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Fairfax leaders seek more oversight over natural-gas lines

Supervisors split, however, on how to improvement current process
Natural-gas pipes as shown in a document from the May 14 meeting of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors' Land-Use Policy Committee.

Fairfax County officials are considering options – from better public engagement to requiring utility companies to get advance authorization – to exert greater influence over placement of high-pressure natural-gas distribution lines in street rights-of-way.

Fairfax County currently exempts gas-distribution lines from county regulation if they are located in or under rights-of-way.

Following the Board of Supervisors’ request last December, the Zoning Administration Division has examined best practices in the gas industry, accounting for pipe location, size and type.

Jacqui Kamp, a planner with the division, outlined possible courses of action May 14 at the supervisors’ Land-Use Policy Committee meeting:

– If a utility planned to construct a new, replacement or extension pipeline or another facility in an area owned by the county, including streets, supervisors could require the company to submit preliminary project plans and conduct public outreach.

– Supervisors could effect memorandums of understanding with gas utilities, similar to the one with Fairfax Water, requiring them to provide early and continuous communications on upcoming high-pressure pipeline projects.

– Supervisors could require natural-gas operators to provide regular safety updates regarding existing infrastructure, as well as data concerning plans to build new, replacement or extension high-pressure pipelines.

These options would not give supervisors authority to require alternate pipeline locations.

– Supervisors could ask the General Assembly to change state code and require a public review and hearing process for new, replacement or extension pipelines, especially those to be located where previous ones did not exist, Kamp said.

Obtaining such legislation is uncertain and likely would need a lengthy amount of time, she said.

– Supervisors also could require special-exception approval for gas utilities to locate new high-pressure distribution lines in street rights-of-way. This approval would entail specific size and pressure characteristics as well as additional standards pertaining to location and/or zoning district.

– The board could limit installation of such high-pressure lines to certain parts of the county, based on the pipeline characteristics listed above, plus road classifications and zoning districts.

The two options above would pose challenges as far as determining special-exception standards and equitable locations for those pipelines. Property owners and rate payers also might see higher costs and land condemnations, Kamp said.

Placement will be important, said Supervisor Dalia Palchik (D-Providence). Everyone wants water, gas, schools and utilities, but no one wants them next door or on their property, she said.

Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay (D) preferred pressing for increased public awareness and outreach, but did not cotton to the special-exception option, saying it would create legal challenges and put the board in a position to make bad decisions.

Supervisor Jimmy Bierman (D-Dranesville), who is a lawyer, begged to differ, saying a special-exception process would create more predictability for utilities and let supervisors play a role in developing the county.

Washington Gas and Columbia Gas distribute natural gas in Fairfax County after a process that resembles the one for electricity, in which generation plants send electricity to localities via high-voltage transmission lines and it then gets stepped down at substations for commercial and residential use.

Producing wells send natural gas to a processing plant for removal of impurities, hydrocarbons and fluids. The resulting pipeline-grade natural gas then goes via high-pressure transmission lines to either a liquid-natural-gas or propane/air plant or to an underground storage facility.

Afterward, the gas travels to the City Gate facility and flows through lower-pressure distribution lines to large-volume, commercial and residential customers.

All pipelines are subject to integrity-management assessments and utilities often manage risk by lowering pressure on older lines, then installing new pipes. Older pipelines typically are made of lower-quality steel than modern ones, which are connected by more advanced welding techniques, Kamp said.

“From the early 1900s through today, the integrity of energy pipelines has benefited from improvements in pipe manufacturing, pipe materials, construction methods and maintenance practices,” Kamp said.