U.S. senators grill regulators over climate policy on natural gas projects

FILE PHOTO: A natural gas piping is seen as a sign warns of underground natural gas pipelines outside Rifle
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By Timothy Gardner

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Top U.S. senators from both parties on Thursday grilled Democratic energy regulators who recently approved guidelines for approving new natural gas projects that allow consideration of environmental justice, landowner and climate issues.

The three Democrats on the five-member Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) voted in February to update the guidelines, for the first time since 1999, a move that analysts say could present hurdles for new gas projects. The two Republicans on the panel opposed the guidelines.

"In my view, there is an effort underway by some to inflict death by a thousand cuts on the fossil fuels that have made our energy reliable and affordable," said Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat from natural gas producing West Virginia. Manchin heads the Senate Energy Committee, at which all five FERC members appeared in a hearing.

Richard Glick, a Democrat and the chairman of FERC, said the goal of the guidelines is to "provide an updated, legally durable framework" that incorporates guidance the commission has gotten from federal courts into its approach on permitting natural gas pipelines and liquefied natural gas facilities.

The building and operation of natural gas pipelines and liquefied natural gas projects can leak methane, a powerful greenhouse gas and release particulate emissions that cause health problems.

Oil, gas and coal interests and lawmakers from fossil fuel producing states have stepped up their criticism of Democratic policies on climate and pipelines since Russia's invasion of Ukraine. The situation threatens exports of oil and gas from Russia, which produces about 10% of the world's crude oil and about 40% of Europe's natural gas.

Senator Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, agreed with Glick that the guidelines would provide legal certainty to natural gas projects because it would protect them from lawsuits saying their emissions impacts had not been vetted.

"Here we are saying FERC can't require the examination of the most serious environmental threat that this country and the world has ever faced, I think that's preposterous," he said.

King said FERC should work with backers of gas projects and other stakeholders to sharpen the clarity of the guidelines.

Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, the committee's top Republican, has said FERC's ruling was "just the latest attack in (President Joe) Biden's war on American energy."

Biden only nominated one of the current members of FERC, Willie Phillips, a fellow Democrat, and a former chair of Washington, D.C.'s utility commission.

An interim guideline FERC approved on Feb. 17 requires environmental impact statements on natural gas projects that emit above 100,000 metric tons per year of greenhouse gases, a process that opponents say can be lengthy and unwieldy.

(Reporting by Timothy Gardner; editing by Richard Pullin and David Gregorio)