Over the past few years, more and more of America’s energy has come from natural gas. And much of that gas has come from the Marcellus and Utica Shales, which lie mostly under parts of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, New York, Ohio and Maryland.
Extracting the gas yields a profitable byproduct: natural gas liquids. These are hydrocarbons such as ethane, butane and propane. They’re used in plastics, synthetic rubber and antifreeze, among other products. Tapping into and using these liquids could help make the United States more energy independent, by replacing the foreign petroleum that’s currently used in some of these manufacturing processes.
Gas companies also need to sell these natural gas liquids, or NGLs, to make drilling work financially. But first, they have to get the NGLs from drilling operations in the Northeast to processing plants in the South.
Enter the Bluegrass Pipeline. It would stretch 1,100 miles from Pennsylvania to Louisiana. Some of that pipeline already exists, but a key 500-mile segment is missing. To bridge the gap, a pipeline company called Williams would like to go through parts of 13 Kentucky counties, and to do that, Williams needs to find property owners who will let the pipeline cross their land.
If not in my backyard, then whose?
It’s a hot, sticky day outside Bardstown, in Nelson County. But in the Pile family’s backyard, it feels a bit cooler. A wisteria tree casts shade over the patio, and two swings sway gently under a ramada. Horses graze in a nearby field. Kelly Pile shows off her flowers.
“Those are blazing stars, the purple ones are,” she points. “Those are lilies.”
Past the blazing stars, past the horses, at the edge of the Pile’s property is where land agents have proposed building the pipeline.
Kelly’s daughter Heather doesn’t want it there.
“I mean, I grew up here,” she says. “It’s where my friends are from, it’s where my family is from. It’s where I want to bring my kids one day and not have to worry about a pipeline three feet underground. I mean, it’s my little safe haven, you know?”
Heather’s father initially gave permission for the survey, but he’s since rescinded it, and he told the agents that he won’t allow the pipeline to cross his land. But Heather is worried about the environmental and safety hazards the project would pose for her community.
Williams Company will pay for easements, or the right to place the pipeline on private property. But some say the money won’t make up for the loss in property value the pipeline will cause. There are also worries about leaks and explosions. And Tom FitzGerald of the Kentucky Resources Council says NGL pipelines are woefully unregulated.
“And as far as I’m concerned, it’s a real regulatory gap in terms of public safety and public protection,” he says.
Who regulates an NGL pipeline?
Unlike with natural gas pipelines, NGL pipelines aren’t subject to comprehensive environmental studies. The company doesn’t have to prove the pipeline is necessary, like a public utility would have to. The construction of the line and basic maintenance is regulated by the federal Department of Transportation, but there are few restrictions on where the pipeline can go.
In Kentucky, Williams will have to get permits to cross streams, or withdraw large amounts of water. They’ll have to follow applicable rules for fugitive emissions, and will have to dispose of waste at a permitted facility. The company will need a 404 permit (commonly used for valley fills in surface coal mine operations) from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to cross wetlands or any navigable stream. But FitzGerald is also calling for the Army Corps to complete a full-scale environmental impact study on the project; an Army Corps spokeswoman says it’s too early in the project to discuss that option.
Now, land agents are in a complicated dance. They’re courting residents and trying to chart the best route for the pipeline. While landowners like the Piles have refused to let their land be surveyed, some have agreed.
Marion Bischoff is driving me around his 600 acre farm; it’s almost time to harvest the fields of winter wheat he’s growing. The pipeline’s original path would have crossed his best field, but that plan has been changed.
Bischoff spoke out against the pipeline at a recent public meeting. But now he might agree to let it cross his property.
“I am a cooperator,” Bischoff says, as we drive down the muddy road by a creek the pipeline company has proposed as a new route. “I think it takes cooperation in this old world, and just totally not cooperating generally makes it doggone hard on everybody.”
Concerns about environmental effects
Land agents haven’t made any offers to landowners yet. Eminent domain isn’t out of the question, but it’s way too early to talk about it now. And regardless of whether an individual homeowner agrees to the pipeline, opponents argue that allowing the project anywhere in the area could be devastating for the community as a whole.
“My concerns are primarily about the effect on the land, the effect on the water, the effect on the air quality, and with all of that, the effect on the community,” says Sister Claire McGowan. She’s the executive director of New Pioneers for a Sustainable Future, a non-profit in Washington County. McGowan and many others in the area are worried about the hazards of an NGL leak.
“To have the water supply totally damaged for probably centuries and to have the potential of enormous explosions and fires, is to me a risk that’s just unacceptable,” she says.
Bill Lawson at Williams says his company’s pipeline will follow rigorous safety standards.
“We take health and safety very seriously and we work hard to make sure that the systems we put in place are well-monitored, well-maintained and will be safe for generations to come,” he says.
But earlier this year, a Williams-owned pipeline leaked for 15 days near Parachute Creek in Colorado, releasing cancer-causing benzene into the soil and contaminating groundwater. And all the monitoring the company promised didn’t seem to help; the pipeline still leaked.
The pipe that leaked in Parachute Creek had a four-inch diameter, and the leak released about 10,000 gallons of natural gas liquids; the Bluegrass Pipeline will be 24 inches around.
When I asked Williams spokeswoman Sara Delgado about that leak, and what the company would do to ensure a similar situation didn’t happen in Kentucky, she sent me text copied from the “safety” section of the company’s website. Delgado didn’t respond before deadline to a follow-up question asking whether all of those safety measures were also in place during the Parachute Creek leak, though later she did say she was working on getting more information. I’ll update this story when she gets back to me.
Kentucky’s problematic geology
But could a leak happen in Kentucky, and what effect would it have? Residents are concerned about their groundwater, which supplies several public water systems and is a key ingredient in the region’s famous bourbon.
David Harris is a geologist with the Kentucky Geological Survey. He says the nature of NGLs would mean that most of them would turn into gas if there was a leak and they were depressurized. But:
“If they do have some heavier compounds in there, then that could stay liquid at atmospheric pressure, and that certainly would be a problem for karst systems,” he says.
Most of the pipeline’s route is underlain by limestone, with caves, fissures and sinkholes throughout. Harris says if a leak were to happen near one of these features, and if some of the NGLSs remain liquid, contamination could spread quickly. He added that residents’ concerns about earthquakes damaging the integrity of the pipeline were likely unfounded; an earthquake in the New Madrid fault would probably only produce slight tremors in Central Kentucky
Right now, the Williams Company remains focused on surveying along the pipeline’s route. The company hopes it will be in service, wherever it’s built, by 2015.