Before leaving town, the U.S. Senate handed President Donald Trump and the oil industry two long-sought regulatory appointments that could expedite construction of natural gas pipelines nationwide.
Since February, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has lacked a quorum to decide on new projects, frustrating the oil and gas industry, which lobbied Trump and the Senate to fill vacant seats. Just before its August recess, the Senate delivered, approving the nominations of Republicans Neil Chatterjee and Robert Powelson to serve on the commission, commonly known as FERC.
Energy lobbyists were giddy following the vote, optimistic the commission will quickly act on a backlog of multi-billion-dollar gas pipelines proposed in states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, the Virginias and North Carolina.
“The long day’s journey into night for energy infrastructure is over,” said Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, a coalition of energy industries. With FERC’s quorum restored, “It will be time to get back to work!” he added.
Property rights advocates and some environmental organizations were less gleeful, fearful that Chatterjee and Powelson will rubber-stamp new pipelines with little regard to safety or landowner concerns. Chatterjee has served an an energy aide to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, and Powerson is a member of the Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission, a panel known to be friendly to the oil and gas industry.
“Its unfortunate,” said Lynda Farrell, director of the Pipeline Safety Coalition, a group based in Pennsylvania, where a web of pipelines crisscross the state, with many more proposed. “There’s no representation on the commission that will approach pipeline approvals differently than they have in the past.”
These are boom times for pipeline developers, partly because of the enormous volumes of natural gas being fracked from the Marcellus Shale formation of West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Supporters say this fracking could boost production of gas-fired electricity, bringing down prices and allowing utilities to switch from coal to a cleaner-burning fuel.
Yet from New York to the Carolinas, landowners are resisting proposed pipelines. As McClatchy reported in May, many are stunned that private companies have been granted state authority to use eminent domain to secure right of way for the projects. Several have filed lawsuits, saying these projects violate antitrust laws or have polluted the environment.
In Ohio, state regulators have accused developers of the $4.2 billion Rover Pipeline of multiple violations of state water quality laws. In Pennsylvania, homeowners have had their wells tainted by Sunoco’s construction of the Mariner East 2 pipeline, which would carry hazardous natural gas liquids to a Pennsylvania port for export to Europe.
Last week, two ranking Democrats on Senate and House energy committees — Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington and Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey — wrote FERC requesting an investigation into the Rover and Mariner East 2 pipelines.
Some analysts have also raised concerns on whether there is a market for all the gas transmission lines that utilities are proposing. If utilities build too many pipelines, their customers could end up paying for that excess, unused capacity.
Before stepping down in February, one former FERC commissioner urged the agency to study the cumulative impacts of all the pipelines that are in the queue. “It is inefficient to build pipelines that may not be needed over the long term and that become stranded assets,” wrote Norman Bay, an appointee of former President Barack Obama.
FERC lost its needed three-person quorum earlier this year when Bay and former Commissioner Colette Honorable stepped down, leaving Democrat Cheryl LaFleur as the only remaining member. Once they are seated, Chatterjee and Powelson will restore that quorum. Trump has also nominated Republican Kevin McIntrye to serve as chairman of the panel, and has also nominated Richard Glick to serve as the other Democratic member of the panel.
Energy and business interests on Thursday night applauded the confirmations of Chatterjee and Powelson. “Both nominees are exceptionally well qualified and will serve with distinction,” said the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Global Energy Institute in a statement.
Farrell, however, said Powelson has already shown himself to be biased, telling an energy conference this year that pipeline opponents are engaged in a “jihad” to keep natural gas from getting to markets. While Powelson later walked back that comment, Farrell said it was an insult to landowners who are simply trying to protect their families and property investments.
“An elected official who uses that kind of rhetoric, even if he pulls it back, should not be an option for this type of commission,” she said.