By now, many of you may have heard about the Bluegrass Pipeline project. Over the past month or so, there has been increased publicity about the effort by Williams Co and Boardwalk Pipeline Partners to build a pipeline for Natural Gas Liquids (NGLs) from up in Pennsylvania and Ohio down to Hardinsburg, in western Kentucky. If you haven’t heard about it yet, here are a few basics about the project.
- The route will likely begin in Bracken County, and head southwest through a number of other counties, before ending in Hardinsburg, Breckenridge County.
- The pipeline will be 24 inches in diameter, 4 feet below the soil surface
- At maximum capacity, it will carry 400,000 barrels per day of NGLs down to Louisiana.
- The route will include land clearing and a permanent easement on either side of the pipeline, typically 50 feet.
- The route and installation will include stream crossings numbering in the hundreds, and will likely be required to go under the Ohio and Kentucky Rivers.
- Right now, the company is getting permission to survey lands and even getting some landowners to sign contracts for easements.
- The plan is for them to have all easements acquired by this fall, and to begin construction and have construction proceed through next year and be operational by late 2015.
Now, maybe the two most important questions at this point with this pipeline are:
- What are NGLs and what kind of risks are associated with an NGL pipeline?
- Does the pipeline company have the ability to use eminent domain to acquire the route that they desire, while paying landowners for that acquired land?;
As for the first question, most natural gas extracted from the Earth contains, to varying degrees, low molecular weight hydrocarbon compounds; examples include methane (CH4), ethane (C2H6), propane (C3H8) and butane (C4H10). I know, I can see you really wanted to know the molecular compounds.
Although these hydrocarbons exist in a liquid state at underground pressures, they will become gaseous at normal atmospheric pressure. Collectively, they are called natural gas liquids (NGLs). As this briefer explains, NGL “production” has increased significantly over the past few years, going hand-in-hand with the process of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas. The most common NGL products or components (ethane, propane, butane, isobutane, and natural gasoline) are broken up, or fractionated, and used as raw materials by the petrochemical industry, as feedstocks by refiners in the production of motor gasoline, and as fuel by industrial and residential users. The table below, from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, conveys typical NGL constituents and products.
Long story short, NGLs need to be taken somewhere that they can be separated into their constituents so that they can be used in various ways, and that place for this project is ultimately in Louisiana.
Now, having explained what NGLs are, let’s look at the risks associated with NGL exposure and an NGL pipeline.
Once a spill occurs, typical petroleum and crude oil are very difficult to sufficiently clean and remove from the environment, and have much longer residence times. However, as mentioned earlier, once NGLS are exposed to normal atmospheric pressure they become gaseous and much more quickly biodegrade. This does not mean, though, that these chemicals are nothing to worry about from a water perspective, or that there are few risks to humans. NGLs that stay primarily subsurface can certainly leach into groundwater and cause problems for short time frames. When NGLs become gaseous, depending on the concentration of the gas and the atmospheric conditions, the NGLs can cause breathing trouble (irritation of nose and throat, dizziness, drowsiness, euphoria, disorientation, etc); ingestion problems (gas can enter lungs and cause inflammation and damage); and skin (vaporizing liquids can cause frostbite if too close.
More importantly, these liquids are highly flammable, and guess what–leaks, ruptures, and explosions do happen. The Williams company’s history is rife with failures, problems, and explosions at their various facilities and pipelines across the country, from Louisiana to Colorado to New Jersey and West Virginia. This is a significant concern. But surely, this pipeline can’t locate within a certain distance of a school, or a hospital, or a place of residence, etc, right? Surely there are laws regarding the placement of NGL pipelines, in order to reduce the impacts to people and resources? Well…..not really. There are certainly various laws that the company will have to follow, and permits that must be acquired, but no laws specifically place restrictions on placement of an NGL pipeline.
In addition, the pipeline requires the installation of compression stations every so often (between 30-100 miles), to ensure sufficient pressure. These compression stations typical run day and night on diesel fuels or natural gas, impacting local air quality and creating noise issues. Plus, the compression stations themselves are a risk of fire and explosions. And these compressor stations mostly just fall under the jurisdiction of local planning and development departments.
To the second question, first, eminent domain is the power to take private property for public use by state, and is sometimes referred to as “condemnation.” Eminent domain is most often used by city government when buildings or property are in disrepair or for other public facilities, or it is used by public utilities and state highway cabinets to acquire easements for utility lines and roads. In return, private property owners are to be fairly or justly compensated for the taking of their land. The most common uses of eminent domain are for railroads, roads, dams/other electricity and navigation structures, water/electric/gas supply for dometic use, telephone companies, cemeteries, water associations, or relocation of public utilities.
Whether the pipeline company will have the use of eminent domain is still up for considerable debate. They do not qualify for use of eminent domain under federal law, and may qualify under Kentucky statute. The critical issue is whether the construction and use of the NGL line will be as a private line, or whether it will be a “common carrier”, in which case it would qualify as a public use. If it qualifies as a public use, then the company would have the ability to use eminent domain. The problem, however, is that the company’s contractors have been going around and deceiving landowners by telling them outright that they will eventually have the use of eminent domain, and that they would prefer that folks go ahead and work with them now, rather than use eminent domain later.
The contractors are using false pretenses to gain access. All landowners have the right to deny access, and should certainly do so until a determination is made regarding eminent domain. Do not sign a surveyor access contract or agree to allow surveyor access on your land. Do not sign an easement leasing contract. Do not sign anything. PERIOD.
Now, having addressed those first two questions, there are other issues with this project that remain very concerning.
As many Kentuckians know, there are significant portions of this state that have karst limestone geology. This means there are caves and caverns and underground water transport systems that often lead to wells. Though NGLs rapidly vaporize under normal atmospheric conditions, in karst and groundwater, a leak can spread over a concentrated area and pollute local well. Additionally, farmers have been told they can grow crops above the pipeline, within the easement–yet, a leak could damage their crop, not to mention their property collectively.
Other concerns regarding water are the many stream/creek/river and wetland crossings and impacts that this pipeline would require. This includes going under the Kentucky and Ohio Rivers, and potentially under others. Alternatively, they may dig a trench in the stream, disturbing sediment and streambanks in the process. These impacts will require the company to acquire a number of necessary permits, including a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Clean Water Act Section 404 Dredge and Fill permit and Kentucky Division of Water Clean Water Act Section 401 Water Quality Certification. The 404 permit and the 401 “WQC” typically go hand-in-hand. Because this project is a pipeline, they may attempt to apply for a Nationwide Permit (NWP, or General Permit) 12, for Utility Line Activities. As with the issue of eminent domain though, it’s debatable whether this pipeline qualifies as a “Utility Line” Activity. But even more significant, the general conditions of NWP 12 and the subsequent General 401 WQC from KDOW require the cumulative impacts from such an activity be under 1/2 acre of wetland impacts and under 300 linear feet of stream impacts. Given the pipeline will have dozens, if not hundreds, of stream crossings, including the Kentucky and the Ohio, it’s very unlikely they would quality for the NWP 12 or the General 401 WQC. Instead, the company will likely have to apply for an individual 404 and 401, which requires a more exhaustive and necessary analysis of the proposed impacts, including an alternatives analysis, cumulative hydrologic impact analysis, mitigation for impacts, and more.
KWA is involved with a burgeoning group of organizations and citizens that are actively opposing this pipeline, on a number of grounds. With this great group of folks, there have been a number of webpages and websites developed for the project, op-eds published, and meetings held in some of the counties that may be impacted, all in an attempt to increase the awareness. Here’s a collection of these pieces of information.
Stop the Bluegrass Pipeline Website (includes videos of Nelson County public citizen meeting with a representative of the Williams Company)
Spread the word, tell your friends in the counties from the above map about the project, about why they should not sign anything, about what they can do to get involved in preventing the pipeline. This is about private property rights, about protecting our resources for the future, about risks versus benefits to Kentuckians–and right now, this project provides no benefits to Kentuckians.
I hope everyone enjoys a wonderful celebration of our country’s Independence.