A Guide to Petrochemicals, the Fossil Fuel Blindspot
A complete guide to the social, environmental, and economic risks associated with the petrochemical industry in the United States
A complete guide to the social, environmental, and economic risks associated with the petrochemical industry in the United States
Pipelines are categorized by what they carry — natural gas, oil, or natural gas liquids (NGLs) — and where they go — interstate or intrastate. The regulatory system is complicated. This primer is a quick guide to the agencies that may be involved in Falcon’s permit reviews.
The siting of natural gas pipelines crossing state or country boundaries is regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Meanwhile, determination of the location of natural gas routes that do not cross such boundaries are not jurisdictional to FERC, instead determined by the owner pipeline company. Hazardous liquids and NGL pipelines are not regulated for siting by FERC regardless of their location and destination. However, FERC does have authority over determining rates and terms of service in these cases. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers gets involved when pipelines cross navigable waters such as large rivers and state Environmental Protection Agencies.
Pipeline design, operation, and safety regulations are established by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), but these regulations may vary state-by-state as long as minimal federal standards are met by the pipeline project. Notably, PHMSA’s oversight of safety issues does not determine where a pipeline is constructed as this is regulated by the different agencies mentioned above – nor are PHMSA’s safety considerations reviewed simultaneously in siting determinations done by other agencies.
These federal agencies are required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) investigating how the pipeline pertains to things like the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the National Historic Preservation Act, as well as state and local laws. The image above, for instance, is a caption from the Army Corp’s assessment of the Atlantic Sunrise, a natural gas pipeline.
An EIS is based on surveying and background research conducted by the company proposing the project, then submitted to agencies as an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). An EIS can exceed hundreds of pages and can go through many drafts as companies are asked to refine their EIA in order to qualify for approval.
Pipeline proposals are also evaluated by state and local agencies. In Pennsylvania, for instance, the PA DEP is responsible for assessing how to minimize pipeline impacts. The DEP’s mission is to protect Pennsylvania’s air, land and water from pollution and to provide for the health and safety of its citizens through a cleaner environment. The PA Fish and Boat Commission oversees the avoidance or relocation of protected species. Local township zoning codes can also apply, such as to where facilities are sited near zoned residential areas or drinking reservoirs, but these can be overruled by decisions made at the federal level, especially when eminent domain is granted to the project.
For the Falcon pipeline, an interstate pipeline that will transport ethane (an NGL), FERC will likely have authority over determining rates and terms of service, but not siting. Construction permitting will be left state agencies and PHMSA will retain its federal authority with the Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission (PUC) acting as PHMSA’s state agent to ensure the project complies with federal safety standards and to investigate violations. The Army Corps will almost certainly be involved given that the Falcon will cross the Ohio River. As far as we know, the Falcon will not have eminent domain status because it supplies a private facility and, thus, does not qualify as a public utility project.
The contents of EIAs vary, but are generally organized along the lines of the thematic categories that we have created for assessing the Falcon data, as seen above. However, there is also much that EISs fail to adequately address. The Army Corp’s assessment of the Atlantic Sunrise is a good example. The final EIS resulting from the operators EIA includes considerations for socioeconomic impacts, such effects on employment and environmental justice, as seen in the excerpt below. But potential negative impact in these areas are not necessarily linked to laws requiring special accommodations. For instance, federal regulations mandate achieving environmental justice by “identifying and addressing, as appropriate, disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects” of projects subject to NEPA’s EIS requirement. However, there are no laws that outline thresholds of unacceptable impact that would disallow a project to proceed.
Furthermore, the narratives of EIAs are almost always written by the companies proposing the project, using sources of data that better support their claims of minimal or positive impact. This is again seen in the Atlantic Sunrise EIS, where several studies are cited on how pipelines have no affect on property values or mortgages, with no mention of other studies that contradict such findings. Other factors that may be important when considering pipeline projects, such as concerns for sustainability, climate change, or a community’s social well-being, are noticeably absent.
Complicating matters, some pipeline operators have been successful in skirting comprehensive EIAs. This was seen in the case of the Mariner East 2 pipeline. Despite being the largest pipeline project in Pennsylvania’s history, a NEPA review was never conducted for ME2.
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By Kirk Jalbert, FracTracker Alliance
By: Wendy Fan, FracTracker Alliance Intern
North America consists of a vast network of inter- and intrastate pipelines that serve a vital role in transporting water, hazardous liquids, and raw materials. There is an estimated 2.6 million miles of pipelines in the nation, and it delivers trillions of cubic feet of natural gas and hundreds of billions of tons of liquid petroleum products each year. Because the pipeline network fuels the nation’s daily functions and livelihoods by delivering resources used for energy purposes, it is crucial to shed light on this transportation system. This article briefly discusses oil and gas pipelines, what they are, why they exist, their potential health and environmental impacts, proposed projects, and who oversees them.
The pipeline network in the U.S. is a transportation system used to move goods and materials. Pipelines transport a variety of products such as sewage and water. However, the most common products transported are for energy purposes, which include natural gas, biofuels, and liquid petroleum. Pipelines exist throughout the country, and they vary by the goods transported, the size of the pipes, and the material used to make pipes.
While some pipelines are built above ground, the majority of pipelines in the U.S. are buried underground. Because oil and gas pipelines are well concealed from the public, most individuals are unaware of the existence of the vast network of pipelines.
The United States has the most miles of pipelines than any other country, with 1,984,321 km (1,232,999 miles) in natural gas transport and 240,711 km (149,570 miles) in petroleum products. The country with the second most miles of pipelines is Russia with 163,872 km (101,825 miles), and then Canada with 100,000 km (62,137 miles).
There are two main categories of pipelines used to transport energy products: petroleum pipelines and natural gas pipelines.
Before pursuing plans to build new pipelines, a ROW needs to be secured from private and public landowners, which pipeline companies usually will pay for. ROW are easements that must be agreed and signed upon by both the landowner and pipeline company, and permits pipeline operators to go forth with installing and maintaining pipelines on that land. Pipeline operators can obtain ROW by purchasing the property or through a court-ordered procedure. ROW can be permanent or temporary acquisitions, and needs approval from FERC.
Depending on the type of pipeline, what it is transferring, what it is made of, and where it runs, there are various federal or state agencies that have jurisdiction over its regulatory affairs.
Interstate pipelines, those that either physically cross state boundaries or carry product that will cross state boundaries, are all permitted by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). The FERC is an independent organization within the U.S. Department of Energy that permits interstate electricity and natural gas infrastructure. The FERC’s authority lies within various acts of energy legislation, beginning with the Natural Gas Act of 1938 to the more recent Energy Policy Act of 2005. The U.S. President appoints its four commissioners. Other agencies such as the Dept. of Transportation, regional authorities such as the River Basin Commissions, and the Army Corps of Engineers may also be involved. FERC approves the location, construction, operation, and abandonment of interstate pipelines. They do not have jurisdiction over the siting of intrastate natural gas pipelines nor hazardous liquids.
Under the U.S. Department of Transportation, the PHMSA oversees, develops, and enforces regulations to ensure the safe and environmentally sound pipeline transportation system. There are two offices within the PHMSA that fulfill these goals. The Office of Hazardous Materials Safety develops regulations and standards for classifying, handling, and packaging hazardous materials. The Office of Pipeline Safety develops regulations and risk management approaches to assure safe pipeline transportation, and ensures safety in the design, construction, operation and maintenance, and spill response of hazardous liquid and natural gas pipeline transportation. Below are some regulations enforced by PHMSA:
1. Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty, and Job Creation Act of 2011 or Pipeline Safety Act 2011
This act reauthorizes PHMSA to continue with the examination and improvement of the pipeline safety regulations. It allows PHMSA to:
2. Federal Pipeline Safety Regulations: Public Awareness Programs
3. Natural Gas Pipeline Safety Act of 1968
The PHMSA also designed an interactive national pipeline mapping system for the public to access and utilize. However, the map can only be viewed one county at a time, it does not include distribution or gathering lines, and when you zoom in too far, the pipelines disappear. In fact, the site warns that the map should not be used to determine accurate locations of pipelines, stating that the locations can be incorrect by up to 500 ft. PHMSA argues that these restrictions exist in the interest of national security.
Permits must be obtained from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers if a pipeline is to be constructed through navigable bodies of water, including wetlands. State environmental regulatory agencies, such as PA’s Department of Environmental Protection, are also involved in the approval process of pipeline construction through waterways and wetlands.
Although pipeline transportation of natural gas and petroleum is considered safer and cheaper than ground transportation, pipeline failures, failing infrastructure, human error, and natural disasters can result in major pipeline disasters. As such, previous incidents have been shown to cause detrimental effects to the environment and the public’s safety.
In order to bury pipelines underground, an extensive amount of forest and land is cleared out to meet the pipe’s size capacity. States, such as Pennsylvania, that consist of rich ecosystem due to their abundance of forests, are at critical risk of diminishing habitats for plant species, and are at risk of the eradication of certain animal species. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) aimed to quantify the amount of land disturbance in Bradford and Washington counties in PA as a result of oil and gas activity including pipeline implementation. The USGS report concluded that pipeline construction was one of the highest sources of increasing forest patch numbers. Bradford County, PA had an increase of 306 patches, in which 235 were attributable to pipeline construction. Washington County increased by 1,000 patches, in which half was attributable to pipeline construction.
Compressor stations play an important role in processing and transporting the materials that pass through the pipeline. However, compressor stations present significant environmental health hazards. Even when the process of drilling and fracking is completed, compressor stations remain in the area to keep the gas in pipelines continually flowing. The stationary nature of this air pollution source means that a combination of pollutants such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), nitrogen oxides (NOx), formaldehyde, and greenhouse gases are continually being released into the atmosphere. These pollutants are known to produce deleterious health impacts to the respiratory system, nervous system, or lung damage. In addition to pollutants emitted, the noise level generated by compressor stations can reach up to 100 decibels. The Center of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports hearing loss can occur by listening to sounds at or above 85 decibels over an extended period of time.
Heavy rainfall or storms can lead to excessive soil disruption, in turn increasing opportunities for erosion and sedimentation to occur. Erosion can uncover pipelines buried underground, and rainfall of more than 5 inches (13 cm) can move or erode berms, and also disrupt mounds of soil used to protect against flooding. Soil erosion increases underground pipelines’ vulnerability to damage from scouring or washouts, and damage from debris, vehicles, or boats.
Eminent domain allows state or federal government bodies to exercise their power to take private property from residents or citizens for public use and development. In some cases, private companies have exercised power to seize land for their own profit. Owners of the property are then given a compensation in exchange for their land. However, landowners may end up spending more than they receive. In order to receive compensation, owners must hire their own appraiser and lawyer, and they are also not usually compensated for the full value of the land. Furthermore, property values decrease once pipelines are established on their land, making it more difficult to sell their home in the future.
Poorly maintained and faulty pipelines that transport liquefied natural gas or crude oil may pose high health and environmental risks should the fluids spill or leak into the soil. Crude oil can contain more than 1,000 chemicals that are known carcinogen to humans, such as benzene. The release of the potentially toxic chemical or oil can infiltrate into the soil, exposing communities to fumes in the atmosphere as well as contaminating groundwater and surface water. Not only are the incidents costly to control and clean up, the chemical or oil spills can also have long lasting impacts to the environment and the public. A ruptured pipeline that leaked 33,000 gallons of crude oil in Salt Lake City, Utah in 2010 exposed residents in a nearby community to chemical fumes, causing them to experience drowsiness and lethargy. After being commissioned in 2010, the TransCanada Keystone Pipeline had reported 35 leaks and spills in its first year alone. In April 2016, the Keystone pipeline leaked 17,000 gallons of oil in South Dakota. Older pipelines are more likely to leak than newer ones, so this issue will only increase as pipeline infrastructure ages.
Natural gas pipelines have also been shown to leak methane, a major component in natural gas, at levels that far exceed what is estimated. Not only does methane contribute to climate change, it puts surrounding communities at risk of gas explosions, and exposes them to dangerously high levels of methane in the air they breathe.
Explosions are also common with faulty pipelines that leak natural gas. Unlike oil or liquid spills, which generally spread and infiltrate into the soil, gas leaks can explode due to the hydrocarbon’s volatility. A recent pipeline explosion in Westmoreland County, PA, for example, caused a man to incur severe burns, as well as caused dozens of homes to be evacuated. Another pipeline explosion in San Bruno, California resulted in 8 people dead, 6 missing, and 58 injured. Thirty-eight homes were also destroyed and 70 others were damaged. This explosion exposed the haphazard system of record keeping for the tens of thousands of miles of gas pipelines, shoddy construction, and inspection practices.
An estimated 4,600 miles of new interstate pipelines will be completed by 2018. Below are just a few major projects that are currently being proposed or are in the process of obtaining a permit.
A. Atlantic Sunrise Expansion Project
This pipeline will include 194 miles throughout the state of Pennsylvania. It will be constructed to cut through portions of 10 different PA counties, including Columbia, Lancaster, Lebanon, Luzerne, Northumberland, Schuylkill, Susquehanna, Wyoming, Clinton, and Lycoming. This project will require a 125-foot ROW, and will traverse through 52 areas designed as “protected land” in Pennsylvania. This proposed project is still in review by FERC – a decision is expected late 2016 or early 2017.
Spectra Energy (Houston), DTE Energy (Detroit), and Enbridge Inc. (Canada) are partnering to build a $2 billion gas line that would travel from eastern Ohio to Michigan to Ontario. Already applied with FERC and will start construction early 2017. It proposed a 255-mile pipeline and will be 36-inch wide line.
This pipeline will expand the existing pipeline’s capacity from 70,000 barrels a day to 345,000. It has plans to deliver propane, butane, ethane, and other natural gas liquids across state to Delaware, Berks, and Lebanon counties in PA. Currently, the construction is delayed due to push back and permits acquisition.
D. Northeast Energy Direct (NED) Project
This project was intended to expand an existing pipeline by 420 miles from Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania and passing through New York, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Connecticut. Recently in April 2016, Kinder Morgan decided to suspend further development of this proposed pipeline.
The Atlantic Coast Pipeline had initial plans to establish 550 miles of pipeline from West Virginia to North Carolina, and to cut through dozens of Chesapeake headwater streams, two national forests, and across Appalachian Trail. Their permit to construct this pipeline was denied by the US Forest Service on January 2016; thus, delaying the project at the moment.
F. Algonquin Incremental Market (AIM) Project
With approval by FERC, Spectra Energy has begun 37 miles of pipeline construction through New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. The pipeline location is particularly worrisome because it is critically close to the Indian Point nuclear power plant. Ruptures or leaks from the pipeline can threaten the public’s safety, and even result in a power plant meltdown. Spectra Energy has also submitted two additional proposals: the Atlantic Bridge and Access Northeast. Both projects will expand the Algonquin pipeline to reach New England, and both are still in the approval process with FERC.
The Constitution pipeline had initially planned to include 124 miles from Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania to Schoharie County, New York, and was denied by NY State in April 2016.
To view the routes of proposed pipelines, visit FracTracker’s North American Pipeline and Oil and Gas Infrastructure Proposals map.
Please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org if there are any unanswered questions you would like us to answer or include.
Update: this article was edited on June 21, 2016 due to reader feedback and suggestions.
By Bill Hughes, WV Community Liaison
For anyone who even casually follows Marcellus and Utica shale gas exploration and production, such as in the active gas fields of West Virginia or Southwestern PA or Ohio, we know there are many concerns surrounding the natural gas production process. These issues range from air pollution, water consumption and contamination, to waste disposal. We know that, after all well the pad drilling and construction traffic are done, we must also have pipelines to get the gas to compressor stations, processing plants, and to markets in the Eastern United States (and likely Europe and Asia in the near future). Gas companies in Wetzel County, WV, and in neighboring tri-state counties, are convinced that building pipelines – really big pipelines – will be the silver bullet to achieving some semblance of stability and profitability.
One of the new, very large diameter (42”) proposed gas pipelines getting attention in the press is the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which will originate in the village of Mobley in eastern Wetzel County, WV and extend Southeast, through national forests and over the Appalachian Mountains into the state of Virginia. Even if the residents of Wetzel County and other natural gas fields are guinea pigs for experiments with hydraulic fracturing, we know how to build pipelines, don’t we? The equipment, knowledge, and skill sets needed for pipeline construction is readily available and commonly understood compared to high pressure horizontal drilling with large volumes of slick water. So, what could go wrong?
I can answer that question first hand from my hayfield in Wetzel County. Almost two years ago, EQT wanted to survey my property for a similar proposed pipeline – this one 30” in diameter, called the Ohio Valley Connector (OVC). The application for this project has now been filed with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). The below map shows a section of the OVC as proposed almost two years ago. The red outlined area is my property. The yellow line shows one proposed pathway of the 30” pipeline that would cross our land. Multiple routes were being explored at first. Were this version approved, it would have gone right through my hayfield and under our stream.
Pipeline opponents express concern about habitat fragmentation, the crossing of pristine streams and rivers, erosion and sedimentation issues, spills, gas leaks, and possible explosions. These are all very valid concerns. But the potential for other logistical errors in the building process – from very simple to potentially serious ones – are also worth consideration. In this article I will use my recent personal experience as a detailed and documented example of how a professionally surveyed location on my property contained an error of almost one mile – over 4,000 feet – as part of a pipeline construction planning project. Yes, you read that right.
Before we get to my story, I should review my first contact with EQT on this issue. In February of 2014, an EQT land agent asked me for permission to walk my property for preliminary evaluation of a route that would send their 30” high-pressure pipe through our land, from south to north.
It is important to keep in mind that almost every landowner in Wetzel County has been contacted by mail, phone or in person, by land agents promising cash with a verbal assurance that all will be well. The goal is to get a landowner’s signature on a loosely worded “right of way” (RoW) lease contract, with terms favorable to the gas company, and move on. Unfortunately, pipeline lease offers cannot be ignored. Not objecting or not questioning can sometime leave the landowner with fewer choices later. This is because many of the bigger interstate transmission lines are being proposed as FERC lines. When final approval is granted by FERC, these pipelines will have the legal power of eminent domain, where the property owner is forced to comply. Just filing a FERC application does not grant eminent domain in West Virginia, as it seems to in Virginia, but the potential for eminent domain gives land agents power over landowners.
I was not ready to give them surveying permission (to drive stakes or other permanent markers). Since a natural gas pipeline would affect all my neighbors, however, I agreed to allow a preliminary walk through my property and to hang surveyor ribbons in exchange for answering my questions about the project. For instance, one of my biggest concerns was the potential for significant habitat fragmentation, splitting up the forest and endangering wildlife habitat.
I never did get answers to most of my questions in the few e-mail exchanges and phone conversations with EQT. I never saw the surveyors either. They simply came and left their telltale colored ribbons. Later, at a public meeting an EQT representative said the closest they would run the pipe to any residence would be 37.5 feet. That number is correct. I asked twice. They said they had the right to run a pipeline that close to a residence but would do their best not to. The 37.5 feet is just one half of the permanent RoW of 75 feet, which was also only part of a 125 foot RoW requested for construction. A few months later, a very short e-mail said that the final pipeline route had changed and they would not be on my property. For a time we would enjoy some peace and quiet.
A Word On Surveyors
Most folks can relate to the work and responsibility of bookkeepers or Certified Public Accountants (CPAs). They measure and keep track of money. And their balance sheets and ledgers actually have to, well, BALANCE. Think of Surveyors as the CPAs of the land world. When they go up a big hill and down the other side, the keep track of every inch — they will not tolerate losing a few inches here and there. They truly are professionals, measuring and documenting everything with precision. Most of the surveyors I have spoken with are courteous and respectful. They are a credit to their profession. They are aware of the eminent domain threat and their surveying success depends on treating landowners with respect. They are good at what they do. However, as this article will show, their professional success and precision depends on whether or not they are given the correct route to survey.
Over the next year we enjoyed peace and quiet with no more surveyors’ intrusions. However, in my regular travels throughout the natural gas fields here, countless signs of surveyor activity were visible. Even with the temporary slowdown in drilling, the proposed pipeline installations kept these surveyors busy. Assorted types of stakes and ribbons and markings are impossible to miss along our roads. I usually notice many of the newer surveyor’s flags and the normal wooden stakes used to mark out future well pads, access roads, compressor stations, and more recently pipelines. Given that survey markings are never taken down when no longer needed, the old ones sometimes hide the new ones.
It can be difficult keeping track of all of them and hard at first to identify why they are there. Even if sometimes I am not sure what a stake and flag might indicate, when one shows up very unexpectedly in what is essentially my front yard, it is impossible to not see it. That is what happened in August of 2015. Despite being unable to get our hay cut due to excessive rain the previous month, the colored flags were highly visible. Below shows one of the stakes with surveyor’s tape, and the hay driven down where the surveyors had parked their trucks in my field alongside my access road.
To call it trespassing might not be legally defensible yet. The stakes were, after all, near a public roadway – but the pins and stakes and flags were on my property. Incidents like this, whether intentional or accidental, are what have given the natural gas companies a reputation as bad neighbors. There were surveyors’ stakes and flags at two different locations, my hay was driven down, and I had no idea what all this meant given that I had no communication from anyone at EQT in over 18 months. I consider myself fortunate that the surveyors did not stray into wooded areas where trees might have been cut. It’s been known to happen.
Below shows the two sets of wooden stakes, roughly 70-80 feet apart, with flags and capped steel rebar pins. Both stakes were near the road’s gravel lane, which is a public right of way. Nevertheless, the stakes were clearly on my property. The markings on one side of the stake identify the latitude, longitude, and the elevation above sea level of the point. The other side of the stake identified it as locating the OVC pipeline (seen here as “OVC 6C):
These identifying numbers are unique to this pin which is used to denote a specific type of location called a “control point.” Control points are usually located off to the side of the center-line of the pipeline:
It seemed that somehow, without informing me or asking permission to be on my land, EQT had changed their mind on the OVC route and were again planning to run a pipeline through my property. If this was intentional, both EQT and I had a problem. If this was some kind of mistake, then only EQT would have a problem. Either way I could not fathom how this happened. Trespassing, real or perceived, is always a sensitive topic. This is especially true since, when I had initially allowed the surveyor to be on my property, I had not given permission for surveying. Given concerns about eminent domain, I wanted answers quickly. I documented all this with detailed pictures in preparation for contacting EQT representatives in Pittsburgh, PA, with my complaints.
I think it is safe to say that, in light of my well-known activism in documenting all things Marcellus, I am not your average surface owner. I have over 10,000 photographs of Marcellus operations in Wetzel County and I document every aspect of it. Frequently this leads to contacting many state agencies and gas operators directly about problems. I knew which gas company was responsible and I also knew exactly who in Pittsburgh to contact. To their credit, the person I contacted at EQT, immediately responded and it took most of the day to track down what had happen. The short story was that it was all a simple mistake—a 4,300 foot long mistake—but still just a mistake. The long story follows.
The EQT representative assured me that someone would be out to remove their stakes, flags and the steel pins. I told them that they needed to be prompt and that I would not alter or move their property and locating points. The next day, when I got home, the stakes with flags were gone. Just a small bare patch of dirt remained near the white plastic fencepost I had placed to mark the location. However, since I am a cultivated skeptic—adhering to the old Russian proverb made famous by President Reagan, “Trust but Verify”—I grabbed a garden trowel, dug around a bit, and clink, clink. The steel pin had just been driven deeper to look good, just waiting for my tiller to locate someday. I profusely re-painted the pin, photographed it, and proceeded to send another somewhat harsh e-mail to EQT. The pin was removed the next day.
After all the stakes, ribbons, and steel pins were removed, EQT provided further insights into what had transpired. Multiple pipeline routes were being evaluated by EQT in the area. Gas companies always consider a wide range of constraints to pipeline construction such as road and stream crossings, available access roads, permission and cooperation of the many landowners, steepness of terrain, etc. At a certain point in their evaluation, a final route was chosen. But for unknown reasons the surveyor crew was given the old, now abanoned, route on which to establish their control points. The magnitiude of the error can be seen on the map below. The bright blue line is the original path of the OVC pipeline through my property and the red line shows where the FERC filed pipeline route will go. A new control point has now been established near the highway where the pipeline was meant to cross.
Given the likely impact of many proposed large-diameter, very long, pipelines being planned, it seems useful to examine how these errors can happen. What can we learn from my personal experience with the hundreds of miles of new pipelines constructed in Wetzel County over the past eight years? First, it is important to ask whether or not similar problems are likely to happen elsewhere, or if this was this just an isolated incident. Can we realistically expect better planning on the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline, which will run for over 300 miles? Can the residents and landowners living along these pipeline RoWs expect more responsible construction and management practices?
In general, many of the pipeline projects with which landowners, such as those in Wetzel County, are familiar with fall into the unregulated, gathering line category. They might be anywhere from six inches in diameter up to sixteen inches. As we review their track record, we have seen every imaginable problem, both during construction and after they were put into operation. We have had gas leaks and condensate spills, hillside mud slips, broken pipes, erosion and sedimentation both during construction and afterwards.
Now for some apparently contradictory assumptions—I am convinced that, for the most part, truck drivers, pipeliners, equipment operators, drilling and fracturing crews, well tenders and service personnel at well sites, all do the best job they can. If they are given the proper tools and materials, accurate directions with trained and experienced supervision, the support resources and the time to do a good job, then they will complete their tasks consistently and proudly. A majority of employees in these positions are dedicated, trained, competent, and hard working. Of course, there are no perfect contractors out there. These guys are human too. And on the midnight shift, we all get tired. In the context of this story, some pipeline contractors are better and more professional than others, some are more experienced, and some have done the larger pipelines. Therefore, despite best intentions, significant errors and accidents will still occur.
It seems to me that the fragile link in natural gas production and pipeline projects is simply the weakness of any large organization’s inherent business model. Every organization needs to constantly focus on what I refer to as the “four C’s—Command and Control, then Coordination and Communication—if they are to be at all successful. It is a challenge to manage these on a daily basis even when everyone is in the same big building, working for the same company, speaking the same language. This might be in a university, or a large medical complex, or an industrial manufacturing plant.
But the four C’s are nearly impossible to manage due to the simple fact that the organizational structure of the natural gas industry depends completely on hundreds of sub-contractors. And those companies, in turn, depend on a sprawling and transient, expanding and collapsing, network of hundreds of other diverse and divergent independent contractors. For example, on any given well pad, during the drilling or fracturing process, there might be a few “company” men on site. Those few guys actually work for the gas company in whose name the operating permit is drawn. Everyone else is working for another company, on site temporarily until they are ready to move on, and their loyalty is elsewhere.
In the best of situations, it is next to impossible to get the right piece of information to the right person at just the right time. Effective coordination among company men and contractors is also next to impossible. I have seen this, and listened in, when the drilling company is using one CB radio channel and the nearby pipeline company is using some private business band radio to talk to “their people.” In that case, the pipeline contractors could not talk to the well pad—and it did not matter to them. In other cases, the pilot vehicle drivers will unilaterally decide to use another CB radio channel and not tell everyone. I have also watched while a massive drill rig relocation was significantly delayed simply because a nearby new gas processing plant was simultaneously running at least a hundred dump trucks with gravel on the same narrow roadway. Constant communication is a basic requirement for traffic coordination, but next to impossible to do properly and consistently when these practices are so prevalent.
These examples illustrate how companies are often unable to coordinate their operations. Now, if you can, just try to picture this abysmal lack of command and control, and minimal communication and coordination, in the context of building a 300-mile length of pipeline. The larger the pipeline diameter, and the greater the overall length of the pipeline, the more contractors will be needed. With more contractors and sub-contractors, the more coordination and communication are essential. A FERC permit cannot fix this, nor would having a dozen FERC permits. Unfortunately, I do not envision the four Cs improving anytime soon in the natural gas industry. It seems to be the nature of the beast. If, as I know from personal experience, a major gas company can arrange to locate a surveyed control point 4,300 feet from where it should have been, then good luck with a 300 mile pipeline. Even with well-intentioned, trained employees, massive problems are still sure to come.
The FERC approvals for these pipelines might not be a done deal, but I would not bet against them. So vigilance and preparation will still be of the essence. Citizen groups must be prepared to observe, monitor, and document these projects as they unfold. If massive pipelines like the MVP and OVC are ever built, they should become the most photographed, measured, scrutinized, and documented public works projects since the aqueducts first delivered water to ancient Rome. For the sake of protecting the people and environment of Wetzel County and similar communities, I hope this is the case.
By Bill Hughes, WV Community Liaison, FracTracker Alliance
Read more Field Diary articles.
These questions can be modified to suit your location. The abbreviation “Gas Corp.” is used below to reference a typical natural gas company or a pipeline subsidiary to a natural gas company. These subsidiaries are frequently called Midstream Companies. Midstream companies build and manage the pipelines, gas processing, and some compressor stations on behalf of natural gas companies.
The following guide is a simplified description of a variety of markings that are used by land surveyors. Throughout an active shale gas field, the first signs of pending expansions are the simple markings of stakes, flags, and pins. Many months or even years before the chain saw fells the first tree or the first dozer blade cuts the dirt at a well pad location, the surveyors have “marked the target” on behalf of their corporate tactical command staff.
The three most commonly used markings are the simple stakes, flags and pins. These surveyor symbols are common to any construction project and guarantee that everything gets put in the right place. In an active gas field, these marking tools are used for all aspects of exploration and production:
Quite frequently these simple markings are undecipherable by themselves, especially by non-professionals. One cannot just know what is happening, what is likely to occur, or how concerned one should be. Context and additional information are usually needed. Sometimes the simple colors and combinations of colored tapes might only make sense in conjunction with similar markings nearby. Sometimes public notices in the newspaper and regulatory permits must be used to decipher what is planned.
For an example, the proposed 30″ diameter EQT pipeline called the Ohio Valley Connector seems to be regularly marked using a combination of blue and white (see figure 10 below) surveyors tape to mark the actual pipeline location, then green and white (see figure 4 below) to mark all the proposed access roads along the routes that will be used to get pipe trucks and excavation equipment into the right of way. These access roads might be public roadways or cut across private leased property.
Surveyor flags and tape: Sometime the flags or streamers are just attached to trees, fence posts, or put on a stake to make them visible above the weeds. There might be no markings on the stake, or only simple generic markings. This could just mean that this is the correct road and turn here. It could also signal a proposed or approximate location for some future work.
Surveyor flags and tapes: These are a selection of typical surveyor tapes, also called flags or ribbons. Many other specialty color combinations are available to the professional surveyor.
Stakes with simple markings: Flags with some type of identification (it might be names or numbers). This one was used for a proposed well pad access road location. There are no dimensions given on these.
Stakes with simple flags and basic identification: The stakes shown here all indicate an access route to be used for equipment and trucks to get to a proposed pipeline right of way. The “H310″ is the EQT name for the 30” OVC pipeline.
Control points: These three stakes are identifying a control point that is outside the limits of disturbance (LoD). These markings surround a pin to be used for reference.
Controls points: This stake is also identifying a control point location. All control points will have some type of driven metal rod, usually with a plastic cap identifying the surveyor. Frequently there are three stakes with extra flags or tape. They are always set off to the side of the intended work area. They are not to be disturbed.
Control points: Another set of three stakes marking a Control Point location. It is common to see triple stakes with elaborate, multiple flags. Even if only two stakes are present, there always will be a driven steel pin and identifying cap.
Control points: This shows a close-up of the identifying cap on a metal driven steel pin. Control point locations are not meant to be disturbed as they are for future and repeated reference. They might give the latitude and longitude on the stake plus the altitude above sea level.
Control points: This is another, older control point location. This represents a typical arrangement where the stakes somewhat try to protect the metal pin from a bulldozer blade by warning its operator.
Limit of disturbance: The “L O D” here means the limits of disturbance. Beyond this point there should not be any trees cut or dirt moved. The stakes shown here indicates that this is the outside limit of where the contractor will be disturbing the original contour of the surface soil.
Limit of disturbance: The “L O D” means the limits of disturbance of the proposed pipeline right of way. Beyond this point there should not be any trees cut or dirt moved. This could also be used for the outside edge of well pads or access roads or pond locations.
Pipelines: Stakes with flags and “center line” markings are usually for pipelines. Here you see the symbol for center line: a capital letter “C” imposed on the letter “L”.
Pipelines: Again you see the capital letter “C” super imposed on top of the letter “L” used frequently for pipe line center lines, but can also be used for proposed access roads.
Pipelines: As shown here, “C” and “L” center line flags can also be used for future well pad access roads.
Precise location markings: Stakes like this will usually have a steel pin also associated with it. This stake gives the latitude, longitude, and elevation of the site.
Permanent property lines: You may also find markings, like this one inch steel rod with an alum cap, that denote permanent property lines and corners of property.
Permanent property lines: Another kind of permanent property line or corner marker is the “boundary survey monument.” This is likely an aluminum cap on top of a one inch diameter steel bar.