Environment

The proposed conversion of a natural gas pipeline across Kentucky is moving forward.

Friday is the final day to comment on a draft environmental assessment that found the project would have no significant environmental impacts. But environmental groups and residents affected by the pipeline say the project deserves a more thorough analysis.

In 2013, energy company Kinder Morgan announced it planned to stop carrying natural gas through the 1,400-mile Tennessee Gas Pipeline. Instead, it would convert the pipeline to carry natural gas liquids (NGLs) and reverse its flow.

NGLs are the byproduct of drilling for natural gas and contain hydrocarbons like butane, ethane and propane. They’re used in manufacturing plastics and other materials.

But they’re also highly volatile. If the pipeline leaks, there’s the potential of widespread water contamination. And residents living near the pipeline’s path are concerned that the Tennessee Gas Pipeline, which was built more than 70 years ago to carry methane, isn’t sufficiently engineered to carry the heavier NGLs.

The project is before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which released the draft Environmental Assessment earlier this month. The assessment found the project wouldn’t significantly affect the environment, and the analysis was welcomed by Kinder Morgan.

“Overall, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission staff has done a very thorough job developing a comprehensive and well-documented analysis of the environmental impacts of the actions being reviewed for authorization by the FERC,” spokesman Richard Wheatley said in an email. He declined further comment.

Analysis Didn’t Consider Future Use

But FERC’s assessment was limited to looking at only half of the project: Kinder Morgan’s plan to “abandon” the natural gas pipeline.

Even though the company has made it known it plans to carry NGLs in the pipe, FERC didn’t consider the future use in the analysis.

“The concern is, they ought to look at the big picture,” said Kentucky Resources Council Director Tom FitzGerald.

He and others are asking FERC to conduct a more thorough Environmental Impact Statement that examines the potential environmental effects from using the pipeline for NGLs. FitzGerald said the examination of repurposing the pipeline is required under his interpretation of the National Environmental Policy Act.

“We’re hoping that FERC will reverse course from what it has proposed and will not be myopic in the way that it’s looking at this, but will look at the whole range of impacts that it knows its approval would set into play,” he said.

Since the Environmental Assessment was released on Nov. 2, FERC has received more than 180 comments expressing concerns about the project and calling for a more comprehensive Environmental Impact Study.

Only three comments were in favor of the project: from the Kentucky Oil and Gas Association, the Kentucky Association of Manufacturers and the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.

In the chamber’s comment, director of public affairs Kate Shanks wrote:

“We welcome the opportunities this brings to Kentucky and our nation, and we call on our federal regulators to ensure decisions are made in line with federal law and in an expeditious manner.”

But the local Danville-Boyle County Chamber of Commerce disagreed, submitting a comment asking for further study:

“With Herrington Lake serving as our primary source of water for our city, county and region, as well as feeding into the Kentucky River, which provides drinking water for Frankfort, Lexington, and many other communities, and then flowing on into the Ohio River, a large spill in this area has the potential to impact a large portion of the Midwest. This kind of contamination to our water supply would cause grave economic damage,” the board of directors wrote.

If FERC finalizes the environmental analysis, there will be other regulatory hurdles before Kinder Morgan can transport NGLs through the pipeline. The company will have to get permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers before crossing bodies of water, for example.

The company will also have to find customers for the NGLs, and find landowners willing to lease land in places where the pipeline will deviate from its original path.

FitzGerald said this project would not be able to use eminent domain, because the Kentucky Court of Appeals ruled a similar project — the now-scuttled Bluegrass Pipeline — wasn’t eligible and the Kentucky Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

Comments on the draft Environmental Analysis are due Friday, Dec. 2. You can find all the filings in Kinder Morgan’s FERC application here; search for docket number CP15-88.

Erica Peterson is WFPL's Assignment Editor.