Underground gas pipeline in Central Kentucky causes heated discussions

Discussion is heating up in Central Kentucky over a proposed underground pipeline that will transport flammable natural gas liquids from oil shale drilling zones in Pennsylvania through the region.

Representatives of Williams Co. and Boardwalk Pipeline Partners, the two companies that are partners in the project, have scheduled meetings with county fiscal courts to answer questions.

Woodford County Judge-Executive John Coyle said he has heard a variety of questions from residents about the pipeline, which would cut across the northern tier of that kite-shaped county.

"There is a lot of concern about the project," Coyle said. People want to know "if an accident happens and there's a break in the line, what the effects would be to the water and the soil and the cattle and the people."

Basically people want to know "if the benefits are going to outweigh the risks," Coyle said.

More than 20 people, including some from Anderson, Scott, Franklin and Nelson counties, met this week in Versailles to discuss the pipeline.

"We are trying to make sure that there are meetings held in each of the counties affected so that people can come and ask questions and learn about the kinds of questions they need to have answered," said Lori Garkovich, a Woodford County resident who attended the Versailles meeting.

She said about 100 people attended a Tuesday meeting in Springfield sponsored by a group called New Pioneers for a Sustainable Future.

Meanwhile, a group called Bluegrass Pipeline Blockade has put up a Facebook page opposing the project. Kentucky Waterways Alliance, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and the Kentucky Resources Council are working to inform the landowners about their rights in relation to easements and pipeline safety.

"A pipeline rupture has a low probability of occurrence, but it has a very high probability of damage if it does occur," Garkovich said. "If you look at federal data on accidents per mile, these pipelines that carry hazardous liquids represent the smallest amount of pipeline miles, but over half of all the incidents."

Preliminary routes for the pipeline are subject to change, but as proposed now it would enter Kentucky in Bracken County in Northern Kentucky, then head southwest through Pendleton, Grant, Harrison, Owen, Scott, Franklin, Woodford and Anderson counties. From there it would head west and northwest through Nelson, LaRue, Hardin and Breckinridge counties.

In Breckinridge County, the pipeline would connect with an existing Texas Gas Transmission line in Hardinsburg. From that point to Eunice, La., a portion of the Texas Gas line would be converted from natural gas service to natural gas liquids service. In Louisiana, the partners in the pipeline plan to build a new fractionation plant and expand liquid storage facilities for the increased supply.

The natural gas used to generate electricity or to heat homes is mostly methane. But natural gas at the well site may include other hydrocarbons, such as ethane, propane, butane, isobutene and pentanes. Those hydrocarbons are called natural gas liquids or NGLs.

Each has its own unique properties that make it suited to a specific use. Butane is used in cigarette lighters, while propane is used in backyard grills and home heating systems.

Petrochemical plants are the largest consumers of these NGLs, particularly ethane, which is used in the manufacture of plastics.

Processing facilities remove NGLs so they can be used separately. The NGLs are transported by pipeline under pressure in a liquid state. While NGLs can be transported by truck and rail, underground pipelines "are a safer and more efficient alternative," according to Williams Co. and Boardwalk Pipeline Partners.

Williams and Boardwalk expect that the planned pipeline would be put into service in 2015, assuming all the required approvals are met.

The companies seek 50-foot permanent easement plus another 50-foot temporary easement for construction equipment, but some property owners wonder whether the permanent easement leaves enough room for a second pipeline.

Rob Hawksworth, a Williams Co. representative, told a Nelson County audience on June 18 that the number of pipelines depends on what the landowner allows. But for now, the companies are seeking easements for only one pipeline, he said.

The pipeline project must obtain permits from numerous federal and state regulatory bodies, including the Kentucky Department of Environmental Protection, Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, Department of Parks and the Kentucky Heritage Council, plus their counterparts in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio.

But the role of the Kentucky agencies is "fairly limited," said Tom FitzGerald, an attorney for the Kentucky Resources Council, an environmental-advocacy group.

The Kentucky Public Service Commission has no authority over the pipeline, said Andrew Melnykovich, spokesman for the agency.

"It's a liquids pipeline, which we don't have authority over, and it's interstate, so we don't have authority over it because of that, either," Melnykovich said.

FitzGerald, however, said it is an "open question" whether the PSC has siting authority. "PSC believes it does not have siting authority, so I have asked them for an opinion in that regard," he said. "If you look at the definition of 'utility' under the Public Service Commission statute, 'utility' includes any entity that owns, controls, operates or manages a facility used for the 'transporting or conveying gas, crude oil or other fuel substance by pipeline, to or for the public for compensation.'"

If the commission contends that the transport of natural gas liquids is not for public service because the liquids are going to an entity for processing, that would raise the question of whether the venture partners have condemnation authority. Landowners have wondered whether eminent domain, the power to take private property for a public use, applies here.

"If they're not a regulated facility, then it is highly questionable whether under Kentucky law they have the right to condemn," FitzGerald said. "The right to condemn is contained in the statute that regulates utilities. And if they're not a utility, then they cannot have a power to condemn. Conversely, if they are a utility, they are obligated to get a certificate of need and convenience from the state before they begin any activity associated with the construction of the pipeline."

That's an issue that might have to be resolved in court, FitzGerald said.

The federal agencies involved include the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Federal Aviation Administration.

FitzGerald said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers should require an environmental impact statement, which would take at least a year.

The pipeline companies counter that the proposed pipeline "will be inspected, tested, and monitored to ensure its integrity will meet or exceed all applicable state and federal safety standards."

Natural gas pipelines are regulated by the U.S. Department of Transportation's Office of Pipeline Safety, which imposes construction and operations standards.

But FitzGerald and others point to an NGLs pipeline leak in Parachute, Colo., in which 241 barrels of natural gas liquids entered the soil undetected for two weeks. Investigators called the problem with the line a "seep." Such a leak or seep in Kentucky could pollute underground water supplies, given the karst topography that honeycombs limestone formations under much of the region.

Kentucky already has many underground natural gas pipelines.

"The difference is that when those pipelines were proposed, they went through an advanced review process," FitzGerald said. "And that advanced review process included the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission opening a case on whether the pipeline was needed, and after 1970, that would have included an environmental impact statement and would have included an opportunity for the public to review the proposed siting and that it was safe as can be.

"None of that happens with an NGLs pipeline because it is regulated by the Interstate Commerce Act rather than the Natural Gas Act," FitzGerald said. That's why the Corps of Engineers should seek an environmental impact statement, he says.

The surveying of properties apparently has begun in some counties, according to reports that Garkovich and FitzGerald have received. Landowners do not have to allow surveyors onto their land, FitzGerald said. Anderson County landowner Dennis Monohan said he turned away a surveyor who sought access to his 180-acre farm.

"I have no interest in any more easements on my farm," Monohan said. "I mean, I've got a power line, a railroad in the back, a gas line. There are so many rights of way. Why don't these people get together and run things down one right of way?"

That's what the companies are trying to do by routing the pipeline on land where there are already utility-easement corridors, Hawksworth told the Nelson County audience. But Monohan said the line would bisect his farm with no regard to existing easements.

In any case, with the race to send natural gas liquids to the Gulf of Mexico, other pipelines are being proposed. "We could end up with more of these pipelines in Kentucky because we have companies competing with each other to provide the service of transportation," FitzGerald said.

Upcoming meetings

The pipeline will be a topic at Scott Fiscal Court's 9 a.m. Friday meeting in Georgetown.

Citizens concerned about the pipeline also plan to meet at 6 p.m. July 16 at Millville Christian Church in northern Woodford County.

Woodford Fiscal Court will have a work session to discuss the pipeline at 6 p.m. July 23. A public meeting will be held at 6 p.m. Aug. 6 at the Woodford County Courthouse in Versailles.

Upcoming meetings

The pipeline will be a topic at Scott Fiscal Court's 9 a.m. Friday meeting in Georgetown.

Citizens concerned about the pipeline also plan to meet at 6 p.m. July 16 at Millville Christian Church in northern Woodford County.

Woodford Fiscal Court will have a work session to discuss the pipeline at 6 p.m. July 23. A public meeting about the pipeline will be held at 6 p.m. Aug. 6 at the Woodford County Courthouse in Versailles.

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