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FERC Reviews Its Policies for Approving Natural-Gas Pipelines

Critics say federal agency rubber-stamps projects, without evaluating if a pipeline is truly needed and gauging its environmental impact

pipeline

The federal government is opening a review on whether its policies governing approval of interstate natural-gas pipelines should be revamped, an issue often raised by critics of the rapid expansion of industry infrastructure in New Jersey.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission yesterday launched an inquiry into whether its policies, unchanged since 1999, dealing with its oversight of pipelines ought to be updated.

The decision comes amid concerns raised by pipeline opponents about the current policy, including how the agency decides if a pipeline is needed and whether enough weight is given to the environmental impact of a new project. It also is expected to seek input on policies regarding eminent domain, which allow private land to be acquired through condemnation proceedings.

Those issues are among the top criticisms of a controversial interstate pipeline pushed by PennEast Pipeline Co., a 118-mile long project between Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Last month, New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal went to federal court to try to block condemnation proceedings against 20 properties acquired under farmland and open-space preservation programs.

In New Jersey, the cheap natural gas found in neighboring Pennsylvania has triggered more than a dozen new gas pipeline projects, most of which have been met with bitter opposition. Environmental groups have accused FERC of being a rubber stamp for the industry.

At this point, it is too early to tell whether the commission will adopt meaningful changes to its current policies, according to industry analysts.

“It’s not surprising they are doing this,’’ said Paul Patterson, an energy analyst with Glen Rock Associates. “There have been a lot of issues raised about these policies. It will take some time before they decide there will be changes and what they may be.’’

Tom Gilbert, campaign coordinator of ReThink Energy NJ, a group opposed to PennEast, is not optimistic. “We’re encouraged the issues will be addressed, but it’s hard to have confidence given FERC’s track record,’’ he said.

Among the issues to be addressed is an examination of the need for a new pipeline. Under current policy, the commission gives weight to whether a contract to buy gas from the pipeline has been executed. In the PennEast case, New Jersey Rate Counsel Stefanie Brand has argued such contracts fail to demonstrate a need, a point backed up by a consultant study from Gilbert’s group.

Other pipeline opponents dismissed the commission’s new inquiry as falling far short of the changes in policy they have been seeking.

“FERC is nothing but a rubber stamp for dirty fossil-fuels infrastructure,’’ said Maya van Rossum, Delaware Riverkeeper. “That is clearly not going to change; if anything, the rubber stamp will be swifter and heavier.’’

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