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Problems with the Addison Natural Gas Project

 

Natural gas pipeline being buried. Image: geography.org.uk

Natural gas pipeline being buried. Image: geography.org.uk

By George Harvey

Ever since it was first proposed, the Addison Natural Gas Project (ANGP) has been drawing opposition. For example, 305.org, after listing a series of environmental and safety issues, concluded, “It will also lock Vermont into fossil fuel use for the foreseeable future–the pipeline isn’t a bridge to a livable future; it’s a gangplank to climate catastrophe.”

The project is not really very big, compared to other pipelines. Its core is a 41-mile long tube running through Addison County, where it will supply natural gas to residential and business customers.

Part of the opposition by environmentalists relates to the fact that Vermont Gas (VG), the organization that built ANGP, had underestimated the cost. That might not sound like much more than a pardonable error, but one factor represents a problem. When VG discovered the error, it failed to report it to the Public Service Board (PSB), now the Public Utility Commission (PUC). This is more than a minor error; it is an offense the PSB could, and did, take action on. It resulted in VG having to pay a fine of $100,000. It also made VG appear untrustworthy to some people.

The other issue for environmentalists, and by far the greater one, is that natural gas poses environmental threats. These threats are very significant and would produce opposition to ANGP in any event.

Methane, the most important ingredient in natural gas, burns to carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas. But unburnt methane, which is a far more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, leaks from gas wells and pipelines. Estimates suggest that the methane lost from leaks produces more climate change than the carbon dioxide from the methane that is burned. Many scientists conclude that natural gas is a worse fuel for climate change than coal.

Natural gas pipelines and installations also have other safety issues. For example, the leaks occasionally result in explosions that do extensive damage.

Most natural gas extracted in the United States is now from the fracking fields, and this probably includes the gas delivered by ANGP. There are fracking fields in Vermont or New York, and they are illegal in both states, but they are extensive elsewhere. The process of fracking is the source of extensive environmental destruction.

A marker for a buried natural gas pipeline. Image: theconversation.com

A marker for a buried natural gas pipeline. Image: theconversation.com

Some dangers of fracking are not immediately obvious. For example, the waste water from the process is disposed of underground, and this creates earthquakes. Oklahoma which used to have one earthquake about every ten months, now has about three each day. The waste water also has contaminated wells and caused other damage.

Now, with ANGP completed and delivering gas, the safety issue has arisen again. It has been found that the pipeline was not properly buried. The standards in Vermont say it had to be at least four feet below grade, and at a depth of at least seven feet where the pipeline crossed streams. What has emerged is that the pipeline was buried to shallower depths in at least some places, three feet in residential areas and five feet under streams.

Acting on a request from Jim Dumont, an attorney in Bristol, Vermont, who represents pipeline opponents, the PUC has now opened an investigation into the burial depth of the pipeline at eighteen locations. The investigation should tell whether the difference actually is insubstantial, as VG claims.

VG does not dispute that the pipeline is not as deep as required. In fact, it has filed a request asking the PUC for a retroactive amendment to the pipeline permit. It claims that the discrepancy in the burial depth was an insubstantial change from the original terms of the permit. In other words, it claims that three feet is close enough to four, and five feet is close enough to seven. VG asserts that the pipeline burial is safe, and makes note of the fact that federal guidelines call for a depth of only three feet.

Dumont has filed a second petition with the PUC. He said he now has evidence that there are many more places where the pipeline trench was too shallow. These will probably also be investigated.

The PUC could find that the pipeline depth is acceptable, as VG asserts it to be. On the other hand, the PUC could levy fines. In a worst case, from VG’s point of view, it would require that the pipeline be reburied.

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