House passes pipeline bill amid partisan debate, veto threat 

Source: Hannah Northey, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, January 22, 2015

The House yesterday approved a controversial bill to fast-track federal approval of natural gas pipelines despite sharp Democratic opposition and a veto threat from the White House.

The chamber voted 253-169 to approve Rep. Mike Pompeo’s (R-Kan.) “Natural Gas Pipeline Permitting Reform Act,” H.R. 161, which would give the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission a year to approve or deny a pipeline, and other agencies are given three or four months beyond that to complete their work on any additional permits, licenses or approvals that would be needed.

Although 14 Democrats voted for the bill, the vote triggered a sharp back-and-forth between Republican proponents and Democrats who said it would push dangerously short reviews of complex pipelines. Democrats also flagged a White House veto threat made yesterday, calling the House vote a waste of time. The Obama administration warned Pompeo’s bill would impose unworkable timelimes on FERC (E&ENews PM, Jan. 20).

Democrats from energy-hungry states like New Jersey and Massachusetts argued the bill would turn FERC into a “super permitting agency” forced to make decisions on complex pipelines crossing multiple states and intersecting vulnerable wildlife areas.

Rep. Niki Tsongas (D-Mass.), who offered an amendment that was ultimately blocked, warned that her state is seeing major pipeline projects that would cross sensitive areas and Pompeo’s legislation would force federal decisions on such projects. Tsongas’ amendment would have exempted pipelines crossing federal, state or local land designated for conservation or recreation.

Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), ranking member on the Energy and Commerce Committee, said it’s frightening that Congress wants to “short-circuit” the process by which FERC reviews proposed pipelines in light of explosions and leaks — including one that occurred in his district.

“It’s not that [proposed pipelines] are in areas where there are no people, like in the case of my state of New Jersey,” he said, adding that the legislation would ultimately waive critical federal environmental regulations. Pallone went on to argue that FERC approves more than 90 percent of proposed pipelines within a year and that pipeline developers in the past have said the agency’s process is working.

“If this process is fine, why are we now trying to move ahead and endanger safety by imposing limitations on the process that’s very good?” Pallone said. “If FERC decides it doesn’t have enough time, they may deny it.”

But Republicans argued the bill would not affect environmental regulations or force FERC’s hand but simply bolster gas infrastructure that’s failing to keep pace with demand.

House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Energy and Power Subcommittee Chairman Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) argued the legislation is critical to cutting through bureaucratic red tape and giving FERC authority to herd agencies that must weigh in.

“It’s about giving FERC some real authority … that these agencies must act within a certain amount of time,” Whitfield said, adding that gas is critical in the Northeast, where coal and nuclear plants are closing prematurely. “We know from hearings on this that the northeastern United States are really vulnerable to not having sufficient gas.”

Pompeo defended the bill, saying the measure would ensure pipelines are built to prevent shortages and outages. “I’m happy to give them 13 [months], we’ll change the legislation,” he said.

But Pallone said the problem is not lengthy pipeline approval timelines — at least in the Northeast — but that pipeline companies haven’t been satisfied that year-round demand exists. FERC, he added, is looking into that market issue that Pompeo’s measure would not address.

Pallone said he was open to considering the bill under regular order with the consideration of amendments but opposed a quick vote.

“I don’t think we should be blaming the government for every problem,” he said. “It’s a problem with the economics. Let’s not act as if FERC’s inability to act is the problem here, that’s not the case.”