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Spire’s natural gas pipeline is dealt another blow by federal court ruling

The Spire STL Pipeline is running out of options to continue operating its natural gas pipeline near St. Louis after a federal appeals court declined to reconsider a previous decision Tuesday. 

Following the denial, the natural gas company argued it’s even more urgent that federal energy regulators grant it temporary approval to keep operating the pipeline to avoid “significant implications for the health and safety, property and economic prosperity of the St. Louis region.”

Environmental groups have said in regulatory filings that Spire created its own crisis by building the pipeline even as it was being challenged legally. And they contend the company hasn’t provided enough information to determine whether it can supply sufficient natural gas this winter.

The Spire STL Pipeline, an affiliate of Spire Missouri, is a 65-mile gas pipeline from Illinois into Missouri that has been in operation since 2019. It was first granted approval by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in 2018. 

But it faces a ruling from a federal appeals court panel, issued in June, saying FERC improperly granted the pipeline approval. The court said regulators “failed to consider evidence of self-dealing” by Spire in building the pipeline. 

Spire filed for emergency authorization from FERC to keep the pipeline in operation and requested that a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit reconsider its decision. But the panel declined on Tuesday. Spire spokesman Jason Merrill said the company would continue to pursue all its legal and regulatory options.

“The court has appropriately rejected the request to revisit its initial decision,” Natalie Karas, senior director and lead counsel for the Environmental Defense Fund, said in a press release Tuesday. EDF filed the challenge to the Spire STL pipeline that led to the court ruling. “FERC has the authority and fact-finding tools to craft a remedy that fulfills the need for reliable service while safeguarding other public interests.” 

Scott Smith, president of the pipeline, said in a statement he was disappointed by the court’s denial of Spire’s rehearing petition. He said it “reinforces the urgency” of Spire’s application with FERC to keep the pipeline operating. Spire has said repeatedly that the pipeline increases reliability in the St. Louis area and helped prevent outages during severe winter weather that forced blackouts in Kansas City and wreaked havoc in Texas. 

“Customers who rely on the STL Pipeline need assurances this critical infrastructure can continue to deliver reliable and affordable energy supply,” Smith said in the statement. 

He added: “Without the STL Pipeline, Spire Missouri estimates that up to 400,000 homes and businesses may be without gas service to heat homes, cook food and fuel industry this winter, based on extreme cold weather planning scenarios.”

Emergency authorization

With its decision in June, the court of appeals panel struck down FERC’s earlier decision to grant the pipeline approval. The agency regulates energy activity that crosses state lines. 

The case goes back to FERC for reconsideration, but in the meantime, Spire wants to keep operating the pipeline this winter, saying it altered its distribution system after the pipeline became operational. Now, the company is dependent on it to provide reliable service in the St. Louis area. 

Karas previously called that “a problem of Spire STL’s own making.”

FERC has been accepting comments about Spire’s request for a temporary permit. The company has backing from various business groups in Missouri, local government officials in the St. Louis area, national natural gas organizations and Missouri Gov. Mike Parson. 

Missouri’s Public Service Commission, which studied the company’s claims that shutting down the pipeline could cause outages, asked FERC to take expedited action on the case. 

“Spire Missouri’s customers include individuals and businesses that depend on continuous natural gas service for heat, cooking and commercial activity,” the commission said in comments filed with FERC. “Caught in a situation not of their own making, these captive retail customers may have no viable alternative to the natural gas provided by Spire Missouri.”

The PSC ordered the company to file reports monthly during the coming winter seasons about its ability to provide natural gas. 

“As a result of the significant alteration of Spire Missouri’s distribution system to accommodate the Spire STL capacity, there is a real risk of natural gas outages during the winter of 2021-2022 absent the availability of Spire STL capacity,” PSC staff wrote in an investigation filed with the commission. 

Environmental groups, however, have filed objections with FERC. In a joint filing, the Sierra Club, New Jersey Conservation Foundation and Natural Resources Defense Council said Spire was asking the commission “to relieve Spire of its own poor choice to build its pipeline prior to having certainty over its legal right to do so.” 

“Having built its pipeline at its own risk, it now cries that the commission should either flatly ignore the D.C. Circuit’s mandate or directly contravene the court’s factual and legal conclusions by issuing a ‘limited-term’ certificate or emergency authorization,” the groups wrote. 

The filing says “for all its dire predictions,” Spire didn’t include any evidence that it couldn’t come up with other natural gas supply in a timely manner. 

EDF’s comments on Spire’s application call the request for an emergency certificate “fraught with inaccuracies, lacking in key information” and says it should be scrutinized carefully and rejected, at least in part. 

“Spire STL knowingly assumed the risk of constructing and operating a pipeline that was subject to ongoing legal challenges,” EDF wrote, “and the commission must not permit the Spire affiliates to avoid the consequences of their actions.” 

Smith said the pipeline group would file more data Tuesday in accordance with a request from FERC. 

“We are confident that when people have an opportunity to review the proven benefits of the STL Pipeline they will agree that there is a critical need for this infrastructure to ensure continued access to reliable, affordable energy for homes and businesses in the greater St. Louis region.”

This article by Allison Kite is published by permission of The Missouri Independent via a Creative Commons license.

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