In February, the obscure but powerful Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) passed draft policy statements that would require the agency to consider foreseeable greenhouse gas emissions before approving any proposed interstate gas pipeline or liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal. These statements would also require consideration of the engineering impacts of these projects on historically marginalized communities and communities of color, long ignored by FERC and many other government agencies.
The guidelines outlined in the FERC’s draft documents are not only correct, but have been ordered by a number of federal courts, including a ruling last summer that found the FERC wrong in considering the climate and environmental justice impacts of two proposed fracked gas export terminals had not examined the lower Rio Grande Valley in Texas. Therefore, it is critical that the FERC not give in to opposition from the gas industry and its congressional allies and finalize these court-backed rules as soon as possible.
As the sons and daughters of Puerto Rico, an island predominantly populated by people of color and devastated by climate-related disasters like Hurricane Maria in 2017, we have a special concern about FERC and its oversight.
One company, New Fortress Energy, built a natural gas terminal in San Juan without receiving FERC approval. It’s hard to believe that a facility of this size could have flown under the regulatory agency’s radar during construction, but FERC never claimed jurisdiction over the terminal until it was already operational. This means that FERC did not consider local or national environmental impacts before building the terminal.
While we appreciate that FERC has now stepped in and that the DC Circuit Court recently upheld its authority to regulate the new Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) terminal, the reality is that it will be built alongside a cluster of polluting facilities could and closer working communities without considering the impact.
The policy changes proposed in FERC’s draft statements would help other communities avoid facing what the people of San Juan have regarding the uninvestigated and unsupervised construction of an LNG terminal.
Last year we asked President Biden to nominate a climate justice champion to serve on the commission. With the confirmation of Willie Phillips, there is now a 3-2 Democratic majority in the FERC to advance the Commission’s commitment to environmental justice, which can address shortcomings the courts have repeatedly found, and work to help vulnerable communities not continue to be disproportionately damaged by fossil fuel infrastructure.
In the past, the Commission had apparently never come across a gas pipeline or LNG terminal that it didn’t like. This was true regardless of local impact, regardless of whether the installations were necessary, and regardless of the extent to which the installations would increase greenhouse gas emissions for many decades to come. FERC’s record on these issues has been so appalling that it has been repeatedly admonished in court.
We had hoped that speedy and permanent approval of the policy statements would indicate at least a modest but positive change in FERC’s stance on the impact of gas infrastructure projects on the country and surrounding communities. As Phillips said during the hearing that won his seat, “But to be clear, the DC Circuit has made it clear to FERC that they have a responsibility to consider climate change and environmental justice. And that’s something that, if it’s confirmed, I’ll also focus on.”
Unfortunately, even that modest shift is now in jeopardy. Opposition from gas industry allies to the proposed policy changes has been fierce. The Wall Street Journal also criticized Phillips and two of his FERC colleagues immediately after their decision in February. The fact that no new domestic gas infrastructure is needed to meet Europe’s gas needs or high domestic energy prices seems irrelevant to those championing the gas industry.
There is still time for FERC to defy this political pressure and show their commitment to climate and environmental justice. It is impossible for them to do this unless they take a first step by finalizing the two gas policy statements as soon as possible.
Ramón Cruz is President of the Sierra Club.
Ruth Santiago is a member of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council.