FERC declines to revoke Weymouth compressor certificate

Agency moves on, vows not to make siting mistake in future


A CONTROVERSIAL NATURAL GAS facility in Weymouth can continue to operate after federal regulators on Thursday declined to revoke the project’s authorization, dealing another blow to opponents who for years have fought against the pipeline linchpin.

Nearly a year after the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission launched a fresh review of the compressor station, the five-member panel decided not to revoke the certificate it issued to energy giant Enbridge, a step that largely ends the commission’s involvement.

The commission determined that it does not have a legal basis to shut down the station along the banks of the Fore River, even as its chairman said he thinks FERC previously “erred” in siting the facility and “inadequately assessed” its environmental and public health impacts on the densely populated surrounding area.

Ultimately, chairman Richard Glick said, his underlying concerns are not enough of a “legal basis” to halt the already-operational compressor.

“I know it’s cold comfort to talk about the improvements that we’re going to be making in the future, and hopefully we’ll be able to avoid this type of situation in the future,” Glick told reporters after the panel’s meeting. “If you’re sitting there living near the Weymouth compressor station, that’s not going to make you any more comfortable, and I fully understand that. But we’re restricted by the law.”

In the wake of two emergency shutdowns at the compressor station in September 2020, FERC announced last year that it would open a “paper briefing” process to reexamine safety concerns around the facility.

Glick, a Trump appointee who joined the commission in late 2017 and helped approve the station’s operations permit in 2020, said regulators “received and carefully considered nearly a hundred responses.”

The decision clears the way for Enbridge and its subsidiary Algonquin Gas Transmission to keep the natural gas facility online in the face of a vocal opposition coalition that includes community groups and lawmakers.

“We are pleased with FERC’s decision not to advance a reexamination of matters which have already been extensively reviewed as part of a multiyear public process for the Weymouth Compressor Station as part of the Atlantic Bridge project,” said Max Bergeron, a spokesperson for Enbridge. “Natural gas infrastructure is vital to keeping the heat and lights on for families and businesses, particularly during cold weather. We remain committed to safely and responsibly delivering natural gas for New England families and businesses.”

Alice Arena, a leader of the Fore River Residents Against the Compressor Station group that has fought the compressor station for years, told the News Service she was disappointed but not surprised by the decision, describing it as “precedent-setting” that FERC underwent an additional review in the first place.

“It would have been a long-shot for FERC to have gone back on a certificate order,” Arena said. “That being said, we are more than disappointed in the moral and ethical choice that they have made. They are the Commission. They are there to make rules and regulations and to set precedent, and they decided not to do that today.”

“That decision and that precedent has more to do with the broader question of environmental justice and climate change and not just this compressor in Weymouth, and they chickened out,” Arena added. “They blinked. And also as one of our members said, ‘It’s cold comfort, you’re really sorry, but you still don’t have a problem with killing our kids.'”

The argument FERC members made may be familiar to project opponents, who have long criticized Gov. Charlie Baker for his administration’s approval of facility permits. In 2019, Baker said his team “basically had no choice” but to approve air quality permits for the facility after an extensive review.

FERC first approved the facility in 2017, a decision that, as Glick noted, a federal court later upheld amid legal challenges. Enbridge later received the necessary permits from the state Department of Environmental Protection, which also remained standing after appeals.

The company got the green light in September 2020 to begin service at the station, which is designed to maintain pressure in the Atlantic Bridge pipeline project shipping natural gas to utilities in Maine and Canada.

While the panel did not change course for the Weymouth facility, its members touted the debate as a potential turning point in how the regulatory agency considers similar issues.

FERC Commissioner Allison Clement called it a “hard decision” to keep in place FERC’s order allowing the compressor to operate. Like Glick, she, too, took aim at the work the commission previously did during its initial certification process.

“After careful consideration of the record, I have concluded we lack the legal and evidentiary basis to change course,” Clement said during Thursday’s meeting. “But I want to be clear about something. The original culprit in this proceeding was not the decision to take a pause and consider changed circumstances, but the inadequate certification policy statement and environmental consideration under which a certificate was originally awarded.”

In a lengthy statement explaining the decision, Glick recounted steps FERC has taken in the past year to update its review process, such as hiring a senior staffer to focus on environmental and equity issues and launching an Office of Public Participation. Glick said he hopes the changes “will ensure that history does not repeat itself.”

“We have two environmental justice communities, a heavily populated area,” Glick told reporters, referring to the neighborhoods around the Weymouth facility. “There are various reasons why things are sited where they are, but it’s not a good reason to say, ‘They already have a bunch of other industrial activity, so what more harm is it going to do to add a compressor station?’ That’s not the way we should be looking at things, and I’m hopeful in the future that we take a different tack.”

For Arena, the calls Glick made for regulatory updates landed with a thud.

“I don’t believe a word that’s being said until I see it on paper and I see it in actual action,” she said. “Lip service isn’t going to do us a darn bit of good, so until they start promulgating regulations and start actually making decisions based on environmental justice, based on climate change, then it’s worthless.”

US Sen. Ed Markey, a Democrat who has been among the most vocal critics of the compressor station, said it would be “an understatement to say that I am deeply disappointed” in FERC’s decision.

“While Chairman Glick acknowledged that the compressor station’s location should never have been approved, FERC failed to act to protect the families in Weymouth and surrounding cities that already bear the negative health and environmental impacts of multiple industrial facilities in their community,” Markey said in a statement. “Doing better going forward isn’t going to help the people of Weymouth living right now in the shadow of this dangerous fossil fuel facility. We’re going to fight with legislation, with the agencies, and shoulders-to-shoulder with local leaders and grassroots activists to get the compressor station shut down once and for all.”

Arena said opponents still have several other challenges pending, including an appeal in federal court of FERC’s decision to extend the compressor’s certificate and in state Superior Court over a waterways permit.

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Still, as remaining legal options dwindle, Arena said groups that have fought Enbridge for more than half a decade are taking a “two-pronged approach” that also includes pushing state and federal agencies to maintain rigorous oversight of the facility’s operations.

“We’re going to continue that pressure and that work, and we’re going to continue to try to shut it down,” she said.