Pipeline Regulations & Impact Assessments, a Primer
Part of the Falcon Public EIA Project
Pipelines are categorized by what they carry — natural gas, oil, or natural gas liquids (NGLs) — and where they go — interstate or intrastate. The regulatory system is complicated. This primer is a quick guide to the agencies that may be involved in Falcon’s permit reviews.
The siting of natural gas pipelines crossing state or country boundaries is regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Meanwhile, determination of the location of natural gas routes that do not cross such boundaries are not jurisdictional to FERC, instead determined by the owner pipeline company. Hazardous liquids and NGL pipelines are not regulated for siting by FERC regardless of their location and destination. However, FERC does have authority over determining rates and terms of service in these cases. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers gets involved when pipelines cross navigable waters such as large rivers and state Environmental Protection Agencies.
Pipeline design, operation, and safety regulations are established by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), but these regulations may vary state-by-state as long as minimal federal standards are met by the pipeline project. Notably, PHMSA’s oversight of safety issues does not determine where a pipeline is constructed as this is regulated by the different agencies mentioned above – nor are PHMSA’s safety considerations reviewed simultaneously in siting determinations done by other agencies.
These federal agencies are required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) investigating how the pipeline pertains to things like the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the National Historic Preservation Act, as well as state and local laws. The image above, for instance, is a caption from the Army Corp’s assessment of the Atlantic Sunrise, a natural gas pipeline.
An EIS is based on surveying and background research conducted by the company proposing the project, then submitted to agencies as an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). An EIS can exceed hundreds of pages and can go through many drafts as companies are asked to refine their EIA in order to qualify for approval.
Pipeline proposals are also evaluated by state and local agencies. In Pennsylvania, for instance, the PA DEP is responsible for assessing how to minimize pipeline impacts. The DEP’s mission is to protect Pennsylvania’s air, land and water from pollution and to provide for the health and safety of its citizens through a cleaner environment. The PA Fish and Boat Commission oversees the avoidance or relocation of protected species. Local township zoning codes can also apply, such as to where facilities are sited near zoned residential areas or drinking reservoirs, but these can be overruled by decisions made at the federal level, especially when eminent domain is granted to the project.
Regulating the Falcon
For the Falcon pipeline, an interstate pipeline that will transport ethane (an NGL), FERC will likely have authority over determining rates and terms of service, but not siting. Construction permitting will be left state agencies and PHMSA will retain its federal authority with the Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission (PUC) acting as PHMSA’s state agent to ensure the project complies with federal safety standards and to investigate violations. The Army Corps will almost certainly be involved given that the Falcon will cross the Ohio River. As far as we know, the Falcon will not have eminent domain status because it supplies a private facility and, thus, does not qualify as a public utility project.
Questioning Impact Assessments
The contents of EIAs vary, but are generally organized along the lines of the thematic categories that we have created for assessing the Falcon data, as seen above. However, there is also much that EISs fail to adequately address. The Army Corp’s assessment of the Atlantic Sunrise is a good example. The final EIS resulting from the operators EIA includes considerations for socioeconomic impacts, such effects on employment and environmental justice, as seen in the excerpt below. But potential negative impact in these areas are not necessarily linked to laws requiring special accommodations. For instance, federal regulations mandate achieving environmental justice by “identifying and addressing, as appropriate, disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects” of projects subject to NEPA’s EIS requirement. However, there are no laws that outline thresholds of unacceptable impact that would disallow a project to proceed.
Furthermore, the narratives of EIAs are almost always written by the companies proposing the project, using sources of data that better support their claims of minimal or positive impact. This is again seen in the Atlantic Sunrise EIS, where several studies are cited on how pipelines have no affect on property values or mortgages, with no mention of other studies that contradict such findings. Other factors that may be important when considering pipeline projects, such as concerns for sustainability, climate change, or a community’s social well-being, are noticeably absent.
Complicating matters, some pipeline operators have been successful in skirting comprehensive EIAs. This was seen in the case of the Mariner East 2 pipeline. Despite being the largest pipeline project in Pennsylvania’s history, a NEPA review was never conducted for ME2.
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By Kirk Jalbert, FracTracker Alliance