Many obstacles to NGL pipeline plan remain, opponents say
Published 6:00 am Sunday, November 13, 2016
By BEN KLEPPINGER
A recently issued environmental assessment puts energy company Kinder Morgan a step closer to piping explosive liquids through Boyle County. But those opposed to the plan say there are still many ways to prevent that from happening.
“There are many hurdles sitting before this Goliath company before they can move in and do this in our community,” said Mark Morgan, a Danville attorney and member of the informal pipeline steering committee that has organized local efforts to oppose Kinder Morgan’s plan.
Kinder Morgan, a Houston-based corporation that calls itself “the largest energy infrastructure company in America,” filed in February 2015 to abandon the Tennessee Gas Pipeline No. 1, a 964-mile line that currently carries natural gas from Louisiana to northeastern Ohio. If abandonment is approved, the pipeline would no longer be regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). That would potentially allow Kinder Morgan to pipe “natural gas liquids,” known as NGLs, the opposite direction through the pipeline.
FERC issued an environmental assessment Nov. 2 that states abandonment would not pose “significant” risk to communities and environments along the pipeline route.
Morgan said FERC got it wrong.
“It creates a significant environmental harm and FERC could not be more inaccurate in concluding otherwise,” he said. “FERC has a reputation for being a rubber stamp for the natural gas industry. The only surprise I had had thus far is that it took them this long to take step one in rubber-stamping the proposal.”
Morgan said NGLs are 150 times more explosive than natural gas and, if a leak were to happen, some of the liquids would become gaseous but heavier than air, causing them to pool above the ground in an area “that could be as large as most of Danville City Limits.”
“It can be ignited by a combustion engine or a key being turned in a car or a cell phone,” Morgan said. “So first responders would have a great deal of difficulty in getting to school kids, to people at the hospitals, to people on the streets.”
The risk of a leak appears heightened because Kinder Morgan would be using a 70-year-old pipeline that was only designed to carry gases, not liquids, Morgan said. Liquids create more vibration in pipelines than gases and the existing pipeline was not built to handle the additional vibration, he said.
There could be areas where the pipeline is buried underground in very rocky soil, which isn’t necessarily a problem when piping gas but could lead to a rock damaging a pipe carrying liquids, Morgan explained.
“FERC has absolutely no basis for concluding that that risk is not increased and that’s not a significant environmental impact,” he said. “They couldn’t be more wrong.”
In it’s environmental assessment, FERC argues it doesn’t have to take into account what might happen if Kinder Morgan pipes NGLs through the pipeline; it’s only concerned with whether the first step of abandonment would create environmental harm.
“The eventual disposition of the pipeline … is not part of (the) proposed action,” the assessment reads.
Pipeline steering committee member Preston Miles said FERC shouldn’t ignore the future impacts of its decision.
“That’s too narrow a reading of their responsibility,” Miles said. “That’s not an appropriate response. They should speak to the larger question of the impact it might have on the communities it moves through.”
Morgan said the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires that agencies like FERC take into account “all consequences” of federal actions such as approving abandonment of a pipeline.
“A federal action doesn’t happen in a vacuum; all actions have consequences,” he said. “They have to consider all of what happens after the abandonment … that’s nothing but a dodge by FERC. That is as inaccurate and disingenuous as a statement could be.”
Despite the environmental assessment’s favorable position for Kinder Morgan, the plan is still a long way from becoming a reality, according to members of the steering committee.
One “safeguard” against the plan is a text amendment to Boyle County’s planning and zoning ordinance that passed last year, said Sarah Vahlkamp, co-chair of the steering committee.
That amendment requires anyone wanting to pipe hazardous liquids through Boyle County to obtain a conditional use permit from the Danville-Boyle County Planning and Zoning Commission. A permit would only be issued if the applicant can prove it wouldn’t harm other lands in the county.
“This is not an anti-pipeline ordinance, it’s not an environmental ordinance,” said Morgan, who helped write the text amendment. “It’s a planning and zoning ordinance and the question is, ‘is this land use compatible with other land use?’”
Other counties, including Madison, have adopted or are working on planning and zoning ordinances similar to Boyle County’s in an effort to block the pipeline plan in multiple places, steering committee members said.
In addition, there are other obstacles such as the need for engineering studies and a question of whether the pipeline plan would actually be profitable that could result in Kinder Morgan giving up on the plan, they said.
“Our last information was there is no customer for this product,” Morgan said. “Until there’s a customer, given the cost of this pipeline, I don’t think they’re going to go forward, but that’s speculation on my part.”
NGLs, which are byproducts of fracking in the Marcellus and Utica shale areas, can in theory be used to create cheap plastics.
Local planning and zoning ordinances would potentially come into play if FERC approves abandonment and Kinder Morgan moves forward, but a more immediate step for opponents to take would be commenting on FERC’s environmental assessment, Morgan said. Comments can be submitted to FERC through Dec. 2, after which point FERC will re-assess its environmental assessment, Miles said.
Miles estimated the re-assessment would take “weeks” and there would be two possible conclusions: to finalize the assessment and rule that abandonment is OK, or to require a full environmental impact study before abandonment can proceed.
“Everyone in the community should comment,” Morgan said. “Any comment is appropriate. It can be either very technical or just expressing concern for public safety, the safety of people’s kids, drinking water.”
Miles said commenters should make sure they tell FERC a full environmental impact study is needed.
Morgan, Vahlkamp and Miles said Danville and Boyle County have been among the most vocal communities opposed to Kinder Morgan’s project, something they say Kinder Morgan didn’t anticipate when it began planning to change the use of the pipeline.
Morgan said steering committee members met with Kinder Morgan officials when plans were getting underway and “to their credit, they admitted that they’re coming this way … because they would get much less resistance of the history of polite, non-citizen-activism in states like Kentucky.”
“They have been surprised by the polite but effective citizen opposition,” Morgan said.
Vahlkamp said she has been pleased to see the people, governments and other agencies in Boyle County unite around this issue. Every government and every member of the Danville-Boyle County Economic Development Partnership have passed resolutions formally opposing the pipeline plan.
“We are so grateful that our community has embraced this thing and have some real concerns about it,” she said.
SO YOU KNOW
Anyone who wants to submit a public comment on FERC’s environmental assessment must do so by Dec. 2. To file a comment, visit www.ferc.gov and use the “eComment” feature under the link for documents. Comments should reference the case’s docket number — CP15-88-000.
Comments may also be submitted by mailing letters to Kimberly D. Bose, Secretary, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, 888 First St. NE, Room 1A, Washington, DC 20426.
FERC staff are available to assist in submitting a comment by calling (202) 502-8258 or by emailing email@example.com.