Controversies over natural gas pipeline siting and construction have turned the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) into a newsmaker in recent years. As public awareness concerning pipeline projects grows, more members of the public are turning to the FERC’s website (ferc.gov), to understand how FERC evaluates pipeline certificate applications and to get updates on the status of individual applications.
Concerned that FERC is not yet ready for this challenge, a May 2018 Department of Energy (DOE) audit of FERC’s gas pipeline certificate process concluded that FERC’s website needs revamping to provide greater transparency and more timely public access to all project-related information. Specifically, DOE faulted ferc.gov for not containing a step-by-step flow chart or a comprehensive narrative of the entire natural gas certificate process. But although FERC Chairman Kevin McIntyre immediately committed to implementing DOE’s recommendation, the pipeline process flow charts available on FERC’s website today remain those first posted several years ago.
An important element of ferc.gov is the eLibrary portal, the FERC’s official public document repository for all FERC submissions and issuances. eLibrary is now 20 years old and it is generally agreed that it is in need of reliability improvements (a too frequent complaint is that eLibrary is down, yet again). It also lacks search functionality – its user interface is overly complex and searches do not always provide accurate and/or complete results.
DOE also had criticisms for eLibrary. Its design, search functionality/reliability and limited ease of use, DOE concluded, makes it “challenging” for the public to assess the status of pending applications even when using appropriate search criteria. Another problem noted by frequent eLibrary users, although not addressed in the DOE audit, is that many older (pre November 2000) documents accessible only via eLibrary are scanned images of paper documents that are often illegible and are not maintained in any readily usable electronic format. In responding to the DOE Audit, Chairman McIntrye offered December 2018 as an estimated completion date for planned improvement to certain eLibrary search functions, but it is unlikely that a complete revamp of this interface can be completed in such a short time frame.
In the short term, FERC is giving first priority to reliability and resiliency upgrades to eLibrary by the purchase of new servers to enhance system reliability. In the longer term, according to its FY 2019 Congressional Performance Budget Request, FERC has requested $10.1 MM and $6.7 MM in IT capital investments for FY 2018 and 2019 respectively, to continue a transition to a cloud-based service modernization of its entire website. This modernization is intended to improve usability, content, navigation and design and to make the site mobile friendly and to place content in the cloud, further enhancing reliability. Another element being addressed in the modernization effort is improved cyber security. No definitive timetable for completion of any of these actions is offered, but the FERC suggests it likely will require at least three years (through FY 2020).