Two controversial natural gas pipelines proposed for West Virginia could face additional scrutiny because of a new federal court ruling that mandates a more detailed review of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with such projects.
Last week, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that pipeline regulators at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission must estimate greenhouse emissions when they consider whether to grant a certificate approving natural gas pipelines.
Ruling on a legal challenge brought by the Sierra Club, the court ruled that FERC was wrong when it did not fully evaluate the potential greenhouse gas emissions during its review and approval of a detailed environmental impact statement, or EIS, for the Southeast Market Pipelines Project in Alabama, Georgia and Florida.
“We conclude that the EIS for the Southeast Market Pipelines Project should have either given a quantitative estimate of the downstream greenhouse gas emissions that will result from burning the natural gas that the pipelines will transport or explained more specifically why it could not have done so,” said the ruling, written by Judge Thomas B. Griffith.
Pending before FERC are permit applications from the Mountain Valley Pipeline from Wetzel County, West Virginia, to Pittsylvania County, Virginia, and the Atlantic Coast Pipeline from Harrison County to southeast North Carolina.
The projects are among a collection of pipelines that are proposed or under construction across the region that are meant to take advantage of the Marcellus Shale gas boom, but are drawing opposition from local citizens and from national environmental groups.
While burning natural gas at a power plant produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions than burning coal, scientists are increasing concerned about the climate change impacts of leakage of the powerful greenhouse gas methane all along the stages upstream from power plants in the process of drilling for natural gas, producing the gas, and transporting it to power plants. The Trump administration has been trying — so far unsuccessfully — to drop an Obama administration rule aimed at reducing those emissions.
The extent to which FERC examined climate change impacts is almost certain to become part of future legal challenges when the agency, as it is expected to do, approves both the Mountain Valley Pipeline and the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. FERC has issued final environmental studies for both projects, but has not yet approved the permits for them.
In their review of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, officials from FERC argued that upstream and downstream greenhouse emissions aren’t really “causally connected” to the pipeline, and therefore not necessarily part of the FERC analysis. FERC did acknowledge that methods for estimating and acknowledging such emissions are available, and published some numbers in its EIS.
But, the FERC study argued that because burning gas produces fewer greenhouse emissions than coal, and cited one government study that argued the “life-cycle” emissions from gas also lower than for coal. FERC said that review showed that greenhouse gas emissions from the Atlantic Coal Pipeline “have been minimized” and “would not significantly contribute to [greenhouse gas] cumulative impacts or climate change.”
When examining the Mountain Valley Pipeline, FERC also generated an estimate of the project’s greenhouse gas emissions, but then concluded, “because we cannot determine the project’s incremental physical impacts on the environment caused by climate change, we cannot determine whether the project’s contribution to cumulative impacts on climate change would be significant.”
In its ruling last week, the appeals court wrote that greenhouse gas emissions from burning the gas transported by the pipelines “are an indirect effect of authorizing this project, which FERC could reasonably foresee, and which the agency has legal authority to mitigate.”
The FERC review, the court said, needed to examine “the incremental effect” of the pipeline’s emissions “when added to other past, present and reasonably foreseeable future actions.”
The ruling noted that when conducting an EIS, agencies like FERC must try to quantify impacts and discuss the significance of those impacts, weighing the negative against the positive outcomes.
“When an agency thinks the good consequences of a project will outweigh the bad, the agency still needs to discuss both the good and the bad,” the ruling said.