8. Natural Gas Compressor Stations
Whether it’s for heat, cooking, or electricity, most Americans use natural gas regularly. But before arriving at your home, natural gas traveling through a long pipeline enters a compressor station, and compressor stations release greenhouse gases, neurotoxins, carcinogens, and an absurd amount of noise. To make matters worse, compressor stations are disproportionately built in low income and minority communities, causing devastating economic and health impacts. Today, we break down what compressor stations are, why they’re harmful, and some ideas to both regulate them and make them obsolete. We’re joined by Nell Curtin (Boston University), Jack Kelly (Northeastern University), and special guest Dr. Nathan Phillips: Earth & Environment Professor at Boston University and Acting Director of BU’s Sustainable Neighborhood Lab.
When I use things, I don’t often think about where they came from or the process they went through in order to get to me, and I suspect there are many others like me out there. Sure, I may have a general conception of something’s origins, but supply chains are often much more layered and complex than I would ever imagine them to be. This is certainly the case for natural gas. I always knew that natural gas, being a fossil fuel, comes from deep within the Earth’s crust, where heat and pressure turned fossilized remains into natural gas over millions of years. I also knew that we use a lot of natural gas in our society, mainly for heating and electricity. However, I had no idea what came between these two places.
The natural gas supply chain, as you might have guessed, is long and highly complicated, and just one step in this process is compression. Natural gas compression is an issue I knew absolutely nothing about before researching this episode, and while the information was new, I can’t say it was entirely surprising. Obviously, burning natural gas has a host of negative environmental impacts, and as it turns out, compression does as well. This did not shock me, as fossil fuel production is notoriously harmful in many ways.
I was also unsurprised, but still deeply disappointed in, the disproportionate harms that natural gas compressor stations cause for the low income and BIPOC communities in which they are often placed. Natural gas compression is not just an issue of polluting and degrading our environment, but it is an issue of environmental justice, and that cannot be ignored any longer. The burdens of this issue are extremely uneven. That is something I hope to change going forward through conscious, purposeful efforts to help prevent further harm, protect frontline communities, and, ultimately, make the transition to clean, renewable energy. I hope that this episode invoked some of these same feelings in you, and that you feel inspired to act on issues of environmental justice within the production of natural gas, and beyond.
Being an Environmental Analysis & Policy student in Boston, news about the Weymouth Compressor Station has been popping up for years around me. I even did a project on it in my History of American Environmental Politics class. And as frustrating as the issue has been in Weymouth with residents spending years fighting to block a compressor station, it’s even more frustrating to see that these monstrosities exist in communities across the country, and disproportionately in low income and minority communities.
In the last few weeks, you may have heard terms like “environmental justice” and “environmental racism” on social media. In short, an environmental injustice describes an environmental issue that specifically targets a marginalized community; for example, low income, African American, Latino, non-native English speakers, etc. In these broad terms, I’ve seen lots of commenters on social media confused, and I shared the confusion at first too. Isn’t climate change impacting all of us? Yes, it is. But not equally. We’ve discussed this concept before, and in more detail in our Yosemite National Park, Lead Paint, and Earthquakes episodes, but at least for me, compressor stations were a topic that really helped me understand why the impacts are not felt equally. These communities are so brazenly targeted and end up facing constant noise pollution, decreased property values, and a slew of health risks from nosebleeds to cancer. It’s awful.
Nathan Phillips is a fascinating professor, and I’m so glad I’ve had the chance to learn from him at BU and on the podcast. He manages to balance being an academic instructor and researcher with being an activist, which I’ve learned are two very different mindsets. In January, he went on a hunger strike for a few weeks in protest of the Weymouth Compressor Station, with a few specific concerns we discuss in the episode. But even during that hunger strike, he continued to teach, and didn’t bring it up. As a critical thinker always wary of any extreme-sounding arguments, that spoke to me. He’s a professor, an expert, and the compressor station was so bad that from an academic’s point of view, he decided to put his life on the line to make a change. I debated discussing his hunger strike at all in the episode since I’d never seen a professor do something like that, but I came to realize that the issue is just so clear-cut that when we lay out the facts, you just can’t help but want to take action. There’s really no pros and cons list with this one.
I hope you like today’s episode, and I hope it helps highlight the concept of environmental justice through one of too many prominent examples. Thanks for listening!