Regulators Move Forward with NEXUS Pipeline

Oliver Bok, Editor in Chief

A new pipeline that would carry natural gas directly through Oberlin has received a stamp of approval from regulators in spite of local opposition.

Staffers at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission recommended regulatory approval for the NEXUS pipeline, a controversial proposed natural gas conduit spanning Ohio and Michigan to Canada.

The recommendation points to a potential legal battle on the horizon, since building the pipeline within city limits would violate the Oberlin Community Bill of Rights, an ordinance that prohibits fracking or infrastructure related to fracking. Over 70 percent of Oberlin residents voted for the Community Bill of Rights in 2013.

The recommendation also rejected a proposed reroute of the Oberlin section of the pipeline that would have avoided the fire station and densely populated parts of the city.

While the recommendation is not final — the Commissioners appointed by the president make the final decision, not the FERC staff who wrote the report — the report represents a major step in getting approval for the pipeline, which is scheduled to begin construction in the first half of 2017.

“We determined that construction and operation of the projects would result in some adverse environmental impacts, but impacts would be reduced to less-than-significant levels with the implementation of the applicants’ proposed and our recommended mitigation measures,” the recommendation reads.

Ohio community organizer for Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund Tish O’Dell questioned FERC’s definition of “significant” and pointed to recent natural gas explosions in Kansas City and around the country as evidence of the gravity of the risks involved.

“What’s acceptable to them and what’s acceptable to you in Oberlin — having to breathe the air from it if there’s an explosion there — it’s probably a little different, what’s acceptable to you and what’s acceptable to NEXUS,” O’Dell said.

O’Dell also criticized how the recommendation promotes expansion of carbon-based energy infrastructure despite the rapid warming of the climate. “Researchers are shocked that in the arctic temperatures are 36 degrees Fahrenheit above what they’ve ever been,” O’Dell said. “But let’s keep burning fossil fuels! We’re talking about the extinction of humans and the end of life on this planet as we know it.”

According to O’Dell, the recommendation came as no surprise due to FERC’s track record and pervasive corporate influence in the political system.

“FERC’s only denied a permit once or twice; they approve 99 percent of them, so it’s not really that shocking,” O’Dell said. “That’s what they’re set up to do.”

O’Dell advocated for people in every community to oppose the pipeline without reservations or focusing on reroutes, and called on the Oberlin City Council to uphold the Community Bill of Rights.

“We need to work together to stop it altogether,” O’Dell said. “If it’s harmful in Oberlin, it’s harmful in the next community you’re going to put it in.”

According to City Councilmember Sharon Pearson, since the news broke Wednesday council has not had a chance to meet with the law director and form a legal strategy.

“We’ve been trying to do everything within our power under the law to figure out what we can do to keep our residents safe,” Pearson said.

To Pearson, the main problem with the route is its proximity to the fire station.

“I think it’s all of our concern that if something does happen with that pipeline, it is very, very close to our fire station, and they would be one of the first responders — we would hope — to be able to help people, rescue people,” Pearson said.
The FERC report rejected the proposed reroute that would have avoided the fire station because of previous pipelines already in the ground and planned development.

Spectra Energy released a statement arguing that the pipeline will create jobs, provide money for school districts and assist the transition away from coal-burning power plants. Spectra also emphasized the amount of effort that had gone into planning the route.

“In total, NEXUS adopted a total of 239 route changes totaling about 231 miles (91 percent of the pipeline route) for various reasons, including landowner requests, avoidance of sensitive resources, or engineering considerations,” the statement reads.

However, to John Elder, a member of the Committee for Safe and Sustainable Energy and a longtime opponent of the NEXUS pipeline, the pipeline is the “wrong infrastructure in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

In addition to environmental and safety concerns, the pipeline is not economically viable, Elder said.

“The domestic price of natural gas is so low that for many producers, they’re actually losing money on it,” Elder said. “They all say, ‘Well, if we could ship it to countries overseas that don’t have natural gas, they’ll pay us more for it and that will make it economically viable.’ The problem with that is there’s a global glut just as there’s a domestic glut in natural gas.”

Additionly, Spectra Energy only has contracts to transport 58 percent of the pipeline’s capacity for natural gas, according to Elder.

Elder said that while he supports City Council enforcing the Community Bill of Rights, the ramifications of a legal challenge to the pipeline could be serious.

“If the city takes NEXUS to court and says we have an ordinance on the books, NEXUS will respond, ‘You may have an ordinance on your books, but it’s overruled by federal law and we don’t have to pay any attention to it,’” Elder said. “If the city appeals that, then NEXUS would say, ‘If we had to change our route, now you’d be liable for the cost of that, and if your ban resulted in our not being able to build the pipeline at all, then you’d be liable for our lost income,’ which would bankrupt the city.”

Tamara Young-Allen, a spokesperson for FERC, asserted that Oberlin’s ordinance cannot overrule FERC’s federal authority.

“Federal courts have affirmed that federal actions preempt state and local ordinance and laws,” Young-Allen wrote in an email to the Review.