By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
To the dismay of local climate activists, a major natural-gas pipeline expansion project that will impact southern New England, New York and New Jersey recently received approval from a key federal agency.
On March 3, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) issued a certificate of approval for the nearly $1 billion Algonquin Incremental Market (AIM) project, submitted by Spectra Energy of Houston.
The proposal has drawn grassroots opposition along the pipeline’s 1,127-mile path between New Jersey and Beverly, Mass. Most recently, activist groups from Rhode Island launched a three-day march against the project. The protest began outside one of the pipeline’s compressor stations in Burrillville, R.I. The site is one of six proposed compressor upgrades within the AIM project.
The Burrillville expansion involves the installation of a 15,900-horsepower compressor engine and other enhancements that would enable the pipeline to carry more natural gas. The Burrillville project will require 16.5 acres of working space and will mean clearing 6 acres of forested land.
Opponents say the project will heighten an already objectionable level of noise from the compressor station, and increase air and water pollution. There also is concern that the added pressure though an aging pipeline — it went on-line in 1953 — will raise the risk of fires and explosions.
Local climate advocacy groups believe the pipeline endorses hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking, an extraction process that is blamed for leaking greenhouse gases, such as methane, in the atmosphere and introducing a host of other pollutants into groundwater and soil.
The governors of Massachusetts and Rhode Island support the AIM project, as do the two U.S. senators from Rhode Island. All six New England governors signed an agreement in December 2013 to expand natural-gas capacity and seek sources of funding, including shifting costs for projects to ratepayers. All argue that the pipeline project is needed to increase supply and avert rapid price increases, especially during the winter when demand is highest.
None have addressed the issue that an undetermined amount of natural gas running through the expanded pipeline may be headed overseas. A prospect that came to light after Spectra Energy filed for approval to reverse the flow of the domestic natural gas to pipelines it owns in Canada.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., was the focus of a recent protest at Yale Law School for his support of the pipeline project — a stance that activist say conflicts with his image as an outspoken climate hawk.
In a recent e-mail to ecoRI News, Whitehouse wrote that the methane emission problem is one he pledges to help fix.
“I hope that this expansion project will help with the local price spike Rhode Islanders experience,” he wrote. “I’m glad that FERC held a public hearing to hear from Rhode Island supporters and opponents before issuing its decision. I will continue at the national level pushing the Obama Administration to pin down the methane leakage problem.”
Environmental groups, such as the Conservation Law Foundation, have suggested expanding energy-efficiency programs and increasing renewable energy as better ways to address demand.
FERC wrote in its approval that long-term agreements for gas from power plants and other facilities show “the present need for Algonquin’s AIM project.”
Construction can’t begin on the AIM project until several more approvals and documents are issued. In Rhode Island, the state Department of Environment is reviewing an air resources permit application. The project also requires a special permit for stormwater discharge. Spectra Energy has yet to submit an application for that permit.
Other conclusions and points made by FERC in the AIM pipeline approval document:
Eminent domain has been granted to Spectra Energy for the AIM project through the Natural Gas Act. This allows Spectra to acquire land to keep its right of way for the pipeline and to build, operate and maintain the pipeline.
Construction of the AIM project will impact 52.5 acres of wetlands, including 17 acres of forested wetlands and 35.5 acres of herbaceous and shrub-scrub wetlands. No wetlands will be impacted by construction of Spectra’s aboveground facilities. Most of the project’s wetland impacts will be for temporary workspaces and these areas will eventually return to pre-construction conditions, although this may take years.
Construction of the AIM project will occur within 50 feet of 332 homes and 94 buildings, many within 10 feet. Most of the residences identified are in West Roxbury, Mass.
The Indian Point Energy Center will incorporate additional design and installation enhancements along 3,935 feet of the AIM project pipeline, where it will lie closest to the nuclear power plant. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission concluded that a breach and explosion of the proposed 42-inch-diameter natural-gas pipeline would not adversely impact the operation of the Indian Point facility. The nuclear power plant is in Stony Point, N.Y., along the Hudson River.
Spectra says is has a program for minimizing methane emissions at all of its facilities. Measures include replacing wet seals with dry seals at compressor stations, replacing older infrastructure to reduce blowdowns, installing leak-detection monitoring systems, and participating in the EPA’s program to share best practices for reducing methane emissions. FERC believes these measures will be sufficient to adequately address any potential issues related to methane emissions from this project.
Given the limited scope of the AIM project, the broader cumulative impacts of fracking isn’t required. The full range of Marcellus shale development is both widespread and uncertain in nature and timing, making it highly difficult and speculative to identify and quantify cumulative impacts of possible future drilling relating to pipeline projects.
The potential environmental effects associated with shale-gas development are neither sufficiently causally related to the AIM project to warrant a detailed analysis nor are the potential environmental impacts reasonably foreseeable.
Natural-gas development, including development of the Marcellus shale region, will continue and indeed is continuing, with or without the AIM project, because multiple existing and proposed transportation alternatives for production from the region are available.
Long-term noise impacts from the AIM compressor stations will be localized to within a mile of each station.
Studies have demonstrated that levels of radon in interstate pipelines carrying gas from the Marcellus shale will be below average indoor and outdoor levels.
Air-quality impacts from construction and operation of the AIM project will not result in significant impacts on residents and the surrounding communities.
Approval didn’t consider whether the natural gas running through the pipeline would be exported.
About 9 miles of 6-inch-diameter pipeline will be replaced with 16-inch-diameter pipe in New London County, Conn.
A new meter station will be built to provide an interconnection with the NSTAR in Assonet, Mass.
FERC says the proposal has taken steps to minimize any adverse impacts on landowners and surrounding communities.
FERC says it couldn’t consider whether the natural gas running through the pipeline would be exported.
The pipeline will cross a total of 102 surface water bodies, one of which is the Hudson River. According to FERC, the project “will avoid or adequately minimize impacts on surface water resources.”