The U.S. Senate’s Energy & Natural Resources Committee held its first hearing Thursday to consider nominees for two vacant seats on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
A decision on the proposed NEXUS Gas Transmission pipeline is on hold while FERC lacks a quorum.
The hearing can be seen here.
President Donald Trump nominated Neil Chatterjee, an energy policy adviser to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Robert Powelson, a member of the Pennsylvania Utilities Commission, for two of three vacant FERC positions on its five-member board.
The nomination of Dan Brouilette as deputy energy secretary also was addressed at the hearing.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who chairs the commission, said there was a need “to move quickly to restore FERC’s ability to do its important work” in her opening statement.
Murkowski said she had worked with Chatterjee for five years and would support his nomination as well as Powelson’s.
Before FERC could issue a certification for NEXUS to begin construction, FERC Commissioner Norman Bay resigned after President Donald Trump replaced him as chairman with fellow commissioner Cheryl LaFleur.
The departure left the five-seat board with only two commissioners. Confirmation of Chatterjee and Powelson would give the board a quorum again.
NEXUS’ proposed $2 billion natural gas pipeline would run from eastern Ohio through 10 counties including Medina and Lorain and to an export hub in Canada. The company first proposed construction of the line in August 2014 as shale oil drilling grew in the region.
Visitors and protesters
Thursday’s hearing was preceded by a visit early this week to Washington by a group of about 20 people, including York Township resident Paul Gierosky.
Gierosky is a co-founder of the Medina County-based citizens group CORN — the Coalition to Reroute NEXUS — which is fighting to get an order for an alternate route for the project.
He told The Gazette that the group consisted of people from various parts of the country, mostly from the east, interested in energy pipeline regulation issues.
Gierosky said that on Monday and Tuesday, the visitors broke into four groups. His group went to about five meetings during each of the two days, talking to staff members of senators, especially those on the energy committee. The committee has 23 members — 12 Republicans and 11 Democrats — and includes Ohio’s Rob Portman, R-Cincinnati.
Overall, Gierosky said, the teams made contact with about 35 senate offices and separately dropped off informational notebook binders at about 30 others.
The goal, he said, was to ask for a delay in approving the nominees for the vacant FERC seats. If approved by the committee, the nominations would advance to a confirmation vote by the full Senate.
Chatterjee said Thursday in his statement that he was committed to “hearing all sides of an issue and looking for common ground. He noted that former FERC Chairman Joe Kelliher, said FERC “speaks loudest when it speaks with one voice” and said he agreed with that sentiment.
Powelson told the senators he would “do my part to uphold the public interest standard to which the agency is bound.” He added that he was appointed to the Pennsylvania commission in 2008 by a Democratic governor and appointed later as chairman by a Republican governor. He said his work on the commission included “measures to address pipeline safety and aging utility infrastructure.”
Four protesters, unaffiliated with Gierosky’s group, were arrested Thursday after disrupting the hearing. Two men and two women shouted “FERC hurts families” and “shut FERC down” as they delayed the hearing for about 20 minutes.
A spokeswoman for Capitol police said the demonstrators were charged with obstruction. One was released after paying a fine; three others were detained. The group Beyond Extreme Energy claimed responsibility for the disruption.
Local reaction to the hearing
Jon Strong, of Guilford Township, a leader of the CORN group, told The Gazette he watched the proceedings on the committee’s website and said the two nominees seemed “balanced.”
But, he said, CORN remains committed to seeing that NEXUS does “not get the permit” to begin construction as it has requested by the fourth quarter of 2017.
The leader of another Medina County-based group watching the pipeline situation closely said Thursday that the hearing was “very disappointing.”
Kathie Jones, leader of a group called Sustainable Medina County, said in a statement that she had “serious questions concerning FERC’s continued abuses and their continuation of granting pipeline permits, which are causing serious health problems and environmental damage …”
Jones noted that questions have been raised about two other pipelines — the Dakota Access line, which runs from North Dakota to Illinois, and the Rover Pipeline, which has had its route approved for West Virginia, Ohio and Michigan.
Sustainable Medina County has been attempting to place an issue on a ballot that, if approved, would create a Medina County charter. The charter would be created to give voters the right to approve or reject projects such as NEXUS, Jones has said.
Taking legal action
On May 12, Gierosky was named among more than 60 people from three counties who together filed a federal lawsuit naming NEXUS and FERC as defendants.
NEXUS is a consortium of Houston-based Spectra Energy and DTE Energy of Detroit. Spectra is owned by Canadian-based Enbridge Inc. of Calgary, Alberta.
The lawsuit asks that the court “vacate and overturn” the FERC final environmental impact statement issued Nov. 30 and also asks the court to stop FERC from issuing a certificate approving the project. It requests NEXUS be ordered to stop attempting to access properties and communicate with owners and not to reach any legal agreements with them.
Gierosky said he believes there is a “reasonable solution” to the issues raised by requests for pipeline construction but is concerned about what he called “abuse” in FERC’s operations.
CORN wants a “pause” in new project approvals, he said.
Great Lakes consideration
Separately, the Associated Press reported Thursday that legislation proposed in the U.S. Senate would toughen liability standards for oil pipelines crossing the Great Lakes.
The measure is part of a package by Sens. Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan. They say the bills are intended to boost safety of pipelines in and near the lakes. That includes an operation called “Line 5” of Enbridge that runs beneath the Straits of Mackinac.
Pipelines that cross portions of the lakes are classified as “onshore,” so they’re held to less stringent liability standards than offshore lines. The bill would change that, requiring operators to cover all oil spill cleanup costs.
Other measures would strengthen federal authority to shut down pipelines because of unsafe conditions, require additional review of spill response plans and increase public access to pipeline information.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Contact reporter Ashley Fox at (330) 721-4048 or email@example.com.