Reducing the Impacts of Pipeline Development on Wetlands


The national non-profit Association of State Wetland Managers (ASWM) seeks the support of the Switzer Network of Fellows to strengthen its new project, which has been designed to reduce the impacts of linear oil and gas pipeline development on wetlands and streams in the United States through improved engagement by states in wetland and other aquatic permit planning and review activities. While the project is national in scope, the primary focus of this work will be on training and implementation efforts in the mid-Atlantic, an area of burgeoning pipeline development and some of the most rigorous state aquatic resource permitting in the United States. ASWM hired Switzer Fellow Brenda Zollitsch (PhD, ’09 Fellow) in 2013 and has received Switzer Leadership Grant funding to establish her work on integration between wetland management and other resource management areas, specifically nonpoint source water pollution, climate change and energy project permitting. This project is a culmination of ASWM’s scoping work over the last two years to identify ways to reduce impacts on wetlands and streams through integration. ASWM has well-established partnerships in place with relevant federal agencies, as well as states and other partners. However, there are strategic gaps where the Switzer Network may be able to address additional, important perspectives to enhance this collaborative effort.

Seeking Switzer Network Engagement:

ASWM seeks the engagement of Switzer fellows to enhance our capacity in this project to:

1. Work with oil and gas energy companies to improve our understanding of their perspectives on permit processes, industry pressures, create a common language to assist communications between permitters and permittees, and to capitalize on opportunities for joint trainings, communication strategies and more;

2. Include in the project an understanding of the cumulative impacts of energy development projects, including across state and tribal borders, multiple crossings within one watershed, and in areas where high quality or rare aquatic resources exist and how cumulative impacts could/should be included in planning or permitting decisions;

3. Identify ways to support and learn from consulting firms and individual consultants that work with permittees as they develop their permit applications to better understand barriers, opportunities and procedural improvements in permit planning and review processes;

4. Incorporate other skills and assets that would allow ASWM to expand the reach and effectiveness of the project and its outputs/outcomes. This project would benefit from Switzer Fellows helping to connect our project workgroup with potential contacts with value to add to the project and resources (studies, perspectives, etc.) that could enhance the work of the partners.

Need Statement:

Energy projects, particularly pipelines, affect a range of aquatic resources, including wetlands. A single pipeline can cross hundreds of wetlands and streams. Disturbance of wetlands during pipeline development may also release greenhouse gases. Under the Clean Water Act, state §401 Certification review of energy development projects is a highly complex and time-consuming task, one that challenges most state wetland programs. The use of Section §401 to effectively participate in the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), Department of Energy (DOE) and other permit planning and review process relies on understanding about how energy permitting processes work. Early, upfront coordination between the state wetland program, federal permitting agencies and developers has been shown to be a key to successful aquatic resource protection. ASWM’s work in collaboration with federal agencies, state wetland programs and contacts in oil and gas industries, has revealed that many states are not prepared for complex planning and permitting review. States need training on how to effectively engage in commenting on and conditioning energy project permits.  

Currently, there are 14 brand new pipelines (aka “greenfield” pipelines) with 3,000 miles of proposed pipelines spanning 10 states planned or under construction in the Mid-Atlantic region, an area that has not historically been engaged in oil and gas development. State regulators in these areas and others across the country are new to the pipeline energy development process and FERC and Army Corp of Engineers (ACOE) licensing or permitting procedures subject to §401. They seek guidance and training on how to effectively engage in these processes in ways that protect their state wetlands and other aquatic resources. Natural gas has grown to produce 20-25% of the annual energy supply in the United States and natural gas from shale (also referred to as “tight rock resources” within the energy industry) is expected to provide the majority of gas produced in the United States over the next 20 years.

Impacts to wetlands from pipeline activities range from destruction and disruption of wetlands and other aquatic resources to water quality impacts and habitat loss to increasing vectors for invasive species and compromising the quality of critical areas and endangered species. Additionally, disturbance of wetlands leads to the release of carbon, which (though not a primary source of greenhouse gases in the overall climate equation), does contribute to climate change. Since wetlands sequester carbon, efforts to minimize impacts to wetlands help limit additional carbon entering the atmosphere. Active engagement by states through §401 can protect wetland and other aquatic resources by requiring compliance with state wetland/water quality standards and other provisions of state law. Monitoring and assessment information can inform and improve state requirements.

While energy companies conduct comprehensive pipeline planning and configuration, these plans must remain flexible over time in ways that allow companies to respond to many factors, including economic drivers such as demand and costs, ability to negotiate a variety of contracts, access to resources and changing development timelines. Consequently, while overarching strategic plans for entire pipelines are developed, different portions of larger pipeline projects tend to be developed and permitted as a series of smaller projects, rather than one complete project. Pipeline development projects often start with water lines or a modest drilling pad project and expand with incremental additions of access roads, pipelines, flowlines and more. This leads to consecutive permitting of smaller portions of a project rather than providing the opportunity for holistic assessment of the impacts to aquatic (and other) resources from an entire pipeline project. Consequently, linear pipelines can result in hundreds of crossings through wetlands, streams and other aquatic resources that can lead to habitat destruction, nonpoint source pollution and other adverse impacts. Understanding the specifics of individual projects and their impacts is important both at the individual project scale, as well as at the watershed and entire pipeline level.

Note: With the recent media attention on pipeline controversies in North Dakota, pipeline development is on people’s minds. Our project has been under development for the last two years and the target audience and focus on state planning and permitting activities is based on this advance work. Tribes also have §401 Certification authority under the Clean Water Act where they have active water quality protection programs. While this project will be primarily directed to states, it is anticipated that tribes will benefit as well. 

Enhancing Existing Project Plans:

To meet some of this need, ASWM has been awarded a $180,000 national grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Wetland Program Development Grant Program. The goal of this project is to enhance the capacity of state wetland programs to protect aquatic resources impacted by energy development through more informed and effective §401 Certification. ASWM’s EPA-funded project will focus on helping state wetland program staff to understand and engage in the pre-planning and permitting processes for oil and gas projects working to develop or retrofit pipelines, well-pads, related water impoundments, and access roads. The project will consider a range of impacts on wetlands and other aquatic resources from these activities, including permanent, temporary and cumulative impacts. ASWM will be working with states, federal agencies, nonprofit organizations, consulting firms and energy companies.

Where Switzer Fellows Fit In:

The activities of this grant are specific in scope and would benefit from additional engagement in these specific areas that are not currently funded by the EPA grant. Consequently, ASWM seeks to partner with Switzer Fellows to maximize the potential for the project by building on in-network knowledge, connections and skills through specific enhancements, supported by a small Switzer Network Innovation grant. ASWM is seeking to add expertise (see above for detail) for the development of specific project products in the areas of work with oil and gas energy companies, understanding of cumulative impacts of energy development projects, and identifying ways to support and learn from consulting firms and individual consultants that work with permittees as they develop their permit applications, and any other areas of Fellow skills that could enhance ASWM’s project outcomes.

Planned Project Outcomes: 

Access to information about how and when to engage in permitting processes, sharing of lessons learned and the ability to learn from informal case studies will enable states to: 1) strengthen their internal capacity to integrate permit review across programs (i.e., wetland and stormwater), 2) sustain the hydrologic integrity of aquatic systems, 3) prevent nonpoint source pollution, and 4) protect and restore wetland/aquatic resource acreage and quality.

Efforts to train wetland program staff members so that they are able to effectively ensure their state requirements are incorporated into the oil and gas project permitting process will result in:

  • More thorough protection of wetlands and other aquatic resources in states through strengthened permit conditioning;
  • Consideration of both permanent and temporary impacts to wetlands and other aquatic resources in permit conditions – measured by feedback from state wetland staff;
  • Better overall regional outcomes for protection of wetlands and other aquatic resources around multi-state energy projects from better communication between state wetland programs;
  • Expedited/streamlined permit processing because better understanding of energy projects and permitting will lead to wetland and other aquatic resource issues being more effectively addressed earlier in the process – measured by feedback from state wetland program staff;
  • At least 10 states will formally adopt one or more new best practices as a result of access to resources and practices developed by this report within three years of completion of the project – measured by feedback from state wetland program staff.

Planned Project Outputs:

  • Documentation of energy project permitting processes and timelines for, at a minimum, projects that require federal permitting subject to §401 certification from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), the Department of Energy (DOE) and the Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE).
  • A series of issue briefs on state needs, barriers, best practices and recommendations for improving energy permit review by state wetland programs to stimulate national dialogue and support training decisions. Informal case studies will be included in the briefs to highlight specific effective state practices. Issue briefs are planned to present information by logical categories for projects (e.g. by agency, type, size of project);
  • A dedicated web-based resource page on providing links to key contacts, best practices, tools, research studies and other resources to support state wetland program work on energy project permitting; and
  • A series of at least four training webinars on key energy permitting wetland training topics to increase the capacity of state programs to conduct this work effectively;
  • A session on improving state engagement in energy project permitting at the ASWM State/Tribal/Federal Coordination Workshop in 2018 to encourage information transfer to state and tribal wetland program staff (based on project findings and final products);
  • Ten to twelve meetings of a national workgroup to address the issue of improving protection of wetlands by state wetland programs engaged in review and conditioning of energy permits;
  • A final report detailing the findings of the study and providing a summary of support resources available to state wetland programs.

For More Information:

Please contact Brenda Zollitsch, PhD, Policy Analyst, Association of State Wetland Managers and Switzer Fellow (’09), or call (207) 892-3399.

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