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Proposed Federal Legislation would Fast-Track Pipeline Approvals, Jeopardize Health and Safety

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FAR HILLS, NJ - Legislation proposed in the U.S. House of Representatives would give more authority to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission at the expense of the more detailed environmental reviews that other federal and state agencies are required to conduct for pipeline applications, according to an attorney for the New Jersey Conservation Foundation and the Stony Brook–Millstone  Watershed Association.

The proposed amendments to the Natural Gas Act, heard Wednesday by the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Energy and Power, “would create unnecessary chaos and upset the careful balance of cooperative federalism,” testified Jennifer Danis, senior staff attorney, Eastern Environmental Law Center.

“The proposed changes would undermine states’ rights by inappropriately expanding FERC’s Natural Gas Act authority. The proposal would interfere with federal and state agencies’ ability to protect natural resources for the public,” she added.

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“As the need increases to more carefully review whether new pipelines are required to meet energy demands, let alone whether they are safe, Congress threatens to speed up the process and favor fossil fuel producers over the public’s health and safety,” said Tom Gilbert, campaign director, NJ Conservation and ReThink Energy NJ.

“This legislation would remove safeguards in the pipeline permitting process.  Apparently, FERC’s track record of approving more than 90 percent of applications within one year is not fast enough. This bill seeks to rush approval by undermining environmental agency review and trampling over states’ rights,” said Jim Waltman, executive director, SBMWA.

The hearing came weeks after FERC’s failure to comprehensively assess potential damage from the proposed PennEast pipeline in New Jersey and Pennsylvania once again revealed the Commission’s cursory and inadequate review. FERC approved a final Environmental Impact Statement for PennEast despite the glaring lack of data and incompleteness of its application.

In her testimony, Danis said FERC “employs an extraordinarily narrow interpretation of its regulatory role.”

She noted that if an applicant says a proposed pipeline is needed, FERC doesn’t assess the claim’s validity, adding, “the only alternatives FERC will consider to natural gas transmission pipelines are other natural gas transmission pipelines.”

Under the proposed legislation, and in violation of the existing balance of power between the Natural Gas Act and substantive environmental statutes like the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act, FERC would be allowed to police other agencies’ independent reviews for pipeline applications, instead of leaving the scope and substance to those agencies’ discretion.

The role of other agencies is especially important because FERC “routinely accepts applications that are missing basic information and analyses required under FERC’s own environmental review regulations,” Danis testified.  “FERC is not the environmental agency charged with protecting water and air quality.”

The legislation would also require federal and state agencies reviewing pipeline applications to make a decision within 90 days, without explicitly ensuring that those agencies retain the right to determine the scope, depth, and timing of their review. Meanwhile, applicants would not be required to produce the necessary environmental data for agencies to make informed decisions about a proposed pipeline’s potential impacts.

“The bottom line is that legislation whose supporters say it will more effectively resolve conflicts among regulatory agencies would promote conflict and stifle responsible action,” said Danis.

Danis’ written testimony can be found here: http://rethinkenergynj.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/J.Danis_EELC_Testimony_Oral_Statement_050317.pdf  

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