A federal appeals court on Tuesday granted a major victory to environmentalists by rejecting a federal agency's decision to approve the construction of a major natural gas pipeline, saying it did not properly weigh the effects of climate change.
A three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission had not properly analyzed the effects of burning natural gas on climate change before approving the pipeline.
Environmentalists with the Sierra Club says the court decision provides precedent for blocking pipelines based on a lack of climate change analysis on the effects of burning fossil fuels. Many scientists blame greenhouse gases emitted from burning fossil fuels for driving manmade climate change.
And the decision could affect President Trump's pro-growth "Energy Dominance" agenda that seeks to promote pipeline development and fossil fuels. Trump last week signed an executive order to establish a process to remove excessive regulation and speed up permit approvals.
Judge Janice Rogers Brown, a President George W. Bush nominee who dissented, argued that FERC does not have the authority to reduce the impact of greenhouse gas emissions from pipelines, and therefore is not responsible for examining the climate effects.
The majority decision said the commission's environmental impact statement for the project should have quantitatively estimated the "downstream greenhouse emissions that will result from burning the natural gas that the pipelines will transport or explained more specifically why it could not have done so," wrote Judge Thomas Griffith, nominated by President George W. Bush, in writing the opinion. Judge Judith Ann Wilson Rogers, nominated by President Bill Clinton, concurred with Griffith.
Environmental groups have struggled for years to get FERC to take into consideration the effects of climate change in its environmental reviews. The courts have been kind to the agency up until now on the issue. The commission has not said if it will appeal the lawsuit. "The commission is currently reviewing the court's order and determining next steps," said a FERC spokeswoman.
The lawsuit was filed by the Sierra Club after the nearly 700-mile long Southeast Market Pipelines Project was approved in 2016. The pipeline is linked to other projects such as the Sabal Trail pipeline to move natural gas across a number of states for delivery at Florida power plants.
Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey-branch of the Sierra Club, one of the more aggressive in going after FERC, said the lawsuit was a "huge win" for the group because "it is the first time the court ruled in our favor on an environmental analysis," agreeing with it on the grounds that climate impacts should have been included in the FERC analysis. "This decision shows no matter what Donald Trump thinks about climate change, FERC cannot ignore the law."
The court said climate impacts and alternatives must be evaluated under the National Environmental Policy Act, Tittel said, which will drive their opposition to other pipeline projects along the East Coast that FERC is looking to approve.
"This will be precedent for pipelines like PennEast and may help stop FERC from rubberstamping the pipeline," he said. The PennEast Line goes through New Jersey to transport natural gas from the fracking state of Pennsylvania to the Northeast, which historically has suffered from a lack of pipeline infrastructure.