The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has curtailed work on a natural-gas pipeline in Ohio after the owner, Energy Transfer Partners, reported 18 leaks and spilled more than 2 million gallons of drilling materials.
The pipeline regulator blocked Energy Transfer Partners, which also built the controversial Dakota Access pipeline, from starting horizontal drilling in eight areas where drilling has not yet begun. In other areas, where the company has already begun horizontal drilling, the FERC said drilling could continue.
The FERC also ordered the company to double the number of environmental inspectors and to preserve documents the commission wants to examine as it investigates the spills.
The biggest spill, in a pristine wetland along the Tuscarawas River about 50 miles south of Akron, covered 6.5 acres, the commission said, “coating wetland soils and vegetation with bentonite clay and bore-hole cuttings.” A video provided by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency showed drilling mud a foot or two deep.
Energy Transfer Partners has asserted that the spills of nontoxic drilling mud, used to cool and lubricate drilling equipment, were inadvertent and had been predicted in its permit application to build the Rover gas pipeline. The horizontal drilling is done to place pipelines well below ground to minimize the chances of contamination of rivers or wetlands.
However, the FERC said that its staff has “serious concerns” regarding the magnitude of the largest spill, “its environmental impacts, the lack of clarity regarding the underlying reasons for its occurrence, and the possibility of future problems.”
It said that the largest spill was “several orders of magnitude greater than other documented inadvertent returns for this project.”
The commission, which regulates all natural-gas pipelines, said that “a stoppage of additional drilling is warranted to facilitate a review of Rover’s efforts to search for and locate any potential releases.”
The Ohio EPA has fined Energy Transfer Partners about $400,000 and has asked the FERC for support. Craig Butler, the Ohio EPA director, said the company’s response had been “dismissive,” “exceptionally disappointing” and unlike any other response he has seen from a company in his 27 years at the agency.
The Rover pipeline is $4.2 billion project that would link the shale-gas-rich regions of Appalachia to Michigan and Ontario.
It is just one of many pipelines whose fate lies in the hands of the FERC, a technocratic and relatively obscure agency. The five-member commission has lacked a quorum since early February, putting new permits on hold. That has placed an obstacle in the path of the White House.
The Trump administration late Monday, May 8, nominated two new members for the commission, potentially clearing the way for controversial, multibillion-dollar pipeline and natural-gas export projects like Rover, which was one of the last permits issued in February.
President Donald Trump has voiced support for new oil pipeline projects such as the Keystone XL and Dakota Access lines, and Gary Cohn, head of the White House National Economic Council, recently threw the administration’s support behind a liquefied-natural-gas export terminal in Oregon’s Jordan Cove that had been rejected by the FERC a few months ago.