Weighing a Demand for Gas Against the Fear of Pipelines

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March 8, 2001

Weighing a Demand for Gas Against the Fear of Pipelines By DOUGLAS JEHL

ALMETTO, Fla., March 1 Since 1959, a single pipeline that runs overland from South Texas has supplied every last bit of the natural gas that Florida consumes. But in the American stampede for gas, that pipeline is no longer enough.

Florida's appetite for natural gas is expected to double in the next eight years, with most to be used by power companies to generate electricity. Here and across the country, the shift to gas from dirtier fuels like oil and coal is widely agreed to be an environmental good.

But in the scramble to produce more fuel and deliver it to market, the industry and the government are running into a problem: the same people who swear by the virtues of natural gas tend to swear at gas pipelines, whose susceptibility to explosions, even though they are infrequent, is sometimes seen as making them the worst of neighbors.

"I think the opposition will continue to grow, so how should we deal with it?" said Cuba Wadlington Jr., president and chief executive of the Williams Gas Pipeline Company, which is seeking approval of a plan to build a $1.6 billion pipeline that would become Florida's main source of resupply. "The government has to help us so that the public understands that these pipelines are needed."

With President Bush urging measures to increase the domestic production of energy oil and coal as well as natural gas the strains on the energy distribution network are likely to be compounded. But a task force headed by Vice President Dick Cheney is working on a plan to accelerate federal approval of new projects, because some estimates project that up to 38,000 miles of new interstate gas pipelines will be needed by 2015. There are now 270,000 miles of such pipeline nationwide.

Pointing to what it calls past mistakes, the Bush administration has already singled out federal indecision under President Bill Clinton as having set back by several years the completion of two major pipelines. The pipelines would serve the Northeast, which along with California has a gas-delivery network that is already close to overtaxed.

Still, some experts have expressed wariness about the new administration's approach, saying that the rush to meet the nation's surging demand for national gas should not lead regulators to overlook the very real concerns that pipelines can pose to the environment and public safety.

"The stress on the energy infrastructure should not stampede us to do things that would be other than prudent," said James Hoecker, who under Mr. Clinton headed the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which is charged with determining when a proposed pipeline would serve the public interest.

As a way around some opposition, the pipeline industry and regulators have begun to look with increasing favor on plans that would bypass most critics by delivering natural gas along undersea routes. The pipeline proposed by Williams for Florida would travel across hundreds of miles of the Gulf of Mexico.

But while causing less inconvenience to property owners, that project, known as Gulfstream, would carry its own brand of hazard, including permanent damage to parts of the sensitive seabed and potential harm to essential fish habitat, according to a federal environmental impact report on the Florida plan.

Recently, the Florida proposal won an initial go-ahead from the state and from the federal energy commission, whose new chairman, Curt Hebert, appointed by President Bush, called the decision a sign of the commission's determination to meet the rising demand for natural gas.

But the Florida pipeline, which would be the largest in the gulf, remains among the projects still being scrutinized by other federal agencies for potential risk. That process is being closely watched by officials like Amy Stein, vice chairwoman of the Manatee County Commission in Florida. The Gulfstream pipeline would come ashore in an industrial port on the south edge of Tampa Bay in her county.

"There are only so many options to generate electricity, and this is the best there is," Ms. Stein said in an interview here. "You don't get clean natural gas without a pipeline. So you bite the bullet and you live with it."

But others in the county, which would be the starting point for the overland part of the 750-mile pipeline that is to begin in Mississippi and Louisiana, scheduled to be completed in 2002, say they are less certain that benefits will outweigh costs.

"The environmental and safety risks are there," said Mary Sheppard, conservation chairwoman of the local Sierra Club.

In general, environmental organizations have rarely been active in the opposition to gas pipelines, seeing them as a necessary part of a welcome equation leading to greater use of the clean-burning fuel. In the case of the Gulfstream, the pattern has held true, with most criticisms addressed by the company's willingness to revise its plans to limit harm.

But elsewhere, the objections have been far more vociferous, particularly after gas pipeline accidents in New Mexico and Washington State in 1999 killed 15 people.

The Northeast has been home to the loudest opposition, with fierce challenges from property owners and state officials in New Jersey and New York leaving in doubt two major natural-gas projects.

Those projects were to have begun delivering natural gas last year. But because of the opposition, their sponsors have had to revise proposed routes several times, and the projects remain bogged down in the review by the regulatory commission. They cannot now be completed until 2002 at the earliest.

Over all, gas pipelines are among the safest forms of energy distribution, records have shown, but on both environmental and safety, there is still cause for concern.

A report last year by the General Accounting Office that did not distinguish between gas and liquid pipelines found that the number of major pipeline accidents those involving injury, death or significant property damage had increased an average of 4 percent a year from 1989 to 1999.

And in a criminal case that remains the biggest of its kind, the company that operates the Iroquois gas pipeline, which extends from the Canadian border to Long Island, pleaded guilty in 1996 to four felonies for violating federal environmental laws. The company agreed to pay $22 million in fines.

With the Energy Department projecting a 30 percent increase in the nation's demand for natural gas by 2010, the debate about new pipelines is likely to extend to places that have paid them little recent attention.

In Alaska, a consortium of major oil companies is weighing plans to build a multibillion-dollar pipeline up to 1,800 miles long that would deliver gas from the North Slope to feed the lower 48 states. And in the Rockies, another source of untapped gas, additional pipelines would be needed to make viable the administration's plans for a surge of exploration.

In proposals modeled after the Gulfstream's project, other companies are considering underwater pipelines for Lake Erie, Lake Michigan and the coast of New England.

The industry, which has been outspoken in its frustration over past delays, has said it hopes the new administration can reduce by half the approval time for major pipeline projects, which now averages 18 to 24 months. Only with such a streamlining, officials say, can the industry fix shortcomings like those in California, whose energy crisis has shown pipeline capacity to be inadequate, and in Florida, where the projected natural gas demand for 2009 is more than a third greater than the capacity of the sole existing pipeline, known as the Florida Gas Transmission.

"The interstate pipeline grid is clearly at a pinch point," said Mr. Wadlington, whose company is one of the nation's largest pipeline operators and is seeking federal approval of several projects.

But critics say that Mr. Cheney, a former chief executive of the Halliburton Company, the oil services giant, needs to be skeptical.

"I don't believe there's a capacity shortage everywhere," said Lois Epstein, an engineer for Environmental Defense, the advocacy group. "We need to be very careful that we identify only the pockets where new pipelines are truly needed."

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), March 08, 2001

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