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Environmental Group Sues Federal Agency for Alleged Conflict of Interest

In its suit against FERC, the Delaware Riverkeeper Network claims the review and approval process for pipeline projects is fundamentally flawed

maya van rossum
Maya Van Rossum, Delaware Riverkeeper

Ratcheting up a fight against the expansion of natural-gas pipelines, the Delaware Riverkeeper Network yesterday filed a lawsuit against the federal agency that oversees construction of such projects.

In a lawsuit filed with the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the group claimed that the review and approval process for pipeline projects by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is infected by structural bias.

The lawsuit is seeking fundamental changes to the agency that -- the group asserts --would make it accountable and consistent with democratic governance. The lawsuit alleges the bias is based on the agency’s financial structure, which recovers the full cost of its operations through the charges and fees assessed on the industries it regulates.

“Because FERC gets its funding from the big companies it is supposed to be monitoring, it has become, perhaps inevitably, a corrupt, rogue agency,’’ said Maya van Rossum, the Delaware Riverkeeper and the leader of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network.

The lawsuit is the second action taken against the commission by the organization this year. In January, it asked the General Accountability Office to initiate an investigation into FERC, saying it has approved 100 percent of the gas pipeline projects that have come before it, the highest approval rate of any independent federal agency.

The issue is politically volatile in New Jersey, where at least 15 pipeline expansion or new projects are in various stages of planning and construction. Most have been met with widespread opposition because some projects intersect private property while others cut through environmentally sensitive areas, some of which have been preserved with public money.

Others, however, have welcomed the pipelines because they have helped lower heating costs for hundreds of thousands of customers, taking advantage of plentiful and cheaper supplies of natural gas found in Pennsylvania and other nearby states.

The Riverkeeper Network has been in the forefront of opposition to one of the more controversial projects -- the PennEast pipeline, a proposed 118-mile conduit that would cut through parts of Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Critics say it will run through forested land, cross hundreds of bodies of water, and affect 55 acres of wetlands. It also would impact many homeowners because the approval process could give the company the power of eminent domain.

PennEast recently filed an application for the project with the Delaware River Basin Commission because a portion of the proposed pipeline would run under the Delaware River, the source of drinking water for millions in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

In its federal lawsuit, the Riverkeeper Network said by the nature of its financing, FERC faces a conflict of interest because such projects constitute a big portion of its income.

The organization is seeking a declaration that FERC engages in a biased process, one that deprives DRN of due process and causes irreparable harm. It also wants its funding structure declared unconstitutional and to prohibit the exercise of eminent domain for such projects.

The Riverkeeper is still awaiting a decision by the GAO on whether it will investigate the federal agency, van Rossum said.

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