The Seattle area is home to a gas pipeline project with the potential to increase Washington’s carbon emissions by a whopping three percent at a stroke. Backed by Puget Sound Energy (PSE) and the pipeline company Williams, the $47 million project will likely win approval from federal regulators in the coming weeks.

Yet despite its potential environmental impacts, the so-called North Seattle Lateral Upgrade has flown almost entirely under the radar: it’s received virtually no media coverage in the Northwest and scant comment from the public or advocacy groups. The project in south Snohomish County is designed to greatly enlarge the connection between PSE’s local network of gas distribution pipelines to the big mainline that supplies gas to Western Washington.  Although the project is a relatively small piece of the region’s overall fossil fuel puzzle, it’s a good illustration of the industry’s ongoing piecemeal growth.

Williams says that it’s building the pipeline so PSE can boost consumption of gas in the north Seattle area, but the pipeline may be due for a replacement anyway: a 2012 inspection found indications of cracking and a leak in the 62-year-old existing pipeline. Plans call for replacing about six miles of an 8-inch-diameter pipeline along a route stretching from Maltby and the Snohomish River to Lynnwood with a new 20-inch-diameter pipeline. It’s a reinvestment in gas delivery infrastructure that could easily stay in service for the next six decades.

Although the companies maintain that the expansion is primarily for home heating, the bigger replacement pipe would increase gas delivery capacity on the line by fully 63 percent, enough additional fuel to heat more than 1.5 million houses. Yet it’s difficult to understand what all the new gas capacity might be for because Snohomish County only has a total population of around 800,000, and many fewer houses, and publicly-available data suggest that even the company is not fully using even the smaller capacity of the existing pipeline.

Nevertheless, the permitting process is already well underway. Williams filed its initial permit application with Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), the government agency overseeing gas pipeline construction, in May 2017. FERC issued its Environmental Assessment in February 2018, finding no significant impact and recommending approval. The analysis was very narrow in scope, though. Among other things, the agency ignored any pollution from fracking, transporting, or burning the gas that might result from the expansion.

Once FERC grants final approval, the company anticipates securing all of the state and federal permits it needs by October 2018. There are local permits too, such as the Snohomish County Shoreline Permit in January, which is currently under review by local officials.

Assuming Williams gets its permits as planned, it will start a six-month construction period in early summer 2019, creating approximately 260 temporary jobs. The construction would cross a federally-protected aquifer and disrupt 16 water bodies, mostly fish-bearing streams, such as Little Bear Creek and Tambark Creek. In its Environmental Assessment, FERC found that the project was likely to “adversely affect,” or harm, threatened Chinook salmon.

There’s little public opposition to the pipeline expansion. Based on comments submitted to FERC, concerns seem limited to a few landowners in the area, concerned about noise and disturbances from construction.

  • But the Washington Department of Ecology has levied some heavy criticism by objecting to the project’s carbon accounting. In comments to FERC, Ecology argues that by omitting the “upstream” emissions from methane leaking as the gas is extracted (much of it by fracking), processed, and transported to the new line, Williams is massively downplaying the potential greenhouse gas impacts. Even ignoring all the potential leakage along the way, the numbers are big: just using the additional gas that could flow along the new line would produce approximately three million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually, nearly as much as the entire city of Seattle.

    Northwest leaders like to tout the region’s dedication to clean energy, but our investments in new infrastructure demonstrate that, by degrees, Cascadia is still growing more dependent on fossil fuels. The North Seattle Lateral illustrates the dynamic well: piecemeal growth that will likely delay transition to an economy free from carbon. Perhaps no company has better perfected that model than PSE with its impressive political reach and deep pockets. The utility is dragging its heels on replacing coal-fired power to western Washington, bending the rules to build a new LNG facility in Tacoma, and now backing a gas pipeline expansion big enough to set back the state’s climate progress.

    If Cascadia is to live up to its aspirations of moving beyond dirty energy, the region will have to stop building and rebuilding the infrastructure to deliver ever-growing quantities of fossil fuels.

    Paelina DeStephano aids organizations in their research needs, focusing her efforts on environmental policy and Puget Sound restoration. She’s a Seattle local with a background in international development and global health.

    Notes and methods: The amended application, comments of landowners, and concerns of government agencies, including Ecology, can be found at the FERC eLibrary by searching for docket number CP17-441*. (The FERC system does not allow viewing most files without downloading them automatically, so we do not link to specific documents here.) We calculated emissions figures using the same methodology FERC used in the EA, but we updated them to reflect Williams’ amended application, filed in October 2017, for a slightly smaller new pipeline. The pipeline expansion would increase the capacity by 159,299 dekatherms per day; on average, every dekatherm of gas that is combusted releases 0.053 metric tons of CO2-equivalent (mtCO2e), which works out to about 8,400 mtCO2e per day or 3 million mtCO2e annually. This article includes information provided to Sightline by a spokesperson for Williams on May 11, 2018.