The dramatic increase in domestic energy production over the past several years has resulted in the involvement of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) in a wide range of interactions with the public and other stakeholders interested in FERC’s permitting process. To improve consistency and effectiveness of public involvement, FERC recently issued guidance on how to conduct effective stakeholder outreach during FERC’s pre-filing process for applications to site, construct, and operate interstate natural gas pipelines and LNG terminal facilities.1 According to FERC staff, experience gained through multiple projects has shown that a strong stakeholder outreach program “greatly increases the chances that a project will proceed in a timely, efficient, and credible manner.”2
FERC clearly regards stakeholder outreach as not simply a regulatory box to check, but rather, as an integral part of the project approval process. Following the best practices identified by FERC staff can help project developers minimize delays; avoid costly, late-stage changes to a project, such as re-engineering and additional surveys; and expedite FERC’s consideration of public input during its environmental review of the project.
Stakeholder outreach in the FERC authorization context simply means two-way communication between the project’s sponsor and those potentially affected by it or interested in it – typically, affected landowners and other nearby residents, concerned citizens, local and state elected representatives, other community leaders, business groups, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), Native American tribes, and the media.
Below are highlights from FERC’s Best Practices on the hallmarks of a successful outreach program:
- Senior Management Commitment and Leadership. According to FERC, “even projects that are technically, commercially, and financially sound can be unnecessarily delayed” without a solid management commitment to engaging stakeholders.3 This includes budgeting adequate resources and providing senior leadership to ensure consistent and timely messaging, as well as keeping stakeholders and the internal project team apprised of changes in the project’s schedule and progress.
- Internal Collaboration. All project representatives – both company staff and contractors – need to be educated on the project and its schedule, so that messaging is “consistent and clear throughout the life of the project.”4 This is particularly true for agents who make initial contacts with landowners on sensitive issues, such as right-of-way access.
- Stakeholder Education. In the experience of FERC staff, “most stakeholders, including many agency representatives, do not have experience with natural gas projects.”5 A project can benefit greatly from offering to provide information and training – such as emergency response training – to those stakeholders.6
- Tracking and Reporting. A comprehensive database and reporting tool can enable projects – particularly those with many interested stakeholders – to keep track of outreach efforts, inquiries, and responses. At the very least, projects must maintain a mailing list of stakeholders and a general log of stakeholder outreach activities, both of which are provided to FERC at the beginning of the pre-filing process and then periodically through monthly status reports and regularly scheduled teleconferences.7
- Outreach Materials. FERC recommends that project sponsors send an introductory letter to all stakeholders, explaining basic project information, and later, prepare summaries and presentations on specific project topics, such as safety, environmental impacts, siting, and local benefits. Additionally, most project sponsors should maintain a project website, providing regular updates and a contact person to field inquiries.
- Strategic Engagement. There are strategic reasons why certain stakeholder meetings should occur earlier than others and/or before certain project activities. For example, a project team should try to meet with local residents prior to a surveyor asking residents to enter their land to perform work. FERC also advises meeting with local elected officials, business and community leaders, and agencies with jurisdiction early in the project’s development, in order to build trust and credibility with those key stakeholders.8
In addition to providing tips on an effective outreach program, FERC’s Best Practices provides practical advice on what a FERC project manager will expect during each stage of the pre-filing process. In particular, FERC clarified its expectation that the complexity of stakeholder engagement will mirror the complexity of the project. Category I projects – those requiring an environmental impact statement (EIS), such as new aboveground facilities near populated areas or pipelines in new rights-of-way – will use virtually all of the tools outlined above. Category II and III projects will use comparatively fewer tools. This information is valuable because many of the informal details regarding what FERC staff expects of projects during the pre-filing process is not actually documented in the pre-filing regulations, 18 C.F.R. § 157.21. For example, the Best Practices document provides advice on when certain contractors should be in place, at what stage of commercial feasibility a project should begin pre-filing, and the typical order of initial communications regarding the project.9
FERC’s Best Practices document provides additional detail for each phase of the pre-filing and permitting process, including:
- Preparing the Public Participation Plan and Stakeholder List, for filing as part of project’s initial pre-filing request;
- Hosting Open Houses in the local community;
- Participating in Scoping Meetings hosted by FERC in the local community;
- Hosting FERC and other agencies during site visits;
- Updating the Stakeholder mailing list and project website regularly;10
- Updating FERC in filed Monthly Status Reports and on regular conference calls;
- Corresponding with participating agencies;
- Updating stakeholders on the project’s progress and status throughout the Pre-Filing, Application, and Post-Authorization stages of the project;
- Participating in FERC’s public notice and comment solicitation process regarding the project’s environmental assessment;
- Communicating with pipeline safety regulators and emergency responders; and
- Continuing to engage with stakeholders, even after a project is in operation.11
FERC’s Best Practices document is an extremely valuable resource for project sponsors seeking to understand exactly what is expected and how projects can proceed quickly and effectively through the pre-filing process. As the level of public interest in natural gas infrastructure proposals has increased, having a detailed and well-conceived stakeholder outreach plan can make a major difference in the reception a new natural gas project may receive and can enable project developers to avoid misunderstandings that lead to months of delays.