Balancing gas pipeline expansion, environmental unease a problem in Pa.

| Sunday, Sept. 21, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

The pipes that energy companies need to move record amounts of natural gas from Pennsylvania shale to profitable markets run between 36 inches and 42 inches wide.

The line companies must walk between the rush to build and trampling over communities in their path can be much narrower.

“It's a balancing act,” said Chris Stockton, spokesman for Tulsa-based Williams Co., which operates 15,000 miles of interstate natural gas pipelines and wants to build several extensions, including the 124-mile Constitution Pipeline from the Marcellus shale to New York.

“We naturally try to avoid impacts on people and the environment.”

Pipeline builders have dedicated billions of dollars for numerous projects to help alleviate a supply backup of Marcellus shale gas — infrastructure that will help the industry satisfy growing demand but has created tension with local communities.

Companies say they try to be good neighbors by hosting public meetings before they file plans with federal regulators, choosing existing rights of way to limit the utilities' footprints and avoiding areas full of either homes or sensitive natural areas.

“Any time we look at an expansion project, we look for ways to minimize the impact,” said Jeffrey L. Keister, director of business development for Richmond-based Dominion Transmission, which plans to build the 550-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline from West Virginia to North Carolina.

Even Gov. Tom Corbett, a vocal supporter of the industry, recently asked federal regulators and Williams to tread carefully through Pennsylvania farmland with the company's Atlantic Sunrise project.

“We have this resource, they need to get it to market, and in doing so, they need to cross a lot of backyards,” said Patrick Henderson, Corbett's energy executive and deputy chief of staff. “There are some competing interests.”

But clearing 100-foot-wide swaths through the rolling hills of Appalachia to bury enormous pipes 2 or 3 feet below ground is a messy business. Emotions run high at public hearings, especially in communities where environmental groups opposed to natural gas development have mobilized. Lawsuits and arguments with property owners are common.

“I want the gas companies to drill out here. That will make a lot of money for the state. But if they came back, and I had a choice, I'd want to say ‘No.' ” said Joe Seibel, 63, who watched this year as contractors replaced a Dominion line across the front of his huge front yard in Salem, Westmoreland County, near several compression stations around Delmont. “I can see why people fight it.”

Routing lines through farmland, forest and neighborhoods takes “a colossal compromise between all those competing needs,” said M. Elise Hyland, executive vice president for midstream operations at Downtown-based EQT Corp., which is partnering with NextEra Energy to build the 330-mile Mountain Valley Pipeline. “We spend a lot of time on the routes.”

Landmen hired by companies work with individual property owners to accommodate requests, Hyland said.

The heat is squarely on pipeline builders as they try to balance community concerns against the growing pressure — and need — to address the gas transmission issue.

Energy industry leaders and government officials, from EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, want more infrastructure now. Natural gas production in Pennsylvania's share of the Marcellus went from less than 10 million cubic feet in 2008 to nearly 2 trillion in the first six months of 2014 alone. But pipelines such as Williams' Transco system, built in the 1950s, were designed to move natural gas into Pennsylvania and the Northeast Corridor, not from this area.

Updating and reversing flow on some existing lines has taken several years. Building lines from scratch takes at least three years with federal permitting. So a glut of gas commanding low prices remains in Appalachia while utilities struggle to fuel gas-fired power plants in New England and the Southeast.

“I don't think many companies want to go through the polar vortex again,” said Dominion spokesman Jim Norvelle, echoing a oft-repeated warning about near-blackouts caused by gas shortages during a January cold spell.

Companies hesitated to sink billions into the necessary land, pipes and stations until they had firm commitments from producers, who needed buyers such as power plants and terminals — which also take years to build — on the other end.

Now, the big build-out is on.

“It places a lot of emphasis on putting infrastructure in the ground in a very efficient and responsive manner,” Stockton said.

“Right now, there's a need to expedite that, because you have this window where the supply and demand are there.”

To accommodate all that pipe, Corbett asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission — which must approve interstate pipelines — to “seek coordination to the greatest extent possible among ... proposed pipeline projects.”

Stockton and Norvelle said project planning always begins with looking at chances to “co-locate” the pipeline with other utilities, where the land has already been cleared or a river bridged. It's cheaper than so-called greenfield construction and less likely to impact people and land, they said.

That doesn't satisfy some opponents.

“Just because there was a pre-existing cut doesn't mean there's no harm,” said Maya van Rossum, head of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network and an opponent of natural gas development who has fought pipeline plans. She said rights of way get wider with each addition, causing more run-off and potential damage to surrounding land.

“It's a mildly better option, but not a good solution,” she said.

Through lawsuits and community organizing, the network has pushed companies to avoid environmentally sensitive areas and do more comprehensive planning.

Companies say they're listening.

Williams moved about 20 percent of its initial planned route for Atlantic Sunrise based on feedback and finding it would cross areas such as the Tucquan Glen Nature Preserve in Lancaster County, Stockton said.

Henderson said the state is trying to help mediate community concerns with pipeline companies to find compromises.

“If it's ‘Just say no,' whoever is loudest and most organized might just shift it to another community,” he said.

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