A divided FERC on Wednesday reinstated certification for a trio of Southeast natural gas pipelines, disappointing environmental groups that had previously convinced a federal appeals court that the Commission had failed to adequately consider the impact of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission voted 3-2 to reinstate certifications for the proposed Southeast Market Pipelines (SMP) project, with Commissioners Richard Glick and Cheryl LaFleur dissenting, although LaFleur only dissented in part.
SMP includes the Sabal Trail, Hillabee Expansion and Florida Southeast Connection pipeline projects.
Last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit denied a request by SMP sponsors to stay issuance of a mandate over the projects for 90 days, but itgranted a FERC motion for a 45-day stay in the case Sierra Club et al v. FERC, No. 16-1329.
The sponsors and FERC hadfiled separate motions for a stay last month.
The appeals court's action effectively gave FERC more time to comply with the ruling last August that found the Commission had failed to adequately consider the impact of GHG when it issued a favorable environmental impact statement (EIS) for SMP in December 2015.
To help bolster its argument for a stay, FERC issued a final supplemental EIS (FEIS) for the project on Feb. 6, one day before it asked for the 45-day stay. The Commission also issued a draft supplemental EIS (SEIS) last September.
The court was poised to issue its mandate on Feb. 7, one week after denying petitions from FERC and the project sponsors for a rehearing on Jan. 31. March 26, a Monday, would be the first day of the workweek at the end of a 45-day countdown for the stay.
"In conformance with the court's opinion, the SEIS quantifies the GHG emissions from downstream use of natural gas transported on the SMP Project and provides context for these emissions in comparison to annual state and national GHG emissions," FERC wrote in its order. "The SEIS explains that there is no way to determine the significance of the SMP Project's downstream GHG emissions using the social cost of carbon tool or other methodologies.
"The SEIS also notes that the downstream GHG emissions do not alter the analysis of reasonable alternatives in the FEIS and do not justify additional mitigation measures."
In her partial dissent, LaFleur said she was "troubled" by the way the order addressed the significance of downstream GHG emissions.
"The order fails to even concede that GHG emissions are an indirect impact that must be quantified” in the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), she wrote. "More broadly, the order asserts that GHG emissions quantifications cannot 'meaningfully inform' our public interest determination. I fundamentally disagree."
Glick said he didn't believe the order satisfied the court's mandate.
"If we are to follow the logic of the Commission's order, that the significance of GHG emissions cannot be assessed because there are no federal or state emissions limits or goals, no federal agency would ever be able to evaluate the impact of an agency action on climate change," Glick wrote. "It is absurd to even contemplate NEPA not applying to the most significant environmental issue of our time."
The Sierra Club, which had led a coalition of environmental groups against SMP and had urged the court to reject calls for a stay, on Thursday blasted FERC's order and said the Commission had again earned a reputation for being a "rubber stamp" for the oil and gas industry, a moniker that FERC Chairman Kevin McIntyre took issue with at a conference last month.
Sabal Trail's joint venture partners are Enbridge Inc.'s Spectra Energy Partners LP, NextEra Energy Inc. and Duke Energy. 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.