Spire files appeal to U.S. Supreme Court in pipeline dispute

The pipeline is operating under a temporary certificate that expires Dec. 13

By: - December 3, 2021 2:07 pm

Spire Missouri President Scott Carter discusses the fate of the Spire STL Pipeline at a press conference in November 2021. The Missouri Public Service Commission criticized Spire for its messaging about risks to natural gas service if it were forced to shutter the Spire STL Pipeline. (Screenshot via Facebook).

Spire STL Pipeline appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court on Friday to overturn a lower-court ruling that outlined evidence of self-dealing in its construction of a controversial natural gas pipeline in the St. Louis area. 

The pipeline has been in operation since 2019. But this summer, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit vacated its federal authorization under a challenge from the Environmental Defense Fund. 

It is currently operating under a temporary certificate from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which expires Dec. 13. Commissioners appear poised to extend that through the winter to ensure St. Louis area residents have reliable gas service during the cold months. 

But Spire also asked the court to recall the mandate that struck down the pipeline’s authorization.

“Customers who rely on the Spire STL Pipeline need assurance that this critical infrastructure will continue to deliver a reliable and affordable energy supply,” Spire STL Pipeline president Scott Smith said in a statement. 

Smith noted that while commissioners have committed to act on the pipeline before Dec. 13, they have not yet. He said the pipeline continues to “lack the certainty of a temporary authorization to continue pipeline operations for the full winter heating season.”

He added: “At Spire we’re here to keep people safe and warm. Our focus remains on ensuring that the greater St. Louis region has access to reliable, affordable energy this winter through the continued operation of the Spire STL Pipeline.”

Gillian Giannetti, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Sustainable FERC Project, cast doubt on the likelihood that the Supreme Court, which only takes up a fraction of the cases for which it receives petitions, would take interest in Spire’s case.

“Spire should spend more time ensuring that it has covered its bases to protect its consumers than to pursue fruitless Supreme Court appeals,” she said, adding that “at the end of the day, you have to have a good case, and Spire doesn’t have a good case.”

The Spire STL Pipeline runs 65 miles from Illinois into Missouri, and Spire Missouri says it makes service more reliable by diversifying the sources the utility uses to get its gas. 

The pipeline company first announced its intent to build in 2016 and invited natural gas “shippers” to enter contracts for the gas the pipeline would transport. None committed, according to the order from the appeals court. 

Under the Natural Gas Act, for federal regulators to issue a certificate for a company to construct and operate an interstate pipeline, it must find that the pipeline “is or will be required by the present or future public convenience and necessity.” 

Spire STL and Spire Missouri, which are affiliates, entered a contract for 87.5% of the pipeline’s capacity, which the court said in its June 2021 order was “plausible evidence of self-dealing.”

Federal regulators, according to the order, ignored this when they granted Spire approval in 2018 and denied a request from the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund for a rehearing. 

The nonprofit has, among its members, St. Louis area landowners who lost property to the pipeline. It appealed FERC’s approval in January 2020, saying the agency had not rigorously studied the need for the pipeline. The U.S. Court of Appeals this summer sided with EDF and vacated FERC’s approval and sent the pipeline back to the agency for further review. 

Spire previously requested that the Supreme Court issue a stay of that appeals court order and was denied.

Spire has come under fire in recent weeks for its communications to customers regarding the state of the pipeline. It emailed St. Louis area customers last month warning of service disruptions. Federal regulators have called the note inappropriate, and the Missouri Public Service Commission staff said the message seemed intended “to mobilize public opinion, through fear” to put pressure on federal regulators to act on the pipeline’s authorization.

The company sent a toned-down update to customers earlier this week, saying it seemed poised to receive approval to continue operations through the winter.

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Allison Kite
Allison Kite

Allison Kite is a data reporter for The Missouri Independent and Kansas Reflector, with a focus on energy, the environment and agriculture. A graduate of the University of Kansas, she previously covered City Hall for The Kansas City Star, as well as state government in both Topeka and Jefferson City.