‘People’s Hearing’ Convened to Reform FERC

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Panel of ‘judges’ hears testimony from residents opposed to FERC’s close relationship with the natural gas industry./Photo by Mark Hand

Described as the first-ever “People’s Hearing” challenging the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), more than 60 speakers presented testimony on why they believe the agency systematically fails to listen to the concerns of the general public.

A panel of “judges,” fashioned similar to the monthly FERC open meetings, presided over the Dec. 2 hearing, held at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. Unlike the real FERC meetings, speakers did not run the risk of getting escorted out by security guards for standing up and expressing dissent with the agency’s decisions.

Many speakers at the standing room-only event described FERC as a “rubber stamp” machine. They urged Congress to grant FERC more leeway to reject a company’s application if the agency determines the project would harm local communities and the environment. Relying on “the market” to decide whether a project should be approved is a flawed regulatory practice that should be replaced by a system that examines the actual need for the infrastructure and whether other options exist to meet the energy needs of the public, speakers said.

The roster of speakers served to illustrate the impressive scope of infrastructure build-out — from pipelines to compressor stations to liquefied natural gas export terminals — occurring in the eastern U.S. Speakers expressed frustration with how FERC appears to operate as an industry partner rather than an honest broker in natural gas infrastructure proceedings.

Russell Chisholm of the group Preserve Giles County contended that the voices of local residents were “stripped” from the public scoping meetings held for the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP), a project proposed by EQT Midstream Partners LP and four corporate partners. According to Chisholm, FERC project manager Paul Friedman facilitated two public scoping meetings in southwestern Virginia: one in May 2015 and the other in November 2016.

“In both sessions, there was a common pattern in Friedman’s behavior of circumventing and converting so-called public hearings for the purpose of collecting citizens concerns and information into a systematic effort by Friedman to manipulate public opinion, dissuade opposition to the MVP and cloud any public record of that opposition,” said Chisholm, a U.S. Army veteran, who told the audience he planned to head to North Dakota after the public hearing to join other veterans in a show of solidarity with Native Americans opposed to the Dakota Access Pipeline project.

Activists Seek to Fix ‘Corrupt’ Agency

The hearing’s organizers — Delaware Riverkeeper Network, Berks Gas Truth, Food & Water Watch, Clean Water Action, Beyond Extreme Energy, EarthWorks and Catskill Mountainkeeper — said they support a request signed by more than 180 organizations calling on Congress to reform the Natural Gas Act and investigate how FERC reviews natural gas infrastructure projects.

Throughout its nearly 40-year history, FERC has generally kept a low profile. With the passage of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and the start of the shale gas boom, though, FERC’s stature grew as residents started doing their homework on how natural gas projects were getting proposed and approved in their communities. For the past two years, activists have attended every monthly FERC meeting to protest the way the agency reviews natural gas infrastructure applications.

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The Delaware Riverkeeper Network and other groups hold a “people’s hearing” in Washington, DC, to discuss FERC’s review and approval process./Photo by Mark Hand

Under the Energy Policy Act of 2005, FERC became the lead agency for purposes of complying with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). With this newly assumed power, FERC has refused to heed the advice of experts at other federal agencies, said David Sligh, conservation director for Wild Virginia, a nonprofit group dedicated to preserving the state’s national forests. The group opposes the MVP and the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a natural gas project proposed by Dominion Resources.

FERC often ignores or downplays the importance of concerns raised by the U.S. Forest Service and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), said Sligh. Wild Virginia reviewed 18 cases across the U.S. in which various EPA regional offices commented on a FERC draft environmental impact statement (EIS). In every case, Sligh said, the EPA deemed the information in the draft EIS to be “insufficient,” whether it was a flawed analyses of route alternatives and cumulative impacts, a failure to address long-term damages to waterbodies and mature forests, or a refusal to follow NEPA regulations in regard to needs analyses, greenhouse gases and environmental justice.

“FERC must not have the option of ignoring the opinions and judgments of environmental agencies that have greater expertise and credibility. Congress must see to it,” Sligh said.

Megan Holleran, who has been fighting construction of Constitution Pipeline Co. LLC’s natural gas pipeline on her family’s property in Susquehanna County, Pa., said the people’s hearing successfully provided attendees with a look at the many areas of FERC’s regulatory review process that need to be fixed.

“Even the people who are trying to work within the system are finding that it is broken. There is a sense from people outside of the activism community that we ignore the official process and then just stand out there and tie ourselves to a tree,” Holleran said in an interview. “The people’s hearing is a really good way to send out the message that everyone does try to follow the official process. The reason we end up tied to a tree is because the official process is corrupt.”

Belinda Blazic, a New Jersey resident fighting Transcontinental Gas Pipe Line’s proposed Garden State Expansion Project, questioned why FERC lets pipeline companies build their projects in segments, a common complaint heard at the hearing. Pipeline segmentation, according to Blazic, makes it easier for companies to overcome regulatory requirements at both the federal and state levels. “The impacts of these projects in our communities raise serious questions of FERC’s review process. Congressional investigation and legislative remedy are needed,” she said. “The ‘R’ in FERC stands for ‘Regulatory’ not ‘rubber stamp.'”

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