Spire warns of natural gas outages after courts side with environmentalists on pipeline

(The Center Square) – As overnight temperatures dropped below freezing last week, natural gas utility company Spire Energy informed about 650,000 customers in eastern Missouri of possible outages this winter.

The communications campaign was launched two weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to overturn a lower-court decision stopping operation of a 65-mile natural gas pipeline from its connection with the Rockies Express Pipeline in Scott County, Illinois, to a storage facility in northeast Missouri.

Spire filed its case with the Supreme Court after the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) won a lawsuit in June in the U.S. District Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. In a 205-page petition, the EDF argued the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) didn’t conduct a full and proper review before a 3-2 vote to approve construction of the pipeline. The court nullified the certificate to build the pipeline – completed and operating since 2019 – and ordered the FERC to appropriately remedy the situation.

FERC granted Spire an emergency extension in September, allowing the pipeline to continue operating through Dec. 13. But as the first heavy frosts occurred two weeks after U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts rejected Spire’s request to overrule the Court of Appeals, Spire launched a campaign to show the possibility of gas outages.

“Spire has been working to keep the pipeline in service this winter as government regulators consider its long-term use,” Scott Carter, president of Spire Missouri, wrote in an email to customers on Nov. 4. “In fact, this week our CEO and Chief Legal Counsel traveled to Washington, D.C., to talk with as many lawmakers as possible to help them understand the potential impact to the St. Louis community. We’re confident that we’ve done everything we can to demonstrate the critical role the pipeline plays in providing the St. Louis community with energy, but there are no guarantees it will operate beyond Dec. 13.”

Natalie Karas, senior director and lead legal counsel for EDF, said the Supreme Court’s decision to let stand the lower-court ruling will protect Spire’s customers, land owners and all impacted by the pipeline.

“The D.C. Circuit decision was thorough and well-reasoned, and it is important that the commission now reform its review procedures to put people first – the hard-working ratepayers who bear the costs, the landowners whose property was impacted, the communities adversely affected, and many who are having their lives disrupted,” Karas said in a statement. “Spire currently has a temporary certificate to operate, and FERC is poised to issue another temporary certificate to ensure reliability. FERC can determine the appropriate conditions for a temporary certificate and ensure continuity of service for the people of St. Louis.”

In an Oct. 11 blog post, weeks before Spire’s customer communications, Karas addressed the next steps to be taken by FERC and Spire.

“Contrary to company claims, EDF has never suggested that service to St. Louis customers should be compromised in any way,” Karas wrote. “But allowing the pipeline to continue to operate without any change in conditions would, in effect, ignore the D.C. Circuit’s June ruling.”

Richard Glick, now chairman of the FERC, was one of the two dissenting votes on the pipeline. He was nominated by President Donald Trump and confirmed by the Senate in 2017. He was appointed chairman by President Biden on Jan. 21.

In a statement on Aug. 3, 2018, Glick wrote Spire didn’t demonstrate the project was needed and adverse impacts of the pipeline weren’t adequately considered.

“The record in this proceeding is patently insufficient to make these determinations, as there is neither evidence that the Spire Project is needed nor that its limited benefits outweigh its harms,” Glick wrote.

Glick’s dissent was noted in the 37-page ruling made on June 22 by the U.S. Court of Appeals. It was critical of the commission in how it carried out the review and used Glick’s description of the commission’s approval as “arbitrary and capricious.”

“This evidence includes that the proposed pipeline is not being built to serve increasing load demand and that there is no indication the new pipeline will lead to cost savings,” the ruling stated. “FERC’s failure to engage with this evidence did not satisfy the requirements of reasoned decision making. … FERC’s ostrich-like approach flies in the face of the guidelines set forth in the Certificate Policy Statement.”

In a request for comment on Friday, EDF leaders said a “special media call is in the works for Tuesday.” In an interview today on KMOX radio, Gillian Giannetti, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said Spire’s communications to customers was false and intended to create an emotional overreaction.

“That letter had misleading statements in it and also was based on fear,” Giannetti said. “The core fear that Spire has is that it’s not going to succeed in being able to pass along a 14% profit onto your utility bills.”

Featured photo from Spire website shows possible natural gas service outages this winter when the temperature averages 38 degrees Fahrenheit.

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