Residents across four states along the 37 mile route of a controversial pipeline expansion are saying no-or, NOPE-to Spectra, the Texas-based company pushing for the project, which proponents say will bring needed natural gas to the Northeast.
NOPE stands for “No Pipeline Expansion”, and the coalition of activists from Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island is trying to reopen the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, (FERC) hearing in which the Algonquin Incremental Market, (AIM) project was approved, citing a slew of environmental concerns that include its perceived potential to contribute to climate change.
But they’ll have to wait. FERC has responded to their petition for re-hearing with a tolling order, which allows the Commission to deliberate indefinitely on whether or not to reconsider its approval of the project. Normally, a request would automatically be denied if FERC does not respond within a 30-day window, but the order keeps discussion alive, says Tamara Young-Allen, a FERC spokesperson.
But Spectra’s pipeline-portions of it, at least-is still alive as well. Even the Commission deliberates on whether or not to grant the petitioners’ request for re-hearing, the company can proceed with “various stages of the project”, according to Young-Allen.
That’s something that NOPE Coalition activists have taken issue with.
“It stops the clock on legal action,” said Susan Van Dolsen, a New York State-based NOPE activist. “They’re going to go ahead with the pipeline whether or not FERC answers our request.”
Carolyn Elefant is the Washington, D.C.-based attorney who filed the request for rehearing on behalf of the NOPE Coalition. Yes, certain aspects of the project have the go-ahead with FERC’s decision, but but the tolling order is not “indefinite”, she says.
“It’s basically a notice that FERC needs to resolve it,” Elefant said over the phone. “They are resolving it. They’re [just] giving themselves more time.”
Seventy percent of the pipeline-or 26 miles out of the 37-will be the replacement of existing pipelines, according to FERC. The project also includes the modification of 6 compressor stations.
The petition-over 270 pages long-alleges that the Commission, among other things, violated a slew of environmental protection laws imposed by various agencies, failed to justify the need for the expansion of Spectra’s natural gas pipelines, segmented the Algonquin Incremental Market (AIM) Project from “interdependent” pipeline work in order to meet energy regulation standards, and disregarded the expert testimony pertaining to potential danger associated with the route’s proximity to a nuclear power plant in New York State.
Elefant said that she was concerned specifically with what the petition alleges is a violation of the Clean Water Act. Per the law, Spectra would have been required to obtain state-level permits prior to FERC’s approval of the project. Connecticut, New York, and Massachusetts had not given the pipeline the green light in that regard as of Commission’s March 2 decision-although Spectra got its New York permits in May-according to the petition.
That was the argument brought by plaintiffs in the Gunpowder Riverkeeper v. FERC case-currently in the D.C. Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals. Opponents of the AIM pipeline expect that ruling to set the playing field for their petition against Spectra.
“It’s going to have a domino effect,” Elefant said. “Because FERC has been doing this for at least five, six years. To the public, it’s kind of a sleeper issue because it’s a permit, and [a matter of] what comes first.”
But it could ultimately delay Spectra’s construction of the pipeline, should FERC be found in violation of the Clean Water Act, Elefant said.
If not, there are other issues to point out, one of them being allegations that Spectra is segmenting multiple pipeline projects to downplay environmental impact.
“The segments by themselves don’t look that bad,” Elefant said. “But if you look at it together, the impact would be great.”
The other segment, allegedly, is the Atlantic Bridge Project, a Spectra-described expansion of the AIM pipeline.
“It’s difficult to prove segmentation-especially in pipeline cases,” Elefant said. “You have to be able to show that these things were planned together.”
Or at the very least, establish that it would not make sense to construct one without having the other, she said.
The petition alleges that FERC violated the National Environmental Policy Act, (NEPA) in “failing to consider” that both projects are “dependent” on one another. The petition also claims that the Commission went against a provision of its own Certificate Policy Statement-written to establish required proof of need for the project and avoid “overbuilding and duplication of facilities”.
The petition also alleges that FERC failed to consider, among other things, the emission of greenhouse gasses and their impact on climate change-another NEPA violation and grounds for reversal.
“The number one problem with their approval is that methane is a greenhouse gas that causes climate change,” said Martha Klein of the Connecticut Sierra Club.
And the potential to exacerbate that can extend beyond just natural gas, says Josh King, a Hartford, Connecticut-based environmental activist with the NOPE coalition.
“The fracking companies like to say that natural gas burns cleaner than coal and oil, and it does, but if you take into account all the energy used to extract it, it has a carbon footprint greater than coal,” King said.
While FERC admits that air quality will be affected, it’s report states that the impact will be “localized and temporary”. Part of the Commission’s approval was a review of Spectra’s Fugitive Dust Control Plan, FERC says.
But the footprints of the pipeline itself will track through Connecticut wetlands, along with other habitats throughout the state, Klein said.
Algonquin is expected to impact about 28 acres of wetlands within Connecticut, according to FERC’s Environmental Impact report. The conversion of forested wetlands to non-forested during the pre-construction phases of the project, according to FERC. The measure is expected to prevent the loss of wetlands, the report says.
Spectra will be implementing “compensatory mitigation” measures in wetlands that are permanently converted to non-forested, the report says. FERC has also approved the projects separate Wetland Mitigation and Invasive Species Control Plans.
But there are safety concerns regarding pipelines as well, King says.
“Sometimes they explode, like we saw with the gas pipeline in Middletown,” he said.
That was in 2010, and it left 5 fatalities. With AIM, the concern is regarding the Indian Point Energy Center, (IPEC) in New York State.
“We have a nuclear plant near a high-pressure gas line,” King said. “That seems like a disaster waiting to happen.”
FERC, however, cited independent reports from both Entergy Nuclear Operations, Inc. and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission stating that the project does not pose a threat to the facility.
“Because of the distance of the proposed Project from the IPEC generating facilities and the avoidance and mitigation measures that it would implement, the proposed route would not pose any new safety hazards to the IPEC facility,” FERC wrote in its report.
Spectra Energy could not be reached for comment.