Unjust, Unreasonable, Unwelcome: EJ Barriers at FERC
Aleksandra "Sasha" George Ruiz (Legal Fellow for Environmental Justice*) / Jessica Bell (Deputy Director) / January 26, 2023
Last summer, the Center heard from then-Commissioner Willie Phillips about the importance of “EJ communities … hav[ing] a meaningful opportunity to be heard…every step of the way.” He went on to talk about how pending proposals from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to reform electric transmission policy had not adequately addressed community justice or mitigating climate change, even though, “we know for a fact that historically underserved communities will be disproportionately impacted by climate change … the same thing goes for extreme weather, aging infrastructure.” Now, Phillips is acting chairman of FERC.
At last week’s FERC open meeting, Acting Chairman Phillips affirmed that environmental justice (EJ) is a priority for his work. He announced an upcoming roundtable on EJ and equity, to be held March 29. Commissioner Allison Clements emphasized the importance of having community input on the agenda and community representation at the session.
In addition to the upcoming roundtable, FERC and the Department of Energy have several other open proceedings that are explicitly considering communities and EJ:
A recent proposal on permitting for electric transmission siting implementing part of the Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act, in which applicants for federal permits to site developing transmission facilities would be required to file an Environmental Justice Public Engagement Plan early in the process.
A request for information for a potential funding opportunity announcement from the Department of Energy earlier this month, seeking insight into increasing community engagement and advancing EJ and equity values in communities that are affected by transmission projects.
The Department of Energy, through the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, has a program to connect communities with teams and experts to support communities in reaching clean energy goals.
Last year, FERC released an Equity Action Plan and established its Office of Public Participation to boost engagement.
FERC has a long way to go, though, in addressing substantive and procedural EJ concerns. FERC continues to receive heavy criticism from the communities most affected by environmental injustice in FERC’s electric, infrastructure, and gas proceedings. For example, on October 3, 2022, Vecinos Para el Bienestar Para la Comunidad Costera, the Carrizo Comecrudo Tribe of Texas, Seeding Sovereignty, the City of Port Isabel, the Society of Native Nations, other organizations, and Sierra Club filed a public comment urging FERC to do additional scoping and a thorough EJ analysis for the Rio Grande LNG’s proposal for a carbon capture storage facility and pipeline in Cameron County. The commenting organizations and governments asserted that unjust and prohibitive barriers in this FERC proceeding have hindered public participation, and that FERC must thoroughly study the environmental and climate impacts of the project. Specifically, the comments pointed to FERC’s failure to provide translation for pertinent documents and meeting presentations and discussions in a community that’s over 70% Spanish-speaking. This created a barrier to participation in this proceeding and according to the comments, requires redoing the public meetings. The comments also break down the inaccuracy and harm in having an EJ analysis that does not consider that there is a geographic component to harms that impact communities differently depending on their location. And the comments pointed out that the applicant has not provided key information to inform public analysis of the project, such as the project route and anticipated water usage.
Communities affected by environmental and climate injustice have a long history of leading efforts and providing federal agencies with analyses and prospective solutions to address the compounding environmental and climate injustices they’re navigating. As we wait to see who the White House will nominate for the open FERC seat, there is a call for President Biden to nominate an EJ advocate. As FERC takes on new proceedings in these communities that face cumulative environmental issues, including in Port Arthur, Belle Chasse, and Corpus Christi, it will remain crucial for FERC to remove policies and practices that are barriers to community members’ meaningful participation as primary stakeholders and that limit or prevent community leadership from being respected and problem-solving from being heard.