Energy Sovereignty

Archives from the Stop the PSU Pipeline Campaign and the early days of CITY-GREEN

Digging Into the Pipeline – March 25, 2013

How to Get Involved

More things to think about…

1. There is a tangible benefit to the Borough, although it’s not gas-service-related.

The “benefit” of the pipeline project may be cost savings for the Borough from getting access to the water and sewer lines under Prospect Avenue and road resurfacing services from Columbia Gas.

Sifting through archived messages at the Highlands Civic Association list-serve, I found State College Public Works Director Mark Whitfield’s responses to a resident’s letter in October 2012.

If I’m reading the emails correctly, Columbia Gas/NiSource has agreed to allow the State College DPW and State College Borough Water Authority staff to coordinate projects during the digging process to update water and sewer lines, and perhaps share or assume the cost of the resurfacing after the pipelines are in the ground.

In an era of ever-tighter municipal budgets making routine infrastructure maintenance and upgrades difficult, if not impossible, having Columbia Gas pay to resurface and improve Borough roads is a real benefit. There may be a written memorandum of understanding about it although it might also just be a verbal agreement.

Mark wrote that Columbia Gas would

“…replace bad curbs, install handicapped ramps and perform a full mill and overlay of pavement.  A new street would alleviate any future infrastructure improvements needed on Prospect, Bellaire, and Burrowes for at least 25 years. They are not obligated to do this work…

Getting a new street out of this will save all taxpayers of the Borough a significant amount of money in the near future. Additionally, we have asked the Water Authority to replace any lines they felt needed to be replaced prior to the resurfacing. We will be repairing/replacing sanitary and storm sewer lines prior to the resurfacing. It is our goal that this is a “once and done” project, and no construction, for any reason, will be needed on Prospect, Bellaire, and Burrowes for 25+ years…”

Mark also added that if the gas pipeline were installed instead along College Avenue, it would disrupt fragile businesses and also the street resurfacing would benefit PennDOT, rather than the Borough, since PennDOT controls College Avenue as part of Route 26.

I don’t think the pipeline is a net benefit to the Borough – I think the risks of explosion, property devaluation, environmental damage from fracking, and climate change impacts from methane off-gassing far outweigh any potential benefit from the roadwork.

But I don’t think Borough officials are stupid. I don’t agree with their risk-benefit analysis, but I do think at least some of them believe the Borough will get something worthwhile out of this process, which is why, I think, they’ve been going along with the plan so far.

2. The karst geology underlying the Borough poses a particular risk to pipelines and other underground infrastructure: sinkholes.

In that same message to a concerned Borough resident, Mark Whitfield highlighted the karst geology under State College and Penn State:

“…all utilities have some inherent danger. In this area even a small leak in a water line, storm sewer line, or sanitary sewer line leak could be catastrophic due to the karst geology. A leak of any type could, in the right area, open a significant sinkhole that could take roadways or buildings. I can give you numerous areas where this happened but the most recent one was at the Forestry Building on campus. However, suffice to say, we continue to install and maintain, to the best of our ability, underground water and sewer lines…”

It’s true, as far as it goes, that all utilities have some inherent danger. It’s also true that some are more dangerous than others and a large explosion of leaked methane over a populated area is more dangerous than a sinkhole from  leaked water and sewer lines in a populated area.

The point being: the geology in the Borough seems to be a crucial safety factor for the proposed gas pipeline – a sudden collapse of the ground under the pipeline would negate many/most of the safety features built into the system.

3. Natural gas as a medium to long-term resource is not as stable as media reports suggest.

In making the decision to convert the coal-fired plant to natural gas, Penn State’s Board of Trustees is trying to comply with federal EPA regulations. But in choosing to replace one fossil fuel with another, instead of steering the university away from fossil fuels altogether and toward intensive conservation measures and creating renewable energy infrastructure, the Board has probably also been swayed by the widely-dispersed argument that hydraulic fracturing has made natural gas “plentiful, cheap, American, and much easier on the climate than coal or oil.

Unfortunately, as the fracking boom has unfolded over the last few years, all of those claims are being proved wrong.

  • Well depletion rates are extremely steep.
  • Drillers seeking a profit have pulled back on natural gas fields (where they’ve been operating at a loss due to the market glut that drove prices down), and instead invested in oil fields, so the production capacity has dropped, leading to the beginnings of a price spike.
  • Initial claims that the gas would solely supply American markets has given way to the lobbyists’ push to allow foreign sales, because the worldwide market supports far higher prices.
  • And scientific studies have shown that – aside from the damage to air quality, water quality and soil quality, hydraulic fracturing produces unavoidable side-emissions of methane, a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon-dioxide.

Kurt Cobb, summarizing these developments:

So Penn State’s Board of Trustees is making a poor practical, financial and environmental decision based on inaccurate information. Natural gas as an energy resource is finite, expensive, global and arguably worse for the climate than coal or oil.

4. The Highlands Civic Association includes among its members and affiliates a remarkable  number of engineers and other professionals – both PSU affiliated and independent – who are capable of working with other community members throughout State College and Penn State to design, build and maintain comprehensive conservation programs and viable, locally-owned and operated renewable energy systems.

They’re also mighty motivated by their personal stake in not having a dangerous pipeline routed through their neighborhood. They aren’t only saying “Not In My Front Yard.” They’re also saying “We can help Penn State reduce and meet its energy needs in the right way, so they don’t have to do it the wrong way.”

Whether they get the chance to pitch in and help create a lean, green energy system for State College and Penn State depends mostly on whether decision-makers ask them to.

If the Board of Trustees frames the question as:

“How can the university’s energy consumption be reduced enough to shut the West plant rather than convert it to natural gas?”

…then the millions of dollars budgeted for the coal-to-gas conversion and pipeline installation could be spent figuring out how to equitably condense university functions (office-sharing, lab-sharing, job-sharing etc.) to reduce the number of buildings that need to be powered, how to tighten the envelopes of the buildings that remain in use, and how to follow Germany’s lead on solar power, making it possible to shutter the Penn State West Power Plant permanently.

And even if the current Board sticks with its myopic plans, community effort spent now to fill in the details of comprehensive conservation and solarization won’t be wasted.

Energy depletion is inevitable and a reduction in the scale of human activities is also inevitable. So there’s a lot of value to making plans to put on the shelf, ready to be whipped into service next time around. Whether this particular pipeline project happens or not, in a few years, Penn State and State College will be facing the exact same predicament, with less money, fewer material resources and even more urgency.

5. The Community Bill of Rights & Natural Gas Drilling Ban is more than a road block. It’s also a steering wheel.

One purpose of the November 2011 charter amendment was to block attempts by governments, corporations and regulators to install dangerous and dead-end fossil-fuel power infrastructure.

But it also directs those decision-makers to create the healthy energy systems people really need. It acts a little like a parent putting the cookies up on a high shelf. Penn State trustees want the cookies of what they think is cheap and easy energy. Many residents know better – that natural gas is neither cheap nor easy – and that other energy planning is better, smarter, healthier and safer.

So the Bill of Rights is a tool to help us all learn to “eat our broccoli,” by steering our limited time and resources away from the empty calories of fossil fuels, toward safer, easier-to-maintain, renewable/small scale, sustainable energy solutions.


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One thought on “Digging Into the Pipeline – March 25, 2013

  1. John Best on said:

    I haven’t yet seen the municipality or university acknowledge that there is a real cost to the extra safety required each and every time the municipality digs anywhere near the proposed pipeline.
    Nor has there been a discussion about monitoring subsidence along the route. Nor about a quality assurance program capable of independently verifying the rate of pipeline decay is within promised specifications. These extra precautions are required for many decades in the future. And wiat a minute…….have there actually been any promises about guaranteed minimum rate of decay and degradation? No? Just assurances of ‘extraordinary measures’ during installation. Measures that are actually quite ordinary, and by themselves no guarantee whatsoever.

    What should be undertaken is a serious estimate of permitting, oversight and emergency preparedness connected with each dispatch of any backhoe or digging machine in the area of the pipeline. This is exactly the real cost the university is transferring to the municipality. The street re-paving is lilputian compared to the real long term safety assurance costs. And how do we compare this real cost of extraordinary safety precaution and preparedness to the inevitable worries residents will have about the thing being ‘down there rusting’, the ‘ticking-time-bomb factor’?

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