Is This Federal Commission Serving Public or Corporate Interests?

Sep 8, 2017

Earlier this summer the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) issued an environmental review of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, just weeks after the Mountain Valley Pipeline was given the same treatment and setting the stage for both projects to be greenlighted for construction. This decision sparked outcry from a movement which says these projects will be harmful to the environment and provide no benefit to local communities.

The Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN) has been organizing against the pipelines through their Change.org petition and on-the-ground organizing. They are a leading force in the movement to stop these projects and call attention to FERC’s apparent lack of concern for the environment and people impacted by the infrastructure projects. I was lucky to speak with CCAN Communications Director Denise Robbins about the work they are doing to hold the commission accountable to impacted communities.  

Juliana: What is the status of the Mountain Valley and Atlantic Coast pipelines right now? How close are they to being approved?

Denise: There are two major approval processes that the Mountain Valley Pipeline and Atlantic Coast Pipeline have to achieve. The first is through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) on the federal level. FERC has issued final environmental statements for both pipelines, both of which are alarming and horribly flawed. Their reviews found that the pipelines would threaten hundreds of bodies of water, decapitate hundreds of miles of ridgetops in the Blue Ridge Mountains, cut through the Appalachian Trail, and increase climate pollution to the tune of dozens of new coal-fired power plants. Yet FERC somehow claims that these impacts can be “minimized” — without providing sufficient explanation for how. Now, as early as 90 days post-review, FERC can issue an approval certificate of public convenience and necessity (CPCN) based on approval of state agencies.

Now the fight remains on the state level, where there are still several processes of approval the pipelines must achieve. The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is currently gathering public comment and is expected to issue their final decision in mid-October or early November. But we have seen a massive wave of outcry and activism urging the DEQ to slow down the process and give the public more time to weigh in. Landowners, residents, environmental advocates, justice advocates, and concerned citizens of all stripes are urging the DEQ to take the time to really examine how the pipelines would affect the water — and ultimately reject them.

Juliana: A recent NPR article reported on the history of FERC, a body charged with approving or denying major infrastructure projects like pipelines. It examined corruption within the commission and the revolving door that exists between it and the oil industry. Is this something you’ve seen in your work fighting these pipelines?

Denise: This is an issue we are glad to see come to light, and certainly paints a picture of what we are up against. We recently saw FERC Chairman Colette Honorable leave the agency only to join a firm that lobbies on behalf of Dominion. Now, we have two new commissioners married to the fossil fuel industry.

Neil Chatterjee, who recently took over as FERC Chairman, is already causing concern. This Monday, he said that he wants to “ensure” that coal, gas, and nuclear remain a part of the energy mix, emphasizing a priority on natural gas infrastructure. This is a huge red flag. Whereas FERC is supposed to be unbiased, its current leader is already politicizing the agency’s role. The game has completely changed.

The other new commissioner chairman, Robert Powelson, is a former environmental regulator in Pennsylvania, ground-zero territory for fracking. Given what we’ve seen in Pennsylvania under Powelson’s watch — dozens of communities with poisoned water and sick children — it seems clear that Powelson puts polluters over people. What’s more, in March, he said people protesting fracked-gas pipelines were engaging in “jihad” against the industry.

Juliana: Two FERC seats were recently filled, giving Trump the votes needed to approve several new pipeline projects. What does this mean for the fight against the fossil fuel industry?

Denise: We never thought FERC would do the right thing. Now with a quorum, they are able to grant the final permits. Being Trump appointees, we know they are going to continue to greenlight dirty fossil fuel projects – if not expedite the process.

It’s all very concerning. But perhaps FERC will gain the infamy that it has long deserved, and perhaps the public will pay more attention to this dangerous agency and take action to address its deep-seated faults.

Juliana: CCAN is working closely with landowners who are losing their property to eminent domain. How does FERC determine when something is for the public good, therefore eligible to appropriate land through eminent domain?

Denise: The short story is that FERC determines public need based on whether or not there are customers for the projects brought to them. If there are customers, then they claim there is public need. This free-market approach is extremely problematic — it almost never says no. FERC has only rejected two pipelines in the past 30 years. When former FERC chairman Norman Bay resigned, he issued a statement saying FERC should rethink how it determines “need” when certifying natural gas pipelines such as the ACP and MVP, stating that “in practice,” the agency does not follow what is laid out in the Natural Gas Act. He said it’s “inefficient to build pipelines that may not be needed over the long term and that become stranded assets,” which may result in increased electricity costs. This is what our allies are worried will happen — and it’s coming from someone who’s been a big part of the agency for years.

With the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, Dominion is its own customer and is manufacturing its own need. Dominion was recently ranked as the second-worst utility in the country on energy efficiency. If it focuses on renewables and improving its awful efficiency status, Dominion could increase its electricity supply without needing a new pipeline or more fracking. Furthermore, a 2016 report from Synapse Energy Economics found that Virginia does not need more fracked-gas pipelines whatsoever. Existing pipelines and natural gas storage infrastructure in the state are sufficient to meet demand in the region.

Juliana: How can people take action to stop these projects?

Denise: The most important thing right now is to send a strong message to Governor McAuliffe and his DEQ. He has authority to direct the agency to reject the pipelines. DEQ’s period for comment is open until August 22 — you can submit a comment here.

After that, in mid-September, a coalition of activists, landowners, residents, and organizations, including CCAN’s sister organization CCAN Action Fund, will be holding protests at every single DEQ office in Virginia (there are seven). The protesters will be calling on McAuliffe to do the right thing and reject the pipelines. You can learn more about that here.

And of course, spreading the word is key —- so tell all your friends about these pipelines and add your name to our petition to keep updated! Let’s hold these polluters accountable and stop them from taking our land to lock us into more fossil fuels and instead work towards a clean energy future.

Header image via CCAN