WASHINGTON (CN) - Calling the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission a "rogue agency" beholden to pipeline companies, a group of 165 environmental groups called on the country's leading progressives, Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, to investigate.
The Jan. 14 letter, signed by such groups as the New Jersey Sierra Club and the Alliance for Sustainable Development, calls out the commission's funding mechanism and leadership, as well as its use of eminent domain.
"FERC is misusing legal loopholes and ignoring court orders to advance gas infrastructure projects while preventing the public from exercising their rights to judicial review or fair public participation in the process," the letter states.
The agency is "funded 100 percent by the industry it regulates and is advanced by the revolving employee door that exists between FERC and its regulated community," the letter continues.
An independent agency within the Department of Energy, the commission regulates the infrastructure and interstate transmission of electricity, natural gas and oil. It also monitors energy markets and related environmental issues.
Though the president can appoint up to five people to lead the commission for five-year terms, the agency is short one commissioner.
Authorized to approve applications for pipeline construction, the agency has used the legal tactic of eminent domain to seize private land for this function when it runs into opposition from property owners.
Critics note that the FERC has approved nearly all the pipeline project proposals that came its way.
The letter also calls out FERC's "tolling orders," which allow the agency to extend the period to consider petitions and applications. Tolling orders "allow projects to advance while denying citizens the ability to initiate an appeal in court," according to the letter.
"It is time that Congress and the public secure an independent investigation of FERC," the letter states, calling for the Government Accountability Office to lead the investigation.
The House Energy and Power Subcommittee looked into the FERC's use of eminent domain at a December hearing that saw testimony from all four of the agency's commissioners.
During the hearing the subcommittee's chairman, a Republican, worried that the Environmental Protection Agency had "leapfrogged" FERC in the regulation of electricity.
As with many federal agencies, some of FERC's appointees either have worked in the industry or leave to join industry groups and companies. Current commissioner Cheryl LaFleur was at one point CEO of electricity delivery company National Grid USA. Since his resigned in October, LaFleur's predecessor Phillip Moeller this week signed on as the senior vice president of energy lobby Edison Electric Institute.
New Jersey Sierra Club president Jeff Tittel noted in a statement that the FERC has rubberstamped fracking in opposition to President Barack Obama's 2013 executive order on climate change. "For far too long he FERC has been on the side of the industry it is supposed to regulate," Tittel said.
Thursday's letter comes on the heels of a similar missive, dated Nov. 30, 2015, and amended on Jan. 11, by the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, which had opposed fracking and several natural gas pipelines.
The FERC declined to comment when reached for comment.
Delaware Riverkeeper Network records say the FERC has never issued a civil penalty for violations related to pipeline construction.
Maya Van Rossum, who heads the nonprofit, said in a statement that FERC has a history of "misusing legal loopholes and ignoring court orders while ordinary citizens play by the rules."
Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Sanders, who hopes to trade his seat in Vermont for the Oval Office, both sit on the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.
The letter also includes roughly 2,000 concerned individuals.Follow @NickRummell
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.