Aggrieved landowners across the country told FERC on Wednesday that they doubted its new Office of Public Participation (OPP) would improve the commission’s decision-making over natural gas infrastructure.
Still, many expressed gratitude to the commission for holding its first ever “listening session” and gathering input on the office, created in 1978 under the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act but only recently given renewed attention by Congress at the end of last year. Under the Energy Act of 2020, FERC has until June 25 to issue a report on the office’s status, including its structure and budget. (See FERC Sets ‘Listening Sessions’ on New Office.)
The session — scheduled for an hour-and-a-half Wednesday and focused on landowners and impacted communities — lasted far longer than that, as more than 350 people each spoke for up to three minutes. The vast majority of these were landowners who had fought, many in vain, with gas companies exercising eminent domain to build pipelines, compressor stations and LNG facilities.
Many took the opportunity not to give their advice on OPP, but to criticize the commission for its ineffective public outreach, sounding similar complaints by protesters at commission headquarters over the years. They spoke of only learning about their properties being taken just before construction was to begin; of the commission’s poorly designed website and electronic filing process; and of traveling to scoping meetings hundreds of miles away to voice their concerns, only to feel ignored when a project was approved.
Citing these past experiences, speakers said they were deeply mistrustful of the commission, and they doubted a new office could fix that mistrust.
“FERC can never be trusted to make the right decisions based on fact,” said one speaker, a resident of Virginia in the path of the Mountain Valley Pipeline. He called OPP a “baby first step” toward improvement, but he ultimately dismissed it as a political stunt meant to stifle public protest.
“The heart of the issue is there is no rational discourse with FERC,” said another speaker, a resident of New Jersey that would be impacted by the PennEast Pipeline. He dismissed OPP as “window dressing.”
“It will take a lot more than OPP for FERC to regain public trust,” another speaker said.
Without establishing trust, said a speaker from Pennsylvania, “OPP is just lipstick on a pig.”
Those that did give recommendations for the office shared similar concerns:
- The director of the office should be someone with experience in community organizing and outreach.
- The office should be overseen by an advisory board, made up of members both geographically and ethnically diverse and whose directions are legally binding.
- FERC should “completely overhaul” (a phrase used by multiple speakers) its website and make filing comments on a project as easy as sending email.
- OPP should hold far more scoping meetings in a variety of places around the impacted area to allow for more participation.
The session was the first of four FERC had planned. The next day, at the commission’s open meeting, Commissioner Allison Clements, whom Chair Richard Glick appointed to oversee the office’s institution, announced that staff were working on scheduling a fifth, to be held in the evening, as many speakers also complained about the time it was held (1 p.m. ET). As she did at the opening of the session, Clements asked the public for patience as staff learn as they go.
Clements called the session “a powerful experience” and said she had “already learned a great deal.”
“We heard people express anger, frustration, devastation and inequity,” she said. “And then we also heard people channel these experiences into productive recommendations for the commission to consider in setting up the office.”
Clements also acknowledged that many complained about the lack of opportunities for Spanish speakers to participate in the session, and that FERC would try to hold a sixth session entirely in Spanish.
But during the second session, held Monday, speakers also urged FERC to translate all documents in the dominant languages of the region where a proposed project would be located. One speaker, representing the Houston-based Bayou City Waterkeeper, said that 140 languages are represented by the residents in the Galveston Bay area, with sizable populaces of Chinese and Vietnamese speakers.
This session ended at the hour-and-a-half mark on the dot, with some speakers able to queue up for a second turn. Though the session was intended to focus on environmental justice and indigenous communities, some speakers merely reiterated landowner concerns while paying lip service to those communities.
Those who did offer substantive comments on indigenous concerns stressed that “consultation is not consent,” and that FERC should not conflate the concerns of these communities with those of their tribal governments. They also urged the commission to make an effort to consult with tribes not federally recognized.
FERC Threatens $20M Fine
Several speakers in both sessions urged the commission to simply stop approving gas infrastructure projects — something that would take a highly unlikely act of Congress.
But on Thursday, FERC said it did assess, for the first time, the greenhouse gas emissions of a project and its impact on global climate change, finding it negligible. (See related story, FERC Assesses Climate Impact of Gas Project for 1st Time.)
The commission also ordered Energy Transfer Partners and Rover Pipeline to show cause why they should not be fined $20.2 million for misleading the commission regarding Rover’s destruction of a historic Ohio property (IN19-4).
The order includes a report by FERC’s Office of Enforcement alleging that during the application process for a certificate to build Rover’s $4.2 billion, 711-mile pipeline, the company misrepresented its intended treatment of a historic house in Dennison, Ohio, known as the Stoneman House.
Staff said Rover purchased the house in May 2015 and demolished it in May 2016 without notifying the commission.
“Rover stated that it was ‘committed to a solution that results in no adverse effects’ to the Stoneman House, an 1843 farmstead located near Rover’s largest proposed compressor station,” the commission said. “In truth, the OE staff report alleges Rover was simultaneously planning to purchase the house with the intent to demolish it, if necessary, to complete its pipeline.”
The order says that the commission has not adopted or endorsed the staff report. Rover has 30 days to respond.
Separately, FERC ordered Midship Pipeline Co. to resolve restoration issues along the right of way for the Midcontinent Supply Header Interstate Pipeline Project in Oklahoma (CP17-458, CP19-17). The commission said landowners have complained of ponding from trench subsidence, erosion, compaction, construction debris on-site, topsoil loss and lack of revegetation. The order said the commission “strongly recommends that Midship engage the commission’s dispute resolution service to assist in negotiations between Midship and certain landowners.”