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Improving Steep-Slope Pipeline Construction to Reduce Impacts to Natural Resources

​New Report Offers Guidance for Pipeline Industry to Reduce Environmental Impacts on Slopes  

Eight energy companies have committed to being guided by a new report titled "Improving Steep-Slope Pipeline Construction to Reduce Impacts to Natural Resources." Resulting from a collaboration facilitated by The Nature Conservancy (TNC), the report is intended to serve as an impetus for the pipeline industry to reduce risks of landslides, slips and erosion and to minimize adverse effects on habitat health and water quality.

"The participants share a commitment to developing new energy infrastructure in ways that are safe and avoid and minimize environmental impacts," according to the report.

Projected energy demands over the next 15 years will lead to thousands of miles of new pipeline infrastructure and tens of billions of dollars in capital expenditures, according to analyses published by the U.S. Department of Energy, the INGAA Foundation and the Pipeline & Gas Journal. Increased activity is already evident across the United States and Canada with expansions, modifications, replacements and proposed new construction.

Steep slopes and landslide risks occur throughout the U.S., its territories and Canada. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has documented landslide problems in regions known to support high levels of biological diversity, including the Appalachian Mountains, Rocky Mountains, Pacific Coast Ranges and parts of Alaska and Hawaii. Grading and excavating trenches on steep slopes increases the potential for slips, landslides and erosion, which can threaten pipeline safety and increase the risk of environmental impacts. 

"The Nature Conservancy's approach to pipelines and other energy development emphasizes the mitigation hierarchy: Avoid-Minimize-Compensate," said Judy Dunscomb, senior scientist for TNC in Virginia. "First, we identify ecologically sensitive areas that should be avoided altogether. Our next priority is to reduce environmental impacts as much as practicable. The last resort is to secure compensation for those impacts that cannot be avoided."

"The recommended best practices described in this report are an important step to minimizing impacts from pipeline construction on steep slopes, while the potential best practices create a roadmap for continuous improvement and shared learning," Dunscomb said. "We deeply appreciate that these companies have joined together in their commitment to this important step."

The Nature Conservancy is concerned that pipeline construction can affect critical forest and freshwater habitats. In spring 2017, following initial conversations with Southern Company Gas, the Conservancy began engaging with pipeline developers and other key stakeholders to garner interest in collaborative action on steep-slope construction practices in high landslide risk areas. 

A project steering committee was formed, with representatives from TNC and Dominion Energy, Enbridge, EQT Midstream Partners, Kinder Morgan, NiSource, Southern Company Gas, UGI Energy Services and Williams. Based in the U.S. and Canada, these companies committed to work collaboratively with TNC to achieve the project's objectives and communicate them throughout the industry. The collaborative project team convened in summer 2017 to develop consensus on the group's work plan and deliverables, including this report. 

From fall 2017 through spring 2018, a series of technical workshops brought together key stakeholders and experts to further explore and refine the top challenges identified by the project team and then to identify and articulate best practices and issues requiring further research or engineering guidance. Participants in these meetings included representatives from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), the American Gas Association (AGA), the Environmental Council of States (ECOS), the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and Trout Unlimited (TU), as well as several other subject matter experts.

"We found a strong interest for collaboration among the companies, and the Conservancy's leadership allowed us to freely share the challenges and solutions that we have been seeing in the field," said Jim Kibler, president of Virginia Natural Gas, which is one of five natural gas distribution companies of Southern Company Gas. "I know I speak for all the participating companies when I say we are eager to start using what we have learned immediately."

Pipeline route selection and planning were beyond the scope of this project. While recognizing that avoidance of steep slopes or other areas of concern is a route-selection consideration, the project team focused on best practices that reduce the potential for landslides on pipeline projects for which the routing process has been completed and where the routes include segments with steep slopes. The practices described in the report do not supplant any federal, state/provincial, or local regulations. The report intentionally uses language such as "recommend," "encourage," and "may" to describe the non-compulsory nature of these best practices, which are intended to apply to all pipeline projects in steep slope areas with a high potential for slope failure. 

Because each project will have unique challenges, it is not feasible to provide guidance for all possible scenarios, nor is it expected that every suggested best practice will be utilized on a given project. However, TNC's hope is that articulating these practices will help elevate environmental awareness, promote a standard of continuous improvement throughout the entire pipeline industry, and encourage the development of an evidence base for what practices are effective in reducing landslide potential during and after pipeline construction. 

The report details 10 recommended and four potential best practices, which are organized according to three characteristic phases of a pipeline project. The seven pre-construction best practices are identified as follows: Perform a geohazard assessment; Develop site-specific plans; Accurately identify water features; Identify civil or geotechnical mitigation measures; Develop site-specific reclamation and revegetation strategies; Potential: optimize extent of disturbed area; Potential: evaluate environmental performance of contractors.

The four recommendations for construction and restoration are identified as follows: Optimize placement and installation of water bars; Optimize groundwater management; Utilize hydroseeding and hydromulching; Potential: optimize vegetative preservation.

The final three recommendations pertain to operation and maintenance: Effective transition from construction; Post-construction geohazard monitoring; Potential: foster a culture of environmental stewardship and shared learning.

For more information on the report, please contact Judy Dunscomb at or 434-951-0573.