Natural Gas Infrastructure Threatens Shareholder Value, Contributes to Climate Breakdown



Media Contact: Stefanie Spear,, 216-387-1609

BERKELEY, CA—MARCH 4, 2020—Shareholder advocacy group As You Sow and nonpartisan policy think-tank Energy Innovation today released Natural Gas: A Bridge to Climate Breakdown, a report addressing the opportunities presented by the clean energy transition and the risk of overreliance on natural gas for utilities.

As coal’s inevitable decline in U.S. electricity production continues, natural gas, which is largely replacing coal, is a growing source of climate concern. Forming part of utilities’ initial response to demand for lower-carbon energy, natural gas infrastructure build-out continues to rapidly expand across the U.S. Yet despite its reputation as the cleanest burning fossil fuel, natural gas generates considerable climate impacts through direct combustion and methane leaks across the supply chain. New reports continue to find that methane emissions are likely much worse than previously estimated. 

As the window to address climate change narrows, investment in new natural gas infrastructure is increasingly incompatible with a climate-stable future. The natural gas bridge to a carbon-free future must have a clear end in sight. Natural Gas: A Bridge to Climate Breakdown raises critical questions about why utilities continue investing in gas infrastructure, and what is at stake if emissions and costs are locked into place through such investments. 

“As climate change increases risk to investor portfolios, shareholders must scrutinize what role fossil gas can play in the inevitable transition to a clean-energy economy,” said Lila Holzman, energy program manager at As You Sow. “Utilities clinging to business models that rely on fossil fuels are jeopardizing their ability to meet critical climate goals (including their own) and will miss out on opportunities to benefit from new technology advances.” 

This timely report reveals how the proliferation of gas infrastructure contributes to distinct risks that threaten shareholder value. While progress in reducing utility sector greenhouse gas emissions is being made, as seen by the increasing number of utilities setting mid- and long-term decarbonization targets, concerns remain as to what extent gas’ expansion may jeopardize those goals. The report reviews the current policy, economic, and technology landscape and the related opportunities and challenges utilities must navigate in the face of the ongoing clean-energy transition.

“Renewables like wind and solar, complemented by flexible zero-carbon resources like storage and demand response, are already providing the same reliability services and energy as new natural gas plants at lower cost,” stated Mike O’Boyle, director of electricity policy at Energy Innovation. “New gas infrastructure is increasingly likely to become stranded — the natural gas ‘bridge’ must end now if investors want to avoid massive stranded asset cost risk.” 

For the first time this year, shareholder group As You Sow filed related resolutions with large utilities Sempra, Dominion, and Southern Company raising investor concern for stranded gas assets. The resolutions ask these companies to explain how they are preparing for the likely reduction in natural gas demand in the face of accelerated action to confront the climate crisis. 

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As You Sow is a nonprofit organization that promotes environmental and social corporate responsibility through shareholder advocacy, coalition building, and innovative legal strategies. See our resolutions here.

Energy Innovation is a nonpartisan energy and environmental policy firm. We deliver high-quality research and original analysis to policymakers to help them make informed choices on energy policy. We focus on what matters and what works.

For the Ohio River Valley, an Ethane Storage Facility in Texas Is Either a Model or a Cautionary Tale

Photo: An early rendering of the Mountaineer NGL site in Ohio, MOUNTAINEER NGL

James Bruggers, Inside Climate News

April 10, 2020

The Trump administration and industry leaders have pointed to a major petrochemical storage complex outside Houston as a model for the upper Ohio River Valley.

If only they could find a place like Mont Belvieu, Texas, where geological features allow for large-scale underground storage of the chemicals used to make plastic products, there could be an economic resurgence to follow the collapse of steel and coal. Tens of thousands of jobs would follow.

With enough storage of ethane from thousands of existing natural gas fracking wells in the Appalachian region’s Marcellus and Utica shale deposits, the argument goes, several multi-billion-dollar plastic manufacturing plants could be built, lifting economic fortunes across four states: Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky.

But if Mont Belvieu—a massive chemical distribution center for what has been a booming Gulf Coast plastics and petrochemical industry—has been a model for those promoting an Appalachian petrochemical renaissance, it also serves as a cautionary tale to those who would rather the Appalachian region reject a boom-or-bust fossil fuel future.

An examination of the chemical plants, pipelines and other gas handling equipment that sit atop the massive stores of natural gas liquids at Mont Belvieu reveals a history of fires, explosions, leaks, excess emissions, fines for air and water pollution violations, and an oversized carbon footprint.

“We have the evidence that this is harmful, and Mont Belvieu is the prime example of that,” said Dustin White, project coordinator with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, based in West Virginia. “The intention is to have a massive petrochemical buildout, and it’s outlandish they want to build it here, especially in an area that already has major health issues due to existing fossil fuel industries.”

A January report meant as a warning to Appalachia, by the Environmental Integrity Project, a Washington-based watchdog group founded by former EPA staff, found that the Mont Belvieu complex was marked by multiple explosions, fires, evacuations and fatalities throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and continues to be a major polluter. The largest Mont Belvieu operator is subject to ongoing federal and state enforcement actions, InsideClimate News found.

“Communities in Appalachia are at risk from a plan for an aggressive expansion of the petrochemical and plastics production industry, including construction of a massive new ethane storage hub,” the report concluded. “Area decision makers and residents need to consider the serious hazards that have arisen at a similar development complex in Mont Belvieu, Texas.”

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-West Virginia), among the nation’s leading supporters of the coal industry and also a strong proponent of an Appalachian natural gas buildout, declined to comment on Mont Belvieu’s environmental difficulties but said he remains “committed to the development of the proposed Appalachian Storage Hub, particularly in this moment, for its economic development benefits for rural West Virginia, the greater Appalachian region, and our entire nation.” 

Jobs created by ethane storage, he said, would be more necessary than ever as threats from the COVID-19 pandemic recede. 

Underground Caverns Provide the Safest Storage Options 

Central to the concept of a petrochemical buildout in the region is storage for the liquid byproducts of shale gas, like ethane. The idea is that if underground caverns are created for plastics precursors, plastics manufacturing will follow. 

A three-state study in 2017 identified three areas along the Ohio River where caverns could be created in underground salt beds, limestone rock layers or abandoned gas fields.

Natural gas liquids, which include ethane, propane and butane, are valuable byproducts of fracking, but they are hard to move or store because they require either very low temperatures or high pressure to be in a liquid state. They can be stored above ground, but that can be dangerous. 

Below-ground geologic formations are regarded as safer for storing natural gas liquids, but have their own environmental challenges, including preventing gases from migrating back to the surface. Leaks and explosions can also occur at pipelines, valves, tanks and processing plants that serve storage operations. 

“The business of storing gases underground for use when needed is nothing new,” said Kristin Carter, a geologist with the Pennsylvania Bureau of Geological Survey who was the lead author and lead editor of the 2017 geological study. The practice in the Appalachian Basin “has gone on for nearly a hundred years,” she said. 

The first major facility in the envisioned petrochemical hub for the region is a multi-billion dollar plastics plant being built by Shell Polymers along the Ohio River, just 25 miles north of Pittsburgh. It is designed to “crack” ethane molecules into ethylene and polyethylene, components of many plastic products.

Sixty miles southwest of Pittsburgh, Thailand’s PTT Global Chemical America and South Korea’s Daelim Industrial have been planning a $5.7 billion cracker plant in Belmont County, Ohio, also along the Ohio River. 

There are new serious doubts that this hub will materialize. A global backlash against plastics, anemic prices and an oversupply of polyethylene, a key plastics component, were all signs of troubling economic headwinds even before the coronavirus pandemic and Saudi-Russian tensions sent world oil prices tumbling, disrupting the petrochemicals industry. 

Still, the Thai-South Korean partnership continues making moves that suggest their plant may be financed. The companies announced March 25 they had struck a deal to make payments to Belmont County local government and schools in exchange for property tax relief. A spokesman said a final investment decision would be made by summer. 

No ground has been broken for an underground storage facility for ethane or other natural gas liquids. 

The Appalachian Development Group in West Virginia announced last year that it had been invited to submit a second phase application for $1.9 billion in Department of Energy loan guarantees for a project called the Appalachian Storage and Trading Hub. The money would come from a fund that primarily has been used to back wind power, solar and other types of clean energy. 

Steven Hedrick, the chief executive officer of the Appalachian Development Group, said late last month that he was still working to complete that application. A company spokesman declined to answer further questions about a project that remains something of a mystery, with no identified location and no information available about its size or scope.

Industry publications and news reports have said it could cost as much as $10 billion and hold 10 million barrels of liquid ethane.

The other active storage proposal has been from Mountaineer NGL Storage, which has been studying a site along the Ohio River in Monroe County, one county south of where the proposed Thai-South Korean plant would be located. Mountaineer NGL Storage would be smaller—designed to hold about 3 million barrels—but it is farther along in the development process. 

Tom Sanzillo, director of finance at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, an environmental think tank, sees the Ohio cracker plant and the Mountaineer storage project as linked, because of their proximity. He said that if the plant isn’t funded, there wouldn’t be a need for Mountaineer.  

David Hooker, president of Mountaineer NGL Storage, acknowledged that he sees both the Shell plant north of Pittsburgh, and the proposed Thai-South Korean plant in Ohio as potential customers, but he said they are not essential for his business plan. 

He said he expects to obtain the permits he needs to start creating the first of three underground caverns this summer. The process involves injecting water to dissolve part of the salt bed 6,500 feet below the surface.

Hooker called Hedrick’s competing proposal for underground ethane storage “pie in the sky,” saying it’s too large for the needs of the region. Hooker also said he has no plans to turn his project into anything like the Mont Belvieu complex, with its long history of mishaps and environmental violations. 

“We just want to be a warehouse,” he said.

Environmental Calamities Have Been a Fact of Life

The sprawling petrochemical complex in Mont Belvieu, about 30 miles northeast of Houston, owes its existence to the salt domes that lie beneath it. For decades, companies there have created underground caverns in the salt to store hydrocarbons.

The U.S. Department of Energy calls Mont Belvieu the largest underground storage area in the world for natural gas liquids.

Houston-based Enterprise Products Partners has dozens of caverns and multiple related chemical plants there that separate various natural gas liquids for their use in the petrochemical industry. 

There are also other companies operating nearby, including ExxonMobil, Phillips 66, Targa Resources and Lone Star NGL, according to the West Chambers County Chamber of Commerce.

The Trump administration and industry backers believe a similar concentration of storage and production facilities could turn the Ohio River Valley into the “second center of U.S. petrochemical and plastic resin manufacturing, similar to the Gulf Coast,” as the American Chemistry Council said in 2017.  

But environmental calamities have been a fact of life in Mont Belvieu for decades, and Enterprise Products, the complex’s largest operator, continues to be the subject of numerous enforcement actions. A spokesman declined comment on any aspect of its operations. 

A Fortune 500 company with assets that include 50,000 miles of pipelines and reported combined revenues of $36.5 billion in 2018, Enterprise Products maintains 129.8 million barrels of storage capacity for natural gas liquids in Mont Belvieu. 

Its operations emitted the equivalent of 1.3 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2018 alone, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 

That’s as much as 281,000 typical passenger vehicles annually. For eight years through 2018, the company’s Mont Belieu complex reported that it had released the equivalent of 10 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. 

In 2018, Enterprise’s Mont Belvieu complex led all Texas industrial operations in the amount of nitrogen oxides it released during unauthorized air pollution events, according to a December 2019 report from Environment Texas, an environmental group. Nitrogen oxides contribute to soot, smog and acid rain, and can aggravate respiratory diseases, particularly asthma, according to the EPA.

EPA’s website also identifies the complex as a high-priority violator that has been out of compliance with the Clean Air Act for at least the last three years and the Clean Water Act for nearly three years; regulators have assessed the company with over $1 million in state and federal fines during the last five years.

Records from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the EPA show enforcement actions were taken by regulators for alleged violations that included unauthorized air emissions for weeks and months at a time, exceeding effluent limits in water wastes, and failing to follow chemical risk management rules aimed at limiting dangerous releases, fires or explosions.

The Texas commission is in settlement talks with the company over alleged air permit violations, said Andrew Keese, commission spokesman.

Much is at Stake in the 2020 Presidential Election 

With the nation’s employers shedding millions of jobs during the partial shutdown of the U.S. economy set off by the coronavirus, causing oil and gas prices to plummet, the future of Appalachian shale gas and petrochemicals remains uncertain.

Analysts with the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis have found that eight of Appalachia’s largest fracking companies collectively spent $73.4 billion more on drilling and other capital expenses than they made by selling natural gas during the last decade.

But whether Appalachia becomes a petrochemical hub or not, experts say that fracking in the Marcellus and Utica shale and its environmental and health concerns will likely remain a fact of life for some time. 

Much is at stake in this year’s election. The Trump administration has already made its fossil fuel-fed vision clear. But Democrats in Congress are pushing legislation that would place a three-year moratorium on any new plastics manufacturing.

Former Vice President Joe Biden’s relationship with fracking has been muddled. The presumptive Democratic Party nominee was part of the Obama administration’s “all-of-the-above” philosophy, which allowed the Appalachian fracking boom, and he’s been trying to win over blue collar voters in highly competitive states like Pennsylvania and Ohio who went for Trump in 2016.

But a Biden win would nevertheless mark a stark departure from Trump’s climate change denialism, and would likely be a moderating influence on an Appalchian fossil fuel future. Unlike Trump, Biden has embraced clean energy and the jobs that would come with it, as described in the Green New Deal. He wants the United States to achieve net-zero carbon emissions no later than 2050. 

“Climate change poses an existential threat to our future,” Biden tweeted on Jan. 27, “and we are running out of time to address it.”

API Issues Technical Standards for Only Larger-Sized Rural Gas Gathering Lines

Photo: Camp Viejo gas plant and gathering system/

Mike Soraghan, E&E News reporter
Published: Thursday, April 2, 2020

An oil and gas industry group has issued new guidelines for large gathering lines, which carry natural gas from well sites to processing facilities.

But the new industry standard excludes gathering lines less than 12 inches in diameter, disappointing pipeline safety advocates.

The American Petroleum Institute says its guidelines will bring clarity to safe operation of larger-diameter lines.

“These standards will enhance safety and operational efficiency, while assisting industry in meeting state and federal rules for the safe operation of natural gas gathering pipelines,” Global Industry Services Senior Vice President Debra Phillips said in a statement last week when the rules were announced.

Another standard announced last week, called “Recommended Practice (RP) 80,” was intended to simplify the industry definition of gathering lines.

The guidelines would cover an estimated 40,000 miles of rural pipelines 12 inches and wider. Federal data indicates there is another 350,000 miles of smaller gathering lines, which won’t be covered.

There are about 40,000 miles of gathering lines 12 inches and wider, according to federal data. There are about 350,000 miles of gathering lines smaller than that.

“We would say this is good for as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go anywhere near far enough,” said Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust.

Weimer was part of the group that wrote and approved the guidelines, known as RP 1182. He voted against the approval.

API and other industry groups have opposed regulating smaller lines, although they support gathering more information on them.

The requirements for pipelines 12 inches and larger include meeting design and construction standards, marking the lines aboveground, leak detection, corrosion control, and setting maximum pressures.

They also include alerting people who live near the lines and developing emergency response plans.

Requirements for lines between 12 and 16 inches would be less stringent if there are no homes within the blast radius of the lines, known as a “potential-impact radius.”

Gathering lines are commonly small pipelines that carry oil and gas from wells to processing sites. But the industry has been building large, high-pressure gas pipelines that legally qualify as gathering lines.

Gathering lines are largely unregulated in rural areas. So in most rural areas, even very large, high-pressure lines are not regulated if they’re considered gathering lines.

But Texas, which accounts for the lion’s share of such lines, adopted rules last year requiring companies to take “appropriate” action to fix safety hazards.

Federal pipeline regulators at the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration are also weighing gathering rules and are hoping to have a final rule in July. Safety advocates are pressing, against industry opposition, for regulations covering lines as narrow as 8 inches (Energywire, Nov. 25, 2019).

They note that even relatively small gathering lines can be dangerous. In a two-week period in the summer of 2018, there were three fatal gathering line accidents in Texas’ Permian Basin. One explosion killed a 3-year-old girl and left members of her family badly burned (Energywire, March 4, 2019).

The API standards will not serve as regulations. But standards are widely used in industry and are sometimes incorporated into government regulations and contracts. The previous version of the gathering line definition standard announced last week is incorporated into federal regulations.

Development of the API gathering line standard has been contentious. State regulators withdrew from discussions in June 2017, saying the process was overly dominated by industry. Pipeline company representatives split on issues such as whether they should have to determine the width of the blast zone around their lines. The month after regulators dropped out, a proposed set of standards was voted down.

API’s standards team regrouped and started over. The measure was endorsed by the drafting committee on a 26-6 vote that closed in November 2019. The group included representatives of Exxon Mobil Corp., Energy Transfer Partners and TC Energy Corp. (formerly TransCanada), all of whom voted “yes.” The Laborers’ International Union of North America representative also voted “yes.”

The “no” votes came from the Pipeline Safety Trust’s Weimer, representatives of EOG Resources Inc., Enterprise Products Partners and three consultants.

Virus Leads Pipeline Agency to Ease Job Qualification Rules

Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Liaison

By Sylvia Carignan, Bloomberg Environment, March 23, 2020

A federal safety agency is helping hazardous material transporters and pipeline operators prepare for the spread of Covid-19 by easing staff training and qualifications requirements.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration issued a stay on enforcement March 20, applicable only to requirements for pipeline operator employee qualifications and training. The agency issued a second stay on enforcement Monday on training requirements for hazardous material carriers.

The pipeline industry is preparing to operate with a workforce potentially reduced by illness or quarantines, said Bryn Karaus, who focuses on pipeline regulation in her position of counsel for Van Ness Feldman LLP in Washington.

Qualified employees are required to conduct specific tasks, like inspecting pipelines for corrosion or leaks. During the pandemic, if training isn’t available, pipeline operators may have to substitute other employees, Karaus said.

The agency consulted Karaus, among others, on the pipeline operator memo issued March 20.

The March 20 stay on pipeline operations enforcement eases requirements for:

  • The minimum qualifications for employees who work on pipeline safety and operations;
  • The maximum number of hours control room employees, who monitor remote pipeline operations, are permitted to work; and
  • Training for control room employees.

The agency is also refraining from taking enforcement action against hazardous material carriers who are unable to provide recurring training as required by federal regulations, it announced Monday.

The stay on enforcement for hazardous material transporters comes “in response to unprecedented changes in business practices” related to the coronavirus. PHMSA’s policy is intended to minimize disruption in the supply chain, the Monday notice said.

Limited Resources

The March 20 stay eases requirements for pipeline operators’ employees to submit to random drug testing throughout the calendar year. During the pandemic, labs that process those tests may be overwhelmed by Covid-19 tests instead, Karaus said.

The Department of Transportation, which oversees PHMSA, issued guidance for regulated companies and its own staff Monday regarding drug testing. Federal employees may be able to get testing done at a later date, according to the guidance.

The March 20 stay doesn’t relieve pipeline operators of the responsibility to comply with other safety regulations. Operators must continue to use “trained, non-impaired workers” to maintain pipelines and carry out control room tasks, the agency’s memo said.

Pipeline operators who can’t comply with regulations because of the pandemic must explain their circumstances to the agency and describe the alternate safety precautions being taken.

Lynda Farrell, founder of the Pipeline Safety Coalition, was concerned that the decision to stay enforcement on pipeline regulations that are too lax could create a risk to public safety. The coalition describes its mission as working “with local residents, legislators, educators, scientists and engineers, and other non-government organizations on the various safety aspects of the fossil fuel pipeline system.”

“In this short term, I personally find it hard to understand relaxing drug testing and control room regulations that could prevent a potential incident in an already stretched state of emergency,” she said.

Karaus said the agency may take additional measures to adjust to pipeline operators’ needs during the pandemic.

“It will be an evolving, ongoing, developing issue,” she said.

The stay on pipeline operator training enforcement will remain in effect until further notice, according to the agency. The stay on hazardous material training enforcement will be in effect for 90 days.(Updates throughout with new information about hazardous materials safety.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Sylvia Carignan in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at; Chuck McCutcheon at

Implementing the Recently Published Gas Transmission and Hazardous Liquid Final Rules- Documents Now Available

On February 26 & 27, 2020 PHMSA held public meetings for Pipeline Safety officials to discuss with pipeline safety stakeholders the implementation of the gas transmission and the hazardous liquid pipeline final rules published in the Federal Register on October 1, 2019. PHMSA made available for comment draft frequently asked questions (FAQs) and answers for both final rules that will be used to facilitate the implementation of the final rules. PHMSA also discussed the benefits of pipeline operators developing an effective safety culture, including safety management systems.

The meeting was web cast, and the documents presented are now available on the meeting website and posted on the E-Gov website: under docket number PHMSA-2019-0225.

Hazardous Liquid Rule Public Meeting Link:…

Safety Management System/Safety Culture Workshop Link:…

Gas Rule Public Meeting Link:…

Ruptured Gas Line Forces Hundreds to Evacuate; Mississippi’s Torrential Rains May Be To Blame

Photo at ground zero of a large gas leak on Yazoo County that caused evacuations in the village of Sartartia. Source: Yazoo County EMA.

By Ron Brackett for The Weather Channel

A ruptured gas line forced more than 300 people from their homes and sent nearly four dozen to the hospital overnight in Yazoo County, Mississippi.

Emergency management officials said the rupture could be related to recent downpours in Mississippi. Saturated ground caved into a ravine and damaged the 24-inch pipe that was carrying carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide, according to the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency.

Residents of Satartia, Mississippi, which is about 33 miles northwest of Jackson, were ordered to evacuate after the pipe broke about 7:30 p.m. Saturday in thick woods near Mississippi Highway 433.

The leak was discovered after residents began noticing a green gas and noxious odor, the Yazoo Herald reported.

Some people developed headaches and dizziness and some passed out, according to the Vicksburg Daily News. First responders went door to door checking on residents. Three non-responsive people were found in a vehicle on a gravel road off Highway 433 just before 10 p.m.

Emergency rooms filled in Yazoo County, and patients were directed to a hospital in neighboring Warren County, the Daily News reported.

All lanes in both directions on Highway 433 and Highway 3 were closed. A shelter was opened at Yazoo County Junior High School in Yazoo City.

Residents were allowed to return to their homes shortly after 9:30 a.m. Sunday, according to WLBT. The people taken to hospitals were expected to be ok, according to WLOX.

The pipeline belongs to Denbury Enterprises and is used for oilfield operations. The company shut off the gas when alerted to the rupture.

Mississippi has been inundated with rain in the past few weeks. Jackson has had its wettest start to a year on record through Feb. 22, according to meteorologist Christopher Dolce. Precipitation has totaled 22.85 inches since Jan. 1, which is more than 14 inches above the average to date.

Local news:

On this day in 1973: Staten Island liquefied natural gas explosion kills 40 workers

Feb 10, 2020 By Steve Zaffarano |

‘We can’t live like this’: residents say a corrupt pipeline project is making them sick

WEST CHESTER, PENNSYLVANIA – OCTOBER 6: Directional drilling machinery for a natural gas liquids pipeline is seen through a window of private residence October 6, 2017 in Exton, Pennsylvania. Many of the area’s residents complain of the incessant noise and vibration from 12-hours of drilling from the pipeline project. (Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)

Nina Lakhani in Delaware County, Pennsylvania for The Guardian, Mon 27 Jan 2020 05.00 EST

Every evening Erica and Jon Tarr load up their car with towels, toiletries, and dirty dishes, before driving their two-year-old daughter to a relative’s home to bathe, wash-up and eat a meal cooked in clean water. The Tarrs, who moved into their spacious detached home in semi-rural Pennsylvania last April, have relied upon bottled water and family generosity since June 2019 when their crystalline tap water first turned murky.

Since then, they’ve spent more than $32,000 dollars on new equipment, lab tests, bottled water, repairing pipes and parts damaged by the turbid water. It still isn’t safe, and they don’t know why. “It’s sad and frustrating, I can’t bathe my daughter, wash my hands or do a load of laundry, it’s like living in constant crisis. We’re not the only ones in this situation, but we feel so alone,” said Erica Tarr, 31, a paediatric nurse.

The clay-colored water appeared around the time of a drilling mud spill at a nearby construction site for the Mariner East 2 (ME2) pipelines – a beleaguered multi billion dollar project transporting volatile natural gas liquids from shale fields of eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania to an export facility in Delaware county, ready to ship to Europe to manufacture plastics.

The ME2 horizontal directional drilling (HDD) project – which is subject to multiple criminal and regulatory investigations – has contaminated surface and groundwater sources in hundreds of mud spills, and created sinkholes in parks, roads and back yards since construction began in early 2017. HDD drilling is particularly susceptible to spills known as inadvertent returns, in which lubricating mud erupts through weak spots in the rock.

But as the Tarrs’ tap water became increasingly turbid and the pressure plummeted, the pipeline company Sunoco Logistics, a subsidiary of Texas-based Energy Transfer LP, insisted the project was not to blame. The Tarr family, like 13 million or more American households, relies on a private well for drinking water which they – not regulators – are responsible for monitoring and keeping safe. So, in October they installed a sophisticated filter system and drilled a new well in their picturesque wooded backyard, a couple of hundred meters from the worksite.

The water seemed fine for a few days, but then started smelling strongly of nail polish and burned Erica’s mouth when she tried brushing her teeth. Lab results detected toluene and MTBE – volatile organic compounds found in fuel.

According to local records, an old Sunoco fuel pipeline leaked tens of thousands of gallons of hazardous liquids close to the Tarr’s new well back in 1992. It’s unclear whether the underground legacy contaminants were disturbed by the current construction work. (A geologist hired by the company found that ME2 construction activities did not impact the Tarrs well.)

Then, in early January the tap water turned murky once again, John and daughter Evie got sick, and dark grainy sediment coated the cistern. “It’s a nightmare … living without water for so long is a nightmare,” said Tarr. “ It’s like we’ve been thrown to the wolves, left to figure it out … we can’t keep living like this.”

The Mariner East 2 pipeline project stretches 350 miles through 17, mostly densely populated counties. It runs alongside the 1930s Mariner East 1 gasoline pipeline, recently repurposed to transport butane, propane and ethane – which are odorless and highly flammable.

The US fossil fuel industry has surged over the past decade as a result of unconventional techniques that combine horizontal drilling and fracking to extract oil and gas from shale and other underground rock formations.

ME pipelines have the capacity to transport enough ethane to manufacture just under a billion single plastic bottles every day, according to analysis by Food and Water Watch, a not-for-profit accountability watchdog.

The project has been mired in controversies from the start: In early 2018 the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) shut down the project for a month and fined Sunoco $12.6m for what it called “egregious” violations of environmental laws during its first year of construction. Shortly after, the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) ordered a temporary shut down after sinkholes opened up at a construction site in West Whiteland Township, Chester county.

In January 2020, the DEP issued a $2m fine for another series of drilling fluid spills in 2017 which contaminated Raystown Lake in Huntingdon county. Some were not reported for over 500 days. “There have been questions about the quality of the permits since they were granted in 2014 … there is a pattern of malfeasance that is established and known which was overlooked when permits were granted by the DPE and Wolf administration,” said Sam Rubin, from Food and Water Watch.

A spokesman for Democratic governor Tom Wolf said he believes in strong environmental protection and responsibility for permit holders. “The significant fines, penalties, oversight and accountability by the DEP under his administration are evidence of exactly that.”

Still, the project is also subject to ongoing criminal and civil investigations which include:

  • A FBI corruption investigation into Wolf’s administration handling of the permit process
  • State and county investigations into alleged corruption, criminal misconduct and environmental crimes
  • At the end of 2019, security personnel working with Energy Transfer were charged with bribery and criminal conspiracy for allegedly recruiting, hiring, and hiding payments to state police officers. The company says the charges have no merit.
  • A homeowner is suing Sunoco, claiming its drilling punctured the aquifer supplying his water well and led to E coli contamination that made him ill
  • Residents who live close to the pipeline – known as the Safety Seven – have an ongoing case with the regulator, the PUC, to shut down the project on the grounds it poses unacceptable safety risks, and the company has failed to develop a credible evacuation plan.

“Only in Pennsylvania can an operator create a documentable track record over decades of serial destruction and contamination and continue to be permitted by state agencies and aided by legislators in further rolling back environmental protections,” said state congresswoman Danielle Friel from Chester county, who was elected in 2018 on an anti-pipeline ticket.

Chester county commissioners have slammed the company for “appalling” lack of pipeline information, accusing the company of withholding safety information, putting profit over safety, and creating mistrust among residents – allegations Energy Transfer denies.
Friel added: “Pennsylvania has a corruption problem. Through a massive lobbying, campaign finance and public relations effort, the fossil fuel industry has successfully manipulated our legislature, our local governments and regulatory agencies.”

Lisa Coleman from Energy Transfer said: “We are committed to adhering to the rules and regulations specified in the approved permits as we complete the construction and restoration phases of our projects … We believe our project was properly permitted by all agencies.”

Despite mounting public opposition and fears about the company’s safety record, emergency plans and alleged criminal wrongdoing, Wolf refuses to halt the project.
This intractable position has left communities dealing with contaminated water and environmental hazards feeling desperate.

Rosemary Fuller – one of the Safety Seven – lives a couple of miles from the Tarrs in a large gated property where the family moved in 2003, smitten by the “idyllic peaceful” location. They signed a permanent easement – or right of way – over to the company in 2015 after being assured the project was safe and unobtrusive, according to Fuller, 60. The pipelines run along the main road which runs through the well-to-do semi-rural neighborhood.

Almost five years later, noisy construction sites are dotted throughout the community, there are six sinkholes within a mile or so of Fuller’s house, and in November a valve site situated within this densely populated residential township leaked gasoline. Residents called emergency services after smelling the strange odour.

Dangerous bacteria including E coli were detected in the Fuller’s well water last July, since then the family has relied on bottled water delivered by Sunoco.

Last week, a film of petrol blue coloured grease was visible in the cistern and sink where Fuller brushes her teeth.

The project has had a huge impact on the whole family: Fuller’s husband has incurable cancer which means his immune system is compromised, and therefore spends most of the week away from home to avoid getting sick from the water. Meanwhile Fuller spends her time analysing lab reports, risk assessments, and company documents which are spread across the kitchen counters and dining table.

“It’s a nightmare, I’m dealing with this all day every day, when I should be with my husband. I have nightmares that my daughter drives into a sinkhole,” said Fuller tearfully. “I feel so unsure about the present and the future that I just want rid of my home.”

2020: A Year of Pipeline Court Fights, with One Lawsuit Headed to the Supreme Court

Sections of steel pipe are staged near a private residence for construction of the ETP-Sunoco Mariner East 2 pipeline in Exton, Pennsylvania on June 5, 2019. (Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images) by Phil McKenna, January 3, 2020

4th Circuit nixes key permit for Dominion’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline, citing environmental justice concerns

Pastor Paul Wilson of Union Hill Baptist Church stands in front of a group protesting the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. (© Chesapeake Climate Action Network)

By Robert Walton, In Utility Dive

  • The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday struck down a permit necessary for Dominion Energy to construct its Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP), concluding Virginia regulators failed to consider issues of environmental justice when approving a new compressor station.
  • The court vacated the air quality permit and remanded it back to Virginia’s State Air Pollution Control Board for further review. Dominion officials said they will immediately begin to work with the state to resolve the issues identified by the court.
  • Opponents of the 600-mile pipeline called the latest setback for ACP a “huge victory” and noted the project has suffered a series of defeats. Last July, the court concluded the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had not sufficiently considered the project’s impacts under the Endangered Species Act. 

Dominion maintains the $7.5-billion pipeline is “needed now more than ever” for economic growth and to reduce carbon emissions, but the court called out regulators for failing to adequately consider the impacts on local populations.

The Fourth Circuit concluded Virginia regulators relied too heavily on air quality standards, leading it to dismiss issues of environmental justice and the impact on nearby communities.

“Even if all pollutants within the county remain below state and national air quality standards, the board failed to grapple with the likelihood that those living closest to the compressor station … will be affected more than those living in other parts of the same county,” the 47-page decision finds.

The proposed 54,000-horsepower compressor station would be located near homes in the Virginia community of Union Hill, which project opponents say is predominantly African American, rural and low-income.

The Air Pollution Control Board “rejected the idea of disproportionate impact on the basis that air quality standards were met,” the court charged. “But environmental justice is not merely a box to be checked, and the board’s failure to consider the disproportionate impact on those closest to the compressor station resulted in a flawed analysis.”

Dominion officials expressed confidence that the court’s decision would not slow the project.

“We will immediately begin working with the state to resolve the procedural issues identified by the court and are confident this can be completed in a timely manner,” the company said in a statement. “We expect the project will still deliver significant volumes to customers under our existing timeline, even as we work to resolve this permit.”

The pipeline is planned to run through parts of Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina, and includes three compressor stations. Dominion says the project is necessary to meet gas demand in the Mid-Atlantic region.

“New infrastructure will solve the chronic shortages of natural gas in Hampton Roads and eastern North Carolina and allow these communities to revitalize their manufacturing economy,” Dominion said. ” It will also provide the reliable natural gas we need to support the rapid expansion of renewables across Virginia and North Carolina.”

​Community advocates say this is the eighth time in less than two years that a federal court or agency has revoked or suspended permits for the project. Construction has been halted since last year.

“For the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, it’s the same story again and again,” Greg Buppert, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, said in a statement. “Dominion tried to force a pipeline compressor station into a community where it didn’t belong, just like it has tried to force the pipeline through a national park, national forests, and steep mountains.”

SELC represented the local community in the case, and said Dominion will face a next challenge in February when the U.S. Supreme Court considers an appeal of a lower court decision rejecting another key permit for the project.

In 2018 the Fourth Circuit concluded the U.S. Forest Service was not authorized to approve the project to run under the Appalachian Trail, which is protected National Park Service land. The decision, which the Trump administration has disputed, halted work on the ACP and could have implications for other pipeline developments as well.

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