Trump Said to Seek Limit on State Power Over Pipelines

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Trump Said to Seek Limit on State Power Over Pipelines

Developers have been trying for six years to build a 124-mile natural gas pipeline from Pennsylvania to New York. Despite winning a federal approval in 2014, the project is still no closer to reality.

Enter President Donald Trump, who on Wednesday is poised to issue two executive orders to promote energy infrastructure, including projects like the long-stalled Constitution Pipeline, according to an administration official. The orders will direct federal agencies to make specific changes meant to remove bottlenecks to natural gas transport in the Northeast and streamline federal reviews of border-crossing pipelines and other infrastructure.

One of the orders seeks to short-circuit regulators in New York who have denied the planned pipeline a crucial permit, invoking their powers under the Clean Water Act to reject projects they deem a threat to water supplies and the environment.

Other states and tribes have wielded the power to restrict a coal export terminal and hydropower project on the U.S. West Coast — which has frustrated the industry.

The Clean Water Act wasn’t “intended to give a state veto power,” said Dena Wiggins, president of the Natural Gas Supply Association. “The actions New York is taking not only impact New York, they are impacting the entire Northeast, because we can’t get a pipeline through the state in order to provide gas service to the Northeast.”

Trump’s orders, slated to be unveiled during a visit to the International Union of Operating Engineers International Training and Education Center in Crosby, Texas, comes as the president continues to chafe at regulatory barriers he says throttle the full potential of American “energy dominance.”

One of the executive orders is aimed at facilitating the shipments of U.S. natural gas in the Northeast, where limited pipeline capacity and legal constraints prompted the region to import natural gas from Russia last year, according to the administration official who asked not to be identified. It would ask the Department of Transportation to propose a new regulation to treat liquefied natural gas like other cryogenic liquids, allowing it to be shipped by rail in approved tank cars, something that isn’t allowed today.

Master Agreement

Trump will also direct regulators to develop a master agreement for placing energy infrastructure in federal rights-of-way — a move aimed at expediting approvals and renewals.

A separate executive order is aimed at bolstering cross-border energy infrastructure by limiting environmental reviews of the ventures, following long delays on high-profile projects such as TransCanada Corp.’s Keystone XL oil pipeline.

Trump is set to replace two executive orders — one dating to 1968 — and strip the State Department of some of its power to scrutinize the environmental impacts of border-crossing oil pipelines and other infrastructure, the official said. Under the president’s coming order, those permit decisions would rest with the president, and the department would instead would be responsible for advising the president on the projects within 60 days of receiving an application.

Energy Department review of border-crossing electricity projects and Federal Energy Regulatory Commissionscrutiny of natural gas pipelines that span U.S. borders would not be affected.

Earlier Actions

Trump’s orders represent a reprise of earlier presidential memos and orders Trump issued in 2017 in a bid to hasten permitting of U.S. energy infrastructure.

His action is unlikely to jump-start widespread construction, since it’s up to Congress — not the president — to restrict states’ authority under the Clean Water Act. And the initiative isn’t expected to solve legal problemsthwarting several pipelines in the Mid-Atlantic U.S., which hinge on inadequate Interior Department reviews — not formal objections from states.

Still it marks a formal push by Trump to rein in states that have emerged as a major barrier to constructing pipelines.

Even if it’s not a “silver bullet,” the pipeline order “will be construed as opening the door to overcoming these hurdles that states are throwing up,” said Christi Tezak, managing director at ClearView Energy Partners.

Read: CEO Urges U.S. to Speed Process for Stalled Shale Gas Pipeline

Trump’s pipeline order will direct the Environmental Protection Agency to revise its guidance and regulations for how states can use their certification power to vet projects that cross wetlands, rivers and other bodies of water.

Those Section 401 certifications — named for a provision in the Clean Water Act — are supposed to be approved, denied or waived by states and tribes within a year of a project application. Yet federal regulators have said the one-year clock can be restarted whenever developers submit new or revised applications for state review.

Fights over state permits have led to years-long delays and protracted federal court battles, with some analysts urging investors to consider “elevated risk premiums” in making decisions about projects designed to cross some particularly challenging states.

Prime Location

In addition to the Constitution pipeline, a joint venture between Cabot Oil & Gas Corp.Williams Cos.Duke Energy Corp. and AltaGas Ltd., New York also has denied water quality certifications for Millennium Pipeline Co. LLC’s CPV Valley lateral project in the state’s Orange County and National Fuel Gas Co.’s Northern Access project.

The denials have drawn scrutiny because of the state’s prime location, standing between a prolific shale gas formation and consumers throughout the Northeast U.S. that are hungry for it.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has said that “no corporation should be allowed to endanger our natural resources,” and vowed the state “will not relent in our fight to protect our environment.” And the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation said by email that New York “will continue to use all available means to vigorously oppose any efforts to reduce states’ ability to protect our water resources.”

Trump’s order can’t override provisions in the Clean Water Act that give states a powerful role vetting such projects, Tezak said.

“An executive order cannot take off the table the ability of a state to say no for reasons it believes are appropriate, and the venue for adjudicating that is not the White House” — it’s the courts, Tezak said. But “what states will be constrained from doing is meaningfully extending the process.”

Environmentalists have blasted the plan. 

“This executive order is nothing but an attempt to trample people’s rights to protect their air, water, and climate from polluting oil and gas pipelines,” said Greenpeace USAClimate Campaigner Rachel Rye Butler.

The president’s effort also has rankled some Republicans — including governors in the Western U.S. — who say his initiative threatens to infringe states’ rights.

The Western Governors Association warned Trump in a Jan. 31 letter that curtailing “the vital role of states in maintaining water quality within their boundaries would inflict serious harm to the division of state and federal authorities established by Congress.”

Photo: As published on Bloomberg –
Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

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