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US pipeline agency pulls back plan to assess climate impacts

WASHINGTON (AP) – Amid pushback from industry groups and lawmakers in both parties, federal energy regulators on Thursday scaled back plans to consider how natural gas projects affect climate change and environmental justice.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) said a plan to consider climate effects will now be considered a draft and will only apply to future projects.

Opponents had criticised a proposal approved last month to tighten climate rules, saying it was poorly timed amid a push for increased natural gas exports following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

United States (US) Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell called the climate policy “baffling”, while Senate Energy Committee Chairman Joe Manchin, D-WVa, said the agency’s “reckless decision to add unnecessary roadblocks” to approval of natural gas projects “puts the security of our nation at risk”.

Climate activists accused FERC of bowing to political pressure, a claim FERC Chairman Richard Glick denied.

“I’m not going to do anything for political purposes,” he told reporters, adding that he and other commissioners have had discussions with numerous pipeline and natural gas companies since the panel approved the climate policy last month. Industry leaders told them the policy changes “raise additional questions that could benefit from further clarification”, Glick said.

At a February 17 meeting, the energy commission approved policy statements directing officials to consider how pipelines and other natural gas projects affect climate change and environmental justice. The statements were approved on a 3-to-2 vote along party lines, with Glick and two other Democratic commissioners supporting the policy changes and two Republicans opposed.

The panel said at the time that the new guidance would take effect immediately and apply to pending and future gas projects. The panel voted unanimously on Thursday to step back from that commitment, which is now labelled as a draft and would apply only to projects filed after FERC finalises the policy statements. The commission said it will seek further public comment before making a final decision.

The American Gas Association said FERC’s action to delay the climate policy was “encouraging”, adding that without changes, the plan would “actively discourage the development of pipeline infrastructure, reduce reliability and raise consumer costs”. The industry group filed a legal challenge to the climate plan last week.

Wyoming Senator John Barrasso, the top Republican on the Senate energy panel, said FERC “must go back to the drawing board and start over on these harmful proposals”.

But senior director of the Sierra Club’s energy campaigns Kelly Sheehan said the draft policy was a small step toward meeting the commission’s legal requirements to protect the environment and guard against climate change.

“The fossil fuel industry and the politicians they finance are pitching a fit because they’re worried FERC’s modest proposed policy changes might mean they no longer have free rein to build as many polluting pipelines as they want, with no regard for the impacts on communities or the climate,” Sheehan said.

The commission’s approval of three fracked-gas pipelines on Thursday “makes it painfully clear that FERC has not changed course”, Sheehan added.