The U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit decided the case of Allegheny Defense Project, et al. v. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on August 2, 2019. In a Per Curiam opinion, the court denied petitions challenging the Commission’s orders permitting the Transcontinental Gas Pipe Line Company’s expansion of an existing natural gas pipeline which extends from northern Pennsylvania across the Carolinas into Alabama. The expansion is called the “Atlantic Sunrise Project.” In February 2017, FERC approved the expansion, and denied various petitions, filed by environmental organizations and affected landowners, who then challenged the decision in the DC Circuit. However, the court concluded, on the basis of the administrative record, that these challenges “cannot surmount the deferential standards of agency review and binding DC Circuit precedent.” Under the law, the Commission must consider whether the projected pipeline project meets a market need, and whether the public benefits outweigh the harms. If both criteria are satisfied, FERC will, as in this instance, issue a certificate authorizing the pipeline’s construction, and that certificate also empowers the certificate holder to exercise eminent domain authority under to the Natural Gas Act when necessary. It was the latter consequence of the FERC’s determinations that caused several Pennsylvania landowners to file their objections with the Commission and seek to stay construction.
In just the past few weeks, three states have used their Clean Water Act 401 authority to delay, for an indefinite period, FERC-authorized pipeline expansion projects. On May 6, 2019, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality denied, without prejudice, Jordan Cove’s application for a Section 401 water quality certification. Jordan Cove plans to build an LNG export terminal at Coos Bay, Oregon, if it can obtain the necessary federal and permits. Under Section 401(a) of the Clean Water Act, any applicant for a federal permit to conduct any activity, including the operation of facilities which may result in any discharge into the navigable waters, shall provide the permitting agency a certification from the State in which the discharge may originate that any such discharge will comply with the applicable provisions of the Clean Water Act, including effluent limitations and state water quality standards. The States have a “reasonable time”—which shall not exceed one year after the receipt of the 401 application—in which to act, or the state’s authority may be waived by this inaction. The Oregon DEQ concluded that Jordan Cove has not demonstrated that its project, as presently configured, will satisfy state water quality standards. The 401 applications submitted by Transcontinental Gas Pipe Line Co. (Transco) to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and the New York State Department of Environmental Protection were similarly rejected without prejudice on May 15, 2019 (New York) and June 5, 2019 (New Jersey). This use of the states’ 401 authority has frustrated plans to build and operate LNG pipelines around the country.