Natural gas companies, environmentalists collaborate on pipeline construction

CHARLESTON — Several natural gas companies have teamed up with an environmental non-profit to craft guidelines for safely constructing pipelines on mountainous and hilly terrain

The Nature Conservancy collaborated with eight energy companies to create a report entitled “Improving Steep-Slope Pipeline Construction to Reduce Impacts to Natural Resources.”

The report was created by the conservancy and a steering committee consisting of representatives from Dominion Energy, Enbridge, EQT Midstream Partners, Kinder Morgan, NiSource, Southern Company Gas, UGI Energy Services and Williams.

The report focuses on mitigating the impacts of landslides and slips caused by constructing pipelines on slopes, as well as their effects on habitats and water quality. The report is timely, as the pipeline connected to a recent natural gas explosion in Marshall County last month is at further risk.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration released a report on July 9 saying areas along the 130-mile TransCanada/Columbia Gas Transmission line are at risk of slips in areas where the pipe sits on steep slopes. That’s after a weld failed on a portion of the pipeline in Marshall County, sending a fireball into the air that could be seen for miles.

In a statement, Judy Dunscomb, a senior scientist for the conservancy, said the report focuses on three key recommendations: Avoid-Minimize-Compensate.

“First, we identify ecologically sensitive areas that should be avoided altogether,” Dunscomb said. “Our next priority is to reduce environmental impacts as much as practicable. The last resort is to secure compensation for those impacts that cannot be avoided.”

The report lays out several best practices for pre-construction, construction and restoration, and operation and maintenance in the future. Some of the best practices for companies to use when constructing pipelines on slopes include: performing geohazard assessments and post-construction geohazard monitoring, accurately identifying water features, optimizing groundwater management, and utilizing hydroseeding and hydromulching.

Thomas Minney, state director of the Nature Conservancy in West Virginia, said it was important for his organization to take the lead on creating these best-practice guidelines since the Mountain State is at the epicenter of nature and industry.

“West Virginia is such an important place from a natural resources perspective,” Minney said. “It’s a center of biodiversity here in the United States and even globally. It’s a very important place for the ecological services we get and provide through clean water and the amount of carbon we store. But we are also a global center for energy production. When those two things overlap, it’s very important to find ways to work together to get it right.”

The survey’s collaboration with industry is nothing new. As one of the largest environmental groups in the U.S., The Nature Conservancy believes it’s important to use science and dialogue when crafting environment guidelines.

“The mission of The Nature Conservancy is to conserve the land and waters on which all life depends. Of course, that means nature, but that also means the human communities that live here in nature,” Minney said.

“We have a unique and proven role in the conservation community to pursue dialogue with all interested parties and stakeholders. It’s a natural extension of who The Nature Conservancy is to want to be at the table with industry and to bring to the table the other stakeholders, such as the agencies and interested parties, to have the discussion about how you do things right and have the least amount of impact.”

Other agencies involved in creating the report include the American Gas Association, the Environmental Council of States, the U.S. Forest Service, Trout Unlimited and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which regulates interstate pipelines.

“The FERC generally appreciates conservation groups’ and industry’s efforts to develop proactive and collaborative solutions,” said FERC spokesperson Tamara Young-Allen. “While the FERC provided some input to the TNC’s working session, the guidance is not an official agency guidance document. However, staff will certainly continue to review the TNC’s final guidance and consider what, if any, aspects could be incorporated into any particular natural gas transmission pipeline project under FERC’s review.

Jake Glance, communications director for the state Department of Environmental Protection, said the conservancy guidelines are similar to guidelines the department follows when looking at in-state pipelines.

Glance said DEP also identifies the potential for landslides and erosion using soil data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, along with slope steepness. The department also looks at seasonal highwater tables, shrink/swell potential, percentage of clay, and soil depth.

“In addition to identifying hydrologic resources as groundwater seeps and springs, WVDEP also considers rain water infiltrating into the backfilled trench a hydrologic resource,” Glance said. “We believe these measures will minimize soil erosion and slips caused by seeps, springs and surface runoff causing soil saturation during trenching excavation and after the trench is back filled. This should help mitigate fines and/or actions from the WVDEP.”

The department also has a website dedicated to monitoring major pipeline projects in West Virginia. Major projects include The Mountain Valley Pipeline, Atlantic Coast Pipeline, Mountaineer Xpress Pipeline, Mountaineer Gas Co.’s Eastern Panhandle Expansion Project, the Goff Connector Pipeline and the Rover Pipeline.

With environmental groups, energy companies, and government agencies working together, Minney believes that the impact from pipelines traversing West Virginia can be minimized and that a balance with nature can be obtained.

“That’s our hope, is that by the companies coming together and making this commitment to themselves, others, and implementing these best practices that we see reduced impacts,” Minney said. “I think that’s important and good for West Virginia.”