Paul W. Parfomak
Specialist in Energy and Infrastructure Policy
Growth in U.S. shale gas production involves the expansion of natural gas pipeline infrastructure to transport natural gas from producing regions to consuming markets, typically in other states. Over 300,000 miles of interstate transmission pipeline already transport natural gas across the United States. However, if the growth in U.S. shale gas continues, the requirement for new pipelines could be substantial. This ongoing expansion has increased congressional interest in the role of the federal government in the certification (permitting) of interstate natural gas pipelines.
Under Section 7(c) of the Natural Gas Act of 1938, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is authorized to issue certificates of “public convenience and necessity” for “the construction or extension of any facilities ... for the transportation in interstate commerce of natural gas.” Thus, companies seeking to build interstate natural gas pipelines must first obtain certificates of public convenience and necessity from FERC. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 (EPAct) designates FERC as the lead agency for coordinating “all applicable Federal authorizations” and for National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) compliance in reviewing pipeline certificate applications.
There are no statutory time limits within which FERC must complete its certificate review process. However, EPAct authorizes FERC to establish a schedule for all related federal authorizations and provides for judicial petition if an agency fails to comply with that schedule. Congress included these provisions in EPAct to address concerns that some interstate gas pipeline and other energy infrastructure approvals were being unduly delayed by a lack of coordination or insufficient action among agencies involved in the certification process. FERC has promulgated regulations requiring certificate-related final decisions from other agencies no later than 90 days after the commission issues its final environmental document.
Notwithstanding the EPAct provisions, there is continuing concern by some in the gas industry and in Congress that FERC review of pipeline certificate applications can still take too long. The Natural Gas Pipeline Permitting Reform Act (H.R. 1900) seeks to expedite the federal review of certificate applications by imposing deadlines on the agencies involved. H.R. 1900 would impose an explicit 12-month deadline on FERC certificate reviews for projects using FERC’s pre-filing procedures and would codify the commission’s 90-day regulatory deadline for any certificaterelated agency decisions. Any agency decision not meeting the 90-day deadline would be approved by default.
The optimal time for any deadline that Congress might impose on FERC or cooperating agencies is open to debate. The 12-month deadline in H.R. 1900 would be approximately the same as the average FERC certificate review time today. However, 12 months could represent a reduction in the review time that might be expected for atypically lengthy or complex pipeline projects. In light of FERC’s recent record approving new gas pipelines, FERC commissioners have been neutral or modestly supportive towards legislative proposals for stronger certificate review authorities. However, deadlines imposed on FERC or cooperating agencies could raise the possibility that they might deny permits for some projects solely on the grounds that they lack sufficient time for an adequate review. The ability of FERC and any other federal or state agencies it works with to expedite their parts of certificate review to meet an expedited schedule may be limited by available resources.
Date of Report: November 19, 2013
Number of Pages: 17
Order Number: R43138
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