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Transparency for All: New Pipeline Regulations Would Inject Community Accountability into the Natural Gas Pipeline Construction Process

December 14th, 2022
By Megan Chase-Muller

Action Alert: Make Your Voice Heard!

Upstate Forever believes in public accountability when utility companies make decisions that affect communities and landscapes across the Upstate. We support any effort to build public trust in the utilities that heat and supply electricity to our homes.

New regulations proposed last year at the South Carolina Public Service Commission (PSC) would help increase transparency in the construction of natural gas pipelines and use of eminent domain by pipeline companies.

The PSC is accepting comments from the public until January 5th, 2023 on these proposed regulations, and they need to hear from residents and advocates like you to better understand your community’s needs.


How to act: Tell the PSC what you want

  • Property rights protected
  • Community input
  • Ratepayers protected from avoidable projects
  • A summary of Property Rights provided to the public
  • Clear maps of proposed pipeline routes
  • Environmental impact study
  • Environmental justice study
  • A mechanism for public accountability

Comments can be as short or extensive as you would like! Just be sure to tell your story and communicate why this matters to you. Remember, this is not just a property owner issue – all gas customers end up footing the bill for pipeline projects, so we need more public accountability throughout the entire process.

Send your comments to contact@psc.sc.gov with Docket No. 2022-360-A in your subject line.


Background INFO

Eminent domain is the right of a government or its agent to take private property for public use, with compensation to the landowner. In South Carolina, state law allows certain natural gas utilities (i.e., Piedmont Natural Gas and Dominion Energy) to use eminent domain for new pipeline projects, even when those projects cannot be utilized by all members of the public.

The PSC essentially functions as a court for regulating utilities in the state, and after (not before) new pipelines are built, the Commissioners review proposals by utilities to raise customers’ bills to pay for recently-completed pipeline projects. In short, every natural gas customer — also referred to as a “ratepayer” — is on the hook for paying for pipelines that might not directly benefit them, and may not be necessary.

When pipeline companies notify landowners of their intentions to build a pipeline through their property, there is a wide range in the level of detail they provide, and landowners are often left frustrated.

In meeting with landowners to help them understand the potential environmental impacts to their property, Upstate Forever has witnessed far too many incidents that demonstrate a breach of trust and lack of oversight in the pipeline construction process. We have spoken with landowners who were kept in the dark about the extent of the proposed pipeline, and some who were made to believe they had no option but to hand over their property rights.

Even when utilities attempt to provide information to the public and hear their concerns, a lack of codified methodology can lead to confusing messaging and unanswered questions. Changes to the PSC’s pipeline regulations are needed to provide a baseline so that utilities can provide the information landowners deserve to hear in a uniform and transparent manner.

Regulatory solutions proposed at the PSC would address the issues outlined above, in addition to protecting property rights, ensuring community input, and protecting ratepayers from paying for unnecessary proposals. The regulations would also establish a “landowner bill of rights” published on the PSC’s website and distributed to landowners along proposed pipeline routes.

Our hope for these regulations is that by clarifying the entire process and answering questions on the front end in public meetings and the other methods described in these proposed regulations, these changes could actually result in a reduction in the number of disputes between utilities, landowners, and ratepayers and build trust among our communities.

Currently, there is no extensive approval process for natural gas pipelines, and cost-recovery remains the only response afforded to the Commission. In the absence of Commission oversight for pipeline approval, our state needs some mechanism for public accountability.


PROPOSED REGULATIONS

Summary of Proposed Regulations for State-Regulated Gas Utilities, Article 4 – Gas Regulations, Subarticle 9.

  • The gas utility shall file with the Commission and make available to the public the following materials:
    1. A map of the preferred and alternative routes for the proposed pipeline;
    2. A list of the names and addresses of all property owners located on these routes;
    3. Construction cost estimates, including the amount the utility would propose to recover from ratepayers as a result of the pipeline construction;
    4. A description of whether electricity can provide the service that would be provided by the proposed natural gas pipeline;
    5. A study of the direct and indirect environmental impacts from construction of the pipeline, including induced sprawl and methane emissions; impacts on properties protected for conservation value, wildlife habitat, or federally-listed endangered species are to be documented;
    6. An environmental justice study that documents direct and indirect impacts on individuals and communities of color and ethnic minorities, low-income residents, heirs’ properties, farmlands, cemeteries, schools, places of worship, and historic sites;
  • If a public comment forum is requested by a member of the public to the PSC and granted, the utility shall send each property owner and adjacent property owners the following materials by mail no later than 60 days before the forum:
    1. A notice of the public comment forum, providing the date, time, and location; informing recipients of their right to attend and make oral and submit written comments before, at, and after the forum; and providing a postal and email address of the PSC for the submission of written comments;
    2. The Summary of the Rights of Property Owners Under the Eminent Domain Laws of SC
    3. Each of the items in Section 1
  • At least 30 days before the public comment forum, the utility shall publish a notice of the forum in a newspaper of general circulation in the area of the proposed pipeline.
  • The period for public comment begins when the utility files with the PSC the materials in Section 1 and ends no sooner than 30 days after the forum, as set by the PSC. Any person, organization, or entity may submit written comments to the Commission before or after the forum.
  • A transcript of all the utility’s filed materials from Section 1, written comments and a record of the forum will be posted on the PSC website.
  • A Summary of the Rights of Property Owners Under the Eminent Domain Laws of SC shall be provided on the PSC’s website, and whenever the utility contacts a property owner in person, electronically or through written materials with respect to the pipeline.

Remember: The PSC is accepting comments from the public until January 5th, 2023 on these proposed regulations, and they need to hear from residents and advocates like you to better understand your community’s needs. Send your comments to contact@psc.sc.gov with Docket No. 2022-360-A in your subject line

 

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