Sierra Club challenging Sabal Trail pipeline in court

Sabal Trail pipeline and DAPL protest
Liza Epstein protests the Sabal Trail pipeline. By Seán Kinane / WMNF News (2016 Nov. 15).

A pipeline that will carry natural gas from Alabama through Georgia into Central Florida is nearly complete; but the Sierra Club is still challenging the Sabal Trail pipeline in court. On Tuesday, Sierra Club staff attorney Elly Benson argued before the DC Circuit Court of Appeals that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, should not have approved the pipeline in the first place.

“Yesterday, we were in court because we’ve challenged the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) their authorization of the pipeline. We have various arguments, including that the commission failed to take a hard look at the greenhouse gas emissions that would result from the project and also that it ignored the Environmental Justice Impacts or didn’t take a hard enough look at those.”

What was the response by the FERC about greenhouse emissions and whether they’ve studied that enough?

“Well, FERC is essentially claiming that, first of all, the greenhouse gas emissions from burning the gas at the power plants isn’t the legally relevant cause, to use the legal term, of the greenhouse gas emissions, which we disagree with. And also, essentially that it would be too difficult to calculate them, which again, we disagree with.”

And if the judges rule that you’re right and they’re wrong, would that jeopardize the pipeline somehow?

“Well, it would mean that FERC has to go back and actually look at those greenhouse gas impacts and hopefully ‘environmental justice’ impacts as well, that it failed to do the first time around.”

How close is it to being completed? I think most of the construction is done, right? But, gas is not being pumped through the pipeline yet, is that right?

“That is my understanding, that that is not going to happen until June, but, I’m not entirely sure. It’s the kind of information that the companies have and know better than the Sierra Club.”

Did you also argue that the FERC was allowing the companies that are building the pipeline to get, essentially too much of a return on equity?

“Yes. That was the third claim that we discussed in court yesterday, which essentially means that the percentage of return that they’re getting on a hypothetical capital structure that FERC imposed on the company, ultimately results in the investors getting overcompensated and the downstream rate-payers of Duke Energy, Florida and Florida Power and Light paying too much for this pipeline to be built.”

And finally, what do you hope the outcome will be when these judges rule and when do you think that we might hear a ruling?

“Well, I’d say we expect a ruling– it would be great to come in May or June and we’re hoping that the judges will agree FERC didn’t take a hard look at the greenhouse gas emissions; for FERC to take a hard look at all these Environmental Justice Communities that will be impacted by this pipeline and also the heavily polluting compressor stations, which are these huge industrial facilities that are going in right in the middle of African American neighborhood, for example in Albany, Georgia. If FERC does agree with us, for example, there could be a relocation of those. Compressor stations is one example.

“Our end goal here is to make sure that FERC isn’t approving dirty infrastructure that’s locking in this gas infrastructure for decades: running through people’s property, impacting Environmental Justice Communities; impacting the climate with just a rubber stamp, because that’s not what the commission’s duty is.”

But, you think it’s unlikely that the judges will completely shut the pipeline down. You’re thinking it might end up being more like modifications to where some of the infrastructure goes.

“Well, we would certainly like to see them shut it down, but, one problem here is that FERC tends to not allow parties to go to court until well after construction is underway and then the court process takes a long time, even though under the statute we should be able to go to court 30 days after the authorization, it’s usually more than six months later. While we would obviously love to get the pipeline construction stopped and shutdown, it does make that a bigger lift, when they refuse to actually approve or deny what’s called a rehearing request. I won’t get into the legal aspects, but, essentially there’s a long delay that shouldn’t be there, before parties can go to court.”

The owner of the pipeline, Enbridge, did not respond to WMNF News’ interview request.


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