FERC has a big pipeline problem

April 10, 2020 12:01 am

Workers had cleared trees along the path of the Mountain Valley Pipeline in Roanoke County. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury – July 26, 2018)

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has a pipeline problem. A really, really big one.

According to publicly available information on FERC’s website, the commission approved no fewer than 46 onshore gas pipeline “mega-projects” from 1997 to 2019. These largest-of-the-large pipeline projects consist of gas pipelines measuring 24 to 42 inches in diameter, with over 100 miles of new pipeline.

FERC’s most productive years during this time period were 2007 and 2017, when the commission approved nine and eight pipeline mega-projects, respectively. What immediately stands out is how notorious the class of 2017 is in terms of environmental impacts and operational risks.

The roster is a veritable who’s who of fracked gas behemoths, including the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP), Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP), and Rover Pipeline, among others. It seriously calls into question FERC’s understanding, and exercise, of its role as a true “regulatory” body.

The Rover Pipeline is one of the most environmentally destructive gas pipelines in U.S. history, having incurred several million dollars in fines for environmental violations during construction in Ohio and West Virginia. In spite of that, the Rover Pipeline, unlike the MVP and ACP, was completed and is currently in service.

The MVP continues to implode under its second project-wide stop work order – it is $2 billion over budget and two years behind schedule – and is awaiting the outcome of multiple court cases and agency permit review processes.

The ACP is in extremis. To resume construction, the ACP first needs a favorable verdict in a case before the U.S. Supreme Court (one which will also impact the MVP). Then it will need a veritable cornucopia of other state and federal permits to be reissued.

However, the devil is in the details.

The final environmental impact statements for the MVP, ACP, and Rover pipelines are sobering documents. The damages and risks outlined are a strong indictment of the Kafkaesque process FERC employs to approve – indeed, to rubberstamp – interstate gas pipelines in the U.S. They clearly demonstrate FERC is not performing its most basic regulatory duty.

While the MVP, ACP, and Rover pipelines account for just 12% of the 12,500-mile total length of the 46 pipeline mega-projects, they have massively outsized impacts.

These three pipelines account for 42% – nearly half – of the 1,600+ miles of high landslide risk terrain crossed by all 46 pipeline mega-projects approved by FERC since 1997. Landslides pose grave environmental consequences, and threaten the integrity of pipeline infrastructure. One of the eight mega-projects approved in 2017, the Leach XPress Pipeline, already suffered a rupture and catastrophic explosion due to a landslide-related event.

The MVP, ACP, and Rover pipelines also account for 29% – nearly one-third – of the 48,000+ acres of upland forest cleared in order to construct all 46 pipeline mega-projects. In addition to destroying wildlife habitat and facilitating the spread of invasive species and plant disease, clear-cutting large swathes of forest on steep slopes increases the likelihood of landslides.

Since 1999, FERC has approved over 475 gas pipelines, and shockingly rejected only two proposed pipelines. Notably, neither of these pipelines was rejected based on environmental impacts or operational risk; each had failed to demonstrate “need” by lacking established agreements with gas shippers. While FERC may once have had a noble raison d’etre, the Commission now provides little more than regulatory theater. The thin veneer of regulatory due process no longer provides any reasonable assurance that vital, and dangerous, aspects of pipeline projects are critically vetted.

There certainly appears to be no upper limit to the environmental damages and risks FERC will sanction as it greenlights gas pipelines. In the absence of such a threshold, there is not even a modicum of objective scrutiny in FERC’s approval process. As long as a proposed pipeline project can point to agreements made with gas shippers, all impacts remain immaterial. In fact, FERC has succeeded in rendering environmental impact statements irrelevant. Stated impacts, no matter how serious, do not preclude a pipeline’s ultimate approval.

FERC requires immediate, fundamental restructuring to halt its reckless rubberstamping of bigger and riskier gas pipelines, accompanied by increasingly graver impacts. The commission cannot be allowed to continue treating environmental impacts and public safety as superfluous bureaucratic pageantry divorced from real-world consequences.

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Jacob Hileman
Jacob Hileman

Jacob Hileman is an environmental hydrologist with a doctorate from the University of California, Davis. He was raised in the Catawba Valley of Virginia, and is presently a researcher with the Centre of Natural Hazards and Disaster Science at Uppsala University.