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Sonat Extension Ok'd Over Mueser's Objections

Sonat Extension Ok'd Over Mueser's Objections

FERC last week approved an amended certificate for Southern Natural Gas (Sonat) to build a controversial mainline extension that's intended to provide customers with an alternative to the existing pipeline now serving northern Alabama. The fate of the project, however, still hangs in the balance since the Interior Department's Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) hasn't yet issued Sonat a permit to build through a protected wildlife refuge.

Nevertheless, the Commission's decision was a major win for Sonat and other supporters of the pipeline project, but a big, yet expected, blow for landowners and environmental activists who have battled the project for nearly three years, and who promise to continue in court. "We're very pleased" with the order, said David Hendrickson, assistant general counsel of Sonat. However, GASP Coalition Chairman Anne Marie Mueser, who represents landowner interests, called it a "bad" decision all around.

By a majority vote, the Commission denied rehearing of its May 1997 order certificating the Sonat extension and requests for stay of construction, and approved an amendment to the original certificate that would permit the pipeline - in accordance with FWS instructions - to build the southern section of the expansion along the existing Interstate 65 corridor in the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge [CP96-153-002]. Sonat doesn't have an FWS permit for that portion yet, but Hendrickson said the pipeline believes it will be forthcoming within 60 days. Sonat initially had proposed constructing the first leg of the extension along a "new" corridor in the refuge, but the FWS flatly rejected that option.

In a final environmental impact statement issued last Wednesday, the Commission staff found the amended route for the Sonat extension would have "limited adverse environmental impact" if constructed as planned and additional mitigation measures were followed. "Several factors were important in our determination. About 76% of the land that would be affected is unforested and it would revert to its previous land use after construction. In addition, a successfully completed directional drill of the Tennessee River area would avoid impacting federally listed threatened and endangered species...Finally, Southern's proposed pipeline route is consistent with the FWS policy regarding the establishment of new corridors across the Wheeler [National Wildlife Refuge]..."

The Sonat case, which has been contentious from the very beginning, had been scheduled as a discussion item at last Wednesday's meeting, but at the last minute it was pulled and voted on as a consent agenda item, which raised some eyebrows. "I find it very interesting that they didn't have the guts to discuss this thing in public before rubber-stamping it," Mueser complained. "Certainly there are issues that were worthy of discussion. There has been nothing straightforward about this process since Day One."

A Commission staff member, however, dismissed such a notion. "...The Commission decided there was no need to talk about it. That sometimes happens with regular agenda items. So it was simply called with the consent agenda," which is the fate of most FERC orders, especially ones which have been discussed before and just involve a few changes.

Mueser, who has been at the forefront of the effort to halt the Sonat project, sees a bright side to FERC's decision not to discuss the case. "...[W]e now can go into court and hopefully get a fair hearing on the issues and the merits." She noted that the original certificate and the original route "up to the amendment" are now ripe for court review. "I expect to be getting this into court [the D.C. Circuit Court] before Christmas." In addition, Mueser plans to seek rehearing of the amended route at the Commission.

Once in court, "...I think that we're going to be able to raise the whole issue of eminent domain in a deregulated industry using this project," she said. "I think we have a constitutional issue here involving private property rights, and I think we also have major environmental issues." Mueser said GASP will ask the court to block construction of the Sonat extension until all issues are settled.

More immediately, "we'll be spending a lot of effort in the next few weeks to make sure they [Sonat] don't get a permit." This is a "major hot-button issue," she noted. "Should Fish and Wildlife issue a permit to cross the refuge...we will have them in court as well."

The 120-mile, 70 MMcf/d mainline extension would start at Tuscaloosa, AL, and would extend in a northeasterly direction ending just west of Huntsville, AL. Sonat proposed the project mainly to provide alternate transportation to two Alabama utilities, Decatur Utilities and Huntsville Utilities, currently sole-source customers of Midcoast Interstate Transmission. It also would provide service to three of Sonat's existing customers that want to increase their firm transportation quantitites. The pipeline said it hopes to begin construction on the extension by spring 1999 with deliveries to start Nov. 1.

In a related filing, the Commission denied rehearing of its decision dismissing Midcoast Interstate's application to build what the pipeline claimed was an environmentally preferable alternative because Midcoast failed to demonstrate market support and it would enable Midcoast to maintain its regional dominance.

But acknowledging "continued uncertainty" over whether the Sonat extension will be built, FERC provided for an "interim solution" in a related proceeding, granting Midcoast a one-year extension to operate two extra compressors to serve the growing demand for capacity in northern Alabama.

Susan Parker

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