New Natural Gas Pipelines Clash With Some Landowners

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In the push toward more energy independence, massive infrastructure projects that will help to deliver it have clashed with cherished rights of land ownership.

Proven natural gas reserves have jumped 10 of the past 11 years, according to the Energy Department's Energy Information Administration, and thousands of miles of new pipelines have snaked in every direction.

In just the past 10 years alone, more than 20,000 miles of new natural gas pipelines have been built and brought on line. Those pipelines can carry more than 97 billion cubic feet of natural gas every day.

The owners of property over which new pipelines are planned are concerned about leaks into water and soil, land damaged by construction, land lost to a right of way and, in some cases, even loss of livelihood.

Those concerns range from a Midwestern horse farm which stands to lose grazing land, to Betty Wahle's family vineyard in Yamhill, Ore.

Her land is actually ground zero for not one, but two pipelines. The developers would dig up chunks of rich dirt and some vines that have been nurtured for more than three decades, she said.

Those vines, said Wahle, 68, would not be restored to their current state in her lifetime.

"It's just going to be devastating," she said.

The bulk of the new natural gas supply is in the energy-rich Rockies and Texas. Producers are sinking traditional oil and gas wells and drilling into coal-bed methane reserves in Wyoming, Colorado and Utah. In Texas, it's the Barnett Shale, a 6,000-square-mile bedrock region of natural gas, and the Bossier Sands tight-gas formation.

Between 1998 and 2006, natural gas production in these two regions jumped 96 percent and proved natural gas reserves climbed 127 percent, government statistics show.

There are currently about 288,000 miles of gas pipelines with a capacity of 187 billion cubic feed per day.

From 2008 to 2010, about 200 projects have been proposed to add 10,100 more miles, according to the Energy Information Administration.

If all are finished, the nation's natural gas capacity will jump by more than 38 percent, the EIA said, at an overall cost of about $28 billion.

But the massive expansion comes as energy use is decreasing, which could lead to its own bust and boom cycle on prices, said E. Russell Braziel, managing director of Bentek Energy, an energy markets information company based in Evergreen.

"With additional infrastructure construction being completed and new projects coming online over the next few years, we expect to see significant volatility in regional price differentials for a while to come," he wrote.

The behemoth of the new pipelines is the $4 billion Rockies Express, a joint venture by Kinder Morgan Energy Partners, a unit of Sempra Energy and ConocoPhillips.

Construction of the 1,679-mile, 42-inch pipeline began two years ago about 160 miles northwest of Denver.

Buried under 3 to 5 feet of earth, the Rockies Express is expected to reach Clarion, Ohio, by next summer.

The pipeline will have the capacity to move 1.8 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day, and will send it to markets east of the Mississippi River.

When the massive construction project worked its way through rural, sparsely populated areas there was little protest. That has changed as it approaches more urban areas in the Midwest.

Near Lancaster, Ohio, Scott McClelland said the Rockies Express will restrict access to cattle and put a kink his children's plans to buy nearby property for another farm.

"It'll never be the same I guarantee you," he said.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has approved the plans, leaving McClelland resigned to the development.

"What am I going to do? I can't sit out there and fight; I've got to make a living," McClelland said.

Natural gas in the United States is plentiful, and so are its backers. They say natural gas will serve as a bridge until renewable energy technology can be developed more.

But as natural gas is shipped from West to East, the pipelines intersect with plans that people have made for their own livelihoods.

The Rockies Express will also likely cross farm where University of Dayton biology professor John Rowe and his wife, Robbie, planned to raise race horses.

The couple settled with developers on the advice of their attorney, but say it will take up to five years to rebuild pastures to grazing quality.

Rockies Express spokesman Allen Fore said they have worked with federal and state officials throughout the process and accommodated requests where they could. He said the natural gas is pressurized so it won't leak into the ground and if there is some type of impact, the pipeline shuts down automatically.

"We have made literally hundreds of adjustments, minor adjustments, to deal with landowner concerns," he said. "Most folks believe we give them a fair price. They understand the significance of this project."

Some of the projects, while less likely to play a role in someone's livelihood, can change the landscape for others.

Owners of summer homes in the Scare Canyon Ranch area are worried by El Paso Corp.'s proposed Ruby Pipeline in northeastern Utah, which would require a 150-foot wide swath of trees be cut down during construction.

Ray Gibbons, head of the canyon ranch homeowners association also said there are 22 underground springs that the association owns, which he said may be threatened by the 42-inch pipe.

"They've been pretty decent about trying to work with us but if they get FERC backing, then there will be no stopping it," he said.

On a steep hillside in northwest Oregon, the Wahle family planted their first vines in the 1970s on a 100-acre plot.

Developers have proposed routes across the property for the 220-mile, 36-inch pipeline which would connect TransCanada's system in central Oregon with NW Natural's distribution system. It is pending federal authorization.

Oregon Pipeline Co., which said it always tries to work closely with landowners, has proposed a 117-mile pipeline that also could cross the vineyard.

"They won't allow us to replant vines above the pipelines," she said. "There's very little that you could actually do with this piece of property."