The proposed NEXUS underground natural gas pipeline is a step closer to construction.
The Federal Environmental Regulatory Commission released a study Nov. 30 saying the project is safe and environmentally sound.
Completion of the study, known as an environmental impact statement, is the last step before the five-person commission votes on the project. A vote is expected early next year.
The pipeline would run through Michigan and Ohio. The 255-mile stretch through Ohio includes Oberlin, passing within 95 feet of Reserve Avenue homes, roughly 1,100 feet from the Lorain County Metro Parks Splash Zone, nearly 1,800 feet from the Oberlin fire station, 4,200 feet from the Lorain County JVS, and 2,000 feet from Welcome Nursing Home.
It would also pass through the Firelands, Oberlin, and Lorain County JVS school districts, as well as New Russia and Pittsfield townships.
The study recommended against an alternative route through Oberlin that would be farther from Reserve Avenue. It said it would conflict with existing pipelines requiring multiple crossovers.
“We do not find the Reserve Avenue Route Variation provides a significant environmental advantage,” the study said.
The study refutes concerns about the potential for explosions in populated areas if the pipeline is built. Serious pipeline incidents are down 37 percent since 2009, according to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the federal agency responsible for the nation’s 2.6 million miles of pipelines including 71,000 in Ohio.
Pipeline proponents say they’re safer than shipping natural gas and oil on trains or trucks and new pipelines are built with stricter safety standards than in the past.
Nevertheless, accidents happen.
Last month, a 53-year-old Colonial Gas Co., oil pipeline in Alabama exploded and burned for three days, killing one worker and injuring four. In April, a 35-year-old natural gas pipeline in Western Pennsylvania exploded seriously burning one man. The Pennsylvania pipeline is owned by Houston-based Spectra Energy, the $5.2 billion parent company of NEXUS.
The study said the potential impact radius if an explosion occurred is 1,100 feet, but there are strict federal standards for pipelines built in populated areas.
“The likelihood of an incident is very low at any given location regardless of population density,” the study said.
That doesn’t ease Oberlin fire chief Robert Hanmer concerns. “If there’s a catastrophic failure of that pipeline, we’re all going to be affected by it,” he said.
Pipeline critic John Elder, of Communities for Safe and Sustainable Energy, disputed the study’s contention that the project’s environmental impact would be minimal.
“Landowners who are horrified by the prospect of a 36-inch, high-pressure pipeline being constructed through their front yards or whose health or livelihood may be endangered by Nexus will disagree about what constitutes ‘significant’ impact,” he said in a written statement.
In an interview, Elder said Oberlin’s Community Bill of Rights, an ordinance passed by 70 percent of voters in 2013, bans fracking and fracking-related infrastructure like the pipeline. However, commission spokeswoman Tamara Young Allen said federal law supersedes municipal and state laws regarding pipelines.
Washington D.C.-based attorney Carolyn Elefant, a former commission employee, represents Oberlin in its fight against the pipeline. She previously said the commission has approved about 99 percent of pipeline projects over the last decade.
Because industry fees help pay much of the commission’s $320 million annual budget, Elefant said it rubber-stamps projects.
But Young Allen said the commission is an honest broker. She noted that in March it rejected the proposed Jordan Cove liquefied natural gas terminal in Oregon. “We reject projects when we find that they aren’t safe or they can’t prove there’s a need for them,” Young Allen said.
She also noted the NEXUS study recommends 38 project changes.
“No project that comes in to FERC goes out of FERC the same way it came in,” she said. “The commission reviews these projects very thoroughly.”
Young Allen cited a 2014 U.S. Court of Appeals decision regarding a pipeline serving New York City and New Jersey dismissed allegations of bias against the commission. The decision said the commission’s high approval rate is due to companies being willing to spend money to ensure projects meet federal guidelines.
While a lawsuit to stop the project could face long odds, Oberlin is considering it, according to interim city manager Sal Talarico.
Besides commission approval, the project also needs approval from the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. NEXUS spokesman Alan Parker said in an email that he expects commission approval in the first quarter of next year. Spectra hopes to complete construction before the end of next year.
“NEXUS will allow for the ongoing conversion from coal to clean burning natural gas for electric generation which has been announced by a number of Midwest utilities,” Parker said. “It will also support projected economic growth in Ohio and Michigan.”
Citing studies from Michigan State University and Economic & Policy Resources, Parker said the construction phase of the project will generate 6,800 jobs, more than $650 million in wages, and $830 million in total economic activity.
The studies have estimated Lorain County and its communities and school districts would receive about $34.2 million over five years in taxes from the project, including the county receiving $6.5 million directly. Critics say the vast majority of the jobs are temporary and the the tax revenue is exaggerated.
Evan Goodenow can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @GoodenowNews on Twitter.
FERC map The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has published a study saying the proposed NEXUS pipeline route through the city of Oberlin on its way from Ohio to Michigan is safe.