The study used data to show that socially vulnerable communities have significantly higher pipeline densities and are therefore exposed to more pollution and health and safety issues.
By Greg Barnes
For years, individual case studies have shown that pipelines primarily pass through socially vulnerable communities, leading to cries of environmental injustice and lawsuits against large gas companies.
Now, researchers at NC State University have taken those studies one step further with in-depth analysis of the data to show that counties across the country with the most socially vulnerable populations have significantly higher pipeline densities.
The results suggest that people living in these counties are at greater risk of facing water and air pollution, public health and safety issues and other negative impacts associated with gas pipelines, a said Laura Oleniacz, spokesperson for NC State.
“This is what the communities themselves have been saying for a long time,” said Ryan Emanuel, principal investigator of the study and professor at the University of North Carolina. Geospatial Analysis Center. âFor the first time, we put it all together and zoomed out and took a nationwide look and said, ‘You know what, these pipelines don’t exist in a vacuum. “”
The study was peer reviewed and is published in GeoHealth, a journal that focuses on the intersection of environmental and earth sciences, and health. The authors drew their conclusions from the data of socially vulnerable communities from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and gas pipeline data from the US Energy Information Administration, Emanuel said. The researchers used data from the CDC to examine socially vulnerable communities county by county.
the CDC defines social vulnerability such as “the potential negative effects on communities caused by external stresses on human health.” These stresses include natural or man-made disasters or epidemics.
The Atlantic Coast Pipeline
In 2014, Dominion Energy and Duke Energy announced that they would build the Atlantic Coast pipeline from the West Virginia shale fields through Virginia and terminating in Robeson County, North Carolina. At the time, the 600-mile-long pipeline project was estimated to cost between $ 4.5 billion and $ 5 billion.
Both energy companies said demand for the project was largely driven by the withdrawal and conversion of coal-fired power plants to natural gas-fired plants. But as companies purchased easements for the pipeline – either with the cooperation of landowners or by seizing property on prominent estate – federal regulators began to question the need for the pipeline as the Mountain Valley Pipeline was starting to take shape nearby.
Emmanuel said that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission weighed heavily on the need for the Atlantic Coast pipeline, but paid little attention to the issue of environmental justice.
“So we know that regulators take these kinds of gas supply issues to the rest of the grid into account when making these decisions, but at the moment they don’t do it when it comes to environmental justice,” said Emanuel. mentionned. âPipelines are more or less seen in a vacuum when it comes to considering their implications for environmental justice. “
Abandoned pipeline construction
Last July, Dominion and Duke announced they were scrapping the Atlantic Coast pipeline, blaming costs that had swelled to $ 8 billion and anticipated delays in permitting and construction caused, in part. , through prosecutions and Federal Court decisions.
In a joint July 5, 2020 statement, Dominion President Thomas F. Farrell and Duke President Lynn J. Good announced the pipeline cancellation:
âWe regret that we are unable to complete the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. For nearly six years, we have worked diligently and invested billions of dollars to complete the project and provide much needed infrastructure to our customers and communities. Throughout the process, we have engaged extensively and incorporated feedback from local communities, labor and industry leaders, government and licensing agencies, environmental interests and social justice organizationsâ¦ This announcement reflects the Growing legal uncertainty over the large-scale development of energy and industrial infrastructure in the United States. Until these issues are resolved, the ability to meet the country’s energy needs will be severely tested.
Emanuel and others believe lawsuits over environmental issues, including environmental injustice, were among the main reasons the pipeline was canceled.
Last year, an invalidated federal court a key license for a natural gas compressor station as part of the pipeline. The compressor station is said to have been built in Union Hill, a historic black community in Virginia founded by freed slaves after the Civil War. The court ruling was hailed as a major victory for the environmental justice movement.
Emanuel believes his study will put the issues of environmental injustice even further.
“What I hope we can take away from this study is that when new pipelines are reviewed, the environmental justice component of this review will not be treated in isolation,” said Emanuel. âWe’ll be thinking about what we’re doing across the network when we add a new pipeline when it comes to environmental justice.
âAre we re-rooting the historical patterns that already exist in the landscape, or are we going to do something different? “
The recent boom in natural gas extraction from deep shale, a practice known as hydraulic fracturing or hydraulic fracturing, has resulted in the proposal and construction of an ever-increasing number of pipelines in the United States.
With that comes the growing burden of determining where pipelines should go that will have the least environmental and social impacts.
“The pace of pipeline development in the United States signals an urgent need for research into the health, socio-economic and other impacts associated with pipelines and other intermediate infrastructure,” the study said. “In particular, there is an urgent need to understand to what extent the large-scale distribution (for example, regional or national) of intermediate pipelines can create or exacerbate societal inequalities in terms of environmental degradation, exposure to risks for health and other harm. “
Citing figures from the U.S. Department of Transportation, the study says federal regulators have documented 36 deaths, 164 injuries and an estimated $ 2.5 billion in costs associated with industry-reported incidents from collection and transportation pipelines. of natural gas.
Pipeline issues have been in the news in North Carolina lately, with a recent ransomware attack on the management of the Colonial Pipeline, which transports several petroleum products along the East Coast. A failure of this same pipeline was responsible for a million gallon oil leak in Huntersville in August 2020.
The study was conducted by Emanuel and Louie Rivers III of the NC State, Martina Angela Caretta from the Swedish University of Lund and Pavithra Vasudevan from the University of Texas. It did not attempt to offer solutions on how to mitigate pipeline development in socially vulnerable communities.
Energy companies have long argued that placing pipelines near major cities would make no sense because of the likelihood that a catastrophic event could put many more people at risk. This is one of the reasons why they choose rural areas, even though more socially vulnerable people usually live there.
Emanuel said he was not sure of the answer, but would like the country to launch a concerted effort to significantly reduce its dependence on natural gas.
âIf you keep building these (pipelines), you will have to deal with the impacts on urban or rural communities,â he said. “Maybe it’s a Catch 22. I’m not really sure.”
Calls to reduce the use of natural gas are on the rise
Emanuel isn’t the only one who thinks it’s time for the United States to reduce or eliminate the use of natural gas in a bid to stop global warming.
The Wall Street Journal reported in May a growing struggle emerges across the United States as “cities consider phasing out natural gas for cooking and heating in homes, citing concerns about climate change …”
According to the publication, San Francisco, Seattle, Denver and New York have adopted or proposed measures to ban or discourage the use of natural gas in new homes and buildings.
Meanwhile, Arizona, Texas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Kansas and Louisiana have passed laws banning municipal bans on fossil fuels in their states before they can spread, claiming that they are too restrictive and expensive.