There are some 3 million miles of natural gas pipelines buried in the US. More than half of all gas transmission lines in the country were installed before 1970, according to data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration. Those pipelines have an average lifespan of 50 years. And it’s not just old pipelines that are set to go out of service. Younger pipelines are also at risk of falling into disuse as the power sector comes to rely less on natural gas in favor of wind, solar and batteries.
No clearer sign exists that that bridge has been crossed than the cancellation of several high profile natural gas pipeline projects in the last year, including the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the Constitution Pipeline. What does that mean for the millions of miles of gas pipelines that are already in the ground?
The most comprehensive data on abandoned pipelines comes from Canada. In the 1980s, the Canadian government began an extensive study of abandoned pipelines, which identified a slew of serious risks to leaving them in place. Sinkholes could form as pipelines corroded and collapsed. Leftover fossil fuels, or the cleaning agents used to clear out lines, could leak out into the surrounding soil or water. Aging lines under lakes or rivers could carry water where it’s not wanted. Empty pipelines could also become slightly buoyant, relative to soil, and rise to the surface, where landscaping and signage marking a pipeline’s path is rarely maintained after it has been retired.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) can order a pipeline company to remove a line that’s not in use, says Carolyn Elefant, an energy and eminent domain attorney, but it doesn’t always do so.
Pipeline companies have ample incentive to leave pipelines in the ground. Removal is expensive and requires heavy equipment, permits and environmental reviews. And pipelines laid before 1980 often have the added feature of an asbestos coating that must be dealt with. It can cost almost as much to get a pipeline out of the ground as it costs to put it in the ground.
The Allegheny-Blue Ridge Alliance has launched its new Conservation Hub, a program designed to enhance the capabilities of environmental, conservation and citizen groups to better assess the impacts of projects in the greater Allegheny-Blue Ridge region and to help assure that the overall environmental integrity of the region is maintained. The program will employ some of the same technological tools that formed the basis of the ABRA Compliance Surveillance Initiative (CSI) program that was developed to monitor construction activities of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP).
Among the expected outcomes of the Conservation Hub program are:
Empowering stakeholders to make more informed decisions about proposed projects that impact the environment of their communities and the region.
Improving the quality and comprehensiveness of information presented to government regulatory bodies in helping their evaluation of proposed projects and, if such projects are approved, providing ongoing monitoring information to those agencies to assist their regulatory role.
Encouraging regulatory agencies, when evaluating whether to permit a project, to consider the cumulative impacts that the project would have on the affected region. It has been our collective experience from fighting the ACP project that state and federal permitting agencies are ill-equipped to evaluate the cumulative environmental impacts that projects can have.
Details on the Conservation Hub and its projects are available here on the ABRA website.
From Allegheny-Blue Ridge Alliance’s ABRA Update #289, August 20, 2020
The Allegheny-Blue Ridge Alliance (ABRA) is pleased to announce an exciting new program: The Conservation Hub. ABRA’s Conservation Hub program promotes responsible resource management by providing data-focused tools that enhance a project’s transparency, strengthen its accountability to regulatory agencies and facilitate public participation in its evaluation process. The Hub is a regional information and mapping portal, tailored to specific projects in the central Appalachian region of Virginia and West Virginia encompassing 52 counties (26 in VA and 26 in WV, see map below), but also an information resource on the natural resources and character of the region.
Projects beyond the region will be considered on a case by case basis.
The Conservation Hub is an outgrowth of the mapping system developed for ABRA’s Construction Surveillance Initiative (CSI), a program that was created to monitor construction activity of the now-cancelled Atlantic Coast Pipeline. (Note: The CSI program will continue until restoration of the ACP route has been completed.)
From Allegheny-Blue Ridge Alliance’s ABRA Update #270, April 2, 2020
Two new online mapping systems have been created by ABRA to assist allies who are fighting the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and other pipeline projects in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia and in North Carolina. Both systems are based on geographic information system (GIS) technology, like ABRA’s CIS mapping system for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP).
The Hampton Roads Anti-Pipeline Education Map includes the rest of the ACP route from Buckingham County to the North Carolina border and to Portsmouth, VA, plus two pipeline projects of the Virginia Gas Company, the Header Improvement Project and the Southside Connector Pipeline.
The North Carolina Pipeline Watch Mapping System (NCPWP) depicts the ACP route from the Virginia boarder south to the terminus of the project. It includes updated stream crossings and new land ownership data and is designed to assist our allies in North Carolina to better monitor any construction activity of the ACP.
From Allegheny-Blue Ridge Alliance ABRA Update #249, October 18, 2019
ABRA’s CSI program has provided more evidence to federal regulators of unsafe and non-compliant construction practices of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP).
On July 25, 2019, the Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration (PHMSA) wrote Dominion Energy Transmission, Inc. (DETI), which is managing the construction of the ACP, concerning trench widths that did not appear to meet specifications and the presence of bedrock and loose boulders in pipeline trenches. The locations were within the first miles of the project in West Virginia. DETI responded on August 21 denying that the conditions cited by PHMSA inspectors existed. This prompted ABRA to examine the reported incidents base upon photographic evidence acquired by ABRA/CSI Pipeline Air Force photo surveillance flights.
In a October 16,2019, letter to PHMSA, Dan Shaffer, ABRA’s Geospatial Consultant, brought to the agency’s attention photographs that contradict DETI’s contention. Shaffer explained that “CSI has identified 25 locations along the route that seem to show large rocks loose in the trench, directly underneath the pipe, incorporated with backfill, or protruding into the trench in close proximity to the pipe. . . . We are concerned that these conditions place the Atlantic Coast Pipeline at a significant risk of damage during hydrostatic testing, increased rates of corrosion due to damaged epoxy coating, or rupture due to landslides or even small slips.” One of the photo examples provided to PHMSA with the letter is reproduced below.
Concluding, Shaffer said: “Our photographic evidence suggests that such conditions are common practice on this project. We feel that these locations warrant additional investigation to ensure that the project is being constructed in a safe manner.”
Attorney Kai Memmer, a volunteer for the Southwest Virginia Chapter of the National Lawyer’s Guild, will train attendees to become Legal Observers. LO’s are needed immediately in the Elliston, VA area, other areas along the MVP route, and where law enforcement and protestors are in proximity to monitor and document interactions. LO’s presence serves to de-escalate tensions on both sides, and is a vital, neutral information gathering tool.
Volunteers are needed for any amount of time. Information on the National Lawyer’s Guild and the Legal Observer program: https://www.nlg.org/our-work/
Training session #1: Wednesday, October 30 at 6pm at the Lucy F Simms Continuing Education Center, Classroom 101, 620 Simms Avenue, Harrisonburg, VA 22802
Training session #2: Wednesday, November 6 at 6pm at the Nelson Memorial Library, 8521 Thomas Nelson Highway, Lovingston VA 22949