Where are the U.S.’s natural gas pipelines? Often in vulnerable communities.

A new nation-wide analysis shows that counties with higher social vulnerability are home to a denser web of natural gas pipelines.

Ryan Emanuel remembers when he first heard that a company was planning to route the Atlantic Coast Pipeline through the part of North Carolina where many members of his tribe, the Lumbee, lived.

The area was already littered with fossil fuel infrastructure, such as compressor stations and other big pipelines. Why, he wondered, was more under construction in the area? How could that be fair or safe for the 30,000 Native residents in the region?

Emanuel, a geographer at North Carolina State University, spent years trying to help the Lumbee and other tribes get their voices heard in the debate over where Atlantic Coast pipes would go. At the same time, he kept close track of other pipeline disputes playing out across the country: Keystone XL, Dakota Access, Enbridge Line 3—all routed through land near Native communities or culturally important areas. Other parts of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline were supposed to cross through historically Black freedman communities in Virginia.

“It seemed anecdotally that these projects were always happening in marginalized communities,” he says. “We saw these disparities for these particular projects and then started to think, how widespread was this?”

Now, he and his colleagues have found that across the U.S., the 320,000 miles of major natural gas pipelines crisscrossing the country are disproportionately concentrated in counties considered particularly vulnerable by the CDC’s county-level Social Vulnerability Index, a measure of how resilient a community might be in response to a major disaster.

Pipeline placement

There are over two million miles of natural gas pipeline cutting across the United States today. Of that, about 320,000 miles are “gathering” or “transmission” pipelines—lines used to ferry gas from their source to processing sites and beyond. They are often highly pressurized and larger than the distribution lines that carry gas to homes and businesses; consequently, they carry higher risks, from leaking noxious fumes to explosions. Between 2001 and 2020, the Department of Transportation recorded 36 deaths and 164 injuries associated with natural gas pipelines, and more than $2.5 billion in accident-related costs.

The research team, which published its results in GeoHealth in May, calculated how densely those pipelines were spaced within an area, whether sparsely—like a single strand of a spider web and easy to avoid—or like a thickly woven web impossible to escape. 

Then they compared the pipeline density with a countywide measure of social vulnerability, an analysis the CDC makes using census data that assesses how resilient a community might be to a human-caused or natural disaster. The index considers race and socioeconomic status, whether very old or very young people live in a household, the type of housing and how many people live there, English-speaking ability, and more.

The most vulnerable counties, the team found, had about two-thirds higher pipeline density on average than the least, hosting about 12.1 miles of pipeline for each 100 square miles. But the counties in the top one percent of the most vulnerable counties were home to about 80.5 miles of pipeline for the same area.New

“It’s very clear,” says Emanuel. “The more vulnerable the county’s population, the more dense the pipeline network in that county.”

Fossil fuel injustice

Since the 1970s, researchers have been systematically identifying examples of environmental injustice. Over and over, they’ve found that environmental hazards like waste treatment plants and landfills often ended up in vulnerable communities, rather than in richer or whiter ones.

Oil and gas infrastructure is no exception. Many of the hazards associated with both “upstream” and “downstream” parts of the fossil fuel extraction are greater in poor areas or communities of color.

In California, for example, oil and gas wells are more likely to be located in non-white neighborhoods. And in Texas, where it’s common practice to burn off excess natural gas from oil wells by lighting it on fire, some health impacts fall disproportionately on Hispanic communities more likely to live nearby.

“Downstream” facilities, like refineries, are also often located in pockets of social vulnerability. In Louisiana, for example, a recent analysis found that Native American, Asian, and Hispanic communities near the coastal zone have consistently faced more exposure to risks from oil and gas facilities such as refineries, compressor stations, or chemical processing plants over the past 30 years. The risks also have increased for local tribes over that same period.

But before this research, it wasn’t clear whether pipelines—key pieces of infrastructure that link oil- and gas-producing areas with processing or distribution areas often thousands of miles away—were also routed disproportionately through vulnerable communities countrywide.

This seemed like an oversight to Emanuel and his colleagues, who were well aware of many high-profile controversies over pipeline pathways in communities of color. So, they wondered, was there evidence that socially vulnerable communities were more likely to live with pipelines in their midst?

Their results clearly show that across the country, the answer is yes.

“There has been a longstanding recognition amongst the climate justice community that low-income communities of color tend to be on the fence line of the fossil fuel industry in the U.S.,” says Jill Johnston, an environmental health expert at the University of Southern California. Pipelines haven’t previously been fully considered as part of the risk landscape, she says—but this new analysis points to a clear need to “prioritize the communities that are bearing far too great of a cumulative burden.”

Scott Hemmerling, a geographer, and his colleagues at Louisiana’s Water Institute of the Gulf conducted a similar analysis, looking at who was most at risk from all fossil fuel infrastructure in Louisiana’s coastal zones. They knew that the threats were concentrated near Lafourche and Terrebone parishes (Louisiana’s term for county), where a large proportion of the state’s Indigenous population lives—but the parish-level data didn’t show that. Only when they used more detailed data did the real risks become clear.

So these new estimates might even understate the scope of the problem, Hemmerling suggests, and are “probably undercounting areas of environmental justice concerns.”

A legacy that can’t be ignored anymore

The disparity didn’t necessarily develop because pipeline developers intentionally set out to route more lines through Black or brown communities. Pipeline routing often “follows the path of least resistance,” which is often on cheap land, says Mary Finley-Brook, a geographer at the University of Richmond.

But such land is often cheap because of a history of discriminatory practices. For example, in central Virginia’s Union Hill, a community founded by freed slaves after the Civil War, property values were low because of policies that undervalued Black-owned land and failed to recognize the value of communally owned property. That was the status of many parcels in the town, which were originally owned by freedmen who bought property from former slave owners and passed it down to their children as a group. There was also a legacy of heavy infrastructure being built near town, which depresses property values further, explains Finley-Brook.

But now that the pattern has been made clear, its causes and effects should be interrogated, says Jessica Parfait, an anthropologist at the Water Institute of the Gulf and a member of the United Houma Nation. “People need to realize, a congregation of pollution sources or risks like this—they’re not coincidences. They come from a lot of historical context,” she says.

But the era of pipelines is far from over. U.S. natural gas production has risen nearly every year since 2006, driving a boom in new pipeline proposals. Johann Strube, a sociologist at Pennsylvania State University, and colleagues recently catalogued more than 80 pipeline proposals for lines over 185 miles long across the country.

“There is this legacy in the pipelines we have today, which are predominantly in vulnerable communities,” says Strube. “Now as we move forward and plan new pipelines, new energy systems, new economies, we have to deal with that legacy—are the new ones being built doing enough to reverse it?”

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