Regulators Discount Climate Effects, OK Sabal Trail Pipeline

Work underway on Sabal pipeline through three states. Source: sabaltrailtransmission.com

Conservationists trying to shut down a new natural gas pipeline that starts in Alabama failed to convince federal regulators that greenhouse gas emissions from burning natural gas for power would have a “significant” effect on climate change.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission this week voted three to two along party lines to reissue certification for the Sabal Trail and related pipelines. The Sabal Trail runs from near Alexander City to central Florida.

The pipeline has been in service for several months, but environmental attorneys had hoped it would be stopped after a federal appellate court last year ruled the commission, known as FERC, failed to adequately consider potential climate impacts before initial approval.

“It’s disappointing that federal regulators continue to move us backwards on issues of environmental protection and climate action at a time of such great urgency,” said Michael Hansen, executive director of the Birmingham-based clean-air advocacy group Gasp.

Greg Buppert, senior attorney for Southern Environmental Law Center, told BirminghamWatch that FERC’s process for hearing project challenges is unfair. “The basic problem at the commission is that it conducts an environmental review but delays requests for rehearing, which keeps challengers out of court even while the pipeline is being built,” Buppert said.

“You get this bizarre result in which a court says the review was inadequate but the pipeline is already in the ground and operating,” he said. “This leaves landowners and conservation groups at a disadvantage if they want to challenge a project.”

Buppert said he is confronted with the same issues with the large Atlantic Coast Pipeline project now under FERC review. The problem may take congressional action to change, he said.

Several environmental organizations, including the Alabama Rivers Alliance, oppose approval of any new oil, gasoline and natural gas pipelines, preferring to move away from fossil fuels in favor of clean renewable energy sources such as wind and solar.

Kelly Martin of the Sierra Club, one of the litigants before FERC, said, “Today’s decision shows that the majority of the federal commission tasked with protecting Americans from the dangers of fracked gas pipelines is nothing but a rubber stamp for polluting corporations … .”  Martin is director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Dirty Fuels Campaign.

Pipeline Said to Boost Economy

Not everyone is unhappy about the Sabal Trail certification.

The new pipeline runs from Tallapoosa County through Chambers, Russell and Lee counties before crossing the Chattahoochee River.

“The pipeline is an economic boost for counties and the state,” said Lee County Commissioner Robert Hamm. “The pipeline, pumping (compression) station and equipment are taxed and landowners were paid for use of their property.”

Hamm also said its presence makes natural gas available if an industry wants to locate nearby and tap into the line.

He noted that the pipeline owners paid for damages to roads they used for heavy equipment and donated to local educational and other causes.

FERC Dissenters

Two Democrat commissioners dissented from the contention that FERC could not evaluate the significance of carbon emissions.

Richard Glick, a Democrat who was nominated by President Trump, called climate change “the single largest threat in our lifetime. “

Glick added, “Willful ignorance of readily available analytical tools to support an enhanced qualitative assessment … will undermine informed public comments and informed decision-making.”

Commissioner Cheryl LaFluer, a Democrat nominated by President Obama, supported the pipeline need but voted against the project certification because she was “troubled by the manner in which the order addresses the significance (of greenhouse gas emissions).”

LaFluer added, “The order fails to even concede that GHG emissions are an indirect impact that must be quantified. I reject the contention that the commission is unable to discern the significance of greenhouse gas emissions.”

FERC is an independent government agency that approves and regulates the interstate transmission of electricity, natural gas and crude oil.

The miles of gas and oil pipelines running through Alabama got little attention until an accident brought them to public attention.

This week, the Alabama attorney general reported Colonial Pipeline Co. will pay the state $3.3 million for damages and penalties from the 2016 gasoline spill and subsequent explosion in Shelby County.