LaFleur weighs response as protesters disrupt another meeting 

Source: Hannah Northey, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, January 23, 2015

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s monthly meeting in Washington, D.C., was disrupted today after climate activists opposed to the agency’s approval of natural gas projects tied to hydraulic fracturing refused to stop speaking.

After trying at least twice without success to call the meeting to order, FERC Chairwoman Cheryl LaFleur called for an unscheduled recess to allow security guards to usher out a dozen or so Beyond Extreme Energy activists. They chanted, “FERC doesn’t work!” and “Stop fracking.”

LaFleur repeatedly told protestors there are ample opportunities to comment on FERC cases through dockets and filings — not at agency meetings.

“This is new territory for FERC, and we’re … learning on the job,” LaFleur said.

Protestors stood and called on FERC commissioners — including the new Democratic member, Colette Honorable — to be the next “superhero” by promoting renewable energy and taking a stand on global warming.

“You have more power than any other government agency to make sure this system changes. You, the commissioners, can be heroes,” protester Kendall Hale of Asheville, N.C., told the stone-faced commissioners. “Being a rubber stamp and approving business as usual … is a coward’s journey. You could be the next Abraham Lincoln or George Washington.”

A member of Beyond Extreme Energy said in an email the group plans to continue protesting at upcoming FERC meetings.

LaFleur said after the meeting the agency has for months been discussing how to anticipate protests. Before a rally outside FERC headquarters last year, she said, notices of the event were “all over the Internet” with dates and times.

“To the extent that our meetings are attracting the volume and intensity of protests we’re getting, we’ll have to step back and think about how to deal with it,” LaFleur said.

Pipeline construction is drawing the bulk of opposition, LaFleur said, and protestors generally fit into two camps: those with regional concerns about the effect of specific projects and those fighting big-picture battles against fossil fuels and related infrastructure and drilling techniques, such as hydraulic fracturing.

“It’s that latter part that we’re mostly seeing at our meetings, and obviously their thoughts are very sincere and compelling, and it’s an opportunity to express them,” she said.

While acknowledging the right of free speech, LaFleur noted that some of the issues raised don’t fall under FERC’s jurisdiction. Fracking, for example, is a practice overseen by state regulators. The chairwoman told reporters she’s open to suggestions for handling the pushback.

“The idea of making people leave the room is not very FERC-like,” LaFleur said.

Climate debate

FERC is also embroiled in climate debates because the agency is the environmental lead on a wave of proposed gas pipelines, export terminals, compressor stations and other facilities that have triggered pushback from environmentalists (E&ENews PM, Nov. 3, 2014).

Beyond Extreme Energy demonstrated in the past at Honorable’s Senate confirmation hearing last year and rallied outside FERC headquarters with activists from the Great March for Climate Action.

FERC in past decisions has assessed direct greenhouse gas emissions from projects under its reviews required by the National Environmental Policy Act but has so far stopped short of trying to assess or regulate emissions from gas production.

Separately, FERC is also facing increased pressure from Capitol Hill to tackle reliability concerns related to U.S. EPA’s Clean Power Plan for curbing greenhouse gas emissions from power plants — an issue at the center of a series of upcoming technical conferences starting next month.

FERC Commissioner Tony Clark in a letter to Congress this month said the commission had an insignificant role in advising EPA about the Clean Power Plan’s potential effects on the grid (Greenwire, Jan. 21).

LaFleur said she has tried to be transparent about the meetings that FERC and EPA staff and officials have held in response to Congress and noted that EPA will be participating in the commission’s upcoming meeting to discuss the climate rule.

“In my view, those meetings do represent engagement,” she said. “Is there a lot more work to do? Absolutely. The EPA is just now doing the tough work of going through millions of comments and putting out the final rule.”