Dead Horse Lateral project developer Fidelity Exploration & Development insists that its contractors are building the pipeline to meet or exceed federal and industry standards.
But a newly formed group called the Canyon Country Coalition for Pipeline Safety says it has photographic and video evidence that those standards have not been met.
Although the 24-mile project is under construction on U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) administered lands, that agency has no authority to regulate natural gas gathering lines, according to Lisa Bryant, assistant field manager for the BLM’s Moab office.
However, Bryant said the BLM is enforcing the terms and conditions it created when it approved a right-of-way for the entire project – a statement that pipeline critics dispute.
Fidelity is building the pipeline to capture natural gas from its oil wells in the Big Flat area off state Route 313.
The gas is a byproduct of oil production, and as of right now, the company has no way to remove it from the well sites, according to Fidelity spokesman Tim Rasmussen.
As a result, Fidelity is currently flaring just over 2 million cubic feet of natural gas per day, and those activities have impacts on the surrounding environment, BLM and company officials say.
For one thing, natural gas combustion affects regional air quality, and it also contributes to climate change by releasing greenhouse gases linked to climate change, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO).
Once the pipeline and ancillary facilities are operational, the BLM anticipates that those emissions will be reduced to “nearly zero,” BLM employee Aron King said earlier this month.
At that point, Fidelity will be able to capture and process the gas, turning it into methane and other components that can be marketed for beneficial use, Rasmussen said.
Fidelity plans to spend about $70 million on the project over time, but a strong return on its investment is unlikely, according to Rasmussen.
“We do not expect the pipeline project to be highly economic on its own,” Rasmussen said.
While the company has repeatedly said it’s committed to building a safe pipeline, critics of the project allege that Fidelity is cutting corners that could pose potential risks in the future.
According to Canyon Country Coalition for Pipeline Safety member Bill Rau, the group has photographic evidence that contractors are propping sections of pipeline against trees, or on top of them. That alleged practice raises concerns about pipeline abrasion over time, he said.
He also says the group has found that contractors have not taken adequate steps to keep the public off the pipeline right-of-way – an allegation that company and BLM officials deny.
“To those of us who have this evidence, it appears that both the BLM and the company are not fulfilling their obligations to make a safe pipeline, and they’re not fulfilling their obligations to be open and honest with the public,” Rau said.
The coalition has also raised questions about welding procedures.
Pipeline critic Dennis Stiles of Durango, Colo., alleges that Fidelity’s subcontractors are putting stress on the uncompleted welds by releasing the lineup clamps before the “root bead” is completed.
Stiles called that practice a clear violation of welding code, and he alleges that it poses a potential safety hazard.
But Rasmussen said those welding procedures are being taken – as authorized – in order to prevent the clamps from being unintentionally welded to the pipe.
“We contacted the manufacturer of the clamps and he concurred that they were being used as designed and that they must be released prior to a 100 percent circumferential weld,” Rasmussen said.
The welds are visually inspected and x-rayed to ensure that they meet code requirements, he said.
However, pipeline critics aren’t taking his word for that.
Rau said he wants the company to provide the Canyon Country Coalition for Pipeline Safety with the inspector’s reports, along with x-rays of the welds.
Above ground or underground?
About 18 miles of the steel gathering line will be built above ground, while the remainder will go underground.
Federal law does not actually require developers to build natural gas gathering lines above ground, according to Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) Public Affairs Specialist Damon Hill. But Rau said the company vowed to build a pipeline that meets or exceeds transmission line standards, and he maintains that the project is not in line with them.
“We can’t have it both ways, but that’s how it’s written in the Environmental Assessment,” Rau said.
Rasmussen said he believes that pipeline critics are misreading the PHMSA’s standard regarding ground cover for buried transmission lines.
“It does not require that a line be buried,” he said. “(It) simply provides guidance for the amount of cover for ‘each buried transmission line.’”
Turning to other issues, Stiles claims that contractors are damaging the pipeline by dragging sections of it across open ground.
“They’re just scraping the heck out of the pipe,” Stiles said. “It’s going to have long-term impacts on the integrity of the steel,” Rau added.
According to Rasmussen, contractors are dragging the pipe in certain sections to minimize the loss of native vegetation along the right-of-way.
Fidelity has directed the inspectors to look for signs of gouging that cause metal loss, and if such instances occur, those sections of the pipeline will be replaced, Rasmussen said.
Ultimately, he said, the project is being over-designed to ensure that pipeline operations are safe.
According to Rasmussen, the pipeline material has a specified minimum yield strength of 52,000 pounds per square inch.
Average operating pressures will range between 65 to 70 pounds per square inch, with a maximum pressure of 200 pounds per square inch, according to Rasmussen.
To put those numbers in perspective, Rasmussen noted that the typical pressure inside car tires is 40 pounds per square inch.
In comparison, large-volume transmission lines that the federal government does regulate typically operate at pressures of up to 1,500 pounds per square inch, or greater.
In this case, the pipeline material can handle over 3,000 pounds per square inch before the steel begins to yield, he said.
To be on the safe side, Rasmussen said that before the pipeline is placed into service, it will be pressure tested for eight hours at more than 1.5 times the maximum allowable operating pressure.
The pipeline will be equipped with emergency shutdown and pressure relief devices, and the project will be electronically monitored, he said; current plans call for a remote monitor at a control room in Moab.
Rau said the coalition ultimately wants further assurances that the project will be built according to federal and industry standards.
“We really need an independent third-party evaluation of the design and the construction of the pipeline for the people of this community to feel secure,” Rau said.
According to Rasmussen, the company has already taken those steps. Fidelity has hired a third-party inspection firm to monitor various construction activities, from ditching to welding work, he said.
A BLM inspector is also on site to ensure that the developer and its contractors are following the previously stipulated terms and conditions, Rasmussen and Bryant said in separate statements to The Times-Independent.
Construction of the pipeline should ultimately be finished by mid-May, according to Rasmussen. Work on a new booster station and processing plant is expected to take a little longer, but Rasmussen expects that all facilities will be in service by the end of June.