Legislation to speed up gas pipeline permitting moving in U.S. House

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WASHINGTON -- A House panel is considering legislation aimed at speeding up federal approval of permits for natural gas pipelines, an effort to help the burgeoning industry increase distribution and to reduce utility costs for consumers.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee is expected to take up the legislation this afternoon during a bill mark-up session.

Sponsored by Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kansas, the bill would require automatic approval of permits if agencies don't complete application reviews within 90 days of completion of environmental studies.

Opponents 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.

The permitting is done under the auspices of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which has oversight but no enforcement powers over the other agencies involved in the permitting process.

The 90-day deadline already is spelled out in current law but there are no consequences if agencies fail to act in time. Ninety percent of the time they do, but complicated applications for large projects can take longer than a year.

Industry leaders say the delays cause them to abandon projects and lay off employees.

Environmentalists say agencies sometimes need extra time to ensure plans for major projects comply with numerous federal laws aimed at keeping water clean, reducing air pollution, protecting wetlands, preventing flooding and more.

Stakeholders on both sides testified this morning before the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power.

Testifiers included Alex Paris, president of the Alex E. Paris Contracting Co., a pipeline construction firm 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 a 8,000-foot pipeline extension at an Indiana County stream crossing in Staltsburg.

"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."

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 are overburdened with applications from a rapidly growing industry.

"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," said Delaware Riverkeeper Maya van Rossum.

Rick Kessler, president of Pipeline Safety Trust, agreed.

Rushed reviews and automatic approvals "pose a threat to public safety and the environment," he testified.

But industry leaders 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 in a written statement.

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Washington Bureau Chief Tracie Mauriello: 703-996-9292, tmauriello@post-gazette.com or on Twitter @pgPoliTweets.


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