FERC (the Federal Energy Regulatory Agency) wields tremendous power in the environmental justice area, due to its leading role in approving interstate pipelines and transmission lines for gas, oil, and electricity. All too often that power has been shunted aside, but the agency finally appears ready to flex its justice muscles at the onset of the Biden administration.
FERC asleep at the wheel on environmental justice
Because FERC has an interstate mission, its direct impact on energy infrastructure is limited. For example, FERC does not regulate coal mines or other local energy infrastructure such as fossil fuel power plants. The agency also does not oversee nuclear power plants or the transportation of coal.
However, the interstate mission does cover new hydropower licenses and liquid natural gas terminals, both of which have the potential for significant effects on local economies and public health.
In addition, FERC’s authority over pipelines has put it front and center in some of the most notorious fossil fuel projects in recent years, including the on-again, off-again Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline and the Atlantic Coast gas pipeline.
FERC’s pipeline and electricity authority can also have a significant ripple effect on the construction of new industrial facilities in local communities, including power plants and petrochemical facilities.
The agency has actually had an environmental justice mission since at least 1994, when President Clinton issued Executive Order 1298, titled “Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations.”
That EO appears to have had little influence on FERC. The construction of new oil and gas pipelines continued apace after 1994, while the NAACP and other environmental justice advocates continued to highlight harmful impacts on low-income communities and communities of color. The COVID-19 crisis has further underscored the risks involved.
A science-based focus on environmental justice, equity and public health
Given the extent of FERC’s influence, the agency could make or break the ability of President Biden to make good on his climate action and environmental justice campaign platform.
One key factor to watch will be FERC’s focus on the science behind social, economic and public health impacts. The current president has put science and justice front and center throughout every facet of his administration, as outlined in a January 27 Memorandum on scientific integrity and evidence-based policy making.
In a January 20 executive order on the climate crisis, President Biden emphasized that his administration would “listen to the science; to improve public health and protect our environment; to ensure access to clean air and water; to limit exposure to dangerous chemicals and pesticides; to hold polluters accountable, including those who disproportionately harm communities of color and low-income communities.”
In another January 27 executive order on climate change, Biden further detailed an all-of-government commitment to “secure environmental justice and spur economic opportunity for disadvantaged communities that have been historically marginalized and overburdened by pollution and underinvestment.”
FERC steps up to the plate
So far, FERC has acted swiftly to transition into a science-based mode with a focus on justice.
Last week, newly appointed FERC chairman Richard Glick issued a brief announcement that sketched out “plans to better incorporate environmental justice and equity concerns into the Commission’s decision-making process.”
The plan revolves around creating a new senior position to work directly with experts throughout FERC, in order to “integrate environmental justice and equity matters into Commission decisions.” Presumably the position would also coordinate with other high-level offices throughout the Biden administration as part of the all-of-government approach to climate change and environmental justice.
The details are yet to be released, but Glick was forceful in expressing his intentions.
“I believe that the Commission should more aggressively fulfill its responsibilities to ensure our decisions don’t unfairly impact historically marginalized communities,” he said, adding that “I intend to do what it takes to empower this new position to ensure that environmental justice and equity concerns finally get the attention they deserve.”
A seat at the table
As for Glick himself, he first came to FERC as a Trump-appointed Commissioner in 2017. His previous position in federal government was a political one, as the Democratic General Counsel for the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.
The choice of an appointee with a Democratic resume may have been a surprise to some. However, FERC guidelines require that both political parties be represented. Trump may have anticipated that Glick would be sympathetic to fossil fuel stakeholders, due to his extensive private sector experience as a lobbyist for energy companies.
The former president should have looked at the fine print. As reported by Utility Dive, prior to his role as a Senate aide Glick was deeply involved in the renewable energy transition through his private sector experience. In addition, he was a policy advisor to the clean power advocate and former Governor of New Mexico Bill Richardson during Richardson’s tenure as Energy Secretary in the Clinton administration from 1998 to 2001.
Glick evidently took that experience to heart as a FERC member, where he became known for dissenting on approvals for new pipeline and liquid natural gas projects.
None of this means that the agency will suddenly cease approving all projects that support fossil energy and petrochemical facilities.
It is safe to say, though, that the concerns of local residents, environmental justice advocates and public health experts will finally hold more sway over decisions that can affect community health and well-being for generations to come.
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