Orders of Monks, Nuns Oppose Bluegrass Pipeline

Over the past month, opposition to a proposed natural gas liquids pipeline that would run through Central Kentucky has been growing. Four counties have passed resolutions against the Bluegrass Pipeline, and more than 5,000 people signed a petition asking Governor Steve Beshear to put pipeline legislation on the agenda for this month’s special session (though the governor has said he won’t).

And the religious communities of Kentucky’s Holy Land have also joined the fight.

It’s peaceful at the Loretto Motherhouse—a faith community about an hour south of Louisville. Rain pours down on the expanse of historic buildings and farmland. There’s music in the sanctuary.

The Sisters of Loretto have been in Marion County for nearly 200 years. The land itself holds a spiritual meaning for the sisters

“I would start from the sacredness of the land,” Sister Maria Visse said. She was approached recently by a land agent, asking to survey the Motherhouse for a proposed natural gas liquids pipeline. Visse said it all comes down to the Loretto community’s sacred land trust, which operates under the idea that creation is a gift and the sisters are responsible for acting as stewards.

“And so, of course, my reply to this gentleman was no, we would not want you to survey the land, because we would not want that pipeline to come through this land, given the potential for some very dangerous consequences,” Visse said.

Those potential consequences include widespread water contamination and the risk of explosions. They’re fueling the opposition to the Bluegrass Pipeline. Bolstering the opposition are the four faith communities of Kentucky’s Holy Land: the Sisters of Loretto, the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, the Dominican Sisters of Peace and the Monks of Gethsemani.

If it’s built, the Bluegrass Pipeline will carry 200,000 barrels of natural gas liquids a day across Kentucky. These are the byproducts of natural gas drilling, materials such as ethane, butane and propane. They can be sold to used in plastics and other consumer goods, and that makes natural gas drilling more profitable.

But to build the pipeline across Kentucky, the pipeline company Williams needs to get permission to survey property owners. The two religious orders they’ve approached—the monks and the Sisters of Loretto—have refused, and blocked the company from their land, about 3,000 acres total.

In Frankfort last week, Williams company representatives held an open house—one of the three they held in Kentucky. In a meeting room in the public library, employees manned booths devoted to specific topics, including construction and environmental effects.

“And that’s really the purpose of these open houses, is to provide facts,” said Williams spokesman Tom Droege. “Because we know there is misinformation out there, and we believe that if people have facts, they can make good decisions.”

And in sharing this information, Williams is trying hard to win over landowners. The company has hired a local public relations firm to get its message out. It announced a new community grant program, promising to give grants of up to $25,000 to community organizations in the pipeline’s path, and anticipates giving out about 16 a year.

The pipeline’s benefits include one-time payouts to landowners for easements and increased economic activity in small towns during construction, according to Droege.

And there’s also the patriotic argument: Droege said the pipeline will boost domestic energy production, thereby helping reduce reliance on foreign oil and lowering the cost of consumer goods.

“This pipeline is fueling the American economy and the way we live today,” he said. “Without it, and without other petroleum products, we wouldn’t have the lifestyle that we demand.”

I asked Loretto Sister Kathy Wright about this.

“Do you hate America?”

“No. I do not hate America,” she replied. “And I think that it’s my patriotic duty to look toward the future of this entire country. And the sooner that we can wean ourselves from fossil fuels and find a way to use more clean renewable resources and provide clean air, clean water and clean land for other peoples’ children and grandchildren, the better off we’re going to be.”

The pipeline’s opponents are vocal, but it’s not clear how many of them the Williams Company actually needs to win over. Droege said 93 percent of the landowner’s they’ve approached have agreed to have their property surveyed, though there’s no way to independently verify that.

And then there’s the spectre of eminent domain. Droege said the company believes it has the power of eminent domain under Kentucky law, though it would only be used as a last resort. But others around the state have said the law is unclear, and there’s no precedent to follow. Either way, if Williams does seek eminent domain it will likely spark a long legal battle.

Click here for past WFPL coverage of the Bluegrass Pipeline.

Erica Peterson

Erica Peterson reports on energy and the environment for WFPL.

@ericampeterson

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