By Alison Grass
Recently, in a precedent setting 2-1 ruling, the DC Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s (FERC) approval of the $3.5 billion Southeast Market Pipelines Project, declaring that the agency did not properly analyze the climate impacts before rubber-stamping it. The judgment originates from a lawsuit filed by the Sierra Club.
The 700-mile project plans to deliver natural gas to Florida power plants and is comprised of three pipelines under construction in Florida, Georgia, and Alabama. The cornerstone of the project is the 500-mile Sabal Trail pipeline, which cuts through sensitive wetlands and is backed by the Florida Power & Light and Duke Power of Florida.
This decision is further notable because despite substantial environmental concerns and widespread public opposition to many recent proposed pipeline projects, FERC has yet to reject a pipeline for environmental reasons and only rejected a single pipeline application over the past three decades (in part, because the project failed to demonstrate public need).
Now FERC, the agency tasked with approving or rejecting natural gas pipelines that cross state borders, must perform a new environmental review of the Southeast Market Pipelines Project’s downstream greenhouse gas emissions that will result from burning natural gas that is being transported by the pipelines.
Purportedly, FERC considers the proposed pipeline’s route, construction and operation when determining whether or not to grant approval; and is supposed to evaluate the environmental impact of the proposed pipeline on ecosystems, watersheds, geography and other considerations. In practice, this review primarily affects minor route considerations (where a pipeline crosses a waterway, for example), but not on whether FERC approves the pipeline itself.
In this recent decision, the judges point out: “FERC’s environmental impact statement did not contain enough information on the greenhouse gas emissions that will result from burning the gas that pipelines will carry.” This concern is legitimate, considering that escaping methane emissions from oil and gas operations, including pipeline transmission, are the leading human-caused source of methane pollution in the United States — and the second largest source worldwide.
Moreover gas-fired power plants, like the ones in Florida that will be receiving this natural gas, contribute to climate change. For example, a 2017 Environmental Science & Technology study found that methane emissions from three gas-fired power plants were 120 times greater than facility-reported estimates. And the greenhouse gas footprint of natural gas is actually worse than coal and oil because methane is more effective than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere. Specifically, science shows that pound-for-pound, methane is over 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat over 20 years, and over 34 times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat over 100 years.
It is unclear what this new decision will mean for other in-progress pipeline projects that seek to deliver fracked gas to new markets, but one news article suggests it could postpone major pipeline projects.
What is clear is that these widespread methane leaks means that natural gas cannot be considered a low-carbon fuel — it must receive the same treatment as coal and oil. With the looming climate crisis, we must aggressively transition away from dirty energy, the build out of pipelines, LNG export terminals, gas-fired power plants, and other fossil fuel infrastructure, which simply leads to more drilling and fracking. It is imperative that we invest in clean, renewable energy.
Now FERC has to go back and redo its environmental impact analysis of this project and take a serious look at the climate impacts that it will have. If FERC does its job properly, it will have no choice but to deny the permit. Unfortunately, however, FERC does not always seem to conduct honest assessments of gas infrastructure projects, but rather to facilitate further buildout no matter what the climate and community costs. This is, in part, because FERC actually gets it funding from the industry its charged with regulating, so has a financial incentive to approve projects.
This case will undoubtedly be heading back to the courts and we can only hope that the judges will, once again, send a message to FERC that it can no longer ignore the long-term future of this planet for the short-term economic benefit of the oil and gas industry.