Virginia county approves massive natural gas compressor over community outrage

The project is part of a 600-mile long pipeline that will reach from Pennsylvania to North Carolina.

Buckingham County Board of Supervisor Danny Allen (fore), at a meeting Thursday. Allen, who works for Dominion, recused himself from the vote on a compressor. CREDIT: Cat McCue/Appalachian Voices
Buckingham County Board of Supervisor Danny Allen (fore), at a meeting Thursday. Allen, who works for Dominion, recused himself from the vote on a compressor. CREDIT: Cat McCue/Appalachian Voices

A $5-billion, 600-mile, multi-state natural gas pipeline project cleared another hurdle Thursday evening, when the Buckingham County Board of Supervisors in Virginia approved an application to build a compressor station.

If constructed, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP), proposed by the energy company Dominion, will run from eastern Pennsylvania and northern West Virginia to North Carolina and Virginia. But the project faces major public opposition — even in Buckingham County, where Thursday’s meeting dragged on for five hours, and many residents testified in opposition.

“The citizens of Buckingham had an uphill battle these past couple years,” Cat McCue, communications director for the regional advocacy group Appalachian Voices told ThinkProgress. “This is not the end, however, and the Buckingham citizens are not alone. The Atlantic Coast Pipeline — and by extension the compression station — is not a done deal. Far from it. The people’s movement against the project grows bigger by the day.”

If approved, the pipeline would transport 1.44 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day from the Marcellus Shale basin. The 53,518 horsepower, natural gas-powered compressor station in Buckingham would be one of three new compressor stations for the pipeline, along with four modified (expanded) existing compressor stations. Compressor stations — as the name suggests — add pressure to the line, pushing the gas along.

The ACP is just one of a network of new pipelines — thousands of miles worth — that have been proposed in the Mid-Atlantic to serve the Marcellus basin. All the pipelines must be approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

FERC released a draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the project in late December, triggering a 90-day comment window and moving the pipeline one step closer to federal approval. McCue and others have called FERC’s review process into question. She referenced FERC’s recent draft EIS for another pipeline project, the Mountain View Pipeline (MVP), as one example of where the agency is falling short.

“The EPA has found basically the same problems with FERC’s environmental reports on a bunch of other proposed gas pipelines,” said McCue. “We know the MVP report is half-baked. And while we’re all still reading through the ACP report, we don’t see any indications so far that it’s any better.”

She noted that public comments filed by the EPA, the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service, and other federal agencies all raised significant questions about FERC’s analysis of the Mountain View Pipeline project.

Environmentalists are particularly concerned about the long-term implications of transitioning the power sector to natural gas. Natural gas is nearly 50 percent less carbon-intensive when it is burned — but it is also made up mostly of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that traps heat 86 times more effectively than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period. Because natural gas is difficult to control and capture, it often leaks during drilling, transporting, and storage. Recent estimates have shown that natural gas is not actually helping to meet climate goals, due to the amount of methane being leaked by the natural gas industry.

CREDIT: Energy Information Administration
CREDIT: Energy Information Administration

The Marcellus is one of the largest natural gas reservoirs in the world. Thanks to the rise of fracking technology, it has become a key source of natural gas for the U.S. energy industry. Over the past decade, production in the Marcellus basin has increased from just over 1 billion cubic feet per day to more than 20 billion cubic feet per day.

“There is no doubt that plans to build natural gas powered generation is being driven by this abundance of relatively cheap natural gas supply that is projected to come out of the Marcellus,” Lorne Stockman, a senior research analyst with Oil Change International, told ThinkProgress.

Ultimately, all the pipeline projects driven by this boom — including the Atlantic Coast Pipeline — will need local, state, and federal permits.

The process, so far, has not been an easy one for Dominion.

The U.S. Forest Service already denied one proposed ACP route that would have run through the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest and the Monongahela National Forest. The new route — which also runs through the forests — carries less environmental risk, but runs through more residential areas, exposing property owners to the possibility that Dominion will use eminent domain to lay pipeline. Under federal law, if a gas pipeline project is determined to be necessary — a determination required by federal permitting process — operators can use eminent domain to lay pipeline on private property, even if the owners oppose it.

In October the Southern Environmental Law Center filed a motion to FERC, based on the new route, asking the agency to reject Dominion’s application outright. The Atlantic Coast Pipeline will pass through at least 10 privately owned Virginia properties in a state conservation program, the group said. Under Virginia law, use of conservation land must be “essential to the county or locality where the property is located.”

In fact, it’s not immediately apparent that the project is essential, at all. Last year, Dominion told ThinkProgress in an email that the pipeline will fulfill growing demand among local gas companies in Hampton Roads in Virginia and eastern North Carolina.

But data seems to indicate production is already on track to outpace stateside demand. Natural gas production is expected to increase substantially, according to new projections from the Energy Information Administration (EIA), released Thursday. Consumption is projected to increase at a much lower rate, suggesting that much of the country’s additional natural gas production will need to be shipped overseas.

In any case, FERC has not yet made a “determination of need” on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. That step occurs only after the Environmental Impact Statement is finalized, which is expected to occur in June. In the Commission’s 40-year history it has denied a gas pipeline permit only once.

FERC’s draft EIS points toward an inherent disconnect between how the agency looks at projects and what those projects actually mean for the market — and for the climate.

In its consideration of whether a “no-action alternative” was appropriate, FERC writes that while not building the pipeline would “eliminate the short- and long-term environmental impacts” of the project, it would also prevent the end users from receiving the same natural gas deliveries. Thus, FERC concludes the no-action alternative “would not be able to meet the purpose” of the project and so “is not preferable to the proposed action.”

FERC recognizes that the purpose of the pipeline is deliver up to 1.5 billion cubic feet of gas per day of natural gas to customers in West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina.

Yet at the same time, the draft EIS asserts that gas production and consumption are not “causally connected” to the pipeline.

“‘Not causally connected’ means that production of gas will continue whether or not the Commission approves the Atlantic Coast Project,” FERC spokesperson Tamara Young-Allan explained to ThinkProgress, via email. “Combustion of gas will occur regardless of approval of the project.”

In other words, FERC finds that having no pipeline would mean less natural gas in the region, at a higher cost. But it also says that a pipeline would have no effect on production or consumption.

“They are being disingenuous — or purposefully obtuse, if you like — about the impact of pipelines and gas supply to the markets,” Stockman said. “They absolutely should know better, that is just a ridiculous thing to say.”

Building a natural gas pipeline should logically make it more likely that the utilities (which own, operate, and invested in the pipeline) will use natural gas to generate electricity. This, in turn, reduces utilities’ incentive to transition to renewable sources or improve demand response, grid management, and storage capabilities —especially given that the contracts to purchase gas from the Atlantic Coast Pipeline have been signed only by subsidiaries of the pipeline’s developers, according to Stockman.

Those aren’t the only issues. Under the current route, the pipeline will travel through several census tracts with significantly higher rates of poverty and greater minority populations than the surrounding areas. What’s particularly concerning, advocates say, is the pipeline’s route through North Carolina’s Native regions — where some tribes are state recognized, but not federally recognized. Others have pointed out that the pipeline will travel through some disproportionately elderly communities, which may face challenges in getting adequate notice, being able to attend public meetings, and accessing online documents.

According to analysis of FERC’s draft EIS, which found that “environmental justice populations would not be disproportionately affected by the projects,” the above-ground components of the project, such as compressor stations — which will have a long-term, ongoing impact on the local communities — are primarily located in low-income and minority communities.

“There are a number of [environmental justice] issues with tribes and other [environmental justice] communities,” Stockman said.

But he and others are hopeful that state leaders may step up against the pipeline, even as FERC ploughs forward. “We are also encouraged by the new governor in North Carolina [Roy Cooper], who is a Democrat and has a little bit of history of supporting EJ communities,” Stockman said.

“ People talk about this as though it is a done deal… but… people here are hopeful.”