Looking at the Algonquin Pipeline

Spectra Energy’s Algonquin Gas Transmission Line (as it now stands)

Ever spent a couple days looking up hydraulic fracturing? It involves sifting through unpleasant, murky information that can ultimately leave you feeling a little sick to your stomach. Crucial information is simply not there, and if you trace the periphery around what is missing, and why it is missing, the outline draws a picture that is not quite right.

I’ll start with a story of my own. Several years ago, my mother caught my 3 year old brother lugging a big bright orange plastic jack-o-lantern full of water from our second floor bathroom to our third floor attic bedroom. Surprised, she asked him what he was doing. My brother, always fast on his feet, answered.

“Nothing. Um… Don’t come upstairs right now. OK Mom?”.

He quickly scampered up the steps, jack-o-lantern and all.

What did my mother do then? Every parent and every reader knows. Toddlers are not known for their well developed sense of consequence and responsibility. When a toddler says, “Don’t look over there”, a responsible adult has only one real choice.

Spectra Energy’s Algonquin Gas Transmission pipeline has already been built. It looks a a little like a spider vein running through New England, pumps methane to consumers ready for cheap energy, pumps their money to the Texas company that owns it, and relies on  the pumping of unknown chemical agents ultra deep into the earth. This is called hydraulic fracturing or “fracking”.

Proposed Algonquin Incremental Market Project

What are these agents? Where do they go?

At the moment, it is very difficult to say what happens. Colorado is the only state requiring companies that frack to divulge both the chemicals and concentrations used for injection, and the legislation was enacted only about a month ago. In 2005 Fracking was exempted from the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). According to the EPA, this Act:

“is the main federal law that ensures the quality of Americans’ drinking water. Under SDWA, EPA sets standards for drinking water quality and oversees the states, localities, and water suppliers who implement those standards.”

It gives the EPA the authority to “control underground injection to protect underground drinking water sources”, and so is the legal basis for the EPA’s Underground Injection Control (UIC) Program. Leaving the story of how this happened for another post, in 2005 the term “underground injection” was legally changed to exclude “the underground injection of fluids or propping agents (other than diesel fuels) pursuant to hydraulic fracturing operations related to oil, gas, or geothermal production activities”. Congress actually changed the definition of “underground injection” legally so that the EPA lost its authority to monitor fracking. It was a very convoluted way of saying, “Don’t look over here. OK?”.

So, we don’t. To the best of my knowledge, when contaminated water near gas wells is analyzed by the EPA, they don’t do any analysis to determine weather those contaminants are a result of fracking. No analysis means no credible documentation.

At the moment, Spectra Energy is planning to expand the line and all operations associated, in order to provide us with more cheap gas. Massachusetts includes a prime slice of the target consumer demographic. Over 30% of our electricity comes from gas  imported and domestic, and in 2010 we used 430 billion cubic feet of it. Implicit in their plans is the assumption that we, the people of Massachusetts, are consumers first and citizens concerned about the health of our neighbors second. The same assumption is made when politicians, even those sympathetic to environmental concerns, say its development would “allow all Americans to benefit from the low-price, abundant, and secure supplies of natural gas now being produced in the United States”. Perhaps, to an old political hand with a heavy plate, this all seems necessary. Still, to a novice it seems like a new spin on the old cohen:

If a kid falls ill in the forest, and no one is there to investigate, does it really matter?

Does it? We lack documentation that fracking has harmed anyone, but have we actually looked? Also, what are our other options?

When my brother was running water to the attic for no discernible reason, Mom looked. That’s what good moms do. We were in the middle of making a swimming pool…  in a cardboard box.

For those of us who are fortunate, childhood is a time when we feel safe and protected, sometimes even from the consequences of our own actions. My brother and I found ourselves in serious trouble over the “swimming pool” but, really, we were prevented from causing structural damage to our childhood home. Adulthood is a time when we recognize that the world can be quite dangerous. It is when we take responsibility for protecting ourselves, our community, and quintessentially our most vulnerable members.

In the absence of nearly any regulation, fracking presents a difficult situation, and it is very easy to turn the other way. Still, being a responsible adult, a responsible citizen, means that you look, even and perhaps especially when critical information is missing. From that perspective, whether and how we respond to Spectra’s proposal for the Algonquin pipeline expansion is not simply a question of what we will do, but ultimately a question of who we are.

You won’t find the answer to that one online.

My Accomplice
(a few years after the “swimming pool” debacle)