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Can Gov. Baker Actually Block A Controversial Gas Compressor?

Gov. Baker at the WGBH Studios in Brighton.
Meredith Nierman/WGBH News

Governor Charlie Baker says protesters of a controversial Weymouth gas compressor should redirect their attention, refraining from taking a stand on the proposed 7,700-horsepower station at the foot of the Fore River Bridge.

“In the end, these decisions get made by the federal government,” Baker told a caller on his weekly Ask The Governor segment on Boston Public Radio Thursday. “The state has a minor role to play, but in the end, if the federal government believes that certain energy capacity decisions with respect to transmission are in the national interest, it’s their call.”

On January 25, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) approved the construction of the $450 million project that would transport natural gas from Pennsylvania into Maine and Canada. Opponents of the project include Senators Elizabeth Warren, Edward Markey, US Representative Stephen Lynch and several activist groups.

On Groundhog day, lead coordinator Alice Arena said the Fore River Residents Against the Compressor Station (FRRACS) collected over 11,000 signatures with the help of various activist groups around the state and delivered over 1500 postcards to Baker’s office to protest “any pipeline tax designed to force the public to pay for these private enterprises.” Baker told a BPR caller the message might be better received somewhere else. “You really ought to make sure you communicate those postcards to your federal representatives,” he said. “I’ve talked with some of the folks at the federal level about this, but that’s really where these decisions get made, they don’t get made at the state level.”

According to Arena, Baker could still block the project. “Governor Baker would be incorrect in stating that all is in the hands of the Federal Government,” Arena said. “While much of the power rests with the Federal Regulatory Commission (FERC), the states have the ability to deny permitting that must be given in order for the project to go forward.”

Arena referred to the Coastal Zone Management Act, a provision implemented in Massachusetts in 1979 to preserve and protect resources in coastal zones. This falls under the state Department of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA), which reports to Baker.

According to Tamara Young-Allen, the spokesperson for FERC, it might be too late for Baker to take on an opposition role. “If he wanted to be an intervener and take an active role in the proceeding, he could have—anyone can,” Young-Allen said. “Anyone can participate in FERCs proceedings if they show that no one else can represent their views.”

Theoretically, Baker could still file an appeal through the Massachusetts Energy Facilities Siting Board, an EEA review board that reports to the governor. The docket lists dozens of names including advocacy groups, gas companies, and the town of Weymouth. If Baker wanted to intervene, he could act by Feb. 24. But even then, stopping the project would face further complications on a federal level.

When President Donald Trump was elected, two of five seats in the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s were vacant. Trump then appointed Cheryl LaFleur as chairman and former chairman Norman Bay resigned, which left  FERC with just two members — a number that leaves the commission unable to act.

Normally, the FERC commission has a 60-day time frame to address appeals. If those arguments aren’t addressed, they are automatically denied. Without sufficient numbers on the commission, no decisions can be made, which makes the situation tricky for those opposing the gas compressor. To stop the clock until Trump appoints at least one more commissioner, FERC issued a procedural order to give the commission as much time as they need to re-hear the order. Meanwhile, construction can still begin — even with opposition.

Appeals must be made within 30 days of the order, and FERC must respond in 60 days. If the commission doesn't, the appeals automatically denied. The commission can issue a procedural order that stops the clock for the 60-day time frame and gives the commission as much time as they need to rehear their order. “The appeal of the order is separate from the construction,” Young-Allen said. “Construction can start before all of the permitting goes through.”

According to Young-Allen, it ultimately all goes back to Trump. If he appoints one more FERC commissioner, a decision might be possible. If not, appeals on permitting will not affect the construction process, which has already been approved. This means construction will keep moving forward until someone is appointed who can make a decision, and (to Baker's credit) it will not be the governor of Massachusetts. 

To hear Governor Baker's full interview with Boston Public Radio, click on the audio link above. 

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