Sea level rise and coastal LNG terminals

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Should federal agencies consider climate change and sea-level rise as they review the environmental impacts of liquefied natural gas terminals?

Yes, according to letters recently filed with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission by the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law.  Last week the Columbia Law School center submitted comments on two cases involving applications to develop liquefied natural gas export facilities in Maine and Louisiana.

Pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and its implementing regulations, in approving an activity, the Commission must consider reasonably foreseeable indirect and cumulative environmental impacts of that activity.  Each case targeted by the Sabin Center involves a proposal to develop facilities for the liquefaction and export of natural gas from coastal or riverine sites: 
  • Downeast Liquefaction, LLC has proposed the Downeast LNG Import-Export Project, to be located in Robbinston, Maine.  The bi-directional terminal on the banks of the Passamaquoddy Bay would be capable of processing an average of approximately 300 MMcf per day of pipeline-quality natural gas (including fuel and inerts) in the liquefaction mode and 100 MMcf per day in the vaporization mode.

Procedurally, each of these cases is at the stage where the Commission solicits comment on the scope of issues it should include in its environmental review.  In similar letters filed in each docket (Downeast and Louisiana), the Sabin Center took no position on the export of liquefied natural gas or on whether the project should be approved. Instead, the center noticed that while the Commission's Notice of Intent to prepare an environmental impact statement included many important issues to consider, the notice did not identify the potential impact of climate change on the LNG project.

Specifically, the Sabin Center's letters note that sea level rise, and an associated increase in flooding and storm surges, may pose a significant risk due to the project sites' coastal location.  The letters argue that NEPA requires the Commission to assess the projected range of sea level rise and storm surge throughout the life of the projects and identify ways to prepare for climate change-related risks.  They also called for requiring the projects' design to incorporate an additional margin of safety, known as “freeboard,” to account for unanticipated risk factors that can contribute to flood heights, such as waves and the effect of development on ground water absorption.

Whether the Commission will agree with the Sabin Center remains to be seen.  As federal agencies issue permits for energy projects, they face increasing pressure from the public -- and presumably from the administration -- to consider the projects' broader implications for and from climate change.

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