Bernard McNamee, a climate change denier who helped write the Trump administration's failed coal and nuclear bailout plan, was confirmed Thursday as a commissioner on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).
The Senate approved the nominee on a straight party-line vote of 50-49 after Sen. Joe Manchin, the pro-coal Democrat of West Virginia, withdrew his support due to his concerns about McNamee's stance on climate change.
President Trump's nomination of the fossil fuel lawyer as one of the FERC's five commissioners was strongly opposed by environmentalists, public health groups and elected leaders.
Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), a member of the Senate Committee on Environment, noted McNamee's deep ties to the Koch brothers and called his appointment "conceivably the worst" out of Trump's energy appointments.
Trump admin has distinguished itself with terrible energy appointments. #McNamee is conceivably the worst. It i… https://t.co/OGYkjuqMrz— Sheldon Whitehouse (@Sheldon Whitehouse)1544189578.0
In a February video posted by Utility Dive, McNamee criticized renewable energy and environmental groups, called carbon dioxide "not a real pollutant" and described fossil fuels as "key to our way of life." He was speaking for the Koch-funded Texas Public Policy Foundation where he worked at the time.
Also during his speech, he said he told his son to "just deny" climate science in school. "I don't care if you get an 'F,'" he said.
As FERC commissioner, Bernard McNamee will choose fossil fuels over the future of our planet every time. His record… https://t.co/9LCDNY88Gx— Rep. Joe Kennedy III (@Rep. Joe Kennedy III)1544132247.0
As the executive director of the Office of Policy with the Department of Energy, McNamee was the architect of Energy Secretary Rick Perry's $34 billion coal and nuclear bailout proposal that was unanimously rejected by FERC last January. He has hesitated to recuse himself on issues related to the coal bailout scheme he engineered, the Sierra Club noted.
"At a time when consumers, businesses and forward-thinking utilities are embracing the clean energy revolution, we don't need a FERC commissioner who endorses the Trump administration's schemes to keep the dying coal and nuclear industries on life support," Kenneth Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, said in a press release sent to EcoWatch.
One of the Most Important Agencies You've Never Heard of Is Being Taken Over by Trump https://t.co/bkve9uNMTd— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1539037213.0
FERC has historically been an independent agency that regulates the interstate transmission of electricity, natural gas and oil but has moved more partisan thanks to Trump. McNamee, who will fill a seat vacated by Robert Powelson, has boosted FERC's partisan split to 3-2 in favor of Republicans.
"The Senate's reckless decision to place Bernard 'Coal Bailout' McNamee on FERC is a major threat to the Commission's independence and integrity," said Mary Anne Hitt, senior director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign in a press release. "From this day forward we will do everything we can to guarantee that he follows the law, treats clean energy sources fairly, and recuses himself from all matters pertaining to his failed coal bailout scheme. It's essential that we have a fair and lawful FERC moving forward."
Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) had only nice words to say about McNamee.
"This is an impressive nominee who has the right qualifications for this important job," said McConnell prior to a preliminary vote Wednesday, according to Natural Gas Intel. "In his career as a well-regarded lawyer on energy issues, he's represented clients and gained expertise all across the energy sector."
Industry groups also applauded McNamee's confirmation.
"He brings a wealth of legal and energy policy experience to the Commission, along with an appreciation of the benefits of competitive markets," said Natural Gas Supply Association CEO Dena Wiggins, according to Natural Gas Intel. "It's important for FERC's work to continue and that works best with a commissioner in every seat."
By Elliott Negin
The steady parade of unqualified, ideologically driven appointees for key Trump administration positions has resumed now that things in Washington have settled down after the mid-term elections. Last week, Trump tapped Matthew G. Whitaker to replace Attorney General Jeff Sessions. This Thursday, the Senate will hold a hearing to confirm attorney Bernard McNamee to fill a vacancy at the five-member, presidentially appointed Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), a relatively obscure—but critically important—independent agency that oversees interstate power lines and pipelines.
Trump presumably picked McNamee to put the administration's pro-fossil-fuel spin on a number of key decisions FERC will make in the coming months, especially one that would bail out uneconomic coal plants. If that happens, Americans will be saddled with higher electric bills, more toxic air pollution and more heat-trapping emissions that cause climate change. The commission also will be considering rules that would encourage energy storage, rooftop solar installations and remotely located renewable sources.
McNamee would replace Robert Powelson, a former utility executive and Pennsylvania utility regulator who left the commission in August after less than a year. One of the three Republicans on the commission, Powelson maintains that FERC should be insulated from political pressure. "I don't make any decision based on the fact that I'm a lifelong Republican," he told Energywire. "I have a mean independent streak in me."
McNamee, who has no utility sector experience, is all about partisan politics. He worked for Republican attorneys general in Virginia and Texas and advised Republican Sens. George Allen and Ted Cruz before joining the Department of Energy (DOE) in May 2017 as deputy general counsel for energy policy.
Last February, he left DOE to work for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a libertarian think tank funded by a rogues gallery of polluters, including Chevron, Devon Energy, ExxonMobil, Koch Industries and Luminant, the largest electric utility in Texas. It's the same outfit that produced Trump's unqualified—and rejected—nominee to head the White House Council on Environmental Quality, Kathleen Hartnett White.
While at TPPF, McNamee penned a paean to his favorite energy source for The Hill, a political trade publication, titled "This Earth Day, let's accept the critical role that fossil fuel plays in energy needs." "We have been told that fossil fuels are wrecking the environment and our health," his April 17 column read. "The facts are that life expectancy, population and economic growth all began to increase dramatically when fossil fuels were harnessed…." Renewable energy sources, he added, cannot replace fossil fuels, but not to worry, "America is blessed with an abundant supply of affordable natural gas, oil and coal."
McNamee rejoined DOE in June as the executive director of the agency's policy office. Before and after his brief stint at TPPF, he promoted Energy Secretary Rick Perry's proposal to require regional transmission operators to buy electricity from power plants that can store a 90-day fuel supply on site, ostensibly to strengthen electricity-grid resiliency. The plan, which would prop up coal and nuclear plants that have been struggling to compete on the open market with cheaper natural gas and renewables, would cost ratepayers an estimated $17 billion to $35 billion annually.
At Trump's behest, Perry asked FERC in September 2017 to issue grid resiliency rules to protect failing coal and nuclear plants. FERC rejected the request, concluding that DOE did not provide any evidence that coal and nuclear plant retirements would undermine grid reliability. An analysis by Mid-Atlantic grid operator PJM of the impact of closing at-risk plants in its region also found no threat to the grid.
Besides trying to reverse FERC's coal- and nuclear-power bailout decision, McNamee could do lasting damage in other ways. For example, the commission is currently not required to consider the impact of climate change when making electricity policy decisions, but the two Democratic commissioners think the "social cost of carbon"—the financial damage caused by carbon pollution—should be incorporated in environmental reviews for gas pipelines and other fossil fuel infrastructure. Likewise, the commission will be deliberating over whether it should eliminate barriers to electric energy storage, make it easier for solar panel owners to sell their excess power back to electric utilities, and recommend federal incentives for more transmission-line construction, which would enable remotely sited wind and solar projects to compete with natural gas. Given McNamee's biases, it is unlikely he would support any of those initiatives.
This week's confirmation hearing, hosted by the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, will be chaired by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who is no stranger to the FERC confirmation drill and quite knowledgeable about the commission's mandate. In her opening statement during a FERC commissioner confirmation hearing in 2013, Murkowski made a case for rejecting an Obama nominee that could be easily applied to McNamee.
"FERC is independent by law and by design. It is clearly distinct from executive agencies that carry out policy directives from the White House…," she explained. "It is critically important for us to enable the agency—and its professional nonpartisan employees who report to the chairman as their CEO—to maintain its strong culture as an expert agency free of undue political influence."
Murkowski should hew to that line on Thursday—and the Senate should reject the McNamee nomination.
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Melissa Smith is an avid writer, scuba diver, backpacker, and all-around outdoor enthusiast. She graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in journalism and sustainable studies. Before joining EcoWatch, Melissa worked as the managing editor of Scuba Diving magazine and the communications manager of The Ocean Agency, a non-profit that's featured in the Emmy award-winning documentary Chasing Coral.
By Sam Gomberg
President Trump's nomination of Bernard McNamee to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) may not grab a lot of headlines but make no mistake—it's a blatant (and oft repeated) move by the Trump administration to pollute an independent regulatory body with political operatives intent on carrying out his crony capitalism. A hearing to consider McNamee's nomination is already set for Tuesday, October 16th—a clear sign that Trump's political allies are trying to ram through his appointment without thoughtful consideration. But here's three reasons McNamee is a horrible choice to be a FERC commissioner and why his potential confirmation should worry all of us.
But first, what is "FERC"?
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission – or "FERC" – is an independent federal regulatory body that is organized as part of the Department of Energy and that oversees much of our modern energy infrastructure. From pipelines, to hydroelectric dams, to our interstate transmission system and wholesale electricity markets, FERC is tasked with ensuring "reliable, efficient and sustainable energy services at a reasonable cost". To put it simply: FERC's decisions impact our wallets, our environment, and our climate.
Now that we understand why it's important who our next FERC commissioner is, here are three reasons why Bernard McNamee is the wrong man for the job:
1. McNamee has serious conflicts of interest.
President Trump and the Department of Energy led by Rick Perry have been trying to bailout their buddies in the coal industry since they got to D.C. In his positions with the DOE, McNamee helped craft a previous proposal to provide subsidies to uneconomic coal plants. That proposal was unanimously rejected by FERC in January. We also know that DOE is still working to find the legal authority to order subsidies – with cost estimates of $34 billion or more – be paid to these same plants.
McNamee almost certainly had a role in crafting this latest proposal that is opposed by nearly everyone except the coal industry. To date he has not divulged exactly what role he's played, who he's worked with, or what communications he's had with FERC about the upcoming proposal. Working to craft a bailout proposal for the coal industry would create a serious conflict of interest if he were to then be appointed to FERC that would ultimately vote on the proposal.
Imagine if you were accused of a crime and, once the prosecutor had made his closing arguments, he was appointed to be the judge in your case. That is akin to what we're now facing with McNamee's potential appointment to FERC. Free and fair electricity markets, low-cost electricity, and our clean energy future are at stake.
2. He's horribly unqualified.
Bernard McNamee has no experience in the utility or natural gas utility industries and has no experience as a regulator of these industries. He was appointed to the Department of Energy (DOE) by President Trump, and before that worked for a conservative think tank in Texas and was an advisor to Senator Ted Cruz and the Texas Attorney General.
3. He would destroy FERC's standing as an independent regulatory body.
FERC has a long history of steering clear of the political fray, particularly in its responsibility to protect free and fair energy markets. In fact, FERC is specifically designed to be independent from political influence so that it can remain objective. To protect against undue influence at the Commission, no more than three of the five commissioners can be from the same political party, FERC is not funded by taxpayer dollars (and therefore not subject to appropriations battles), and FERC decisions are not reviewed in advance by the President or Congress.
This independence has already been thrown into question by FERC's chief of staff, Anthony Pugliese – another unqualified political operative inserted at FERC by President Trump. The appointment of McNamee to be a FERC commissioner would double down on Trump's efforts to make FERC a pawn to his political agenda. Everyone should be concerned about the erosion of independent decision making and the precedent that would set.
Before any hearing is scheduled on his nomination, a full accounting of his activities since joining the DOE, including his communications with the coal industry and his role in the ongoing effort to bailout uneconomic coal plants, should be made public. Then it's up to the Senate to ask serious questions about how he plans to fulfill his duties at FERC given his lack of qualification and his apparent conflicts of interest. If we can't get acceptable answers to these questions, then it's painfully clear that McNamee has no place at FERC.
By Kim Smaczniak
Most Americans probably don't know that an independent—and up to now nonpartisan—government agency has played a key role in our nation's transition to cleaner energy technologies. Under the radar and hidden beneath a layer of technical jargon, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has shepherded changes to electricity market rules that have gradually allowed the superior economics of clean energy technologies to out-compete clunky, old fossil fueled power plants. And it has done this for decades, under both Democratic and Republican administrations.
Now the Trump administration is poised to tip FERC's balance by appointing a fossil fuel advocate as one of five commissioners—putting all that bipartisan clean energy progress under threat. However, because few people have heard of the important work done by this small, technocratic agency, this potential appointment could move forward without much opposition. This has to change. A healthy, livable climate depends on it.
Bernard McNamee is the Trump administration's pick to fill Robert Powelson's recently vacated seat on FERC. McNamee currently leads the Office of Policy at the Department of Energy, where he helped to roll out Energy Sec. Rick Perry's failed attempt to bail out the coal and nuclear industries.
His resume reads like a who's who in the fossil fuel industry and the far-right political crowd.
McNamee has deep ties to the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the Koch-funded organization that has provided a pipeline of Trump nominees, including the former nominee to the Council For Environmental Quality that even Republicans agreed was unqualified for the job. It was there that McNamee spearheaded "Life: Powered," a project launched by the group in 2015 "to combat the Obama-era Clean Power Plan," according to TPPF's 2017 annual report. He also served as a senior advisor and counsel to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). This past Earth Day, he authored a love letter to fossil fuels that implored Americans to remember how "the responsible use of America's abundant resources of natural gas, oil and coal have dramatically improved the human condition."
By all accounts, he's decidedly political and unabashedly an advocate for dirty energy.
Up to this juncture, FERC's work to keep the grid running at fair rates hasn't been a "red" or "blue" issue. Although FERC's five commissioners are appointed by the president and approved by the Senate, no more than three of its commissioners may belong to the same political party in order to maintain its tradition of careful bipartisanship. Under this bipartisan approach, clean energy progress has marched forward: Year after year, regional grids have hit higher and higher proportions of renewable energy. FERC has eliminated barriers to new energy technologies whether chaired by a "D" or an "R." Even under the initial slate of Trump appointees, FERC unanimously rejected the Trump coal bailout.
That bipartisan tradition now appears to be under threat.
If McNamee were confirmed as a FERC commissioner, Trump would gain a decisive vote on a commission that's currently split 2-2. With critical matters looming ahead on FERC's agenda, this is dangerous. As executive director of the Office of Policy at the Department of Energy, McNamee played a central role in an attempt to undermine wholesale energy markets for the benefit of the coal industry – an attempt FERC has blocked to date.
FERC recently issued a ruling that has the potential to undercut state policies that level the playing field for renewable resources. PJM Interconnection runs the nation's largest regional grid, which stretches from Illinois to New Jersey and down to North Carolina. FERC's ruling would effectively block state-supported renewables from participating in one of PJM's electricity markets. The ruling is poorly conceived, and Earthjustice is working to reverse it. FERC could right its own course with a pending case that provides another way for the impacted renewables to receive payment for their services. Without McNamee, FERC's two Democratic commissioners could potentially negotiate a compromise solution that respects state renewable energy programs. However, with McNamee, FERC's fellow Republican commissioners could be swayed toward a hardline position and produce a 3-2 pro-fossil fuel vote.
FERC also is considering a request from a gas-fired power plant in California that could have dangerous implications for the state's recent historic decision to achieve 100 percent clean energy electricity by 2045.
It just so happens that this gas-fired plant, La Paloma in Kern County, was purchased last year by Daniel Andrew Beal, a large donor to Trump's presidential bid who also served as a campaign adviser. La Paloma is asking FERC to order California to put a mandatory capacity market into place—which would explicitly prevent renewable energy sources supported by state policies from earning money in the market. The results would be devastating for a state that has been a pioneer in sourcing its electricity from clean energy. If McNamee were confirmed, it is far more likely that Beal will get his way.
Together with our advocacy partners, Earthjustice is paying close attention to these and other matters that could be threatened by a McNamee confirmation. We will continue to fight to keep politics from getting in the way of progress at FERC. But we need your help. Call your senators today and ask them to oppose the appointment of Bernard McNamee to FERC. Our clean energy future is at stake.
Kim Smaczniak is a staff attorney with the Clean Energy Program. She helps shape legal strategies to ensure a fair playing field for clean energy in federally-regulated electricity markets. Kim is based in Washington, DC.
By Sam Schipani
With rainfall at record lows, water is an increasingly precious commodity in the deserts of southern Utah. But in the driest reaches of redrock country, one long-waged water war thunders even louder than the rest.
Utah legislators and water managers have spent nearly a decade trying to break ground on the 140-mile-long Lake Powell Pipeline, which will carry 77 million gallons of water annually from the Colorado River to nearby Washington and Kane Counties. When all is said and done, the project is estimated to cost somewhere between $1.1 billion and $1.8 billion. The specifics are unclear as to who is paying for the project, and delays continue ratcheting up the price tag, but part of the burden will probably be borne by Utah taxpayers through raised property taxes, impact fees and spiked water rates; the rest will likely come from state borrowing.
According to Lisa Rutherford, a public lands activist in Washington County, "it is the moneyed interests that are pushing for the pipeline." She said that while 22 economists wrote to the state legislator in 2015 questioning the exorbitant costs the pipeline would impose on Washington County residents, developers stand to make millions of dollars from the project.
Pipeline proponents argue that Utah is merely drawing its rightful allocation of water from the river based on the Colorado River Compact of 1922, and that if it doesn't, other states will take that water. But Rutherford and other conservationists argue that the state has already used its share because the allocations were based on the Colorado River of 1922, replete with 16 million acre feet flows instead of today's 12 or 13 million acre feet. Rutherford believes that the politicians and developers who support the Lake Powell Pipeline project have blinders on. "They want to get that water flowing sooner rather than later in hopes that if the politics change around the river, they'll already have that straw in there," she said.
Anti-pipeline conservationists are concerned about the impacts of the Lake Powell Pipeline on the Colorado River. Different parts of the river—sometimes the upper portion, sometimes the lower, and other times the whole body of water—have been included on American Rivers' annual Most Endangered list several times. The demands on the river for potable water outweigh its supply–nearly 40 million people from Denver to Los Angeles drink water from the Colorado River, and it currently irrigates 15 percent of the nation's crops. According to Dan Mayhew, conservation chair at the Sierra Club's Utah Chapter, climate change is expected to further exacerbate the supply issue, with flows expected to decrease between 10 and 30 percent by 2050.
"We're looking at the health and longevity of the Colorado River, which is critical to the life of humans and wildlife alike," he said. "The data clearly exists and demonstrates that the Colorado River is the most endangered river in the United States."
And Washington and Kane Counties (which currently source their water primarily from the Virgin River watershed) are veritable water guzzlers. Due to a perfect confluence of climate, geography, and funding, water rates in the area are incredibly cheap. Without incentives to conserve, the counties have the highest per capita water use in Utah, which has one of the highest per capita water use rates of any state in the country. Add that to the fact that the city of St. George in Washington County is one of the fastest growing urban areas in the U.S., with retirees and vacationers alike seeking a desert oasis close to a wealth of national parks and recreational opportunities. As retirement communities, golf courses, and resorts proliferate, water consumption will likely increase.
"They call St. George Utah's Dixie," Mayhew said. "Everyone knows water is an issue. But at the same time, the culture is very pro-development."
Instead of draining the Colorado River, some groups advocate for smarter use of local sources like the Virgin River, Navajo Aquifer, Sand Hollow Reservoir, and Quail Creek Reservoir. "The alternative is basically managing our local waters better," said Tom Butine, board president of Conserve Southwest Utah. In 2013, his organization along with the Western Resource Advocates submitted a Local Waters Alternative to the state and federal agencies in charge of the Lake Powell Pipeline project, which suggested redistributing the area's water withdrawal across local sources while reducing the consumption per capita by nearly half. Butine said the water district and the state division of water resources didn't recognize the proposed alternative.
"They use water as if it's an unlimited resource, and our local governments charge for water as if it's an unlimited resource," Butine said. "Water conservation is an environmental issue, and so we think we should instill a conservation ethic for water here."
The Washington County Water Conservancy District sees it differently. Karry Rathje, the water district's public information manager, says that after the governor of Utah established a water conservation goal for all cities to reduce their use 25 percent by 2025, Washington County was the first county to meet and exceed that bar. Their seasonal newsletter, she points out, includes tips for both indoor and outdoor water conservation.
Ron Thompson, general manager at the Washington County Water Conservancy District, adds that drawing from local water sources will stress those river systems and fail to meet the needs of the growing population. The Virgin River, for example, is a small river system with limited watershed at a much lower altitude (read: without the cost-saving benefit of gravity to transport it). Moreover, it is home to a number of native species, including two listed fish that are currently thriving.
Thompson acknowledges that the Colorado River flows are not quite what they were in 1922, but he said, "That water was set aside for these communities to sustain them in the future, and we have as much right to it as anyone else. It's Utah's water; we're entitled to it by the compact."
The long fight over the pipeline has involved its share of political dealings. The state applied for the project in May 2016 through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, even though the project's main purpose was clearly for water delivery and not energy generation. Even the six hydroelectric facilities along the pipeline are slated to be used primarily to power the pipeline's pump stations.
"I think the state asked FERC to do it because traditionally it is a much less public process," Butine said. "I think the state thought it would be much easier to get FERC to grant it than any other agency."
This assumption seems to have been correct. The state's 6,000-page licensing application for the Lake Powell Pipeline cost $33 million to prepare but was submitted to FERC as an unfinished draft that had not been reviewed by the Utah Division of Water Resources. Nevertheless, FERC gave its initial approval to the project in December 2017. FERC later put the review on hold over questions of the agency's jurisdiction over the project.
One pipeline proponent, Utah representative Mike Noel, owns 700 acres of land and substantial water rights in Kane County's Johnson Canyon, where the pipeline will pump 3.5 million gallons a day. He failed to disclose the holdings in state filings as potential conflicts of interest, and claims no such conflict exists. Meanwhile, Noel also served as executive director of the Kane County Water Conservancy District, where he was paid a $120,000 salary and often argued on Capitol Hill that the Lake Powell Pipeline is the only way to meet the water needs of Kane County. The proposed pipeline route also crosses lands recently stripped from Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument, whose reduction Noel had pushed in the state legislature.
Noel announced in March that he will not be seeking reelection. He will, however, continue serving on the four-member management committee overseeing the Lake Powell Pipeline.
Between the paused FERC review and the lack of financing, the Lake Powell Pipeline project appears to be on hold for now—Butine notes that where the project's website once showed specific dates for beginning construction, they have since been removed—but after a decade of pushing, pipeline proponents are not likely to falter. While the waters have calmed, environmental groups are still on alert.
"This is one of those things that moves slowly and you keep your eye on, but you're never really sure what will happen next," Mayhew said.
Reposted with permission from our media associate SIERRA Magazine.
FERC Approves PennEast Pipeline: Opponents Look to Clean Water Act to Stop 'Dangerous and Unneeded' Project
A controversial natural gas pipeline project with a proposed route through New Jersey can move forward, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) ruled Friday.
Owners of the proposed $1.2 billion PennEast Pipeline, which would carry shale gas from Pennsylvania through New Jersey, said they are planning to begin construction this year following the certificate of public convenience granted by FERC on Friday.
Opponents of the project say the pipeline still needs to clear several hurdles at the state level, and point to New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, who campaigned on an environment and clean energy agenda and spoke out against PennEast on the campaign trail. Activists along the nearly 120-mile route vowed to continue fighting against the pipeline, and protests are planned in New Jersey Monday in response to the decision.
"FERC is basically working for the pipeline companies rather than for the people they are supposed to represent," Jeff Tittel, New Jersey Sierra Club director, said in a statement. "It's shameful that FERC can approve a pipeline without even applications for state or federal permits. FERC is the 'Federal Expedited Rubberstamp Commission.'
"Now the fight begins," he added. "We will organize to stop this pipeline that people vigorously approve. PennEast has a long way to go and many permits to get. We also have a new Governor who opposes the project. We won't stop until we stop this dangerous and unneeded pipeline."
As reported by NJ Spotlight:
"'Now, the real environmental review begins—the ones that FERC did not do,' said Tom Gilbert, campaign director of ReThink Energy NJ and the New Jersey Conservation Foundation. He particularly cited the state's authority in issuing a 401 permit under the Clean Water Act.
'We don't see any way this pipeline can be built and meet those standards,' said Gilbert, noting the route of the project crosses 38 C-1 streams, the most pristine in the state. 'If they enforce regulations, this project won't pass muster.'"
Rover Pipeline Spills Another 150,000 Gallons of Drilling Fluid Into Ohio Wetlands https://t.co/xX9n9S9OIW… https://t.co/SN2OD4dvui— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1516227009.0
For a deeper dive:
Thursday, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) issued a decision, which spells bad news for the proposed Constitution Pipeline, a 124-mile natural gas pipeline slated to run through New York State and Pennsylvania. Constitution Pipeline went to FERC and asked them to invalidate the New York Department of Environmental Conservation's (NYSDEC) denial for a necessary Clean Water Act permit for the project. Thursday, FERC rejected that request.
FERC had already approved the pipeline, but NYSDEC concluded that Constitution did not provide enough information to insure that the pipeline would comply with the Clean Water Act. The company appealed NYSDEC's decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals 2nd Circuit, which upheld the state agency's decision to deny the pipeline company's application in August of 2017. Earthjustice intervened in that case to help defend New York's decision on behalf of Catskill Mountainkeeper, Riverkeeper and Sierra Club.
In its decision Thursday FERC maintained the State's decision and rejected Constitution's attempts to shorten the time states have to consider natural gas pipeline applications for Clean Water Act permits.
"We are ecstatic that FERC rejected Constitution's desperate attempt to undermine New York's authority to safeguard the quality of the State's waterways," said Earthjustice attorney Moneen Nasmith, who represented intervenors helping to defend NYSDEC's decision and a group of organizations that has opposed FERC's approval of the project. "The Commission's decision is great news for the broad coalition of groups and individuals that has been fighting to protect New York's waters from this unnecessary fossil fuel project for years."
Constitution will be able to appeal FERC's decision or to go back to New York State and try to reapply with a different application.
Read the FERC decision.
By Alex Formuzis
Federal regulators' rejection Monday of the White House's scheme to prop up the coal and nuclear power industries is a big win for electricity customers and renewable energy, said Environmental Working Group (EWG) President Ken Cook. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) denied a petition by Energy Sec. Rick Perry to require the use of electricity from coal and nuclear plants, even when cheaper sources are available—a move analysts said would drive up Americans' utility bills by billions of dollars a year.
The proposal was derided by an unprecedented coalition of energy industry associations, from the American Council on Renewable Energy to the American Petroleum Institute, as a blatant political payback for the coal industry's support of President Trump's campaign.
"This ridiculous attempt to bail out his friends in the coal industry is more evidence of President Trump's unfailing instinct for picking losers over winners when it comes to good public policy," said Cook. "The train to the clean energy revolution left the station years ago, and [Monday's] decision by FERC confirms that President Trump and the dying coal and nuclear sectors weren't aboard."
In November, EWG reported that federal data showed without Perry's plan to make utility customers buy more expensive electricity from aging, dirty and dangerous coal and nuclear plants, utilities plan to close 75 coal and nuclear units in the next three years.
That month EWG and American Oversight also petitioned the Department of Energy to release all communications between its senior officials and energy industry leaders over the proposed bailout. The Department of Energy has yet to comply with the Freedom of Information Act request.
Data from FERC and the Energy Information Administration show that since 2009, solar power capacity has grown by a factor of 89 and wind power capacity has increased sixfold. But coal and nuclear capacity have declined or stagnated, as the rapidly declining cost of solar and wind power—among other factors, including the glut of natural gas and increased energy efficiency—are driving coal and nuclear plants out of the competitive wholesale market for electricity.
"Perry's rationale for his scheme was not supported by the evidence, nor by advances in technology," said Grant Smith, EWG's senior energy policy advisor.
"Perry argued that coal and nuclear plants are 'resilient' because fuel is stored on site. But most power outages are because of storm damage to transmission and distribution lines. Power generated near the customer, such as through rooftop and community solar, reduces their vulnerability. The era of large, remote, power plants is rapidly ending. We should be moving forward, not backward on behalf of these cumbersome, vulnerable, expensive technologies."
- Costs of White House Bailout of Coal and Nukes: 27,000 Early ... ›
- Trump Appoints Staunch Conservative as New FERC Chair - EcoWatch ›
Temperatures continue in their second week of freezing lows in much of the U.S. as the Northeast braces for an intense "bomb cyclone" storm expected to hit Thursday.
Science studies and models report that the outbreak of arctic air bringing freezing temperatures to the lower U.S. is consistent with a warming planet, while researchers also report the conditions fueling the current bomb cyclone are consistent with trends linked to climate change that intensify nor'easters.
The extreme cold is ramping up use of energy across the U.S. days before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is set to rule on Energy Sec. Rick Perry's grid resiliency proposal that many consider a bailout to the coal and nuclear industries. While coal and nuclear representatives have ramped up lobbying efforts during the cold snap, representatives from Mid-Atlantic and Midwest grid overseers and utilities questioned by E&E reported no problems or load shortages thus far.
As reported by Axios:
"Advocacy groups representing different fuel types are battling it out ahead of a Jan. 10 deadline facing the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, an independent government agency, to decide what to do with an Energy Department proposal compensating coal and nuclear power plants for their ability to store fuel on site, which most other electricity types can't do. That rule's stated aim is to ensure a resilient electric grid, but the department's own data shows fuel diversity isn't the main problem, it's things like power lines going down during bad weather (including the winter storm hitting the East Coast)."
Bloomberg reported that "grid operators are finding it easier than ever to handle the adverse conditions—that is, 'thanks to an increasingly diverse electricity supply featuring more wind energy production,' said Evan Vaughan of the American Wind Energy Association.
For a deeper dive:
Weather: New York Times, Washington Post, AP, Mother Jones, Vox, Vice, Mashable, Wired, Michigan Public Radio, Louisville Courier-Journal, Earther. Energy: New York Times, Axios, Washington Examiner, Bloomberg, E&E. Commentary: Scientific American, Jeff Masters interview. Background: Climate Signals
By Steve Horn
FERC has come under fire for serving as a "rubber stamp" for these pipelines, which these days mostly carry gas obtained via the horizontal drilling and injection technique known as hydraulic fracturing or "fracking." The agency has rejected only two out of the approximately 400 pipeline applications received since 1999, when it last updated its gas pipeline review process. That's according to a report published in November by Susan Tierney, currently employed by economic consulting firm Analysis Group and former member of the Obama-era Department of Energy's Natural Gas Subcommittee.
"1999 was quite a while ago, particularly in the natural gas pipeline area. So much has changed. So much has changed in our entire industry, of course, since then," McIntyre told reporters at a Dec. 21 FERC meeting, according to The Hill. "But it would be hard to find an area that has changed more than natural gas and our pipeline industry."
And before those lines are built, they must receive a permit from FERC. Gas pipelines crossing international borders, too, by law require a FERC permit and have become increasingly common along the U.S.-Mexico border in the aftermath of the passage of constitutional energy sector privatization reform in December 2013.
Tierney's report, commissioned by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), emphasizes the role fracking has played in the spike of FERC pipeline approvals.
"From 2007 through 2016 alone, FERC approved 234 gas pipeline projects, more than half the number approved since the Policy Statement was issued in 1999," reads the report. "These projects amounted to 121 [billion cubic feet per day] in total incremental capacity approvals, with 10,250 miles of pipe estimated to cost approximately $51.2 billion."
In particular, the report zeroes in on the role of Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale basin, which saw a total of nine interstate pipelines approved in 2016 alone. According to U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) data from 2015, the Marcellus and its neighboring Utica Shale basin in Ohio are responsible for 85 percent of U.S. shale gas production since 2012.
The Analysis Group report is in agreement with McIntyre, who formerly served as an industry lawyer representing pipeline companies. The firm posited that, due to deep industry changes since the agency last issued a permitting statement in 1999, it is time to look at the policy with a fresh set of eyes and a new perspective.
"The motivation for FERC to review its pipeline certification guidance and policy is similar to what it was in 1999," wrote the Analysis Group. "At that time, FERC was considering evidence and insights about changes then underway in the gas industry that, in the Commission's view, warranted evolution of FERC's policies on certification and the pricing of new construction projects."
McIntyre argues that it is a matter of "good governance" to listen to concerns among stakeholders and incorporate those into a new set of policies for pipeline permitting going forward.
Kevin McIntyre, FERC chairFERC.gov
"It's a matter, we believe, of good governance, to take a fresh look at this area, and to give all stakeholders and the public an opportunity to weigh in on what they believe should be changed to our existing policies," The Hill quoted McIntyre as saying. "But I guarantee you, whatever it is, it will be open and transparent and thorough, and we will invite the views of all stakeholders to ensure that we are doing everything we can to accurately and efficiently assess the pipeline applications that we receive and the process."
Perhaps the most vocal FERC critic, the group Beyond Extreme Energy, has said that it does not trust the agency and remains skeptical of what it will do in the months ahead on the 1999 policy.
"If FERC were an agency which truly put the public interest first, the announced plan to review their process for approving pipelines would be a welcome development," the group said in a press statement. "But facts don't lie: over the past 30 years FERC has granted permits for all but two proposed interstate gas pipelines. It is a rubber stamp agency, and it has been this through both Democratic and Republican administrations."
The Interstate Natural Gas Association of America (INGAA), a trade association for gas pipeline companies, has said it is open to the review of the 1999 policy, expressing in its press release little trepidation of the implications for the gas pipeline industry.
"The interstate natural gas pipeline industry welcomes the opportunity to provide input when FERC initiates its inquiry into whether the 1999 policy statement can be improved upon," Don Santa, president and CEO of INGAA, said in a press release. "The ability to site and construct this critical infrastructure has enabled the United States to benefit quickly from the natural gas supply unlocked by the shale revolution."
"We believe that it will be demonstrated that the 1999 policy statement has withstood the test of time quite well. The criteria specified in the policy statement continue to provide FERC with what remains a robust framework for evaluating the range of questions that must be addressed in determining whether a proposed pipeline meets the public convenience and necessity."
For their part, Tierney and her Analysis Group have called on FERC to look back at its mandate as expressed in 1999, which read: "In considering the impact of new construction projects on existing pipelines, the Commission's goal is to appropriately consider the enhancement of competitive transportation alternatives, the possibility of overbuilding, the avoidance of unnecessary disruption of the environment, and the unneeded exercise of eminent domain."
Reposted with permission from our media associate DeSmogBlog.
By Joshua D. Rhodes
Editor's note: On or before Dec. 11, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is expected to take action on a controversial proposal by Energy Sec. Rick Perry that seeks to prevent noncompetitive coal and nuclear power plants from retiring prematurely. Depending on how such a rule is structured, analyses have estimated that it could cost ratepayers in affected regions up to several billion dollars yearly. Energy scholar Joshua Rhodes explains what FERC is and why it has so much power over energy markets and (indirectly) the prices consumers pay.
Why is this proposal so controversial?
Sec. Perry has asserted that "the resiliency of the electric grid is threatened by the premature retirements of ... fuel-secure traditional baseload resources." While exact details are not known, the rule Perry has proposed would "make whole" electric generators that can store 90 days of fuel on-site.
This means that even if those plants cannot make money in their respective markets (because other generators can provide electricity more cheaply), they will receive extra payments from the grid operator to recover their operating costs and provide a "fair" return on equity to plant owners. According to FERC Chair Neil Chatterjee, the extra money to keep those plants running will come from electricity customers in the affected areas.
Perry's rationale is that by storing 90 days' worth of fuel on-site, these plants make the power system more reliable, because they can run even if emergencies or disasters affect other fuel sources such as natural gas pipelines. Therefore, they should receive support that enables them to keep operating.
However, because this policy would benefit only coal and nuclear power plants—the only types that store fuel on-site—it has been interpreted as an excuse to subsidize plants that are struggling to compete. No shortage of ink has been spilled on this proposal, most of it very critical.
As governor of Texas, Rick Perry argued that markets should guide energy choices, Now, as secretary of energy, he asserts that governments routinely pick technology winners and losers. USDOE
The counterview is that our electricity system is changing. The average U.S. coal plant is 45 years old, which is near the end of its expected operating life, and the average age of our nuclear fleet is 37 years old.
Some experts point to an analysis by the Rhodium Group that shows fuel supply to be responsible for only 0.00007 percent of electricity disruptions. Opponents of Perry's proposal argue that other available options, such as wind and solar power, are cheaper and cleaner than coal, and will produce power at more stable prices.
Moreover, under the Federal Power Act, FERC is not supposed to favor one form of generation over another. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, has called the proposal "a massive subsidy." Other critics say the way to promote reliability and resilience in a competitive energy market is to create a new market for that service and let everyone bid to supply it.
What does FERC do?
FERC is an independent federal agency that regulates rates for cross-state transmission of our main energy sources: oil, natural gas and electricity. It also is responsible for reviewing siting for natural gas pipelines; creating and enforcing reliability standards for interstate electricity transmission networks; and monitoring and investigating energy markets. Most local aspects of the energy system, such as retail sales and billing, are typically overseen by state public utility commissions.
FERC also produces market reports, predictions and analyses of issues such as expected wholesale energy prices and the changing mix of power plants that supply our electricity. It has the power both to create and to enforce rules governing energy markets under its purview.
Who serves on the commission, and how are they chosen?
At full strength FERC has five commissioners, who are appointed by the president and approved by the Senate for five-year terms. It is designed to be a bipartisan independent agency, so no more than three commissioners can be from the same political party, and each commissioner has an equal vote in regulatory matters.
FERC and its commissioners are not overseen by the Department of Energy, but DOE can participate in its deliberations as a third party and can propose rules for the commission to consider.
Don't states also regulate electricity prices?
FERC regulates interstate wholesale electricity markets, in which electricity crosses state lines. Retail prices, which are what most customers see on their bills, are regulated at the state level. Retail prices are set differently in different parts of the U.S., and sometimes even within states. However, FERC's wholesale pricing rules ultimately shape the prices that retail electricity suppliers are allowed to charge consumers.
For fully regulated areas, such as the Southeast, rates are proposed by utilities and then must gain approval from the state's public utility commission. Some states have deregulated their electricity markets and allow customers to choose their power provider. In these areas, providers have more latitude to set their own rates, but the assumption is that market competition will keep rates low.
An Energy Department study on grid reliability, released in August, concluded that coal and nuclear power plants are struggling because they are being undercut by cheap natural gas and renewable energy and low growth in electricity demand. It also noted that "merchant" plants—those that compete based on price in deregulated states—accounted for a majority of recent early retirements. DOE's proposal is limited to such plants, mainly in the Northeast and Midwest.
Most generating capacity added since 2002 has been natural gas or renewable, while most retirements have been coal, nuclear and older natural gas plants. EIA
If FERC issues a rule that would subsidize coal and nuclear plants, can opponents do anything about it?
Opponents' main recourse would be to sue in federal court. No lawsuits have been announced yet, and none is likely to be filed until FERC issues a decision. But a joint letter opposed to the proposal from a group of strange bedfellows, including the American Council on Renewable Energy, the American Petroleum Institute, the American Wind Energy Association and the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, signals that resistance could be significant.
Joshua D. Rhodes, Ph.D. is a Research Fellow at the Energy Institute and the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.
By Elly Benson
Last week, the DC Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission's (FERC) attempts to downplay the massive climate impacts of the Southeast Market Pipelines Project, a $3.5 billion project that includes the 515-mile Sabal Trail pipeline. FERC and the pipeline companies argued that even though the project's purpose is to transport fracked gas through Alabama and Georgia to Florida power plants, FERC nonetheless could ignore the greenhouse gas emissions from burning the gas at those plants.
It's Not Just the Journey, It's Also the Destination
In a 2-1 decision, the court agreed with the Sierra Club and its partners that FERC's refusal to analyze these "downstream" emissions—an entirely foreseeable result of constructing the pipeline—violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The court vacated FERC's approval of the project and remanded to the agency with instructions to prepare an environmental impact statement consistent with the court's opinion.
Once the court officially returns the matter to FERC, the pipeline should cease operations while FERC undertakes the new analysis. (Despite the shoddy environmental review, the pipeline was allowed to start operating in June).
Noting that "[i]t's not just the journey, ... it's also the destination," the court rejected each of FERC's many excuses for ignoring the emissions from burning the gas. The court found:
- FERC is the "legally relevant cause" of the climate-altering emissions because it has the power to deny a pipeline based on harm to the environment.
- FERC has estimated that the pipeline will transport 1.1 billion cubic feet per day of gas, and can use this number to estimate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.
- FERC's vague assertions that "some" emissions may "potentially" be offset by coal plant retirements were so devoid of meaningful information that the environmental impact statement "fail[ed] to fulfill its primary purpose."
- Even if the power plants are subject to state or federal greenhouse-gas regulations in the future, such requirements cannot substitute for a proper NEPA analysis (citing a landmark NEPA case from 1971).
The court concluded that FERC "should have either given a quantitative estimate of the downstream greenhouse 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." The court further noted that the environmental impact statement needed to include a discussion of the significance of the downstream greenhouse gas emissions, as well as their cumulative impact. Finally, the court directed FERC to explain, in its new environmental impact statement, whether it still maintains that the "social cost of carbon"—a valuable tool that places a dollar value on the harm caused by each ton of carbon emitted—is not useful for NEPA purposes, and why.
The decision is a significant victory for pipeline opponents, with far-reaching consequences for gas pipelines and other fossil fuel projects that require federal approval. And while Trump tweets that climate change is a hoax and cynically attempts to eliminate climate considerations from federal decision making, the court's opinion—authored by a George W. Bush appointee—signals that the courts will hold agencies to their NEPA obligations.
Communities of color and low-income communities are disproportionately exposed to environmental hazards and routinely bear the brunt of harmful impacts from polluting industrial facilities. For pipeline projects, those impacts include pipeline ruptures, construction impacts, groundwater contamination and noise and air pollution from massive compressor stations.
A staggering 83.7 percent of this pipeline—or approximately 574 miles—runs through or within a mile of environmental justice communities. And the compressor station in Albany, Georgia—a huge industrial facility that would release hundreds of thousands of tons of air pollutants each year—is slated to be constructed in a neighborhood that is more than 80 percent African American (watch community leader Gloria Gaines discuss the Albany compressor station). As members of Georgia's congressional delegation pointed out to FERC before the pipeline was approved, these communities are already overburdened with polluting facilities.
FERC nonetheless concluded that the project's impacts would not disproportionately fall on environmental justice populations. While recognizing the "grim statistics" regarding the overburdened nature of these communities, and noting that it is "sensitive to Sierra Club's broader contention that it is unjust to locate a polluting facility in a community that already has a high concentration of polluting facilities," the court declined to overturn FERC's analysis.
Elly Benson is a staff attorney with the Sierra Club's Environmental Law Program.