A business advocacy group lobbied for the reappointment of a federal energy commissioner while one of its own members sought approval for several projects from the same federal regulator, a DeSmog investigation has found.
In the past three years, natural gas infrastructure giant Spectra Energy has asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s (FERC) approval for a number of projects in the US Northeast.
During this time, regional pro-business lobbying group the New England Council, of which Houston-based Spectra Energy is a member, lobbied President Barack Obama and the US Senate for the reappointment of FERC Commissioner Cheryl LaFleur to a second term.
A DeSmog investigation has found other instances suggesting an ongoing and exclusive relationship between LaFleur, NEC, and lobbyists working for Spectra Energy.
Spectra is a dues-paying member of the NEC which, according to its website, is an “alliance of businesses, academic and health institutions, and public and private organizations that promotes economic growth in the New England region.” The NEC has a lobbying arm and office in Washington, DC.
Also during this period, the NEC arranged at least two closed-door meetings between LaFleur and its energy industry members, including Spectra. These exclusive meetings were held in the offices of a multinational law firm that was hired by Spectra to represent it in a different environmental case. The most recent meeting was held in December 2015.
FERC has already approved two of Spectra’s projects in the region, while the other two are pending approval.
The NEC Lobbies for LaFleur
In early 2014, Spectra submitted to FERC an application for its Algonquin Incremental Market (AIM) project, a major capacity upgrade for the company’s existing Algonquin Pipeline carrying fracked gas from Pennsylvania through New Jersey and New York and into Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts.
The project, which includes 37 new miles of pipeline and six compressor stations, has drawn fierce opposition from residents, grassroots organizations, politicians, and elected officials along its multi-state route and beyond.
Citing concerns about climate change and the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure, opponents have also sounded the alarm over the proximity of the pipeline to the Indian Point nuclear plant in New York. Others have targeted the contentious new pipeline segment in the residential Boston neighborhood of West Roxbury, which passes near an active blasting quarry.
A recent campaign has begun targeting FERC directly, as activists accuse the commission of providing a “rubber stamp for the fossil fuel industry.”
A month following the submission of AIM’s application, NEC sent LaFleur a letter in strong support of the AIM project, urging her and the commission to approve the pipeline. Soon after, LaFleur, who was appointed to her first term as commissioner by President Obama in 2010, was up for reappointment. FERC commissioners, the highest energy regulators in the country, are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate.
As the reappointment loomed, NEC lobbyists worked to convince Senate members to confirm her nomination for a second term.
According to a Senate lobbying disclosure document, the NEC had lobbied specifically for LaFleur’s reappointment beginning in April 2014, two months after Spectra officially filed a request for approval of the AIM. These lobbying expenses exceeded $40,000, the files reveal.
LaFleur was successfully reappointed in July 2014 for a second term of five years. FERC went on to approve the AIM project eight months later. Soon after, the commission approved another Spectra project – the Salem Lateral pipeline – that will feed natural gas to a power plant in Salem, Massachusetts.
As FERC Reviews Pre-Filing, Spectra in Closed Meeting With LaFleur
Several months earlier, during AIM pipeline’s official Pre-Filing Review Process before FERC, LaFleur held a closed meeting with NEC’s Energy & Environment Committee, of which Spectra is a member.
The Pre-Filing Review Process precedes a company’s formal application for FERC’s approval of energy projects and includes scoping meetings and open houses with affected parties, an environmental review process, and other certification procedures.
The October 2013 “breakfast meeting” was held at the Boston offices of powerhouse law firm WilmerHale. Hosted by WilmerHale attorney Mark Kalpin, who also heads NEC’s Energy & Environment Committee, the meeting provided major energy companies operating in the Northeast with exclusive access to LaFleur.
Kalpin, a veteran energy lawyer whose clients include oil and gas companies, worked at FERC earlier in his career.
NEC lobbyists David O’Donnell and Peter Phipps, who several months later would lobby the US Senate for LaFleur’s reappointment to FERC, also serve as liaisons for NEC’s Energy & Environment Committee.
(A photo from the meeting at WilmerHale in October 2013. FERC Commissioner Cheryl LaFleur with NEC’s Mark Kalpin. From: newenglandcouncil.com)
Only three weeks after the meeting, WilmerHale was hired by Spectra Energy to represent it in a shareholders engagement case concerning methane emissions.
DeSmog has learned that in early December 2015, LaFleur held another meeting with members of NEC’s Energy and Environment Committee. Again, the closed-door event took place at the offices of WilmerHale, Mark Kalpin’s law firm.
The findings of this article were presented to FERC, but a spokesperson for the commission said it had no comment.
These relationships raise questions about FERC’s autonomy, says Robert Galbraith, research analyst with Public Accountability Initiative, a watchdog group monitoring money in government and academia.
“Spectra’s role in securing Commissioner LaFleur’s re-appointment raises serious questions about FERC’s independence from the industry it is charged with regulating,” Galbraith observes. “It bolsters the perception of the commission as a rubber stamp for the oil and gas industry that, until recently, had never rejected a pipeline plan.”
NEC’s Other Members: Spectra’s Lobbyists and Contractors
Dewey Square Group has specifically worked with Spectra on the AIM pipeline since at least the Pre-Filing Review Process in 2013, accompanying it through the application process and meeting with residents near the pipeline to assuage their concerns.
Another NEC member is Boston-based construction company Bond Brothers, which has been contracted by Spectra to work on the pipeline section in West Roxbury.
DeSmog does not know whether these lobbying firms and companies attended the two closed meetings with LaFleur in the offices of WilmerHale.
An NEC spokesperson declined to list its specific committee members and told DeSmog that the organization’s meetings, which are closed to the press, are “off-the-record.”
Attorney Kalpin Intervenes, Supports LaFleur’s Reappointment to FERC
Soon after the meeting with LaFleur in late 2013, attorney Kalpin sent his own letter of recommendation to President Obama in strong support of LaFleur’s re-nomination to FERC. A month later, Kalpin sent a similar letter of recommendation to Senator Mary Landrieu, then Chairperson of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.
The letters, which represented the position of NEC as a whole, gushed over LaFleur’s abilities. “NEC urges you to nominate her to a second term, as she has fully demonstrated the ability to both regulate our energy markets and oversee the development of the nation’s energy infrastructure in a manner that supports the interests of NEC’s members and all Americans,” Kalpin wrote.
“Acting Chairman LaFleur and her staff,” Kalpin added, “have been very accessible to NEC members, and she has spent a considerable amount of time in New England listening to the concerns of the region’s industrial and commercial customers.”
Spectra-linked Members Appointed to Crucial Energy Board
Spectra, which is currently seeking FERC approval for two other pipeline projects in New England – Access Northeast and Atlantic Bridge – may now find some sympathetic voices on an official state oversight board.
In May 2015, Mark Kalpin was appointed to the Massachusetts Energy Facilities Siting Board (EFSB), which is charged with licensing major energy infrastructure projects in the state. The EFSB also represents the state’s position on energy projects before FERC.
Kalpin is one of three public members currently serving on the nine-member board, which is part of the Department of Public Utilities.
Another current public member of the EFSB, Glenn Harkness, is a former senior vice president of TRC, a large engineering and environmental consulting company that worked for Spectra on the AIM project. Importantly, Harkness headed TRC’s subsidiary TRC Environmental, which performed environmental surveying and licensure for Spectra’s AIM. Harkness was appointed to the EFSB in June 2015.
(From Spectra Energy’s Pre-Filing document for the AIM project, showing the contracting of engineering company TRC Environmental. Source: FERC.gov)
EFSB’s public members are appointed by the Massachusetts governor. According to state laws, in order to qualify for the Board, public members cannot have received a “significant portion” of their income from an oil, gas, or utilities company in the two years prior to their election.
DeSmog asked a Massachusetts Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs spokesperson to comment about the wisdom of electing to the EFSB two members with connections to Spectra Energy, especially given the contentious nature of the company’s projects.
DeSmog also questioned Kalpin’s qualification for the Board, as he is an energy attorney representing, among others, oil and gas companies.
DeSmog has had no response. Neither did the NEC nor Spectra Energy provide comments before the publication of this article.
Blog image credit: WBZ-TV