Time to Speak — The problems with the pipeline

By Sister Claire McGowan, O.P.

Some Kentuckians have heard about a proposed Bluegrass Pipeline to run through Nelson and 17 other Kentucky counties on its way from Pennsylvania and New York to the Gulf area. It might be helpful to lay out some of the issues from the perspective of community sustainability.

First, what will the pipeline carry? Kentucky has lots of pipelines that carry oil and natural gas, but we’ve never had one before that carries Natural Gas Liquids (NGLs). NGLs are the substances that are left over once natural gas is harvested from the yield of the new energy venture in the northeastern U.S. called “fracking.” We’ll come back to that word in a moment, but NGLs are made up of ethane, butane, propane, methane and other chemicals. These substances would be highly flammable and extremely explosive in a community if sections of pipe were to fail, and would also leach toxic substances into the groundwater below.

“Fracking” (hydraulic fracturing in technical language) is a process whereby a well is drilled deep down into the earth’s crust so that a mixture of water, sand and some 500 undisclosed chemicals can be injected down and then spewed horizontally over distances to break up (“fracture”) the bedrock, forcing the release of encapsulated natural gases and liquids.

It takes more than a million gallons of water to supply each well; tens of thousands of “fracking” wells are already at work and more are being opened every day in the northeastern U.S. The natural gas industry is enthralled to have discovered this new fossil fuel energy source, running daily TV ads to remind us how fortunate we are to have access to this wonderful new source of cheap abundant energy.

I am not enthusiastic about “fracking” as a source of energy. To begin with, the wisdom of busting up the underpinnings of the earth’s crust that holds up everything on which life depends seems questionable. With fresh water growing scarcer each year, how wise is it to ruin over a million gallons per well with toxic chemicals? Even worse, once the toxic water has accomplished its fracking task, what do we do with it? It is being reported that fracking companies are now trying to buy spent coal mines in Eastern Kentucky for storage of this water.

But “fracking” aside, how about this pipeline? Carrying 400,000 barrels per day under very high pressure, it will be buried three feet deep and has to be passed under the Ohio River and all the intervening waterways. Central Kentucky’s land substructure is largely karst, limestone rock that tends to dissolve into underground caves and sinkholes. Is this  a stable foundation for a heavy pipeline? What about our proximity to the New Madrid Seismic Zone, projected to have a 90 percent probability of severe earthquakes over the next 50 years?

Perhaps today’s engineers and technology might be advanced enough that all these risks could be minimized by a highly responsible and careful pipeline company. The natural gas safety website www.naturalgaswatch.com casts serious doubt that the Williams Company of Tulsa, Okla., proposed builder of the Bluegrass Pipeline, qualifies as such a company. The list of Williams safety violations in recent years is alarming and does not bode well for protecting Kentucky’s families, farmland, water and wildlife.

In sum, the Bluegrass Pipeline will risk much of what makes central Kentucky dear to us: the beauty of our landscape, the abundance of good water, the health of our air, the peaceful quietness of our rural areas and the general sense of security from unexpected disasters. The benefits are a few temporary construction jobs and some one-time payments to a relatively few landowners. Isn’t this a pretty high price for Kentuckians to pay in order for big energy companies to make money turning these NGLs into petrochemicals for export to China and India?

Dominican Sister of Peace Claire McGowan is the executive director of New Pioneers for a Sustainable Future in Springfield, Ky.

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