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Dingell urges feds to deny Spectra request to ship odorless natural gas

Natural gas stove top burning
Steven Depolo
Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0
Spectra energy and DTE energy have proposed a new natural gas pipeline that would run through Michigan.

updated to include comments from a Spectra Energy spokesperson - 2/8/17

In addition to the proposed construction of a new natural gas pipeline stretching from Pennsylvania to Ontario, Spectra Energy has also submitted a request to the federal government for permission to ship natural gas without adding the chemicals to give it a distasteful odor.

Michigan Congresswoman Debbie Dingell has urged the government to deny the request to ship odorless gas through the proposed pipeline, which itself is still awaiting federal approval.

The proposed route for the NEXUS pipeline would also pass through Washtenaw County in Southeast Michigan. The pipeline is a joint venture of DTE and Spectra Energy. 

“There had not been a good job of reaching out to community leaders to tell them they were going to have a portion of the pipeline be odorless,” Dingell said. And so the Ypsilanti township officials and the (Washtenaw County) drain commissioner and others were very concerned about the safety of the community.”

(See the map for the proposed NEXUS pipeline route here)

She says local officials are concerned that odorless gas would pose a safety concern in the event of a leak.

However, a Spectra Energy spokesperson says it's standard practice for energy companies to request a special permit requesting exemption from specific federal regulations "if compliance would not be appropriate due to unique circumstances."

Spectra’s request for an exception from the law requiring natural gas to be odorized would require approval by the Pipeline Hazardous Material Safety Administration, which is part of the Department of Treasury.

Dingell is calling for more transparency, saying the energy companies need to work closely with local and federal governments to ensure the safety of local communities where the pipeline may pass.

It had not been clear to local officials nor the public, Dingell argues, that Spectra’s request for a odorization waiver was being considered by the federal government.

“No one realized this had been part of the proposal,” Dingell said.

A spokesperson for DTE Energy says the company has held numerous public community meetings, and will continue to do so. He could not confirm specifically that the request for an odorization waiver had been discussed.

A spokesman for Spectra energy also did not clarify when Spectra first publicly addressed its pending application for an odorization waiver.

“Public information about the PHMSA Special Permit application has been available for approximately one year,” said  Spectra energy spokesperson Adam Parker via email. "NEXUS filed the Special Permit application in January 2016; it was published in the Federal Register in February 2016; and the public comment period ran through March 2016.”

According to the same spokesman, transporting natural gas laced with added chemicals to create a bad smell could cause "significant operational problems" for the proposed NEXUS pipeline, and that construction of the pipeline would include "additional enhanced safety systems designed to maximize gas safety."

"This includes design, material (such as thicker pipeline wall thickness), construction, operations and maintenance requirements," Parker said in an email. 

Dingell has voiced concerns that at least some of the additional safety measures mentioned by Spectra are already required under current law. Dingell said she first heard of the odorization waiver request when she was contacted by Washtenaw County Drain Commissioner Evan Pratt, and later Ypsilanti Township officials.

Ypsilanti Township general counsel Doug Winters says a letter from the Sierra Club first notified Ypsilanti Township officials about the request for allowance to transport odorless natural gas.

Winters says at first attorneys representing the energy companies who were seeking an easement were reluctant to acknowledge Spectra had applied for such a waiver.