WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives voted Thursday to speed up the permitting process for natural gas pipelines by imposing strict deadlines on the federal agencies responsible for their review and licensing.
The House voted 252-165 to approve the Natural Gas Pipeline Permitting Reform Act, which will require the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to meet a 12-month deadline for approving or rejecting proposed pipeline projects. All other federal agencies responsible for licensing pipelines would have to act within 90 days after FERC releases its final environmental report.
The roll call fell largely along party lines, with 226 Republicans voting for the bill. Not a single Republican voted against the plan to streamline the pipeline permitting process; 26 Democrats supported it. The bill will now move to the Senate.
Depending on their complexity, pipeline projects now must get approval from anywhere from six to 15 agencies, according to Rep. Mike Pompeo of Kansas. In a conference call with reporters Wednesday, the Wichita Republican – the bill’s chief sponsor – called the existing process “regulatory hell.”
Pompeo’s bill, if enacted, would automatically grant a pipeline license – including environmental permits – upon the 90-day mark if the responsible agency failed to issue its approval or denial.
“We’re simply asking agencies to do what the law requires them to do,” Pompeo said Thursday on the House floor. Pompeo said agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management and the Environmental Protection Agency still would have the authority to approve or deny pipeline projects. “But they can’t sit on it,” he said.
Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla., a former environmental lawyer, called the 90-day deadline “arbitrary and inflexible.” She warned that imposing a time limit will “short-circuit” FERC’s review process by rushing environmental reviews.
In a letter to House leaders earlier, the Pipeline Safety Trust warned of the dangers of imposing the same 90-day deadline for all pipeline projects, regardless of size or location. The group, which advocates for tighter regulation on pipelines, said, “There is no rationale for this one-size-fits-all, one-year limit that would treat a 10-mile pipeline across a barren desert the same as a 1,400-mile pipeline that crosses multiple ecosystems and through dense population areas where it could pose a threat to the life and property of those citizens living nearby.”
Pompeo’s spokesman, J.P. Freire, dismissed the claim that the timeframe was arbitrary. “The 90-day deadline is taken in part from existing FERC regulations,” Freire said. “This just gives the deadline teeth.”
Democrats questioned the need for the bill. Rep. Henry Waxman of California, said that FERC already grants approval to 90 percent of proposed pipeline projects within 12 months.
Pompeo argued Waxman’s analysis was “factually incomplete,” as FERC is only one of several agencies responsible for reviewing pipeline projects.
A February Government Accountability Office report on the complexity of pipeline permitting showed how agencies need to work together on pipeline approval. If a proposed pipeline could impact an endangered species, the GAO noted, then FERC would have to coordinate with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Republicans argued that delays caused by reviews of multiple agencies prevent natural gas from being transported from the Midwest and other gas-rich regions to the Northeast, where population density and demand is high but gas supplies are low.
Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., said the bill offered the U.S. the opportunity to achieve energy independence. Whitfield and other Republicans said the White House has already threatened a veto of the bill.
Democrats, however, warned that issuing automatic permits under the sole authority of FERC would increase risks to public health and the environment.
“The consequences of these decisions to local communities cannot be overstated,” said Jackie Speier, D-Calif., whose congressional district includes the city of San Bruno, where a pipeline explosion in 2010 left eight people dead.
Pompeo argued that expediting the permitting process for new pipelines will increase safety by allowing older pipelines to be replaced.
The San Bruno pipeline had been built in 1956.
In the 2012 election cycle, Pompeo raised more money from oil and gas interests than from any other industry group, according to data analyzed by the Center for Responsive Politics.
When asked what role such campaign donations played in Pompeo’s advocacy, Freire responded in an email: “Congressman Pompeo has advocated for this bill because it would help improve the lives of his constituents in Kansas and all Americans.”
Pompeo and other Republicans repeatedly said building more pipelines would lead to jobs, both in the drilling industry and in manufacturing through cheaper energy.
The Medill News Service is a Washington program of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.