An independent investigation of the federal agency that oversees construction of natural- gas pipelines is being sought by 165 organizations in New Jersey and neighboring states.
Saying the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is biased in favor of the energy industry, the groups are asking two U.S. senators to formally request a probe of the agency by the Government Accountability Office.
In the past few years, the energy industry proposed a widespread expansion of natural-gas pipelines, taking advantage of plentiful supplies of the fuel found in Pennsylvania and surrounding states. In New Jersey alone, there are about 15 pipeline projects in various stages of planning and construction, not all of which have come before FERC.
The projects have lowered heating costs for hundreds of thousands of customers, but they also have aroused fierce opposition from residents, conservationists, and others, partly because they frequently cross public lands preserved with taxpayer money as open space and farmland.
Opponents also question the savings generated by the newfound gas, saying it is more than offset by environmental problems caused by the way the fuel is extracted using a practice called “fracking.’’ The technology involves injecting huge quantities of water, and a smaller amount of toxic chemicals, deep into the ground, a process critics say can contaminate drinking water.
In seeking a probe by the GAO, the organizations accused the federal commission of abuse of power, noting that it has approved 100 percent of the gas-pipeline projects that have come before it, the highest approval rate of any independent federal agency.
The request for the investigation was made in a letter to Senators Bernie Sanders (D-VT), who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). Both sit on the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.
“FERC has time and again prioritized the advancement of gas infrastructure projects over the wellbeing of the communities it should be protecting — misusing legal loopholes and ignoring court orders while ordinary citizens play by the rules,’’ said Maya van Rossum, the Delaware Riverkeeper, the organization that initiated the campaign for a GAO probe.
Beyond the rubberstamp nature of the projects before it, there is, the groups argued, a revolving door between the federal agency and the industry it regulate. They also said the commission approves the seizure of land through the use of eminent domain for projects that benefit private companies rather than the public.
Industry officials counter that the pipelines and natural gas have led to significant savings for consumers by making available cheap fuel to heat homes and run power plants, where costs also have gone down. The Christie administration, which strongly supports the rapid expansion of gas infrastructure and the building of new natural-gas-fired power plants, also credits it with lowering energy bills.
But a recent poll found that most of those surveyed would rather the state increase its reliance on cleaner forms of energy, such as solar and wind, instead of natural gas. The benefits of lowering greenhouse-gas emissions contributing to global climate change should be more of a driving force in setting state policy, according to clean-energy advocates.
Van Rossum said she hoped a federal investigation leads to reforms in the way the agency achieves its mission and convinces Congress and the president to check it when it goes awry.
“An independent investigation into FERC will pull back the curtain on the abuses taking place at the agency and help identify needed reforms,’’ she said. “It’s time to transform FERC into an agency that protects and serves the public — not the natural-gas pipeline industry.’’
NJ Spotlight, an independent online news service on issues critical to New Jersey, makes its in-depth reporting available to NewsWorks.