Virginia residents vow to fight on after controversial pipeline gets favorable review

Anti-pipeline activists hope to change the mind of Democratic candidate for governor.

A “No Pipeline” sign is posted next to a property line marker only a few feet from the route of the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline. CREDIT: AP Photo/Steve Helber
A “No Pipeline” sign is posted next to a property line marker only a few feet from the route of the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline. CREDIT: AP Photo/Steve Helber

Virginia residents and environmental groups are vowing to keep fighting proposed natural gas projects after federal regulators dealt their efforts another blow on Friday by issuing a favorable environmental analysis of a major pipeline project.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s (FERC) conclusion that the Mountain Valley Pipeline project “would result in limited adverse environmental impacts” came as little surprise to opponents, considering the agency has given almost every pipeline application it has reviewed an environmental green light.

Environmental groups condemned the findings in FERC’s environmental review of Mountain Valley. Following a pattern established with its review of other pipeline projects, FERC swept aside Mountain Valley’s threats to water resources, the safety of communities, and the climate, Oil Change International said in a statement.

“FERC severely undercounts climate pollution by ignoring methane leakage across the gas supply chain, which makes gas as dirty or dirtier than coal, and by omitting emissions from upstream fracking,” Oil Change International research analyst Kelly Trout said. “FERC also wrongly assumes that gas supplied by the project is likely to replace coal, when it’s just as likely to lock out the clean energy and efficiency alternatives we urgently need.”

Mountain Valley and another proposed Virginia pipeline, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, are facing strong opposition from residents who live along their routes. On the other hand, FERC and other government agencies are working closely with the pipeline developers to help them get the pipelines through the regulatory process and into operation.

The final environmental impact statement for Mountain Valley “is largely identical to the severely flawed — and perhaps legally indefensible — draft environmental impact statement” released last fall, Peter Anderson, Virginia program manager for environmental group Appalachian Voices, said in an email to ThinkProgress.

The odds may be stacked against them, but residents aren’t giving up. “It is my firm belief that these pipelines are not going to be built,” Ernie Reed, president of environmental group Wild Virginia, said Saturday at an anti-pipeline conference in Great Falls, Virginia, organized by local 350.org chapters and Sierra Club groups.

Reed rattled off ways in which the Atlantic Coast Pipeline could be halted, many of which would also apply to the Mountain Valley Pipeline: FERC could ultimately deny a permit for the pipeline, even if the project, like the Mountain Valley Pipeline, receives a favorable environmental review. The agency is scheduled to release a final environmental impact statement for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline on July 21.

The scope of opposition in central and southwestern Virginia to both pipelines also is giving Reed hope that the projects will be defeated. “Nobody has ever put as much pressure on FERC as we have,” he said.

Another potential avenue for blocking the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is a pending lawsuit on the legality of a permit granted by the Buckingham County, Virginia, Board of Supervisors to build a compressor station in the county. If the lawsuit is successful, it could derail the entire project, Reed said. The compressor station would be built on a 68-acre parcel of land bordered by the largely African American Union Hill community, raising environmental justice issues.

Perhaps the best chance — yet still unlikely — is if the state of Virginia denied a water quality permit for the pipelines. The governor could direct the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to strengthen its review of the projects, rather than deferring to the U.S. Corps of Engineers to conduct a less rigorous review.

But the defeat of an anti-pipeline candidate in last week’s Democratic primary for governor delivered a major blow to efforts to get the state to stand in the pipelines’ way. Virginia’s current governor, Terry McAuliffe (D), has come out strongly in favor of both pipelines. His term ends in January.

In the Democratic primary, Tom Perriello, a former U.S. congressman, made pipeline opposition a major part of his campaign. But Ralph Northam, the state’s current lieutenant governor who had the backing of state party leaders, easily defeated Perriello in the primary.

Perriello held a news conference in Richmond, Virginia on February 8, 2017, where he announced his opposition to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. CREDIT: AP Photo/Steve Helber
Perriello held a news conference in Richmond, Virginia on February 8, 2017, where he announced his opposition to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. CREDIT: AP Photo/Steve Helber

Some activists plan to “bird-dog” Northam, who did not share Perriello’s anti-pipeline position, as he campaigns for governor this summer and fall. With a vocal presence at each of his campaign events, the activists hope to apply enough pressure to get Northam to change his mind and come out against both pipeline projects.

Kirk Bowers, pipelines campaign manager for the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club, told ThinkProgress that the fate of the anti-pipeline movement may have rested in the Democratic primary. All of the central Virginia and southwestern Virginia counties went for Perriello because of his stance on the pipelines, while the state’s major population centers went strongly for Northam.

Bowers, who has been fighting pipelines in the state for years, said he doesn’t share Reed’s optimism about both pipelines not getting built. “I’m a little discouraged right now,” he said. “We’ve just about given up on FERC because they approve everything.”

The lead developer of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is Dominion Energy; Equitrans LP is the primary backer of Mountain Valley, which would move about 2 billion cubic feet per day from shale gas fields in northern West Virginia into Virginia. Both pipelines would be 42 inches in diameter, the largest-diameter for U.S. natural gas pipelines.

Speakers at the anti-pipeline conference emphasized that Virginia already has enough pipeline capacity, noting that electricity demand has been flat or declining five out of the last eight years in Virginia.

Reversing flows on natural gas pipelines, such as the Transcontinental Gas Pipe Line Co., could deliver enough natural gas to new power plants in Virginia and North Carolina, said Thomas Hadwin, a former utility official in Michigan and New York who now lives in Virginia and assists the Augusta County Alliance, which opposes the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

But the more important question, according to Hadwin, is whether these new gas-fired plants are needed. Officials could instead turn to solar and wind energy and implement aggressive energy efficiency efforts to reduce demand, Hadwin said. “We don’t need new power plants to have enough electricity,” he explained. “If we don’t need new power plants, we don’t need new pipelines to serve them.”

In a Friday statement, Ben Luckett, staff attorney with Appalachian Mountain Advocates, said FERC’s “failure to look at whether this pipeline is actually needed to serve the public, and not just the bank accounts of MVP’s shareholders, is absolutely galling.”

“Without a real market analysis, FERC can’t tell whether the pipeline’s extreme impacts to landowners, communities, and the environment will bring about any public benefit. Our independent studies indicate that they will not,” Luckett said.

Analysts also believe piping in new natural gas supplies from the Marcellus Shale into Virginia and North Carolina to serve gas-fired power plants could discourage developers from building solar or offshore wind projects. The demand for renewable energy may be dampened by the use of a natural gas — a fossil fuel with serious climate impacts — to produce electricity in the region.

But the routing of the Mountain Valley also could have a direct impact on solar energy development beyond simply feeding new gas-fired power plants. If built on its current route, the pipeline would prevent the development of at least one proposed solar project, according to the owner of property in Franklin County, Virginia. Donald Barnhart has entered into an agreement to lease his property to Hexagon Energy LLC, a Charlottesville, Virginia-based energy development company focused on clean energy.

Mountain Valley will bisect Barnhart’s property into “two largely useless portions,” Barnhart’s lawyers said in a June 21 letter to FERC. “If the route as proposed stands, Mr. Barnhart’s property will be rendered unfit for a solar farm and Franklin County and its residents will be deprived of cheap, renewable, and most importantly, sustainable clean energy for decades to come,” the lawyers said.

FERC currently has only two commissioners. Before it can issue a final ruling on the Mountain Valley application, the agency will need the U.S. Senate to confirm one more commissioner to give it quorum. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee has already approved the nomination of two Republican commissioners to the agency.

Mountain Valley’s developers are hoping to receive a final FERC permit later this year, which would allow them to begin construction on the project by year’s end. The developers are targeting the end of 2018 to bring the pipeline into service.

If FERC approves Mountain Valley and the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, anti-pipeline groups in Virginia are vowing to take legal action. “We have been building a legal case since day one on this,” Reed said. “Some of the best legal minds in the world are working on this. We’ve been building an informational case with experts since day one. We believe that we have the tools to be able to stop this legally.”