CHARLESTON — The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is facing further scrutiny from a U.S. House subcommittee for its oversight of natural gas pipeline construction projects on the heels of a past subcommittee finding that the FERC has a pattern of rubber-stamping such projects.
Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., chairman of the Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, addressed a letter to FERC Chairman James Danly last week seeking information about the procedures the FERC uses to resolve conflicts between landowners and pipeline construction companies. In it, he cited concerns about continued delays in the Mountain Valley Pipeline project designed to provide up to 2 billion cubic feet per day of natural gas traveling from Northwestern West Virginia to Southern Virginia, crossing Wetzel, Harrison, Doddridge, Lewis, Braxton, Webster, Nicholas, Greenbrier, Fayette, Summers and Monroe counties in the Mountain State.
Legal challenges and regulatory hurdles have slowed the pipeline construction process in recent years. The project initially was forecast to launch in the fourth quarter of 2018, but Equitrans Midstream, the Canonsburg, Pennsylvania-based primary-interest owner of the pipeline, has pushed back its targeted in-service date to the second half of 2021.
Raskin noted the FERC’s approval last month of a two-year extension for the Mountain Valley Pipeline project over the objections of landowners and other pipeline opponents, citing a blog post by a representative of Appalachian Voices, a North Carolina-based conservationist organization, calling pipeline construction a “nightmare” for people living along the route whose property has been taken through eminent domain and who have seen erosion and muddy runoff in their streams and fields.
Raskin also referenced the July cancellation of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.
“There are growing concerns about what happens to land that has been taken through eminent domain for a pipeline that will never be built,” Raskin wrote. “There appears to be no process to ensure that this land reverts back to the property owner, or that the land is not used for an entirely different purpose than the one approved by (the) FERC and accepted by the courts in eminent domain proceedings.”
Raskin requested an explanation of how the FERC determines whether to grant certificate extensions for the construction of natural gas projects. He also wanted an explanation of the steps the FERC takes to ensure that pipeline companies either restore land or compensate landowners for the damage they cause. Additionally, Raskin sought the number of times the FERC has levied civil penalties or taken enforcement actions against natural gas companies for failing to properly restore land in a timely manner, among other items.
FERC spokeswoman Celeste Miller declined comment Monday, saying the FERC will respond to Raskin’s letter as soon as possible. The subcommittee requested that the commission produce documents by Friday, Dec. 4.
The subcommittee released findings in April indicating that the FERC’s natural gas pipeline approval process has favored the gas industry over the rights and objections of landowners. The FERC approved greater than 99% of applications for certificates of public convenience and necessity required for companies to assert eminent domain in court in the past 20 years, the subcommittee found.
The subcommittee also reported that the FERC has denied all requests from landowners seeking a rehearing to appeal FERC approval of certificates and approved construction of pipelines before ruling on rehearing requests in 64% of cases in the past 12 years.“The deck is totally stacked against landowners who want to defend their family’s land against takeover by private natural gas companies,” Raskin said in a statement in April. “It’s not a fair process.”
The subcommittee opened an investigation into the use of eminent domain in natural gas pipeline construction in February.
In June, the FERC announced it was amending its regulations to ensure that construction of an approved natural gas project cannot proceed until the commission acts on a request for rehearing. Then-FERC chairman Neil Chatterjee pledged in September 2019 that FERC would seek to act on landowner-related gas project rehearing requests within 30 days, reducing the use of “tolling orders” that extend the commission’s review time for appeals.
The subcommittee found earlier this year that it took about seven months on average in the past 12 years for the FERC to deny landowner requests for a rehearing.
Last month, the FERC lifted an October 2019 stop-work order for most pipeline construction after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a biological opinion that found in September that the project would not jeopardize the continued existence of any endangered or threatened species or harm critical habitats. The FERC did not allow construction to resume in a 25-mile area encompassing two watersheds containing 3.5 miles of pipeline right of way that cross the Jefferson National Forest.