There’s an entire episode of The West Wing devoted to the infamous practice of the Friday news dump. Early in the episode Donna quizzes Josh on the merits of “Take-out-the-Trash Day,” and Josh highlights the benefits: the opportunity to dump multiple bad news stories onto editors with limited column space, so they don’t have the space to say much, and the fact that “no one reads the paper on Saturday.”
Last Friday, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) took things a step further. They didn’t just dump bad news on a Friday, they did it after 7pm, when any self-respecting news editor (at least on the East Coast) is deep into Happy Hour.
The bad news in question was the issuing of permits for two highly destructive and contested interstate gas projects, the Mountain Valley and Atlantic Coast Pipelines. While issuing gas pipeline permits has come to be a rote routine at FERC, the approval of these permits were different. Nearly all FERC decisions are unanimous, but on Friday, only two of the three sitting commissioners voted to approve. A dissenting commissioner at FERC is so rare, it was clearly a candidate for Trash Day.
Any White House role in the timing will probably never be clear, but the mark of Trump on these permits is as clear as day. The two ‘yes’ votes came from Trump appointees who have barely been in the job two months. The dissenting vote came from Cheryl LaFleur, a seven-year FERC veteran, former FERC Chairwoman, and Democratic Obama appointee. The fact that LaFleur has signed off on dozens of similar gas pipeline projects means she’s no friend to environmentalists, landowners, and communities along pipeline routes. But her ‘no’ votes this time around does say a lot about these two projects and the deeply flawed process by which they were certified.
LaFleur’s dissent should also speak volumes to the Democratic governors who now have the power to decide the future of these two dangerous projects – Terry McAuliffe of Virginia, Roy Cooper of North Carolina. If McAuliffe – who has the authority to stop both pipelines – or Cooper – who can stop Atlantic Coast – allow either of these projects to run roughshod through their states, they will be standing side-by-side with the Trump administration’s dismantling of environmental protections, bulldozing of citizen protections, and science denial.
It should be noted that both pipelines start out in West Virginia and the WVDEP is yet to sign off on permits for either. But Governor Jim Justice, who was elected as a Democrat but then switched parties in order to ride Trump’s populist wave, appears to be marching in lockstep with the administration’s insidious agenda. West Virginians should pile the pressure on but also know that folks in neighboring states have their back.
LaFleur’s dissenting statement was clear: “I cannot conclude that either of these projects as proposed is in the public interest.” As FERC’s certificate is called a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity, the requirement to ascertain that a pipeline serves the public interest is central.
Now it’s time for McAuliffe and Cooper – governors who have both positioned themselves as climate leaders ready to stand up to Trump – to back up their words with action. Now that FERC’s certificates have been issued, permits controlled by their administrations – 401 water quality permits in particular – are all that stand between the bulldozers of pipeline developers and hundreds of communities in harm’s way.
If McAuliffe and Cooper are serious about protecting the public interest in their states, then they have no choice but to stop these pipelines. Here’s what the record shows:
- Water: the governors have the power to deny 401 clean water act certification that is designed to protect water bodies. These pipelines will cross thousands of creeks, streams, rivers and wetlands. At each of these, the risk of pollution and sedimentation during construction is great. Similar pipeline projects have destroyed acres of wetlands in Ohio.
- Climate: Natural gas is a fossil fuel and climate science tells us that we need to stop producing and using ALL fossil fuels as soon as possible. Claims that gas is cleaner than coal or that adding gas supply will lower emissions via coal plant closures have been disproven time and again.
- Costs: gas pipeline costs are increasingly being shifted onto ratepayers via fuel surcharges. They are bad deal for consumers especially in a world where renewables and efficiency are proving to be cheaper and more effective than large fossil fuel plants.
The requirement for pipeline developers to prove a public benefit is core to the approval process, because in order to reach its intended destination by the shortest route possible, a major interstate pipeline imposes itself on the private property of farmers, homeowners, and businesses small and large, as well as public lands such as national forests and state and national parks. But FERC’s criteria for doing so – merely requiring companies to present contracts reserving pipeline capacity – is weak and heavily tilted toward the developer’s interests.
LaFleur was mostly concerned with the fact that these two projects will serve the same source – fracked gas from northwestern West Virginia – while also serving the same markets in the mid-Atlantic states. She was worried that an alternative of consolidating the projects into a single corridor, in order to minimize impacts on public lands especially, was not properly considered.
But even such a minor concession was not to be entertained by Trump’s men of action. They were determined to push these projects forward, as they had been explicitly asked to do by recent direct appeals by company directors. Given their backgrounds – FERC Chairman Neil Chatterjee was Mitch McConnell’s right-hand man on energy, and Commissioner Robert Powelson was a long-serving commissioner at the public utility commission of the leading fracked-gas state of Pennsylvania – this was no surprise. Powelson has gone so far as to describe pipeline opponents as engaging in a “jihad.”
Govs. McAuliffe and Cooper face a clear choice. They can go ahead and issue Clean Water Act permits, threatening their state’s water and enabling the Trump administration’s campaign to enrich corporate America no matter who pays the price or what the environmental consequences are. Or they can step up to the plate to protect communities, public lands, air, water, and climate.
The way that these FERC certificates were issued, by two inexperienced Commissioners against the opinion of a seven-year veteran, makes clear the paucity of the decision making process and the political agenda that was served. No governor with a conscience should allow such a miscarriage of justice to be perpetrated in their state.
When the governors continue to do nothing, it shows they are bought and paid for by Big oil and gas companies.
Was it experience that led La Fleur into a rare dissent? I cynically expect it means she’s in her last year and has decided she’ll be among the 20% of FERC commissioners who DON’T work for the industry afterward. I believe at least two former commissioners–including the recent chairman, Norman Bay–have spoken out about the corrupt practices at FERC, AFTER their terms were up; both Senator Byrd and Senator Rockefeller, in their final year, spoke truth to coal after decades of enabling the industry. Would she have voted against the project if she thought that vote would prevail–or was she allowed to dissent because it was clear that it wouldn’t affect the overarching goal of FERC, to give the industry everything it wants? A little criticism doesn’t hurt, as long as they’re allowed to bulldoze through people’s yards and farms and chapels, rip through the mountain peaks and quiet forests, and then charge their customers for every cent of the cost…plus 14 %.
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