BELLINGHAM — A Bellingham-based pipeline safety nonprofit just got a massive financial boost from the federal government, allowing it to step up its work on climate change.
On Wednesday, Sept. 29, the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration announced that it would award $1 million in grant funding to the Pipeline Safety Trust. The trust was founded in the aftermath of the deadly 1999 Olympic gas pipeline explosion in Bellingham’s Whatcom Creek. It has been fighting for over a decade to make sure similar incidents don’t happen.
“This funding allows us to triple in size,” said Bill Caram, the trust’s executive director. The trust currently has four staff members. “We see this as transformative funding.”
Since 2003, the trust has survived off of their $4 million share of the criminal fines paid out by Olympic Pipe Line Company, Caram said.
“States and community groups play an important role in addressing the safety challenges associated with pipelines and hazardous materials,” said Tristan Brown, acting administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, in Wednesday’s announcement. The administration awarded $98,800,117 in grants supporting pipeline and hazardous safety programs nationwide.
“The grants announced today are essential in supporting the resource needs of states and localities to effectively enforce safety standards, train response personnel, and equip everyday citizens with the necessary tools to protect themselves from transportation-related accidents,” Brown said.
With the help of the $1 million grant, the Pipeline Safety Trust plans to expand its work reducing methane emissions from the gas industry, Caram said. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas and a primary component of natural gas, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Addressing methane is important when it comes to curbing climate change — in a May 2021 statement, the United Nations Environment Programme’s executive director described it as “the strongest lever we have to slow climate change over the next 25 years.”
“With this funding, the Board has decided ‘Let’s be bold on climate change,’” Caram said.
The Pipeline Safety Trust also plans on using the funds to push back on the expansion of the liquefied natural gas industry in the U.S. Natural gas moves through pipelines in a gaseous state, but is typically cooled to its liquid state for transportation overseas and storage, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. There are several liquefied natural gas facilities along North American coasts that receive gas fracked in states including Texas and Pennsylvania and export it overseas, Caram said.
“While each of these facilities represents a huge potential catastrophic disaster due to the properties of LNG, they also each require new pipeline infrastructure to feed them,” Caram wrote in an email to The Bellingham Herald. “The new pipelines needed to feed these LNG facilities represent a majority of the new natural gas pipeline infrastructure currently being constructed, and put local individuals, communities and the environment at risk.”
The trust will also use the funds to bolster its work engaging with Tribes and environmental justice communities, Caram said.
“True Tribal engagement requires visiting the Tribes,” he said. “Being patient, doing things in person and on their timeline. We just haven’t had the capacity to do that.”
As part of its environmental justice work, the trust plans on creating an easily accessible interface that combines U.S. Census data and federal pipeline incident data. The goal is to see how pipelines impact different communities and demographics in different ways, Caram said.
The Pipeline Safety Trust has already hired a business manager to lead on administrative issues, finances and human resources. It recently posted an opening for a communications and outreach director, and plans on hiring two program managers who will work on policy and a data expert to organize the pipeline incident and census data.
The trust is also considering hiring an engineer to serve as a counter-perspective against the oil and gas industry’s engineers, Caram said. So often, the fossil fuel industry overpowers public interests because it has the resources to do so, he said.
“So much of technical side of regulations are really dictated by industry because they have all the engineers,” Caram said. “So we are hoping to have independent engineer that can serve as a balance.”