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Dominion wants to put a pipeline through farmland designated for conservation

A new motion filed Thursday is part of the growing opposition to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

Protesters shout and carry signs along the roadway leading to Dominion Virginia Powers annual meeting in Richmond, Virginia, last spring. Advocates are still trying to block the construction of a natural gas pipeline through rural Virginia. CREDIT: AP Photo/Steve Helber
Protesters shout and carry signs along the roadway leading to Dominion Virginia Powers annual meeting in Richmond, Virginia, last spring. Advocates are still trying to block the construction of a natural gas pipeline through rural Virginia. CREDIT: AP Photo/Steve Helber

On Thursday, the Southern Environmental Law Center filed a motion with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), asking the body to reject Dominion Virginia Power’s permit application for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a 600-mile natural gas pipeline from West Virginia to North Carolina.

According to the motion, Dominion’s proposed route goes through at least 10 properties that owners have placed into a Virginia conservation program intended to prevent future development.

“Dominion has proposed the largest conversion of conservation easement land ever undertaken in Virginia,” the motion says. “If allowed, it would seriously undermine public trust in the state’s conservation easement program and jeopardize the continued vitality of this critically important tool for open-space land protection.”

Dominion originally proposed that the pipeline would go through the George Washington National Forest, along the West Virginia-Virginia border, but the U.S. Forest Service rejected that route last winter.

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“By changing the route to sidestep one impediment to construction, Dominion has not solved the problems inherent to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. It has merely shifted the burden imposed by the project to the extraordinary rural landscape south of the original route,” the motion says.

“This property survived the French and Indian War, the Civil War, world wars, all sorts of things.”

SELC’s motion was prompted by the landowners along the new proposed route, who oppose cutting through their land for a pipeline that won’t even bring natural gas to Virginia. According to the group, Virginia law requires reuse of conservation land “to be essential to the county or locality where the property is located.”

If that’s the case, Dominion could run into trouble with this permit. “When FERC staff conducts its analysis of infrastructure projects, it takes into account local and state laws and ordinances, a FERC spokesperson told ThinkProgress.

Separately, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) has said he “lacks authority” to stop the pipeline, which he supports anyway.

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McAuliffe has increasingly been the target of protests against the state’s growing natural gas infrastructure, which includes the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

“You think, my goodness, what does a conservation easement mean?” said landowner Roberta Koontz who, with her husband Bob, have put 1,200 acres into the state’s conservation easement program.

“This property survived the French and Indian War, the Civil War, world wars, all sorts of things,” she said in an emailed statement. “And now to see it destroyed by Dominion is really unbelievable.”

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline is one part of a giant network of natural gas infrastructure being planned and constructed in the mid-Atlantic. Environmentalists argue the expansion will prevent the United States from meeting its climate goals and will bake in natural gas dependency for another generation.

“Once the pipelines are built and permitted and operating, it significantly lowers the cost for operators to get their gas to market,” Stephen Kretzmann, executive director of Oil Change International, told ThinkProgress in July. “All of that additional production that gets triggered needs to be thought about.”

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The proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline would originate in West Virginia, which has been part of the country’s massive boom in natural gas production over the past decade. The growth is largely due to fracking, an extraction technology that uses large volumes of chemical-laced water to break up shale formations, releasing the natural gas deposits trapped far below ground, which has become widespread.

Fracking, pipelines, compressor stations, and storage tanks are all part of a broad system of natural gas extraction and transportation that poses environmental issues at every stage.

Last winter, a storage facility in Southern California dramatically ruptured, sending hundreds of thousands of tons of methane into the atmosphere, sickening and causing thousands of people to evacuate, and drawing attention to the facility’s shoddy safety measures.

Then, just this week, Dominion Resources — the parent company of Dominion Virginia — vented a natural gas pipeline in Loudon County, Virginia, prompting dozens of evacuations and a heightened concern about the safety and notification systems for Dominion’s natural gas presence in the state. The company said the venting was “routine.”

Dominion did not respond to requests for comment this week about SELC’s motion to FERC.

UPDATE: This story has been updated to include a comment from FERC.