The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, doesn’t get as much attention as some other government entities. But on Monday evening, its decision to reject Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s recommendations on changing agency policies to benefit coal and nuclear plants at the expense of cleaner fuels thrust FERC briefly into the national spotlight ― and more changes to the agency’s internal workings could have it back in the news sooner than later.
Environmentalists praised FERC for rejecting Perry’s proposal. “Secretary Perry’s proposed rule was but another in a long list of actions by the Trump administration that defy the facts to appease the polluter lobby,” said Environment New York Director Heather Leibowitz.
Yet the environmental movement may soon see its honeymoon with the agency come to an end. FERC announced last month that it plans to update how it handles approvals for interstate oil and gas pipeline projects, for the first time in nearly two decades. The agency’s pipeline decisions have put it in the crosshairs of environmental activists and a Trump administration that is gung-ho on expanding energy infrastructure.
Anti-pipeline activists see the agency as doing little more than rubber-stamping projects for the industry. “They pass anything and everything that comes across their desk,” said Stuart Perkins, a member of the Makwa Initiative, a pipeline resistance group from the Minnesota Ojibwe Fond Du Lac reservation.
Since the last time the commission updated its policies in 1999, it has only rejected two pipeline projects while approving more than 400 applications, according to an examination of applications that Analysis Group senior adviser Susan Tierney conducted in November 2017.
Tierney, an energy consultant with decades of experience in the public and private sector, told HuffPost the real problem is that the agency’s mission has remained static even as the natural gas industry has changed drastically in the United States.
Eighteen years ago, the agency had to respond to increasing competition and a need for greater access to energy, said Tierney. But with a significant rise in natural gas production in new parts of the country, projects are being summarily approved in regions like the Midwest and Northeast that are unused to pipelines.
The agency’s current leadership seems to agree that its process for approving pipelines is outdated. On Dec. 21, FERC chairman Kevin J. McIntyre announced the agency would undergo a review of its approval policies to update them for the 21st century.
“I am approaching this topic with an open mind,” McIntyre said in a December statement, “and want the staff and the Commission to take a fresh look at all aspects of the issue.”
McIntyre, who joined FERC in November, was a lawyer with the firm Jones Day for 30 years prior to his appointment. His practice involved helping the industry navigate FERC’s regulatory structure — the same structure he now wants to reinvent. McIntyre is one of four new commissioners Trump has appointed in the last year. Only one commissioner, Cheryl LaFleur, was held over from the Obama administration. She was the only member of the commission from February to August, as the administration lagged in filling a number of positions in federal agencies.
FERC’s policy review will incorporate the new realities of the changing American energy landscape and acknowledge the concerns of stakeholders on both sides of the issue, said the agency’s press office.
“Much has changed in the energy world since 1999,” McIntyre said in the statement, “and it is incumbent upon us to take another look at the way in which we assess the value and the viability of our pipeline applications.”
But pipeline critics are skeptical the review will help anyone but the industry.
“I simply do not believe this review will be good for those concerned about the proliferation of fracked gas pipelines and those who suggest otherwise are not paying attention to the facts, recent or otherwise,” said Maya van Rossum, the leader of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, a Pennsylvania-based watershed advocacy organization, in a statement.
“I believe this process will be used to further advance pipelines and further empower pipeline companies,” van Rossum added.
Tierney expressed optimism about the review and said the agency’s decision to look at its behavior indicated bureaucratic introspection and a willingness to listen.
“I don’t view this as a step toward bigger rubber stamps,” said Tierney. “I see it as a genuine opportunity to solicit comment from everybody and then weigh what changes are appropriate.”
But van Rossum scoffed at any such hopes for the review, arguing that FERC hasn’t earned the benefit of the doubt on any proposed review of its policies.
“Anyone who is saying this bodes well for communities, the environment and FERC review of pipelines has their head in the sand,” said van Rossum’s statement.
Both van Rossum and Perkins fear the review is meant to make the approval process even more industry-friendly. Perkins added that FERC calling for a review of its processes sounds like a tactical move to stymie enthusiasm among anti-pipeline activists.
Kathryn Eiseman, president of the Pipe Line Awareness Network for the North East, said the issue is less about possible ulterior motives of the review than it is about who’s overseeing it. Eiseman fears the Trump administration’s potential influence over the process could be detrimental to the review’s stated purpose.
“Everyone who has engaged in challenging a gas infrastructure proposal at FERC knows that the 1999 certificate policy is sorely in need of updating,” said Eiseman, “but there is now a sense of foreboding, given that it will be Trump’s FERC conducting the review.”
But Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), an outspoken Trump critic whose constituents have been arrested protesting a Kinder Morgan project in Sandisfield, Massachusetts, is on board with the review, at least in theory. Warren said the news FERC is reviewing its pipeline policies is “long overdue,” and that she hopes the agency will take advantage of the opportunity to change its policies for the better.
“FERC should use this moment to toss out the corporate rubber stamp it has been using and to implement a review process that prioritizes community safety and clean energy alternatives over fossil fuels,” Warren told HuffPost in an email.
Warren added that the agency’s priority should be opening the regulatory process to the public to allow local communities to express their opposition to pipeline projects.
Tierney said FERC’s review is a labyrinthine process, which makes it very difficult for members of the public get involved.
“They could make it open” to public comment, said Tierney, and provide “a more flexible and accessible framework.”
FERC spokesperson Tamara Young-Allen told HuffPost that the agency will announce more details about the review “at a later date.”