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Landowners Claim Rover Breaching Agreement on Tree Felling, Ask FERC to Intervene

A group of around 250 landowners is accusing Rover Pipeline LLC of failing to consult with property owners before felling trees along the pipeline's proposed route, in violation of its FERC certificate.

The landowners, represented by Goldman & Braunstein LLP, filed a motion with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Tuesday to enforce the Natural Gas Act (NGA) certificate the agency issued to Rover last month [CP15-93].

Specifically, the group accused Rover of violating its Agricultural Impact Mitigation Plan (AIMP) -- included in the project's final environmental impact statement -- in which the operator agreed to "consult with the landowner to determine if there are trees of commercial or other value" and to "allow the landowner the right to retain ownership of the trees with the disposition of the trees to be negotiated prior to the commencement of the land clearing."

Rover has violated this agreement by entering the properties of "numerous" landowners to fell trees along the project right-of-way "without notice," the group wrote.

"Rover never consulted with any of these landowners to determine if there are any trees of commercial or other value to those landowners, in violation" of the AIMP, the group wrote. "Rover also did not negotiate the disposition of the landowners' trees prior to land clearing."

The group, which also filed a lawsuit in an Ohio federal court seeking a temporary restraining order and preliminary and permanent injunction against Rover, urged FERC to intervene on its behalf.

"The Commission's protection is especially important here, as the Commission has entrusted Rover with the great power of a [NGA] certificate, which was instrumental in Rover's gaining possession of...the landowners' lands," the group wrote. "To allow Rover to engage in an ongoing breach of its Certificate and to further injure the environment and the landowners under these circumstances would undermine the public policy related to FERC certificates and the integrity of these proceedings."

Rover has been racing the clock to clear trees along its route to hit its targets for partial in-service by July and full service by November. A federally mandated seasonal tree-clearing window designed to protect certain species of bats closes at the end of the month and won't reopen until the fall.

During a 4Q2016 conference call, executives for Rover backer Energy Transfer Partners LP said they were beefing up crews and adjusting their tree clearing process to stay on schedule.

"In a normal pipeline construction job, as you're cutting trees and knocking them down, you're also stacking them, you're dealing with debris at the same time," CEO Kelcy Warren said. "That's the process. It's a much more efficient process. We're not allowed that luxury in this case. These trees are just going to be put on the ground."

Prior to receiving its certificate order, Rover appeared to get on FERC's bad side when it demolished a historic house near a proposed compressor station in Ohio. FERC examined the action as a possible violation of the National Historic Preservation Act and responded by rejecting Rover's application for a blanket certificate to conduct certain routine construction activities on the project, a decision Rover recently challenged.

FERC said it denied the blanket certificate because "it depends on the Commission's confidence that a natural gas company will not act contrary to the Commission's regulations and other environmental statutes." The demolition "raises the question of whether Rover would fully comply with our environmental regulations in future construction activities under a blanket certificate."

FERC continued to take a stern tone with Rover in a notice to proceed with tree clearing last month.

"There have been several filings made in the docketed proceeding alleging that tree felling or tree cutting commenced prior to Commission authorization," FERC wrote. "On Feb. 13, 2017, Rover filed a statement denying allegations that Rover or any of its contractors had engaged in any tree felling or clearing of brush. This letter...does not preclude any appropriate enforcement action for potential unauthorized tree clearing that may have taken place."

The 710-mile, 3.25 Bcf/d Rover seeks to connect Marcellus and Utica shale gas to markets in the Midwest and beyond through interconnections with the Midwest Hub in Defiance, OH, the Vector Pipeline in Michigan and  the Dawn Hub in Ontario, Canada. 

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