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Niskanen Center v. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission

United States District Court, District of Columbia

January 15, 2020

NISKANEN CENTER, Plaintiff,
v.
FEDERAL ENERGY REGULATORY COMMISSION, Defendant.

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         David G. Bookbinder, Accokeek, MD, Megan C. Gibson, Washington, DC, for Plaintiff.

         Scott Leeson Sroka, U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia, Washington, DC, for Defendant.

         MEMORANDUM OPINION

         JAMES E. BOASBERG, United States District Judge.

         This case involves a natural-gas pipeline slated to run hundreds of miles across three Mid-Atlantic states. Plaintiff Niskanen Center, which claims an interest in protecting private property rights, submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission —the agency charged with regulating these interstate pipelines—seeking "any and all" information regarding the identity of landowners affected by the pipeline. Plaintiff maintains that this information will advance the public's interest in knowing whether FERC, consistent with its regulations, is ensuring that companies are notifying all affected landowners. The agency turned over a number of landowner lists but, citing privacy concerns, withheld the names and addresses of private citizens. Dissatisfied with these withholdings, Plaintiff filed suit, and the parties have now moved for summary judgment.

         Following a status hearing at which the Court attempted to broker a compromise, Defendant offered to disclose the landowners' initials and street names (but not precise addresses). Finding that this latest proposal strikes the appropriate balance between the competing public and private interests at issue here, the Court will deny Plaintiff's Motion and will grant Defendant's Motion as amended by this concession.

         I. Background

         The backdrop for this case begins with the Natural Gas Act. Under that statute, companies seeking to construct new interstate gas transportation must obtain a certificate of public convenience and necessity from FERC. See 15 U.S.C. § 717f(c)(1)(A). Notably, a certificate holder may exercise eminent-domain authority to acquire property rights to construct and operate its pipeline. Id. § 717f(h). To obtain such a certificate, a pipeline company must first comply with a number of federal regulations. See 18 C.F.R. § 157.6. As part of this directive, companies are required to "make a good faith effort to notify all affected landowners." Id. ยง 157.6(d). They are obligated, moreover, to submit a ...


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