atlantic coast pipeline demonstratorsBy Peter Galuszka

Just a few years ago, Gov. Terry McAuliffe seemed to be a reasonable advocate of a healthy mix of energy sources. He boosted renewables and opposed offshore oil and gas drilling. He was suspicious of dangerous, dirty coal.

Then he started to change. During the campaign last year, he suddenly found offshore drilling OK, which got the green community worried. But there’s no doubt about his shifts with his wholehearted approval of the 550-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline proposed by Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas and AGL Resources, along with Richmond-based Dominion, one of McAuliffe’s biggest campaign donors.

The $5 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline is part of a new phenomenon – bringing natural gas from the booming Marcellus Shale fields of Pennsylvania, Ohio and northern West Virginia towards busy utility markets in the Upper South states of Virginia, North Carolina and parts ones even farther south. Utilities like gas because it is cheap, easy to use, releases about half the carbon dioxide as coal, which is notorious for labor fatalities, disease, injuries and global warming.

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline would originate at Clarksburg, W.Va. (one of my home towns) and shoot southeast over the Appalachians, reaching heights of 4,000 feet among rare mountain plants in the George Washington National Forest, and then scoot through Nelson, Buckingham Nottoway Counties to North Carolina. At the border, one leg would move east to Portsmouth and the Tidewater port complex perhaps for export (although no one has mentioned that yet). The main line would then jog into Carolina roughly following the path of Interstate 95.

It’s not the only pipeline McAuliffe likes. An even newer proposal is the Mountain Valley Pipeline that would originate in southern West Virginia and move south of Roanoke to Chatham County. It also faces strong local opposition.

atlantic_coast_pipeline mapThe proposals have blindsided many in the environmental community who have shifted some of their efforts from opposing coal and mountaintop removal to going after hydraulic fracking which uses chemicals under high pressure and horizontal drilling to get previously inaccessible gas from shale formations. The Marcellus formation in Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio and West Virginia, the birthplace of the American oil and gas industry, has been a treasure trove of new gas.

The fracked gas boom has been a huge benefit to the U.S. economy. It is making the country energy independent and has jump started older industries in steel, pipe making and the like. By replacing coal, it is making coal’s contribution to the national energy mix drop from about 50 percent to less than 40 percent and is cutting carbon dioxide emissions that help make for climate change.

That at least, is what the industry proponents will tell you and much of it is accurate. But there are big problems with natural gas (I’ll get to the pipelines later). Here’s Bill McKibben, a Middlebury College professor and nationally known environmentalist writing in Mother Jones:

Methane—CH4—is a rarer gas, but it’s even more effective at trapping heat. And methane is another word for natural gas. So: When you frack, some of that gas leaks out into the atmosphere. If enough of it leaks out before you can get it to a power plant and burn it, then it’s no better, in climate terms, than burning coal. If enough of it leaks, America’s substitution of gas for coal is in fact not slowing global warming.

Howarth’s (He is a biogeochemist) question, then, was: How much methane does escape? ‘It’s a hard physical task to keep it from leaking—that was my starting point,’ he says. ‘Gas is inherently slippery stuff. I’ve done a lot of gas chromatography over the years, where we compress hydrogen and other gases to run the equipment, and it’s just plain impossible to suppress all the leaks. And my wife, who was the supervisor of our little town here, figured out that 20 percent of the town’s water was leaking away through various holes. It turns out that’s true of most towns. That’s because fluids are hard to keep under control, and gases are leakier than water by a large margin.

A recent Academy of Sciences report suggests that the problems from toxic chemicals used in fracking aren’t really that big a threat to drinking water. The larger problem is that the cement used as sealant up and down steel drilling pipes is prone to leaks. Something like it happened when cement on the ocean floor under the Deepwater Horizon rig in 2010 failed, creating an uncontrollable spurt of gas and crude oil from thousands of feet below in the Gulf of Mexico.

So, methane leaks may not make methane coal’s panacea after all. Another little noted problem is that the drilling boom involves ripping up tracts of mostly rural, hilly land. Residents find that the little dell next door has suddenly turned into a 24/7 industrial operation with loud diesel generators, flood lights and trucks that destroy and hog narrow roads.

A different form of this sudden change in landscape is inevitable with new pipelines. Dominion and other utilities will be able to survey one’s land without permission. They will be able to seize it under eminent domain if a sales price can’t be reached. And the construction will rip up sensitive ecosystems. According to the Virginia Sierra Club:

The pipeline path would cross eight Highland County mountain ridges at elevations of 3000 to 4200 feet:  Tamarack Ridge, Red Oak Knob, Lantz Mountain, Monterey Mountain, Jack Mountain, Doe Hill, Bullpasture Mountain and Shenandoah Mountain.  It’s not just the view shed that concerns Webb; he fears the resulting forest fragmentation caused by the construction of the pipeline could have adverse impacts on the flora and fauna of the region, including the loss of dependent species, the introduction of invasive species and the loss of habitat for sensitive species such as the Indiana bat and the Cow Knob salamander.

To be sure, there have been pipelines in Virginia before. The most significant is the Colonial Pipeline that links Gulf Coast gas fields with large metropolitan areas in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast. It followed what was then the major gas route – Louisiana to New Jersey. Colonial was built starting in the 1950s. That was just a little after World War II when German U-Boats plundered northeast-bound tanker traffic so severely that domestic energy supplies were in jeopardy.

There haven’t been that many problems with the Colonial Pipeline over the years but that doesn’t mean they can’t happen. I will never forget the summer of 1989 when I was finishing my first stint as Moscow bureau chief for BusinessWeek. The Russians didn’t take very good care of their pipelines and they have a lot of gas.

It just so happened that a pipeline in a narrow railroad passage was leaking near the industrial city of Ufa. Two passenger trains were approaching the gas-filled valley from either side. One carried hundreds of school children on their way to camp. The trains touched off an explosion so massive it was compared with a low yield nuclear weapon. Some 645 died, including school kids who were blown to bits.

I also remember that one way safety crews checked for leaks at pipelines during frigid Siberian winters. They’d fly in helicopters and shoot flares at what seemed to be clouds of gas. An explosion meant a leak.

Certainly American safety standard are better, but isn’t this all happening too fast? Dominion wants its pipeline in place by 2018. They want the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to fast track it. They are already running into strong local opposition in places such as Nelson County.

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline with without a doubt one of the biggest, costliest and far-reaching energy project the state has seen in years. But don’t forget how powerful small places can actually be.

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8 responses to “The Huge Controversy Over Gas Pipelines”

  1. I think the Governor is making the right decision. He also made the right decision regarding the commission/task force to plan for rising sea levels and He made the right decision in launching a review of Virginia’s economic development strategy.
    Taking the last on first Virginia has become addicted to federal spending. We have lost much of our manufacturing …especailly after NAFTA when more than 60 manufacturing plants in Virginia were close after July 20005 including 9 in the Martinsville/Danville area and many more throughout Western Virginia. We simply need a new strategy or….
    And America has enough energy to supply our own needs and become a major supplier for the rest of the World. This is critical economically and politically as we will not have to fight wars in OPEC countries to assure our energy supplies. It is a matter of national security and America’s long term future. Some people will demonstrate about any and everything but they should not dictate the long term economic strategy for America. They are not blocking Canada or Brazil the next global energy country. And while they have the right to express their opinions they should not be able to dictate unreasonable national policies on energy.
    And while I am sure that man is contributing to global warming there are larger forces at work. The Washington Post had a story of the finding of the body of a 15 year old girl in Mexico who died around 12,000 years ago at the end of the last ice age. They have named her Naia. From Naia’s time until now oceans have risen close to 400 feet and the ice sheets covering Northern Mississippi are much closer to the North Pole today. The earth has been steadily warming over the past 12,000 years except for the “Little Ice Age” which ended early in the 1800s. If there were no humans on earth the oceans would have risen and the ice would have melted and still be melting causing the oceans to rise.
    So warming and rising oceans are definitely coming no matter what man does.
    Could mankind slow the process by reducing carbon emissions? Yes I would think so but the US cannot do it alone and China and India are now in the process of building more than 1,000 new coal fired electrical plants. They will not stop because the wealthiest society in the history of the planet demonstrates. No they will not curb their emissions.
    So the oceans will rise in the midterm future and we should prepare for it. And the Governor of Virginia is moving in that direction.
    So good job Governor McAuliffe!

  2. LifeOnTheFallLine Avatar

    This is a stupid idea for lots of reasons – safety and environmental chief among them – but it’s also a terrible return on investment.

    For all the environmental and safety risks the state is taking on by allowing this thing to go through our land the best we can hope for is an extra $14.6 M in taxes a year? On a $5B pipeline?

    Brpt, pass.

  3. I am a big admirer of Peter’s writing .. he does an excellent job and we are lucky to benefit from his efforts!

    Having said that – on the issue – I tend to agree with JWGILLEY .. all things equal – and they never are.

    Our country is filthy with existing pipelines – that most of us hardly know where they are or what the are moving but our lives are much better for it – despite the fact that there are accidents…

    If you tried to move those products moved by pipeline by rail or truck – we’d notice it.. much more and there would be more accidents like the one in Lynchburg with trains carrying crude oil – likely because there was no available pipeline capacity.

    If you live in a house that uses natural gas or fuel oil to heat – you are benefiting from pipelines.

    if you live in a house with municipal water and sewer or or that matter a drain field – are trusting that sewage does not leak out the pipes or through your drainfield and pollute the ground water.

    When you fuel your car – you are using fuel from a pipeline.

    We need to protect the environment and Gawd knows there are countless examples of how we fail…but to be truthful, I can find no more serious issues for moving gas from Marcus Shale than natural gas or gasoline from Texas.

    lest we go overboard here – take a look at this map of the US with existing pipelines:

    when did we decide this was a bad thing?

  4. This AC pipeline would create an industrial corridor where it does not belong. It would be gutting through several counties that have been cultivating local sustainable agriculture supporting local business and community development. This is an area that attracts tourist for the qualities that has been cultivated and for the G.W. National Forest and Shenandoah National Park, Historic Staunton and the preservation of numerous other historic landmark places.

    As far energy independence that will come with independence from the fossil fuel industry. It is disgraceful how this industry has skirted public safety regulations and is so careless and inconsiderate about their impact on quality of life when it comes to the growth of their industry. The energy companies appear to me much more concerned with fossil fuel share of the energy market than what might be truly best for the nation and the world at large. At this point there are greater things to consider than maintaining the economic prowess of the petroleum and gas industry and fattening political campaign funds and portfolios.

  5. You had me until you brought up Bill McKibben. Yet another extremist who should be discounted on face value. You might as well have quoted Newt Gingrich.

    It’s time for America to reject extremism and extremists.

  6. Until now, I felt Gov McAuliffe was just giving us “lip service” re: improving Virginia’s economy. That all changed with the Governor’s support of the proposed natural gas pipeline. I assume Virginia/America needs these pipelines, and I appreciate the Governor’s leadership and vision.

    For many decades, government and business leaders in the U.S. have shunned natural gas, mainly on the incorrect assumption that the future price of natural gas would escalate through the roof. Hence, the U.S. went full-out on coal, and we out-sourced much industry to other countries. Natural gas was under-utilized, and pipelines were not built.

    I personally never agreed with the under-utilization of natural gas, having fought one too many battles against coal-fired power plants proposed for my backyard (in NJ).

    I view natural gas as an essential, clean energy resource for America. However, natural gas is harder to utilize because, well, it’s a gas. To the extent that we can better utilize natural gas, then our economy and environment should benefit. Natural gas also helps to complement and encourage renewable energy efforts (wind/solar/etc.) because these projects often need natural gas as a back-up.

    I regret that we have a painfully adversarial atmosphere in our Country. As someone once said, we must find a way to disenthrall ourselves and do the right thing.

    1. despite efforts for the right to depict McAuliffe as a big spending govt liberal – and the loony left to he would align with them on energy – he’s proven to be a pragmatic middle-of-the-road business-oriented person – who understands just how fundamental and important energy is to the economy and to all of us who take it for granted.

      It was not very long ago when we were wringing our hands about importing
      foreign oil and involving ourselves in “protecting” Middle East oil.

      natural gas is the lesser evil of coal and because nat gas turbines can ramp up or down quickly – they can actually complement wind/solar and work in tandem with base load coal.

      sooner or later, we’ll start to run out of nat gas – and will again be back to deciding if we are going to use more coal or build more nukes or… what?

      Nat Gas buys us time to bridge to a future where we may not need coal as much.

      I have a frustration with the anti-frackers in that they seem to be the same folks who are opposed to coal and nukes – and they really don’t seem to have good alternatives other than us using less power all together.

      I’m the first to admit – that we among the developed countries tend to use about twice as much power than other countries -(though not as much as countries like Canada and Scandinavia)

      Are the dangers of fracking as harmful as coal-burning – not only harmful air emissions but mercury deposition that pollutes most of our rivers – .. we are lucky that some kinds of fish, oysters, crabs/ etc do not accumulate mercury like other fish and aquatic critters.

      There are no complete and safe solutions to energy yet – some day – we may design pebble-bed auto-shutdown (vice meltdown) reactors..and nat gas give us a bridge to that future…

      There are respected Environmental Groups that support natural gas:

      Natural gas policy

      Natural gas can be a beneficial energy resource if produced in a manner that is good for public health and the environment

      Natural gas is an important and growing part of our nation’s energy portfolio. It emits less greenhouse gases than coal when combusted and avoids mercury and other dangerous air pollutants that come from coal. It could be a win-win if — and this is a big if — we do it the right way.

      EDF is taking a leading role to minimize risks associated with developing new supplies of natural gas, while maximizing the lower carbon benefit inherent to natural gas as compared to other fossil fuels.

      I find EDF’s position – reasonable – and the position of the anti-frackers a bit over the top…. especially after we’ve seen rail cars full of oil into rivers and coal plant emissions that are far more harmful.

      at some point – you have to have some reasonable position.. and McAuliffe has it IMHO>

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