The federal process for approving new natural gas pipelines is veiled from the public, does a poor job of tracking their views, and may not be considering their concerns when weighing new projects, according to a new auditor's report.
Environmental and pipeline safety advocates say the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Inspector General's findings about the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) are alarming, if not surprising.
"It's frankly quite troubling, but at the same time, this is not news to those folks who have been impacted by proposed pipelines and those folks who try to be involved and navigate FERC's system," Montina Cole, a senior energy advocate with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
The report found that FERC lacked a consistent process for tracking public comments on proposed pipeline projects, suggesting that all comments might not be reviewed.
"In the absence of a consistent methodology, we did not verify to what degree comments received by FERC were considered, aggregated, and reflected in the environmental documents or final orders for the certificate applications during our review," the report concluded. "The lack of a consistent methodology could increase the risk that FERC may not address significant and impactful public comments in the environmental document or final order."
"If people's comments are not being reviewed at all, that is highly problematic and completely unacceptable," Cole said. "There are high stakes here; people's lives, their livelihoods, property and certainly the environmental on which we all depend."
Concerns Poor Communities May Not Be Heard
The findings of the inspector general's May 24 report mirror those of a 2017 report commissioned by NRDC. That report concluded that the Commission needed to better take into account public comments, especially from stakeholders with limited resources.
An example of how individuals with limited resources feel their concerns have not received proper consideration is currently playing out in Virginia.
On May 30, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam's Advisory Council on Environmental Justice called for a moratorium on new gas infrastructure in the state, including the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines, in part due to federal regulators' failure to address concerns expressed by low-income communities of color living along the routes of the proposed pipelines.
Information Difficult to Find Online, Audit Says
The current inspector general's report also found fault with accessibility of FERC records, saying it was difficult to find information through the commission's website.
From 2006 to 2015, it said, FERC also failed to provide schedules of environmental reviews on proposed pipelines in the federal register, limiting the ability of interested parties, including other federal agencies, to submit comment.
The report noted that part of the problem stemmed from the fact that the commission had not specifically designed its website for use by the general public but rather intended it for insiders like industry, government officials and lawyers.
The deficiencies have caused many problems, said Carl Weimer, executive director of Pipeline Safety Trust, a watchdog group.
"Far too often the frustration with the FERC approval process leads to a long term distrust by the public of the pipeline companies and other government regulators that have to ensure the safe operation of these pipelines long after the FERC process is finished," Weimer wrote in an email.
Fixing Problems Might Not Be So Simple
The report included a response from FERC Chairman Kevin McIntyre, who said the Commission would work to address the issues raised.
Doing so, however, may prove difficult.
"I hope they will improve the system, but these are still technically complicated issues that are going to be difficult for people who are not steeped in the details to participate in," said Ari Peskoe, an expert in energy law at Harvard University. "They can try to explain things better, they can try to have a more user-friendly interface, but at the end of the day, it's still a very technical proceeding."
FERC is currently reviewing its pipeline permitting process, including whether the process can be improved.
"The issue is not so much the efficiency of FERC's process, whether they can do it quickly or not, but the sufficiency," Cole said. "'Is the process sufficient', and I think the answer is clearly no."