D.C. court could sideline Sabal Trail gas pipeline

A federal appeals court decision in Washington this week could shut down construction of a natural gas pipeline in the Southeast, the Sabal Trail project. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit Wednesday denied a request from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the partners in the Southeast Market Pipeline project to reverse its ruling last August that FERC’s environmental review of the project was inadequate.

The August ruling upheld a Sierra Club complaint that FERC’s environmental impact statement should have considered the impact of the gas to be burned in power plants on the climate. The court said it would vacate FERC’s permits for the pipeline designed to move gas to current and future Florida power plants.

FERC in September issued a draft supplement to its EIS, aimed at fulfilling the court’s order and took comments for 60 days. But a final supplemental EIS has not seen the light of day. FERC spokeswoman Tamara Young-Allen told E&E News yesterday, “FERC staff’s final supplemental EIS for Sabal Trail and the commission’s order on remand are pending final decisions.

The court could void the permits, stopping construction, next Wednesday. FERC could possibly stop that action by announcing it intends to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. But because a court has never ordered the agency to scrap a pipeline permit, the course ahead is unclear. The Sierra Club told E&E News it would contest any FERC effort to delay the order from the appeals court.

ClearView Energy Partners, a consulting firm, told it clients Wednesday, as reported in Natural Gas Intelligence, “If, hypothetically, FERC were to issue a final SEIS as early as [Thursday], current regulations appear to require that the commission wait 30 days before issuing a new certificate to the affected projects. We therefore expect that it is possible that the project could need to temporarily wind down construction operations until a new certificate can be issued (under our current hypothetical that would be in early March), as well as new notices to proceed.”

Sabal Trail Transmission is a joint venture of Spectra Energy Partners, NextEra Energy, Inc. and Duke Energy. It is a 515-mile interstate natural gas pipeline providing transportation services for power generation needs to Florida Power and Light and Duke Energy of Florida.

The Appeals Court rejection of  FERC’s request to reverse its August order comes just weeks after the commission announced it will engage in a full review of its gas pipeline certification procedures. The commission has long been under fire for refusing to fully consider the implications of expanded use of natural gas, a greenhouse gas, on the climate.

In its August ruling, according to a legal analysis in the Climate Law Blog “The D.C. Circuit found that the combustion emissions were both foreseeable and causally linked to the approval of the pipeline project. With regards to foreseeability, the court noted that the project was intended to transport the gas to power plants in Florida, some of which already existed, others of which were in the planning stages. Thus, the court noted that the combustion of the gas “is not just ‘reasonably foreseeable,’ it is the project’s entire purpose.”

— Kennedy Maize

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