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Natural Gas Building Boom Fuels Climate Worries, Enrages Landowners

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Natural Gas Building Boom Fuels Climate Worries, Enrages Landowners

Energy

Natural Gas Building Boom Fuels Climate Worries, Enrages Landowners

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Pretty soon, the United States might be producing more natural gas than it needs. And yet, there is a pipeline construction boom in the Northeast. Critics say this may be less about providing gas and more about profit. StateImpact Pennsylvania's Marie Cusick teamed up with the Center for Public Integrity.

MARIE CUSICK, BYLINE: The Atlantic Coast Pipeline would wind 600 miles underground, carrying natural gas from West Virginia to Virginia and North Carolina. Its construction could affect thousands of landowners, like Mike Hirrel.

MIKE HIRREL: Hello.

CUSICK: Hi.

HIRREL: Hi.

CUSICK: Nice to meet you.

HIRREL: It's nice to meet you.

CUSICK: The planned route crosses the Blue Ridge Mountain resort, where he owns a second home. Hirrel worries about leaks or explosions, but he tracks the project for another reason. He's a former antitrust litigator with the Department of Justice. In the study of his Northern Virginia apartment is a foot-high stack of research on the pipeline.

HIRREL: Let's see. This is the antitrust file.

CUSICK: Hirrel says the Atlantic Coast Pipeline would be an illegal monopolization. That's because the pipeline and the utilities that would pay for most of the space in it are owned by the same companies. Hirrel and the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club have filed separate complaints with the Federal Trade Commission.

HIRREL: We haven't seen this sort of antitrust violation since the beginning of antitrust law in the early part of the 20th century.

CUSICK: An analysis by the Center for Public Integrity and StateImpact Pennsylvania finds this kind of self-dealing with four of six major pipelines proposed in the Northeast. Industry analysts say there's a risk of building something that's not really needed.

GREG LANDER: The reason it's upsetting is because the gas pipeline industry is a good industry.

CUSICK: Greg Lander is a longtime gas industry consultant. He and others say building an unnecessary pipeline could still boost a company's bottom line because captive ratepayers pick up the tab.

LANDER: I'd say that there is certainly very likely a measure of greed. And that will hurt everybody. It'll hurt the industry. It'll hurt producers. It'll hurt consumers.

PHILLIP GRIGSBY: I don't believe they're valid criticisms.

CUSICK: Phillip Grigsby is with Duke Energy, one of the companies building the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. They call the antitrust allegations baseless. And Grigsby says there is plenty of use for the flood of gas unleashed by America's shale boom.

Dozens of former coal plants like this one in Pennsylvania are being repurposed to burn cheaper, cleaner natural gas. Grigsby says gas is also used to heat homes and power energy-hungry factories.

GRIGSBY: We have a demonstrated market for the gas in the states and for specific uses.

CUSICK: But by next year, the U.S. Energy Information Administration expects the country to produce more gas than it uses.

HET SHAH: Yeah, there's definitely an overbuild of pipeline.

CUSICK: And Het Shah of Bloomberg New Energy Finance says most of the future demand for gas won't be in the U.S. It will be driven by exports. There is a federal agency whose job it is to decide whether there's a public need for new pipelines.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The last item for present (ph) and discussion this morning is item A-3.

CUSICK: The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC. But former FERC commissioner Suedeen Kelly says the agency has a limited mandate. When it evaluates need, it simply looks to see if there are signed contracts for the gas.

SUEDEEN KELLY: Well, what you're really doing is you're asking the entities that are actually going to use the pipeline, do you need it?

CUSICK: FERC declined multiple interview requests for this story. But earlier this year, its outgoing chair called for more scrutiny, warning that a glut of natural gas pipelines could become stranded assets. For NPR News, I'm Marie Cusick.

GREENE: And you can find our full investigation with the Center for Public Integrity, including maps of pipeline projects, at npr.org.

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