Climate

Officials Reject Gas Pipeline Route That Would Have Run Through National Forests

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A massive interstate natural gas pipeline proposed to run through two national forests suffered a setback Thursday, as the proposed route was rejected following concerns about endangered wildlife.

The U.S. Forest Service said in documents that the $5 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline and its 550-mile route lacks “minimum requirements” to safeguard wildlife. The now-rejected route would have crossed the Monongahela and George Washington national forests, and in doing so, the forest agency said, threaten endangered salamanders, flying squirrels, and red spruce ecosystem restoration areas.

“Alternatives must be developed to facilitate further processing of the application,” the letter reads.

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline, unveiled in 2014, would transport 1.5 billion cubic feet of natural gas a day, and if approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), it would carry gas from the Marcellus Shale basin, one of the largest natural gas reservoirs in the world. For its approval, however, the pipeline needs the support of the U.S. Forest Service.

Dominion, Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas, and AGL Resources are all involved in the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which would supply power stations in Virginia and North Carolina. The pipeline would also fulfill a growing demand among local gas companies in Hampton Roads in Virginia and eastern North Carolina, Dominion told ThinkProgress via email.

Critics of the plan hailed the route’s rejection as significant, but a Dominion spokesman said the rejection is not a final decision. The “letter is part of the permitting process as we work cooperatively to find the best route with the least impact,” said Jim Norvelle to ThinkProgress via email. Indeed, the project is still in the early parts of permitting process — it filed for permits with FERC in September 2015.

Yet coming up with a different route is a setback. In its letter, the U.S. Forest Service said the Atlantic Coast Pipeline has to avoid the Cheat Mountain and the Black Allegheny Mountain, the latter located in the Appalachians. The new route also has to address the Cow Knob salamander, a candidate to be added to the Endangered Species List. Salamanders as a whole are the most endangered vertebrates in the world.

Environmentalists also note that the project threatens mussels, bats, and multiple other species as it would fragment habitat and isolate populations. “This pipeline would have very serious and irreversible impacts on some of the rarest and most valuable natural treasures in the U.S.,” David Sligh, Wild Virginia conservation director, told ThinkProgress.

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline is just one of four other proposed similar projects, which include the Appalachian Connector and the Mountain Valley Pipeline. All these projects — proposed by different companies — threaten wildlife, environmentalists reached Friday said. They called on permitting agencies to examine the cumulative effects of all these pipelines before approving any single project.

“We ask that they require that there be a programmatic environmental impact statement which would look at all of the impacts, all of these pipelines together, to consider whether any of them should be permitted,” said Ernie Reed, president of Wild Virginia.

Wide-ranging programmatic environmental impact statements affecting multiple companies in a single industry do exist. Solar energy development follows one that covers Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah.

But while there’s much opposition to the pipeline, there are many who have supported it, including Virginia’s democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe. “This project is a game changer for Virginia’s economy, and the benefits will be both immediate and long-lasting,” the governor said in a statement when the project was first announced in 2014, according to published reports. The pipeline could produce $1.42 billion in economic activity and support 8,800 new jobs in the state, he said.