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Pipeline fight puts focus on one particular agency

Bret Jaspers
Cindy Beach, of Franklin, New York, stands next to a stake on her neighbor's property that marks the route of the proposed Constitution Pipeline. The project is waiting for water quality permits from New York state.

The Constitution Pipeline almost passed through Cindy Beach’s backyard. But the route changed. Now, the pipeline will be about two football fields away from Beach’s house in the village of Franklin in Delaware County. 

To get the change, she asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, if it was possible to bypass her small property. But one neighbor wasn’t so lucky. Beach says the pipeline company is taking part of his property by eminent domain.

With fracking banned, pipelines are at the center of the natural gas debate in New York state. That puts one particular federal agency -- FERC -- in the middle of the controversy.

Even though Beach got a compromise from FERC, she still doesn’t trust the agency.

“As appreciative as I was of them helping us out, I've come to find out that they are just what they call a rubber-stamping machine,” she said. “And it's been proven that their salaries are paid for by the permits that the gas and oil company pay for so...why, why wouldn't they approve them?"

She’s definitely right about the salaries. FERC is funded by pipeline application fees and other charges on energy companies. On the other hand, some people look at that arrangement and say, if a company wants to build something, it should pay for those government services. They don’t see FERC as a rubber stamp and that tension is at the heart of the pipeline approval process.

When FERC evaluates pipeline plans, it looks at the effect on the environment and landowners, but it also considers energy prices and whether there's a need for a pipeline.

“Congress has made FERC's mission to ensure reliable, efficient and sustainable energy for consumers,” said FERC spokeswoman Tamara Young-Allen. “And FERC staff takes that goal and mission from Congress very, very seriously.”

Economist Jeff Makholm works for states, local utilities and, less often, pipeline companies. He's a big fan of FERC’s process. He believes that it fosters competition, which then makes electricity cheap in the U.S.

“The interstate pipeline business that we have is the conduit, the backbone that is used to support our competitive gas business,” Makholm said.

But many residents believe that the proposed pipelines will increase gas exports -- raising prices here.

Carolyn Elefant thinks there’s a way to handle these disputes. She’s a lawyer who works with landowners. She says there needs to be more chances for people to present their cases before FERC judges and question the companies.

“We know that private business does not always work in the interest of the public and does not always engage in appropriate activity, whether intentional or not,” she said.

In 2013, the environmental group Delaware Riverkeeper sued FERC. They said FERC approved projects bit by bit, so it didn’t consider the environmental impact of the whole pipeline. That group won the suit last year, giving hope to people who fight pipelines on environmental grounds. But Elefant says that FERC is still limited by the law, which, again, makes it consider the need for affordable energy.

Makholm contends that not everyone is going to be happy. 

“As is always the case, there is a plurality of interests to be served in things like licensing a gas pipeline,” he said. “And it's very much the case that not everybody's interest is going to be served.”

FERC ruled in favor of the Constitution Pipeline last year. The commission is now taking public comments on another pipeline -- the Northeast Energy Direct. It would run nearby the Constitution and add four gas compressor stations to upstate New York.

Back in Franklin, even Cindy Beach’s neighborhood is divided. One of her neighbors says he’s for the Constitution Pipeline. He didn’t want to be interviewed. But for Beach, she’ll continue to try to get FERC -- and the pipeline companies -- to hear from the people who don’t want to live amid new gas infrastructure.

“You just put your whole heart and soul into it, because you want to save what's yours,” she said. “I'm putting everything into this because I want [my grandson] to be able to play in the woods and the fields that my son played in."

Beach hopes that even if FERC doesn’t see things her way, New York state will. The state Department of Environmental Conservation is expected to rule on water quality permits for the Constitution Pipeline any day now.