A recent paper published by researchers from NC State and other universities found that natural gas pipelines tended to be routed through poor communities. Photo credit: National Parks Conservation Association/ Flickr Creative Commons

by Greg Barnes for NC Health News

For years, individual case studies have found that natural gas pipelines traverse primarily through socially vulnerable communities, resulting in cries of environmental injustice and lawsuits against big gas companies.

Now, researchers at N.C. State University have taken those studies a step further with a deep data dive to show that the nation’s counties with the most socially vulnerable populations have significantly higher pipeline densities.

The findings suggest that people living in those counties are at greater risk of facing water and air pollution, public health and safety issues, and other negative impacts associated with the natural gas pipelines, said Laura Oleniacz, a spokeswoman for N.C. State.

“This is what the communities themselves have been saying for a long time,” said Ryan Emanuel, the study’s lead researcher and a professor in N.C. State’s Center for Geospatial Analytics. “For the first time, we gathered all of this together and zoomed out and took a national look and said, ‘You know what, these pipelines don’t exist in a vacuum.’”

The study has been peer reviewed and is being published in GeoHealth, a journal that focuses on the intersection of environmental and Earth sciences, and health. The authors drew their conclusions using data on socially vulnerable communities from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and natural gas pipeline data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Emanuel said. The researchers used the CDC’s data to examine socially vulnerable communities on a county-by-county basis.

The CDC defines social vulnerability as “the potential negative effects on communities caused by external stresses on human health. Such stresses include natural or human-caused disasters, or disease outbreaks.”

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline

In 2014, Dominion Energy and Duke Energy announced that they would construct the Atlantic Coast Pipeline from the shale fields of West Virginia through Virginia and ending in Robeson County in North Carolina. At the time, the proposed 600-mile-long pipeline was projected to cost between $4.5 billion and $5 billion.

The two energy companies said demand for the project was driven in large part by retirement and conversion of coal-fired power plants to natural gas plants. But as the companies bought easements for the pipeline — either with cooperation from landowners or the seizing of property through eminent domain — federal regulators began to question the need for the pipeline because the Mountain Valley Pipeline was beginning to take shape nearby.

Emanuel said the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission weighed the need for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline heavily but gave little consideration to the environmental justice issue.

“So we know that regulators take these kinds of, I guess, gas supply issues into account for the rest of the network when they’re making these decisions but right now they don’t do that when it comes to environmental justice,” Emanuel said. “Pipelines are more or less considered in a vacuum when it comes to reviewing their environmental justice implications.”

Shows a map of north carolina with a red line marking the route of the pipeline and the counties/ communities it passes through designated in green. The Counties are Northampton, Halifax, Nash, Wilson, Johnston, Sampson, Cumberland and Robeson.
Schematic of the North Carolina route of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Map courtesy: NC DEQ

Construction of the pipeline scrapped

Last July, Dominion and Duke announced that they were scrapping the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, blaming costs that had ballooned to $8 billion and anticipated delays in permitting and construction caused, in part, by lawsuits and federal court rulings.

In a joint statement on July 5, 2020, Dominion Chairman Thomas F. Farrell and Duke Chairman Lynn J. Good announced the pipeline’s cancelation:

“We regret that we will be unable to complete the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. For almost six years we have worked diligently and invested billions of dollars to complete the project and deliver the much-needed infrastructure to our customers and communities. Throughout, we have engaged extensively with and incorporated feedback from local communities, labor and industrial leaders, government and permitting agencies, environmental interests and social justice organizations …This announcement reflects the increasing legal uncertainty that overhangs large-scale energy and industrial infrastructure development in the United States. Until these issues are resolved, the ability to satisfy the country’s energy needs will be significantly challenged.”

Emanuel and others believe the lawsuits over environmental issues, including environmental injustice, were among the primary reasons that the pipeline was canceled.

Last year, a federal court invalidated a key permit for a natural gas compressor station as part of the pipeline. The compressor station would have been built in Union Hill, a historic Black community in Virginia founded by freed slaves after the Civil War. The court ruling was hailed as a major victory for the environmental justice movement.

Emanuel thinks his study will bring environmental injustice issues even more into the forefront.

“What I hope we can take away from this study is that when new pipelines come up for review the environmental justice component of that review won’t be treated in isolation,” Emanuel said. “We’ll think about what are we doing to the whole network when we add a new pipeline with respect to environmental justice.

“Are we re-entrenching the historic patterns that already exist in the landscape, or are we going to do something different?”

Pipelines are surging

The recent boom in extracting natural gas from shale deep underground, a practice known as hydraulic fracturing or fracking, has resulted in an ever-increasing number of pipelines being proposed and constructed in the United States.

With that comes the increasing burden of determining where the pipelines should go that will have the fewest amount of environmental and social impacts.

“The pace of US pipeline development signals an urgent need for research about health, socioeconomic, and other impacts associated with pipelines and other midstream infrastructure,” the study says. “In particular, there is a pressing need to understand the extent to which large-scale (e.g., regional or national) distribution of midstream pipelines may create or exacerbate societal inequities in environmental degradation, exposure to health risks, and other harms.”

Citing U.S. Department of Transportation figures, the study says federal regulators documented 36 fatalities, 164 injuries and about $2.5 billion in costs associated with industry-reported incidents from natural gas gathering and transmission pipelines.

Problems with pipelines have been in the news in North Carolina of late, with a recent ransomware attack on the management of the Colonial Pipeline, which carries multiple petroleum products up and down the East Coast. A failure of that same pipeline was responsible for a million-gallon petroleum leak in Huntersville in August 2020.

The study was conducted by Emanuel and Louie Rivers III of N.C. State, Martina Angela Caretta of Sweden’s Lund University and Pavithra Vasudevan of the University of Texas. It did not attempt to offer solutions on how to mitigate pipeline development in socially vulnerable communities.

Energy companies have long argued that placing pipelines near large cities would make little sense because of the likelihood that a catastrophic event could endanger far more people. That’s one reason they choose rural areas, even though more socially vulnerable people typically live there.

Emanuel said he isn’t sure what the answer is, but he’d like the country to start a concerted effort to dramatically curb its dependence on natural gas.

“If you’re going to keep building these (pipelines) you’re going to have to deal with the impacts to either urban communities or rural communities,” he said. “Maybe it’s a Catch 22. I’m not really sure.”

Map courtesy: Dominion Energy

Calls for curtailing natural gas use growing

Emanuel is not the only one who thinks it’s time for the United States to curtail or eliminate the use of natural gas in the pursuit of stopping global warming.

The Wall Street Journal reported in May that a growing fight is emerging across the United States as “cities consider phasing out natural gas for home cooking and heating, citing concerns about climate change .…”

According to the publication, San Francisco, Seattle, Denver and New York have either enacted or proposed measures to ban or discourage the use of natural gas in new homes and buildings.

Meanwhile, Arizona, Texas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Kansas and Louisiana have enacted laws outlawing municipal bans on fossil fuels in their states before they can spread, saying they are overly restrictive and costly.

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