Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to pass a bill to expedite federal review of some spects of proposed natural gas pipelines. Known as H.R. 161, the Natural Gas Pipeline Permitting Reform Act is officially summarized as providing for the "timely consideration of all licenses, permits, and approvals required under Federal law with respect to the siting, construction, expansion, or operation of any natural gas pipeline projects." If enacted into law, what would H.R. 161 do?
Relatively brief for federal legislation, the printed draft of H.R. 161 comes in at just 3 pages. Overall, it defines and accelerates the timelines for federal approvals of some proposed natural gas pipelines. If enacted, the bill would give the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission one year to decide whether or not to issue a pipeline permit, following which other federal agencies would have 90 days to issue any ancillary permits.
The pipelines that would benefit from this bill are those that have applied to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission under Section 7 of the Natural Gas Act (15 U.S.C. 717f) for a certificate of public convenience and necessity, and have used the Commission's "prefiling" process.
First, H.R. 161 amends Section 7 of the Natural Gas Act to require the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to approve or deny an application for a certificate of public convenience and necessity for a prefiled project not later than 12 months after receiving a complete application that is ready to be processed.
Second, H.R. 161 requires any agency responsible for issuing any license, permit, or approval required under Federal law in connection with a prefiled project for which a certificate of public convenience and necessity is sought under the Natural Gas Act to approve or deny the issuance of the license, permit, or approval not later than 90 days after the Commission issues its final environmental document relating to the project. Generally speaking, if such as agency cannot complete its review process within this timeline, it is compelled to deny the license, permit, or approval, but H.R. 161 would allow the Commission to extend the 90 day deadline by an additional 30 days. H.R. 161 also changes federal law to provide that in the case of agency inaction within the 90 day time period or extra 30 day period, the requested license, permit, or approval shall take effect upon the expiration of 30 days after the end of such period.
On January 22, the House voted 253-169 in favor of the bill. It now goes before the Senate. But on January 20, the Executive Office of the President issued a statement of administrative policy stating, "If the President were presented with H.R. 161, his senior advisors would recommend that he veto the bill." In that administrative policy statement, the administration acknowledged the need for additional energy infrastructure and supports the timely consideration of project applications, but notes risks from that H.R. 161. These risks include effective limits on public participation in pipeline review processes, and that agencies may be forced to make decisions based on incomplete information or information that may not be available. The executive branch's statement also cites a FERC report that since Fiscal Year 2009, FERC has completed action on 91 percent (512 out of 563) of all pipeline applications that it has received within one year of receipt, with the remaining decisions involving complex proposals that merit additional review and consideration.
Will the Natural Gas Pipeline Permitting Reform Act be enacted into law? How will its enactment -- or non-enactment -- affect proposed new natural gas pipelines, and the customers they would serve?