Why Pipeline Opposition Undermines Environmental Progress And Safety
5,242 views|Jan 17, 2019,4:03 pm Source
Pipelines have been quietly providing most of the energy used in America on a daily basis for nearly a century. That is, until most recently as small, yet very vocal groups of environmentalists have argued pipelines are bad for the environment. Opponents have often attempted to portray themselves as “water protectors” and “friend of the earth.” Projects like Keystone, Dakota Access, Bayou Bridge, Atlantic Sunrise, and Mariner East have all experienced well coordinated, nationally inspired opposition campaigns.
Hollywood stars and others have expressed their profound opposition to fossil fuel, notwithstanding the fact that those same people often fly to protest sites on private jets. A California mayor expressed her opposition to the Keystone XL project during a national listening session in Washington, D.C. by saying her citizens did not need the pipeline and that items based on fossil fuel were bad for the environment. She went on to say that her citizens wanted better roads and their potholes patched. Curious, given this person flew to Washington on a plane and spoke about the need to use more asphalt made from oil to fix her streets.
While one may or may not doubt the sincerity of their cause, the truth is that attempts to block new pipeline infrastructure projects are, well, bad for the environment.
One need only look at projects such as the Mountain Valley Pipeline as a notable example of the many considerations on both sides of the argument. Despite numerous legal challenges and a few environmental snafus, it is poised to safely serve many communities while helping reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Passing through West Virginia, Virginia, and parts of North Carolina, the Mountain Valley Pipeline project has been delayed by court battles for several months. Complaints concerning the construction process and long-term implications have been raised. Often concerns serve as opportunities to improve an infrastructure project and should be given credence which results in all sides agreeing to modifications. Other times however, objections are thinly veiled attempts to permanently derail projects, not make them better, and policymakers need to understand the difference between concern and obstructionism.
Construction activities are industrial in nature, and that is true with any infrastructure building project. In other words, disruptions are to be expected. Often trenching activities for pipelines disrupt adjacent land and may be exacerbated by weather. That said, pipeline companies can help themselves by working closely with federal, state, and local officials to minimize local impacts to ensure construction activities are tailored to minimize disruptions. Newer techniques like horizontal directional drilling (HDD) can be used whenever possible to place pipelines underground without disrupting the surface, and even where traditional trenching is used, restoration following construction activities makes it difficult to see where construction occurred.
Some environmentalist delay tactics halting construction end up locking these unfinished trench conditions in place for extended periods of time, inviting future damage to the vulnerable areas. Only a completed project resets the area by covering theses channels while also allowing safe, efficient energy to flow beneath. The finished, supervised project is the compromise.
Activists often talk about America’s need to reduce our carbon footprint and to better preserve our natural resources, and they would be completely right. Unfortunately objecting to these infrastructure projects does not improve our conditions.
To say that opposition to the Mountain Valley Pipeline, or pipelines generally, is misguided is not to criticize those opposing them, but to explain why the benefits outweigh the costs. Pipelines replace more carbon-intensive transport methods, meaning that they are the greenest way to move enormous volumes of energy supplies like natural gas, propane, and gasoline. Pipelines reduce congestion across our roads, rail, and shipping transportation networks. Removing trucks from highways makes roadways safer for us all, reduces damage, and eliminates tons of mobile source greenhouse gas emissions.
Pipelines have gotten a rap they have not deserved. Back in the early 2000s, Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta (D-CA) talked about pipelines as the “unsung heroes of our economy” and said that they were like veins and arteries in our own bodies, providing the lifeblood to the American economy. A Democrat from San Jose, California, Secretary Mineta, a noted champion of human rights and justice, expressed a view that was once held by both political parties. Pipelines bring energy resources to families, small businesses, and communities to heat homes, cook food, and support the economy. Most importantly, they are also facilitating environmental progress right below our feet.
The concern that once these pipelines will leak is valid. Leaks do occur which is why the federal government’s Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration exists to regulate, inspect, and audit pipeline companies. That agency also regulates alternatives to pipelines where the spill rates and incidents are far higher than pipelines.
Letting the good be the enemy of the perfect slows the fight for climate balance. Even as no single transportation system for resources is perfect, pipelines are impressively close. Since 2013, the data shows that over 99.999% of petroleum product made it end to end in pipelines without incident.
Highlighting the 0.001% leak is legitimate – especially for areas affected. But standards are constantly improving, and the tiny volume leaked is far preferable over the risks associated with other transportation methods. This statistically near-perfect safety rate accounts for all existing pipelines, meaning state-of-the-art pipe laid today is of the highest quality and features more monitoring and safety features. And natural gas has boasted as high as 99.999997% safe product transportation.
Companies are also deploying innovative technology. mIQrotech, a recent startup that I have advised, is using artificial intelligence and sensors to envelop pipelines with safety and security systems aimed at identifying and stopping leaks before they occur. Companies like General Electric are developing inspection tools that present three-dimensional MRI-like models of lines that can be evaluated over time. It should go without saying that energy companies have a financial incentive to prevent leaks in the first place.
There is more to say for the environmental benefit of liquid and natural gas pipelines. Natural gas pipelines for example are a key instrument in the transition away from coal, helping the U.S. decrease its carbon emissions by as much as 50 percent. The far cleaner-burning natural gas is an essential bridge fuel on the move toward renewable resources and greater green efficiency. Halting or delaying pipelines thwarts or delays the phase-out of coal and other higher intensive carbon-based fuels.
Last month, opponents of the Mariner East pipeline project sat in a Harrisburg, Pennsylvania courtroom where they told a judge that allowing natural gas liquids to flow East from western Pennsylvania would wreak havoc. One woman testified that she didn’t need these products at all because she used home heating oil to warm her house, apparently oblivious to the fact that the truck bringing her that very oil likely picked it up from a pipeline.
The lack of sufficient energy infrastructure also negatively impacts our own economy, and in some cases, American foreign policy itself. Mariner East and other projects are designed to ease inadequate supplies and soaring prices Americans are paying to keep the Northeast warm during the winter. One critical example is the Russian gas import into Boston Harbor last spring despite plenty and bountiful supplies of natural gas that will be accessed by new pipelines less than a day’s drive away. Not only should we avoid financially benefitting countries like Russia, but that natural gas had to travel across the entire Atlantic Ocean, powered by large vessels producing significant emissions from low-grade fuels. It is far better for gas to travel a few hundred miles in a secure high-tech pipeline than several thousand miles on the open ocean, where leaks are more difficult to contain.
Economic and environmental progress means building state-of-the-art energy highways that safely and efficiently move materials to where they are needed so that we can move away from high-carbon emitting fuels. While critics have every reason to watch them under a magnifying glass to ensure the environment is preserved, it is equally important to zoom out and see how pipelines play into the broader picture of the community, economy, and climate.
If projects like Mariner East and the Mountain Valley Pipeline can serve Americans, thwart Russian imports, and help to reduce carbon emissions, we should not support delays, but encourage best practices and ensure the project is completed to the highest caliber and standards we all expect.