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

Jun 4, 2021

“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 Terrebonne 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.”

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. Read the full story here.