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Just as President Trump takes power promising to ramp up oil and gas production, a sudden resignation in a key agency threatens to put such projects on hold across the United States.
On Thursday, Norman Bay, one of just three current members of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), said he would resign effective Feb. 3, even though his term isn't up until next year. His announcement came shortly after Trump decided Bay's fellow commissioner, Cheryl LaFleur, would serve as the Commission's new chair.
"I think [Bay] was perhaps disappointed that Commissioner LaFleur was elevated above him," says Carolyn Elefant, an energy lawyer who represents landowners negotiating with pipeline companies. After Bay's abrupt decision, Elefant says she's "heard in some FERC circles he's being criticized for that."
The resignation could mean costly delays for some major pipeline projects. The independent agency oversees the interstate transmission of electricity, natural gas and oil. It's supposed to have five commissioners, but Bay's departure leaves FERC with just two — not enough for the required quorum to make decisions. Some projects that have been through years of regulatory review and were nearing the finish line could now be in limbo for months.
That includes new multibillion dollar transmission pipelines intended to alleviate a glut of natural gas in the Appalachian basin. If approved, they will supply markets including the East Coast, Midwest, Gulf Coast and Canada.
It's unclear what impact the FERC delay might have on the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines, which Mr. Trump aimed to green light through executive actions this past week.
Williams Partners' Atlantic Sunrise pipeline is among those awaiting final word from FERC. The pipeline would ship gas from northeastern Pennsylvania southward and connect into a larger network of existing lines.
"The president clearly recognizes that natural gas infrastructure is critical to U.S. economic growth, job creation and expanding the American manufacturing base," says Williams spokesman Chris Stockton in an email. "We believe this administration will prioritize filling the commission's vacancies so that critical natural gas infrastructure projects like Atlantic Sunrise can be approved."
The project has faced intense criticism from local opponents, who recently built encampments and are working with activists who participated in the protests against the Dakota Access oil pipeline.
On Friday the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, a trade group representing pipeline operators, sent Trump a letter urging him to act quickly to fill the vacancy.
"The most significant barrier to building this infrastructure is often the permitting and approval process," wrote INGAA president Donald Santa. "We must have a functioning FERC to move forward with building this critical energy infrastructure."
Even if the president chooses someone quickly, the process will likely take several months — the appointment requires Senate confirmation. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), chair of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, says she will make it a top priority.
"After next week, FERC will need a full complement of commissioners as soon as possible so that it can tackle the important work on its busy docket," Murkowski said in a statement. "The senate's challenge will be to promptly consider, without undue delay, FERC nominations once they are received."
In the meantime the agency's Acting Chairman Cheryl LaFleur says the next few days before Bay leaves will be busy ones.
"The commission is working to get as many orders out as we can in the time we have left with a quorum," she says. "I am confident that, with the strong team we have here at the commission, we can continue to do our important work."
This story is from StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration between WITF and WHYY covering the fiscal and environmental impact of Pennsylvania's energy economy
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