Construction on Bayou Bridge Pipeline could soon begin; opponents push for more studies

BRIDGING THE BAYOU: A sign marks the area of a pipeline in the Atchafalaya Basin. The proposed 162-mile Bayou Bridge Pipeline—along its route from Lake Charles to St. James Parish—will cross 11 South Louisiana parishes as well as through the heart of the basin. (Photo by Allie Appell)

After nearly a year of planning, permitting and protests, construction of the $670 million Bayou Bridge Pipeline—which will cut through the heart of the Atchafalaya Basin in its run from Lake Charles to St. James Parish—could begin in a matter of weeks. That is, assuming it receives the necessary permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and a final permit from the state.

Pipeline owner Energy Transfer Partners is confident the pipeline is on the verge of getting the green light, despite the Corps staying mum on the status of its permits. The project has already been given the go-ahead by other state agencies.

“We anticipate we’ll start construction by the end of the year,” says Vicki Granado, spokesman for ETP. “We are at the tail end of the permitting process.” If approved, the 162-mile-long pipeline would eventually cross 11 south Louisiana parishes as well as portions of the Atchafalaya Basin, and create 2,500 construction jobs and 12 permanent jobs. The first leg of the pipeline connecting Nederland, Texas, to facilities and refineries in Lake Charles was completed in 2016.

Still, Ricky Boyett, public information officer for the Corps’ New Orleans District, can’t say how long the multistaged evaluation process will take. Along the way, various environmental groups—led by the New Orleans-based Louisiana Bucket Brigade, which argues the pipeline poses hazards to the basin and its fish and game industry—are pushing for the Corps to pursue a costly and time-consuming Environmental Impact Statement before granting its permits. Whether or not they’ll get the EIS remains in question.

“I really don’t have a timeline,” Boyett says. “We’re still evaluating and conducting the environmental assessment. If that assessment comes back with a finding of significant impact, then that would prompt an EIS. We haven’t reached that point yet.”

EIS triggers could include perceived potential impacts to wetlands, the availability of a better pipeline route or threats to the overall hydrology of an area.

“During an EIS, we look at the full environmental scope, including economic impacts,” Boyett says. “It is a complete environmental assessment of the entire area and waterways. We don’t really set a timeline for how long it takes.”

Despite the uncertainty, ETP is pushing for full commercial operation of the pipeline by the second half of 2018.

Environmental pushback

Some of the more vocal opponents of the pipeline have been the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, Atchafalaya Basin Keepers and Louisiana Crawfish Producers Association, which jointly claim the pipeline could cause irreparable damage to the state’s wetlands as well as other economic ripple effects.

Louisiana Bucket Brigade Executive Director Anne Rolfes says the threat of a spill in the Atchafalaya Basin is her biggest concern, pointing to the 144 pipeline accidents reported in Louisiana in 2016, 69 of which due to leaks, according to National Response Center data. The NRC is a part of the federally established National Response System and is the designated federal point of contact for reporting all oil, chemical, radiological, biological and etiological discharges into the environment.

The Louisiana Bucket Brigade describes itself as a 501(c)(3) environmental health and justice organization. “While it is true that the accident rate for rail and trucks is more frequent, the amount spilled is far less,” Rolfes says. “For a pipeline, it just has this relentless flow until it’s shut off.” As if to highlight her point, in November a Keystone Pipeline leak spilled more than 200,000 gallons of oil in South Dakota in just 15 minutes. Owner TransCanada Corp. says that it detected a drop in pressure and safely shut off the stretch of pipeline.

“This is going to be the most state-of-the-art, technologically-advanced pipeline that they have in the state because it’s brand new.”

—CHRIS JOHN, president, Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association

Nonetheless, spokesmen for the oil and gas industry say modern technology can immediately detect and resolve any leaks in the pipeline, thereby making significant leaks virtually impossible. “We have control centers that monitor our pipelines 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year,” says ETP’s Granada. “There are automatic shut-off valves, so as soon as there’s a change in the temperature or pressure detected along the line, our control center hits the switch and those automatically shut off valves.”

Chris John, president of the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, says statistics tracked by the federal pipeline regulator, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, speak to the industry’s strong commitment to maintaining the safety and integrity of all infrastructure. In 2015, operators delivered more than 99% of products safely to their destination. Using state-of-the-art technology, construction methods and best practices, operators ensure the safe operations of all pipelines, regardless of age.

“With the technology we have today, everything is monitored around the clock along these pipelines, especially Bayou Bridge,” John says. “This is going to be the most state-of-the-art, technologically-advanced pipeline that they have in the state because it’s brand new. If there is any kind of issue, any kind of pressure that’s down or up, you can pinpoint exactly where it is.”

Gifford Briggs, vice president of the Louisiana Oil & Gas Association, says owners have obvious economic reasons for ensuring that their product remains in the pipeline. “It’s in everyone’s best interest to be as safe and as environmentally friendly as possible. Everybody wants their product to get where it needs to go, and that doesn’t matter where it’s oil or natural gas. A leak is extremely costly to that company, from a public relations standpoint, a cleanup standpoint and a loss of product standpoint.”

Louisiana’s oil and gas proponents say the Bayou Bridge protests are merely a reflection of the negative national attention given to pipelines in recent years. Being land-based, pipeline projects are more visible and thereby attract more media attention than other drilling operations. Various environmental groups have therefore taken the national template and “overlaid” it onto Bayou Bridge, they say.

Ready to go

Meanwhile, Stupp Corp. of Baton Rouge has the entirety of the custom-ordered pipe, equating to 30,000 pipe tons, ready to go once the Bayou Bridge project gets final approval. ETP’s Granado says starting the pipe milling early was necessary to keep the project on schedule. Besides, she adds, the 24-inch-diameter pipe could be used on other projects if necessary.

Once completed and operational, the pipeline would transport an estimated 280,000 barrels of crude oil a day between hubs in Nederland and St. James Parish. Bayou Bridge is jointly owned by subsidiaries of Phillips 66 Partners, Energy Transfer Partners and Sunoco Logistics Partners.

Elsewhere in the state, oil and gas leaders continue to push pipelines as the safest way to transport their product. Given the current regulatory environment, certain backlogged pipeline projects—many of which will serve the burgeoning liquefied natural gas industry in southwest Louisiana—will likely move forward unimpeded by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

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