A damning new report has highlighted the spotty incident record of Energy Transfer, which owns tens of thousands of miles of pipelines across America, including the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline.
The Texas-based energy company and its subsidiary Sunoco have amassed more than 800 federal and state permit violations and millions of dollars in fines while building its two newest natural gas pipelines, the Rover and Mariner East 2, respectively, Reuters reporters Scott DiSavino and Stephanie Kelly revealed Wednesday.
To compare, Reuters analyzed four similar pipeline projects and found they averaged 19 violations each during construction.
For a breakdown of Energy Transfer Rover’s 681 federal violations, see: https://t.co/kVGDgUG0MI.— Stephanie Kelly (@Stephanie Kelly)1543408456.0
Rover and Mariner violations include spills of drilling fluid; sinkholes in backyards; and improper disposal of hazardous waste and other trash, with fines topping at $15 million, according to Reuters.
Rover started construction in March 2017, while Mariner started in February 2017. The two troubled pipelines were slated for completion last year, but construction has slowed due to state and federal regulators halting the work after permit violations.
The $4.2 billion Rover pipeline is a 713-mile interstate project designed to transport up to 3.25 billion cubic feet per day of fracked gas. Its proposed route includes Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Michigan and Canada. In one of its most high-profile spills, the pipeline project released 2 million gallons of drilling fluids into Ohio wetlands last April. It followed with another 150,000 gallons of drilling fluid at the same site in January.
"Ohio's negative experience with Rover has fundamentally changed how we will permit pipeline projects," James Lee, a spokesman for the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, told Reuters.
The $2.5 billion Mariner East 2 is a 350-mile pipeline project designed to carry 275,000 barrels a day of butane, propane and other liquid fossil fuels from Ohio and West Virginia, across Pennsylvania to the Atlantic coast. Last year, horizontal directional drilling triggered three releases of drilling fluid around the same site in East Goshen, Pennsylvania in the span of three days.
In September, a 24-inch natural gas line owned by Energy Transfer and Sunoco exploded in Beaver County, Pennsylvania a week after it was activated. The explosion prompted calls from environmentalists and lawmakers to halt the Mariner pipeline, which is currently under construction in the state.
Energy Transfer Pipeline Explodes in Pennsylvania #WarOnOurFuture via @EcoWatch https://t.co/U2N0xnGuM1— The YEARS Project (@The YEARS Project)1536696035.0
After that blast, Waterkeeper Alliance called out Energy Transfer's (formerly known as Energy Transfer Partners) history of pipeline incidents.
"Waterkeeper Alliance and Greenpeace meticulously documented more than 500 spills and millions of dollars in fines and property damage by Energy Transfer Partners in a report released earlier this year," Waterkeeper Alliance staff attorney Larissa Liebmann said in a statement received by EcoWatch.
Their April report found that Energy Transfer, its subsidiaries including Sunoco, and joint ventures reported 527 hazardous liquids pipeline incidents to federal regulators from 2002 to 2017, or once every 11 days on average for 16 years.
In response to the Reuters report, Energy Transfer spokeswoman Alexis Daniel said the company is committed to safe construction and operation and at times went "above and beyond" regulations for the Rover and Mariner projects.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has again ordered Energy Transfer Partners to halt horizontal directional drilling under the Tuscarawas River in Ohio at its troubled Rover pipeline project pending additional review.
The move came after Ohio regulators requested FERC order a cease of all drilling on the project after nearly 150,000 gallons of drilling fluids were lost down the pilot hole for the pipeline earlier this month.
"While our understanding is that no fluid has reached the surface, and no impacts on sensitive resources have been documented, the difficult geology at the crossing warrants investigation into other approaches prior to advancing the [horizontal directional drilling] pilot drill as well as before subsequent reaming passes," FERC Director of Energy Projects Terry Turpin wrote in a letter.
The 713-mile pipeline project, which will carry fracked gas across Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Michigan and Canada once complete, is currently under construction by the same Dallas-based company that built the controversial Dakota Access pipeline.
In September, Energy Transfer Partners was fined $2.3 million for numerous water and air pollution violations across Ohio. Over the last two years, the Rover pipeline has racked up more "noncompliance incidents" than any other interstate gas pipeline.
According to Reuters, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency has already asked FERC a few times in January to stop Energy Transfer Partners from drilling under the Tuscarawas River.
While operations are currently halted at the site, the company is seeking approval from FERC on a plan submitted on Jan. 22 to continue horizontal drilling.
But the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency countered on Tuesday that the plan "only provides temporary solutions and only suggests ways Rover may minimize expected losses if allowed to proceed. For this reason alone, Ohio cannot support the plan."
The Ohio EPA wants FERC to require Energy Transfer Partners to abandon the current installation.
But the company is more than 99 percent complete with total project construction and plans to finish Rover by the end of the first quarter.
"We have ceased operations at the Tuscarawas site. However, we are continuing our construction activities at all other locations," Alexis Daniel, a spokeswoman for Energy Transfer Partners, told Reuters.
Rover Pipeline Spills Another 150,000 Gallons of Drilling Fluid Into Ohio Wetlands https://t.co/xX9n9S9OIW… https://t.co/SN2OD4dvui— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1516227009.0
Each product featured here has been independently selected by the writer. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
The bright patterns and recognizable designs of Waterlust's activewear aren't just for show. In fact, they're meant to promote the conversation around sustainability and give back to the ocean science and conservation community.
Each design is paired with a research lab, nonprofit, or education organization that has high intellectual merit and the potential to move the needle in its respective field. For each product sold, Waterlust donates 10% of profits to these conservation partners.
Eye-Catching Designs Made from Recycled Plastic Bottles
waterlust.com / @abamabam
The company sells a range of eco-friendly items like leggings, rash guards, and board shorts that are made using recycled post-consumer plastic bottles. There are currently 16 causes represented by distinct marine-life patterns, from whale shark research and invasive lionfish removal to sockeye salmon monitoring and abalone restoration.
One such organization is Get Inspired, a nonprofit that specializes in ocean restoration and environmental education. Get Inspired founder, marine biologist Nancy Caruso, says supporting on-the-ground efforts is one thing that sets Waterlust apart, like their apparel line that supports Get Inspired abalone restoration programs.
"All of us [conservation partners] are doing something," Caruso said. "We're not putting up exhibits and talking about it — although that is important — we're in the field."
Waterlust not only helps its conservation partners financially so they can continue their important work. It also helps them get the word out about what they're doing, whether that's through social media spotlights, photo and video projects, or the informative note card that comes with each piece of apparel.
"They're doing their part for sure, pushing the information out across all of their channels, and I think that's what makes them so interesting," Caruso said.
And then there are the clothes, which speak for themselves.
Advocate Apparel to Start Conversations About Conservation
waterlust.com / @oceanraysphotography
Waterlust's concept of "advocate apparel" encourages people to see getting dressed every day as an opportunity to not only express their individuality and style, but also to advance the conversation around marine science. By infusing science into clothing, people can visually represent species and ecosystems in need of advocacy — something that, more often than not, leads to a teaching moment.
"When people wear Waterlust gear, it's just a matter of time before somebody asks them about the bright, funky designs," said Waterlust's CEO, Patrick Rynne. "That moment is incredibly special, because it creates an intimate opportunity for the wearer to share what they've learned with another."
The idea for the company came to Rynne when he was a Ph.D. student in marine science.
"I was surrounded by incredible people that were discovering fascinating things but noticed that often their work wasn't reaching the general public in creative and engaging ways," he said. "That seemed like a missed opportunity with big implications."
Waterlust initially focused on conventional media, like film and photography, to promote ocean science, but the team quickly realized engagement on social media didn't translate to action or even knowledge sharing offscreen.
Rynne also saw the "in one ear, out the other" issue in the classroom — if students didn't repeatedly engage with the topics they learned, they'd quickly forget them.
"We decided that if we truly wanted to achieve our goal of bringing science into people's lives and have it stick, it would need to be through a process that is frequently repeated, fun, and functional," Rynne said. "That's when we thought about clothing."
Support Marine Research and Sustainability in Style
To date, Waterlust has sold tens of thousands of pieces of apparel in over 100 countries, and the interactions its products have sparked have had clear implications for furthering science communication.
For Caruso alone, it's led to opportunities to share her abalone restoration methods with communities far and wide.
"It moves my small little world of what I'm doing here in Orange County, California, across the entire globe," she said. "That's one of the beautiful things about our partnership."
Check out all of the different eco-conscious apparel options available from Waterlust to help promote ocean conservation.
Melissa Smith is an avid writer, scuba diver, backpacker, and all-around outdoor enthusiast. She graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in journalism and sustainable studies. Before joining EcoWatch, Melissa worked as the managing editor of Scuba Diving magazine and the communications manager of The Ocean Agency, a non-profit that's featured in the Emmy award-winning documentary Chasing Coral.
Energy Transfer Partners' troubled $4.2 billion Rover pipeline has spilled nearly 150,000 gallons of drilling fluid into wetlands near the Tuscarawas River in Stark County, Ohio—the same site where it released 2 million gallons in April.
The 713-mile pipeline, which will carry fracked gas across Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio and Michigan and Canada, is currently under construction by the same Dallas-based company that built the controversial Dakota Access pipeline.
Horizontal directional drilling work to lay the pipe beneath highways and rivers was temporarily halted in the wake of the major April spill, but work was allowed to resume in December. Energy Transfer Partners said it is continuing to follow a plan approved by the federal government and the state EPA, WOSU reported.
According to Kallanish Energy, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency inspected the horizontal directional drilling site on Jan. 10 and reported 146,000 gallons of drilling fluids "lost down the hole," referring to the pilot hole installation under the Tuscarawas River. Three attempts to seal the hole have failed, the state agency said. No inadvertent returns have been detected.
The Rover Pipeline spilled another 150,000 gallons of drilling fluid into Ohio's wetlands, in the same spot where i… https://t.co/YXYYqbxmqw— WOSU News (@WOSU News)1516194060.0
Energy Transfer Partners is currently flying drones around the site to monitor the situation.
The Ohio EPA said it "intends to closely monitor this situation if loss of returns continues" and pledged to work directly with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on "the next course of action."
In September, Energy Transfer Partners was fined $2.3 million for numerous water and air pollution violations across Ohio. Over the last two years, the Rover pipeline has racked up more "noncompliance incidents" than any other interstate gas pipeline.
U.S. Bank Quietly Joins $4B Deal With Dakota Access Owner After Declaring End to Oil and Gas Pipeline Loans
By Sharon Kelly
At a shareholder meeting this past spring, U.S. Bank announced it would be the first large American bank to completely stop issuing loans for oil and gas pipeline construction projects.
Environmental groups, indigenous activists and divestment advocates hailed U.S. Bank's announcement as a triumph.
Yet that triumph—and the bank's commitment—seems less sure with the news that U.S. Bank has entered into a new $4 billion loan deal with the company behind the contentious Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL).
For months, the bank had been under fire for financing the Dakota Access pipeline by providing over a quarter billion dollars worth of funding to its builder, Energy Transfer Partners (ETP). Environmentalists famously dropped a banner calling on U.S. Bank to divest from DAPL at the New Years 2017 Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears football game.
The language of the bank's new policy seemed blunt.
"The company does not provide project financing for the construction of oil or natural gas pipelines," U.S. Bancorp, parent company of U.S. Bank, wrote in its April 2017 Environmental Responsibility Policy.
Some advocates remained skeptical, however, pointing out that the line of credit extended to Energy Transfer Partners wouldn't be covered by that language, because it could be considered a loan for the company as a whole, not the more specific "project financing." And U.S. Bank's CEO told shareholders that his bank wouldn't end its existing Energy Transfer Partners deal, saying that instead it would "fulfill that contract and commitment."
"We know there are always loopholes through which banks will try to pass off responsibility," Rachel Heaton of Mazaska Talks and a Muckleshoot Tribe member told Yes Magazine, "but we will continue to resist until these banks completely divest from all pipeline and fossil fuel corporations and incorporate the Free, Prior, and Informed Consent of Indigenous peoples into their corporate lending structures."
Even if that specific contract wasn't going to be torn up, environmental groups hoped that in the future, the bank would limit its funding of fossil fuel projects.
CEO Andy Cecere "strongly implied that the bank would pull back from pipelines and ETP in particular—aside from its obligations under its 'contract with ETP' (i.e. its existing credit facility)," Brant Olson, Program Director at ClimateTruth.org, told DeSmog.
U.S. Bank's new environmental policy added that any new deals the bank did with companies in the oil and gas pipeline industry would have to undergo additional scrutiny, including a look at their environmental record.
"We want to confirm that a firm's policies and processes are sound and effective as they relate to the environment and the community in which it operates," the policy adds. "In accordance with our environmental responsibility commitment, we prohibit relationships with customers who participate in any illegal activities."
Transferring More Money to Energy Transfer Partners
That's why it was so striking when Energy Transfer Partners quietly announced in a Dec. 1 Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filing that U.S. Bank was part of ETP's new $4 billion credit deal.
ETP's projects include numerous controversial fossil fuel pipelines nationwide, including not only Dakota Access, but also Mariner East 2, Rover, Bayou Bridge, and the Energy Transfer Crude Oil pipeline.
Asked whether Energy Transfer Partners had passed muster during the additional due diligence in U.S. Bank's much-lauded environmental review policy, U.S. Bank's spokesperson Cheryl Leamon declined to comment. "As a matter of policy, we do not discuss customer relationships," she told DeSmog in an email.
Environmentalists hoped that this was a chance for U.S. Bank to end its dealings with ETP. StopETP.org, a coalition of national and local environmental and indigenous rights groups, wrote a letter to the bank in November, urging it to use the chance to cut ties with ETP, which was seeking to renew its $4 billion credit line in a deal involving numerous major banks.
But U.S. Bank has apparently refused, said Food and Water Watch senior researcher Dr. Hugh MacMillan, "after having scored praise back in May for its new pipeline finance policy."
U.S. Bank did not respond when asked about the types of law-breaking that might cross the line and cause a borrower to fail the bank's new due diligence requirements.
The bank's professed wariness of fossil fuel companies had drawn an angry response from the Energy Equipment and Infrastructure Alliance, which had fired off a letter to U.S. Bank protesting the new policy. "This creates the presumption that firms and people involved in these areas, including those providing construction, equipment, materials, services or other support to these operations, are more likely than all others to be 'bad actors'," the trade group wrote, "thus requiring a higher level of scrutiny."
That additional environmental record review was widely expected to be particularly bad news for Energy Transfer Partners, which has an environmental record that includes more than 300 pipeline incidents in the past decade, causing over $67 million dollars in property damage, according to data from the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.
"From January 2010 through June 2017, ETP spilled hazardous liquids near water crossings more than twice as frequently as any other pipeline company in the United States this decade [and w]as responsible for almost 20 percent of all hazardous liquid spills near water crossings," a recently published report by the Waterkeeper Alliance noted.
In November, one of Energy Transfer Partners' pipeline projects was was sued by Ohio's Environmental Protection Agency over 13 violations of the state's environmental laws, including spewing millions of gallons of drilling fluid into the state's wetlands.
"Among other things, ETP has caused seven industrial spills during the construction of the $4.2 billion natural gas pipeline through Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Michigan," Reps. Frank Pallone, Jr. and Maria Cantwell, ranking members of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce and Energy and Natural Resources, respectively, wrote in a July 27, 2017 letter to federal regulators decrying ETP's track record on complying with environmental laws.
The company's spill record has even drawn concern from investors, with The Street reporting, "'Energy Transfer seems to have an approach where they stick to the minimum requirements instead of exceeding them,' Genscape natural gas analyst Colette Breshears said."
Sunoco Logistics, which merged into ETP last year, had the worst oil spill record of any company in the industry, a 2016 Reuters investigative report found.
Reposted with permission from our media associate DeSmogBlog.
Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) issued a violation notice to Energy Transfer Partners after its Rover pipeline project spilled water containing gasoline into wetlands near Pinckney.
The violation notice was issued after the department's Water Resources Division (WRD) staff received a complaint on Wednesday regarding a petroleum odor coming from water discharged from the pipeline project near the northern crossing of Dexter-Townhall Road in Washtenaw County.
Upon inspecting the site, WRD staff noted a petroleum odor and observed a sheen in the dewatering enclosure. Staff from the Remediation and Redevelopment Division inspected the site on Thursday and also noted the presence of a petroleum odor and determined a nearby former gas station was the likely source.
"Due to the observed odors and the close proximity to a former gas station, the source of the petroleum is likely to be contaminated groundwater from a release at the former gas station," the violation notice states. "The contaminated groundwater is being captured through the dewatering process, which is being employed for the pipeline installation and is being discharged to the wetland. Regardless of the potential source, the presence of odor and sheen indicates a discharge of petroleum-contaminated water from the dewatering activities being conducted on site."
Because of the petroleum contamination, the company must apply for a special permit and treat the water prior to discharging it, MDEQ said. Additionally, the water withdrawal system should be registered with the DEQ prior to operating because it has the capacity to pump more than 100,000 gallons a day.
"Finally, Rover's dewatering activities may be exacerbating the spread of contaminated groundwater," the notice states.
The company has until Oct. 18, to submit a written response confirming intents and summarizing actions to resolve the issues.
"While the department recognizes that Energy Transfer is taking immediate action to address the violations outlined in the notice, the DEQ's priority is protecting public health and protecting the environment," a MDEQ spokesperson told EcoWatch.
According to a press release from Michigan Residents Against the ET Rover Pipeline, local residents first noticed the spill at the pipeline's construction easement on Dexter Townhall Rd. where the right-of-way crosses a wetland.
The residents estimated that hundreds of gallons of water per minute had been spilling over a silt-fence reservoir meant to temporarily contain water moving from one wetland to another. The residents noticed that the water smelled strongly of gasoline.
An Energy Transfer Partners spokesperson told EcoWatch on Friday—before the violation notice was issued—that the water is coming from a dewatering well point system.
"The water is pumping through one of the silt fencing structures and due to the heavy rainfall we have had periodically the last few days, the well point system is bringing decomposing organic vegetation from underground up to the surface with the water," the spokesperson said. "The FERC monitor and the Michigan DEQ monitors have both been onsite and have stated that the work is going according to plan. We will continue to work with both agencies as a precautionary measure."
Once complete, the 713-mile Rover pipeline will carry fracked gas across Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio and Michigan and Canada. Construction has been plagued by numerous environmental violations, including a 2 million gallon drilling fluid spill into an Ohio wetland in April.
The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) asked the state attorney general's office Wednesday to hold the owners of the troubled Rover natural gas pipeline responsible for $2.3 million dollars in fines. Rover leaked more than 2 million gallons of drilling mud into protected Ohio wetlands this spring, leading the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to order a halt to construction.
The Ohio EPA claim that while Rover's owners, Energy Transfer Partners—which also owns the Dakota Access Pipeline—has done sufficient cleanup and monitoring at impacted sites, the company has refused to pay multiple fines. Over the last two years, the pipeline has racked up more "noncompliance incidents" than any other interstate gas pipeline.
For a deeper dive:
Energy Transfer Partners' controversial $4.3 billion Rover pipeline has more negative inspection reports than any other major interstate natural gas pipeline built in the last two years, according to a new Bloomberg analysis.
The 713-mile pipeline, which will carry fracked gas across Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio and Michigan and Canada, has been stalled from numerous environmental violations, including a 2 million gallon drilling fluid spill into an Ohio wetland in April.
Rover has accrued 104 violations since construction of the $4.2 billion project in started in March.
That's more negative reports than the next four pipeline projects combined, including William's Virginia Southside Expansion (26 reports), Enbridge's Algonquin Incremental Market (24), Williams' Dalton Expansion (23) and Endbridges Sabal Trail (18).
LATEST: Rover pipeline has more env. violations than any other nat gas line built since 2015, w/ @naurtorious… https://t.co/N4gKsMOUcb— Catherine Traywick (@Catherine Traywick)1502976857.0
In May, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission rejected Energy Transfer's request to resume horizontal directional drilling at two sites for the Rover Pipeline after numerous leaks into Ohio's wetlands as well as various Clean Air and Clean Water act violations across the state.
Blackstone announced last month it was spending $1.57 billion for a 32 percent stake in the troubled project.
"Rover will be built in compliance with all safety and environmental regulations and in some instances we will exceed those requirements," Energy Transfer spokeswoman Alexis Daniel told Bloomberg in response to the violation tally.
Energy Transfer owns about 71,000 miles of natural gas, natural gas liquids, refined products and crude oil pipelines across the country and is the same company behind the Dakota Access Pipeline. Citing numbers from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, TheStreet reported in June that the Dallas-based firm spilled hazardous liquids near water crossings more than twice the frequency of any other U.S. pipeline company this decade.
But spills are not the only problem. A June study by Oil Change International highlighted how the Rover pipeline will fuel a massive increase in climate pollution, causing as much greenhouse gas pollution as 42 coal-fired power plants—some 145 million metric tons per year.
Conservation groups have filed an administrative protest challenging the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) plan for a September auction of three parcels in Ohio's only national forest for oil and gas leasing. The parcels are adjacent to the Rover Pipeline.
The protest, filed Monday, targets the BLM's failure to adequately analyze the impacts of fracking and pipelines on watersheds, forests and endangered species and its decision to open portions of the Wayne National Forest to fracking. Construction of the Rover Pipeline, which could transport fracked gas from the Wayne, has been halted because of spills and numerous safety and environmental violations.
"We're protesting this dangerous fracking plan because drinking water safety and public lands should come before corporate profits," said Taylor McKinnon with the Center for Biological Diversity. "The Ohio and Little Muskingum rivers provide precious water to millions of people in Ohio and downstream states. Pollution from fracking and faulty pipelines would be disastrous for the people who depend on this water."
Center for Biological Diversity
Fracking would industrialize Ohio's only national forest with roads, well pads and gas lines. The infrastructure would threaten or destroy habitat for threatened and endangered species and damage watersheds and water supplies within and beyond the national forest. In 2014 a well pad caught fire in Monroe County, resulting in the contamination of a creek near the forest; wastewater and fracking chemicals spilled into Opossum Creek—an Ohio River tributary—killing 70,000 fish over a five-mile stretch.
"The Wayne National Forest is a place for families to hike, hunt, fish, camp and enjoy nature. Toxic air pollution and pipeline corridors don't square with those values," said Nathan Johnson, public lands director with the Ohio Environmental Council. "Oil and gas development is a threat to the public's enjoyment of this special place, and the Ohio Environmental Council is committed to ensuring the Wayne National Forest is available for future generations of Ohioans."
"The co-conspiring of federal, state and local agencies to do the bidding of fossil fuel and energy companies while abdicating themselves from following federal and state laws is disgusting," said Tabitha Tripp, spokesperson for Heartwood. "Incomplete and flawed environmental assessments not only place public health and safety at colossal risks, but leave a legacy of morbid consequences to our children and the environment."
Conservation groups filed protests challenging BLM oil and gas lease sales in December and March. In May the groups sued the BLM and other federal agencies for failing to protect endangered species and analyze other environmental impacts before opening the Wayne to fracking. In total about 40,000 acres of the Wayne National Forest are available for fracking.
'Government Violating Own Laws to Pave Way for Fracking Plan' in Ohio's Only National Forest https://t.co/dghI6eaF4u (via @EcoWatch)— Sierra Club (@Sierra Club)1499357367.0
"The Wayne is Ohio's only national forest and it belongs to the people. As one of our last vestiges of wilderness, it should be preserved for generations to come instead of serving as a profit center for the fossil fuel industry," said Jen Miller, director of the Sierra Club's Ohio Chapter. "We call on the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service to immediately stop the irreparable harm that industrial fracking and the dangerous ETP Rover Pipeline will invariably cause."
By Kathiann M. Kowalski
The Rover Pipeline project in Ohio faces continuing problems, with more spills of drilling mud, ongoing questions about diesel fuel contamination, and orders issued last week by both the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).
"The significant thing that is very new here is that Ohio EPA has said that they are working very closely with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission," observed Cheryl Johncox of the Sierra Club. FERC issued a July 12 order that echoes multiple directives from the Ohio EPA's July 7 order to Energy Transfer Partners.
Energy Transfer Partners, the Texas-based company that runs the pipeline project, has also now acknowledged Ohio EPA's regulatory authority, Johncox noted. "Those are pretty big significant changes to this conversation."
FERC also issued another notice of violation on July 13, claiming that Energy Transfer Partners "did not fully and forthrightly disclose all relevant information" before demolishing a historic home. Meanwhile, more problems with the project have also emerged in Michigan and West Virginia.
The concerted federal and state enforcement actions in Ohio, plus the other disputes, could slow plans for the pipeline to begin operation early next year.
On July 2, drilling for the Rover Pipeline project released 5,000 more gallons of drill slurry into a Stark County area where the company was working on a five-foot borehole that would go under the Tuscarawas River. Work was already underway to deal with a previous spill in that area.
On July 3, another "inadvertent release" of 1,500 to 2,500 gallons of drilling mud took place at a nearby area ten feet from the river.
This month's leaks are a tiny fraction of the millions of gallons already released by the Rover Pipeline's drilling work in Ohio. The Ohio EPA issued a proposed administrative order against Energy Transfer Partners in May.
On July 7, Ohio EPA Director Craig Butler issued final findings and orders to Energy Transfer Partners, adding the new releases to its initial list of charges. The order also notes that some previously-leaked material had subsequently been found to contain diesel fuel.
The fluids are defined as "industrial waste" under Ohio law and must go to a licensed landfill or other authorized location, the July 7 order noted.
The total fines sought from the company so far exceed $900,000, and the matter has been referred to the Ohio Attorney General's office for possible further action. Announcing the referral on July 10, Butler described the company's response leading up to the action as "basically a stiff arm to the state of Ohio."
"We continue to work with FERC and the Ohio EPA to resolve these issues in a manner that is satisfactory to everyone involved," said spokesperson Alexis Daniel at Energy Transfer Partners.
Daniel identified the additional materials released this month as "drilling mud, which is made up of water and naturally occurring bentonite clay. Bentonite is a type of clay that is non-toxic."
Daniel provided no explanation for how diesel fuel got into some of the previously released material. "We are working with the Ohio EPA on the investigation of this matter," she said.
Johncox applauded the Ohio EPA "for really doing the right thing here and demanding that they [Energy Transfer Partners] clean up the mess that they have created." In her view, the company's actions so far have shown "basic disregard for their plan on how they're going to protect the waters of our state."
She and other environmental advocates are especially concerned about the finding of diesel fuel in some of the previously released material.
"Everyone was talking about it as nontoxic material. That was a talking point," said Melanie Houston at the Ohio Environmental Council. "It turns out it really was toxic material." Even a very small amount "can pollute the river and be a real concern for aquatic life," she noted.
As an added concern, some used drilling mud has already been deposited in former sand and gravel quarries. "Quarries can be very close to the groundwater supply," Johncox said.
The Ohio EPA's July 7 order calls for a plan by Energy Transfer Partners to remove wastes from quarry sites and dispose of them in a way to be approved by the agency. Additional sampling and groundwater monitoring is also required.
Follow-up action from FERC is also likely, Johncox noted. In May, federal regulators told Energy Transfer Partners to conduct additional environmental review and to delay construction at several spots along the pipeline route.
A flood of concerns
The July 13 notice of violation from FERC appears to relate to the company's previous purchase and demolition of the Stoneman House in Carroll County, Ohio. The company agreed last month to pay $1.5 million to the Ohio History Connection Foundation in connection with that dispute.
Also last week, residents near Silver Lake in Michigan held a protest against the company's latest move there, which would block the sole drainage point for a wetland area. Homes and a YMCA day camp are nearby.
"This newest development is further evidence that Energy Transfer is ignorant of the geology in the areas in which it is building," said Laura Mebert, an assistant professor of social science at Kettering University in Flint, Michigan.
Energy Transfer Partners got a permit for the planned work from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality several months ago. However, that permit "was granted in error," said Toledo attorney Terry Lodge, who represents pipeline opponents in both Michigan and Ohio. "Neither MDEQ nor Rover apparently understood the watercourse that was going to be affected by the trenching."
When representatives from the state and pipeline company previously visited the area, they "failed to understand that the marshland continues downstream as a narrow creek," Lodge explained. "There is potential for flooding that could harm foundations and other aspects of at least a dozen homes if the elevation of the flood plain is altered."
On July 12 Michigan Senators Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters wrote to FERC, asking for a temporary halt on that part of the work. If the request is granted, it would block the work there for now. But, Lodge noted, the senators' letter itself is not legally binding.
Although the company might argue that concerned parties should have commented on the Silver Lake problem during the public comment period, Lodge believes the neighbors have strong grounds for their complaints.
"Federal courts interpret [the National Environmental Policy Act] to require the lead agency—here, FERC—to conduct an independent investigation of any possible environmentally destructive feature of the project when it is discovered, even at this late state," Lodge explained.
As a practical matter, he added, if the company moves forward before the situation has been addressed fully, there is a prospect for "monetary liability if serious flooding is caused, and interruption of operations of the pipeline if there is a subsequent realignment or other change required."
"Safety remains a top priority to us, and we continue to work closely with FERC on the safe construction of our approved route," Daniel said. "It is always our goal to work closely with affected landowners, governments and the neighboring communities to foster long-term relationships and build the pipeline in the safest, most environmentally friendly manner possible."
Undermining the pipeline
On July 14, the ISKCON New Vrindaban religious community in Moundville, West Virginia drew FERC's attention to yet another potential problem.
The pipeline route had already been changed to avoid sacred areas on the community's property. Project representatives were advised at that time that the alternate area agreed upon was already slated for longwall coal mining this summer, said Gabriel Fried, secretary/treasurer and executive agent for the religious community.
The better practice would be for the Rover Pipeline project to delay that part of the construction for a few weeks after Murray Energy finished undermining, Fried said. That would allow time for subsidence to take place, he noted, adding that he has decades of experience as a former pipe welder.
Leaving the ditch uncovered could allow for correction of obvious problems, Fried said. "But if there's stress on the pipe due to it being undermined, they're not going to know it," he said. "And that means it's an action waiting to happen."
By Kristen Lombardi and Jamie Smith Hopkins
They landed, one after another, in 2015: plans for nearly a dozen interstate pipelines to move natural gas beneath rivers, mountains and people's yards. Like spokes on a wheel, they'd spread from Appalachia to markets in every direction.
Together these new and expanded pipelines—comprising 2,500 miles of steel in all—would double the amount of gas that could flow out of Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. The cheap fuel will benefit consumers and manufacturers, the developers promise.
But some scientists warn that the rush to more fully tap the rich Marcellus and Utica shales is bad for a dangerously warming planet, extending the country's fossil-fuel habit by half a century. Industry consultants say there isn't even enough demand in the U.S. for all the gas that would come from this boost in production.
And yet, five of the 11 pipelines already have been approved. The rest await a decision from a federal regulator that almost never says no.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is charged with making sure new gas pipelines are in the public interest and have minimal impact. This is no small matter. Companies given certificates to build by FERC gain a powerful tool: eminent domain, enabling them to proceed whether affected landowners cooperate or not.
Only twice in the past 30 years has FERC rejected a pipeline out of hundreds proposed, according to an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity and StateImpact Pennsylvania, a public media partnership between WITF in Harrisburg and WHYY in Philadelphia. At best, FERC officials superficially probe projects' ramifications for the changing climate, despite persistent calls by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for deeper analyses. FERC's assessments of need are based largely on company filings. That's not likely to change with a pro-infrastructure president who can now fill four open seats on the five-member commission.
"They don't seem to pay any attention to opponents," said Tom Hadwin, a retired utility manager from Staunton, Virginia. He doubts FERC will be swayed by the flood of written comments, including his own, and studies critiquing the Atlantic Coast pipeline. It's the largest of the pending projects and would wind nearly 600 miles from West Virginia into his home state and North Carolina.
"FERC will issue the certificate," Hadwin said. "They always have."
FERC declined Center for Public Integrity and StateImpact Pennsylvania requests to interview Cheryl A. LaFleur, its acting chairman, as well as senior officials. In response to written questions, the agency said it hasn't kept track of the number of projects it denies. It provided a brief statement offering little insight into its pipeline-approval process. FERC spokeswoman Mary O'Driscoll wrote that, as a quasi-judicial body, "we must be very careful about what we say."
In the statement, the agency said the Natural Gas Act of 1938 requires it to approve infrastructure projects that it finds would serve "the present or future public convenience and necessity." FERC wouldn't explain how it weighs competing interests; instead, it pointed to a 1999 policy outlining how it defers to market forces. That policy, still in effect, was influenced by, among others, Enron, the energy firm whose spectacular collapse in 2001 led to prosecutions and bankruptcy.
Former insiders defend the commission, describing its mandate as limited. Renewable-energy consultant Jon Wellinghoff, a FERC commissioner from 2006 to 2013, including nearly five years as its chairman, said the agency has little leeway for denying a pipeline. "It has to stay within the tracks," he said.
Donald F. Santa Jr., a former FERC commissioner who heads the pipeline industry's trade group, the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, said the agency's low denial rate merely reflects the quality of the projects. They're so expensive to build that few make it off the drawing board into FERC applications.
"It's the envy of the world," Santa said, referring to the nation's pipeline network. "It is something that has enabled us to have remarkably competitive natural gas markets that have benefited consumers and the economy."
Two former directors of the FERC office overseeing pipelines say no project survives the vetting process without route alterations or other changes. On occasion, FERC has delayed or rescinded approval of projects that don't meet specific conditions. But at every turn, the agency's process favors pipeline companies, according to Center for Public Integrity and StateImpact Pennsylvania interviews with more than 100 people, reviews of FERC records and analyses of nearly 500 pipeline cases.
Among the findings:
● It's hard to see where FERC ends and industry begins. Dozens of agency staff members have had to recuse themselves in recent years while negotiating jobs at energy firms. Most commissioners leave FERC to work for industry as well, in some cases lobbying their successors.
● Four of six major pending pipelines in the Appalachian basin were proposed by companies planning to sell pipeline capacity to utilities they own. Analysts who have scrutinized some of these cases say this new wave of self-dealing raises the risk of companies pursuing unneeded infrastructure that utility customers would end up paying for. FERC dismissed such concerns about two pipelines approved last year.
● The Obama-era EPA repeatedly asked FERC to scrutinize projects' climate impacts, saying in a rebuke in October that its failure to properly do so did not comply with a key environmental law.
● FERC delays appeals of its pipeline approvals for months while allowing companies to begin construction. In seven cases since 2015, gas already was flowing in the pipeline by the time opponents could challenge it in court.
In February, on his last day as a commissioner, former FERC Chairman Norman Bay recommended that the agency evaluate the cumulative effects of increased gas production in the Marcellus and Utica shales, mostly in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio—an analysis environmentalists have advocated. Bay urged the agency to be more rigorous in its reviews.
"It is inefficient to build pipelines that may not be needed over the long term and that become stranded assets," wrote Bay, an Obama appointee.
But FERC has resisted making such reforms. Now, with FERC down to a single commissioner and temporarily without a quorum, President Donald Trump gets to reshape the agency. Among those he has tapped for the commission is a pro-gas utility regulator from Pennsylvania, Robert Powelson, who in March likened protests against pipelines to "jihad," later calling that "an inappropriate choice of words."
"We've got abundant supply," Powelson said at a gas-industry conference. "What we don't have is adequate pipeline infrastructure."
Close ties with industry
In the past few years, FERC has overseen what it says is one of the largest boosts in natural-gas pipeline capacity in American history. It issued certificates in 2015 for projects that collectively can carry 14.5 billion cubic feet of gas per day. The next year, it approved an additional 17.6 billion cubic feet.
Newly built pipe has helped move Appalachian gas to markets along the East Coast and in the Midwest, the agency says.
That, in essence, explains how FERC sees its role—dating to its birth in a decade marred by energy crises. In 1977, amid a natural-gas shortage and after an oil embargo by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, Congress created the agency and placed it within, yet independent of, the new U.S. Department of Energy. FERC's mission: "Reliable, Efficient and Sustainable Energy."
Proponents of the pipeline buildout argue that more American gas brings jobs to places sorely in need of them by fueling energy-hungry factories. And gas has bypassed higher-carbon coal as the dominant energy source in the U.S. But grassroots pushback is coming from both ends of the political spectrum, driven by concerns over the climate and individual property rights.
To such critics, FERC has come to epitomize a captured regulator.
Records obtained by the Center for Public Integrity and StateImpact Pennsylvania through Freedom of Information Act requests reveal an exceptionally cozy relationship between regulator and regulated. Emails and official calendars from mid-2010 through 2016 show a steady march of industry representatives before commissioners. Large energy companies—Kinder Morgan, Dominion Energy, Energy Transfer Partners, Duke Energy—scheduled at least 93 meetings with FERC officials during those 6 ½ years. Trade groups like Edison Electric Institute and American Gas Association wooed commissioners and staff with invitations to executive dinners and after-hours parties. Former commissioners-turned-lobbyists, such as INGAA's Santa, called on their successors.
By contrast, records show, FERC commissioners met with environmental and public-interest groups 17 times over this period.
In many ways, FERC operates like a one-way street: Commissioners may come to it from legislative or regulatory bodies, but almost always leave for industry. Eighty percent of the 35 former commissioners have spent at least part of their post-FERC careers at energy companies or law firms, trade groups and consultancies representing them. Many have ties to natural gas through work or positions on corporate boards.
There's a similar pattern among FERC's rank and file. Since 2012, staff members have submitted more than 50 requests to recuse themselves from regulatory work while seeking jobs at energy firms or consulting groups hired by the industry, agency documents show.
Some who have left FERC return to do the bidding of their new employers. In email exchanges in 2016, one woman who now works for Edison Electric Institute called on her former co-workers multiple times—seeking materials for an email blast, for instance, or inviting FERC commissioners to EEI events.
"Are you ready for the protestors??" she wrote in one email to her former colleagues. "Too bad you guys can't move the open mtg like last year. They just keep sucking!"
Many critics see an inherent industry bias at FERC: Its budget is fully covered by fees collected from regulated companies. Last year, a Pennsylvania environmental group sued FERC over this funding mechanism, alleging it creates "a perverse incentive" for the agency to build pipelines. The lawsuit is on appeal after a federal court dismissed it in March, noting that Congress ultimately sets FERC's budget.
This is the agency's approval process: Take proposals as they come, see if the pipeline has long-term customer contracts, gather public feedback, try to keep local impacts to a minimum and assure basic safety standards.
J. Mark Robinson, an industry consultant, worked at FERC from 1978 to 2009, heading the office overseeing gas pipelines in his final years there. Interstate transmission lines often never go forward, he said, but FERC's results speak for themselves. Pipelines get built; people get energy.
Pipeline companies, for their part, say the review process is exacting. Bruce McKay, senior energy policy director at Dominion, majority owner and operator of the Atlantic Coast pipeline, said the companies behind the proposal have submitted 100,000 pages of documentation to FERC and made 300 route adjustments to avoid ecologically sensitive areas at the agency's request.
"They're not there to do our bidding," McKay said of FERC.
It doesn't seem that way to Chad Oba, a mental-health counselor from Buckingham County, Virginia. There the Atlantic Coast developers plan to build a massive compressor station where engines would throb to keep gas moving. Oba attended a FERC meeting on the project in 2015, driving nearly an hour with as many neighbors as she could to testify. They didn't want an industrial complex in their rural area, already crisscrossed by four gas pipelines. They questioned its siting amid a largely poor, African-American community founded by freed slaves.
"I thought, 'Surely, these things will be considered,'" said Oba, of the anti-pipeline group Friends of Buckingham. But FERC has backed the location. The agency has never held a hearing in her county, despite requests from her group and a county commissioner.
"They've treated Buckingham very badly," she said.
Such sentiments may not be what Charles B. Curtis, FERC's first chairman, envisioned in 1979, when he wrote in congressional testimony that "we must create public confidence … and demonstrate that regulation can work effectively to promote the public interest." At the time, he was looking to fund a congressionally mandated Office of Public Participation at FERC.
That never happened. Members of Congress couldn't agree on funding for the office that year. The Center for Public Integrity and StateImpact Pennsylvania found no evidence that FERC tried to launch the office again, despite congressional requests and a formal petition to do so.
Those seeking to challenge a pipeline frequently run into roadblocks. Before mounting a case in court, opponents must first appeal to FERC, which, by law, has 30 days to act. Yet records show commissioners routinely fulfill this obligation by granting themselves more time to issue a final ruling, leaving the challengers in limbo. Meanwhile, FERC allows pipeline companies to move ahead. By the time opponents get to court, construction can be well underway—or finished.
Ryan Talbott, an environmental lawyer at Appalachian Mountain Advocates, said he's seen this pattern play out in every pipeline case he's fought—more than a dozen so far. Last year, he set out to analyze FERC's record on pipeline appeals. He found that commissioners take, on average, eight months to deliberate—then deny the appeals. A lawsuit filed against FERC seeks to have this practice declared unconstitutional.
The agency declined to comment.
FERC's methods have fueled a grassroots campaign against it. Pipeline opponents have protested outside its Washington, D.C., headquarters since 2014. Some have gone on hunger strikes, interrupted commission meetings or picketed commissioners' houses. Last year, 182 groups in 35 states called for congressional hearings into "the many ways communities are being harmed by FERC."
Current and former officials consider the protests misplaced. Comprehensive energy regulation isn't within FERC's purview, they say; those who want changes should talk to Congress.
FERC opponents have done that, to no avail. But William Penniman, a retired lawyer who represented pipeline firms before FERC and is now active with the Sierra Club's Virginia chapter, said the agency already has the authority to do more, yet chooses not to.
"Climate change, stranded assets, the construction bubble—they are not coming to grips with that," he said.
Pressing FERC on climate
Gas-company executives often pitch their fuel to FERC as a long-term necessity for the country, filling in for renewable energy sources when the sun fades or the wind lags, powering industrial furnaces, heating homes. Companies propose new pipelines meant to last 50 years or more, presenting them as climate-friendly.
Environmentalists disagree, however, and are pushing FERC to dig deeper. Each additional gas pipeline, they warn, will make it easier to delay no-carbon alternatives and could lock in even worse effects of global warming.
Natural gas burns cleaner than coal, giving off about half the planet-heating carbon dioxide and a fraction of the toxic air emissions. Yet to avoid the worst of the heat waves, droughts, floods and other consequences of climate change, the Obama White House said the U.S. needed to cut greenhouse-gas emissions by at least 80 percent below 2005 levels no later than 2050. That's all emissions from all sources, not just electricity and heating. And it's 33 years from now, less than the lifetime of a pipeline.
Indeed, some advocates have calculated that new pipelines in the Appalachian basin would yield enough greenhouse-gas emissions from natural gas alone to surpass that goal.
That's because the primary component of natural gas—methane—is a short-lived yet powerful greenhouse gas also contributing to climate change. Methane wafts into the atmosphere during every stage in the gas supply chain: Wells, processing facilities, pipelines and compressor stations all leak. Some vent methane by design.
The EPA has pegged the national rate at which methane escapes from oil and gas drilling sites at between one and two percent, based on industry estimates. Some independent research suggests that may be accurate.
But Robert Howarth, an environmental biology professor at Cornell University, estimates that methane emissions produced by shale gas from wellhead to delivery could add up to a 12-percent leak rate—causing substantially more warming in the short term than coal. Howarth sees the rapid rise in gas development as a contributor to the recent spike in global temperatures, including record-breaking heat waves in 2015 and 2016.
"The buildout of pipelines," he said, "is a true climate disaster."
Despite prodding from the EPA since 2013, FERC hasn't taken a comprehensive look at the climate effects of gas projects before approving them. The agency only began estimating greenhouse-gas emissions from the burning of gas last year, and not in all cases. The total emissions for five pipelines, all pending: 170 million metric tons per year combined, the warming equivalent of 50 coal plants.
FERC refused to comment on its climate reviews, citing unspecified litigation. The Obama EPA contended that FERC has a duty to evaluate a pipeline proposal's climate impacts under the National Environmental Policy Act. EPA officials said so in a pointed letter to FERC in October, after yet another pipeline review failed to estimate production or end-use emissions, calling the absence of these calculations "very concerning."
The EPA says productive discussions have taken place since. But FERC has yet to evaluate greenhouse gas emissions for pipelines as thoroughly as its counterpart urged.
It also doesn't delve into whether electric utilities seeking gas for future plants could handle demand another way, such as energy efficiency and renewables. Such alternatives, FERC said in its reviews, would not fulfil the purpose of the project—"to transport natural gas."
It boils down to a dispute about how far FERC can or should go.
"FERC has no legislative authority whatsoever to look at climate impacts," said Wellinghoff, one of the only former commissioners with a renewable-energy background. "I would have loved to have had that authority at FERC, but I didn't."
Still, people keep pressing FERC to act. Last year, the Sierra Club and other groups sued the agency over its failure to calculate greenhouse-gas emissions from the since-built Sabal Trail pipeline, which runs from Alabama into Georgia and Florida. At a D.C. appellate court hearing in April, judges asked a FERC lawyer why the agency hadn't done so.
The lawyer said FERC had determined the project wouldn't meaningfully contribute to climate change. Judge Judith W. Rogers said it wasn't possible to know that without doing the calculations.
"FERC said, 'We're just not going to do anything,'" she said.
In the 1990s, FERC posed this question: Was its pipeline-approval process working well? One company argued that the agency needed "to shift its focus away from command-and-control regulation towards policies that increasingly rely on market forces."
That company was Enron. In 1999, its free-market views influenced FERC's policy on how it would weigh projects. Years later, a New Jersey man fighting a pipeline that would run 167 feet from his daughter's bedroom read the historical document with outrage and disbelief.
"You might have heard of Enron," said Mike Spille, a software engineer trying to fend off the PennEast project, planned in Pennsylvania and his state. "It was a big giant bubble company that exploded and lots of people went to jail. Companies like Enron are the ones that set this FERC policy, and it's part of the reason why it's so bad."
For the agency, customer contracts for pipelines are "strong evidence" of what the market wants. Since 1999, it has never denied a project that had them. The two it rejected did not.
Pipeline company executives believe this makes sense. No developer would sink potentially billions of dollars into an unnecessary project, they say. No utility or other gas shipper would pay millions of dollars for unneeded capacity.
But relying on contracts to judge need can be problematic. The Appalachian pipelines illustrate that.
First off, some of them are getting eminent-domain authority to take gas out of the country—there simply isn't enough domestic demand, analysts say, which is something FERC does not consider.
Three new or pending Appalachian pipelines have space set aside for gas going to Canada. Another played up its proximity to Dominion's nearly complete export terminal in Maryland. Even projects pitched as purely domestic might not end up that way—pipelines interconnect.
Beyond that, many of these pipeline contracts have an incestuous quality. Companies are building them for their own subsidiaries—mostly electric or gas utilities and gas producers. It's as if one hand wrote the contract and the other signed it.
Industry experts say this trend increases the risk of overbuilding. One reason is that interstate pipelines are more profitable than power plants and other infrastructure that utilities erect for themselves.
"It's a nice way to make money," said Greg Lander of Skipping Stone, a gas- and electric-industry consulting firm. "The market need isn't there."
Lander's firm, hired by an environmental group to examine PennEast, found no economic justification for the pipeline, which will mostly serve utilities and other firms owned by the developers. The New Jersey agency representing utility customers is also skeptical.
"NJ Rate Counsel is concerned that … the 'need' for the Project appears to be driven more by the search for higher returns on investment than any actual deficiency in gas supply," the agency wrote to FERC last year.
It urged FERC to examine whether the contracts reflected true demand. FERC didn't. Instead, it gave the pipeline a preliminary thumbs-up, the last step before approval.
PennEast spokeswoman Patricia Kornick said the project would improve reliability and ease price fluctuations. Companies signed up "because they recognize the need for an abundant, reliable, clean energy source," she wrote in an email.
Het Shah, who leads natural gas market research at Bloomberg New Energy Finance, a consulting firm, said the Appalachian boom isn't just about new pipelines, but also older ones turning flow around to push gas out of the region. It's "definitely an overbuild," he said, but he sees a strategy driving it—exports.
International markets could help Appalachian producers battered by low prices. But it makes landowners along pipeline routes livid. They don't see how it's in the public "convenience and necessity" to seize private property in America so firms can make money selling gas outside the country.
That's what people told FERC about Northern Access 2016, a Pennsylvania-to-New York pipeline that would feed much of its gas to Canadian markets. The commissioners said in February that this was a matter for the Energy Department—not noting that the other agency automatically approves exports to Canada.
The point, FERC said, was that all the capacity had been contracted. It approved the pipeline.
The fight on the ground
The policy debates around pipelines can seem far away to those living in isolated communities in west-central Virginia, the epicenter of opposition to the Atlantic Coast project. Residents who don't consider themselves environmentalists don "NO PIPELINE" T-shirts and hats and routinely show up at opposition rallies.
In Virginia, as in many places on proposed construction routes, the threat of eminent domain fuels this fight. Landowners say they object to the idea that companies can take private property—seizing permanent pathways, 75 feet wide or more—for corporate gain. They say the one-time payments they're offered don't make up for what they're losing.
These landowners include Becci Harmon, a drug-and-alcohol program officer from Swoope, whose house sits within 50 feet of the Atlantic Coast route; she fears the one-acre plot on which she's lived for 26 years will turn into a gutter after the pipeline wipes out her trees, garden and septic system. Richard Averitt, an entrepreneur from Nellysford, believes it will jeopardize his plan to develop an "eco-friendly" resort after it cuts the wooded, 100-acre site in half.
"This pipeline in particular is so egregious. It's 95 percent virgin land," Averitt said. "It's land privately owned or in the public trust."
Atlantic Coast became an issue in Virginia's recent gubernatorial primary, but Dominion and Duke say supporters outnumber opponents. The companies point to recent polling by an energy industry group that includes Dominion among its members. Its survey shows that 55 percent of residents back the project while 30 percent oppose it. They also cite a letter, signed by 16 state lawmakers from Virginia, North Carolina and West Virginia, urging FERC officials to approve the pipeline. Last month, a New York watchdog group released a report revealing that five of the signatories are top recipients of either Dominion's or Duke's political contributions.
Supporters writing op-eds distributed by the companies include landowner Ward Burton. He was impressed that Dominion altered the project's route to avoid crossing a creek twice and a forest once on the 565 acres in Blackstone, Virginia, owned by his wildlife foundation.
Unions are eager to see the pipeline move ahead. "We're going to put people to work," said Matthew Yonka, president of the Virginia State Building & Construction Trades Council.
Still, there can be localized problems. The Rover pipeline, which runs from Pennsylvania to Michigan, racked up more than $900,000 in proposed penalties from Ohio regulators after FERC approved it in February. Officials say its owner, Energy Transfer Partners, kept spilling drilling fluid into wetlands, ponds and streams—including, in one case, several million gallons of a clay mixture tinged with petroleum.
Energy Transfer's Alexis Daniel said the company considers land restoration "a top priority" and is working to resolve the matter. Craig W. Butler, who heads the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, said the company claimed the state has no authority to penalize it. He's grateful FERC intervened: It's halted certain drilling work on the pipeline while investigating the damage.
Some states, less impressed with FERC's process, have pushed back. New York regulators denied necessary water permits for two pipelines, the Constitution last year and Northern Access in April. Both projects are on hold as the developers wait for a federal appeals court to decide whether the denials can stand. In its most recent permit rejection, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation said "FERC disregarded the Department's concerns." Based on its experiences with gas pipeline construction, the state agency predicted "significant degradation of water quality in stream after stream."
U.S. Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, a Democrat from New Jersey, wants to see reforms earlier in the process—when FERC is still deliberating. Pressed by residents upset about PennEast, she sponsored legislation in May that would require evidentiary hearings in contested cases and regular, big-picture reviews of need.
Absent a state veto or major changes at FERC, there's little a landowner can do to stop the construction juggernaut, as Jeb Bell learned. He and his brother didn't want the Sabal Trail pipeline burrowing beneath their tree farm in Mitchell County, Georgia, so the company took them to court twice—first to get permission to survey the land and then to build on it. Sabal Trail, largely owned by Enbridge, won each time. It also fought off the Bells' counterclaim contending the company had trespassed on their land.
Then the company won the right to collect legal fees from the Bells—$47,258 in all.
Enbridge spokeswoman Andrea Grover said by email that Sabal Trail is entitled to the money because it had offered to settle the "baseless" trespass claim; the brothers turned it down.
Bell, a state-park manager, has no idea how he'll pay if his appeal fails. He can't imagine a multibillion-dollar company needing his money. What it wanted, he's sure, was to send a warning to other landowners: Don't even try to stop pipelines. They always win.
Marie Cusick of StateImpact Pennsylvania contributed to this story.
The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (OEPA) announced Monday an unprecedented unilateral order in response to Energy Transfer Partner's fracked gas Rover pipeline's 27 violations. The announcement comes after the Rover pipleine had more spills last week near the Tuscarawas River.
OEPA's unilateral order includes requiring Energy Transfer to establish a stronger contingency plan for when disasters occur; removal and proper disposal of the diesel spilled in quarries near Massillon and Canton as well as along the Tuscarawas; groundwater monitoring near the multiple spill sites; and to create a remediation plan for the spill of more than 2 million gallons of clay and diesel fluid in a rare high-quality wetland in Stark County.
Additionally, the OEPA referred the nearly $1 million in fines to the state's Attorney General. In Monday's press conference, the OEPA stated that it is prepared to defend this unilateral order in state and federal courts, if Energy Transfer would challenge their authority to protect Ohioans' rights to clean air, water and land.
"The Sierra Club applauds Ohio EPA for taking action against Energy Transfer's reckless construction of a dirty and dangerous fracked gas pipeline," Sierra Club Ohio Director Jen Miller said. "We've always said that it's never a question of whether a pipeline will spill, but rather a question of when. Energy Transfer has proven that it's not merely an operational pipeline that threatens our communities and waterways, but one in construction too."
"Energy Transfer has proven that it cannot be trusted with our clean air, clean water, or our communities. As strong as OEPA has come down on this company, ultimately, the only way to protect Ohio is to stop this project," Miller added. "We call on the Ohio's Attorney General Mike DeWine and FERC to follow OEPA's lead in ensuring that the people of Ohio are protected by this irresponsible, rogue company. The Sierra Club remains ready to support OEPA in state and federal legal battles, if necessary."
Judge's DAPL Ruling, Reckless Spill Record Pushes Pipeline Company's Shares Below $20 for First Time
After crunching the numbers from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), TheStreet revealed that the Dallas-based company spilled hazardous liquids near water crossings more than twice the frequency of any other U.S. pipeline company this decade.
According to the report:
"The company has spilled hazardous liquids five times near water crossings since 2010 when PHMSA started collecting detailed data. The company's spills account for almost 20% of all hazardous liquid spills near water crossings since 2010, primarily because of a 55,000-gallon gasoline spill in 2016 near the Susquehanna River in Lycoming County, Pennsylvania. TheStreet only included onshore spills in its analysis, and included subsidiary companies.
"Since 2010, the company has spilled hazardous liquids 204 times in all, ranking only behind Enterprise Products Partners LP (EPD) and Magellan Midstream Partners, LP MMP, according to TheStreet's tally."
Energy Transfer owns about 71,000 miles of natural gas, natural gas liquids, refined products and crude oil pipelines across the country.
Alexis Daniel, an Energy Transfer spokesperson, defended the company's safety record.
"Not only does Energy Transfer Partners adhere to the approved regulatory standards, but it is always Energy Transfer Partners' priority to go above and beyond when building pipelines and is a common practice on all projects," she told TheStreet. "For example on Rover, the pipeline route will be flown every ten days, weather permitting, versus every 14 days which is the current requirement, for visual inspection of the pipeline."
Still, it's been a rough few months for Energy Transfer. In May, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) rejected the Energy Transfer's request to resume horizontal directional drilling at two sites for the Rover Pipeline after numerous leaks into Ohio's wetlands (including 2 million gallons of drilling fluid spill near the Tuscarawas River) in addition to various Clean Air and Clean Water act violations across the state.
And earlier this week, a federal judge ruled that that the Trump administration failed to consider the Dakota Access Pipeline's impact on the hunting and fishing rights of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. While the ruling did not shut down operations on the oil pipeline, which started flowing earlier this month, the judge has ordered a new environmental review.
A day after the judge's order, Energy Transfer shares fell to $19.53 on Friday—the first time it fell below $20 a share. The stock also slid 11 percent after FERC's order last month.
Energy Transfers stock chart for April, May and June. NYSE: ETP
Earlier reports have also highlighted the company's frequent spill and accident rate. A February analysis from the Louisiana Bucket Brigade and DisasterMap.net found that Energy Transfer and its subsidiary Sunoco have filed 69 accidents over the past two years to the National Response Center, the federal contact point for oil spills and industrial accidents. That's 2.8 accidents every month, the analysis noted.
However, spills are not the only problem. A June study by Oil Change International highlighted how the Rover Pipeline will fuel a massive increase in climate pollution, causing as much greenhouse gas pollution as 42 coal-fired power plants—some 145 million metric tons per year.