Kentucky’s Keystone XL

Nuns, landowners and environmentalists take on the union-backed Bluegrass Pipeline.

Cole Stangler February 18, 2014

Similar to the Keystone XL pipeline, the proposed Bluegrass pipeline in Kentucky has met opposition from an unlikely coalition of environmentalists, religious groups and libertarians defending property rights. (Michael Fleshman/Flickr/Creative Commons)

Buff Bradley, a 50-year-old cham­pi­on thor­ough­bred train­er, makes for an unlike­ly envi­ron­men­tal­ist. The son of Fred Bradley, who’s a for­mer Ken­tucky state sen­a­tor, coun­ty judge, attor­ney, song­writer, pilot and horse-breed­ing icon‚ Buff has spent much of his life bring­ing up race­hors­es on his family’s 300-acre farm in west­ern Franklin Coun­ty. If you like to brush shoul­ders with the own­ers of high-speed, mil­lion-dol­lar win­ning Ken­tucky thor­ough­breds, there’s a good chance you’ve heard the fam­i­ly name.

Driven by a mix of concerns over safety and property rights and bolstered by a dose of environmentalism, the opposition blurs ideological boundaries.

Buff didn’t choose to take on the fos­sil fuel indus­try; the fight came to him. Last April, rep­re­sen­ta­tives from the Tul­sa-based Williams Ener­gy and Hous­ton-based Board­walk Pipeline Part­ners vis­it­ed his fam­i­ly farm and asked to sur­vey the land for a nat­ur­al gas liq­uids pipeline. Bradley respect­ful­ly declined to coop­er­ate and got in touch with neigh­bor­ing landown­ers with whom sur­vey­ors had also paid visit.

But it didn’t take long for Kentucky’s Blue­grass Region to become the lat­est, if improb­a­ble, flash­point in North America’s pipeline wars.

Williams and Board­walk quick­ly moved from sur­vey­ing land to mak­ing offers for ease­ments in order to con­struct the Blue­grass Pipeline, a joint­ly owned ven­ture that would ship nat­ur­al gas liq­uids over the 1,000 miles from the Mar­cel­lus and Uti­ca oil-bear­ing shale deposits to Gulf Coast refiner­ies. The com­pa­nies want to lay much of the new pipeline in Ken­tucky — about 150 miles’ worth—while recon­vert­ing old gas pipelines to com­plete the rest of the route from Ken­tucky to Louisiana. Mean­while, envi­ron­men­tal groups like Ken­tuck­ians for the Com­mon­wealth and the state’s Sier­ra Club chap­ter jumped into the fray, tak­ing the side of the prop­er­ty-own­ers like Bradley who are unwill­ing to sell easements.

Dri­ven by a mix of con­cerns over safe­ty and prop­er­ty rights and bol­stered by a dose of envi­ron­men­tal­ism, the oppo­si­tion blurs ide­o­log­i­cal boundaries.

I think lots of folks around here are kin­da rubbed the wrong way by the thought that some out-of-state multi­bil­lion-dol­lar cor­po­ra­tion could just come in, throw their weight around and take what­ev­er land they want from folks to build this pipeline,” says Sel­l­us Wilder, a for­mer city com­mis­sion­er in Frank­fort, the state cap­i­tal, who’s film­ing a doc­u­men­tary about the pipeline. 

In Ken­tucky, in par­tic­u­lar, we seem to be a lit­tle,” Wilder paus­es, I wouldn’t say ter­ri­to­r­i­al, but I think we maybe val­ue our own­er­ship of our own land a lit­tle more deeply here.”

A lot to lose, lit­tle to gain

The Blue­grass Pipeline isn’t a run-of-the-mill gas pipeline.

The haz­ardous mate­ri­als that it would car­ry, nat­ur­al gas liq­uids, are a byprod­uct of gas drilling. Sep­a­rat­ed ear­ly on from the more com­mon­ly used nat­ur­al gas prod­uct that goes toward elec­tric­i­ty gen­er­a­tion, most gas liq­uids, which include ethane, propane and butane, are used as feed­stock for plas­tics and oth­er petro­chem­i­cal prod­ucts. As the shale rev­o­lu­tion bar­rels ahead in Penn­syl­va­nia, Ohio and West Vir­ginia, ener­gy com­pa­nies are aim­ing to cap­i­tal­ize on the high prof­it mar­gins these liq­uids fetch on the market.

There’s just one major bar­ri­er. The chief pro­cess­ing and refin­ing facil­i­ties, at least for now, are on the Gulf Coast, about 1,000 miles away from the Northeast’s frack­ing heart­land. But if com­pa­nies can man­age to get their prod­uct to export facil­i­ties in Louisiana and Texas, lucra­tive inter­na­tion­al mar­kets await: the Amer­i­can Chem­istry Coun­cil pre­dicts chem­i­cal exports to rise by 45 per­cent over the next five years. Offer­ing up to 400,000 bar­rels of dai­ly capac­i­ty, the Blue­grass Pipeline would help fuel this boom.

The clear stakes of the fight — the pipeline offers large rewards to a small niche of the gas and petro­chem­i­cal indus­tries while offer­ing lit­tle to the Ken­tucky cor­ri­dor it would cross — helps explain the pas­sion­ate tenor of oppo­si­tion, says Deb Nar­done, Direc­tor of the Sier­ra Club’s Beyond Nat­ur­al Gas nation­al cam­paign, which, with its lim­it­ed resources, has steered clear of the local fight so far.

“[Nat­ur­al gas liq­uids] are not at all about domes­tic ener­gy secu­ri­ty,” Nar­done says. It’s about what’s going to make the indus­try mon­ey. And that’s what’s start­ed to bring non-tra­di­tion­al allies togeth­er, as they real­ize it’s not in their per­son­al ben­e­fit in the long run.”

Indeed, the more that res­i­dents edu­cat­ed them­selves about the project, the more the opposition’s ranks swelled. Landown­ers didn’t need to be experts in the polit­i­cal econ­o­my of nat­ur­al gas liq­uids — or for that mat­ter, even care about cli­mate change — to con­clude the pipeline pre­sent­ed lit­tle ben­e­fits for their home state. 

This is pri­vate com­pa­nies doing this,” says Buff Bradley. It’s not like it’s gonna be some­thing for us. I don’t even want it close to me. I sure don’t want to leave this earth and leave my kids to deal with it either.”

Tom Fitzger­ald, direc­tor of the Ken­tucky Resources Coun­cil, an envi­ron­men­tal advo­ca­cy group that offers legal assis­tance, helped cir­cu­late infor­ma­tion to con­cerned landown­ers about the state’s lack of reg­u­la­tion over gas pipelines and the safe­ty risks — two issues that have helped dri­ve pub­lic out­cry. Haz­ardous pipeline acci­dents are rare, but because of the dan­ger­ous sub­stances being trans­port­ed, any leaks and explo­sions that do occur can be cat­a­stroph­ic.

The non-tra­di­tion­al bat­tle lines are rem­i­nis­cent of those sur­round­ing the Key­stone XL, says Jane Kleeb, direc­tor of Bold Nebras­ka, which helped orga­nize local ranch­ers and farm­ers against the pipeline before it became the envi­ron­men­tal cause celèbre that it is today.

For us, there was com­mon ground in the prop­er­ty rights issues and emi­nent domain,” Kleeb says. That opens the door for us to engage in con­ver­sa­tions with landown­ers about cli­mate change and about fos­sil fuels and about Nebras­ka [get­ting] 80 per­cent [of its ener­gy from] coal and how we need to be pro­duc­ing more renew­able energy.”

Unlike the Key­stone XL, how­ev­er, those lat­ter types of con­ver­sa­tions aren’t dri­ving the move­ment in the Blue­grass State. But not for lack of try­ing — green groups are increas­ing­ly in touch with landown­ers in an effort to broad­en the pol­i­tics of oppo­si­tion. Activists from Ken­tuck­ians for the Com­mon­wealth, for exam­ple, have point­ed to the dirty pipeline pro­pos­al as evi­dence for the need to pro­duce alter­na­tive, more sus­tain­able sources of energy.

Those envi­ron­men­tal­ists also helped bring the move­ment to the streets: on Wednes­day, hun­dreds ral­lied in Frank­fort for the ninth annu­al I Love Moun­tains Day.” The ral­ly, which is orga­nized by Ken­tuck­ians for the Com­mon­wealth, usu­al­ly focus­es on moun­tain­top removal. But this year, some of the speak­ers, like Sis­ter Claire McGowan, a Domini­can Sis­ter of Peace, blast­ed the Blue­grass Pipeline. (Nuns from the Sis­ters of Loret­to brought atten­tion to the project last fall, when they refused to allow pipeline sur­vey­ors on their land).

In spite of these efforts, how­ev­er, much of the oppo­si­tion remains ground­ed in an old-fash­ioned, lib­er­tar­i­an com­mit­ment to respect­ing pri­vate prop­er­ty rights, says Fitzger­ald of the Ken­tucky Resources Council.

Of course, not every­one is opposed to the pipeline. Much like the pro­posed Key­stone XL, heav­i­ly backed by the AFL-CIO’s Build­ing and Con­struc­tion Trades Depart­ment, a slice of orga­nized labor is sid­ing with the ener­gy industry.

We sup­port it because it’s work for Ken­tucky work­ers,” says Ed Willough­by, direc­tor of the Ken­tucky Labor­ers Train­ing Fund, which counts 3,000 mem­bers. It pro­vides jobs for Ken­tucky work­ers, and that’s some­thing we need.”

There’s no guar­an­tee any of the esti­mat­ed 6,000 con­struc­tion jobs would actu­al­ly go to mem­bers of any union. But Willough­by says the poten­tial is good enough — swayed, one imag­ines, by Kentucky’s 8 per­cent unem­ploy­ment rate, which is eighth-high­est in the nation. He’s also uncon­vinced by the time­less green argu­ment that unions shouldn’t be gob­bling up short-term gains at the long-term detri­ment of the planet. 

The peo­ple that work con­struc­tion, all of our jobs are tem­po­rary,” Willough­by says. Every project has a begin­ning, every project has an end. When those projects begin they help those work­ing fam­i­lies, they help their kids go to school, they help the econ­o­my around because they’re spend­ing more mon­ey and are able to pay their house pay­ments and their car payments.”

The end game

In the next few months, the pipeline’s oppo­nents are hop­ing that a pend­ing law­suit and upcom­ing state leg­is­la­tion can stick the final dag­ger into the heart of the project.

They’ve cal­cu­lat­ed that Williams and Board­walk, strug­gling to secure the nec­es­sary ease­ments, will even­tu­al­ly be forced to seize prop­er­ty using emi­nent domain. Ken­tucky state law is ambigu­ous on the mat­ter: While the use of emi­nent domain is restrict­ed to projects that have a pub­lic use,” the law doesn’t explic­it­ly pro­hib­it pri­vate nat­ur­al gas liq­uids pipelines from qual­i­fy­ing. The com­pa­nies, for their part, have refused to promise they won’t resort to emi­nent domain.

The state’s Attor­ney Gen­er­al has already said he doesn’t believe the pipeline would qual­i­fy. But to play it safe, Ken­tuck­ians Unit­ed to Restrain Emi­nent Domain, rep­re­sent­ed by Fitzger­ald, is ask­ing the Franklin Coun­ty cir­cuit court to clar­i­fy whether the oper­a­tors have grounds to invoke emi­nent domain.

Mean­while, in response to pres­sure from landown­ers and envi­ron­men­tal­ists, the Ken­tucky Leg­is­la­ture is slat­ed to move on a series of bills that would pro­hib­it the pipeline oper­a­tors from seiz­ing pri­vate land. In the upper cham­ber, Jim­my Hig­don, a Repub­li­can from Mar­i­on Coun­ty, is spon­sor­ing a bill that would lim­it the use of emi­nent domain to state-reg­u­lat­ed utilities.

Our opin­ion is they can’t get across Ken­tucky with­out using emi­nent domain,” Hig­don tells In These Times. We just want to make sure if a landown­er says no, that no means no.”

Hig­don says he would rather not com­ment on any of the envi­ron­men­tal issues. He is, quite emphat­i­cal­ly, not attract­ed to this issue out of con­cern for cli­mate change.

I can’t say that I’m on board,” Hig­don says. I’m not con­vinced that [man-made cli­mate change is] 100 per­cent a sure thing. I think there’s some con­flict­ing infor­ma­tion on cli­mate change and I’m not total­ly con­vinced yet.”

When it comes to imped­ing devel­op­ment of the nat­ur­al gas indus­try, though, activists in Ken­tucky will take what­ev­er allies they can get. And envi­ron­men­tal­ists bet­ter get used to these sorts of fights, say Kleeb of Bold Nebras­ka and Nar­done of the Sier­ra Club. As the gas indus­try seeks to move its prod­ucts to for­eign mar­kets — whether it’s LNG or NGL — that means more pipelines. And that, in turn, means more strug­gles like these. 

It is much more than just an envi­ron­men­tal­ist fight,” says the Sier­ra Club’s Nar­done. It’s about an indus­try that’s rogue and very lit­tle reg­u­lat­ed try­ing to mus­cle its way into impact­ing people’s lives.”

Cole Stan­gler writes about labor and the envi­ron­ment. His report­ing has also appeared in The Nation, VICE, The New Repub­lic and Inter­na­tion­al Busi­ness Times. He lives in Paris, France. He can be reached at cole[at]inthesetimes.com. Fol­low him @colestangler.
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