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Seeding for Show: Revegetating Pipeline Corridors - The YEARS Project

Seeding for Show: Revegetating Pipeline Corridors

On a short hike in a nature park in Maryland last year, I was enjoying an unfamiliar forest path when I found myself in a clearing full of waist-high plants. While the meadow made me smile after the relative quiet of tree cover, I realized it didn't seem to end. The forest resumed a mere 20 meters across from me, a sharp wall of trees and undergrowth. If I looked to my left and right, this thin strip of clearing appeared to stretch on for miles, cutting through multiple stands of trees before reaching the horizon. There was no way this was naturally occurring. But why had it been cut?

A thin, yellow marker sticking up between the swaying grasses told me why. As birds flitted across my peripheral vision and I heard the wind pass through wildflowers, the straightforward vertical label — “WARNING GAS PIPELINE” — told me that this unending clearing had been cut to place a pipeline; a pipeline which was currently pumping fracked methane gas just a few feet below my boots. 

I kept thinking back to that pipeline’s meadow cover long after finishing that suddenly unsettling hike. I didn’t know enough about the flora of the area or the particular pipeline to know whether it had really been the thriving, diverse, natural habitat it had seemed at first glance. But I began to wonder if that scene and others above pipelines across the country were a case of nature reclaiming destroyed land (resilience, perhaps) or if intentionally planting native grassland and meadow habitats over pipelines might be a common practice. Perhaps creating visually appealing habitat over pipelines might be the kind of PR-heavy conservation effort oil and gas companies might go for. So I did a bit of digging. Pipeline revegetation and “beautification” using mixtures of native plants is, as it turns out, a growing practice — pun absolutely intended. 

The business of pipeline revegetation reveals a world of regional-scale U.S. seed suppliers that have made native plant utility cover part of their business model. One such company, Ernst Conservation Seeds, spent decades cultivating and selling crownvetch, a potentially invasive but effective cover crop, to various infrastructure projects for erosion control. Yet they switched in the 1980s to growing and selling a wide variety of native seeds tailored to different conditions, regions and planting scenarios. A portion of their services includes consultation and seed mixtures specifically for oil and gas pipeline cover and other excavation-heavy utility projects. Ernst explains that when it comes to preventing erosion, their mixes of native and naturalized seeds provide “maximum environmental benefit while providing equivalent performance to traditional non-native seed mixes.” They emphasize these benefits include protecting soil health and water quality, creating biodiverse and “beautiful” pipeline and well sites, and even sequestering carbon.

This is important, since these practices are well outside legal requirements. After pipeline installation, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) requires the pipeline company to revegetate the area for erosion control, but does not require the use of native species or even a diversity of species. Monocultures of inexpensive, cultivated ground cover crops have been fairly standard since revegetation was first established as a requirement, and these remain a cheaper alternative to habitat-specific mixtures of native seeds. 

Despite it not being a true requirement, planting native seeds and restoring habitat over pipeline right-of-ways (or “ROWs”) has become increasingly popular with fossil fuel and pipeline companies. The Keystone Pipeline System is covered with native grass seed mixes across much of its 2,687-mile ROW; the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, while it was canceled in 2020, had plans for pollinator habitat restoration on portions of its ROW; and Shell’s Wildflower Energy Project funds organizations that plant over pipelines and under electric power lines. Additionally, the aforementioned Ernst Conservation Seeds may be acquiring a new fossil fuel client: The Mountain Valley Pipeline.

The subject of ongoing community protest and construction delays since its 2014 proposal, the Mountain Valley Pipeline (shortened to the unfortunately ironic acronym “MVP”) would transport methane gas below a 50-foot cleared strip for more than 300 miles through Virginia and West Virginia if completed. After finalizing its route, the MVP’s parent company worked with the Wildlife Habitat Council (WHC) on a report outlining suggestions for native restoration. The report prescribes various seed mixes for creating meadow habitats with high biodiversity, as well as protecting and restoring wetlands and wetland meadows. Each mixture of species was chosen in partnership with Ernst Conservation Seeds, and the report highlights their wide range of native grasses and wildflowers as well as their potential to build grassland habitat across the corridor. 

Chopping through Appalachian forests to place a pipeline by definition destroys habitat and endangers water sources. Still, a tree-free but plant-heavy habitat, formally known as an early successional habitat, does have some environmental benefit if properly revegetated. Pipeline ROWs must be kept free of trees to protect line equipment and make servicing easier. Wild meadows and grasslands often have short lives before becoming young forests, so human-maintained ROWs do have the potential to remain long-lived “semi-natural grasslands.” The benefits of such maintained grasslands have been more closely studied in the case of power transmission line ROWs. While these involve less soil disruption than pipelines do, their similarities point to good things. Studies of semi-natural grasslands under transmission lines in Maryland, Georgia and Connecticut have found that they support vital habitat for several threatened and endangered plant and animal species, including a bee species thought to be extinct until its 2008 rediscovery in a ROW

Prompted in part by studies like these, some utility companies have gone as far as to advocate turning pipeline ROWs into fully-fledged wildlife corridors, which would include not just planting native seeds but constructing wildlife overpasses across roads and even investing in smart technology to monitor seasonal migrations and other wildlife movement. Even in less extreme proposals, revegetated ROWs hold defensible environmental benefits. 

Yet the WHC’s report doesn’t just suggest seed mixes, or even planting strategies, but betrays other motivations as well. This is where the company’s priorities come into focus. The report suggests increasing the MVP company’s “presence around [...] conservation and the environment” in local communities, including in school settings. It encourages placing large signs along construction fences explaining the coming habitat restoration efforts and provides public handouts on the benefits of early successional habitat for town hall meetings. These public materials are meant to “provide a different narrative around the construction and restoration work.” 

The “narrative” that this would be supplanting is not elaborated on in the report, but with nearly ten years of ongoing resistance to the Mountain Valley Pipeline we can perhaps put the pieces together. A table of route sites highlights visibility from backyards, trails and roads as reasons to use higher-diversity, high-wildflower — in a word, “prettier” — seed mix. The company is well aware they’re unpopular in nearby communities, and hope wildflowers are a good distraction.

Which leads to the one thing that the MVP report, and many ground cover seed companies fail to mention. No matter what grows above it, this pipeline is carrying a fuel that is pushing the planet toward disaster. If the world is to be kept in a livable state, we need to not only stop laying down new pipelines, but decommission existing ones. Investment in showy habitats above new lines both softens public distaste and discourages decommissioning them any time soon. It’s a tactic that prolongs pipeline and fossil fuel use for as long as possible, squeezing profits out while presenting a facade of environmental responsibility. It is greenwashing in literal, leafy form, rooting pipelines into place. 

Plans to make pipeline corridors into community spaces for schools and other groups, would give polluters educational sway and make pipeline removal a potential loss for communities. In areas where decommissioning a pipeline requires total removal, wildlife supported by semi-natural habitats could create a kind of “green shield,” with companies arguing that the habitats they cultivated should not be destroyed so quickly. In the same vein, the scale of voluntary spending required for revegetation provides a convenient excuse not to decommission the line, particularly if FERC requires corridors be revegetated again after removal

Every “good” thing about revegetation practices tightens the fossil fuel industry’s grip in some way. A hotter climate still stands to permanently alter life for all species above a pipeline, if not end it. A thriving habitat can still be poisoned by a leak or spill. The Keystone System’s grassland cover didn’t stop it from spilling 650,000 gallons of oil into Kansas waters in 2022. Planting new meadows over the MVP won’t reverse the damage its construction has already done to Indigenous sacred sites or return clean drinking water to the wells of rural communities it’s poisoned along the corridor. And the idea that it would “sequester” anywhere near the amount of carbon that burning methane emits is debatable.

But in all this murk of bad faith, the biodiversity benefits of semi-natural grassland remain. And while a pipeline’s negative effects are always of concern, it’s still better to have one covered with native plant life than not. Large companies seem to so rarely do more than they are required to when it comes to the environment, so is critiquing this practice worth the potential loss of a small win? Personally, two things stand out as potential ways to keep the benefits of semi-natural grassland cover: Making revegetation a requirement and focusing on creating thriving habitats on land utilized for renewable energy. 

For the moment, if it’s better to mitigate damage in a world of fossil fuels than to not, then legally requiring revegetation with native seeds, even in the most limited sense, could help remove the practice from fossil fuel companies’ PR arsenal while still retaining environmental benefits and damage controls. Meanwhile, as wind and solar power grow, they require large swaths of land. Seed suppliers realize this, and have begun to cater to them. Focusing on building grassland habitats alongside renewable energy projects, under turbines and panels rather than over flammable gas and oil, would provide some of the same benefits as pipeline revegetation in a less ironic and likely more reliable fashion. Hopefully there will be a point where that will be the only utility groundcover we need, and biodiversity really will be an added benefit rather than a seeded screen. 


Illustration credit: Lauren Schooley, 2024