The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission will look into the potential environmental impact of Tennessee Gas Pipeline's proposal to convert an existing pipeline across Kentucky to allow the transport of natural gas liquids.
FERC gave notice Friday that it would prepare an environmental assessment of the Tennessee Gas proposal. Federal law also requires the commission to discover and address concerns the public might have about the proposal — a process called "scoping."
"Scoping is the process of determining how broad your analysis is going to be," said Tom FitzGrald, a lawyer with the Kentucky Resources Council.
Comments from the public, and from local, state and federal agencies, might prompt the FERC to do an even more in-depth study, called an environmental impact statement, University of Cincinnati law professor Jim O'Reilly said.
An expert in administrative regulation, O'Reilly is writing a book about fracking, the controversial drilling technique that frees oil and natural gas locked in underground rock. A chapter in the book looks at the role of pipelines in fracking.
"If they (FERC) go the next step and they do an environmental impact statement, that's a big deal because it will take about six months for the complete statement to be drafted," O'Reilly said. "In those circumstances, the pipeline company might walk away from the project — and I'm just speculating — but the longer it takes for them to get the project approved, the less likely they would do it."
Melissa Ruiz, a spokeswoman for Kinder Morgan, the parent company of Tennessee Gas Pipeline, said Wednesday that the environmental assessment "is a necessary and important milestone in the permitting process."
The existing Tennessee Gas Pipeline runs 256 miles through 18 Kentucky counties, from Greenup County in the northeast through Simpson County on the Tennessee state line.
The company proposes to change the product flowing through the pipeline — from natural gas to natural gas liquids — and to reverse the flow through that interstate line, so the current south-to-north flow of product would become north-to-south.
FERC said the environmental assessment would look at the effect of construction and operation of the proposed project on geology and soils, land use, water resources, vegetation and wildlife, air quality and noise, endangered and threatened species, public safety and cultural resources.
The public will have until May 18 to submit comments to the commission.
Residents in several Central Kentucky counties, particularly Boyle and Marion, have expressed concern about the possibility of an explosion in the underground line or a leak and subsequent contamination of drinking water.
The project includes putting underground a segment of pipeline now suspended over Dix River and Herrington Lake between Boyle and Garrard counties by boring beneath the lake. Residents from Boyle, Garrard and Mercer counties get their drinking water from the lake.
The project also includes building a new compressor unit in Madison County, two compressor units at an existing compressor station in Rowan County, and a new 7.6-mile pipeline loop in Carter and Lewis counties.
The environmental assessment means the FERC will look at the range of issues associated with the pipeline conversion. "An environmental assessment means, 'Yeah, you've raised some interesting issues, and now we'll do a scoping to see what those issues are,'" O'Reilly said.
"The public at this point can say, 'I live in X county and I live within a quarter mile of the existing gas pipeline. If the existing gas pipeline was filled with a highly explosive liquid, instead of the gas there now, and if a leak were to occur, then I might be exposed to a boom,'" O'Reilly said.
Many of the public comments already submitted to FERC are similar to what O'Reilly described. Nevertheless, O'Reilly suggested citizens take the time to submit new comments, even if they seem repetitive.
He said concerned people might want to encourage local fire departments and the state fire marshal's office to submit comments.
In many rural areas, a pipeline explosion is more than first responders can handle with their equipment, O'Reilly said.
Citizens also should ask city and county governments to pass resolutions "calling for a full environmental review," FitzGerald said. He said citizens should encourage FERC to do a full environmental impact statement and look at the repurposing of "70-year-old pipes to transport hazardous liquids under pressure."
FERC said it "will also evaluate reasonable alternatives to the proposed project or portions of the project, and make recommendations on how to lessen or avoid impacts on the various resource areas."
Once the May 18 deadline has passed, FERC must decide whether to issue a "finding of no significant impact" and approve the company proposal, or investigate further by doing an environmental impact statement.
Natural gas liquids are used by the agriculture, petrochemical and plastics industries. Materials derived from petrochemical go into making many automobile parts, including tires, instrument panels, and seat cushions and padding.
Tennessee Gas Pipeline was put into service in 1944 during a wartime effort to bring natural gas from Louisiana to defense industries in Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.