13 questions and answers about the Rover Pipeline project

As we wrote earlier this week, an energy company is looking at installing a major natural gas transmission pipeline that would pass through Lenawee County. The project, called the Rover Pipeline, is being proposed by ET Rover Pipeline Co., a subsidiary of Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners.

Company representatives are holding several public meetings along the path of the proposed pipeline. The closest one to Lenawee County is from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, July 15, at the Comfort Inn Village Conference Center, 1645 Commerce Park Drive, Chelsea.

To get answers about the project and the approval process, we turned to a variety of published sources as well as four people: Vicki Granado, a spokesperson for the pipeline company; Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, a watchdog group that was founded after a pipeline disaster in Washington state; Jeffrey Insko, an Oakland County resident who started a blog about pipeline issues as a result of his experiences with an Enbridge pipeline replacement project; and Tamara Young-Allen, a spokesperson for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

1. What is the Rover Pipeline for?

The Rover Pipeline’s purpose would be to carry natural gas from the Marcellus and Utica Shale areas of Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio to customers in other regions in the United States and Canada. As currently proposed, gas would leave the pipeline at delivery points in Defiance, Ohio; Washtenaw County and Livingston County in Michigan; and Ontario.

Click here to download the company’s description of the project.

2. Where exactly would it go?

This map from a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission filing shows the route of a proposed natural gas pipeline to Ontario. The pipeline would pass through Lenawee County.

This map from a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission filing shows the route of a proposed natural gas pipeline to Ontario. The pipeline would pass through Lenawee County.

The map included in ET Rover Pipeline Co.’s preliminary filing shows the pipeline running through Lenawee County in a roughly south-southwest to north-northeast direction, passing west of Adrian.

However, Granado said, the exact route is still being worked out. The plan is currently in its pre-filing period, a phase of the approval process during which the public is made aware of the proposal and can offer comments. Because it’s early in the process, Granado said, although the company has begun discussions with some landowners in the area, a detailed map is not yet available.

Overall, the company says about 80 percent of the main transmission line will be under agricultural land.

3. What would it look like?

Again, some details are not yet available. Here’s what we do know:

  • The main line would be made up of 36-inch and 42-inch diameter pipe.
  • Almost all of the pipeline would be underground. A summary published by ET Rover Pipeline Co. states that “typically, the pipeline is covered by at least three feet of soil and sometimes more if it is crossing under roads, rivers, lakes and streams.”
  • There would be compressor stations along the route. These are aboveground facilities, each operating at about 38,000 horsepower, that compress the gas so it can continue flowing despite the momentum it loses along the way. Currently, the map does not show any compressor stations being proposed for Lenawee County or anywhere else in Michigan. (All five proposed stations are in Ohio.)
  • Other aboveground facilities would include valves, gas measurement instruments and regulating controls. The exact locations of these will not be known until the final scope of the project is ironed out.

4. Are gas pipelines safe?

ET Rover Pipeline Co. calls underground pipelines “the safest mode of transporting natural gas,” and on this much, the Pipeline Safety Trust agrees. It’s safer than going by rail or by truck, and you stand a higher chance of being killed in a car crash than a pipeline accident, Weimer said — but, he added, “if I was a landowner that had one of these pipes so many feet from me, I’m not sure how reassuring that would be.”

There are about 300,000 miles of gas transmission pipeline in the United States — that’s just counting large-scale lines, not the smaller distribution pipelines that run through cities and go to houses. Weimer said gas transmission pipelines are involved an average of 60 or so “significant incidents” — defined as incidents that cause an injury, a death, or at least $50,000 worth of property damage — per year. (The numbers for all pipeline systems across the board are higher.)

One of the worst pipeline disasters in recent years happened in September 2010 when a 30-inch gas transmission pipeline ruptured in San Bruno, California, causing a massive explosion that killed eight people and destroyed or damaged dozens of homes.

Another major example, and the one that led to the Pipeline Safety Trust being formed, was in 1999 when a ruptured line caused an explosion in Whatcom Falls Park in Washington state. The disaster killed an 18-year-old and two 10-year-old boys, and set Whatcom Creek on fire.

In Michigan, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, the most recent fatality linked to a gas transmission line was in 2006. In that incident, a 27-year-old apprentice lineman was killed when a piece of equipment he was operating struck a high-pressure line. And while it involved oil rather than gas, most southeast Michigan residents probably remember the spill near Marshall in 2010, which polluted about 25 miles of the Kalamazoo River and has cost more than $1 billion to clean up so far.

“The chance of a pipeline like this failing in any one particular spot is really, really, really low,” Weimer said. “But when it does, the consequences can be huge.”

What does the pipeline builder say about keeping things safe? Energy Transfer says it takes numerous steps to ensure safety along its pipelines, including:

  • Building the pipeline to meet or exceed state and federal safety requirements.
  • Doing both a visual and an X-ray inspection of every weld that joins sections of pipe together.
  • Installing valves to shut off the flow of gas in case of emergency.
  • Testing the pipeline with water under higher-than-normal pressure and installing regulation devices to keep the pressure from exceeding safe limits.
  • Posting signs that show the location of the pipeline and give a phone number to call before digging.

The company’s list of safety measures are on pages 3-5 of this document.

Here’s how ProPublica, an independent nonprofit news organization, described pipeline safety in a 2012 story:

Pipelines are generally regarded as a safe way to transport fuel, a far better alternative to tanker trucks or freight trains. The risks inherent in transporting fuel through pipelines are analogous to the risks inherent in traveling by airplane. Airplanes are safer than cars, which kill about 70 times as many people a year (highway accidents killed about 33,000 people in 2010, while aviation accidents killed 472). But when an airplane crashes, it is much more deadly than any single car accident, demands much more attention, and initiates large investigations to determine precisely what went wrong.

The same holds true for pipelines. Based on fatality statistics from 2005 through 2009, oil pipelines are roughly 70 times as safe as trucks, which killed four times as many people during those years, despite transporting only a tiny fraction of fuel shipments. But when a pipeline does fail, the consequences can be catastrophic (though typically less so than airplane accidents), with the very deadliest accidents garnering media attention and sometimes leading to a federal investigation.

While both air travel and pipelines are safer than their road alternatives, the analogy only extends so far. Airplanes are replaced routinely and older equipment is monitored regularly for airworthiness and replaced when it reaches its safety limits. Pipelines, on the other hand, can stay underground, carrying highly pressurized gas and oil for decades – even up to a century and beyond. And while airplanes have strict and uniform regulations and safety protocols put forth by the Federal Aviation Administration, such a uniform set of standards does not exist for pipelines.

Critics maintain that while they’re relatively safe, pipelines should be safer.

The rest of the ProPublica piece can be found here.

5. Are pipelines necessary?

In general, Weimer said, there can be benefits to building natural gas transmission pipelines. When natural gas is piped from areas that have a lot of it to areas that don’t, it can save money and even help the environment by displacing dirtier energy sources such as coal plants.

But Weimer’s group doesn’t always agree with current policy when it comes to deciding which lines need to be built — or how many.

Natural gas should be moved as efficiently as possible, he said, and the government should act in the public interest, not in the interest of helping energy companies make more money. For example, he said, when two companies are planning pipelines with similar paths, federal regulators should ask, “Is there really a need for two of these pipelines, or should the companies just get together and figure out which one really needs to be built?”

6. Are there currently any natural gas transmission pipelines in Lenawee County?

Yes. In addition to the smaller pipelines that are necessary to get natural gas to homes and businesses that use it, this page from the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs shows three major transmission pipelines crossing through the eastern half of Lenawee County, two operated by Panhandle Eastern Pipeline Co. and one by ANR Pipeline Co. There’s also a petroleum pipeline that cuts across the far northeast corner of the county.

7. Will there be an economic impact?

Pipeline companies pay property taxes, and large construction projects do usually generate economic activity. That much probably isn’t in dispute. Where supporters and opponents of pipeline projects differ is on how much economic benefit can be attributed to them, and whether the tradeoffs are worth it.

The annual tax bills for the companies that currently operate large natural gas transmission pipelines in Lenawee County are $197,607 for Panhandle Eastern and $40,532 for ANR, according to records at the Lenawee County Treasurer’s office.

Here’s what Granado, ET Rover’s spokesperson, said about the economic impact of the project:

Current estimates are there will be 8,000 temporary jobs filled related to the construction of the pipeline. There will be 30-40 permanent jobs. ET Rover will pay more then $88 million in taxes annually. … Additionally, goods and services will be purchased from local businesses along the route during construction.

It is also important to note that the company first looks to buy the pipe and other related products as locally as possible. If things aren’t available locally, they try to stay with U.S. vendors if possible.

And here’s Jeffrey Insko’s response:

These “estimates” for jobs and other revenues that pipeline companies always promote are completely unverifiable — and there is little reason for the public to trust the company’s estimates, which are sure to be inflated. What’s more, even if they were true, the rewards for states and local communities are not worth the risks and the disruptions to the lives and land of property owners.

8. How would it affect my property?

This brochure from FERC describes the process of pipeline construction and installation (scroll to pages 11-13). The steps include:

  • Surveying the land.
  • Removing any trees or brush within the right-of-way that would interfere with construction.
  • Installing temporary erosion control devices if needed.
  • Grading the right-of-way.
  • Digging the trench. (This involves heavy equipment such as backhoes and trenching machines; blasting may also be used if bedrock is near the surface.)
  • Delivering the pipe to the site in segments, bending it to fit the trench, and welding the pieces together.
  • Filling the trench and removing debris.
  • Pressure-testing the pipe to be sure it doesn’t leak.

ET Rover Pipeline Co.’s fact sheet states: “A pipeline normally requires a 50-foot right-of-way. During construction, we’ll need an additional 50-foot workspace next to the permanent right-of-way. We may also need additional temporary workspace in certain areas, such as road, railroad or stream crossings, to accommodate particular construction activities.

Insko’s Line 6B Citizens’ Blog includes a number of landowners’ stories about pipeline installation, some of them having to do with the process itself and some having to do with specific complaints about Enbridge, the company whose project originally led to the blog being launched.

9. What if I don’t want a pipeline through my land?

Here’s the short answer: Ultimately, if federal regulators approve the project, you won’t have a choice.

Now, the longer answer.

Granado said Energy Transfer always tries to negotiate easements with property owners first. Taking an easement through eminent domain is “a last resort,” she said, and “it is our policy to exhaust all other options before taking this step.”

But what the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission gives its final approval, that approval comes with the right to exercise eminent domain, said Young-Allen, the FERC spokesperson. At that point, landowners can’t stop the process — although federal law does give them the right to have any dispute over the value of the easement decided by a local District Court judge.

“Outright refusal by a landowner is simply not an option,” Insko said. And that, he said, puts most of the power in the pipeline builder’s hands.

When property owners know a refusal will just lead to eminent domain, Insko said, “it’s not really that voluntary.”

“Landowners know they don’t have any choice and the company has all the power,” he said. “This is hardly what I would describe as voluntary. In this context, voluntarily just means they didn’t have to go to court.”

10. Who gets to decide if the pipeline is approved?

Ultimately, Young-Allen said, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is the only agency with the right to approve or reject the project. Companies are required to follow state and local laws, she said, but once approval is given, FERC makes it clear that state and local governments cannot block a project.

Or, as Weimer of the Pipeline Safety Trust puts it: “Michigan doesn’t have the authority to say ‘No, you can’t run this pipeline through this part of Michigan.'”

Young-Allen said once a formal application is filed — which in this case is expected to happen in January 2015 — it typically takes between a year and 18 months for FERC to issue final approval.

FERC is also responsible for overseeing the construction process, but once the pipeline is operational, safety enforcement becomes the responsibility of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which is part of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

This chart from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission shows the approval process for a gas transmission pipeline, with public comment periods noted.

This chart from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission shows the approval process for a gas transmission pipeline, with public comment periods noted.

11. What are the opportunities for public input?

The first public meetings about the project are the ones conducted by the company itself, including the one scheduled for July 15 in Chelsea.

However, FERC also has public comment periods of its own. The first, Young-Allen said, allows people to weigh in on what issues should be considered in FERC’s environmental study of the project. This includes public meetings, usually called “scoping sessions” or “comment sessions.” When the company files its formal application, FERC issues a notice of application and sets a deadline for comments. And then when a draft of the environmental study is completed, the agency seeks comments on the draft, with public meetings a part of that process as well.

Click here for a larger version of the chart at right.

Young-Allen said anyone can comment and all comments are treated as equal, whether they are given in person at a meeting or in writing via email or regular mail.

12. Do pipeline projects ever get turned down?

It’s rare for a project to be rejected completely, although Young-Allen said FERC has the option of requiring that certain conditions be met first.

“Companies know what criteria the commission needs to see to make a successful application,” she said.

Weimer said he doesn’t know of any cases where an application has actually been rejected. If those cases exist, he said, they’d be “few and far between.”

13. What is the timeline for the Rover Pipeline project?

In its preliminary filing with FERC, the company said it intends to submit its formal application in January 2015. After that, the company hopes to begin construction in January 2016, with the first part of the pipeline (from the supply area to Defiance, Ohio) coming online by December 2016, and the second part (including Michigan) being in service by June 2017.

Previously: Proposed natural gas pipeline would pass through Lenawee County