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Pipeline developers finding public support amid opposition, obstacles

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Pipeline developers finding public support amid opposition, obstacles

After facing a wide range of opposition in recent years, some pipeline developers found themselves getting support from a key policymaker and a boost from state department decisions, coalitions and trade associations.

During his first public speech as the U.S. Department of Energy's leader, Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette doubled down on the Trump administration's criticism of opponents to oil and natural gas pipeline construction.

"We must counter those who would do anything to stop the use of any important sources of energy," Brouillette said during a Dec. 12 National Petroleum Council meeting. "Certainly bad actors are ... trying to decrease the benefits for consumers."

Brouillette said state regulators have prevented some parts of the U.S. from having sufficient gas infrastructure.

One project that has been mired in regulatory challenges in Minnesota is Enbridge Inc.'s Line 3 upgrade. The corporation on Dec. 9 touted the findings of a revised environmental impact statement from the state's Commerce Department as concluding that the stalled Line 3 oil pipeline replacement project would not introduce risk to Lake Superior because protections would keep oil out of the lake and other water bodies in the unlikely event of a pipeline leak.

The revised findings could boost Enbridge's chances of getting the state regulatory approval it needs to replace the 1960s-vintage line between the oil sands region of Alberta and its pipeline hub in Superior, Wis., and boost transportation capacity to about 760,000 barrels per day. The original line has been running at roughly half capacity since the company voluntarily reduced pressure in the wake of a 2010 oil spill in Michigan.

Some pipeline projects have also gotten bogged down in court challenges, including Atlantic Coast Pipeline LLC's fight to get the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn a lower court decision that blocked a 600-mile, 1.5-Bcf/d natural gas pipeline project from crossing the Appalachian National Scenic Trail. But Atlantic Coast got a shot in the arm in recent days, receiving support in the court case from several states, a rival pipeline and trade associations.

The pipeline company — a joint venture of Dominion Energy Inc., Duke Energy Corp. and Southern Co. Gas — has requested to reverse an "inaccurate" ruling of the U.S. Appeals Court for the 4th Circuit that canceled U.S. Forest Service authorizations that would have allowed the pipeline to cross the Appalachian Trail and sections of national forest. West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey urged the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the company's appeal. Morrisey filed a West Virginia-led friend of the court brief supported by 17 other states.

In addition to the 18-state coalition, the pipeline project also got supporting briefs from Mountain Valley Pipeline LLC and from trade associations such as the National Association of Manufacturers and the American Forest Resource Council.

But even as some pipeline developers have found support, concerns remain over some of the infrastructure, including lines already in the ground. As federal regulators get closer to releasing rules for gas gathering lines, pipeline safety stakeholders still hold diverging opinions on how to treat this sprawling part of the nation's energy infrastructure, which is subject to little federal oversight.

The impending, long-awaited gathering rule expected in 2020 will likely govern a relatively small new portion of the vast and growing network of gathering lines — the pipes that deliver gas from production fields to processing facilities, transmission lines and distribution systems. But the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, or PHMSA, also plans to collect data on all gathering lines, with an eye toward future regulation based on what the regulatory agency learns from that data.

At stake is how PHMSA treats an estimated 426,000 miles of unregulated gathering lines, as well as new infrastructure, in the coming years. The decision is a major concern to companies that will shoulder compliance costs and safety advocates who want expansive rules.