After a year of strong resistance, future looks uncertain for 2 controversial pipelines

The Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines will continue to face major legal and regulatory hurdles in 2019.

A sign on the side of the road in Augusta County, Virginia, through which the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is proposed to be built.  CREDIT: Charles Ommanney/The Washington Post via Getty Images
A sign on the side of the road in Augusta County, Virginia, through which the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is proposed to be built. CREDIT: Charles Ommanney/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Two natural gas pipelines that would travel from West Virginia into Virginia — the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) and Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) — have been facing resistance from environmental groups and local residents for almost five years. And that opposition is not expected to stop in 2019.

If the developers are successful in getting the pipelines placed into service, the ACP and MVP could help to prolong the region’s dependence on the burning of fossil fuels at a time when climate scientists are calling for urgent action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, according to pipeline opponents.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) gave both pipelines a green light in October 2017. But the tenacity of the pipeline activists who refused to call it quits since — from occupying trees and setting up grassroots monitoring efforts to using the courts — now appears to have paid off.

“We’re seeing there is a very real chance that the pipelines might not get built,” Joan Walker, senior campaign representative for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Dirty Fuels Campaign, told ThinkProgress. “It is a testament to everyone standing for the future that they want… we don’t need to invest and waste any more time in shifting to a safer, cleaner, and more climate-friendly economy.”


After federal regulators approved construction of ACP and MVP, it was assumed the two pipeline projects — located only 100 miles apart in Virginia — had cleared their biggest hurdle. State officials in West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina had already indicated they would not stand in the way of either project’s completion.

But after smooth sailing through the early years of the permitting process, ACP is now running into strong regulatory and legal headwinds that are expected to persist deep into 2019. In fact, the roadblocks have become so numerous that on December 7, Dominion Energy, the primary sponsor of ACP, voluntarily stopped work on the entire route of the pipeline project. Construction on the pipeline is expected to remain on hold into the new year.

The Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP), another massive natural gas pipeline project proposed to travel through West Virginia into Virginia, isn’t faring any better. The pipeline’s developers suggested in an October financial filing that the project could be canceled due to the growing number of roadblocks.

Pipeline activists have long argued that more pipelines means more harmful emissions that drive climate change. The drilling and extraction of natural gas from wells and its transportation in pipelines results in the leakage of methane, the primary component of natural gas that is 34 times stronger than carbon dioxide at trapping heat over a 100-year period and 86 times stronger over 20 years, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.


“The reality is that renewables are a viable cost-effective option now,” said Walker, “and should be considered as a least-cost resource” by regulators.

Over the past three years, the two pipeline projects have been progressing along roughly the same timelines. The developers of ACP filed a formal application with federal regulators in September 2015. A month later, MVP’s sponsors filed their own federal application. In October 2017, FERC voted to approve the two massive projects, each of which would transport natural gas from the Marcellus and Utica shale plays to purported markets in Virginia and North Carolina.

If completed, the 600-mile ACP will transport natural gas through parts of West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina. In November, the developers said the project cost has increased from $6.5 million to $7 billion. ACP is being led by Dominion Energy, with Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas, and Southern Company Gas also part of the partnership.

As proposed, the MVP system, led by EQM Midstream Partners LP, will span about 301 miles from northwestern West Virginia to southern Virginia. Like ACP, the pipeline would be 42 inches in diameter and be able to transport 2 billion cubic feet per day. Due to construction delays, MVP’s cost has jumped from $3.7 billion to $4.6 billion.

Soon after they were proposed almost five years ago, environmental groups and residents along the proposed routes began questioning the need for two major interstate natural gas pipeline projects within 100 miles of each other. Others urged regulators to reject both ACP and MVP.

But since then, developers have faced hurdle after hurdle in their efforts to build the pipelines.

The latest setback to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) came this week when a Virginia air pollution board delayed a vote on the construction of a compressor station in a historically African American community in Buckingham County due to concerns of the impacts to residents.


Instead of issuing a decision on an air permit for ACP’s proposed Buckingham compressor station, the Virginia State Air Pollution Board on Wednesday reopened the proceeding for public comment. The board did not set a deadline for the public to submit comments. And it didn’t indicate when it plans to make a final decision on the air permit for the compressor station, adding more uncertainty to ACP’s future.

The Virginia State Air Pollution Control Board’s latest delay “is a testament to the fact that decision-makers are paying attention now to what the cumulative impacts of these projects are going to be,” Walker said.

The board, she added, “is listening to the communities that would be severely impacted negatively by these projects and taking time to look at and listen to those folks in earnest before making a hasty decision.”

Atlantic Coast Pipeline

For ACP, the number of court defeats has grown so large that Dominion Energy, ACP’s primary sponsor, informed FERC earlier this month that it was halting all construction on the 600-mile route.

On December 13, a week prior to the Virginia State Air Pollution Control Board’s delay on the air permit, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond, Virginia rescinded permits issued by the U.S. Forest Service to ACP. This effectively prohibited pipeline-related activity along the 21 miles of pipeline route within the Monongahela and George Washington National Forests.

The court ruled that the Forest Service had failed to properly consider alternative pipeline routes outside the national forests, understated risks of landslides, sediment, and erosion, violated its own planning rules, and improperly allowed the gas pipeline to cross the Appalachian National Scenic Trail.

This ruling will require rerouting the pipeline and significant additional analysis, including renewed opportunity for public comment.

Crews work on the construction of the West Virginia portion of Dominion Energy's Atlantic Coast Pipeline. CREDIT: Allegheny-Blue Ridge Alliance
Crews work on the construction of the West Virginia portion of Dominion Energy's Atlantic Coast Pipeline. CREDIT: Allegheny-Blue Ridge Alliance

In it’s ruling the court quoted from the “Lorax” — the 1971 book by Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel about a tiny creature who fights to save forest from being chopped down. “We trust the United States Forest Service to ‘speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues,’” the Fourth Circuit said.

This comes after the Fourth Circuit issued a separate order on December 7 putting permits on hold due to concerns with how the reviews of ACP’s impact on vulnerable species were conducted. The court put on hold the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s revised incidental take statement for about 100 miles of the pipeline’s route in West Virginia and Virginia. A “take” describes the injuring and killing of an endangered or threatened species during the construction process.

The court also put on hold the biological opinion issued by the Fish and Wildlife Service, covering the entirety of the pipeline project. Biological opinions are prepared to document how construction could negatively affect endangered species and critical habitat.

The court ruled in favor of the Sierra Club, the Defenders of Wildlife, and the Virginia Wilderness Committee, which had argued in a court filing — filed by the Southern Environmental Law Center on behalf of the plaintiffs — that the Fish and Wildlife Service had made mistakes in its analysis of the pipeline’s impact on vulnerable species.

Among the mistakes cited by the groups was the claim that the Fish and Wildlife Service failed to set a specific limit on the number of non-plant endangered or threatened species that could be harmed or killed during construction. Instead, the Fish and Wildlife Service set limits on the amount of habitat that could be harmed during construction, which is “vague and unenforceable” in the case of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, the environmental groups argued.

This stay effectively prohibits all activity in habitat for species protected under the Endangered Species Act. If ACP were to continue construction despite the stay, and impact any protected species without a valid incidental take statement, ACP “would potentially be on the hook for both civil and criminal penalties,” Sierra Club Senior Attorney Nathan Matthews wrote in a December 14 blog post.

This case is currently on the calendar for argument before the Fourth Circuit in March.

Matthews argued in his blog post that the company’s decision on December 7 to stop construction after a string of losses in the courts, including the court’s decision to put on hold construction activity in critical habitat, “may very well represent a tipping point in the fight against this pipeline and raises real questions about whether it will ever be built at all.”

And in another major setback, at the end of November the Army Corps of Engineers suspended a permit for ACP that forced Dominion to halt all work on stream or wetland crossings along its entire 600-mile route. Known as the Nationwide Permit 12, the permit authorized developers to build gas pipeline projects through streams, rivers, and waterways. The Fourth Circuit is expected to hear arguments in the case sometime in 2019.

Dominion had not responded to a request for comment from ThinkProgress at the time this article was published. But in a statement sent to Virginia news outlets on Wednesday, Dominion spokesperson Aaron Ruby noted that environmental activists have spent millions of dollars attempting to delay ACP, most recently in the courts.

“Their delay tactics are not protecting the environment. They are harming consumers and working families, damaging our economy and threatening our energy security,” Ruby said.

Echoing findings in a new U.S. Chamber of Commerce report, Ruby said opposition to ACP “is not an isolated phenomenon. It is part of a national campaign by environmental activists to completely eradicate fossil fuels from the American economy.”

Despite all of its legal and regulatory hurdles, Dominion is still projecting an end-of-2019 completion date for the pipeline project.

Mountain Valley Pipeline

Uncertainty also continues to surround MVP due to legal complications. The pipeline project, however, is much farther along than ACP in its construction process.

About 106 miles of MVP will be located in Virginia, with the remaining 200 miles under construction in West Virginia. Last week, MVP said in a news release that it expects to have 70 percent of the project completed by the end of 2018.

Among the project’s many hurdles, though, is a decision last week by the Virginia State Water Control Board to reconsider an earlier decision to grant a Clean Water Act water quality certification to MVP in response to the pipeline’s estimated 300 violations of water protection rules, most related to erosion along the pipeline’s path.

The board has not set a date for the hearing on whether to revoke the water certification. In the meantime, MVP construction crews still have state authorization to clear land, dig trenches and bury the pipeline in earth away from water bodies.

In a separate potential roadblock, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality filed a lawsuit on December 7 in a state court, claiming MVP had repeatedly violated environmental protection rules.

Another major legal obstacle for the project came in earlier in October when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit threw out a federal stream-crossing permit for the pipeline.

Construction crews work on the Mountain Valley Pipeline in Virginia. CREDIT: Screenshot/WSLS 10
Construction crews work on the Mountain Valley Pipeline in Virginia. CREDIT: Screenshot/WSLS 10

The sponsors of MVP highlighted in an October filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission the risks associated with the project.

“Recent decisions by regulatory and judicial authorities in pending proceedings could impact our or the MVP Joint Venture’s ability to obtain all approvals and authorizations necessary to complete certain projects on the projected time frame or at all or our ability to achieve the expected investment return on the project,” EQM Midstream Partners LP, the lead sponsor of the project, said in a Form 10-Q filing with the SEC dated October 25.

The language in the SEC filing can be standard risk factor terminology that publicly traded companies provide in filings. MVP used the same or similar language in news releases announcing its application filing with FERC in 2015.

MVP spokesperson Natalie Cox said in an email to ThinkProgress that the developers are still targeting a fourth-quarter 2019 in-service date for the pipeline project.

Pipeline battles to rage on in 2019

Developers of the two pipelines could regain their footing in 2019 and get their projects back on track for completion by their projected timelines. But opponents of ACP and MVP believe the legal and regulatory obstacles are stacking up to the point that one or both pipelines may not get completed.

“As the roadblocks standing in the way of these pipelines increase, one thing is certain — as long as the ACP and MVP are still a possibility, the Sierra Club and communities throughout the region will continue to stand in solidarity with communities along the routes to oppose these dirty, dangerous, unnecessary fracked gas pipelines,” the Sierra Club’s Walker wrote Monday in a blog post.

Public opposition to ACP and MVP has been strong since the early days, when the two projects were still on the drawing board. Dominion and EQT Midstream Partners, the main backers of the two pipelines, brushed off the criticism. They moved full steam ahead on their projects because company executives figured federal and state regulators wouldn’t cede to the demands of the opponents.

But the rushed regulatory reviews of the two pipeline projects are catching up with the developers.

As Walker told ThinkProgress, “If they had taken the time with the regulators to do things right on the front end, they might be in a different situation or they might have actually seen there’s no safe way to build these pipelines.”