Acton Institute Powerblog

Feisty Nuns’ Pipeline Battle Cute but Wrong-Headed

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There are days when policy conflicts appear to be clear cut. Such is the case with the nuns and monks protesting a proposed pipeline across their Kentucky land. As a property rights advocate, I agree wholeheartedly that the Sisters of Loretto and monks of the Abbey of Gethsemani are well within their rights to protest running a pipeline across their property. I disagree vehemently, however, with the rationales behind the protest – namely the religious’ ill-advised environmental opposition to fossil fuels and pipelines in general.

After winning their battle to prevent surveyors on their Marion County property and a subsequent agreement to reroute the Bluegrass natural gas pipeline, the Kentucky nuns and monks expanded their battle to shut down the pipeline altogether:

Earlier this year, the nuns of Sisters of Loretto and the monks of the Abbey of Gethsemani refused to allow Bluegrass pipeline workers to survey their property — which, between the two religious communities, amounts to more than 3,000 acres that they’ve owned since the 1800s. In September, a representative of Williams Co., the company which, along with Boardwalk Pipeline Partners, is building the Bluegrass pipeline, confirmed that the pipeline would not go through the religious communities’ property. The nuns, however, promised to continue to fight the pipeline, saying the fight wasn’t about them, but about ensuring the environment isn’t abused for the sake of profit.

Last time I checked, religious were supposed to care more about the plight of the poor and being good environmental stewards more than serving as advocates for unproven theories concerning catastrophic climate change and trumped-up safety issues. Inexpensive fuel shipped inexpensively benefits everyone.

And “profits”? Heaven forfend a company make profits bringing a much-needed product to market, benefiting not only the financially disadvantaged, but as well the wealthy and middle class, company employees, communities, state and federal tax rolls and shareholders. Need I mention many of these religious – as in clergy, nuns and other people of faith affiliated with the Interfaith Council on Corporate Responsibility and As You Sow – are among the latter category? It would seem these religious shareholders are working at cross purposes to their own financial best interests.

If the Sisters of Loretto and monks of the Abbey of Gethsemani succeed in implementing a pipeline moratorium, it’ll require alternative transportation in the form of far-less safe trains and trucks, which is certainly a detriment for workers:

US data on incident, injury, and fatality rates for pipelines, road, and rail for the 2005 to 2009 period (the latest data available) show that road and rail have higher rates of serious incidents, injuries, and fatalities than pipelines, even though more road and rail incidents go unreported. Americans are 75 percent more likely to get killed by lightning than to be killed in a pipeline accident (Furchtgott-Roth, 2013).

And this:

Pipelines are extremely safe. From 2006-2008, there were only 0.7 incidents per thousand miles, a decrease of 63% from 1999-2001.Pipelines also generally have a better safety record (deaths, injuries, fires/explosions) than other modes of oil transportation. For example, compared to the pipeline record, there are 87 times more oil transport truck-related deaths, 35 times more oil transport truck related fires/explosions and twice as many oil transport truck-related injuries.

Environmental issues are addressed by the same source as above: “Pipelines are also environmentally friendly. For example, to replace a medium-sized pipeline that transports 150,000 barrels a day would require operating more than 750 trucks or a 75-car train every day.” According to the Association of Oil Pipe Lines:

Oil pipelines are a vital part of our country’s infrastructure and have been quietly serving the nation for decades. Our transportation system—cars, delivery trucks, airplanes, trains, and water carriers—could not operate without significant support from pipelines transporting oil to refineries, and refined products from refineries to distribution points. Almost all gasoline is transported by pipeline. Tanker trucks delivering to the local gas station usually carry gasoline only the last few miles, after picking it up from a pipeline at a distribution terminal. The driving public reaps the benefits of pipeline transportation at a cost of about only 2.5 cents per gallon of gasoline.

Finally, although the media may think it endearing to report on feisty nuns and monks rebelling against “Big Oil,” they might want to scratch beneath the superficially cute appearance to reveal the disturbing unintended consequences of their efforts. These include raising energy costs for those least able to afford it; forcing less-safe train and truck carriage of natural gas; either increasing safety risks for employees or threatening employment altogether; and reducing company and shareholder profits.

Bruce Edward Walker has more than 30 years’ writing and editing experience in a variety of publishing areas, including reference books, newspapers, magazines, media relations and corporate speeches. Much of this material involved research on water rights, land use, alternative-technology vehicles and other environmental issues, but Walker has also written extensively on nonscientific subjects, having produced six titles in Wiley Publishing’s CliffsNotes series, including study guides for "Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland" and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest." He has also authored more than 100 critical biographies of authors and musicians for Gale Research's Contemporary Literary Criticism and Contemporary Musicians reference-book series. Most recently, he was managing editor of The Heartland Institute's InfoTech & Telecom News. Prior to that, he was manager of communications for the Mackinac Center's Property Rights Network. He also served from 2006-2007 as editor of Michigan Science, a quarterly Mackinac Center publication. Walker has served as an adjunct professor of literature and academic writing at University of Detroit Mercy. For the past three years, he has authored a weekly column for the mid-Michigan Morning Sun newspaper. Walker holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Michigan State University. He is the father of two daughters and currently lives in Midland, Mich., with his wife Katherine.


  • Mike

    This pipeline will do absolutely NOTHING to reduce the costs of natural gas or any other fuel. What iw ill do, in Kentucky, is endanger its citizens and provide a short-term monetary gain in taxes, a few short-term jobs (probably filled by people from other states who have no stake in keeping Kentucky beautiful and safe) and a small gain for the land owners who sell their rights, just as the land owners in Appalachia sold theirs to the coal operators. (In other words they’re signing up with the devil. Their land values WILL go down. Many of them will have more noise, permanently, not just during construction.

    And, it is a NATURAL GAS LIQUIDS (which means hazardous liquids0 pipeline, not a Liquified Natural Gas pipeline.

    But the most offensive part is the Williams and Boardwalk folk claiming their number one concern is safety. That, as you know, is absolute nonsense. Their number one concern is profit, period. Safety might be in the top ten; but, even then, only if they can make a good profit.

    So save us the crap about energy costs, please.

    • BruceEdwardWalker

      Okay, you’ve expressed your environmentalist bona fides by stridently putting forth unsubstantiated claims. So, what alternatives do you suggest to replace the cheap, plentiful nat’l gas? Or is it that you don’t really care about affordable energy? Must be nice to afford the energy necessary for posting online on behalf of arguing against same for the poor, who also require it for heat and cooking. Much like the nuns in the video who more than likely aren’t aware their electric golf cart probably is powered by coal-fired energy.

      • Annalee

        Bruce – really – listen just a little. The Bluegrass Pipeline is NOT intended to carry natural gas fuel. The pipeline is planned to carry NGLs, natural gas liquids. Despite the similar sounding name the ingredients are chemically distinct from natural gas. See for a description of NGLs. Compare to which gives the ingredients of natural gas. A bit of reading will show that the two are quite different.

        Now that you realize the two materials are different – and that the Bluegrass Pipeline is proposed to carry NGLs – what is the issue? Well, NGLs, according to the warnings on the pipeline company website, will sink to low lying areas and are undetectable to humans and will kill you by depriving you of oxygen.

        However, more tragic than the death of nearby immediate humans, is the long term danger to the groundwater of the entire state (this means drinking water, farming water, water for our important bourbon industry, etc.). You are probably not aware that most of the state of Kentucky rides on top of one of the largest karst limestone formations in the world. This means that most of the state overlays a region of permeable limestone and caves flowing with underground water. DOT regulations themselves even point out the special concern with taking pipelines of hazardous chemicals through areas of karst geology. See and read for the word “karst”. According to the geology experts, a spill into such rock formations cannot be contained or cleaned up and the pathway proposed for the Bluegrass Pipeline runs right through these kinds of formations.

        So, before you generalize and try to paint us as just another group of crazy environmentalists, you should investigate a bit and realize that there are specific concerns about the Kentucky geology, and that the pipeline will not add anything to “energy independence” and will not help the poor, of whom Kentucky as a big share. The opposite is true. When a pipeline leak occurs, which the stats indicate must happen, it will steal the livelihood of farmers, small businesses, and many others who are relying on the goodness of the Kentucky environment to make a living. Kentucky is an agricultural state, with many billions in revenue each year dependent on the products of itsland and water.

        NOT building the pipeline hurts ONLY the wealthy out of state pipeline company.

        On a final note, you should be aware that looking at the safety of pipelines in general is not relevant to the safety of NGL pipelines. While there were roughly 26,000 miles of natural gas transmission, gathering, and distribution lines in Kentucky as of December 2011, there were only 38 miles of NGL pipeline in the state at that time. This short stretch of pipeline experienced a major explosion ( ) in 2004. Nationwide, the percentage of significant safety incidents with NGL pipelines compared to natural gas pipeline accidents is disproportionately large, given the fewer miles of NGL pipeline. For example, data collected in Pennsylvania over the last 10 years shows that although hazardous liquids pipelines are only 4.6% of the total pipeline miles in Pennsylvania, from 2002 to 2012, these pipelines represent 24.8% of significant incidents, and 61.5% of the property damage. [Significant incidents are those where there is death, an injury requiring hospitalization, property damage of $50,000 or more, liquid releases where there is an unintentional fire or explosion, or a liquid release of > 5 barrels of highly volatile liquid, or > 50 barrels of other liquids.]

  • Kevin A. McGrath

    I happen to be a Catholic pastor from a county adjoining Marion County, where the Sisters of Loretto are located. Our community too would be affected by the building of the Bluegrass Pipeline. I don’t agree that coal and other fossil fuels need to be eliminated. But I think there are plenty of good reasons for opposing the construction of this pipeline that go beyond one’s individual property rights.
    Just on a factual matter. This is not a pipeline for natural gas. It is a pipeline for natural gas liquids, which are byproducts of the fracking process and which are used in the production of petrochemical products, chemicals and plastics. They are, by definition, hazardous materials. The relative safety of pipelines over trains and trucks is a red herring. First, these materials are not now being transported by train or truck. The costs of those transportation modes do not support the marginal value of the natural gas liquids. So, if the pipeline is not built, these byproducts will not be transported, but burned off at the source as they are now. Second, while the risk of immediate deaths from train or truck accidents is obviously higher then from pipelines, the risk of soil and water contamination is vastly greater. Leaks at several NGL pipelines over the last couple decades resulted in the release of 100s of thousands of gallons into soil, ground water, and aquifers. Train or truck leaks produce much smaller, localized releases on highways and rail beds where there is much less risk of contamination.
    But for an advocate of property rights, the much more serious problem with this project is that the company is assuming that it is entitled to exercising eminent domain if property owners do not agree to granting them the needed easements. As I said, this is not a natural gas pipeline, it is not a public utility. It is simply a private project that will provide no state-wide or local benefits other than a few thousand dollars in taxes. They are invoking a right normally reserved to projects serving the public interest for the benefit of a purely private good. They are using that position as a threat to get landowners to sell them easements. The pipeline builders are proposing to use state power to their own private advantage. That has nothing to do with justice or with authentic property rights.

    • BruceEdwardWalker

      Yes NGLs are different than pure methane (CH4): NGL includes liquid propane, butane, pentanes, Hexanes – you get it- increasingly complex molecules: But this in not to be confused with H2S –hydrogen sulfide poison gas. The market for NGLs is severely depressed due to a glut from liquids rich (oil) production: This is one reason you hear manufacturing is moving back to the USA; cheap product and abundant sustainable energy supply. I might add that NGLs were not the stated concern of the Sisters of Loretto, only a pipeline in general.

      I conceded there are definite environmental concerns. To the best of my knowledge you’re not off base with concerns of spills and aquifers. I am not entirely familiar with statistics on pipeline breaks but know there are some old lines that have caused leaks in the last few years. Newer lines have much more built in safety and shut-in valves. In Columbia the FARC rebels would blow up the Occidental oil (liquids) lines on an almost weekly basis and Oxy would immediately shut-in and patch the lines in a matter of hours. I encourage you to read the Fraser Institute study linked above.

      As long as there is a market, transport to refineries is going to happen. What is the alternative to pipelines? Road and rail have never had an accident? At least two rail crude spills this year and one major in Canada. Pipelines are still the safest alternative but rail is taking market share due to environmental road blocks as well as pipeline costs requiring long-term delivery contracts.

      Thinking outside the box: Kentucky could encourage the building of refineries and modern petrochemical infrastructure in front of the limestone environments, create jobs, build wealth, prosperity and educational systems for future generations. What is likely to happen is we will ship (road-rail-pipeline) to Louisiana and Texas for processing and export for overseas manufacturing.

      • Kevin A. McGrath

        My opinion on the Bluegrass Pipeline is shaped by a simple cost-benefit analysis. Neither the producers nor the endpoint users of the NGL products being carried by this pipeline are in Kentucky. Aside from the small amounts of tax revenues generated in the counties the pipeline passes through, there are no benefits for the people of Kentucky.
        And while, as you say, the risks of a catastrophic accident are small, they are real. And the record of the Williams Company in the past demonstrates that they are not uncomfortable with cutting corners in the building of their pipelines. Not to mention the costs that will be incurred by the hosting counties in upgrading fire and rescue equipment and training their first responders to deal with potential NGL leaks.
        The relative safety of pipelines over trucks and trains is, as I’ve said, a red herring. The gas producers are looking for the cheapest way possible to get the NGLs to refineries. They are not transporting them on trucks and trains now because it is too costly to do so. I’ve seen the Fraser report. The Bluegrass Pipeline Consortium linked it on their website. I have no reason to question its veracity, but would just point out that the Fraser Institute is primarily funded by the oil and gas industry.
        Just because a company wants to do something does not make it the good or right thing to do. They are in it for the money, of course. Which I have no problem with. Everyone has to make a living. But there is still such a thing as the common good. And when a private interest proposes something that does not serve or contravenes the common good, the society has a right to oppose it, even using the power of its government to stop it. Especially since the pipeline consortium has been using the threat of coercive state taking as a means to scare people into selling easement rights.
        You don’t have to agree with the Sisters of Loretto on everything they say about energy policy to find that their opposition to this pipeline is anything but ‘wrongheaded.’

        • BruceEdwardWalker

          “Aside from the small amounts of tax revenues generated in the counties the pipeline passes through, there are no benefits for the people of Kentucky.” By such logic, transporting anything through any state must be measured by its value to the population on that one state? Doesn’t the end use of the product hold a potential value to KY? “And while, as you say, the risks of a catastrophic accident are small, they are real.” You could say this about a plethora of industry, so you’d embrace the precautionary principle in each instance? “They are not transporting them on trucks and trains now because it is too costly to do so.” Seems a rather reductive argument to me. “I have no reason to question its veracity … the Fraser Institute is primarily funded by the oil and gas industry.” If, as you’ve written, you believe the whole concept of safety a red herring, why would you feel compelled to tarnish the report based on TFI’s funding? Either it’s factual or it isn’t, so let’s use that as a measuring stick, okay? “And when a private interest proposes something that does not serve or contravenes the common good, the society has a right to oppose it, even using the power of its government to stop it.” Just so. And the burden is on those opposing the pipeline to prove empirically rather than emotionally it contravenes the common good. “You don’t have to agree with the Sisters of Loretto on everything they say about energy policy to find that their opposition to this pipeline is anything but ‘wrongheaded.'” The reasons given in the video above absolutely are wrongheaded, Kevin.

          • WhisperingEddie

            Bruce, I stand by your right to express your opinion on the Bluegrass Pipeline. One of my concerns about the conversations I have had with pipeline opponents is their implication that if you aren’t on their side of the argument, you’re an absolute idiot. The opponents use techniques that are examples of propaganda: the appeal to fear; demonizing the enemy; name calling; and oversimplification of the issue among them. If the good Sisters (and others) took this view of pipelines 50 years ago, much of Kentucky would still be using coal because natural gas — a dangerous product on its own — would never have entered the Commonwealth due to the fear of pipelines. The company wants to make a profit, there’s no denying that. Williams and Boardwalk know they don’t need to meet demands of protesters; the negotiations are between the company and landowners. Environmental attorney and Kentucky Resource Council director Tom FitzGerald has said pipeline failures are a rare event; his concern is the amount of material that may be released in a pipeline failure is greater than that of a rail tanker incident or a semi-truck incident, a valid concern.

          • Kevin A. McGrath

            Kentucky is called a Commonwealth. I like that word. It has the very idea of ‘common weal’ or common good built right into it. Discerning the common good as it applies to particular situations is rarely simple. But the people of Kentucky are being expected to bear a small but real risk with this and other proposed NGL pipelines. The fact that those same people derive little or no return for that risk is a very relevant consideration. Since there is no federal regulation of NGL pipelines, it falls to the state (or commonwealth) to ask these questions. You can’t build an addition to your house without a building permit, but somehow there is no similar permit process for the Bluegrass Pipeline (except for stream crossings, which are regulated by the Army Corps of Engineers).
            What if your neighbor said to you, ‘Hey Bruce, I’m going to put my TV dish on your lawn. Don’t worry, it won’t harm you or be in the way at all, although there is a slight chance the lithium battery will leak on your lawn. But don’t sweat it. It’ll be OK.’ Even if you were a charitable fellow, and even if everything your neighbor said was true, you might take umbrage with this proposal. And rightly so. You adjudge that the risks of such a proposal are too great to justify the intrusion, however slight the risk to yourself. Yet this is what you will not permit the citizens of Kentucky to do in the face of a similar proposal.
            But we can’t just live in the world of theory, but in the real world. The truth is, the Bluegrass Pipeline people have trespassed, used deceit, and threatened land owners in order to get them to grant them easements. They have chosen a route that is NOT based on safety, but on political calculation. A geologist noted that the chosen route goes through the most geologically unstable parts of the state. They carefully avoided towns and cities (maybe because it isn’t safe enough?), perhaps figuring that the rural folks would not make a fuss.
            This may count as one of your ’emotional’ reasons, but the Democratic Governor’s son is an attorney for the Kentucky law firm engaged by Williams Company. Coincidentally, this very Governor has been stonewalling bi-partisan attempts to clarify Kentucky law so as to deny the pipeline builders’ right to invoke eminent domain. It may be emotional, but it is surely relevant. Power corrupting, perhaps?

  • Steve Harvey

    Mr. Walker is actually the one who needs to scratch below the surface, as he has woefully fallen short on getting the facts straight about this pipeline. To begin, the Abbey isn’t even speaking about the pipeline, much less “protesting” it. The only statement they’ve made is that they rescinded survey permission.

    Secondly, it appears that Mr. Walker doesn’t even know what the pipeline will carry, as he mentions that without a pipeline, there will be “less-safe train and truck carriage of natural gas.” This pipeline will carry natural gas LIQUIDS, which is a hazardous material according to the Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Administration (PHMSA). And about trains being less safe, while there may be more rail or truck incidents, the spillage is much less substantial. According to a review of data from the PHMSA) completed by the Association of American Railroads, total railroad crude oil spills between 2002-2012 equaled less than one percent of the total pipelines spills (railroads spilled 2,268 barrels total vs. pipelines spilled 474,441 barrels total). Additionally, during the same time period, average pipeline spills were four times larger than the average rail spill (average 65 barrels by rail vs. average 266 barrels by pipeline).

    Thirdly, the day that the company announced they were “re-routing” around the nuns, one of their reps filed power of attorney in Marion County, KY, where the nuns live, to do easement acquisition. It appears that this author, like many other news media, actually believe statements made by Williams. Williams was just trying to get the nuns to quit making noise because it was hampering their plans.

    And finally, perhaps the biggest mistake this author makes is his claim that this pipeline would help keep energy prices low. Wow! This pipeline could actually contribute to the RISE of US energy costs. Natural gas has become so cheap and plentiful that companies have to drill in wet shale so they can also obtain and sell the natural gas liquids – the contents of Bluegrass – to improve their profit margins. Problem is, there is now an NGL supply glut as well so these companies are looking to exports of both natural gas and NGLs to keep their drills going. There are actually US companies, such as DOW, who are very concerned about what these exports could do to the price of American energy. So, this pipeline doesn’t contribute in any way to lowering energy costs. Perhaps we should be preserving our natural resources instead of building all of this pipeline infrastructure, and infringing on private property rights along the way, to allow for more drilling that can’t be sustained unless more and more of our energy is exported. Do some more homework:

    So amazed that guys like this can run a blog and get followers. What has this country come to?

  • Corlia

    It should be noted that natural gas companies are actively exporting their product to “stabilize” the market here in the US. Consequently, we are and will continue to be competing with other countries to buy natural gas regardless of whether the Bluegrass hazardous liquids pipeline is constructed or not.