Holes in Pipeline Approval Provoke DC Circuit Scrutiny

WASHINGTON (CN) – Digging its teeth into plans for the already delayed Mountain Valley Pipeline, the D.C. Circuit appeared critical Monday of a glaring hole in the government’s environmental research.

Critical to this morning’s hearing, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission signed off on 300-mile pipeline after determining that the daily transportation and burning of 2.4 billion cubic feet of natural gas would generate 48 million metric tons of carbon dioxide downstream emissions every year.

A map of the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline, which has faced numerous judicial hurdles as landowners push back against federally authorized eminent domain claims. Image via Mountain Valley Pipeline LLC.

The National Environmental Policy Act requires federal agencies to consider “reasonably foreseeable” environmental impacts of projects they approve, but the commission did little to probe the downstream effects here.

U.S. Circuit Judge David pressed FERC attorney Lona Perry in particular Monday for arguing that downstream effects are not “reasonably foreseeable” because the end destination of the gas remains unknown.  where the gas will go after it is shipped out.

“What difference does it make who the downstream customers are,” Tatel asked.

One of three judges presiding over his morning’s hearing, Tatel called it realistic to assume that “every molecule” of gas will be burned once shipped.

Tatel was critical of the challengers as well Monday for not making the downstream impacts a bigger part of their petition.

Benjamin Luckett, an attorney with the group Appalachian Mountain Advocates, appeared to focus his argument primarily on whether the government established necessity to assert eminent domain over land for the pipeline in West Virginia and Virginia.

Joined by U.S. Circuit Judges David Sentelle and Gregory Katsas, however, Judge Tatel noted that the commission established market needs by pointing out that gas-shipping companies have already bought contracts for the pipeline.

Judge Katsas agreed that shippers are “putting skin in the game” with the current contracts. 

“There are buyers,” Sentelle said. “They are creating a demand for that gas,”

Submitted to the FERC for approval almost four years ago, the Mountain Valley Pipeline was projected to be in use by this year and is already greatly behind schedule.

Vying to keep construction on track, FERC attorney Perry told the D.C. Circuit this morning that another factor that adds to uncertainty over downstream pollution is the offset in emissions that customers can expect from the pipeline displacing alternative fuel sources like coal.

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