New research published in Geohealth from a team of North Carolina State University researchers reports that counties with more socially vulnerable populations have an overall higher density of natural gas pipelines. A higher density of natural gas pipelines puts already vulnerable populations at greater risk of water and air pollution as well as public health and safety issues - and not enough people are paying attention to the consequences.
Lead study author, Ryan Emanuel points toward the shortcomings of evaluating huge systems like the natural gas pipeline network on a micro-level. "We know that the network, as it stands today, is already distributed in such a way that any negative impacts fall disproportionately on vulnerable communities," said Emanuel, who is a professor of forestry and environmental resources at NC State. "Right now, when regulators evaluate the social impacts of these projects, they are treated in isolation, and not as part of a massive network that affects more than 70 percent of all the counties in the U.S." This perspective doesn’t dig into the systemic inequity that the pipeline network perpetuates.
What is needed, says Emanuel and his colleagues, is a more macro-level understanding of the impacts on lands inhabited by pipelines and the families that inhabit those lands. Emanuel’s team conducted an analysis of 3,142 counties in the United States to investigate if there were any associations between natural pipeline density and factors that affect a county’s ability to be resilient following a disaster. They looked at factors identified by the CDC as a social vulnerability index, factors such as household composition, age, disability status, race or ethnicity, and language. The researchers then overlapped data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration to see how the 229,000 miles of pipeline network in the United States mapped on counties and their social vulnerability scores.
"We studied the gas gathering and transmission pipelines, which are the really large and high-pressure pipelines that are meant to transport natural gas across regions or the country," Emanuel said. "We know that every year, there are explosions on transmission pipelines, and we have records for those accidents above a certain size. There are also air quality impacts at compressor stations that power them, and environmental damages that occur during construction."
Their analysis found that 72 percent of U.S. counties showed a correlation between the density of pipelines and counties with higher scores of social vulnerability. "In general, the denser the pipeline network, the higher the social vulnerability score," said study co-author Louie Rivers III, who is an associate professor of forestry and environmental resources at NC State. "The indication is that the most vulnerable populations are also vulnerable to exploitation in terms of what people do with the land near them."
It comes as no surprise that the socially vulnerable populations that the study identified overlapped with historically oppressed groups that have often borne the burden of environmental racism. The researchers point toward the cases of the Dakota Access, Keystone XL, Trans Mountain expansion and Enbridge Line 3 pipelines, all of which either cross or are intended to cross the lands of native populations in the U.S. and Canada. In considering the negative impacts that pipelines pose to these communities, the authors remind that pipelines don’t only put them at risk of pollution, they also threaten to harm the cultural, spiritual, and historical significance of the lands.
The findings from the study, glaring as they are, offer an opportunity to shine light on the continual systemic obstacles faced by marginalized communities. They also provide a space for demanding justice.
"We need the same level of rigor applied to the issue of environmental justice in environmental impact statements as we see for other sections, such as water and air quality," Rivers said. He adds that it is imperative to actually listen to and adhere to the opinions of community members in counties with proposed pipeline projects during decision-making processes.
Emanuel reiterates the urgency of considering risk from a macro-level that takes into account cumulative impacts. "We need a comprehensive approach to environmental justice analyses that considers the larger network of infrastructure in which individual projects exist.”