Natural gas is increasingly being touted as one of the great balms for America's energy woes.
Yet even as President Bush tomorrow unveils an energy plan that leans heavily on natural-gas production, a powerful force could stymie efforts to get this fuel to homes and businesses in power-hungry population centers. Call it the NIMBY rebellion.
The Not-In-My-Backyard attitude is nothing new in US communities. But it may rise to new levels as companies extracting more natural gas seek to transport it via an expanded pipeline network.
If the Bush plan is any guide, there will plenty of opportunity for local resistance.
* Natural gas - a byproduct of crushed dinosaur bones and other ancient biomass - is expected to fuel 90 percent of the nation's new electricity-generating plants. So demand will be high.
* About 80 percent of America's untapped gas is in the continental US, mostly in Gulf Coast and Rocky Mountain states. In some places, new drilling would be near big population centers.
* The Bush team says that 38,000 miles of new pipelines will be needed by 2020 - enough to circle the earth 1-1/2 times. Many will, at some point, be constructed in close proximity to neighborhoods.
"Theoretically, you could get 38,000 miles of pipe into this country and people would never notice it," says Karl Rabago of the Rocky Mountain Institute, an energy think tank in Snowmass, Colo. But in reality, the task probably would not be that easy.
Mr. Rabago says that's because more Americans are thinking about such projects the way Europeans do - with much distrust. He calls it "the Europe effect." Its elements are environmental awareness, a stronger suspicion of multinational companies, and Erin Brockovich-like concerns about health and safety. The mix, he says, creates a powerful NIMBYism.
As US companies try to build new plants and pipelines, he adds, they're "running into more of our values" that resist construction.
Policymakers have their own terms for hard-core NIMBYism: BANANA (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything) and even NOPE (Not on Planet Earth).
Yet pipelines are being built today - a testament to the power of market forces (fueled by high consumer demand) to overpower local concerns.
In the Gulf of Mexico, engineers are preparing to drop sections of concrete-encased, 36-inch-diameter steel pipes beneath the waves. Some will rest on the ocean floor 800 feet down. Together, they'll form the Gulf's longest pipeline - 437 miles from Mobile Bay, Ala., to Florida's central coast. Another 292 miles of pipe will stretch across Florida to Palm Beach. In two years, natural gas will flow through the $1.7 billion project to electricity-generating plants.
This new pipeline comes amid controversy over whether energy companies will drill for natural gas and oil in Gulf waters that are currently off-limits. This fall, the Bush administration is expected to decide whether to lease 6 million acres in the eastern Gulf for exploration. Many Floridians - including Gov. Jeb Bush (R) - resist the idea.
Meanwhile, similar pipeline projects are planned for the Great Lakes. One would be a 93-mile-long pipe beneath Lake Erie between Canada and New York. Another would connect Milwaukee, Wis., and Indiana with a 90-mile link beneath Lake Michigan.
All sides acknowledge that natural gas is the safest fossil fuel. Ruptures in underwater pipelines, for instance, would cause essentially harmless gas to bubble to the surface.
Yet there are still strong NIMBY issues. Skeptics say the dredging of lake bottoms to create trenches for the pipes could stir up toxic sediment and risk contaminating drinking water for millions of people. If an accident occurs, they add, the pipeline would be harder to reach than ground-based lines.
Others see a danger in the precedent that aggressive pipeline construction would set.
"Once you open the door to natural gas, you open the door to oil, chemical byproducts, and other things," says Cameron Davis of the Lake Michigan Federation in Chicago.
Energy companies dispute that idea and, in general, point to a strong safety record in the Gulf of Mexico. But their decision to build pipelines underwater signals how NIMBY-charged on-land construction has become.
On land, safety concerns are paramount. Pipeline opponents point to an explosion in New Mexico last year, for instance, that killed 12 people. To avoid the hassles of acquiring private land, companies often try to route their pipelines into public space - such as federal lands.
But that solution poses problems too. "You might be able to buy me out of my backyard, but there's a sense of preserving the public trust" in common areas, says Rabago. "At forums about public lands, NIMBY gets really intense."
Wells and pipelines are most likely to be built where the gas reserves are - in Gulf and Rocky Mountain states. But other regions - especially the Northeast, Midwest, and California -need new pipes for gas delivery.
Companies that approach communities with a "top-down" demand to build their facilities will often fail, says Barry Rabe, a professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor who has studied NIMBY. Those that work to inform and cooperate with communities succeed more often.
But, Mr. Rabe adds, "that process takes time, and a lot of these companies are under pressure to build a lot of infrastructure really fast."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor