Federal Energy Regulatory Commissioners on Thursday resparked the debate about whether federal regulators should take climate change into account when considering the environmental impacts of a gas pipeline project.
Commissioners voted 3-2 to approve two pipeline projects proposed by the Northern Natural Gas Company in Minnesota and the Tuscarora Gas Transmission Company in Nevada, after reviewing their respective climate impacts. The projects were poised to be rejected by FERC before Commissioner James Danly, who briefly chaired the commission under President Donald Trump, proposed a last minute amendment to avoid setting a precedent on examining climate impacts — and to secure his own vote.
FERC for the first time in March considered how a proposed pipeline project's downstream emissions would impact the climate, ultimately determining they were not significant enough to deny certification. But the two projects put in front of the commission on Thursday had "significantly higher" emissions impacts, according to Chairman Richard Glick, leading him and Commissioner Allison Clements to oppose, in part, the certifications.
Last minute changes to FERC orders are legal, but rare, and Thursday's amendment sparked a heated debate during the monthly commission meeting over whether the timing of such a change was appropriate.
"I talked to you many times yesterday. I talked to you again this morning. You didn't even mention [the amendment] once," said Glick. "You didn't share it with anyone."
"This is not a game," said Commissioner Neil Chatterjee. "People are watching this, the markets are watching this. We are toying with these companies. If this sentence is what it would have taken to have gotten us the three votes, it should have been offered before the meeting."
The amendment offered a single sentence, tacked onto each of the certificate orders for the two pipelines: "The forgoing analysis of greenhouse gas emissions is offered for informational purposes only, does not inform any part of this order’s holding, and shall not serve as precedent for any future certificate order."
Without this sentence, Danly said he couldn't support the certification process, because the commission in this case and in the previous case was departing from precedent without acknowledging the departure in a meaningful way. It's "unfair" to make such changes while FERC is in the midst of a broader review of how it approves gas infrastructure, Danly said.
His amendment "relieves the legal infirmity and the injustice by saying that this doesn't create a new rubric," he added.
Glick allowed the amendment, but told reporters after the meeting he believed the language of it was "superfluous."
Commissioner Mark Christie, who indicated he had supported the projects initially, called the amendment "pretty harmless" and voted in favor of it. Chatterjee also voted in favor of the amendment, but accused Danly of being too political during a regulatory proceeding.
"This is a regulatory body and our words matter and our actions matter. And I just, I'm very frustrated with how this all went down," he said.
Clements and Glick dissented in part against the projects, citing insufficient additional studies, given the higher level of greenhouse gas emissions associated with the projects, and their potential climate impacts. Both concurred that the project was projects were needed, however.
Clements also said she still hopes the commission is able to come up with a modern and fair updated policy statement on natural gas certifications, but that Thursday's debate tested her "optimism." She added that finding a solution for all stakeholders remained "an urgent priority."
Stakeholders also noted the unusual nature of the meeting.
"This FERC meeting has been...theatrical," said Gillian Giannetti, an attorney with the Sustainable FERC project at the Natural Resources Defense Council, in a tweet.
— Gillian Giannetti (@GillianEnergy) May 20, 2021