Natural gas infrastructure is not just federal issue
It’s true that gas pipelines are regulated under the federal Natural Gas Act, but that is not the whole story. There are key areas where states have decision-making power and influence with respect to the permitting, financing, and siting of interstate pipelines. In other words, the pipelines are not strictly a federal matter; “it’s a federal matter” is just a line used by the pipeline companies, and by state officials seeking to obscure their role and responsibility in the buildout of natural gas infrastructure.
In fact, New England governors have in recent years, and to varying degrees, invited in pipeline companies to build more interstate gas infrastructure.
The primary role that the states play in green-lighting these projects is by approving contracts that allow the new infrastructure to be financed by ratepayers. Gov. Charlie Baker’s appointment of utility insiders has led to the predictable result of a Department of Public Utilities (DPU) that rubber-stamps every pipeline capacity contract that comes its way. The DPU (not just under the current administration) has also taken the view that the agency can authorize pipeline companies to survey private land against landowners’ wishes, even before federal authorization (and the eminent domain power that follows) has been granted for a project.
On the environment side of the Energy & Environmental Affairs umbrella agency, there are also several areas in which the administrative agencies can change the trajectory of a pipeline proposal. For example, the Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) reviews water quality permit applications, pursuant to the authority vested in the states under the federal Clean Water Act. In New York, the state agency analogous to MassDEP has denied such a permit for a pipeline proposed to cross that state. MassDEP has, to date, approved all water quality permit applications that have come before the agency for recent pipeline projects, without requiring a thorough analysis of impacts and alternatives.
It also appears that MassDEP went out of its way to help clear the path for Spectra’s compressor station slated for Weymouth, overriding the Weymouth Conservation Commission’s denial of a wetlands permit for the Atlantic Bridge project.
We may never know the degree to which such superseding orders and permitting decisions stem from political directives higher up, rather than as result of MassDEP being de-funded and under-staffed as part of Baker’s approach to the environmental agencies. Let it not be forgotten that one of the governor’s early executive orders (based on the Associated Industries of Massachusetts’ “Blueprint for the Next Century”) sought to eliminate regulations that “exceed federal requirements” – apparently in a race to be on par with Alabama rather than California in terms of environmental stewardship.