The Pulse

Study: Socially vulnerable areas more likely to have natural gas transmission, gathering lines

By: - June 1, 2021 11:14 am


The base map from the CDC shows the degree of social vulnerability by county. The dark blue areas are the most socially vulnerable and the light green is the least. The overlay of the red line represents the approximate route of the Mountain Valley Pipeline Southgate project. It would traverse two socially vulnerable counties — Rockingham and Alamance — as well as part of Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation tribal lands, north of Burlington.

Four academic researchers, including Ryan Emanuel and Louie Rivers III of NC State University, have found that of the 2,261 U.S. counties traversed by natural gas pipelines, counties with more socially vulnerable populations have significantly higher pipeline densities than those less socially vulnerable.

Their findings appeared last month in the academic journal GeoHealth.

Previous research has focused on the upstream and downstream effects of pipelines, such as fracking wellheads and power plants.

This is the first academic paper to analyze the potential health and environmental problems associated with what is known as “midstream” infrastructure — the transmission and gathering lines for natural gas.

“These results have implications for environmental justice,” the authors wrote, including burdens for Indigenous peoples. “… By considering the environmental justice implications of an entire pipeline network, decision-makers, researchers and others can gain a fuller understanding of the societal impacts of oil and gas flowing through the network.”

In North Carolina, the now-cancelled Atlantic Coast Pipeline would have crossed through tribal lands, including those of the Haliwa-Saponi and the Lumbee. Some Indigenous people oppose pipeline projects because of potential harm to ancestral territories that have cultural, historical or religious significance.

The Mountain Valley Pipeline Southgate project would travel more than 45 miles, entering near Eden, in Rockingham County, and ending in Haw River, in Alamance County.  The CDC’s Social Vulnerability Index measures a community’s ability to prepare for, deal with, and recover from natural disasters and environmental hazards, including pollution.

The Transco pipeline also carries natural gas through the western Piedmont. This map shows the location of the main line only, not spurs or gathering lines. (Source: Natural Gas Intelligence)

The NC Department of Environmental Quality denied a water quality permit for that project, which the pipeline owners have appealed.

By the numbers:

  • There are 320,000 miles — gathering and transmission pipelines in the U.S.
  • Of those miles, 173,000 are on land.
  • Nearly three-quarters of U.S. counties — 2,261 — are crossed by a pipeline.
  • On average, each county contains about 75 miles of pipeline.
  • 26 counties in the U.S. have at least 600 miles of pipeline

The authors note that “relationships between pipeline density and social vulnerability neither imply that vulnerable communities were targeted by pipeline developers nor that vulnerable communities sprang up near pipelines.”

However, the correlations do confirm that pipeline networks are not randomly distributed, the paper states. “Regardless of responsibility or intent, the disproportionately high density of natural gas pipelines in areas of high social vulnerability warrants further attention.”

The researchers note that federal environmental justice analyses are “frequently criticized as methodologically unsound, procedurally rote or ineffective at preventing or minimizing negative impacts disproportionately imposed on socially vulnerable populations.”

While these analyses use census data, they often fail to capture “ground truth,” which only visiting the communities and speaking with residents can provide.  This was a common complaint about the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s environmental justice analysis in regards to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which gave short-shrift to those concerns, as well as cumulative impacts from other pollution sources.

“A more complete view” of transmission systems is necessary, the researchers wrote, to inform regulators and policymakers about the systemic disparities within the entire energy network. This includes “the extent to which vulnerable rural communities subsidize this policy through inequitable exposure to environmental, health and other risks.”


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Lisa Sorg
Lisa Sorg

Assistant Editor and Environmental Reporter Lisa Sorg helps manage newsroom operations while covering the environment, climate change, agriculture and energy.