With FERC set to have a quorum again, Otis State Forest rehearing requests will be considered

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Once again, there will be a quorum.

The Federal Energy Regulation Commission, known as FERC, has filled two of its four open seats.

The commission's current lone member and Acting Chairwoman Cheryl A. LaFleur said in a statement that she was excited to work with the two new members.

"With a quorum restored," LaFleur said, "our first order of business is the backlog of orders and issues that are awaiting Commission consideration."

The commission has been down to one member since February. But the Senate confirmed President Donald Trump's two nominees Neil Chatterjee and Robert Powelson on August 3 and gave the energy regulator the opportunity to get back to work.

The two men have not been sworn in yet, said commission spokesperson Tamara Young-Allen. Until that happens, the commission will remain without a quorum.

Once the new commissioners are sworn in, they'll get to work on six months of permits, rehearing requests, and other commission related work.

"There will be a lot of things on their plate," said Young-Allen.

"I anticipate they'll clear the backlog at first by rubber stamping pipeline projects," said Kathryn Eiseman, the director of Massachusetts Pipe Line Awareness Network.

Local concerns

The commission's backlog includes requests for rehearings on the Connecticut Expansion Pipeline in Sandisfield. The natural gas storage loop cuts through the Otis State Forest and has been the subject of sustained protest by activists and the target of political ire from the town's state and federal representatives.

"I have consistently called for a more transparent dialogue between FERC and local stakeholders on the issue of regional pipeline construction and its potential impact on Otis State Forest," said Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, in a statement to The Eagle.

The project was given a Notice to Proceed by the commission in April despite that lack of quorum; approvals for energy projects are not subject to the same restrictions as are rehearings.

That earned the commission some harsh words from Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., in a statement provided to The Eagle.

"FERC should never have authorized construction to commence on pipeline projects that had pending challenges, while it lacked a quorum to allow it to even consider those challenges," said Markey.

The pipeline is a project of energy giant Kinder Morgan subsidiary Tennessee Gas Pipeline. Kinder Morgan spokesman Richard Wheatley told The Eagle that he couldn't comment on open rehearing requests.

"It's a live proceeding before the FERC, and we don't want to get ahead of the facts," said Wheatley. "They're our regulator."

Locally, the mood was glum.

"Perhaps they may allow the appeal to move forward," said Jane Winn, the executive director of the Berkshire Environmental Action Team. "Unfortunately, it's too little too late."

The Narragansett Indian Tribal Historic Preservation Office filed a request with the commission accusing the regulatory body of violating the National Historic Preservation Act. The commission didn't consider ceremonial stone landscapes in the path of the pipeline, said the office's attorney Anne-Marie Garti.

"We are saying the commission did not comply with the act," Garti said.

Once the commission issues a final order on the rehearing request, the office can move forward with its legal strategy. The expectation is that the commission will reject the request for a rehearing — then it's off to the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals.

"Any appeal [in court] would be about how FERC deals with the public down the line," said Eiseman. "It's about holding them accountable for future projects."

Political opposition

State Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, told The Eagle that despite the quorum and the possibility of a rehearing, he doubted anything would change in the short term.

"I'm not going to hold my breath that policy will change on that particular case," Hinds said.

The same doubts are held by state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox. He said that the regulator had shirked its responsibilities to taxpayers by not having an open rehearing and allowing the project to continue anyway.

Nonetheless, Pignatelli believes the commission should grant the requests for rehearing.

"It may not change anything, but it would be better to hold them responsible to the community for their actions," Pignatelli said.

That was the mood at the federal level as well.

"Now that FERC's quorum has been reconstituted," said Markey in his statement, "it should immediately act to hear the pending requests for rehearing regarding Kinder Morgan's Connecticut Expansion Project in Western Massachusetts before allowing this project to proceed farther."

Neal agreed, saying in his statement that he was behind a rehearing.

"If a rehearing can be scheduled in a timely manner to help address the outstanding concerns of local residents on this federal process I would wholeheartedly support it," said Neal.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said in a statement from her office that the project should be paused until the concerns of the public are heard.

"FERC should hit pause on pipeline construction where there are pending requests for a rehearing," said Warren. "Kinder Morgan should not be allowed to move forward with construction, causing irreparable harm to our state forest, while the concerned voices of Western Massachusetts are repeatedly ignored."

Whatever happens with the rehearings, the project won't be stopped. At best, said Winn, the community could get some money in return for the destruction of old growth forests.

"That's not what we're looking for," she said.

Pignatelli told The Eagle that the process had shown that the commission isn't interested in helping the public. The disregard of the opposition to the pipeline, Pignatelli said, is indicative of the way the regulatory body sees its mission.

"FERC-ed again," Pignatelli said.

Reach staff reporter Eoin Higgins at 413-464-4872 or @EoinHiggins


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