If the cosmos likes to joke around, it could hardly have demonstrated a better sense of timing and location than it did in the first week of December, when a pipeline leak spilled 176,000 gallons of crude oil into the Ash Coulee Creek in North Dakota, just 150 miles from the spot where protesters have voiced opposition to the Dakota Access pipeline.
And while the Dakota Access line has dominated the news, it's not the only pipeline in the works. One hundred miles upstream of Washington, D.C., gas-transmission companies are planning to drill a pipeline beneath the C&O Canal National Park and the Potomac River for a project that would send gas from fracking wells in Pennsylvania across a thin strip of Maryland and into West Virginia's Eastern Panhandle.
The line would ostensibly serve a massive new Procter & Gamble plant in Martinsburg, W.Va., that will begin manufacturing Bounce dryer sheets, among other consumer products in 2017.
But gas lines already serve the P&G site, and based on construction timetables, it does not seem likely a new pipeline could be built before the big plant comes on line. That's led opponents to surmise that this is gas in search of a customer instead of the other way around.
Still, considering that P&G will be hiring 700 people at entry level salaries of $33,000 in the economically depressed Mountain State, few have been willing to drop a fly in the ointment by suggesting the pipeline not be built. A recent protest in nearby Hancock, Md., attracted a scant 50 people.
But environmentalists have concerns. Not only would the pipe go underneath the canal and a popular rail trail, it would cross the source of drinking water for downstream communities, including the District of Columbia. More than 4 million people in Maryland, D.C., and Virginia drink water provided by the Potomac River.
Geologists note that the pipe will burrow through cracked and fractured limestone fields, a feature known as karst topography. Any leak could send gas traveling far and wide in paths that would be entirely unpredictable.
"The problem with drilling in Karst geology is that pipelines do leak," Potomac Riverkeeper Brent Walls told Morgan County (W.Va.) blogger Russell Mokhiber. "They will eventually leak. Karst geology provides direct avenues to surface waters. Karst geology is a ticking time bomb when it comes to pipelines coming through."
The controversy reminds us that, when considering fossil fuels, nothing is as simple as it seems. Good news always comes with caveats.
Gas extracted from deep seams in the Earth's crust through the process known as fracking has paid off for consumers and to some degree the environment. Fracking has substantially increased the supply of fuel and driven down the price of fuel to the motoring and home-owning public. It has all but driven a dagger through the heart of coal, a dirtier fuel that is becoming costlier to mine, making it uncompetitive with gas. For all the talk of a political "war on coal," the free market has contributed more to its demise than clean air regulations.
Still, in fossil-fuel terms, such happy news always comes with an asterisk. For one, all of this fracked gas has to be transported from the wellheads to the consumer.
That will mean more pipelines in addition to the 2.5 million miles that presently exist. A ProPublica investigation concluded that moving fuel by pipelines is far safer than transporting it by truck or rail, and in that sense, they are analogous to jet airliners — they are safer overall, but when they fail, they tend to fail spectacularly.
All told, gas, while better than coal, comes with costs and risks that are inherent in all fossil fuels. Whether it's the somewhat-suspect fracking process itself, or the methods for distributing a volatile substance through neighborhoods and sensitive resources such as drinking water supplies, gas has its drawbacks.
These costs, risks and unknowns make sustainable energy all the more important. We tend to focus, and rightly so, on the benefits of sustainable energy as they pertain to a healthy planet.
But it also contributes to healthy communities. No windmill ever exploded and no solar panel ever leaked. As we assess the costs and benefits of energy, this needs to be considered. According to ProPublica, since 1986, pipeline accidents have killed more than 500 people, injured more than 4,000, and cost nearly $7 billion dollars in property damages. And that's one more reason renewables need to be central to our national energy policy.
Tim Rowland is a newspaper columnist and author who writes from Western Maryland. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.