Thursday, May 15, 2014

Profit-Venture Pipelines are Not Public Utilities

Note: The following is the second of a series of letters to the editor concerning Williams Partner's, MLP (WPZ, formed in 2007) planned expansion of the TRANSCO natural gas pipeline. Each  addition to the series will focus on a specific aspect of the Transcontinental Gas Pipe Line Company, LLC's strategy to maximize natural gas transport from frack pad to compressor station to pipeline to export depot. My aim will be to show that--contrary to Williams' claims to concern for the environment, safety, human health, property rights, job opportunities, or community integrity--the Oklahoma company's singular objective is to maximize the profits of its shareholders and its affiliated industry partners at virtually any cost--so long as that cost can be externalized to the public.

Photo, Wendy Lynne Lee

My message is simple and clear: this pipeline cannot be built, and if we allow it we will be to blame for the consequent disaster. There's one truth that's as unmistakable as it is undeniable: more pipeline, more frack pads, more compressors, more tractor-trailor, sand can, chem-truck, and waste hauler traffic, more explosions, more abuses of eminent domain, more forced integration, more property condemnations, more water and air pollution, more forest fragmentation, more invasive species, more community division, more cancer, more endocrine disruption, more lung disease, more rashes, more livestock illness, more suffering--more climate change. What this pipeline represents in the continuing liquidation of Pennsylvania's assets, and its systematic  conversion into an industrialized natural gas extraction colony for multinational corporations--just like Williams. 

I will show you.

Letter two:

When is a profit venture whose primary objective is to transport a highly explosive fossil fuel along arteries through forest and fen, farmland and township, past school houses, retirement homes, hospitals, and homes to export terminals bound for the global markets to be counted as a public utility--a public good?

I'd suggest that the answer to that question is: never. 

CYNOG Compressor, PA
Photo, Wendy Lynne Lee

And I recommend strongly that you don't cave to the landman

Case in point--and if you're following so far, this will make you gag:

As reported at Lancaster Online (Court blocks use of eminent domain on pipeline to pass through Lancaster County - Local News -, Sunoco was denied appeal to the use of eminent domain by Judge Stephen Linebaugh (3.25.14) specifically on the grounds that Sunoco is a pipeline carrier and not a public utility. "Officials for Williams Partners, which wants to build a 35-mile Marcellus Shale natural gas line the length of Lancaster County, north to south, said Wednesday that the court case has no bearing on their project...Stockton [Spokesperson for WPZ] said Williams is under the jurisdiction of the Natural Gas Act [FERC: Natural Gas Pipelines], not the Interstate Commerce Act like Sunoco, and would need to get its power of eminent domain if the project is approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission." 

Two points about FERC:

1. Although FERC claims to "work with" corporations like WPZ to insure the safety of pipeline construction, "[t]he Commission has no jurisdiction over pipeline safety or security" (FERC: Natural Gas Pipelines).

Combine that with: 

2.  FERC virtually never denies a permit application. This is, of course, not surprising since the agency's job just is to grant permits: "FERC, is an independent agency that regulates the interstate transmission of electricity, natural gas, and oil," and because all of its commissioners stand to benefit in one way or another from the energy industries, especially fossil fuels, we can hardly expect them to actually regulate--much less deny--a permit.

Chairperson, Cheryl LaFleur: retired acting CEO of National Grid USA, "responsible for the delivery of electricity to 3.4 million customers in the Northeast" (Cheryl A. LaFleur Biography :: Renewable Energy News and Energy Regulation Information | The Energy Daily). 

Commissioner Tony Clark: From the North Dakota Utility Regulatory Commission, said in a recent interview with the American Gas Association, that the construction of LNG terminals like the one planned by Dominion at Cove Point was good for "energy independence," and insisted--citing "regulatory overreach" that the EPA was not in the best position to evaluate environmental impact--that this should be left to the states (An interview with 2011 NARUC President Tony Clark | True Blue Natural Gas - An Energy Blog from the American Gas Association AGA). In a speech given to a conference of oil and gas operators after his appointment to FERC, he chimed "Keep doing what you’re doing!" (FERC Commissioner—U.S. on Brink of Energy Security | OK Energy Today).

And that's just two of the four current commissioners. Indeed, when commissioner nominee, Ron Binz dared to suggest that natural gas was a "bridge strategy" to renewables, he was attacked  by the Wall Street Journal as a "radical" (More FERC Uproar: Nominee for Chairman Stirs Controversy « Breaking Energy - Energy industry news, analysis, and commentary).     That he  was targeted by the American Energy Alliance and Americans for Prospeity, both Koch Brothers front groups, and thereby forced to withdraw his nomination, should give us a glimpse of the FERC Worldview--or at least who it's not willing to confront (Koch-Fueled Groups Target Ron Binz, Obama's FERC Nominee). 

The upshot is that we have no reason to trust FERC to act particularly for the public good, and every reason to think its commissioners' interests align with the companies they "regulate," including WPZ.

And that brings us right back around to Sunoco, WPZ and eminent domain. As reported by Keep Tap Water Safe (Former PA DEP Secretary Krancer Wants Sunoco To Condemn Your Property | Keep Tap Water Safe), Sunoco's set back--being denied by Judge Linebaugh the right to act as a public utility--was barely even that. In fact, Sunoco had merely paused to reload its property condemnation guns with former Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) secretary, Michael Krancer, now attorney for Blank Rome, who now stood ready and anxious to execute the industry friendly oil and gas laws he helped to put into place while he was at DEP:

Now, the recently former Department of Environmental Protection Secretary is leading the legal team who is working to win Sunoco LP some special utility status, thereby stripping Pennsylvania landowners of their local zoning protections. If this seems ethically challenged to you, maybe it’s because Krancer is now profiting directly from the free-wheeling gas drilling permit policies he enacted while in public office little more than a year ago. Again, it’s sneaky, but it’s not illegal.
Fact is, "Sunoco must export large amounts of gas liquids in order to be profitable. Selling a little propane to the locals on the side does not a public utility make," and that is what's directly relevant to WPZ's plans for the Atlantic Sunrise pipeline. Selling a little natural gas to the locals does not a profit make. Getting to be a public utility-that's where the big bucks are.

If Williams gets Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approval for the 176-mile line through six Pennsylvania counties, it will begin negotiations to buy roughly 55-foot-wide land easements from property owners along its preferred path. If property owners object, Williams will seek the easements through eminent domain in the courts. (Natural Gas Archives |)
In other words, if you don't sign over your land to the landman when he arrives at your door, he's going to try to take it from you anyways, and another word for that "taking" is theft.  Why? Because, as I argued in the first installment in this series, the Atlantic Sunrise is not intended for the public good; it is intended for global export (THE WRENCH: When Sunrise for the Global Gas Markets is Sunset for Pennsylvania: Williams Partner's "Atlantic Sunrise" Expansion of the TRANSCO). So all that hype about "American,""energy security," and "cheap" is just that--hype to get you to sign away your property to a multinational company masquerading as a good neighbor in a plaid shirt and jeans.

He's not. He is, in fact, a thief who is poised to steal from you through the sheer force of a FERC permit approval what he can't extort from you through your signature. And given what we can readily surmise about FERC, not one iota of what he's going to tell you about safety, environment, property value is something FERC is in any position to give a tinker's damn about. 

Still, if you're not entirely convinced by these facts that you don't want to sign a contract for that easement or right-of way, consider the wise words of Michael Faherty, attorney representing landowners in eminent domain cases against the gas industry  “Landowners need to be wary about these companies that come looking to acquire land, they don’t have an obligation to be telling the truth,” Faherty said. “They need to be wary of land agents.” 
(Natural Gas Archives |).

No obligation to tell the truth--that is the understatement of the year--so far.

Here's just a snippet (we'll get to this in letter three) of what they don't tell you:

1. More pipeline means more unconventional drilling--fracking--and more drilling means--just for example:

In a 2013 survey of 550 people conducted by business researchers at the University of Denver, a strong majority said they would decline to buy a home near a drilling site. The study, published in the Journal of Real Estate Literature, also showed that people bidding on homes near fracking locations reduced their offers by up to 25 percent.
If you think that there's a big difference in having a pipeline going through your property is really that different than having an active frack pad, think again. 

An economic analysis by the Headwaters Institute undermines the idea that oil and gas developments fatten the bank accounts of communities and leave them better off than before drilling started. While there may be short-term windfalls, the study of six western states found that over the long-term “oil and gas specialization is observed to have negative effects on change in per capita income, crime rate and education rate.”  (How Fracking Destroys the American Dream | EcoWatch)

Now maybe you're thinking that so long as you don't have a drilling operation right in your back yard, a pipeline is OK--and truth is, the likelihood of a pipeline explosion is fairly small. But, where's there's pipeline, there's compressors, and where there's compressors, the potential for exposure to volatile organic compounds, and to other fugitive emissions accelerates. Here's a little light reading until letter three: 

Barto Compressor,
Photo, Wendy Lynne Lee

And then, of course, there are the explosions, for example a Williams' incident just recently in Opal, Wyoming at a natural gas processing plant (Explosion shuts large natural gas processing plant in Wyoming | Reuters):

The Williams plant feeds into the Opal Hub, a crossroads for five pipelines that connect to California, Oregon and Canada and head east across the Rocky Mountains. Gas at the Opal Hub for Thursday delivery rose 6 cents to $4.63 per million British thermal units.
Wyoming and U.S. regulators were not available to comment or say if gas flows at the Hub would be affected. Utilities used a record amount of gas this past winter to meet heating needs during unusual cold snaps that caused volatile prices and left stockpiles at their lowest level since 2003. A string of accidents involving the country's overburdened pipeline and rail infrastructure has prompted new safety concerns as U.S. output of oil and gas surges during an unprecedented boom. On March 31, a pipeline within its liquefied natural gas facility in Washington exploded and shrapnel from the blast caused a leak in one of two liquefied natural gas tanks, prompting evacuation orders near the plant outside the rural town of Plymouth.
On April 7, a Williams unit said that a gas gathering pipeline in West Virginia caught fire.
Williams operates two natural gas processing plants in Wyoming which remove liquids and other impurities from natural gas to allow it to be transported in large pipelines.
Gas comes to the processing plants from the Williams gathering system, a network of 3,500 miles of pipelines which collect gas produced in the region.

So, just to sum it all up (for now): why would anyone in their right mind sign a contract with a company whose 
  1. safety record is shoddy, 
  2. who's willing to use the power of eminent domain condemnation to get what they want, 
  3. whose product is extracted and processed at the immense expense of the health and environments of the people who must live forever in its shadow, 
  4. and whose singular aim is to export its product to insure its availability to the highest bidder? 
TRANSCO, Picture Rocks, PA
Photo, Wendy Lynne Lee

When the WPZ landman, and his plaid shirt and jeans, knocks on your door, be polite, but tell him no. And when he says he'll be back, wait for him to leave and go talk to your neighbors.

Or better--go talk to your neighbors right now.


Ben Shannon said...

Keep it up. Your words matter.

Wendy Lynne Lee said...

Thanks, Ben. I appreciate it. :)

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