US natgas pipelines seek prompt FERC decisions to avoid potential delay

Jan 30 (Reuters) - Changes at the top of the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission last week prompted several energy firms to request the agency make decisions this week on proposed natural gas pipelines to avoid potential construction delays.

Last week, President Donald Trump appointed Cheryl LaFleur as acting chairman of the FERC, which prompted Norman Bay, the former chairman, to announce he would step down on Feb. 3.

When Bay leaves, only two of FERC’s five commissioner slots will be filled and the agency will not be in a position to convene a quorum to issue new decisions until a new commissioner is appointed.

The companies seeking decisions by Feb. 3 include units of Spectra Energy Corp on the Nexus pipeline, Williams Cos Inc on Atlantic Sunrise, TransCanada Corp on Leach and National Fuel Gas Co on Northern Access.

The companies were seeking FERC approvals now to avoid potential delays that could occur if they miss windows for certain construction activities, like tree cutting. All projects hope to start construction soon so they can meet their targeted 2017 and 2018 in service dates.

In addition to those projects, analysts at Barclays said the timing of the FERC certificate for Energy Transfer Partners LP’s Rover project was potentially in doubt.

“We are evaluating how best to do the business of the Commission after Commissioner Bay’s departure,” LaFleur said, noting FERC will be issuing a podcast on Monday with more detail.

“Nominations for the three openings at the Commission would be very welcome, and I look forward to the day when we have a full, five-member Commission again,” she said.

FERC requires a quorum of three members to issue substantive orders, regulations and policy initiatives, according to Jay Ryan, a partner at Baker Botts law firm in Washington.

“Given the backlog of Trump administration nominees currently pending before the Senate, it could take several weeks or months for a new FERC commissioner to be nominated and confirmed,” Ryan said in a statement.

Barclays noted LeFleur’s move to Chair may be temporary since she is a Democrat and Trump will likely tap a Republican to fill that seat.

Looking forward, the bank noted Trump could potentially transform FERC since Commissioner Colette Honorable’s term ends in June. Honorable is a Democrat.

“There will be some limitations to a complete overhaul as only three commissioners are allowed to be of the same political affiliations,” Barclays said.

Reporting by Scott DiSavino; Editing by Chris Reese