With FERC Commissioner Norman Bay's surprise resignation taking effect at the end of the week, backers of several high-profile Northeast pipeline projects are lobbying the Commission to issue crucial orders before it loses its quorum.
Hoping to avoid some of the uncertainty created by a quorumless Commission, companies affiliated with the Atlantic Sunrise Project, the Nexus Gas Transmission project and the Northern Access 2016 project have urged the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to act on their applications before Bay's departure.
FERC has completed its environmental reviews for the projects in question, making them eligible for final decisions prior to Bay’s exit. FERC wrapped up an environmental assessment of the Northern Access project last summer, while final environmental impact statements (EIS) for Nexus and Atlantic Sunrise were completed more recently.
In a Friday filing, Nexus asked FERC to issue an order by the end of this week, writing that "the timing of the Commission’s decision on the application directly affects whether the project can meet the committed in-service date for contracted shippers because there are limited windows for certain construction activities to mitigate environmental impacts."
Similarly, Atlantic Sunrise backer Transcontinental Gas Pipe Line Co. LLC cited "the many complexities and sequencing of activities that factor into the project's construction timeline, including the need for prompt property access and compliance with restrictive construction windows" in asking for a Commission decision by Friday.
Northern Access backer National Fuel Gas Supply Corp. called an immediate FERC decision on its project "vital and necessary...to conduct critical and final project development activities in advance of construction activities."
While National Fuel has already announced that the Northern Access project will be delayed to 2018, Nexus and Atlantic Sunrise have both targeted 2017 in-service dates. If the latter projects don’t get a FERC decision by Friday, it would create additional risks that those projects are pushed back to next year, BTU Analytics analyst Marissa Anderson told NGI.
"I think the concern there is the commissioner resigns and then it takes a while to get a full quorum and so that just splits their timeline, that they aren't able to receive a certificate as scheduled," Anderson said. "...It would put them less at risk if they had [an order] in hand by the time [Bay] left on Friday."
Meanwhile, the 3.25 Bcf/d Rover Pipeline Project, backed by Energy Transfer, is another major Northeast pipe project ripe for a Commission decision after receiving its final EIS last July. Rover has recently experienced some unfavorable scrutiny from FERC related to the demolition of an historic home in Ohio. Energy Transfer had already urged the Commission to make a decision on its application by the end of December in order to avoid a delay of up to a year.
In Rover's case, Anderson said, "if they don't get an order by the 3rd, I think we're already kind of past the point, arguably, of seeing a delay on that project just because their timeline is getting very tight."
In a recent note analyzing FERC's quorum conundrum, ClearView Energy Partners said both Rover and Northern Access appear ready for Commission action this week. The firm said it had expected a decision on Rover in January.
With Nexus receiving its final EIS Nov. 30 and Atlantic Sunrise getting its final EIS a month later, FERC would have to "push hard to finish" final orders on those two projects by the end of the week, making action less likely but still possible, ClearView said.
"If the FERC approves both projects on February 3, it will have acted on NEXUS within 65 days of its EIS, and within 35 days for Atlantic Sunrise. In the nearly seven years we have been tracking FERC’s NGA [Natural Gas Act] proceedings and the reviews required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the fastest we have seen FERC move from an EIS to an NGA order is 39 days," ClearView wrote.
This interval between completed environmental review and final order has been increasing, the firm said, a trend it attributed to FERC's "need to fully address the voluminous and substantive environmental opposition."
Other procedural options exist for natural gas pipeline projects seeking certification while FERC lacks a quorum, according to ClearView. For example, FERC could issue a new or revised delegation order this week that could change rules surrounding what actions it could take without a quorum.
"We believe that FERC is capable of doing anything it wants to do, whether that is moving forward $8.8 billion in infrastructure projects this week, or sitting on its hands on these matters in absence of a quorum," ClearView said.
NGI Director of Strategy and Research Patrick Rau said Bay's departure presents "a short-term setback but a long-term positive for the U.S. pipeline industry.
"Obviously, with three open seats, Trump will be able to stack the deck with his appointees, and as he just proved with the acting Attorney General, he doesn't take kindly to those who defy him, or to those who don't share his views," Rau said. "Trump is very much pro-pipelines, so it stands to reason the 'Trump FERC' will be too."
But a Trump-appointed FERC may not arrive in time to help projects like Rover and Nexus meet their original 2017 construction targets, he said.
"Shorter term, barring a last-minute Hail Mary, I think this all but means both Rover and Nexus get delayed," Rau said. "Rover was likely going to be delayed until 2018 anyway, but this probably pushes Nexus into 2018 as well."