Can the White House overrule states on pipeline permits? Trump thinks so

By now we’re all familiar with the many years it took to get the Keystone XL pipeline approved. Much of the fighting took place at the federal level, with the Obama administration opposing construction and additional complications arising from the fact that the route crossed international boundaries. But what about pipelines which are entirely within the United States? With the Trump administration in charge and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) staffed up with mostly Trump appointees, things should be going swimmingly now, right?

Well, there are still problems. Many of the larger pipelines cross state boundaries, and not all states are equally eager to see these infrastructure projects getting underway (to put it kindly). One natural gas pipeline ran into a brick wall when New York failed to approve permits for them, claiming it would endanger certain wetlands and would contribute to global warming. The owners, Millennium Pipeline Co., appealed the decision but were recently pleasantly surprised when the FERC went ahead and issued them a permit anyway. That left a lot of people scratching their heads and asking, can they do that? We’re going to find out. (Houston Chronicle)

After years of pipeline projects getting held up or derailed by environmental concerns, the Trump administration is examining ways to get around state roadblocks that have made it increasingly difficult to build in certain parts of the United States.

In late October, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission startled many state officials when it granted a construction permit for a natural gas pipeline in New York, despite state regulators turning down the developer over concerns the project would increase greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change. The Trump administration, meanwhile, has for months discussed the possibility of using federal authority to speed infrastructure development, a potential political third rail for Republicans who have long proclaimed the sanctity of states’ rights.

“This is an administration that’s going to carry out its agenda by all means necessary,” said Devashree Saha, director of energy and environmental policy at The Council of State Governments, a non-partisan advocate for state governments. “The New York example is the first we’re seeing, but it could be a harbinger of things to come.”

This is going to be a complicated discussion going forward. The federal government handles questions of infrastructure crossing international lines. Matters involving construction strictly inside of state borders are largely handled by the state. (And states’ rights is an important cornerstone of conservative orthodoxy.) But what about projects running from state to state? If the overall project is approved at the federal level, can (or should) the states be able to shut it down?

Consider the interstate highway system. What if one state didn’t want to participate and refused to allow construction across their borders? It was such a wildly popular program when first enacted that we never really had to deal with the question, but could they have refused? Or, like some pipelines swerving around particular wildlife areas, could they force the interstate highway to go around their state? If the same thing happens to pipelines it not only drives up delivery costs massively but provides even more stretches of pipe for possible leaks to take place.

There’s probably a better analogy to be found in our power grid. Big transmission lines crisscross through state borders all over the country. At least at a quick glance, I can’t find an instance of anyone raising a major court case over whether or not power transmission has been hindered by some NIMBY state that didn’t need electricity. But that day may be coming soon as well.

I have a feeling that some northeastern states will be suing the federal government shortly over this (no surprise since somebody is suing Trump on a daily basis), so we may not know the answer for years. And even though I’m one of the bigger pipeline advocates you’re likely to meet, I’m not even sure how I feel about this one yet.