Dangerous oil and gas industry exemption slipped into highway bill
A landmark five-year, $287 billion highway bill moving in the Senate contains a poison pill provision that must be eliminated. The measure — which would be the largest highway legislation in history — is noteworthy for its inclusion of the first climate title in a surface transportation bill. The climate provisions are an important step toward addressing the urgent need to reduce transportation emissions and invest in infrastructure engineered to be more resilient to the increasingly severe effects of climate change.
Unfortunately, buried in this 510-page bill is an unrelated toxic provision that would establish a sweeping environmental exemption for thousands of natural gas, oil and wastewater pipelines — known as “gathering lines” — compressors and pumps on federal or Indian lands.
The provision would exclude such facilities from environmental review required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). If this provision becomes law, these pipelines could be built without public input or sound environmental review meant to analyze their potential impacts.
In the past, gathering lines often were located in sparsely populated areas and were only inches in diameter, in contrast to big transmission pipelines (e.g., the Keystone pipeline) that carry oil or natural gas across the country and are several feet in diameter. But gathering lines are getting larger — much larger. Producers today are employing gathering lines up to 36 inches in diameter with maximum operating pressures that rival transmission lines.
And the number of gathering lines across the country has grown as well, with hundreds of thousands of miles in the ground today. There are more than 6,000 miles of gathering lines in the state of Texas alone. Yet the vast majority of gathering lines are poorly regulated. As Pasadena, Texas Fire Chief Lanny Armstrong stated: “No matter the size, pressure or operator, all of these pipelines carry hazardous materials that can pose serious risks to people and the environment.”
In September 2018, a natural gas gathering line exploded outside a home in Midland, Texas, killing a 3-year-old girl and badly burning her sister and parents. In 2015, a gathering line carrying natural gas exploded in south Texas — “melting portions of a roadway and power lines.” In 2010, a work crew hit a gathering line in a remote area of the Texas panhandle, killing two workers. And in 2013, a rupture and fire in east Texas caused the evacuation of a dozen homes.
As the impacts of climate change continue to worsen, unregulated gathering lines face an increasing risk of failure because of extreme weather events such as hurricanes and floods. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) has issued multiple advisory bulletins to operators, warning about extreme weather events and their consequences.
As long as we keep producing oil and gas, there is a critical need to reduce methane emissions from production fields caused by flaring, venting and leaking. But without careful environmental review under NEPA, the public has no way to know whether a proposed pipeline project will be the most effective approach to reduce methane emissions or whether environmental, health and safety risks have been thoroughly analyzed and understood. In addition, the public will not have an opportunity to provide input. Gathering lines and field compressors present significant environmental, health and safety risks. When on federal or Indian land — some of our most treasured natural resources — they should not be excluded from NEPA review.
Congress should stop this fossil fuel industry giveaway hidden in an unrelated surface transportation bill. Letting it proceed risks irreparable harm to communities and to our environment.
Amy Mall is a senior policy analyst in the Nature Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Prior to joining NRDC in 2001, she worked in the private sector and in county, state and federal government, including the White House National Economic Council and the U.S. Senate. Follow on Twitter @NRDC.