As applications for natural gas, liquified natural gas (LNG) and hydroelectric power projects increase, so does the workload for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). To meet the demands of increasing workload and the responsibilities outlined in the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA), FERC is extending its team — Office of Energy Projects staff — by involving qualified third-party contractors.
Approved by FERC, these independent contractors typically are brought in to help with large facility and pipeline projects requiring either an environmental assessment (EA) or an environmental impact statement (EIS). The role of a third-party contractor is to assist staff in the development of a sound and legally defensible NEPA document. Staff and third-party contractors provide a thorough review of the applicant’s environmental resource reports (ERRs) and subsequent studies, organize requests for additional environmental information (data request), maintain the stakeholder mailing lists, and ultimately prepare the NEPA document required for certificate or license approval.
To set FERC’s review process in motion, an applicant must either request to participate in FERC’s prefiling process or submit a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity application, which requires the development of 12 ERRs (13 if it’s an LNG project). ERR1 presents a detailed project description, purpose and need, and alternatives analysis. The other ERRs provide a clear statement or introduction of each specific environmental resource, possible project-related impacts, proposed mitigation, background information and more.
In the case of larger pipeline or facility projects, FERC recommends participation in its pre-filing process, which allows the applicant to informally work with staff, the third-party contractor (if required), and any cooperating agencies in the development and review of draft ERRs. The pre-filing process also provides opportunities for public outreach and scoping ahead of the formal application submittal, ultimately resulting in a more complete and well-researched application, which reduces the need for extensive data requests and potential schedule delays.
Once an application has been received or a project is accepted into pre-filing, FERC’s third-party contractor is engaged to begin a months-long environmental review process that ends with the issuance of the draft EIS (DEIS) and eventually a final EIS (FEIS).
Developing the NEPA Document
As an extension of FERC staff, the third-party contractor starts by reviewing the ERRs and conducting research in preparation of drafting the NEPA document, an EA or EIS. Most project proponents anticipate the need for an EIS, however, and bypass the development of an EA. This document further outlines the purpose of the project and lists potential environmental impacts of the proposed plan as well as staff’s recommendations to mitigate said impacts.
Mandated by federal law, an EIS is an all-inclusive government document that covers, in detail, reasonable alternatives, the affected environment and environmental consequences of the proposed action. To comply with rigorous regulatory requirements that protect the quality of the human environment, the third-party contractor prepares an EIS in accordance with multiple laws and acts that fall under NEPA, including:
- Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act
- Clean Air Act
- Clean Water Act
- Endangered Species Act
- Executive Order 12898, Federal Action to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations
- Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation & Management Act
- Migratory Bird Treaty Act
- National Historic Preservation Act
- Rivers and Harbors Act
A well-prepared EIS — which, upon final submission, could be hundreds of pages long — carries significant weight in the commissioners’ review and authorization of a project.
Comprehensive Third-Party Support
More than just reading and critiquing documentation submitted by the applicant, a third-party contractor is responsible for connecting with and involving other regulatory agencies as well as the public. State and federal agencies typically are invited to participate as a cooperating agency in the development of an EA or EIS. The cooperating agencies provide comments and suggestions related to specific environmental concerns during the development of the EIS. Cooperating agencies commonly include:
- Bureau of Land Management
- Environmental Protection Agency
- National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
- State historic preservation offices
- State wildlife protection agencies
- State water quality agencies
- U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
- U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
During the EIS development, staff and the third-party contractor typically hold one or more public scoping meetings to solicit stakeholder comments that will aid in drafting the EIS. These meetings allow the public to communicate directly with a FERC representative and openly discuss issues that might need to be considered in the environmental document. In addition to these meetings, the public scoping period offers all stakeholders — including landowners, nongovernmental organizations, agencies, officials and developers — the opportunity to comment or express concerns they would like to see addressed in the EIS.
Behind the scenes, the third-party contractor is working diligently on the first pass of the EIS, referred to as the preliminary administrative draft EIS (PADEIS), which is passed on to FERC’s staff for review and comment. Once the third-party contractor has revised the PADEIS, it is issued to all cooperating agencies as the administrative draft EIS (ADEIS), with the request for additional feedback. The third-party contractor continues refining and editing the environmental document as each agency submits comments. The finished product, ready for public review, is the DEIS.
A public comment period of 30-45 days follows the issuance of a DEIS. During that time, one or more public comment sessions are held to obtain feedback from stakeholders regarding the studies, analysis and results discussed in the report. FERC also can decide to offer electronic scoping — comments that can be submitted electronically or by mail — to encourage participation and feedback. As a result of these public comment efforts, a third-party contractor will receive questions and comments — sometimes in the hundreds — and all must be addressed and documented in the FEIS.
The FEIS will include, as an appendix, all letters and comments submitted by the public and the detailed response to each. If applicable, additional studies, details or modifications also are incorporated into the body of the FEIS. Occasionally, the applicant will submit a supplemental filing to the FERC docket, highlighting changes in the project design, workspace or impacts. These project revisions must be incorporated into the FEIS before its release. In the event these modifications are substantial, staff might reopen the public scoping window to give newly affected landowners an opportunity to participate in the FERC process.
There’s a lot that goes into FERC’s stringent environmental review and preparation process — and for good reason. But it takes teamwork to thoroughly and successfully review an applicant’s documents, prepare assessments and statements, coordinate with cooperating agencies, and engage the public. Acting on FERC’s behalf, third-party contractors are preparing solid environmental statements and delivering seamless preparation and review processes. That’s precisely why they’re FERC-approved.
From preparing an EIS to providing environmental compliance monitoring during construction and restoration, see how a 170-mile-long greenfield pipeline project in West Virginia is benefiting from the help of a third-party contractor.