FERC Is Back in Business and Oblivious as Ever

Commissioner Robert Powelson salutes colleague Cheryl LaFleur.
Commissioner Robert Powelson salutes colleague Cheryl LaFleur.

The plan was for Maya van Rossum, the Delaware Riverkeeper, and me to lead the disruption at yesterday’s meeting of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. We were to stand and start singing We Shall Overcome. I would take my cue from Maya, seated next to me. We’d agreed that it would be during the reading of the agenda when the Commission’s secretary got to the list of gas projects.

Actions are only as good as their plans. I needed to keep reminding myself of that as I listened to the excruciatingly and embarrassingly self-congratulatory opening remarks by the commissioners.

It was the first public meeting of the Commission since a quorum was quietly reestablished in the last moments of the Senate’s session before the August recess. Trump’s nominees Neil Chatterjee and Robert Powelson were approved by the unanimous consent of Lisa Murkowski after she asked that the quorum call be dispensed with and no further debate or action be allowed on the nominations.

Interim Chairman Chatterjee delivered his remarks in the style of a flight attendant reading the pre-flight safety speech. He praised members of the staff with the same lack of affect in his acknowledgement of “all those who’ve lost loved ones or have been otherwise impacted by hurricanes Harvey and Irma.” He added blankly that the commission would continue to monitor the situation and keep the people of Puerto Rico in their thoughts.

Powelson’s the one who should have been reading from a script. His extemporaneous presentation was a calamity of arrogance (praising his staff because he’s “hard to keep up with”), sexism (“I have really enjoyed the welcome and professionalism of this wonderful woman,” referring to former Chairman Cheryl LaFleur. Professionalism is apparently noteworthy in women. Chatterjee also complimented his executive assistant on her “gentle demeanor and professionalism.”), and outright awkwardness (Powelson saluted LaFleur. Seriously.).

If you think I’m being harsh, watch the video. These are the people who will decide to put a pipeline through your backyard, next to your child’s school, or under the river you rely on for your drinking water.

At 24:04, you’ll hear us start to sing. They immediately cut the audio and seconds later put up a still image of the FERC logo until we were all escorted out of the public meeting by security staff whose wages we pay. We continued singing as we made our way out of the building.

On the way, we dropped off the badges we’d been given at check-in with a security guard collecting them so that our names can be placed on a list of citizens prohibited from entering FERC’s public meetings. In the future, we’ll be sent to an ‘overflow’ room to watch a live feed of the meeting. When we get there, we’ll be in good company with so many of the people we protested with before yesterday’s meeting.

Reverend Lennox Yearwood of the Hip Hop Caucus addresses the protesters.
Reverend Lennox Yearwood of the Hip Hop Caucus addresses the protesters.

Representatives of communities fighting the Atlantic Coast, Atlantic Sunrise, DTE, and PennEast pipelines traveled to Washington to speak at the pre-meeting rally organized by Beyond Extreme Energy, Green America, The Delaware Riverkeeper Network, and Berks Gas Truth. Reverend Lennox Yearwood of the Hip Hop Caucus joined us. He opened by telling the crowd, “It’s very hard to be out here right now knowing as I’m speaking Category 4 force winds are decimating Puerto Rico. It’s so hard to be out here when you have seen the destruction of Hurricane Harvey…. It’s so hard to be out here when there are still those who are trying to survive from Hurricane Irma…. It’s a terrible thing to be out here today…. People are dying from climate chaos, but all FERC cares about is profit over people.”

The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit recently tossed out FERC’s approval of the Southeast Market Pipelines Project for failing to consider the project’s climate impacts. As I noted in my remarks at the rally, “The sad fact is that cases like that one set a precedent, not for FERC’s next decision, but for the legal case about FERC’s next decision. And we all know, by that time, the pipeline’s built.” Of course, Powelson and Chatterjee can’t be blamed for that approval. They can be blamed for the decision they issued last week to overrule the New York Department of Environmental Conservation’s rejection of Millennium Pipeline’s Valley Lateral Project on the basis that the Commission had failed to consider climate impacts. FERC ignored the substance of the decision and cited, instead, that the state had waived its right to reject the project because of a missed deadline.

The Senate approved the new Commissioners before the hurricanes ravaged the Caribbean and Gulf at the same time that virtually ignored widlfires raged in the Northwest. They approved Powelson and Chatterjee before the court’s ruling. It’s clear that FERC still doesn’t, or chooses not to, get that its actions have consequences. Perhaps Congress has learned something from recent events our regulators have not.

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