The nation's energy watchdog announced Thursday it will take a "fresh look" at the way it approves natural gas pipelines amid growing clashes between green groups and the agency over climate change.
Kevin McIntyre, President Trump's pick to head the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, announced the pipeline review at his first public meeting as chairman.
“I am approaching this topic with an open mind and want the staff and the Commission to take a fresh look at all aspects of the issue,” McIntyre said.
The pipeline review would examine its previous 1999 policy statement on how it issues permits for new interstate natural gas pipelines. FERC said the review was announced as part of a pledge McIntyre made during his Senate confirmation hearings "to take a fresh look at all aspects of the agency’s work," according to a release.
“I believe we in the government should constantly be examining our various processes and procedures to see if we can do anything better,” he said.
But environmentalists see an opportunity in McIntyre's announcement to move the ball forward on their agenda to have FERC pay greater attention to climate change and other environment issues during its pipeline reviews.
"The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s 1999 Statement of Policy for evaluating proposed interstate gas pipelines has remained unchanged even though the energy industry is far different today," said the Natural Resources Defense Council in a recent blog. "The transition to a cleaner energy system is well underway. More efficient use has reduced the demand for energy. Pitched battles are being fought because of the risks gas pipelines present to public health and safety, as well as the environment and private property rights."
NRDC wants to challenge the idea that natural gas pipelines are needed at all. It wants FERC to evaluate non-fossil fuel alternatives to using natural gas in its reviews, and look at the potential for pipelines becoming stranded assets with new forms of energy coming online.
A group of environmental groups led by Sierra Club successfully sued FERC in order to force the agency to examine the effects of its pipelines on climate change. The court ordered the commission to evaluate how burning natural gas at power plants in Florida, the pipeline's principal customers, would impact greenhouse gas emissions and global warming.
Up until the court ruling, FERC had only examined the environmental impacts of building the pipelines to ship natural gas, not the effects of using the fuel.
But McIntyre was vague on what aspects of pipeline policy he wants to focus on in the review. McIntyre said "next steps" will be announced in the near future, adding that the "format and scope of the review" are still being discussed.
Nevertheless, the chairman said any review of this type is meant to be thorough, and the commission invites the views of all parties to ensure FERC "accurately and efficiently" reviews all pipeline applications.
Don Santa, representing the industry group Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, suggested that the 1999 pipeline policy is adequate and that few changes are seen as necessary.
"We believe that it will be demonstrated that the 1999 policy statement has withstood the test of time quite well," said Santa. "The criteria specified in the policy statement continue to provide FERC with what remains a robust framework for evaluating the range of questions that must be addressed in determining whether a proposed pipeline meets the public convenience and necessity."
He said he looked forward to participating in the review, calling it an "important dialogue.”