Wyoming-to-Lousiana slurry pipeline a hot topic in homes on the range

Cattle ranchers, farmers, and the railroads are linking forces in Kansas and Nebraska to block a coal pipeline project. But a San Francisco-based pipeline company, Energy Transportation Systems Inc. (ETS), thinks politicians and courts may open the way this year for building the 1,870- mile pipeline from Wyoming to Louisiana.

Each year the pipeline could pump up to 75 million tons of coal slurry (crushed coal mixed with an equal or greater amount of water) to southern utility companies. Initial ETS estimates put early transportation costs slightly above those currently charged by railroads. But the firm argues that while the pipeline's initial costs are high, its low operating costs will make its rates relatively immune to inflation.

Original plans called for a 1978 startup, with a $750 million price tag. Now ETS estimates that if construction on the line begins in 1983, the slurry could start flowing in 1985 -- at a cost of $2 billion.

Great Plains ranchers and farmers, traditinal rivals for the area's limited water supplies, are outraged by the prospect of having to divide what there is three ways rather than two.

Already some irrigated cropland is going back into dryland farming because the level of underground water supplies is dropping and the cost of natural gas used to pump water to the surface is rising.

Despite ETS assurances, ranchers and farmers here are convinced that water used to pump coal south would lower their underground water levels further.

Studies now being carried out by the US Geological Survey and the Bureau of Land Management will provide new information on the pipeline's possible environmental impact. Of particular concern is the effect on an aquifer that supplies water on an area stretching from the Dakota to Texas.

US Rep. Keith Svalias (R) of Kansas, a staunch supporter of the project, feels that any reduction in water levels will be more than offset by the new jobs and the potential new energy source the pipeline represents for Kansas.

But for the railroads, the issue is competition for a profitable cargo. Ever since Wyoming approved the ETS coal slurry plan six years ago, the railroads have fought this alternate mode of shipping coal.

Dan Lang, a spokeman for the Association of American Railroads, says, "There is only so much Western coal out there to be moved, and there is no doubt about rail capacity to move that coal. The pipelines are, in the railroads' eyes, set up as an unfair competitor which would take the best part [of rail traffic] and leave the worst."

Railroads value the coal traffic highly because it is steady, high-volume business. Also, railroads have been encouraged to invest heavily in new cars and better track to move Western coal. Last year, the sprawling Burlington Northern Railroad laid track on a new 115-mile route in Wyoming -- the first new rail line in the US since 1931 -- at a cost of about $1 million a mile specifically to handle coal.

Railroads also point out that in addition to any pipeline investment costs, utilities contracting for coal slurry would need to invest in expensive coal-drying and centrifuging equipment.

Currently, only Arizona has a coal slurry pipeline in operation, delivering coal to the Black Mesa utility over a 270-mile route. The Wyoming-Louisiana line is one of eight proposals that together could take away some 15 percent of coal transportation from the railroads.

With costs rising sharply, ETS and similar companies are pushing hard for federal help in obtaining land cheaply. So far, the railroads have tried to block any sharing of their rights-of-way with the 3.5-foot diameter coal pipelines. In Kansas and Nebraska, state law forces pipeline companies to negotiate with individual landowners. Thus, ETS instead is seeking power to condemn land.

Because the 300-mile route though Kansas is key to the project, ETS is said to be here in force, doing the legislative arm-bending that must come before any pipebending can begin.

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