TALLAHASSEE — A federal appeals court on Tuesday ordered regulators to take another look at the environmental impact of a major natural-gas pipeline project, saying that an earlier review did not adequately consider resulting greenhouse-gas emissions at Florida power plants.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, in a 2-1 decision, sided with the Sierra Club and other pipeline opponents and ordered the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to prepare a new “environmental impact statement.” The ruling affects three related pipelines, including the Sabal Trail pipeline built to transport gas to plants run by Florida Power & Light and Duke Energy Florida.
The regulatory agency, commonly known as FERC, released an environmental impact statement — required by federal law — in December 2015 and approved pipeline construction in February 2016. But Tuesday’s ruling said the statement did not take into account greenhouse-gas emissions that would be created when Florida power plants burn natural gas carried by the Sabal Trail pipeline.
“We conclude that the EIS (environmental impact statement) for the … project should have either given a quantitative estimate of the downstream greenhouse emissions that will result from burning the natural gas that the pipelines will transport or explained more specifically why it could not have done so,” said the 35-page majority opinion, written by Judge Thomas Griffith and joined by Judge Judith Rogers. “As we have noted, greenhouse-gas emissions are an indirect effect of authorizing this project, which FERC could reasonably foresee, and which the agency has legal authority to mitigate.”
Andrea Grover, a spokeswoman for Sabal Trail Transmission LLC, said in an email Tuesday that the firm was reviewing the court decision and that the ruling “will not affect Sabal Trail’s operations at this time.” Sabal Trail Transmission LLC is a joint venture of Spectra Energy Partners, Duke Energy and NextEra Energy, Inc., the parent of Florida Power & Light.
The Sabal Trail pipeline goes from Alabama, through part of Southwest Georgia and then through Florida to Osceola County. Sabal Trail Transmission announced in July that the system had been placed into commercial operation. Grover said Tuesday that it is serving Florida Power & Light. It is also planned to deliver gas to a Duke plant under construction in Crystal River.
In a dissenting opinion Tuesday, appeals-court Judge Janice Rogers Brown pointed to the role that Florida officials play in approving power plants.
“While the court (majority) concludes FERC’s approval of the proposed pipelines will be the cause of greenhouse gas emissions because a significant portion of the natural gas transported through the pipeline will be burned at power plants, the truth is that FERC has no control over whether the power plants that will emit these greenhouse gases will come into existence or remain in operation,” Brown wrote.
All three judges rejected other issues raised in the appeal by pipeline opponents, including arguments that FERC did not properly consider whether the project would have a disproportionate environmental impact on low-income and minority communities.
Florida utilities have become increasingly dependent in recent years on natural gas to fuel power plants. Utilities have relied primarily on two pipelines to transport gas into the state.
Utilities have touted natural-gas plants as producing fewer carbon emissions than coal-fired plants. But Tuesday’s majority opinion said the prospect of burning natural gas instead of dirtier coal doesn’t absolve FERC from looking at emissions that would result from the pipeline delivering gas to power plants.
“In other words, when an agency thinks the good consequences of a project will outweigh the bad, the agency still needs to discuss both the good and the bad,” Griffith wrote. “In any case, the EIS itself acknowledges that only `portions’ of the pipelines’ capacity will be employed to reduce coal consumption. An agency decisionmaker reviewing this EIS would thus have no way of knowing whether total emissions, on net, will be reduced or increased by this project, or what the degree of reduction or increase will be. In this respect, then, the EIS fails to fulfill its primary purpose.”