On Tuesday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia handed down an opinion in which it held in a 2-1 decision that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) failed to adequately consider the impact of greenhouse gas emissions from Florida Power & Light (FPL) and Duke Energy Florida’s plants before it gave the greenlight for the Sabal Trail pipeline.
The 685-mile natural gas pipeline begins in Alabama and goes through Georgia and Florida. The pipeline’s principal customer is FPL which uses natural gas to generate 70 percent of its power. FPL officials have stated that the additional pipeline capacity was needed because the state’s other two pipelines are near capacity.
In September 2016, the Sierra Club, Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, and Flint Riverkeeper filed a petition in the U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Columbia against FERC challenging its decision to approve the pipeline. FPL and Duke Energy Florida intervened in the case.
“Their primary argument is that the agency’s assessment of the environmental impact of the pipelines was inadequate,” Judge Thomas Griffith wrote in the court’s opinion. “We agree that FERC’s environmental impact statement did not contain enough information on the greenhouse gas emissions that will result from burning the gas that the pipelines will carry.”
The court reasoned that the power plants will burn the gas, generating both electricity and carbon dioxide. Once in the atmosphere, the carbon dioxide will add to the greenhouse effect, which FERC’s environmental impact statement describes as “the primary contributing factors” in global climate change. “We conclude that at a minimum, FERC should have estimated the amount of power plant carbon emissions that the pipelines will make possible,” the opinion declares.
In its opinion, the court sided with the Sierra Club and other pipeline opponents and ordered FERC to prepare a new “environmental impact statement.” This holding affects three related pipelines, including the Sabal Trail pipeline built to transport gas to plants run by FPL and Duke Energy Florida. In December 2015, FERC released an environmental impact statement which is required by federal law and then approved pipeline construction in February 2016. Tuesday’s opinion stated that the “environmental impact statement” did not take into consideration greenhouse gas emissions that would be created when Florida power plants burn natural gas carried by the Sabal Trail pipeline.
Utilities have boasted that natural gas plants produce fewer carbon emissions than coal fired plants. Tuesday’s majority opinion said the prospect of burning natural gas instead of the dirtier coal does not free FERC from its responsibility to examine emissions that would result from the pipeline delivering gas to power plants.