End of the road for America's oil and gas pipelines?
America’s big natural gas and petroleum pipeline projects are on shaky ground. A surge of protests by environmental and social activists, litigation and policy changes are adding up to budget-busting delays. Projects are being abandoned as costs increase
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A great change is sweeping over America's energy landscape. Once easy built pipelines vital to the delivery of oil and gas from wells to refineries across the country are being blocked.
Fears over safety and pollution and an increased awareness of the risks of climate change have led to a surge of protests and legal objections by environmental campaigners, Native American tribes, and community groups, extending to the heart of the nation's capital. Brandon, how are you doing?
Good to see you.
Likewise. It's also where litigation specialist Brandon Barnes has followed the plummeting fortunes of pipeline projects across the US since 2016.
It's a combination of public interest and pressure, politics, regulatory delays, and litigation. But they've added up to massive delays and cost overruns.
Many campaigns have proved effective in scuppering projects altogether. The largest venture to fall yet was the totemic $9bn, 1,900-kilometre Keystone XL pipeline, supposed to carry heavy Canadian oil from Alberta to Nebraska, from where it could be piped onwards to refineries on the Gulf Coast. After 12 years of delays the owners finally cancelled the project in June after President Biden revoked a key US access permit.
Last year, the $8bn Atlantic Coast Pipeline project, which would have pumped natural gas from West Virginia to utilities in North Carolina, was also abandoned after protracted litigation and delays sent costs soaring. Even operational conduits are under threat. The future of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which has carried oil south from North Dakota's prolific Bakken Shale since 2017, hangs on an environmental review after it narrowly avoided a court-ordered shutdown last year.
The prospects for a greenfield pipeline in particular, in most any area in the United States right now, are very dim. They're just not going to be built. They're getting attacked from all sorts of different directions, and there are courts putting them on hold.
But the oil and gas industry needs pipelines. Huge deposits of shale oil and gas from North Dakota to Texas are waiting to be tapped and pumped across the US. But not here in DC, and well beyond the range of my friendly city taxicab.
Where are you going?
A few hours west of Richmond.
Ooo, that's far.
Five hours later, around 430km southwest of Washington, DC, I'm rolling along the verdant foothills of the majestic Appalachian Mountains in Virginia. A once quiet backwater of country roads has become another front line for the anti-pipeline movement. Jamie, how are you doing?
How are you, sir?
Not too bad, not too bad at all. Good to meet you.
Welcome to Giles County.
Small farmholder Jammie Hale is one of many residents battling the Mountain Valley Pipeline. One section of the 485km pipeline that's due to funnel natural gas across Virginia and West Virginia cuts through the local area and has prompted fierce resistance from many locals.
The local community has really got involved in this resistance against the Mountain Valley Pipeline by showing up, getting involved, going to water board hearings.
Jammie and his neighbours opposing the pipeline claim the risks of an explosion or groundwater contaminating leak are simply too high. So the pipeline comes through your land?
Yes, it... yes, it does.
Georgia Haverty runs several businesses from her farm and apple orchard, including a restaurant and wedding venue.
This is tearing up our land and our property, and our businesses, and our environment, and our water. Wedding parties that come up here to want to tour, they look at this and they just say, no, thank you. I'm sorry, we... you know, we don't know what's going to happen. We don't know if it's going to be done. It looks really ugly.
Not everyone in the community is against the pipeline. And Mountain Valley is now more than 90 per cent complete, but long over budget and over schedule. Supposed to open back in 2018, delays caused by opposition in the courts and by direct protest action have almost doubled the projected cost, from $3.5bn to more than $6bn. And the hit to investors and the reverberations through the industry at large mean that this epic pipeline project could well be the last of its kind.
The company behind the pipeline insists that safety in construction and operation is a priority, meeting or exceeding regulations.
With pipelines apparently under siege, I'm back in Washington, DC, to see how the wider industry sees the viability of piping oil and gas across a country trying to shift away from fossil fuels and clean up CO2 emissions. Frank, how are you doing?
Good to see you.
Good to see you. According to the American Petroleum Institute, pipelines are vital to sustain the kind of supply that has slashed the cost of energy for US consumers and helped wean the country off foreign imports in the last decade.
As we continue to find solutions that are low and zero-carbon emission solutions, we also need that oil and gas today to be able to deliver affordable and reliable energy for folks.
In the short-term at least, the industry sees no effective alternative. Supporters say that ferrying oil and gas by road or rail is far riskier and will create more emissions. And the pipelines are still efficient and reliable.
Sure, we're concerned about it, but we know it's necessary to continue our standard of living.
The opposition to pipelines is not universal. Analysts say the expansion of existing pipelines could sustain the industry. But as activists redouble their anti-pipeline campaigns and climate change plays an increasing role in political discourse, new mega-pipeline projects like Mountain Valley might well be a thing of the past.