E.T. Rover pipeline: Mind if
I bury this in your back yard?
Proposed pipeline may warm hearths, but few west Washtenaw hearts
Rover wants to dig up Ann Arbor’s back yard this winter and bury a big pipeline full of fracked natural gas there. But many residents and communities on the pipeline’s two proposed routes have a bone to pick with that.
Dallas, Texas-based Rover Pipeline LLC plans to build ET Rover, a 711-mile-long pipeline that will carry hydraulically fractured natural gas from booming Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia shale formations and deliver it to market in the United States and Canada.
It’s the biggest of three new pipelines proposed to cross Washtenaw County. The others are the Nexus pipeline, a 250-mile-long natural gas pipeline that will tie into DTE Energy’s transmission system and bring shale gas here. The Nexus project would put a new, large-diameter pipeline through York, Augusta and Ypsilanti townships.
And Wolverine Oil Company wants to put a new, 16-inch-diameter oil pipeline through Freedom, Lodi, Pittsfield and Ypsilanti townships next to its existing pipeline.
Washtenaw County currently has four fuel transmission pipelines. The total would increase to seven with the new lines.
The tail end of ET Rover is proposed to get under construction this winter through 71 miles of western Washtenaw, Lenawee and Livingston counties. Near Ann Arbor, the pipeline would cross Dexter, Lima, Freedom, Bridgewater, Manchester and Putnam townships.
“Nobody’s happy about it,” Dexter Township Supervisor Harley Rider said.
“If it was going through my woodlot, I wouldn’t be happy about it. They’ve got to clearcut the woods,” said Rider, a longtime elected official who has had campaign signs stolen over the years only to reappear later at motorcycle swap meets.
Lima Township resident Bryan Dever has been sued by Rover because he won’t give permission for the pipeline’s surveyors to come onto his 10 acres on North Lima Center Road.
“I don’t want my family to be in the blast zone,” said Dever, who was due to face Rover on July 29 in Washtenaw County Trial Court.
“We’ll probably lose. But I’m still going to do it,” Dever said. “At the end of it, I want to be able to look at myself in the mirror and say, ‘I did what I could.’”
Rover is big — as befits a pipeline given the name of a big, friendly dog.
It will cost $4.2 billion. Slated to be operational next June, ET Rover will carry enough gas in a single day to heat 30,000 average U.S. homes for an entire year. It’s more than twice as long as the final leg of the controversial Keystone XL crude oil pipeline.
With supplies from the Gulf of Mexico down 46 percent over the past five years, Rover says the new pipeline will connect the Midwest with what the company calls low-cost, reliable natural gas from the Marcellus and Utica shale formations.
Marcellus is the U.S.’s largest single source of natural gas, producing about 20 percent of the total. And Utica has been called the “natural gas giant” that underlies the Marcellus.
Geologists have known for years about the two formations, but the shale didn’t boom until about a decade ago with the introduction of high-volume hydraulic fracturing.
Many Michiganders say thanks — but no thanks. They don’t want Rover to come over.
Those in the pipeline’s path worry about construction nightmares, lowered property values, damage to farm fields and the environment — and the remote, but real, possibility of a natural gas explosion.
But since ET Rover is such a big project, and the federal government regulates interstate pipelines, it may not be a question of whether a pipeline is built, but whose backyards it will go through.
And it looks like it’s ours this time.
In February, six Michigan counties escaped from what initially was going to be about a 110-mile-longer segment of pipeline in the state. After people protested, Rover opted to piggyback onto the existing Vector pipeline in Livingston County, instead. Rover didn’t say the change was because of the protest, just that it decided the longer route was “too congested.”
Lucas Heaney would be happy to see a similar outcome here.
“ET go home,” said Heaney, who lives in Livingston County’s Putnam Township, where pipeline opponents have rallied. The lake-rich township borders Portage Lake and includes the Pinckney State Recreation Area.
Heaney’s home is about 500 feet away from the proposed route of the high-pressure pipeline. That’s inside the “incineration zone,” Heaney said, that would extend 1,200 feet to either side of ET Rover, should its natural gas explode and burn.
“Not only is it going to diminish my property value, it’s going to raise my homeowner’s insurance,” said Heaney.
A neighbor in the insurance business told Heaney to expect his homeowner’s policy to quadruple in cost.
“I cannot afford a 400 percent increase in my homeowner’s insurance,” he said.
Those are some reasons why Heaney and other Putnam Township residents this summer formed an ad hoc group, ET Go Home, to try to stop the pipeline.
Heaney’s group hopes to convince the township board to propose a 1 mill property tax increase on the November ballot that would raise around $100,000 for a lawsuit to fight ET Rover.
“I’m 100 percent willing to … see my taxes raised in order to protect the interests of the township,” Heaney said.
The township board on May 20 passed a resolution against ET Rover that, among other things, urges that the pipeline be routed along existing utility easements.
But trying to halt Rover in court would be a David-vs.-Goliath battle, township officials fear.
“There’s no decision on putting (the millage increase) on the ballot right now,” township Supervisor Ron Rau said. “Our lawyer explained there was a 95 percent chance that you wouldn’t be able to win that case.”
And Rau has a personal stake in it. One of ET Rover’s proposed pipeline routes ran through his and his parents’ adjacent properties.
“It was going right through my mom and dad’s house,” he said.
‘No rhyme or reason’
Rover Pipeline filed lawsuits this spring against 11 landowners in Washtenaw County and six landowners in Lenawee and Livingston counties to get courts to allow surveyors on the holdouts’ land.
Dever said that Rover would have to cut down a 450-foot-long stretch of woods on his Lima Township property and go through a 900-foot-long pond to lay its proposed pipeline.
One reason Dever believes Rover wants to put the pipeline through rural townships is because he says the company isn’t required to make the pipeline’s walls as thick as it would in more-populated areas, or inspect the pipeline as frequently.
“They’ve got to make the walls of this pipeline thicker, depending on how many people live near this thing,” he said.
He also wonders about the potential for noise from the high-pressure pipeline.
“Am I going to listen to a dull roar all the time?”
Rover spokeswoman Vicki Granado said, “ There is no sound along a pipeline and there will be no compressor stations in Michigan.”
After Dever and his wife decided against allowing pipeline surveyors on their land, he said Rover’s crew showed up with an armed guard, which they said they needed for protection.
“I really felt like it was being used to intimidate myself and my neighbors,” he said. “From then on, I was armed, which just heightened the stress level.”
Dever said he had to run surveyors off four or five times.
Granado said, “This is standard operating policy for Energy Transfer and is meant for the safety of the crews.”
Rover left him alone for a while, Dever said, and he heard the company had chosen to route the pipeline along a power transmission line almost a mile away.
But in early July, Dever was served with court papers.
Rover wants to get on his property for a survey, he said, and so biologists can camp out for three nights and try to net bats to make sure no endangered species live there.
Dever said he understands the need for public utilities, such as roads and power lines, but he doesn’t think he should lose his property rights because a company has figured out how to make a little more money by selling gas to Canada.
And after looking at maps of underground pipelines in the United States, he doesn’t think they’re planned well.
“It’s just every which direction,” he said. “There’s no rhyme or reason to it.”
‘No power to stop it’
Some Michigan communities along the pipeline’s route have already decided not to fight ET Rover in court.
The pipeline falls under the jurisdiction of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The federal agency handles interstate pipeline approval, permitting and siting. The federal government lets pipeline companies use eminent domain to get easements across people’s property — provided FERC deems a project to be a public good. Rover Pipeline expects FERC to issue a construction permit in November for the Michigan segment of ET Rover.
“We decided not to take a stance on it, because it would be symbolic, at best,” Rider said. “The township has no power to stop it.
“There are a lot of people who are neutral on it, understanding that natural gas is a fact of life,” he said.
‘If it explodes, I’m toast’
Routing the pipeline across Portage Creek is one thing that worries retirees Richard and Andrea Knopf, who live in Putnam Township in a house they built in 1966 on the creek’s banks. Rover may run through the Knopfs’ 8.5 acres on Tiplady Road.
Knopf was stunned by what he sees as Rover Pipeline’s casual attitude toward routing the pipeline through Portage Creek and its wetlands, either by boring under it or trenching through it.
“This is the most pristine tributary feeding into the Huron River,” said Richard, a retired architect who designed the couple’s home.
“It has river otter. Just upstream of us, it has beaver. We watched a fawn being born early (in June) right on the river bank,” he said.
Granado said, “We understand and are very skilled at all aspects of construction, including boring.
“The Energy Transfer family of companies owns and operates more than 71,000 miles of pipelines in the U.S. Thousands of those miles represent pipelines that Energy Transfer has constructed, including water and road crossings,” she said.
Knopf thinks the pipeline should be routed far away — about 40 miles to the west.
“They can come up through the corn and soybean fields just west of Jackson,” he said. Along with environmental concerns, Knopf worries about safety.
ET Rover plans to put the pipeline 300 feet away from the Knopfs’ house, which would put them inside the incineration zone.
“If it explodes, I’m toast,” he said. “I’m trying to find an insurance policy I can take out so if I get toasted, my kids can live happily ever after.”
Surveyors who work for Rover Pipeline have been on the Knopfs’ land. But some Michigan landowners have resisted that step of the process.
Pipeline has proponents
Not everyone is against ET Rover. Pipeline proponents say Rover will create construction jobs, pay easements to landowners and taxes to government, and will provide Michigan with reliable and abundant natural gas that businesses use and residents need to keep warm in the winter.
“We look forward to FERC’s prompt approval of this economically important project,” said Jim Holcomb, Michigan Chamber of Commerce senior vice president for business advocacy and general counsel, in February.
During its installation, the pipeline project will create 10,000 temporary jobs nationwide, Rover Pipeline officials say, and 1,000 to 1,500 temporary jobs in Michigan.
During construction, ET Rover will generate an estimated $8.7 million in Michigan sales tax, Rover Pipeline says. Then it will produce about $6 million, annually, in property tax, the company says.
ET Rover expects to pay $12.5 million directly to Michigan landowners for easements across their property, Granado said, with the amount paid varying by mileage.
Unlike annual fees paid to people who agree to have cell phone towers put on their land, the payments for the 50-foot-wide permanent easements are one-time only. Except for farmers, that is, who get compensated for crop damage over five years, in declining amounts until it phases out in year five.
Granado said reimbursement of landowners is regulated.
“That is not something we decide,” she said. “That is set up per the regulatory agencies.”
Michigan is hungry for natural gas, according to figures cited by Rover.
Michigan is the nation’s ninth-largest consumer of natural gas and typically ranks in the top five for residential natural gas consumption. But Michigan produces only 16 percent of the natural gas that it consumes and is reliant upon imports for the remaining 84 percent.
No boom, possible ban
ET Rover will carry fracked natural gas through Michigan, but the controversial method of high-volume fracking hasn’t gotten traction here.
The state sold a record number of mineral leases in 2010, but Michigan only has 13 high-volume wells. By comparison, Texas led the United States with almost 34,000 fracking wells, according to “Fracking by the Numbers,” a 2013 report by the group Environment America.
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, involves injecting a mixture of water, sand and chemicals into a shale gas formation a mile or more underground. The pressure fractures the rock, releasing gas, and the sand holds the fractures open to let gas flow into the well.
Concerns cited by fracking critics include that the cocktail of chemicals can contaminate groundwater, that improperly drilled wells can send methane into residents’ wells and that fracking requires large volumes of freshwater.
Earthquakes also are an issue. Fracking and deep-well injection of wastewater has been blamed for earthquakes, including in Oklahoma which used to average two 3.0 magnitude or greater earthquakes per year and now gets that many per day.
The Kalamazoo area was hit with Michigan’s second-strongest earthquake on May 2, a 4.2 magnitude temblor, and then a 3.3 magnitude earthquake struck on June 30. But geologists say fracking had nothing to with those, since no wells are nearby.
Fracking is now the predominant method used to extract natural gas in the United States, said a draft, 200-page-plus study of fracking released in February by University of Michigan researchers at the Graham Sustainability Institute. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder requested the report.
The draft report cites Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality, whose officials maintain that over the past 50 years, more than 12,000 oil and gas wells have been fractured in the state with no reports of adverse environmental impacts.
Now, however, tapping hydrocarbons in Michigan will require a different type of fracking: high-volume hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling.
These horizontally fracked wells are about a mile or more underground, the DEQ says, deeper than the old, vertical wells that maxxed out at 2,000 feet.
And high-volume horizontal wells typically require much more water, the draft report says, around 20 million gallons — instead of 50,000 to 100,000 for a vertical well.
For a while, it looked as if fracking was poised to take off in Michigan. The draft report says “a May 2010 auction of state mineral leases brought in a record $178 million — nearly as much as the state had earned in the previous 82 years of lease sales combined.”
Most of the leases were sold in Michigan’s Utica and Collingwood shale formations, located in the tip and upper middle of the mitten-shaped lower peninsula.
However, production has been limited. Michigan’s shale formations aren’t as productive as those in other states, the report says.
The U-M researchers question whether Michigan’s current regulations for fracking are sufficient for high-volume wells.
“Where there once were thousands of gallons of wastewater per well to handle from historic small-scale fracturing operations, a future with high-volume hydraulic fracturing will create hundreds of thousands (and possibly millions) of gallons of wastewater; 100 to 1,000 times more than historic wells,” the draft report states.
The report says Michigan might require more information to be released about the more than 1,000 different chemicals that were either used in fracturing fluids or found in associated wastewaters between 2005 and 2011.
The state could require wastewater from high-volume fracking wells be recycled, the report says, and Michigan might spare freshwater supplies by allowing municipal wastewater as the water source for fracking operations.
The report makes suggestions, not hard-and-fast recommendations. That will be the governor’s job after a final report is released in the late summer or early fall.
Meanwhile, an effort is under way to gather 252,523 valid signatures for a November 2016 ballot initiative to ban fracking in Michigan, as has been done in New York and Vermont.
This will be the third try for the Committee to Ban Fracking in Michigan, which sought to get the matter on the ballot in 2012 and 2013, but only got about 70,000 signatures.
Pipeline accidents do happen — including a recent one near Ann Arbor.
A 20-inch-diameter underground Consumers Energy natural gas pipeline ruptured on May 4 in the woods near Chelsea. While it didn’t burn or explode, the pressure from the escaping gas blew a crater 50 yards wide in the ground, Knopf said.
There were 110 serious incidents with U.S. gas transmission pipelines between 1994 through 2013, resulting in 41 fatalities, 195 injuries and $449 million in property damage, according to figures from the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.
A review last year in The Wall Street Journal found there were 1,400 pipeline spills and accidents in the United States between 2010 and 2013. Despite claims of high-tech monitoring, four out of five pipeline accidents are discovered by local residents, the review found — not pipeline companies.
Rover Pipeline’s parent company is Dallas-based Energy Transfer Partners, which had one of its natural gas pipelines rupture on the night of June 14 near the rural, south Texas town of Lindeau. It caused a massive fire that reportedly could be seen 20 miles away. No one was injured, but the fire prompted the evacuation of nearby homes.
The ET Rover pipeline will carry gas at a maximum allowable pressure of 1,440 pounds per square inch.
If it ruptures, neighbors might not smell a leak, Knopf said. While natural gas used in the home has a stinky odor added, Knopf said, natural gas in a transmission line is odorless.
He worries that if ET Rover bores underneath Portage Creek and pulls the pipeline through, it could get scratched by rocks.
“This is the end of a glacial moraine. We’ve got huge boulders the size of VWs,” Knopf said.
The pipeline scratch could rust, he said, and then a pinhole could form that would get bigger and bigger until the pipe ruptured.
Heaney, meanwhile, worries about routing ET Rover near power lines owned by ITC Holdings Corp., the nation’s largest independent electricity transmission company.
“If there were to be some sort of accident, would it be complicated by the fact that it was under a power line? Well, of course,” he said.
Michigan’s worst pipeline leak — and the worst inland pipeline leak in U.S. history — took place on July 25, 2010, when Enbridge Inc.’s 6B Pipeline burst and spilled an estimated 1 million gallons of heavy crude oil from Canada’s tar-sand oilfields into Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River.
The spill closed 35 miles of the river system to recreation. Several hundred workers were involved in the cleanup, which cost about $1 billion.
The leak caused alarms to sound at Enbridge’s headquarters in Edmonton, Alberta.
But it took 17 hours for the company to shut the pipeline down. Operators thought the alarms might have been triggered by a bubble inside the pipeline, so they increased oil pressure for several hours, causing even more oil to spill.
Environmental activist Chris Wahmhoff commemorated Enbridge’s 17-hour delay on June 24 — Wahmhoff’s 37th birthday — by dancing for 17 hours on a busy Battle Creek street corner.
“I danced for 17 consecutive hours, because that’s how long Enbridge ignored the alarms in the system,” said Wahmhoff, who grew up in the Kalamazoo area, playing in the river.
Dancing also helped Wahmhoff, who once weighed 465 pounds, lose 250 pounds after bariatric surgery.
Halted work for one day
Three years prior, on June 24, 2012, Wahmhoff made another protest against Enbridge — one that got him into trouble with the law.
He got on a skateboard and rolled about 1,000 feet inside Enbridge 6B Pipeline near Marshall. After the spill the pipeline was reconstructed and expanded from 30 inches to 36 inches in diameter. Wahmhoff was furious, because he said Enbridge used the spill as cover to expand its pipeline. So he held up construction for a day by refusing to come out.
The protest got Wahmhoff a year’s probation and a 60-day suspended jail sentence.
He’s still active in the Michigan Coalition Against Tar Sands. Its members have chained themselves to equipment at pipeline construction sites.
Wahmhoff didn’t want to speak for MI-CATS and say whether the group would launch a campaign against ET Rover.
But the ET Rover pipeline will end in Livingston County’s Hardy Township, where it will connect with the 42-inch diameter Vector natural gas pipeline that’s owned by DTE Energy and Enbridge.
“Every opportunity we get to go up against Enbridge, we’re going to be there,” Wahmhoff said. “If Enbridge is a part of something, we’ll be there to confront it.”
Six counties cut
While the odds favor pipeline companies in court, public opinion may make a difference.
The ET Rover pipeline originally was going to pass through nine — not three — counties in Southeastern Michigan. But Rover Pipeline on Feb. 2 cut six counties from the route: Oakland, Macomb, St. Clair, Genesee, Shiawassee and Lapeer.
Residents, especially in Oakland County, had rallied against ET Rover. Some of them already had suffered through the reconstruction of Enbridge’s 6B Pipeline, the same one that spilled crude oil into the Kalamazoo River. ET Rover would have taken the same route as the 6B Pipeline for some of its route.
Then, Rover Pipeline officials announced their plan to connect to the the Vector Pipeline in Livingston County.
The company said, “Once the Rover Pipeline team was able to conduct on-the-ground surveys of the proposed pipeline route, it was determined the route was too congested to route, build and eventually operate the proposed pipeline.”
Rover Pipeline said, “In particular, we made the decision to move the proposed line in order to not require the displacement of 54 families/homes along the existing Enbridge 6B pipeline route.”
‘Opinion means something’
While local governments can’t stop ET Rover, some officials believe their objections have an effect.
Near Ann Arbor, elected officials whose communities are in the pipeline’s path have passed resolutions opposing it.
Filing a resolution against the pipeline gives local governments “legal standing,” should they decide to sue.
Freedom Township passed a resolution that told Rover Pipeline it should follow existing rights of way to make a utilities corridor, said Township Trustee Dan Schaible.
“Their first pipeline, they were going through virgin lands, they were making their own route,” he said.
That included the Schaibles’ 160-acre, multi-generational family farm, where they raise sheep, grain and hay. The farm already has pipelines buried underneath it, Schaible said, including the Consumers Energy natural gas line that burst in May near Chelsea.
“Half of (the farm) has pipelines,” he said. “They wanted to go down the half that didn’t have any.”
Rover Pipeline has since agreed to move the pipeline closer to the existing pipeline rights of way on the Schaibles’ land and elsewhere in Freedom Township.
“That actually happened, so I think our comments were well-received,” Schaible said. “Until it’s in the ground, you never know. But as of right now, the maps all show it (rerouted).”
Putnam Township passed a May 20 resolution that, among other things, calls on Rover Pipeline to follow existing utility rights of way, such as the ITC electricity transmission line. That way, it says, the impact on township residents would be “significantly reduced.”
Putnam Township’s supervisor thinks the resolution should have an effect on ET Rover.
“Our opinion means something, I believe it does,” Rau said. “That’s why we presented it.”
More than 60 percent of the gas in ET Rover’s proposed pipeline is bound for international sale in Canada and Mexico, and won’t benefit Michigan, said an Oct. 15, 2014, resolution (click for PDF) passed by the Washtenaw County Commissioners.
“The principal purpose of this pipeline is to serve U.S. consumers,” the company states. “The volume not consumed in the U.S. will be transported to the Dawn Hub in Ontario, Canada, where it will be traded on the open market, for consumption either back in the United States, into large-demand markets such as New York or New Jersey, or to customers in Canada.”
Two years prior, Rover’s parent company Energy Transfers filed FERC documents saying that there was “excess pipeline capacity in the Midwest” and entered into a joint venture with Enbridge to convert an existing gas pipeline to a crude oil pipeline, the resolution says.
Four pipelines already run through Washtenaw County, and another one would only hurt property values, the resolution says.
ET Rover presents a serious environmental and safety threat to the Village of Pinckney, said a resolution that trustees passed on Oct. 13, 2014. It would hurt residents’ property values, the resolution said, and its location could prevent the expansion of Pinckney’s municipal sewer plant.
While they’ve passed resolutions against the pipeline, officials in southeastern Michigan recognize there’s a limit to their power over ET Rover.
“We’re not dealing from a position of strength, let’s put it that way,” Schaible said.
Tim Omarzu is a Michigan native, U-M grad and longtime newspaper reporter who lives in Chattanooga, Tenn., with his wife, Ariel, and sons Liam and Miles. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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