Sep. 16—ST. LOUIS — A court order threatening to shut down a key natural gas pipeline is raising concerns about risks to the region's gas supply as winter approaches.
The St. Louis-based natural gas company Spire is claiming that it has less access to previously used pipelines, making the Spire STL Pipeline critical for providing reliable gas to the region. Critics, however, say the utility has not proven the new line is needed. Moreover, they say, the battle holds far broader significance, with the potential to reshape the future of pipeline development across the U.S.
Spire, meanwhile, insists the STL line has spared the region from gas shortages, including during the freeze that crippled Texas and Oklahoma pipelines last winter.
"Being captive on Texas and the Gulf Coast region and Oklahoma for gas is no longer the prudent option," said Sean Jamieson, general counsel for the arm of Spire that developed the project. "There are extreme weather events occurring in places that were not expected just 10 years ago."
The 65-mile pipeline's legal woes have been in the spotlight since June, when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that the two-year-old project — which improves the St. Louis area's access to gas from both the Eastern U.S. and the Rocky Mountains — never adequately demonstrated that it was needed by regional customers.
The ruling cited a range of factors, including flat gas consumption for the area and the project's failure to attract bids from independent gas shippers, who never inked commitments to get fuel from the line — something critics have said reflects a lack of market demand.
Spire has since exhausted key avenues to fight the ruling. Last week, the D.C. Circuit court denied the company's request to rehear the case, and by Monday, the utility acknowledged that it was starting "to run out of legal options," said company spokesman Jason Merrill.
But in recent days, Spire has set a last-ditch blitz in motion.
On Monday evening, the company submitted a filing to the D.C. Circuit court to stay its ruling, which otherwise would have forced the pipeline to stop transporting fuel the following day.
In the same filing, Spire said it aimed to take the case before the U.S. Supreme Court — and that it had hired high-profile lawyers to lead the fight.
And on Tuesday, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission granted the company a 90-day emergency certificate to continue operating the line as it reviews the line's approval.
Gillian Giannetti, an attorney who tracks national energy issues for the Natural Resources Defense Council, called the moves "fourth-quarter plays" and the overture to the Supreme Court a "Hail Mary."
No backup plan
Spire says the project is vital for serving local customers and credits the line with sparing the region from the gas shortages and price shocks that stretched from Texas to western Missouri in February amid a winter freeze that gripped much of the central U.S.
Prior to the STL line's construction, the company used to rely primarily on a separate pipeline that carried gas from places like Texas, Oklahoma and the Gulf Coast region. The utility says the new line has played a crucial role in diversifying the area's gas supply — something reinforced by the February freeze.
But it said backup plans, if forced to make do without the line, aren't clear.
The company said in July that it cannot revert back to getting gas from pipelines it formerly relied on because other gas shippers have purchased the extra capacity.
"We are trying to not leave any stone unturned here," said Jamieson, the general counsel. "But there is no viable replacement."
He said the company has spent the summer filling billions of cubic feet of available storage capacity with gas, but that approach alone isn't enough to ride out a winter without the pipeline.
"That's factored into the equation, and we still have an issue," Jamieson said.
The pipeline itself, he said, has illustrated how critical it is.
"There is compelling, now-demonstrated evidence about the benefits of this pipeline," said Jamieson. "We hope and we expect (FERC) to consider these things."
None of the parties involved in the fight wants to see St. Louis-area gas customers put at risk as a result of the court decision, including the Environmental Defense Fund, which sued to block the STL line.
"EDF has previously stated that FERC should act as necessary to ensure that residents and business in St. Louis continue to have reliable access to natural gas during this upcoming winter," the group said in a statement.
Concerns about natural gas reliability, among others, highlight the need for federal regulators to "provide more thorough scrutiny of pipeline applications before FERC approval is granted and the infrastructure is built," it continued.
Giannetti said she hopes the ongoing debate about the pipeline stays rooted in facts.
"Our concern is that Spire is going all in on fear," she said. "Is that fear backed up by data?"
And Giannetti worried that justifying the line's usefulness with evidence from after its construction would create a dangerous new precedent — one that could see pipelines built first and justified later.
She said it's particularly important to consider the incentives for pipeline development amid a warming world.
"By continuing to build out more and more pipelines, we are continuing to expand our dependence on the fuels that flow within them," she said. "What incentives do we want to provide for pipeline development?"
(c)2021 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Visit the St. Louis Post-Dispatch at www.stltoday.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.