Pipeline Citing Bill Passes House; Tough Senate Battle Lies Ahead

January 2014, Vol. 69 No. 1

FERC commissioners still apparently have problems with the pipeline siting improvement bill the House passed on Nov. 21 by a vote of 252-165. The Natural Gas Pipeline Permitting Reform Act (H.R. 1900) sponsored by Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KS) would impose timelines on federal resource agencies when they analyze construction projects which have already finished their environmental review by the FERC.

At hearings in the House Energy and Power Subcommittee on Dec. 5, Philip Moeller, the FERC commissioner who takes the lead on pipeline issues, repeated what he had said earlier at House hearings. He voiced concern that any timelines for the Environmental Protection Agency, Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Land Management and other federal agencies might force them to vote "no" on a potential pipeline project simply because they had run out of time. They would have to provide a thumbs-up or down decision, including any remediation steps they demand, to the FERC within 90 days.

Instead, Moeller raised an alternative provision. "Another approach would be to provide the Commission with the authority to rule on whether the conditions that resource agencies submit appropriately balance the benefits and costs that these projects provide," he stated. "Again, this would require a significant change in the various environmental laws for the relevant resource agencies."

The Pompeo bill now goes to the Senate, which is controlled by Democrats. Chances of its passage there are not good given the objections to the bill Democrats voiced on the House floor. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), said the bill would have the opposite effect of speeding up pipeline approvals. He echoed Moeller's concerns, and went on to refer to the career director at the Office of Energy Projects at FERC "who testified that he didn't believe that this bill would result in faster permitting."

There is no Senate version of the Pompeo bill. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) has said he is open to considering permitting changes in some sort of compromise bill with Republicans. But no bill has emerged.

The House subcommittee hearings were held to allow the four current commissioners, including the new acting chairman, Cheryl LaFleur, to provide an overview of their thinking on a number of issues. LaFleur was asked to describe how her priorities might diverge from those of her predecessor Jon Wellinghoff, who was clearly uninterested in natural gas issues.