On February 7, 2018, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (“FERC”) moved for a last-minute review to save the Sabal Trail natural gas pipeline just hours before it was scheduled to be shut down. In a motion filed on Tuesday in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, FERC asked the court for a 45-day stay of issuance of the court’s mandate to allow the agency to issue an order on remand reauthorizing certificates for the pipeline project.
The request stems from an August 22, 2017 D.C. Circuit opinion concluding that FERC did not adequately analyze the impacts of greenhouse gas (“GHGs”) emissions that would result from the construction and operation of the $3.5 billion pipeline. The court concluded that FERC had failed to comply with the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”) because the agency’s Environmental Impact Statement (“EIS”) did not consider the indirect environmental effects of authorizing the transportation of natural gas to be burned, which in turn generates GHG emissions. The court remanded the matter back to FERC to give a quantitative estimate of the downstream GHG emissions that will stem from the pipeline or explain specifically why it was not able to do so.
On January 31, 2018, the D.C. Circuit court denied FERC’s petition to rehear the issue, setting the stage for a one week countdown to the shutdown of the major gas network, which has been operating since June 2017. On Monday, FERC took a major step to keeping the pipeline in service by issuing a revised supplemental environmental impact statement (“SEIS”), but neglected to state whether it would issue an emergency order to prevent shutdown of the Sabal Trail pipeline. However, it is unclear if FERC has the authority to immediately reissue certificates to the pipeline prior to a thirty day wait period following the issuance of the SEIS. This may explain why the agency elected to request a short stay from the court for it to reauthorize the pipeline.
In its February 7th motion, FERC asserted that “[i]f pipeline service is halted, Florida Power & Light may not be able to meet its customers’ electricity needs efficiently or reliably.” The utility services an estimated 4.9 million households in Florida. FERC’s motion automatically stays the court’s mandate until February 16, which is when responses to the motion are due.
It is also unclear whether the D.C. Circuit will ultimately approve FERC’s SEIS. The document provides an estimate that the pipeline could increase Florida’s GHG emissions by 3.6 to 9.9% over 2015 levels. However, the agency declined to comment on the potential environmental effects from that increase, noting there was no “suitable” scientific method for doing so. We will continue to follow this issue and will provide updates as events warrant.