Lorrie Reed lives alone in a trailer on a rural road outside Frankfort, Kentucky, on two acres of land that her late husband bought more than twenty years ago. He left the property to her and their daughters when he died in a motorcycle accident. “He told me before he passed that the place was going to be mine, and the only way I’d lose it was if I let somebody mess me out of it,” Reed says.
Ever since this past summer, when land agents approached her—twice—to ask permission to survey a proposed pipeline route across her property, Reed repeats these words to herself. She walks with a limp, an injury from a collision with a dump truck during the years that she worked on road maintenance crews. She owns a pistol because she is afraid of the feral dogs that she says are common in the area. She held the gun in her palm when the pipeline consultants pulled into her gravel driveway. “You’re trespassing,” she told them.
Still, she decided to sign the paperwork allowing them to survey. A day later, a letter arrived at her house from the Bluegrass Pipeline Blockade, a loose-knit network of Kentuckians organized mainly through Facebook. Reed learned that the pink survey ribbons in the field across the street from her land marked the potential route of a two-foot-diameter transcontinental pipe. It would haul a mix of butane, propane, pentane and other chemicals—called “natural gas liquids,” or NGLs—from fracking wells in West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. Nine years ago, a four-inch NGL pipeline about a tenth as big destroyed five homes in eastern Kentucky and left a state trooper with severe burns after he rescued a 3-year-old child. In August of this year, a ten-inch NGL pipeline ruptured in western Illinois, shooting flames 300 feet into the air.
The information frightened Reed, and she wrote to the Williams Companies, one of the two corporations leading the pipeline project, to say that she had changed her mind: no one from the Bluegrass Pipeline project should set foot on her land.
By the end of the summer, distressed property owners and other Kentucky residents had united in an uprising against the pipeline. The project hasn’t aroused much public outcry in the other seven states it would cross. But in Kentucky, the proposed route traverses hallowed terrain: the eponymous Bluegrass Region, where the Kentucky Derby’s prizewinning horses graze; rolling hills pocked by springs, rivers, and aquifers that flow through the limestone soils and give Kentucky bourbon its characteristic taste. Opponents say a pipeline spill could destroy Kentucky’s traditional economies. Signs saying No Proposed Bluegrass Pipeline now line many of the rural roads; one sits at the edge of Reed’s yard. Officials in several counties and one city have passed resolutions protesting the pipeline or pleading with the state or federal government to consider the potential impact on property rights and the environment. Since at least October, land agents hired by the pipeline developers have been privately making deals with property owners—but some, like Reed, say they won’t budge.
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It’s becoming a familiar battle for the fossil-fuel industry, as it scrambles to build new infrastructure to move the massive quantities of oil and gas that it’s producing in the Northeast, Southwest, Rockies and Great Plains. As technology has made it easier and more cost-effective to extract natural gas and oil trapped in rock formations, fossil-fuel production has boomed in the United States, reversing a decades-long decline in domestic fuel production. (The International Energy Agency predicts that the United States will be the world’s number-one producer of oil and gas by the end of 2015.) But despite President Obama’s brag in 2012 that he’s overseen enough new pipelines to “encircle the Earth and then some,” the United States is fracking and drilling so enthusiastically that the builders of pipelines can barely keep up. “Developing new pipeline capacity…will not be without difficulties,” the Brookings Institution wrote in a 2013 report. “Landowner rights…pose potential obstacles that can slow down the construction process.”
There are dozens of new oil and gas infrastructure projects—and thousands of miles of new pipelines—planned for the next few years. But pipelines carry flammable, toxic materials next to homes, and many experts say they’re poorly monitored by the government. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approves any proposed new gas pipelines that cross state lines, and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) oversees their safety standards. But PHMSA is notoriously understaffed: just 110 federal inspectors supervise the nation’s 2.5 million miles of existing pipelines. (PHMSA says it has help from about 300 state inspectors, but they don’t cover every state.)
Oversight for new pipelines carrying oil and NGL—both classed as “hazardous liquids”—is even laxer, say critics. Although agencies like the Army Corps of Engineers and the US Fish and Wildlife Service issue permits related to specific environmental concerns, no federal regulator scopes the whole project or checks whether the pipeline could follow a different route—one, say, with a narrower environmental impact. With the exception of densely populated zones, places with drinking-water sources and any land deemed “unusually sensitive,” if a pipeline operator notices a safety problem, it is, according to the watchdog group Pipeline Safety Trust, “left pretty much up to [their] good judgment” to decide when to fix it.
In the absence of help from federal agencies, thousands of people and hundreds of communities negotiate with oil and gas companies on their own. A handful of local governments in various parts of the country—including Missouri and Washington State—have passed ordinances that grant stricter oversight for new housing, schools or hospitals near existing pipelines, and a few states have standards for restoring soils around new projects that cross farmland. Still, when a new pipeline is proposed, property owners have to nail down the details in their contract—often with the help of a lawyer, almost always at their own expense. Without much guidance from regulators, they negotiate the money, as well as how much distance to leave between a pipeline easement and a house, and whether the company will replant the trees it has bulldozed or rebuild fences.
The stakes are high, and the situation can leave people vulnerable—especially if a company claims it can use eminent domain, the power to seize private land for a project deemed to serve the public good. In Kentucky, for several months, both of the companies involved in the Bluegrass Pipeline project insisted they could, although the Kentucky Energy and Environment Secretary refuted this in a public meeting in September. Still, the threat has frightened some property owners.