamara Young-Allen said she couldn’t comment on a matter that’s pending before the Commission.

Amid a period of what one commissioner has described as “heightened infrastructure opposition,” FERC has seen an uptick in the number of interstate pipeline project applications currently under its review (see Daily GPI, Dec. 10, 2015; Dec. 1, 2015).

The interstate pipeline certification process has become a battleground for those opposed to hydraulic fracturing and fossil fuel extraction in general (see Shale Daily, Nov. 2, 2015).

In a recent example, the environmental group Delaware Riverkeeper Network, opposed to the construction of the proposed PennEast Pipeline in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, sued FERC last week over an alleged “[bias] toward approving jurisdictional natural gas pipeline projects” (see Daily GPI, March 4).

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