Court Chucks Federal Approval of Sabal Trail Pipeline

WASHINGTON (CN) – Striking down the government’s approval of a natural gas pipeline that would run from Alabama to Florida, the D.C. Circuit found Tuesday that a federal environmental review gave short shrift to the project’s impact on greenhouse gas emissions.

The 2-1 decision comes a year after the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approved the 500-mile Sabal Trail pipeline project. Three environmental groups called out deficiencies in the commission’s environmental-review process, but the agency held firm in declining to stay construction of the pipelines.

Sierra Club headed up the ensuing court challenge, joined by two landowners in Georgia who were in the pipeline’s path.

The D.C. Circuit agreed with them Tuesday that the agency made no effort to predict how the influx of natural gas would impact greenhouse gas emissions from Florida power plants.

“Quantification would permit the agency to compare the emissions from this project to emissions from other projects, to total emissions from the state or the region, or to regional or national emissions-control goals,” U.S. Circuit Judge Thomas Griffith wrote for the majority. “Without such comparisons, it is difficult to see how FERC could engage in ‘informed decision making’ with respect to the greenhouse gas effects of this project, or how ‘informed public comment’ could be possible.”

FERC, an abbreviation of the commission’s name, told the court that such a calculation was impossible, but Griffith said it should have at least tried. Now it must do so on remand.

The 35-page majority opinion emphasizes that the ruling does not mean the agency will have to estimate indirect greenhouse gas increases each time it approves a new project, just in situations when it could do so reasonably. 

Some of the challengers were less successful. These included the claim that the government did not show a public need for the project, and that the pipeline would have a disproportionate impact on minority communities.

Judge Griffith was appointed to the court by President George W. Bush. Fellow Bush appointee U.S. Circuit Judge Janice Rogers Brown dissented in part, saying the commission did not have to consider the new greenhouse gas emissions from Florida power plants in its estimates because agencies do not have to consider effects they are “powerless to prevent” when putting together environmental assessments.

“While the court concludes that FERC’s approval of the proposed pipelines will be the cause of greenhouse gas emissions because a significant portion of the natural gas transported through the pipeline will be burned at power plants, the truth is that FERC has no control over whether the power plants that will emit these greenhouse gases will come into existence or remain in operation,” Brown wrote.

A representative for the commission did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the ruling.

In a statement on Tuesday, the Sierra Club said the ruling will force the agency to consider environmental impacts it has been too willing to ignore in the past. 

“Today, the D.C. Circuit rejected FERC’s excuses for refusing to fully consider the effects of this dirty and dangerous pipeline,” Sierra Club staff attorney Elly Benson said in a statement. “Even though this pipeline is intended to deliver fracked gas to Florida power plants, FERC maintained that it could ignore the greenhouse gas pollution from burning the gas. For too long, FERC has abandoned its responsibility to consider the public health and environmental impacts of its actions, including climate change. Today’s decision requires FERC to fulfill its duties to the public, rather than merely serve as a rubber stamp for corporate polluters’ attempts to construct dangerous and unnecessary fracked gas pipelines.”

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