Professor Michael J. Brogan, PhD, an Associate Professor and Department Chair of the Department of Political Science at Rider University, offers some insight into the potential devastation that could occur in Hopewell Township from a 36″ natural gas PennEast pipeline.

An oft-cited critique by PennEast pipeline proponents, when addressing opponent’s concerns over pipeline safety, is it’s more “dangerous to drive than to have a pipeline in your backyard.” If this argument is based purely on risk analysis criteria, it may be correct. Yet there are two underlying problems with it: First, unlike automobile accidents which can be isolated to the cars and individuals involved, pipeline incidents tend to impact entire communities and ecosystems. In other words, when there is a pipeline incident, it’s everyone’s problem, not just the people directly involved. Second, even if pipeline incidents tend to be less likely than automobile accidents, should we not be concerned with them when they happen? In fact, being harmed in a terrorist attack is less likely than being in an automobile accident, yet we still have to take our shoes off before getting on to an airplane. My intent is not to downplay one concern over the other. It is simply to point out that either event can impact our welfare.

As a community, what we value determines risk. This is why we demand the public sector to regulate actions and behavior that can negatively impact individuals who are not involved in these actions. According to Wildavsky and Douglas (1982), risk perceptions are based on a process conditioned by cultural norms and values regarding how dangerous a particular action is, as well as to what levels of risk are acceptable. This is a process of social learning. It is community based. Thus, if a community’s safety is impacted by the construction of a pipeline, we should be concerned with it.

A method to address concerns over public safety and the PennEast pipeline is to apply the precautionary principle. The principle is a means to effectively develop regulatory and enforcement criteria by which we can measure levels of risk and uncertainty. It is not the narrow process by which risk assessment of the project is estimated (e.g. Should we be concerned that since 2004 of all natural gas pipeline incidents reported nationally, 5-8% of these incidents have resulted in fatalities? Or whether a 1 in 4 chance of an explosion resulting from natural gas pipeline incident is acceptable?). Rather, it deals with precaution over an action. Namely that when the burden of proof as to whether the action would cause harm to the public (e.g. explosions, fatalities, leaks, etc.), and there is a lack of consensus regarding estimated risks associated with the action, then the burden is on the individuals initiating the action. In other words, a little precaution is placed on PennEast’s claims to offer a safe and reliable source of energy.

Based on the precautionary principle, the proposed PennEast line lacks overall scientific, environmental and economic consensus in terms of the benefits of the project (I cannot provide all conflicting accounts of the project’s merits, but feel free to read FERC (Docket No. PF15-1) comments # 20150224-5023, #20150317-5138, or #201450102213-05021, to give a select summary of the problems). Thus, the burden of proof based on the uncertain nature of the project, must be weighed in favor of public health, safety and environmental needs. Not on the simple assurance that “safety is PennEast’s highest priority when designing pipelines” (PennEast 2015). Public safety cannot be downplayed or reduced to a talking point. Thorough community deliberation is necessary, not simple assurances from a company that has a financial stake in moving the project forward.

To highlight this problem, I point to prior research conducted by Sklavounous and Rigas (2006) who found that based on a 36” pipeline there would be a blast radius of +/- 900ft and that thermal radiation from the blast is approximately 1,800ft (the size of the proposed PennEast pipeline). In their estimates, they have found that “[f]lammable gas transmission pipelines pose major risk for the surroundings, due to the probability of rupture and release of the content to the atmosphere with the potential of a fire or/and explosion” (Sklavounous and Rigas 2006: 30). Based on these findings alone, PennEast has failed to address how the benefits of this project for the community would outweigh the costs of putting residents within the danger zone of approximately .5 mile to .65 mile from the proposed line.

To provide context to this problem, let’s look at the impact of the line in Hopewell Township, NJ (full disclosure: I reside in the township). The table below illustrates how many residents in the township would be directly impacted by the pipeline. Impacted households are those within the danger zone (about .2 of mile or about 1,000ft) from a potential incident (please note the problem is compounded when looking at all communities along the 108 mile route) in Hopewell Township NJ.

The estimates summarized in the table reflect both the original and alternate routes. My calculations are based upon population estimates from the 2010 US Census per Census Tract/Block Group for the township. Property information comes from the Hopewell Township, NJ tax records. Each property is isolated by block and lot and contains listing based on residential, commercial and farm properties in the township (note the estimates are likely on the lower end due to commercial properties having more than 2.6 people per dwelling during normal working hours). The PennEast route comes directly from the consortium’s website and submission to FERC.

Overall an estimated 834 properties would be impacted by the proposed pipeline. Approximately 2217 people in the Township would be within 1,000 ft of the pipeline. This is roughly 15% of the township’s population, or a little less than 1 out of 7 residents. Since these numbers are conservative, the number of properties and residences impacted are likely to be much higher. Based on these calculations, the costs for the township and residents in terms of increased risk, far outweigh any benefit derived from the proposed pipeline for the township.

Nevertheless, a little bit of precaution used by federal regulators over the uncertain nature of safety and risks related to the construction and operation of the PennEast pipeline would go along way in protecting the number of people who are now exposed to this risk. In fact, the “NO ACTION” alternative on this project is the only way to go to minimize this problem.

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Michael J. Brogan, PhD is an Associate Professor and Department Chair of the Department of Political Science at Rider University located in Lawrenceville, NJ


Work Cited

Sklavounos, Spyros and Rigas, Fortes. 2006. “Estimation of safety distances in the vicinity of fuel gas pipelines”Journal of Loss Prevention in the Process Industries 19 (2006) 24–31.

Brogan, Michael. 2015. “National Standards, Subnational Enforcement: Advocacy Coalitions in the Regulation of Natural Gas Pipelines in the US, 1970-2012” (edited by Drs. Franco Becchis
and Alberto Asquer) set to be published in the book The Political Economy of Local Regulation as part of the Palgrave series on Studies in the Political Economy of Public Policy.

Douglas, Mary., & Wildavsky, Aaron. 1982. Risk and Culture: An essay on the selection of technical and environmental dangers. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Holt, Rush. 2015. Public Comment # 201450102213-05021 to Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on Docket No. PF15-1-000. Washington, DC

New Jersey Conservation Foundation. 2015. “Docket No. PF15-1-000: Comments Regarding PennEast Pipeline Project Scoping for Preparation of Environmental Impact Statement” Public Comment # 20150317-5138 to Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on Docket No. PF15-1-000. Washington, DC

Onstott, Tullis. 2015. “Docket No. PF15-1-000: Comments Regarding PennEast Pipeline Project: Arsenic and Earthquakes” Public Comment #20150224-5023 to Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on Docket No. PF15-1-000. Washington, DC.

PennEast. 2015. “PennEast Pipeline Company, LLC, Docket No. PF15-1-000

Response to Scoping Comments” Comments Submitted to Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on Docket No. PF15-1-000. Washington, DC