Two U.S. Senators have reintroduced legislation that will give citizens more leverage and say in pipeline and other proceedings in a federal agency that has "sweeping authority" over approval of energy projects.
The legislation will also create an Office of Public Participation and Consumer Advocacy that would have the power to hold independent investigations about rates and energy-related projects under FERC authority.
Citing the public's frustration with "FERC's complex proceedings," Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who represents Massachusetts, and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, also a Democrat, representing New Hampshire, said the Public Engagement at FERC Act will help citizens navigate an expensive and confusing bureaucratic maze.
"For too long, FERC has rubber stamped an industry wish list and ignored concerned voices of Massachusetts citizens — citizens who do not want natural gas compressor stations built in their backyards or pipeline companies bulldozing state forests," Warren said in a prepared statement.
Warren is partly referring to Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co.'s current project in Otis State Forest, where 6 acres of state-owned and protected land was cleared this month to prepare an existing pipeline corridor for a 13 mile, $93 million tri-state natural gas storage loop.
The Connecticut Expansion Project spurred a series of protests resulting in 24 arrests earlier this month as Sandisfield citizens and other groups continued to file motions with FERC to delay tree cutting until several issues were resolved.
Despite pending issues before FERC, the trees were cut anyway, with FERC citing its own seemingly conflicting policies as the reason it allowed the project to move forward.
Warren, along with U.S. Sen. Edward Markey and U.S. Rep. Richard Neal D-Springfield, wrote FERC's acting chairman last month and admonished the agency for allowing this work to begin in Otis State Forest without a proper quorum of commission members, and at the same time, citing this lack of quorum as the reason for not reviewing officially filed citizen concerns.
FERC spokesman Craig Cano previously told The Eagle that FERC policy allows a staff member of certain rank to grant permission to start forest work and construction, so the quorum issue does not apply.
In a joint statement Thursday, Warren and Shaheen said FERC is "one of the lead agencies responsible for developing energy infrastructure and ensuring reliability of the electric grid," and "has sweeping authority over wholesale power markets and ultimate jurisdiction in the federal siting and permitting process for natural gas pipelines."
And as Shaheen pointed out, filing motions with FERC isn't cheap. Shaheen said getting involved in an issue with FERC requires people to "navigate a needlessly complicated and expensive process."
Indeed, Sandisfield Taxpayers Opposed to the Pipeline (STOP) had to pitch in to hire an attorney who used to work for FERC, and is a nationally recognized pipeline expert. STOP's Jean Atwater-Williams told The Eagle attorney Carolyn Elefant is not working pro bono, but is giving the group a "greatly reduced rate."
Shaheen said given the impact of FERC's decision-making about things like multi-state pipelines, it should be easier for citizens to engage the agency.
Shaheen first introduced the legislation in 2015, but it died in Congress.
Warren and Shaheen said the act will "update and strengthen" a 1978 congressional authorization to create an Office of Public Participation through the Public Utility Regulatory Policy Act. This latest legislation is co-sponsored by Sens. Al Franken, D-Minn., Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., Ron Wyden, D-Ore. and Mark Warner, D-Va.
That Office of Public Participation — which would help people and consumer advocates intervene in FERC proceedings — was never created, however. Warren and Shaheen said the Office would "directly participate in FERC proceedings on rates, service, and infrastructure siting." Shaheen said this will help "add the voices of those who will be most affected" by FERC's decisions.
The consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, which urges "FERC reform" on its website, said Congress "failed to fund the office... despite adequate support and several attempts."
There were a few tries to get an Office of Consumer Advocacy into FERC. One was under The Energy Policy Act of 2003, to put the Office in the Department of Justice rather than inside FERC. It never made it into law.
Then, U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and Sen. Edward Markey D-Mass., at the time a U.S. Representative, tried to put the office in FERC, and give it "broad investigatory responsibilities." In 2010 this bill failed, along with another similar bill introduced earlier in climate legislation by then Sens. John Kerry and Joseph Lieberman.
But that same year a resolution supporting the office was passed by the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners.
Public Citizen says there is "public distrust" in FERC as citizens and groups grow frustrated by an engagement process that appears stacked, and pits "resource-strapped" advocates against well-funded industry attorneys.
A FERC spokesperson declined to comment about these allegations.
While Shaheen and Warren have long advocated for an easier public process in FERC, a Warren aide told The Eagle what prompted the senator to join Shaheen were the "multiple examples across the commonwealth of FERC ignoring" citizens.
The aide also said the Otis State Forest project "was certainly on the senator's mind as this legislation was being discussed."
Reach staff writer Heather Bellow at 413-329-6871.