FERC shirking duties by ignoring consequences of pipeline plan

Published 9:55 am Sunday, November 20, 2016


The Advocate-Messenger

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, known by the less-than-graceful acronym FERC, is currently providing a great example of everything that can go wrong with federal regulations when we’re not careful.

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FERC issued a heavily slanted analysis this month on Houston-based energy company Kinder Morgan’s plan to pipe fracking byproducts through Kentucky en route to the gulf coast.

Kinder Morgan wants to “abandon” an existing natural gas pipeline that runs, among many other places, through Boyle and Garrard counties. Except “abandon” is not a particularly accurate word — in this context, it’s only a technical term meaning Kinder Morgan doesn’t want the pipeline to be regulated by FERC anymore. Without regulation, Kinder Morgan could then use the pipe to transport highly explosive “natural gas liquids” — hardly an abandonment of the line at all.

The existing pipeline wasn’t built to contain liquids. And while natural gas leaks are dangerous but something we know how to deal with, NGL leaks are an entirely different and far more dangerous animal. NGLs leaked into local environments could create massive, heavier-than-air, explosive clouds that could threaten the destruction of entire city blocks, if not entire cities.

Kinder Morgan doesn’t care about these risks, because it’s not invested in the communities the pipeline runs through. Its only interest is in moving NGLs to where they might be able to sell them for a profit. In other words, Kinder Morgan wants all the benefits for its shareholders but wants the communities living along the pipeline to assume all the risks.

This is where FERC ought to step in and stand up for the people against abuse of corporate power. That’s what federal regulations are there for, at least in theory — to ensure that huge corporations and monopolies can’t shed their societal responsibilities in favor of private profit.

FERC could have required an environmental impact study of the project in order to nail down specifics on things like the condition of the pipeline and relative risks to the communities it passes through.

Instead, FERC’s report reads like a Kinder Morgan press release. FERC dismisses concerns about the safety of the plan and argues that environmental impacts would somehow be limited to very small areas right around the pipeline. That’s an argument that, even if it were true, would be of no consolation to students at Hogsett Elementary, which the pipeline runs right by, or to anyone who drinks water from Herrington Lake (all of us), which also sits directly on the pipeline’s route.

FERC even put a paragraph in its environmental assessment extolling the virtues of natural gas pipelines because they only kill a few people every year. Nevermind that the issue here is that the pipeline would no longer be used for natural gas — that fact just isn’t of relevance, according to the FERC assessment. FERC says what Kinder Morgan wants to do with the pipeline after it’s “abandoned” is none of its concern. It only cares about step one of the plan — ending use of the pipeline for natural gas. Step two of the same plan can just be someone else’s problem.

As many people fighting the plan have pointed out, FERC is required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to consider all potential future impacts of its decision. The goal of NEPA, which was passed into law under Richard Nixon in 1970, is fairly straightforward: Before the government gets involved with anything big enough to impact the environment, it should do its due diligence so it knows what it’s getting into.

FERC is clearly not interested in due diligence. Its assessment reeks of rubber-stamp bureaucracy, where the regulators who are supposed to protect the people wind up protecting the companies they regulate instead.

There’s still time to tell FERC what you think of its environmental assessment (you can download the full EA in PDF form at bit.ly/FERC-KM-EA) and demand an environmental impact statement. Public comments are open through Dec. 2. To comment, visit bit.ly/FERC-ecomment and enter your information. When you make your comment, reference docket number “CP15-88-000.”

FERC doesn’t want to think about the consequences of its actions — it doesn’t want to think about the Danville and Boyle County residents who could have their lives turned upside down if a bad leak occurs. Commenting will force FERC to face the reality of what it wants to do. Maybe if it can’t just look the other way, it will begin acting responsibly.