Shale gas pipelines pose challenges to state's forests, wildlife
The 8,500 miles of gas pipeline running under Pennsylvania could quadruple within the next two decades, according to a forthcoming study, raising questions about how the work will affect forests, wildlife and even the suburbs around Pittsburgh.
Increased shale gas drilling in Pennsylvania could require between 10,000 and 25,000 miles of new pipe, according to researchers led by the Nature Conservancy. They studied pipe laying in Bradford County, the state's most drilled county in the Marcellus shale.
The pipeline expansion would cut new clearings through forests, possibly introducing invasive species and threatening existing wildlife, according to the study. Several municipalities, such as Peters, Findlay and Cranberry, may have to grapple with how pipeline proposals affect their burgeoning residential and commercial development.
"The pipeline issue is huge," said Nels Johnson, the conservancy's deputy state director and the study's lead author. "We need to find ways to make it much more efficient than it is today so that we use less land and expose fewer people to the risks that these pipelines may pose."
The full report will be available on the conservancy's website by the end of December, but the pipeline section should be posted by early next week, he said.
At least 14 major pipeline projects recently finished, pending or planned will traverse almost every county in the Pittsburgh area -- all for the region's shale drilling boom. The buildup has gone on for a couple of years as pipeline companies rushed to connect all their new shale wells, and utility companies tried to meet new federal safety standards. Between them, they doubled their annual spending in Western Pennsylvania to about $800 million going into this year.
With several projects becoming increasingly certain, that spending may rise.
Spectra Energy Corp. received federal approval last week for a statewide expansion through Greene, Fayette and Somerset counties.
M3 Midstream LLC has signed easement agreements in Washington County over the past month for its new Appalachia Gathering System to collect gas from Marcellus shale wells and ship it to an interstate pipeline network.
Enterprise Products Partners LP and Chesapeake Energy Corp. announced last month they signed a long-term contract to pipe ethane more than 1,200 miles from local shale to the Gulf Coast.
"If you build a new community and you have old roads, you have to build new roads to handle increased traffic. And that's kind of what you're seeing in the pipeline community," said Rob McHale of MarkWest Energy Partners LP.
Drillers spent about $2 billion a year on leases alone from 2008 to 2010, according to industry figures released this summer. Many companies began drilling because their leases specify start dates, said Edward Friel, a shareholder at Schneider Downs & Co. Inc.
"Now they're at a point where they need to get it (gas) moved to make money," Friel said.
One company, MarkWest, partnered with two other companies to build a project called Mariner West -- including a 40-mile pipeline from Chartiers, possibly through Findlay -- to connect to a Canada-bound pipeline in Beaver County.
The Williams Companies Inc. has proposed a pipeline, Confluence, to head south through a proposed Cranberry processing plant and maybe through Findlay to hook up with another pipeline in Greene County, according to a company presentation. Williams officials have not contacted Cranberry about it, said John Trant Jr., its chief planning officer.
Findlay Manager Gary J. Klingman said last week he and township officials didn't know about the Mariner West or Confluence projects until the Tribune-Review showed him mapped proposals that are on the Internet and were offered at a trade conference.
Findlay, on Allegheny County's western edge, has 5,000 people and a planned build-out to 12,000. It hosts Pittsburgh International Airport and a long-standing corridor for electricity transmission and has taken great care to keep its buildup of family homes separated from the noise and safety risks of heavy commerce, Klingman said.
For those same reasons, Klingman said, pipeline development should stick to Findlay's industrial corridor.
"Unfortunately, I don't know that that's quite the way it works," he said. "We don't get a lot of contact until it's a ready-to-go circumstance."
Several companies, including Williams, did not return requests for comment. But officials from several that did said they try to make early contact with landowners and municipalities. It helps companies plan and keeps landowners happy, they said. Some pipelines are overseen by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which requires open-house meetings on new projects immediately after landowners and building sites are identified.
Penn Township has had major pipelines running under it for decades, but no recent construction until Dominion Resources Inc. began digging this year for its Appalachian Gateway Project. It's "innocuous" work that has generated only one complaint -- about mud, said Bruce Light, the township manager.
The only ordinance that applies to the work regulates land disturbance, he said. The measure applies to any construction that disturbs several acres and requires plans for erosion and sediment, and traffic.
"You cannot single out one industry," Light said. "That is clearly against the municipality's planning code."
Peters officials last week began working on an ordinance to deal with new gathering lines, Township Manager Michael Silvestri said. M3's Appalachia Gathering System skirts the eastern edge of Peters, and though the township has worked to create special rules for oil and gas drilling, it hasn't addressed these unregulated pipes. Township officials want to set standards for safe construction and location and ensure the township gets paid if the line crosses a Peters right of way, he said.
Silvestri and Richard Ward, the Robinson, Washington County, manager, said several companies are installing their own systems. It would be useful if state officials helped coordinate, Silvestri said.
"You bury a pipeline under a piece of prime real estate, and you're not going to be able to develop. ... And if there's no consistency in the way the industry does it, then you'll have lines just all over the place," Ward said.