Approval moves natural-gas liquids pipeline project forward

Published 7:59 am Tuesday, October 3, 2017

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has given its go-ahead for a plan to repurpose a 964-mile natural gas pipeline, part of which runs through Boyle County.

FERC issued its 78-page “order approving abandonment” on Friday, advancing a plan from energy giant Kinder Morgan to pipe “natural gas liquids” — byproducts from fracking in the northeast — one step closer to reality.

“Tennessee Gas Pipeline is appreciative of the FERC’s order granting the requested authorizations,” a statement provided by Kinder Morgan spokeswoman Melissa Ruiz reads. “Kinder Morgan’s Utica Marcellus Texas Pipeline will continue to work with customers on the development of the project.”

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“I’m disappointed in the decision because of the potential negative ramifications that repurposing of the pipeline could have for our community if a disaster were to occur along a repurposed pipeline flowing with NGLs,” said Daniel Elliott, state representative for Boyle and Casey counties. “While I’m not opposed to pipelines and believe that they serve an important purpose in our society to move resources efficiently and safely, the safety of the people in our community and our natural resources must be protected, and that effort will always remain paramount to me in my service as state representative.”

“The federal government’s decision to allow ‘abandonment’ of Kinder Morgan (Tennessee Gas) Pipeline No. 1 has a ring of calm and settlement to this debate. Nothing could be further from the truth,” said Tom Ellis, a Danville resident involved with local efforts to oppose the plan. “In actuality, that process further opens the gate for Kinder Morgan to move forward with their potentially dangerous initiative: to transfer highly toxic and volatile NGLs from the northeast down to near the Gulf of Mexico.”

Opponents of the plan claim explosive and toxic NGLs would be far more harmful to the local environment than natural gas if they were to leak from the pipeline. A leak is a real possibility, they have argued, because of the pipeline’s age, the karst topography of the region and the fact that NGLs are heavier than natural gas.

But FERC’s order affirms its own prior finding from an environmental assessment that “the project would not result in significant environmental impacts.”

The order reasserts that FERC doesn’t believe it is the proper authority to regulate the pipeline when it comes to NGLs. The FERC order grants “abandonment” of Tennessee Gas Pipeline No. 1, meaning the pipeline would no longer be used to transport natural gas. That abandonment was needed so Tennessee Gas Pipeline Company LLC (TGP) — a Kinder Morgan subsidiary — could sell the pipeline to Utica Marcellus Texas Pipeline LLC (UMTP) — also a Kinder Morgan subsidiary, according to the order.

It’s UMTP, not TGP that wants to use the pipeline for natural gas liquids, according to the order.

“… the potentially significant impacts commenters identify are associated primarily with UMTP’s activities, not Tennessee’s,” the order reads. “Our approval of Tennessee’s retirement of pipeline facilities from natural gas service, and abandonment by sale to UMTP, provides no authorization for UMTP to use the pipeline facilities for NGLs service. Because we have no jurisdiction over whether or not UMTP can use Tennessee’s abandoned pipeline to transport NGLs, and because the project before us is independent of the UMTP project, we will not undertake an (environmental impact study) to assess UMTP project impacts.”

FERC states it reviewed 476 public comments on the project prior to the publication of its environmental assessment in December 2016, and another 649 comments after that point. “Because the majority of these comments focus on safety aspects of the UMTP project, we note that should the UMTP project proceed, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would be the lead federal permitting agency and would be responsible for soliciting and reviewing comments on that project,” FERC’s order states.

Ellis said “far from any misconception of ‘abandonment,'” he believes local residents are “much more likely (to) see Kinder Morgan forging ahead with their efforts to petition for approval of this proposal — one that poses the threat of forever impacting our environment in such a negative light that generations from now, this region could still suffer severe ill effects from a single leak or spill.”

Mark Morgan, a local attorney who has helped pilot an informal “steering committee” of residents opposed to the plan, has said previously that NGLs are 150 times more explosive than natural gas and, if a leak were to happen, some of the liquids would become gaseous, but also 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 in November last year. “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.”

Approval of abandonment was not unexpected. FERC’s order was delayed in January when the federal agency was left without a quorum and couldn’t take action. But the U.S. Senate approved in August two nominations to FERC made by President Donald Trump — Neil Chatterjee and Robert F. Powelson.

WFPL reported at the time that “The confirmation vote won praise from industry groups and many regional lawmakers, including West Virginia Sen. Joe Minchin, who called it ‘an important step in ensuring this key independent agency can get back to work.'”

Following the appointments, Morgan said he anticipated a “rubber stamp” approval of Kinder Morgan’s project from FERC, but that local zoning ordinances along the pipeline’s route — from northeastern Ohio to the gulf coast — could still get in the way.

“We’ve always known that it was going to be up to our community and other communities along this proposed pipeline to protect ourselves,” Morgan said at the time.

In 2016, local governments in Boyle County passed a zoning amendment that requires applicants wishing to move certain hazardous materials through pipelines in the county to first obtain a conditional use permit from the local Board of Adjustments. The amendment was made with support of many in the county who were opposed to the pipeline plan because they said it creates the risk of a catastrophe if the pipeline ruptures and fracking byproducts — natural gas liquids or NGLs — spill into Herrington Lake.

The amendment requires applicants to prove their project fits in well with how the surrounding land is already being used.

The zoning amendment was held up as unique in the U.S. and a model that other communities along the route of the pipeline could use to similarly block Kinder Morgan’s plan.

Ellis said this weekend that “everyone in Danville and Boyle County stands to lose in the event that this pipeline use for NGLs is ever approved.”

“None of us, throughout all Kentucky, the northeast and even the ports in New Orleans would benefit directly from this dangerous product coursing beneath our feet,” Ellis said. “Three years of efforts to counter the Kinder Morgan proposal are about to enter the most critical chapter. When hearings are convened, we need everyones’ voices to be heard.”