Toughen rules for gas pipeline; Add issues of safety, rights to special session

Kentuckians are discovering that not all natural gas pipelines are created equal. They are also discovering a gap in public protection that, thanks to the shale gas boom, poses a threat statewide.

This threat, which should unite environmentalists and property-rights advocates alike, is so urgent that two lawmakers and the director of the Kentucky Resources Council want Gov. Steve Beshear to address it during the redistricting special session that begins Aug. 19.

Beshear should consult with legislative leaders and expand the call as Rep. David Floyd, R-Bardstown, Sen. Jimmy Higdon, R-Lebanon, and environmentalist Tom FitzGerald are urging.

Taxpayers would get a lot more for their money if, besides doing something that should have already been done, the legislature also responded to this emergency.

A proposed natural gas liquids pipeline to Louisiana would cut a permanent 50-foot-wide swath from Bracken to Breckinridge counties that would be dotted with compressors, valves and other above-ground hardware.

The rude awakening for Kentuckians in the pipeline's proposed path has been twofold:

■ The bar is much lower for winning permits to build this kind of pipeline than for a pipeline that moves fuel for power plants or heating homes.

■ While federal law would not authorize the use of eminent domain to obtain easements from unwilling landowners, state law might.

A natural gas pipeline that serves public utilities is subject to all kinds of public vetting before it can be built. Harm to the environment must be gauged and minimized. Federal energy regulators must be convinced of the need and approve the route. One purpose is coordination to minimize land use by pipelines.

Oddly enough, none of that scrutiny would be required for the Bluegrass Pipeline because it would move chemical feedstocks for use, not by public utilities, but by manufacturers of plastics, antifreeze and other products.

Various state and federal agencies would have to issue permits, but the requirements for public participation in the permitting process are weak to nonexistent.

The plan's effects on land, water and air are not subject to review under the National Environmental Protection Act or Kentucky laws, even though the pipeline would move flammable chemicals that we don't want in our groundwater or streams.

A pipeline operated by one of the companies behind the Kentucky project leaked and contaminated groundwater in Colorado late last year that's still not cleaned up.

The two publicly traded partners — Williams Cos. Inc. of Tulsa and Boardwalk Pipeline Partners of Houston — are asserting that they can use the power of eminent domain to obtain easements from unwilling Kentuckians, even though what they're building is not for public use.

What the public would get is the risk of explosions, leaks, contaminated water and more pipelines crisscrossing the state. NGL, which contain chemicals such as butane and propane, are a valuable byproduct of natural gas extraction.

The proliferation of shale gas production to our north has created an NGL bottleneck and will mean more efforts to move chemical feedstocks through Kentucky.

What the legislature should do is uncomplicated and should be popular with everyone except out-of-state energy companies:

■ Limit the power of eminent domain to utilities regulated by the Public Service Commission.

■ Require that natural gas liquids pipelines seek approval from a siting board created by the legislature in 2002 to review proposals for unregulated power plants and transmission lines.

Such legislation would provide more certainty to all.