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Sabal Trail Foes Urge Court to Reject FERC Request for Rehearing, Reversal

The complex dispute over a trio of natural gas pipelines in the Southeast, including Sabal Trail, took another turn after environmental groups and landowners opposed to the pipelines urged a federal appeals court to reject a FERC request that the court reverse a decision to vacate project permits.

In a filing last Friday in U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, attorneys for the Sierra Club said a request by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission doesn't meet the requirements for a rehearing. Attorneys for two landowners made the same argument in a separate filing on Monday.

Last August, a three-judge court panelsided with the Sierra Club's assertion that an environmental impact statement (EIS) by FERC over the proposed Southeast Market Pipelines (SMP) project failed to adequately consider the impact of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The court remanded the case to FERC and, in a twist, vacated all of the permits that had been issued for the pipelines.

FERC responded by issuing in late September a draft supplemental EIS (SEIS) for the project. Shortly thereafter, the Commission filed a request for a rehearing in an expectation that the court would ultimately reverse its decision to vacate the permits.

"FERC has submitted a draft SEIS as justification for disturbing the panel's vacatur," said Sierra Club attorneys Elizabeth Benson and Eric Huber. "The court should not pre-judge the adequacy of the SEIS or the outcome of this process."

The Sierra Club attorneys added that FERC had not complied with the court's remand order, in part because it had failed to include a discussion over the significance of GHG emissions. They claimed the SEIS revealed that SMP would increase GHG emissions in Florida by 22.1 million metric tons/year, and that FERC had called the increase "not 'significant' -- without explanation...

"Further, their facts on coal plant offsets are misleading and wrong. The court should reject FERC's reduction of the opinion to simply generating numbers to support a predetermined outcome."

Attorney Jonathan Perry Waters, who is representing GBA Associates and K. Gregory Isaacs, both of which own land near Moultrie, GA, concurred and urged the court to take a stand on the issue.

"This court should allow the vacatur to stand to ensure [FERC] does not simply reach presumptive conclusions but ensure environmental factors are addressed” under the mandates of the National Environmental Policy Act, Waters said. "It will send a clear message of the seriousness of the court's directive in this case."

Court records show environmental groups Flint Riverkeeper and Chattahoochee Riverkeeper are also opposed to the project.

FERC in December 2015 issued a favorable final EIS for SMP, composed of the Sabal Trail Transmission LLC, the Hillabee Expansion and Florida Southeast Connection projects. SMP would provide about 1.1 Bcf/d to markets in Florida and the Southeast. The project calls for building 685.5 miles of pipeline and six compressor stations, as well as modifying existing compressor stations in Alabama, Florida and Georgia. Sabal Trail is a joint venture of Spectra Energy Partners LP, NextEra Energy Inc. and Duke Energy.

Portions of Sabal Trail and the Hillabee Expansion entered into service separately in July.

FERC is accepting public comments on the draft SEIS through next Monday (Nov. 20). The case is Sierra Club et al v. FERC, No. 16-1329.

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