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US House looks to expedite pipeline permitting

03 May 2017 18:00 (+01:00 GMT)
US House looks to expedite pipeline permitting

Washington, 3 May (Argus) — Republicans in the US House of Representatives are dusting off energy bills that died last year as they make a fresh attempt to expedite a permitting process for natural gas and oil pipelines they say takes too long.

The bills under consideration include similar language included in legislation the House passed last year but that never became law. President Donald Trump has pushed to accelerate pipeline approvals, but Republicans view their bills as a more permanent fix to what they consider to be a flawed permitting process and avoid the types of issues that delayed the 830,000 b/d Keystone XL pipeline.

"I think we are going to do a pipeline permitting reform bill," House Energy and Commerce Committee vice chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) said today at a congressional hearing. Barton said the bill could move forward this year or next year and would include new permitting deadlines.

One of the bills discussed today would give the US Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) more power to set deadlines among federal and state agencies that permit natural gas pipelines. Failing to hit such a deadline would require the agency to notify the US Congress. The bill would also require FERC to consider data from aerial surveys when permitting pipelines, potentially avoiding the need to obtain permission from landowners for in-person surveys.

The other bill would place FERC in charge of permitting cross-border oil pipelines, eliminating an existing presidential review process overseen by the US State Department. The bill would set a 120-deadline for FERC to approve an oil pipeline border crossing after environmental reviews are complete, unless it found the border-crossing was not in the "public interest." This review would replace a more rigorous "national interest" test that now applies.

Democrats said the natural gas pipeline bill was unnecessary and warned the cross-border bill would set up a rubber stamp to controversial cross-border pipelines. They said that the president should continue permitting cross-border oil pipelines like Keystone XL and warned that redirecting the authority to FERC would restrict any reviews to the physical border-crossing itself, rather than the whole project.

"Do my colleagues on the other side of the aisle not have confidence in President Trump to make swift and rational decisions on major energy projects?" House Energy and Commerce Committee ranking member Frank Pallone (D-New Jersey) said at the hearing.

Industry groups say the bills would be helpful but are urging lawmakers to go even further. Pipeline companies have been increasingly concerned about actions by states to block pipelines by denying needed water permits.

Interstate Natural Gas Association of America's president Don Santa said lawmakers should "be bold" as they consider the first major changes to pipeline permitting since 2005. The natural gas pipeline trade group wants lawmakers to hold agencies accountable for missing deadlines and modify the Clean Water Act to prevent states from using water permits to block pipelines.

Oil pipeline trade group the Association of Oil Pipelines president Andy Black urged lawmakers to limit cross-border pipeline reviews to the physical border crossing and establish a "presumption of approval" for those projects, rather than requiring regulators to find the project would be in the national interest.

But loading up a pipeline permitting bill with all the provisions industry wants would likely doom it in the US Senate, where legislation needs at least eight votes from Democrats to avoid the threat of a filibuster. US Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee chairman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) today said she wanted to revive a wide-ranging energy bill she backed last year, which had the FERC gas pipeline language but omitted the cross-border oil pipeline changes.

"We think we can build on that effort, that framework," she said.