What’s the issue?
A bipartisan group of twenty-five U.S. senators sent a letter last week encouraging FERC to act on pipeline project applications. That is because pipeline expansion project approvals at FERC have ground to a complete stop, with none having been approved since Chairman Glick’s elevation, making this the worst period for approvals from January to May in the last decade, including when FERC had no quorum.
Why does it matter?
Chairman Glick has dissented in over 100 pipeline decisions since he took office as a commissioner, but he has never articulated a view of what it would take to gain his approval for a project, leaving the industry and, presumably, the FERC staff, at a complete impasse as to how to proceed with projects largely serving demand needs.
What’s our view?
Newly filed applications have begun to tentatively address some of Chairman Glick’s known concerns, such as by providing a detailed analysis of environmental justice and greenhouse gas issues, but those projects waiting for approval may need to be even more aggressive in addressing known concerns because, otherwise, they may be waiting a very long time for approval.
Late last week, a bipartisan group of twenty-five U.S. senators sent a letter to FERC urging it to act on the gas pipeline projects pending before it. Since Chairman Glick was elevated to his position by President Biden, not a single pipeline expansion project like those we track in our gas platform has been approved. Soon after his elevation, we warned in There’s a New Sheriff in Town - What Will Chairman Glick Support? that the chairman’s dissents and the publicly expressed views of the two newest members of FERC could lead to a very long pause in FERC approvals while the current five members determine whether there is any common ground on which they can approve pending and future cases.
That prediction has certainly proven to be true. In one of the pending cases, the applicant voluntarily filed supplemental information to address one known concern of Chairman Glick, downstream greenhouse gases. Whether that will be sufficient to move the project to approval remains to be seen. Also, in a couple of recently filed applications, the pipelines have taken some tentative steps in seeking to meet the chairman’s concerns. The other projects awaiting approval may also need to file supplemental information and consider offering mitigation for some impacts -- or they may be waiting a very long time for approval.
Since he was elevated by President Biden, Chairman Glick has not approved a single pipeline expansion project. This is the worst period for approvals from January to May in the last decade, at least, and is even worse than the same period following President Trump’s election when FERC actually lost a quorum, as we discuss below.
As seen above, in every year since 2010, between January 20 and May 5, FERC has approved a minimum of six projects. This year: zero, zilch, nada. This year is even worse than 2017, when President Trump demoted Chairman Bay, who then resigned, leaving FERC without a quorum. Even in that situation, a purely Democratic Commission found common ground to approve nine projects before Commissioner Bay’s resignation became effective.
It is not as if there are no projects that are ready for approval, either. As seen below, there are eleven projects that, based on historical norms, should have received their certificates by now.
These projects all completed their environmental reviews while a Republican was chairman, and so it would not be surprising to find that Chairman Glick views the environmental review process to be inadequate. What is surprising, if that is in fact true, is that FERC has not issued a single data request asking the applicant to provide additional information that would allow Chairman Glick to approve the project. Based on this alone, it appears that FERC staff has not been given any clear direction as to how to make the environmental review acceptable. Only one applicant, Northern Natural, in its Northern Lights 2021 project, has volunteered additional information in an effort to advance the project’s approval.
On April 28, Northern Natural provided the Commission with a detailed downstream greenhouse gas analysis in an effort to demonstrate that the climate impacts from the project would be minimal. It will be interesting to watch if this effort is successful, or if Chairman Glick will also require mitigation measures because the estimate had quite a wide range, from an initial amount of 9,768 metric tons of CO2e per year up to 259,334 metric tons per year assuming current load factors. That is substantially more than the 351 metric tons annually that were produced by the operations of a Northern Natural replacement project that FERC recently approved.
Although there is no clear guidance from FERC as to what it will now require for a project to be approved, a look at the four projects filed since Chairman Glick’s elevation show that the industry is tentatively working to meet his demands, even without a full understanding of what precisely those demands might be. The four projects filed since January 20, 2021 are Florida Gas Transmission’s Big Bend project, Eastern Gas Transmission and Storage’s Mid-Atlantic Cooler project, ANR Pipeline’s Wisconsin Access project and Transcontinental Gas Pipe Line’s Regional Energy Access Expansion (REA). The first two are relatively small expansions of less than 30,000 dth/day of new capacity; the Wisconsin Access project is slightly bigger at about 50,000 dth/day and REA is a very large project providing over 800,000 dth/day of capacity in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
The applications of the first two projects that were filed, Big Bend and Wisconsin Access, looked fairly similar to applications filed under the Republican-led FERC. In its application, Big Bend mentioned in passing that the end use of the gas at a power plant would lead to a reduction in downstream greenhouse gases and provided no data on environmental justice issues. FERC issued data requests about both topics, asking for more information on the claimed reduction in downstream greenhouse gases and requiring detailed demographic information to inform an environmental justice analysis.
In ANR’s Wisconsin Access project, the application provided information about environmental justice communities but did not provide any data about the downstream uses of the gas, nor did it provide a calculation of downstream gases. FERC staff issued a data request seeking information about the downstream uses of the gas, but did not require any information on downstream greenhouse gas emissions and the applicant did not volunteer that information in its response.
The application for REA, which was filed just two weeks after the Wisconsin Access application, looks very different from prior applications and appears to be designed to address head-on issues related to environmental justice and downstream greenhouse gases. Not only does the application name the end-users, but it also quantifies the amount of downstream greenhouse gas emissions, even though most of the end uses are not specifically known. This is a sea change from the Republican-led FERC’s view of greenhouse gas analysis. The bottom line of that analysis is that the project is expected to result in an increase of over 12 million metric tons of CO2e per year. The application also contains a robust analysis of the environmental justice issues and demographics used to support its conclusions.
Although it is the smallest of the four new projects, the application for the Mid-Atlantic Cooler project still tries to address head-on the key known concerns of Chairman Glick, greenhouse gas emissions and environmental justice. The operations of the additional coolers will not emit any greenhouse gases, but the company does provide a calculation of the expected downstream greenhouse gas emissions. The estimate is that the project’s ability to supply an additional 25,000 Dth/d of natural gas per day will result in approximately 497,274 metric tons per year of CO2e. Also, like REA, the application provides a detailed analysis of the environmental justice impacts and the demographics supporting that analysis.
The applicants that are awaiting approval will likely watch the Northern Lights 2021 project to see if volunteering some key data on downstream greenhouse gas emissions is enough to move the chairman to call a vote on a project, even if he might have to dissent in that decision. If Northern Lights receives no vote at this month’s open meeting, it is unlikely others will follow its voluntary path.
Similarly, the chairman’s action or inaction on REA will be a key indicator of how he intends to move forward. In particular, will he provide any direction to FERC staff regarding the types of additional information they should solicit from the applicant to enable him to vote on the project? Neither REA nor Mid-Atlantic Cooler has received any data requests and so those requests bear watching. What has not occurred so far is any indication that the applicants are willing to mitigate the operational emissions from their projects. But until they see some movement toward them from the chairman, that is not surprising because the key open issue is what is enough to get an approval from Chairman Glick.