Federal appointments could unfreeze Kinder Morgan pipeline plan
The plan to use a natural gas pipeline that passes through Boyle County to transport fracking byproducts may soon clear a federal logjam that has left it limbo since January. But a local attorney who has helped organize opponents of the plan says local regulations may still prevent the plan from becoming a reality.
Energy giant Kinder Morgan has filed to abandon the Tennessee Gas Pipeline No. 1, a 964-mile-long line that currently carries natural gas from Louisiana to northeastern Ohio. If abandonment is approved, the pipeline would no longer be allowed to carry natural gas and it would no longer be regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
Kinder Morgan has stated it then wants to use the pipeline to transport natural gas liquids (NGLs) — byproducts of fracking that can be used to make plastics — in the opposite direction, from the northeast to the gulf coast.
But Kinder Morgan’s filing to abandon the pipeline, which runs through numerous Kentucky counties including Boyle and Garrard, has been held up since Feb. 3, when a lack of voting members appointed to FERC meant the agency didn’t have a quorum and couldn’t take action.
This month, the U.S. Senate approved two nominations to FERC made by President Donald Trump: Neil Chatterjee and Robert F. Powelson, clearing the way for FERC to once again begin taking action on projects.
“Chatterjee, a senior energy adviser to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), will serve out the remainder of a term that ends in June 2021,” according to a news release from FERC. “Powelson, a member and former chairman of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission since 2008 and current president of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, will serve out the remainder of a term that ends in June 2020.”
National news reports said the appointments could mean fairly quick approval for projects that have been on the shelf, including the Tennessee Gas Pipeline No. 1 project.
According to WFPL, “The confirmation vote won praise from industry groups and many regional lawmakers, including West Virginia Sen. Joe Minchin, who called it ‘an important step in ensuring this key independent agency can get back to work.’”
“We are very pleased that FERC now has a quorum, particularly given their outstanding qualifications,” said David W. Conover, vice president for corporate communications and public affairs with Kinder Morgan. “We expect they will have worked through most if not all of the backlog of matters awaiting their decisions, including the application for the (Pipeline No. 1) project by the end of the year.”
Local attorney Mark Morgan, a member of an informal pipeline steering committee that has organized local efforts opposed to the plan, said he’s not surprised at the appointments and expects FERC will give the “green light” to Kinder Morgan’s abandonment request.
“FERC has a history of rubber-stamping applications from pipeline companies and I don’t anticipate that things will be any different from the current FERC board,” Morgan said. “Since Kinder Morgan announced several years ago that they intend to run hazardous explosive liquids through (Tennessee Gas Pipeline No. 1) through Danville … We’ve always known that it was going to be up to our community and other communities along this proposed pipeline to protect ourselves”
In 2016, local governments in Boyle County passed a zoning amendment that requires applicants wishing to move certain hazardous materials through pipelines in the county to first obtain a conditional use permit from the local Board of Adjustments. The amendment was made with support of many in the county who were opposed to the pipeline plan because they said it creates the risk of a catastrophe if the pipeline ruptures and fracking byproducts — natural gas liquids or NGLs — spill into Herrington Lake.
The amendment requires applicants to prove their project fits in well with how the surrounding land is already being used.
The zoning amendment was held up as unique in the U.S. and a model that other communities along the route of the pipeline could use to similarly block Kinder Morgan’s plan.
Project opponents were optimistic in September 2016, when FERC delayed approval while an environmental assessment was completed.
“I don’t want to overstate the importance of it, but it means that FERC … is not just going to rubber-stamp the application by Tennessee Gas or Kinder Morgan to abandon Pipeline One,” Morgan said at the time.
But when the environmental assessment was completed, FERC decided the abandonment would not pose “significant” risk to communities and environments along the pipeline route. Morgan said at the time FERC ignored Kinder Morgan’s plans for after abandonment in making that determination.
What followed was a public comment period, during which dozens of Boyle County residents — and local and regional elected officials — submitted comments to FERC opposing the pipeline plan.
The comment period closed on Dec. 2, 2016. FERC then lost its ability to give a final ruling on Feb. 3, when Commissioner Norman Bay’s term ended. That was the situation until Aug. 4, when Chatterjee and Powelson were appointed.
Morgan said he is confident the local zoning amendment gives the Board of Adjustments and the Planning and Zoning Commission all the power they need to make a “fully-informed decision” if Kinder Morgan gains FERC approval and seeks a zoning variance for its pipeline in Boyle County.
“I can’t speculate on what that decision will be, but the ordinances that our local governments have passed will ensure they can afford expert consultants that are as educated and as well-informed as those with Kinder Morgan,” he said. “So it’s going to be less of a David-and-Goliath fight that you might expect.”
Kinder Morgan VP Conover said the company didn’t have a comment on the local zoning regulation or what its next step would be after an approval from FERC.
“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” he said.
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