‘Pipeline Purgatory’ the Goal as Activists Take Fight Local

  • Trump election heightens urgency for local opposition
  • Companies brace for delays while targeting smaller projects

Canada Approves Oil Pipeline Expansion

For fossil-fuel foes fighting a new generation of U.S. pipelines, Donald Trump’s election as president may be somewhat beside the point.

Instead of engaging a federal bureaucracy they believe will line up against them, activists now plan to “double down on the state and local level,” according to Jane Kleeb, president of Bold Alliance, a national activist network that’s fought both the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Keystone XL project. "The opposition is going to be much more local, much more focused,” she said.

Although Trump has promised to speed up federal permits and regulatory review, his influence doesn’t extend to local communities or states. That’s where activists are working aggressively to get regulators, lawmakers and the courts on their side, Kleeb and others said. Already, they’ve helped get new laws passed in Georgia and North Carolina limiting the use of eminent domain to seize property for pipelines.

Call it “pipeline purgatory,” said Matthew Hoza, an analyst at the Colorado-based consulting firm BTU Analytics LLC. By exploiting local landowner concerns and state permit processes, activists are ensnaring projects "in unending litigation on a state level," making them “not really alive, not really dead,” he said.

Aging Infrastructure

The network of pipelines now in place for liquids including oil and gasoline stretches 207,800 miles, according to a website sponsored by the Association of Oil Pipe Lines. Builders say new pipelines are needed as locations of key energy sources change, and to replace aging infrastructure. When pipeline capacity fills, drillers are forced to resort to more expensive rail shipments, raising costs for their product. Meanwhile, natural gas can be stranded because pipes are the only delivery option.

It’s an argument that has gained some momentum across the border in Canada. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau approved pipeline proposals by Kinder Morgan Inc. and Enbridge Inc. in a decision aimed at balancing environmental protection with expanded market access for oil producers.

Pipelines also can offer local communities an economic gain, according to Alan Armstrong, chief executive officer at Tulsa, Oklahoma-based Williams Partners LP, which owns and operates more than 33,000 miles of U.S. gas-gathering and distribution lines. In May, Armstrong said his company’s Constitution Pipeline will aid development in New York and help New England’s transition to cleaner natural gas from coal-fired power.

Environmentalists, meanwhile, are playing a long game, aiming to completely change America’s energy profile in the future, according to Lena Moffitt, director of the Sierra Club’s Dirty Fuels campaign.

"We’re in this critical window where renewables are going to be cost competitive in a few years,” said Moffitt, who is based in Oakland, California. “If we can forestall gas infrastructure being put in the ground and locking in that demand for the next 60 years -- if we can forestall that by maybe just five years -- the hope is that renewables will come in and be cost competitive in all markets."

Delay Costs

The timeline for FERC approval has gotten lengthier. From initial filing to notice of construction, the average processing time is almost 70 days longer than prior to 2014, said Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Brandon Barnes in a report. 

Delays add costs, as does re-routing. The pushback Moffitt and others describe has already scared off investors, slowed plans and spurred developers to abandon others.

In March, following opposition in Georgia, Kinder Morgan scrapped its Palmetto pipeline, designed to carry gasoline, diesel and ethanol from South Carolina into Florida. The Constitution Pipeline, set to transport natural gas from Pennsylvania to New York, remains in legal limbo as developer Williams Partners fights a state agency’s rejection of a water permit almost two years after it was blessed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

"It’s the new reality of what we deal with as pipeline developers," said Blue Jenkins, executive vice president of EQT Corp., a Pittsburgh-based integrated energy company. "The opponents are very organized, they are very aggressive, and they are very vocal."

To be sure, Trump is likely to make a difference nationally for two pipelines that have long been flash points: TransCanada Corp.’s 1,179-mile Keystone XL project, and the 1,172-mile Dakota Access Pipeline developed by Energy Transfer Partners LP.

President Barack Obama rejected Keystone last year, saying it wouldn’t aid the U.S. economy, drop gasoline prices or boost energy security. That followed a seven-year dispute that, at times, turned more on political issues than economic ones. The $3.8 billion Dakota Access pipeline was delayed in September after local Native Americans said it will hurt culturally significant sites. Trump has said he’ll approve Keystone XL as soon as Jan. 20, his first day in office.

Public comments submitted to FERC help indicate which plans are likely to receive the most resistance. The PennEast pipeline, designed to carry gas from Pennsylvania to New Jersey, received more than 3,500 comments since 2014. Even if federal regulators ultimately okay it -- now at least seven months later than planned -- the same people who flooded FERC with feedback are likely to contact state regulators, BTU’s Hoza said.

Activists Emboldened

Activists have "been emboldened by Keystone and the growing number of victories like Constitution," prompting grassroots efforts nationwide, said the Sierra Club’s Moffitt. They’re “looking at the legal hooks” that can tie up approvals for years.

Nancy Vann, 69, is among the local activists. Since 2013, the retired attorney has fought Spectra Energy Corp.’s Algonquin Incremental Market project, which runs through her neighborhood near Peekskill, New York. She questions its proximity to the Indian Point Energy Center nuclear plant, and disputes its need. As head of the local Safe Energy Rights Group, Vann said she’s often in touch with other activists and has helped train foes of the Constitution project on rights of way and land rights.

Vann’s involvement highlights a key difference now as opposed to the past. Developers are crossing more urban areas, and in places relatively unaccustomed to them. Pipelines may be ubiquitous in Texas and Oklahoma; they are not in Massachusetts and Maine.
For now, pipeline operators are dealing with the problem by increasing outreach to local residents, hewing to existing rights of way when possible and favoring small projects.

"Pipelines, like it or not, have been pulled into this broader philosophical debate about climate policy,” said Donald Santa, president and chief executive officer of the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America. “We have become a theater in that war."

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