A Week to Remember in the Climate Fight

On August 3rd rubber-stamping FERC, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, ordered a suspension of any new construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline. Then, one week later, on August 10th, they did the same thing for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

News stories about these suspensions report that they are expected to last for months. Both came in each case after federal Court of Appeals decisions revoking permits by other federal agencies just days before FERC’s actions.

How big are these two proposed fracked-gas-carrying pipelines? They are very big; between them they would run for 900 miles. MVP would run through West Virginia and Virginia, and ACP would run from West Virginia to North Carolina.

But these aren’t the only things which happened in this week to remember. On August 10th Robert Powelson stepped down as one of five FERC commissioners after less than a year in the job. Republican Powelson was nominated by Trump in 2017, along with Republicans Kevin McIntyre, as chair, and Neil Chatterjee. Trump also nominated Democrat Richard Glick. He had to nominate a Democrat because of FERC rules allowing for no more than three commissioners from one party.

Powelson’s resignation means that, until Trump nominates someone else and the Senate confirms that nominee, there will be two Democrats and two Republicans making up FERC’s decision-making body.

Up until about nine months ago, that wouldn’t have made any difference when it comes to FERC’s decision-making on gas industry expansion. For decades, it has been a bi-partisan rubber-stamper for all but two of over 400 permit applications to build new gas pipelines, compressor stations and other infrastructure.

Richard Glick has changed that. Glick has a background in the renewable energy industry, going back many years, and his votes have reflected his experience. He has dissented often on pipeline decisions, and his willingness to do so seems to have affected the other Democrat, Cheryl Lafleur, who has been a commissioner for eight years. Not as frequently but sometimes, she has also dissented.

So it’s a very big deal that for most likely several months, very possibly many months, especially but not only if Democrats win control of the Senate, FERC has a leadership reflecting almost exactly the 50-50’ish political divisions in the Senate.

Those Democrats in the Senate will need massive grassroots political pressure on them. If they get it, many could stand firm with the rising demand of the movement against new fossil fuel infrastructure that there be no Trump nominees to FERC approved by the Senate until there are Senate hearings on FERC’s abuses of the law, the environment and people’s rights, and action is taken to stop those abuses.

So why is this a big deal not just for the no-fossil-fuel-infrastructure movement but for the entire climate and climate justice movement which is trying to get the US and the world off fossils fuels and onto a serious, jobs-creating, renewables and efficiency path as soon as possible?

A FERC which is no longer a rubber-stamp for the gas industry would be huge. Not as good, but still a victory, would be a FERC which can seriously slow down the gas rush, the current, frenzied efforts by the industry and their allies in government to dramatically expand fracked-gas pipelines, export terminals and gas-fired power plants. They are going all out to try to head off a stronger expansion of wind and solar, their main competition.

I believe that these changes to FERC are realistic, if uncertain, possibilities. I believe it because over the last five or six years the grassroots movement of frontline groups fighting proposed fossil fuel pipelines and infrastructure in their communities has gotten stronger and better-connected. I believe it because the actions of Beyond Extreme Energy and other groups at FERC for the last four years have helped to put FERC in the media spotlight, and there is growth in the number of mass media stories about FERC. I believe it because for the last couple of years there have more than a few court victories, the very recent ones on the MVP and ACP being the latest examples. I believe it because there are articles like this one in Forbes magazine analyzing the likelihood of today’s investments in gas becoming “stranded assets” in less than 10 years because of the growth and low price of renewables.

What is missing is a significant group of members of Congress stepping up on this issue. And that is where everyone who gets it on the urgency of the climate crisis can play a role.

Trump is virtually certain to nominate a Republican to fill the FERC commissioner vacancy who will support his efforts to prop up coal and nuclear, as well as fracked gas. When he does so we should flood Congress—including Republicans, especially in areas where eminent domain is being used to take people’s land for pipelines—with the demand: no support for Trump’s nominee until Congressional hearings on FERC and action to address its abuses.

Is there any other focus for the national climate movement which could achieve so much, so soon, to jam up the fossil fuel industry’s expansion plans? Maybe, but I don’t see it.

Ted Glick has been a climate and climate justice activist since 2003 and a progressive activist and organizer since 1968. Past writings and other information can be found at https://tedglick.com, and he can be followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/jtglick.