Pipelines and Power: Psychological Distress, Political Alienation, and the Breakdown of Environmental Justice in Government Agencies’ Public Participation Processes


Environmental health research has demonstrated that living near industrial activity is associated with increased stress, depressive symptoms, and feelings of powerlessness. Little is known, however, about the effects of new natural gas pipelines—or the institutional processes dictating their approval and construction—on the mental health of local residents. Through our analysis of a mail survey, an online survey, and a set of semi-structured interviews, we examine how engagement with public participation processes associated with new interstate natural gas pipelines affects mental health. Our results suggest that the public participation opportunities offered by regulatory agencies during the pipeline certification process are primarily performative, and we find that many of the people who have taken part in these performative public input opportunities experience psychological distress, stress-activated physical health effects, and a loss of trust in government institutions. We argue that when people engage in public participation processes that have little or no effect on agency decision-making, it not only disempowers, but can harm those individuals and erode their trust in government institutions. Furthermore, we contend that providing the public with participation opportunities that are merely performative, with little ability to influence decision-making outcomes, is a violation of both procedural and recognition justice, two of the core tenets of environmental justice.

Natural gas pipelines, Public participation, Regulatory agencies, Eminent domain, Environmental justice, Mental health