WASHINGTON -- Approval of natural gas pipelines won't be any easier, but it soon could be faster.
That's the goal of Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., sponsor of a bill wending its way through Congress. The House Energy and Commerce Committee's energy and power subcommittee held a public hearing on the legislation Tuesday.
Regulatory agencies already are required to act within 90 days of the completion of an environmental study by the Federal Environmental Regulatory Commission. Mr. Pompeo said he is trying to change the process because there are no consequences when agencies miss the deadline.
The commission is ultimately responsible for the permits but has no authority to penalize the numerous other agencies that it relies on, such as the Fish and Wildlife Commission, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Land Management.
About 90 percent of applications are processed on time, but approval for the largest and most complicated pipeline projects can take more than two years.
Mr. Pompeo's bill would provide automatic permit approval if an agency hasn't acted within 90 days -- or within 120 if the agency can show cause for an extension.
"By making commonsense reforms, Mr. Pompeo's legislation will allow new pipelines to come online safely and efficiently," said Ed Whitfield, R-Texas, chairman of the Subcommittee on Energy and Power.
Opponents, meanwhile, say the legislation could force agencies to miss problems in their rush to process applications or to deny complex applications that might have been approved if there had been more time to address concerns.
"With this bill we get rush decisions and probably more project denials. No one benefits from that, not even the pipeline companies," said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif.
Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., said the legislation essentially requires the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to approve or reject proposed pipeline regardless of whether supporting agencies were able to complete their due diligence.
Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, said he supports speeding up the permitting process but only if it's done responsibly. The automatic approval measure in the Pompeo bill "is the definition of irresponsible," Mr. Doyle said.
Testifiers at the public hearing included Alex Paris, president of the Alex E. Paris Contracting Co., a pipeline construction company based in the Washington County community of Atlasburg.
Mr. Paris, who testified on behalf of the Distribution Contractors Association, said agencies' missed deadlines cost money, delay projects and force layoffs. His company is awaiting federal approval for an 8,000-foot pipeline extension at an Indiana County stream crossing in Saltsburg.
"We had completed the first five miles of the project, but because all permits were not able to be obtained in a reasonable amount of time we were forced to demobilize our equipment and displace 30 of our workers. The delay has threatened the entire project," Mr. Paris testified.
Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, wants to prevent those kinds of delays in the future.
"My district is experiencing an economic revival because of the Marcellus Shale," he said during the hearing. "The passage of the Natural Gas Pipeline Permitting Reform Act could help address challenges and spur billions of dollars in new economic activity."
Other supporters said that expansion of pipelines would allow for efficient distribution that will decrease utility costs nationwide and reduce the country's reliance on foreign fuel.
Approval of the biggest and most complex projects averages 558 days and can take as long as 2 1/2 years, according to the Government Accountability Office.
The delays "cost project sponsors money, send a troubling signal to others contemplating pipeline expansion projects and, in some cases, prevent investment in new pipeline infrastructure," testified Donald F. Santa, president of the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America.
He said his members want regulators to have appropriate time to analyze applications but that it "should not be an open-ended time period that could lead to an endless process."
Opponents of the bill say the delays often occur for good reason -- such as a need to further explore environmental impact or because underfunded agencies that are overburdened with applications form a rapidly growing industry.
"They have increasingly limited resources, and the majority continues to cut those budgets further," Mr. Doyle said.
Earlier on Tuesday, Delaware Riverkeeper Maya van Rossum testified that "the rapid expansion of natural gas infrastructure requires ever-increasing time and attention from agencies and the public, yet [this bill] proposes just the opposite."
Agencies need time to ensure compliance with environmental regulations aimed at ensuring clean air and water, preventing flooding, protecting wetlands, and safeguarding public health, she said.
Ninety days isn't enough time for community members to obtain information and prepare public comment on proposed projects, she said.
"Inhibiting meaningful public participation denies us all the benefit of public input and is a denial of the country's commitment to honoring the public voice in decision-making," Ms. van Rossum said in written testimony.
Rushed reviews and automatic approvals "pose a threat to public safety and the environment," testified Rick Kessler, president of Pipeline Safety Trust. "The trust fails to see any compelling case for this legislation."
Shale drillers in Pennsylvania support the Pompeo bill.
"Efforts like this will help ensure that more clean-burning and affordable natural gas is available for consumers, families and businesses across the entire nation in a safe and time-effective manner," said Kathryn Klaber, CEO of the Marcellus Shale Coalition.
"It's clear that leaders in Washington, as well as in states like Pennsylvania, continue to recognize and embrace the clear environmental and economic benefits tied to abundant American natural gas," she said.