Three Stages of Pipeline Opposition and What Each Gets Wrong14 Jan 2021
generally comes in three key stages. Each stage has its merit, but opposition to natural gas pipelines in many instances leads to negative consequences. To separate fact from fiction and dive deeper into the issue, this policy blog explores some of the broader considerations for natural gas pipelines and their opposition.
The first stage of pipeline opposition is before any pipeline is in the ground. This usually comes when an energy company proposes a pipeline project. That proposal includes, among other things, the proposed route, type of material being transported, and the size of the pipeline.
Many opponents object on principle. They believe all pipelines are bad and that it is therefore the right decision to oppose this proposed pipeline. They may rationalize this position based on climate concerns and the need to ween away from fossil fuels; it may be conservation oriented with a mind for preserving trees, fields, and other natural features; it may revolve around property rights and the concern that eminent domain or another taking will be used. In most cases, it is a combination of these and many others that form the basis for opposition.
Some of these concerns have merit. But understanding the particulars of a given project and taking them one by one is critical. Opposing all pipeline projects on a single ground without considering how this particular project will operate is misguided and detrimental.
Natural gas has half the carbon dioxide emissions as coal, and is widely recognized as a bridge fuel to greener renewable sources of energy development. Federal data also shows that in the last decade, as natural gas production increased, methane emissions decreased by 70 percent. Moreover, emissions are mostly an end-use concern, not a pipeline one. That means opposing pipelines does not really oppose the use of natural gas, only the transportation of it by pipeline. When pipelines are successfully blocked, the material they would transport is then moved by tankers on the ocean, trucks on the highways, or freight rail across the country. Each of these is slower, more accident prone, and ultimately produces its own higher level of emissions while transporting the resources.
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration (PHMSA) and industry research, natural gas, oil, and petroleum pipelines transport product from end to end without leaks, spills, or incident with 99.999 percent effectiveness. The alternatives of maritime, truck, and rail simply cannot boast this same rate, nor do so without running carbon-dioxide emitting engines, nor can they operate with the same speed and efficiency.
These considerations favor using pipelines generally, but do not mean a given project is without fault. Critically, at the early proposal stage of a pipeline project, the operator has the possibility to revise and improve the plan. This is the stage that reasonable opposition is welcome.
When opposition is particular, articulable, and has a remedy, it can lead to a safer and more responsible pipeline. These oppositions often result in rerouting a pipeline around a culturally or naturally sensitive area and lead to higher building standards or more conditions on a permit approval. Unfortunately, many in opposition are not satisfied with these remedies, and instead simply want the entire project canceled.
To be approved, proposed pipelines crossing state lines must go through review by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) for public convenience and necessity. That review consists of close inspection of the exact route along with proposed alternative routes, environmental reviews, economic cost-benefit assessment, and a lengthy public comment process. While opponents may point to a near 99 percent approval of proposed pipelines, this ignores those rejected before review due to viability issues and the many that engage in pre-filing stakeholder engagement to resolve concerns on the front end. It also ignores the many project revisions, additional restrictions and conditions, work with local authorities, and continued oversight that approved projects undergo. Once approved, pipeline development and operation are subject to oversight by a number of bodies, including, FERC, PHMSA, and state authorities.
Opposing a proposed project during review may strengthen the ultimate project. Opposing an approved project as construction begins only serves to delay the project, harm the operator and end users, and ironically harm the climate by creating greater reliance on dirtier fuels and transportation methods.
The second stage of opposition is against an ongoing project. Often it is the same parties from the pre-approval opposition fighting against a pipeline, but others come to oppose pipelines for the first time while they are in development.
Those who come to oppose the project at this stage have less standing, because they did not participate in the initial process. If they had legitimate concerns, they could have raised them early on and might have achieved a different route, condition, or rule for the pipeline developer. Others either did speak out originally or a new or unforeseen problem arose during development. This is not uncommon, and therefore has merit to explore.
While environmental reviews and route plans are scrutinized – often multiple times, by multiple parties – conditions sometimes change after approval is earned. That may be due to a newly discovered animal species, archeological site, weather phenomenon, or environmental concern. Few pipeline opponents actually seek to reroute the project or insist that a higher standard or improved technique be used – remedies with merit at this stage. In many cases, opponents simply seek to stop the project altogether, often resulting in new negative consequences.
Opposition during pipeline development means delay of the project. This means higher costs, withholding of the resources from those downstream, and possible environmental harm onsite.
The higher costs are usually part of the goal of pipeline opponents, who seek to penalize the developer. This is a sordid tactic, which ultimately harms end users. Those end users, who rely on clean, cheap, and abundant energy are often low income communities, schools, hospitals, and food preparation services. While we would all love to see these entities powered by the free flowing wind and solar radiation, the reality is that those power sources are intermittent, less energy-dense, and more costly to implement. Right now, natural gas accounts for over 38 percent of power generated across the nation, heating about half of U.S. homes. Stopping a pipeline hurts communities.
Local environmental harms are easier to spot. Many times, opposition during development blocks progress well after trees have been cleared and trenches dug. The primary objections center around the eyesore caused by the project, the clearing out of flora, and the harm of erosion, mudslides, and water disruption.
Importantly, the standard for approval in the first place is ‘only minimal adverse effect.’ Meaning that at most, the proposed project would cause the smallest amount of harm, if any. Moreover, there are often multiple levels of approvals, coming from FERC, state and national environmental boards, parks services, transportation or energy officials, and judges. Those seeking to strip a project of these already completed multilevel reviews and approvals are doing anti-science activism. Professional environmental reviewers gave the project a green light, and once begun, delay leads to harm.
It does not take prescription lenses to see through the foggy logic that somehow the pipeline developers are at fault for all of these woes. To begin with, every pipeline project requires that the land be restored after the project is completed. That means as soon as the pipeline is installed, the trench is filled in, grass is resown, and the area returned to its former state. Delaying the pipeline installation serves to delay the restoration. Even with an easement, restoring the land often hides any trace of the pipeline to the casual observer.
Harm from erosion, mudslides, and water disruption very often result from the same delays. The open trench must be left unrestored while tree sitters block construction or lawyers tie the developer up in court. The longer these delays persist, the more potential for harm. The remedy must be to speedily and responsibly complete the project so that nature can be restored and preserved faster. Opponents at this stage prolong much of the problems they decry.
Last – or before the next proposal is even thought up – is opposition to pipelines already in operation and the concept of pipelines generally.
Opposition once a pipeline is already in the ground is odd. It is a little like arguing against public schools because you believe private schools are better; is the goal really to destroy public schools or simply to shift resources and promote the private ones? Those seeking to undermine operational pipelines rather than simply accept them and promote alternatives do little to advance climate consciousness, conservation, or promote the general welfare of communities.
Perhaps the most unreasonable form of opposition to an already laid pipeline is the opposition to a nearly finished project, with some sections already completed. Picture a 300-mile pipeline, with 150 miles already trenched, piped, covered, and restored. Canceling the project would leave the pipeline developers to rip out the completed miles of pipeline. This type of opposition only seeks destruction.
With a nearly completed project, the most responsible thing to do is finish the job. The supposed remedy of undoing the completed part of the project means once again disturbing the land, creating new trenches, erosion problems, water disruption, and more. It also means that the natural gas or oil upstream will now take less efficient, less effectively, and less environmentally safe modes of transport.
Other opposition to new pipelines also have questionable foundation. Many fear that a pipeline crossing any body of water is a potential disaster in the making – they do not even want a project-by-project review or for a single project to receive a river-by-river review. Bearing in mind that routes are scrutinized in the review and approval process, with all water crossings signed off on at the beginning, many do seek river-by-river review as a not-so-subtle way to delay and derail the project and add costs. They simply want to prevent pipelines.
This thought process fails to grasp that presently, the U.S. is crisscrossed with over 2.8 million miles of pipelines. These cross state lines, run underneath homes and businesses, rivers and roads, fields and lakes, state and national forests, and agricultural land. The nearly 100 percent record of transporting natural gas end to end without incident, along with the already present pipelines passing under thousands of lakes, rivers, streams, and waterways, makes this basis of opposition fundamentally unserious.
Moreover, many thousands of miles of pipelines were installed in earlier eras with less specialized technology for installing or monitoring. As every new project is proposed, with better techniques for installation, higher quality materials used, and state of the art remote monitoring, these objections and opposition have less and less merit. In fact, during the last five years, even as pipeline mileage and barrels transported have increased by 10 percent, leak incidents have fallen by over 20 percent.
So we can never oppose pipelines?
The problem with discussing pipelines and fossil fuels is that there are often two camps – ‘drill baby drill‘ and ‘leave it in the ground.’ Both of these extremes are wrong. It is incumbent on reasonable policymakers to know the difference between a legitimate, viable, and useful pipeline project and a caricature.
Opposition to pipelines is actually important – but that opposition must have real grounds, be made with particular points, and seek to improve the project not ban it from implementation. Those seeking merely to ban pipelines are not serving the best interest of communities or the nation. The reasons are many, but even the climate focus, environmental conservation, and community focus often weigh in favor of the pipeline project rather than its opponents.
Pipelines carrying natural gas lead to reduced emissions in the energy sector. Pipelines keep trucks, rail, and ships from carrying these volatiles payloads, reducing transportation emissions, and safeguarding the resources from higher rates of incident or spills. Speedily completed pipelines even result in a restored environment, while delayed projects compound environmental hazards as long as the project is incomplete. Finally, those delays lead to real dollars in harm, often passed on to end users. Those end users rely on clean, cheap, and abundant energy – which natural gas facilitates better than any other resource besides nuclear – and when pipelines are delayed, those hospitals, homes, and communities keep their lights on with more costly and less environmentally friendly sources like coal.