New Mexico Gas Company is looking to replace 6 miles of the only natural gas pipeline coming into Taos County.
The most likely plan to move forward on rerouting this piece of critical infrastructure was developed after public input in 2015 and would eliminate two river crossings currently in use while also partially restoring an important cultural landscape in the area around Pilar.
New Mexico Gas Company submitted a right-of-way application to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in 2014 in order to “provide a more secure and safe service of natural gas delivery to the community [of Taos County],” according to the environmental assessment for the project, prepared by the BLM.
The 6-mile project would replace the current 8-inch-diameter pipe with a larger 12-inch-diameter pipeline (to accommodate future growth) and is expected to cost $12.7 million and take four months (from August to November 2017) to complete, according to the environmental assessment.
The current pipeline crosses beneath the Río Grande from the east to the west side of the river approximately 1 mile north of Rinconada and just south of the county line boat launch. From there, the pipeline runs north both above and below ground for 6 miles through the Gorge. Just west of the village of Pilar, the pipeline crosses back underneath the Río Grande before connecting at a spot above Pilar with the Taos Plateau portion of the pipeline.
‘Nature is going to win’
The main thrust to replace the pipeline is safety.
The 6 miles of pipeline on the west side of the river are prone to stress because of water-heavy soils that shift.
“Anywhere that it’s lush and wet, that has pockets of cottonwoods — that’s a seep and that’s the problem areas,” said Bradley Higdon, planning and environmental specialist for the BLM’s Taos Field Office.
The current pipeline is located in the Embudo fault and has been monitored for stress since the mid-1980s, “when a pipeline break prompted two sections of buried pipeline to be excavated and replaced with flexible above-ground pipe." The report describes “debris slide cienagas” as “upward directed seepage forces and extremely shallow water tables [that] greatly increase the likelihood of liquefaction and/or landslides.”
Basically, the ground moves even without rock slides or earthquakes.
In the 1990s, a few more segments of the underground pipeline were moved above ground to allow for greater flexibility.
“That’s the reason some parts of the pipeline are visible now,” Higdon said.
According to Tim Korte, spokesperson for New Mexico Gas Company, even though the pipeline has been monitored for stress for nearly 30 years, it was only in the last four or five that the most severe damage was recorded.
The area is so unstable that simply replacing the pipeline in its current location was ruled out early on. Engineers considered it “technically infeasible” because they could not locate the bedrock in the current right of way, thus there was no solid base on which to anchor the new pipeline.
“The problem we’re trying to resolve is active geology in the Río Grande Gorge. Eventually, Mother Nature is going to win, so you have to make accommodations. [A new pipeline] is a more reliable option,” Korte said.
The company says avoiding any potential future gas outages in Taos is part of the reasoning behind the replacement.
And Taos knows the feeling of being without gas. Taos was without — meaning no cooking, hot water and, for many who don’t use wood or propane, no heat — in below-freezing temperatures for almost a week during 2011. At least 30,000 homes were without natural gas across the state. While the community rallied to take care of each other in that time, it made it clear just how disruptive an empty natural gas line can be.
Río Grande crossings
The preferred plan on the table (one of three possible actions) would eliminate both instances of the natural gas pipeline crossing beneath the Río Grande in the Gorge while also giving the BLM the opportunity to remove pipeline infrastructure and return a “culturally significant hillside” to a more natural state.
"Alternative D," as the preferred plan is titled, would not cross beneath the Río Grande north of Rinconada, but instead continue north along the east side of State Road 68 for 6 miles, past the BLM Río Grande Gorge Visitor Center and village of Pilar before cutting beneath the highway. The plan calls for constructing a new “block valve” (choke point) in the unnamed drainage located approximately at mile marker 30, from where the pipeline would rise to the top of the Taos Plateau in order to connect in with the current pipeline infrastructure.
Alternative D also calls for improving just fewer than 3,000 feet of a two-track road on top of the plateau.
Although the company originally tried to get approval for a different plan (that would have added a new river crossing), Alternative D is now preferred by both the federal agency and the company.
Not only does Alternative D eliminate river crossings, Higdon said, but it also avoids any new “visual disturbances” or interruption to the floodplain environment on the west side of the Río Grande in the Pilar area. “It’ll be along the highway, which is a more acceptable disturbance than a new scar [on the landscape],” he said.
The “cultural resources” — as the BLM calls sites of historical, archaeological and religious significance, especially to Native American communities of the region — are another advantage to Alternative D, he said. “For me, the big thing is that we’re able to take out some of the equipment that’s there [in Pilar] now,” which is located on a hillside with cultural significance and sites recommended for the National Registry of Historic Places.
“We could reclaim that area, remove equipment, recontour the landscape, scatter boulders and plant native vegetation,” he said.
While the plan to reroute the pipeline has the advantage of avoiding any new river crossings (which New Mexico Gas Company spokesperson Korte said “is not the source of the safety concerns”), there is still a risk of contamination from the horizontal drilling used to pull the pipeline beneath the highway, according to the environmental assessment.
Federal regulations require the pipeline to be buried at least 5 feet deep along the majority of the route, but 7 feet underneath the river or road. Horizontal drilling requires fluids, or “frac out,” to bore the hole through which the polymer-coated, landslide-resistant pipeline will be pulled (after being welded, X-rayed and “electronically inspected”). The environmental assessment said the BLM will use best practices to contain any spilled frac out.
Only the above-ground infrastructure would be removed; in-ground portions of the original pipeline would stay buried. Higdon said this was standard practice, noting that taking up the pipeline would mean scarring the landscape anew.
While pipelines and the federal agencies and departments that deal with them have come under fire in recent months, especially regarding the 1,172-mile-long Dakota Access Pipeline, the BLM is proud of the plan on the table — namely because it was conceived and developed through input from the public.
The company formally submitted its right-of-way application in late 2014 and “public scoping” (the BLM’s sometimes stilted process for collecting the thoughts and concerns of residents) took place in 2015. The original plan called for a river crossing and new notable scars on the landscape. The public, especially Pilar residents, he said, found it an unacceptable proposal.
Admitting that “there’s really no great place to put a pipeline [in the Gorge]” with respect to engineering and traffic, Higdon said that the BLM nonetheless went back to the drawing board armed with that input from the public.
“This EA [environmental assessment] is a great example of the public's presenting a viable option that may ultimately be the best. Alternative D wasn’t even contemplated in the beginning. But the BLM realized it’s a really reasonable alternative. The public reshaped the project to resolve these issues upfront,” Higdon said.
Korte told The Taos News that the cost of bringing natural gas into Taos via the north – instead of the Gorge – would have been “astronomical” and prohibitive.
The environmental assessment is open for another round of public comments, which closes Feb. 10. Higdon said the BLM will then respond to substantive comments (those that point out gaps in analysis, problems with the data used by the BLM and overlooked options, for example) within the environmental assessment. He anticipated the BLM will make a final decision around May, which would put the gas company “on track” to lay the new pipeline from August to November this year.
Traffic would be interrupted throughout the construction of the new line, with one lane being closed for a mile at a time. The BLM requires New Mexico Gas Company to mitigate traffic concerns with the state Department of Transportation.
While the BLM could decide to not go forward with either of the two proposals on the table, Higdon said the reroute project does conform to the BLM’s local resource management plan.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to the drilling liquid produced during horizontal drilling. The Bureau of Land Management refers to this liquid as "frac out" in its environmental assessment.