To help expand the nation’s natural gas pipelines, U.S. Sen. Angus King is pushing a controversial measure to streamline the permitting process required for new projects.

King, a Maine independent, introduced a bill recently with Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., in a bid to speed up the process for approving pipelines across the country.

“This bipartisan bill would help natural gas get delivered safely and efficiently to consumers in Maine, while ensuring environmental protections remain in place,” King said.

King, a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said “by establishing timelines for federal reviews, the legislation cuts through red tape in a way that can deliver relief for Maine families and businesses facing high energy costs while in no way compromising environmental standards.”

Some Democrats, though, have a different take. A similar bill approved by the House in July secured only a smattering of Democratic votes from lawmakers wary that its terms would make it harder for localities and states to fight projects they don’t want.

Though U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, a 2nd District Republican, voted for the bill, his 1st District colleague, Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree, opposed it.

The principal opponent in the House, Florida Democrat Kathy Castor, said the measure “shortcuts the important review process for interstate natural gas pipeline projects, a process which already boasts one of the quickest review periods for any type of major energy project.”

U.S. Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-N.J., called it an “industry-backed bill” that would give federal regulators more ability to “put the interest of companies over that of the people and the environment.”

Though Maine has three interstate natural gas pipelines, New England is widely considered to have a pipeline shortage that contributes to its high energy costs. It is also a strongly pro-environment region that hasn’t hesitated to delay projects for years as details are reviewed and sometimes adjusted.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission plays a critical role in reviewing projects, most of which are approved within a year. Some, though, languish.

“For too long, the natural gas pipeline permitting process has been crippled with inefficiencies that unnecessarily delay critical projects for interstate commerce,” Inhofe said.

He said that easing the permitting process would allow industry to “get pipelines from planning to serving the public faster and more efficiently” by bringing local, state and federal regulators to the table early on to coordinate their work.

The bill submitted by King and Inhofe has support from the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, the Natural Gas Supply Association, the Center for Liquefied Natural Gas and the American Petroleum Institute.

Dena Wiggins, president and chief executive officer of the Natural Gas Supply Association, hailed the two senators for pressing ahead with the measure.

“Natural gas pipelines are essential in order to allow consumers to reap the full benefits of the shale revolution” that has allowed fracking to increase the supply of natural gas, she said.

“Further development of pipeline infrastructure provides greater access to abundant domestic natural gas, which helps lower emissions and supports renewable energy,” Wiggins said.

She said the proposal “ensures that the environmental impacts of a pipeline project are carefully reviewed, but in a manner that eliminates unnecessary delays in the process.”

Khary Cauthen, federal relations senior director for API, said that adding to the 2.5 million miles of existing pipelines in the country “will help increase the use of clean natural gas that has supported millions of jobs, lowered energy costs for consumers, and driven carbon emissions throughout the U.S. economy down to levels not seen in nearly 25 years.”

Cauthen said that while the federal review process “is robust and thorough, it isn’t always timely or efficient,” something that King and Inhofe’s measure would help with.

Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., told colleagues that he sees the push for streamlining as “a solution in search of a problem,” given that 88 percent of projects brought before federal regulators are certified within a year of the filing of a complete application.

“We have not seen good evidence that we need to further tilt the process in favor of pipeline companies,” Tonko said.

He said, for example, that the House bill would require state and federal agencies to accept aerial survey data for pipeline routes instead of demanding more detailed ground surveys that are more likely to note historic sites, endangered species, wetlands and other important factors.

Castor said that pipelines “can be a safe and practical way to transport natural gas and make up a key part of the modern energy infrastructure.” But, she said, almost all Democrats agree that the shortcuts embodied in the proposal would override “safety, private property rights and environmental concerns.”

“This is a problem, because when you look at the long list of serious accidents involving natural gas pipelines, the fatalities, the accidents, the injuries, it is just inappropriate and very poor public policy to give those natural gas pipelines a pass,” she said.

Don Santa, president and chief executive officer of the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, said the review process “has become more protracted and challenging” without providing any greater benefit to the nation.

“We hope the Senate takes prompt action on this legislation that will facilitate the responsible and orderly development of infrastructure, enabling consumers to enjoy more fully the benefits of America’s abundant and affordable natural gas supply,” Santa said.

Steve Collins can be contacted at:

[email protected]