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Timing Is (Almost) Everything: FERC Implements D.C. Circuit Guidance on NEPA Review of Multiple Pipeline Construction Projects

In the wake of two recent D.C. Circuit decisions, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has begun to implement its new policy concerning the review of natural gas pipeline construction proposals under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). To decide whether a NEPA review must include other projects proposed by the pipeline, FERC will look at the timing and maturity of other proposals and the independence of the projects.

In the first decision, Delaware Riverkeeper Network, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit held that FERC failed to consider the cumulative environmental impact of four projects that had been separately proposed by the same pipeline. The D.C. Circuit held that the projects were not financially independent and were “a single pipeline” that was “linear and physically interdependent,” so the cumulative environmental impacts must be considered concurrently.

In the second decision, Minisink Residents for Environmental Preservation and Safety, the D.C. Circuit held that FERC had properly considered and rejected an alternative site to build a natural gas pipeline compressor station. Contrasting the decision to Delaware Riverkeeper, the court clarified that the “critical” factor in the previous decision was that all of the pipeline’s projects were either under construction or pending before FERC for environmental review at the same time.

In several recent orders, FERC has implemented the D.C. Circuit’s guidance in addressing claims of improper segmentation.  For example, FERC recently authorized Transcontinental Gas Pipe Line Company (Transco) to construct and operate the Leidy Southeast Project. The Leidy Southeast Project will include nearly 30 miles of new pipeline loop and four compressor stations to provide capacity from supply areas in Pennsylvania to various receipt points as far south as Choctaw County, Alabama. Opponents of the pipeline project (coincidentally Delaware Riverkeeper Network) claimed that FERC should have also considered in its NEPA review three other Transco projects—one already constructed and two proposed projects.

FERC rejected opponents’ request to conduct a joint NEPA review. FERC emphasized that (1) the first Transco project was approved nearly a year before Transco proposed the Leidy Southeast Project; (2) the other two Transco projects “were not fully defined ‘proposals’ at any time during the period that the Leidy Southeast Project was receiving consideration;” and (3) the Leidy Southeast Project was not “connected” to the other Transco projects, as it did not “rely on” other projects for its operation and “would have been built even if” the first project had not been constructed.




Environmental Impact Analysis Required for Natural Gas Facilities Clarified in Court Decision Denying Residents’ Challenge to Compressor Siting Approval

A New York town’s challenge to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s (FERC) siting authorization for a natural gas pipeline compressor station was rejected by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in Minisink Residents for Environmental Protection and Safety v. FERC.  The court’s August 15 decision denying the petition for review of residents of the Town of Minisink, when read in conjunction with its decision earlier this year in Delaware Riverkeeper Network v. FERC, delineates the scope of environmental impact analysis that the court will require of FERC  under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

Residents of the Town protested the compressor station’s location and urged FERC and Millennium to pursue an alternative site referred to as the Wagoner Alternative.  The Wagoner Alternative would have resulted in the compressor station being located in a less populous area but would have required the replacement of a seven mile pipeline segment (called the Neversink segment).  In developing its environmental assessment, FERC had actively considered the Wagoner Alternative but concluded that because of the need to replace the Neversink segment, the environmental impact associated with the Minisink location would be less and the Minisink location was therefore preferable.  FERC’s decision approving the Minisink proposal was split 3-2, with former Chairman Wellinghoff and current Chairman LaFleur dissenting, both Commissioners concluding that the Wagoner Alternative was the better option.

Fundamental to the D.C. Circuit’s decision was its finding that FERC had adequately analyzed the Wagoner Alternative and that there was ample evidence to support its determination that the Wagoner Alterative would have a greater impact due to the need upgrade the Neversink segment.  The petitioners attempted to undermine this finding by pointing to a Millennium PowerPoint presentation that they alleged showed that even if the compressor station were to be located in Minisink, Millennium still planned to replace the Neversink segment.  The court, however, did not consider the PowerPoint persuasive in light of both Millennium’s representation to FERC and Millennium’s counsel’s representation at oral argument that Millennium had no current plans to replace the Neversink segment.

In an instructive footnote, the D.C. Circuit contrasted this case to its recent decision in Delaware Riverkeeper, where it held that FERC improperly segmented and failed to consider the cumulative impact of four connected pipeline construction projects.  The court clarified that the “critical” factor in Delaware Riverkeeper was that all of the pipeline’s projects were either under construction or pending before FERC for environmental review at the same time.  The court acknowledged that the issue before them in Minisink Residents would potentially be “more troublesome” if Millennium were now planning to pursue the Neversink upgrade.




D.C. Circuit Rules that FERC May Not Segment Its Evaluation of the Environmental Impact of Related Natural Gas Pipeline Construction Projects, Regardless of Whether They Are Separately Proposed

The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals recently issued an opinion holding that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) when it segmented its evaluation of the environmental impact of four separately proposed but connected projects to upgrade the “300 Line” on the Eastern Leg of Tennessee Gas Pipeline Company’s natural gas pipeline system.  Going forward, the court’s ruling will likely compel proponents of interrelated or complimentary pipeline projects to seek their certification on a consolidated basis and will require FERC to evaluate their cumulative impact.

Tennessee Gas’s challenged Northeast Project was the third of four proposed upgrade projects to expand capacity on the existing Eastern Leg of the 300 Line.  The Northeast Project added only 40 miles of pipeline, while the four proposed projects combined to add approximately 200 miles of looped pipeline.  FERC approved Tennessee Gas’s first proposed upgrade, the “300 Line Project,” in May 2010.  While that project was under construction, Tennessee Gas proposed three additional projects to fill gaps left by the 300 Line Project, one of which was the Northeast Project.   As part of its review of the Northeast Project, FERC issued an Environmental Assessment (EA) required by NEPA that recommended a Finding of No Significant Impact.  The EA for the Northeast Project, however, addressed only the Northeast Project’s environmental impact without reviewing the cumulative impact of all four projects.

The D.C. Circuit held that FERC was in error for failing to consider the cumulative impact.  Under NEPA, the D.C. Circuit explained, FERC must consider all connected and cumulative actions.  The D.C. Circuit found no “logical termini,” or rational endpoints to divide the four projects and found the projects were not financially independent.  Rather, the court found the Northeast Project was “inextricably intertwined” with the other three improvement projects that, taken together, upgraded the entire Eastern Leg of the 300 Line.  The court held that FERC must analyze the cumulative impact of the four projects and remanded the case to FERC for consideration.

The Court emphasized that in this case, “FERC was plainly aware of the physical, functional, and financial links between the two projects.”  Regardless of whether an interstate pipeline initially plans to embark on a series of related upgrades, once FERC is aware of the interrelatedness of proposed expansion projects, it must take care to review any cumulative environmental impacts that may arise.

The D.C. Circuit’s decision may also be a warning that FERC must pay greater attention to the NEPA review in pipeline construction projects.  The D.C. Circuit also has before it this term a case alleging that FERC did not sufficiently consider the environmental review of the siting of a new pipeline compressor station in light of less environmentally intrusive alternatives.  See Minisink Residents for Environmental Preservation and Safety v. FERC, Case No. 12-1481.  Both cases take issue with the rigor of FERC’s environmental review under NEPA, and the D.C. Circuit’s decisions may signal a new era of increased focus on the [...]

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Wind Farms and Eagle “Take” Permits – Litigation is Coming Over the New “30-Year” Permit Rule

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) recently changed its eagle “take” permitting rules to allow wind developers to apply for 30-year take permits; previously, such permits, which allow the incidental killing of eagles, were available for a maximum of just five years.  Wind developers had lobbied for the rule change based on concerns that shorter permitting periods inhibit their ability to obtain financing.  But now, a bird conservation group, the American Bird Conservancy (ABC), is threatening litigation to overturn the “30-Year” rule.

How strong are ABC’s claims?

Not especially strong, because the FWS has powerful responses to each of ABC’s contentions.  The FWS will also be protected by the deferential standard of review that typically applies in this type of lawsuit.  And even if ABC were to prevail on its claims, the end result is less likely to be wholesale revocation of the rule than some delays in implementing it.  That is because ABC’s claims are largely procedural in nature, not substantive.

ABC’s claims are summarized in an April 30 letter to the U.S. Department of the Interior and the FWS announcing the group’s intention to file suit over the 30-Year rule.  The letter contends that the FWS committed three legal errors when it extended the maximum take permitting period from five years to 30 years.  According to ABC, the FWS violated:  (1) the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), by failing to prepare an environmental impact statement or environmental assessment for the 30-Year rule; (2) the Endangered Species Act (ESA), by allegedly failing to ensure that the rule is not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of endangered species; and (3) the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act (BGEPA), which is the statute that authorizes take permits, by prioritizing the concerns of wind developers over those of the eagles the statute is designed to protect.

The problem for ABC – and the good news for wind developers – is that FWS has strong defenses to ABC’s assertions.  First, the NEPA claim will almost certainly turn on whether the FWS correctly concluded that the 30-Year rule falls within a “categorical exclusion” from NEPA’s requirements.  In its letter, ABC quibbles with the FWS’s conclusion, but courts generally review such conclusions under a highly deferential standard of review.  Indeed, agencies often prevail on such claims simply by offering a facially plausible explanation of why NEPA does not apply.  Here, the FWS has done that.  The agency’s NEPA implementation regulations permit the FWS to forego NEPA analysis for rules that have broad or speculative impacts, provided that those impacts will be analyzed on a case-by-case basis in the future.  The FWS contends that is the situation here – it will conduct a NEPA analysis on a permit-by-permit basis in the future.  Courts have rejected NEPA claims under similar circumstances in the past.

The FWS has a similar defense to ABC’s ESA claim.  That claim turns on whether the FWS had a duty to engage in internal consultation about the potential impact of [...]

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