Michael Bastasch, DCNF
A federal court has halted a major natural gas pipeline project from being built on grounds that federal regulators did not consider the “carbon emissions that the pipelines will make possible.”
Judges on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled two to one against the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which approves natural gas pipelines. The Sierra Club sued FERC over the approval of three natural gas pipelines to bring fuel to Florida power plants.
FERC “should have either given a quantitative estimate of the downstream greenhouse emissions that will result from burning the natural gas that the pipelines will transport or explained more specifically why it could not have done so,” Judge Thomas Griffith wrote in the majority opinion issued Tuesday.
“As we have noted, greenhouse-gas emissions are an indirect effect of authorizing this project, which FERC could reasonably foresee, and which the agency has legal authority to mitigate,” Griffith wrote. “It is just as foreseeable, and FERC does not dispute, that burning natural gas will release into the atmosphere the sorts of carbon compounds that contribute to climate change.”
The lawsuit was odd given at least some of the natural gas would have been used to retire older, coal-fired power plants. Natural gas emits less carbon dioxide than coal when burned for energy, and lowering U.S. CO2 emissions is ostensibly a goal of the environmental movement.
The Sierra Club argued FERC didn’t consider the Southeast Market Pipelines Project’s effects on global warming when approving the pipelines in 2015. The court ruled against FERC.
Construction of the 685-mile pipeline project began in December 2016, so the court ruling is a setback for the companies backing the project — Duke Energy, NextEra Energy and Spectra Energy.
The pipeline project was scheduled for completion in 2021 and would have carried more than 1 billion cubic feet of natural gas through the southeastern U.S. to Florida every day.
Utilities want the pipelines built to bring natural gas to Florida since the state’s two existing major pipelines are nearly at capacity, and more gas is needed to replace aging coal-fired power plants. FERC will now have to issue another environmental review of the pipeline project.
Judge Janice Brown countered in her dissenting opinion that FERC did not have to consider the effects a pipeline might have on global warming because that was the purview of other federal and state agencies.
Brown pointed out that FERC could approve a pipeline, but it had no power to approve the power plant that took the gas.
Brown wrote “the truth is that FERC has no control over whether the power plants that will emit these greenhouse gases will come into existence or remain in operation.”
Florida power plants are regulated by a state board and the Environmental Protection agency regulates greenhouse gas emissions.
“This breaks the chain of causation,” Brown wrote.
Brown also pointed out power plants would not cease to exist without the FERC-approved pipelines, but instead would probably burn more coal.
“The much more likely result is that they would simply choose another alternative—albeit a much more inconvenient, expensive, and possibly environmentally-harmful alternative—in response to a denial of a certificate by FERC,” Brown wrote.
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