Pipeline Approval Reform Bill Hits Headwinds

August 2013, Vol. 68 No. 8

The pipeline approval "speed up" bill hit a couple of speed bumps on July 9. At hearings in a House subcommittee, the unofficial "pipeline" commissioner at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) pointed out some potential unintended consequences that might come about if the Natural Gas Pipeline Permitting Reform Act (H.R. 1900) as initially written becomes law.

The bill was proposed by Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KS). It essentially requires the FERC to approve or deny a pipeline application 12 months after a certificate has been submitted. Various federal agencies that have jurisdictional concerns, generally environmental worries, would have to either approve or deny a permit within 90 days after the FERC completes its environmental review. If an agency such as the Bureau of Land Management or the Corps of Engineers, for example, fails to make a determination one way or the other, the permit would be considered granted.

But Phillip Moeller, the FERC commissioner, told the House energy and power subcommittee that the 90-day ticking clock could result in agencies either denying certain permits or adding burdensome conditions as a way to protect themselves from accusations of insufficient review. He also suggested that the 12-month clock for a FERC decision should start once the Commission determines that an application is complete.

Later that day, after the hearing, Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-KY), chairman of the subcommittee indicated Pompeo was willing to make changes in his bill.

But Rick Kessler, president of the Pipeline Safety Trust, said, "The Trust fails to see any compelling case for this legislation." That position, unless softened, will resonate with Democrats and cause problems for the bill in the Senate, where Democrats are in control. The House is likely to pass the bill once Pompeo adjusts its provisions to meet Moeller's concerns. But Kessler argued that the need for a one-year FERC deadline had not been established. Moreover, he explained that it didn't make sense to apply the same one-year limit to a 10-mile pipeline across a barren desert and a 1,400-mile pipeline that crosses multiple ecosystems and through dense population areas where it could pose a threat to the life and property of those citizens living nearby.

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