Alaska LNG project clears legal challenge over environmental harms

The decision comes after the U.S. Department of Energy issued key export approvals for the project last month.

By Clark Mindock, Reuters - May 17, 2023
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This illustration shows what a proposed liquefaction plant at Nikiski could look like. (Source: Alaska LNG)

(Reuters) – A U.S. appeals court on Tuesday rejected a lawsuit filed by environmental groups challenging federal approvals needed to construct a $39 billion project that would move natural gas from Alaska’s North Slope across the state.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia said the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s review of plans for the state-run Alaska Gasline Development Corp’s project satisfied the National Environmental Policy Act requirements to take a hard look at environmental impacts of major proposals, and that the approvals complied with the Natural Gas Act and other laws.

Screenshot of Alaska LNG project route. Source: Alaska LNG / AGDC

The Alaska LNG project would transport natural gas along a pipeline that bisects the state from north to south. Backers say it could help the United States compete with Russia to ship natural gas from the Arctic to Asia. But, environmental groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity and the Sierra Club, which sued in 2020 claim it would “wreak havoc” on Alaska’s wildlife and the climate.

Construction on the 800-mile pipeline and related infrastructure has not started, according to Tim Fitzpatrick, a spokesman for the developer. He said Tuesday that they are in the process now of choosing investors.

Kristen Monsell, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, said Tuesday that they’re disappointed with the ruling but that “the fight isn’t over.”

FERC declined to comment.

The judges said Tuesday that FERC adequately considered how noises and ship traffic might harm endangered beluga whales and how construction could impact wetlands, despite concerns raised by the environmental groups.

The court also backed FERC’s method for analyzing the significance of the project’s expected greenhouse gas emissions by comparing those to existing state and nationwide emissions. The court said the agency had no obligation to rely on the social cost of carbon metric the groups had argued was better suited for that analysis.

The decision comes after the U.S. Department of Energy issued key export approvals for the project last month. Those approvals are facing a separate legal challenge filed by the environmental groups.

The case is Center for Biological Diversity v. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, No. 20-1379.

For the environmental groups: Erin Colón, Jeremy Lieb and Sara Gersen of Earthjustice; and Kristen Monsell and Elizabeth Jones of the Center for Biological Diversity

For FERC: Lona Perry and Robert Solomon of FERC

For the Alaska Gasline Development Corp: Kenneth Minesinger and Howard Nelson of Greenberg Traurig

(Reporting by Clark Mindock)