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House Panel Approves NatGas Pipe Permitting Bill

The full House Energy and Commerce Committee last Wednesday voted out amended legislation that aims to speed up the permitting of interstate natural gas pipelines by both federal and state agencies.

The bill (HR 1900), which was sponsored by Rep Mike Pompeo (R-KS), cleared the committee by 28-14, with the votes falling mostly along party lines. It is now headed to the House floor (see NGI, July 15). Pompeo offered an amendment in the nature of a substitute, which provides that the measure would only apply to pipeline projects that go through the pre-filing process at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and which take steps to use more mitigation measures.

The legislation establishes a 12-month deadline for FERC to approve gas pipeline applications, and other federal and state permitting agencies would have 90 days (with a potential extension of 30 days in the event of unforeseen circumstances) to approve their permits for the projects. The clock for the other permitting agencies would start when the Commission issues its final environmental impact statement. If a permitting agency fails to act within the allotted time period, the permit would be deemed automatically approved.

Democrats on the committee opposed the automatic approval provision in the bill. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL) offered an amendment to strike the language, but it was defeated. He complained that the legislation would make the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) a "super police-permitting agency." Agencies should act expeditiously in approving pipeline facilities, Rush agreed, but said they need sufficient time to act diligently.

If the bill were to be approved, it would take away permitting authority from the states and other federal agencies and give it to FERC, Democrats said. "Nothing could be further from the truth," Pompeo shot back.

Imposing a deadline on the permitting agencies would result in more permits for gas pipeline projects being rejected, said Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY). "Sometimes the cure turns out to be as bad or worse than the problem," he cautioned. "I really wanted to support the bill, but it's really hard to do that without Mr. Rush's amendment...I hope in the future [that] we can figure out a happy medium."

"I don't think we got this legislation wrong," Pompeo said, adding that he was not presented with any alternative proposals by the House Republicans.

Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA), who represents the area that was struck by the San Bruno pipeline explosion in 2010, said the bill would put people at risk by rushing the permitting process (see related story). "I don't think we should be short-circuiting the process."

Don Santa, president of the Interstate Natural Gas Assocition of America (INGAA), said his sgroup supports Pompeo's bill. A report by the INGAA Foundation "found that, while the FERC does an effective job of reviewing applications for authority to build new pipelines, the Commission currently lacks the authority to enforce permitting deadlines for other federal and state agencies. The lack of enforceable permitting deadlines increasingly is causing pipelinne project delays," he noted.

"We hope the full House and the Senate [will] take prompt action on this legislation," Santa said. A companion bill to Pompeo's measure has not at this time been introduced in the Senate. Nor has the White House signaled its position on the House bill.

Co-sponsors of the Pompeo legislation are Reps. Jim Matheson (D-UT), Pete Olson (R-TX), Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Bill Johnson (R-OH).

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