A visitor to TC Energy’s webpage about Gas Transmission Northwest (GTN) is greeted by imagery of lush, cherry tree covered hills, snow-capped mountains, and seemingly innocuous information about the operator’s plans to “upgrade” the line to meet customers’ needs for “reliable and affordable” natural gas that will “meet the Pacific Northwest’s desire for a cleaner energy future.”
What the website doesn’t discuss is the pipeline and the operator’s history of failures and regulatory violations, environmental devastation, and the proposed project’s potential to cause explosions, fires, and climate impacts. Despite this history, the operator has applied to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) for permission to complete a project to massively increase its capacity on the line—which could increase the impacts of incidents on the public and the environment, and exacerbate climate change.
The GTN pipeline spans 1,377 miles from the Canadian border in British Columbia to southern Oregon, and has a capacity to transport 2.9 billion cubic feet of natural gas a day. At this capacity, on a yearly basis, the GTN pipeline can heat 1.4 million homes. GTN’s application to FERC asks permission for a project to retrofit this pipeline to increase its capacity by 150 million cubic feet per day to “serve the growing market demand its system is experiencing” by upgrading four compressor stations located in Idaho, Washington, and Oregon. The upgraded compressor stations would increase pressure and transport more gas through the system.
The compressor station upgrades involve both software updates and equipment replacement to increase each station’s horsepower. When you increase the horsepower of a compressor station you also increase the emissions of the system, since they are gas powered themselves. This is especially concerning to us as at Pipeline Safety Trust (PST), because one of GTN’s compressor stations, Starbuck, located in eastern Washington, is already one of the state’s top carbon emitters. In 2021, it emitted 90,620 metric tons of carbon dioxide – the equivalent of 11,415 homes’ energy use for one year.
GTN’s proposal stands to increase emissions substantially because of its increased compressor station emissions. The existing Starbuck compressor station will be upgraded from a 14,300-horsepower system to 23,470, plus an additional 23,470 horsepower compressor will be installed. A similar upgrade will occur at the existing Kent compressor station in Sherman County, Oregon. In Kootenai County, Idaho, the station will receive a software upgrade that will uprate the existing compressor from 14,300 horsepower to 23,470. More horsepower means more emissions, since the level of energy needed to power these systems increases as well.
Of course, all this ignores the emissions caused by the system itself. Compressor stations are notoriously leaky, especially when operating under high pressure, and operators sometimes conduct maintenance activities that vent methane into the atmosphere to release pressure on the system (called a “blowdown”). All of this is perfectly legal as long as it is not “unintentional” on behalf of the pipeline operator.
Not to mention, natural gas pipelines themselves are leaky—and operators have only just been required to mitigate those leaks thanks to language in the PIPES Act of 2020. Numerous studies have found massive methane plumes leaking from natural gas transmission and distribution systems, and increasing pressure on this line will only exacerbate existing leaks.
All of these factors add up to a system likely to cause even further harm to our environment and climate, and potentially impact the public in the event of a failure. Explosions and fires caused by failures can kill or injure people and cause property damage, and higher-pressure systems can worsen these impacts by literally providing more fuel.
The potential for failure is not abstract: GTN and TC Energy have a history of failing to meet regulatory requirements, accidents, and controversies relating to safety and reliability of its systems. Since 2003, GTN has faced over a dozen enforcement actions by the federal pipeline safety regulator, Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. TC Energy has received five Corrective Action Orders and been subject to 21 cases since 2006. And when we talk about the damage from actual releases, we just have to look at TC Energy’s record on one of its other major pipelines: Keystone, which carries crude oil from Canada to Illinois and Texas. Keystone has had dozens of releases amounting to hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil being released into streams, wildlife habitat and even farms. PST is aware Keystone is a different kind of pipeline system than GTN — but it certainly calls into question TC Energy’s safety culture.
Further, emissions can impact overburdened or environmental justice communities. While the compressor stations are away from higher-density populations, air pollution is unique in that it does not necessarily stay in the location it occurred because it can move uncontrolled through the atmosphere. The Tri-Cities to Wallula area has been identified as an “overburdened community” by the Washington State Department of Ecology as part of its air quality initiative, and is in proximity to the Starbuck compressor, referenced above as a major emitter.
Despite the bucolic imagery on TC Energy’s website, can you call it “cleaner energy future” if the system will increase overall emissions and place the public at risk? PST hopes FERC will deny the project, and last month submitted comments voicing our concerns to FERC’s decisionmaking docket.