FERC’s consideration of indirect environmental impacts of the projects it certifies has been heavily debated as the concerns over climate change increase.  Both the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and Natural Gas Act (NGA) require that FERC consider how an interstate natural gas pipeline directly and indirectly affects the human environment.  Although consideration of direct impacts may be a less controversial topic, FERC’s approach with respect to indirect impacts[1] has proven to be more complex.  It is particularly relevant in light of the Council on Environmental Quality’s (CEQ’s) June 2019 proposed guidance, directing how federal agencies should assess project-related greenhouse gas emissions, discussed in detail here and here.  The guidance suggest that FERC should employ a “rule of reason” when considering impacts of greenhouse gas emissions and if FERC lacks adequate information about these emissions, it does not need to quantify them.  This recommended approach, however, seems to conflict with how the D.C. Circuit interpreted FERC’s duty in analyzing greenhouse gas and other indirect emissions in its earlier June 2019 decision Birckhead v. FERC, USCA Case No. 18-1218 (D.C. Cir. 2019). 
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The Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) issued new draft guidance at the end of June intended to further permit streamlining generally and greenhouse gas (GHG) analysis specifically.  The new guidance replaces previous CEQ guidance issued by the Obama Administration on how GHG effects should be estimated for projects during review under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).  Whether and how a federal Agency must consider GHG emissions during NEPA review continues to be a controversial issue for pipeline construction and expansion projects that require federal permits.

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The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) officially announced that it is going to review its policy framework for certification of new interstate natural gas and LNG pipelines in the U.S. and issued a Notice of Inquiry (Notice or NOI).  This is the first time in nearly twenty years that FERC will examine its pipeline review and approval policy, last issued in 1999.  Kevin McIntyre, the current FERC Chairman, said review of the policy is intended to determine ‘whether, and if so, how’ any changes should be made in the evaluation of new pipeline projects.  The NOI establishes a 60-day public comment period, beginning with publication in the Federal Register, thus the deadline for comments is June 25, 2018.

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The U.S. DOT and 10 other federal agencies signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on April 9, 2018, which became effective on April 10, 2018.  The MOU[1] is intended to implement Executive Order 13807 (Aug. 15, 2017), which established a “One Federal Decision” policy for infrastructure projects that require authorizations by multiple federal agencies.

On August 15, 2017, President Trump signed an executive order (EO) entitled “Establishing Discipline and Accountability in the Environmental Review and Permitting Process for Infrastructure Projects.”  As part of the Administration’s goal to improve domestic infrastructure, the purpose of the EO is to promote agency coordination, efficiency, and accountability with respect to environmental reviews of infrastructure projects.
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On July 19, 2017, the U.S. House voted to give lead authority for authorizing cross border oil and gas pipelines to FERC, and to the Secretary of Energy for cross border electric transmission lines.  HR 2883, entitled Promoting Cross-Border Energy Infrastructure Act, removes the requirement for such cross border energy infrastructure to obtain Presidential Permits and instead establishes a 120 day review process under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Natural Gas Act to obtain a “Certificate of Crossing.”

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The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) recently published a notice inviting public comment to identify statutes, rules, regulations, and interpretations in policy statements or guidance that “unjustifiably delay or prevent completion of surface, maritime, and aviation transportation infrastructure projects.”  As stated in the notice [attached], in keeping with President Trump’s regulatory reform agenda, DOT and other federal agencies are in the process of reviewing existing policy statements, guidance documents, and regulations that might pose impediments to transportation infrastructure projects.   The upcoming deadline to provide input on that review is July 24, 2017.  We encourage industry to consider submitting comments, particularly given DOT’s statement that comments are not restricted to burdensome regulations, but also extend to policy statements, interpretations and guidance.

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A bill intended to streamline the siting of natural gas pipelines and increase transparency is advancing through the U.S. House.  As approved by voice vote, H.R. 2910 , would facilitate concurrent federal and state agency reviews to help streamline the siting review process under the Natural Gas Act (NGA) which is led by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).  This bill comes at a time when the permitting process for natural gas pipelines has become protracted, cumbersome, and subject to third party challenges and delays at the federal, state and local levels.

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For the past three months, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC or the Commission) has been without a quorum needed to make any decisions approving pipeline permits or rates.  FERC is designed to have 5 Commissioners, but it must have at least 3 to constitute a quorum and make decisions.  FERC Chairman Norman Bay resigned on February 3, 2017, leaving the Agency with only 2 Commissioners; less than a decision making quorum.  To make matters worse, Commissioner Colleen Honorable announced this week that she intends to resign in the coming months.

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In his first days as President, Donald Trump issued several directives to expedite pipeline and energy infrastructure projects and bring pipe steel manufacturing jobs back to the U.S. On January 24, 2017, the President signed executive memoranda jumpstarting the stalled Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, stating “construction and operation of lawfully permitted pipeline infrastructure serves the national interest.” That same day, President Trump issued another memorandum directing the Secretary of Commerce to develop a plan requiring all new, retrofitted, repaired or expanded pipelines (or portions thereof) to use materials and equipment produced in the United States to the maximum extent possible.
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