Less than a month after a federal agency rejected the route of an interstate gas pipeline for wanting to cut through two national forests, the company returned with a longer route that puts more landowners at risk of having land seized through eminent domain.
“There is no good place to put this thing,” said Ernie Reed, president of Wild Virginia, in an interview with ThinkProgress.
The Atlantic Coast Pipeline, unveiled in 2014, would transport 1.5 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day. If approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the builders would seize any land necessary via eminent domain to build an interstate line that would carry gas from the Marcellus Shale basin — one of the largest natural gas reservoirs in the world — to supply power stations in Virginia and North Carolina.
The companies involved were told last month to amend the existing proposed route as it lacked “minimum requirements” to safeguard both the Monongahela and the George Washington national forests. After that, the companies announced they had come up with an alternative path that is about 30 miles longer than the original 550-mile route. It would affect more landowners than before, but avoid sensitive wildlife.
Dominion, which partnered with Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas, and AGL to develop the project, said it’s submitting a preliminary analysis of the route to FERC this week. In a statement, it noted the new plan would affect about 249 new landowners in Randolph and Pocahontas counties in West Virginia, as well as others in Highland, Bath, and Augusta counties in Virginia.
“Finding a viable route through the national forests is an important milestone for the project and would allow the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to continue its environmental review,” the company said in a statement.
The Atlantic Coast Pipeline is one of four other similar projects proposed in the region by different companies — which include the Appalachian Connector and the Mountain Valley Pipeline. All these projects threaten wildlife, environmentalists say. For its part, Dominion said the alternate route was selected to avoid Cheat Mountain and Shenandoah Mountain, as the U.S. Forest Service wanted, because of sensitive species inhabiting those areas.
“The route will reduce total mileage in the national forests by more than one third, from 28.8 miles to 18.5 miles,” Dominion said.
Yet in trying to avoid sensitive ecology, the Atlantic Pipeline Coast Pipeline is encroaching on more landowners, who like others in the past may be reluctant to give easements to their land. And with that, it faces the same struggle most massive private pipeline projects have been dealing with: balancing detrimental impacts to the environment and communities, all while presenting a strong case that the project is a beneficial necessity for all.
According to Dominion’s permit application, last year they contacted at least 1,600 landowners. The company says it reaches agreements “about 95 percent of the time, with eminent domain proceedings only, if necessary, with compensation determined by a judge.”
Yet legal skirmishes involving the $5 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline have already occurred. Many landowners in multiple counties have been served lawsuits for not letting the companies go into their properties to do preliminary assessments. This comes as states like West Virginia and Virginia allow Dominion and others the right to access private property for surveying land, so long as they follow certain rules.
On Tuesday however, advocates are expected to ask the Virginia Supreme Court to review this law, said Kate Asquith, director of programs at the Appalachian Mountain Advocates, a non-profit public interest law and policy organization. “Eminent Domain is typically a tool for the government to take private property for public use. There are some real issues that come up when you have a private company, a private for-profit company like Dominion, that [seize] it for private gains,” she said.
Whether the court will take the case, and how a ruling would affect the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and similar projects, both remain to be seen. In the meantime, Dominion says they are contacting landowners along the alternative route to request permission to survey their properties so the route can be thoroughly evaluated.
It also plans to hold a series of public meetings along the route in early March. Those meetings will be new opportunities for the company to appease concerns and entice residents’ support by noting the project could inject an annual average of $456.3 million into the economy of the West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina, while creating nearly 3,000 jobs in the region from 2014 to 2019.
Those benefits, if fully materialized, come with environmental and societal costs, however, which some locals are not willing to accept as they prefer divesting from fossil fuels that exacerbate climate change. “Before we even talk about where to site a pipeline, we need to figure out what pipeline is needed, if any,” Asquith said.