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Atlantic Coast Pipeline: The Keystone of the East

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline is the Keystone of the East.

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline is a proposed 600-mile natural gas pipeline with a route stretching from Lewis County, West Virginia to Northampton County, North Carolina. It’s a collaborative venture between five of the largest utilities in the Mid-Atlantic—Dominion Energy, Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas, Virginia Natural Gas and Public Service Company of North Carolina. Since Dominion Energy is the partner with the leading ownership percentage, Dominion is responsible for constructing and operating the pipeline.

Supporters of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline say it will boost the economy and meet a growing demand for natural gas energy. Opponents say it will violate the Clean Water Act and private property rights, threaten drinking water supplies, and put natural resources at risk. The pipeline also is a massive investment in a fossil fuel infrastructure at a time when renewables are on the rise. The opposition is vocal and ready to file appeals if the project is approved.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) will release an environmental impact report in July, which could determine whether the pipeline can proceed. Environmental groups are already poised to take legal action.


Initially, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) planned to conduct a thorough environmental review of theAtlantic Coast Pipeline through the Commonwealth. An April 6 press release from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) announced that the state agency would facilitate a site-specific regulatory review for the pipeline which would include detailed plans for each of the hundreds of water crossings in compliance with the Clean Water Act.

Then in May, DEQ reversed course and announced that they would not be performing a review of the pipeline’s impact. DEQ will instead rely on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to examine stream crossings.

The review will be more narrowly limited than what was originally promised, and the Army Corps of Engineers “generally authorizes pipeline projects under a previously issued blanket nationwide permit without analysis of individual stream crossings or the cumulative effects of multiple stream crossings.”

“The DEQ allowed the public to operate under the assumption that it was going to step up and do its job properly,” says Rick Webb, program director of the Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition. Webb doesn’t believe the Atlantic Coast Pipeline can be designed and constructed in compliance with regulations outlined by the Clean Water Act. “I think what’s happening is a manifestation of Dominion’s resistance to providing detailed plans. An agency cannot make an informed decision unless it reviews detailed plans.”

“We’ve looked at every single water body crossing, we have specified which method we’re going to use to cross it,” responded Dominion spokesperson Aaron Ruby. “But site-specific plans are not typically part of the environmental review process for a project like this.”

On June 6, the Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition filed suit against the DEQ in state circuit court. DPMC is asking the court to rule that the DEQ issued a certification for construction of the ACP in state waters without legal authority to do so and without ensuring the protection of water quality.

Out of Commission

Ultimately the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) determines whether the project will move on to the construction phase.

“FERC is an agency that has a history of approving projects that get presented to it,” said Southern Environmental Law Center attorney Greg Buppert. “The best case scenario is FERC listens to the issues we’ve raised and decides not to approve this pipeline, but no one working on this project is naive enough to think that will happen.”

FERC is composed of five members: two Republicans, two Democrats, and a chair who represents the President’s political party, though spokesperson Tamara Young says the commission operates and makes decisions entirely outside of politics.

“I know sometimes folks claim that we rubber-stamp projects. But I would challenge anyone to find an order that demonstrates that,” Young said. “While the commission may approve a number of projects, which is the whole reason behind the Natural Gas Act, no project goes out the way it comes in.”

Regardless of its reputation, the commission hasn’t been doing much of anything lately—FERC must achieve a quorum in order to vote on an issue, and Young said FERC hasn’t been able to make any decisions since former chairman Norman Bay left in February. In May of this year, President Donald Trump appointed Neil Chatterjee, a senior energy adviser to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and Rob Powelson, a Pennsylvania regulator, to take positions on the commission that will expire in 2021 and 2020, respectively.

According to Young, the confirmation of FERC members can take upwards of six months. But if all goes according to plan, FERC will release its Environmental Impact Statement in July, which gives other federal agencies until October 19 to make their decisions and thus putting Dominion on track to begin construction this fall.

“We do read and pay attention to what the public states,” Young said. “We want to hear what the public has to say about our proposals, and it does make an impact. Sometimes a better proposed route is created because of the public comments.”

Speak for the Trees?

FERC’s Environmental Impact Statement will outline the impact that the proposed project would have on forest lands as well as on non-federal lands. The U.S. Forest Service can play an important role in determining whether the pipeline can pass through its lands.  As proposed, the pipeline would cross the George Washington National Forest in Bath, Highland and Augusta counties in Virginia and the Monongahela National Forest in Pocahontas County, West Virginia.

According to Forest Service Staff Officer JoBeth Brown, should the commission allow the project to proceed, the Forest Service will use the EIS to determine whether to authorize construction and operation of the pipeline on its lands.

On the Battlefield

John Hutchinson of the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields National Historic District hopes that a federally mandated consultation process will ultimately be the end of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act requires federal agencies to consider the effect of a construction project on historic properties; the process involves identifying historic properties, assessing the adverse effects and creating solutions to those adverse effects.

TheAtlantic Coast Pipeline’s proposed route cuts through the McDowell Battlefield in Highland County Virginia, along with several other historic resources within the district. Hutchinson believes the Section 106 process will bring to light enough areas of concern to prevent the pipeline from being built. As far as he’s concerned, Dominion may be following “the letter of the law, but not the spirit of the law.”

According to Julie Langan of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources (VDHR), an agency that plays a role in the Section 106 consultation, the identification stage is well underway. The route has been adjusted more than once to avoid historic properties, but she’s less convinced that any properties on the list will be grounds for Dominion to pull the plug on the project.

“My expectation is that there’s still going to be some properties that are going to be affected that there’s not any way to mitigate,” she said.

Dominion has hired independent contractors to conduct a study of impact on historic resources, and the VDHR will offer mitigation guidance.

Growing demand?

Dominion spokesperson Aaron Ruby cited a “growing need for natural gas” in the region as the primary driving force behind the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, and said the existing infrastructure simply cannot accommodate the demand.

“There’s no way for existing pipelines that currently serve Virginia and North Carolina to meet that huge, growing need,” Ruby said.

SELC’s Greg Buppert doesn’t agree. “Dominion is doubling down on natural gas at a time that doesn’t make sense,” Buppert said, noting that renewable energy is becoming increasingly affordable. “The answer is not a $6 billion investment in a pipeline that will lock our region into gas.”

Instead, Buppert would like to see Dominion use existing infrastructure to meet what he predicts will be a short-term need for gas while “at the same time not discouraging investment in renewables.”

“What we know is that existing infrastructure and pipelines are not operating at capacity,” he said. “According to analysis that we’ve done, we think there’s capacity in the region to meet the demand at least through the year 2030. In other words, we don’t need this pipeline right now.”

According to Buppert, the SELC has conducted extensive analyses comparing Dominion’s electricity demand models with projections by an independent consultant—PJM Interconnection—and what they’ve uncovered is a significant discrepancy. PJM projects the likely electricity demand to be about 2.2 natural gas power plants less than Dominion’s projections. That amount comprises the entire additional demand Dominion is claiming for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline

“If that’s not a real demand, I think there’s good evidence Dominion is inflating its numbers,” Buppert said. “If that’s not a real demand, we don’t need this pipeline in Virginia.”

The SELC has also taken a look at the North Carolina numbers projected by Duke Energy, and Buppert said they’ve come up with more of the same.

“The combination of overestimates by Duke and Dominion raises serious questions about the public necessity for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.”

As for the SELC’s next move? That depends heavily on what transpires in the coming months, but Buppert has little confidence in FERC and its process.

“We’re raising important issues, and I think these issues will be resolved in an inadequate way by the commission that will be vulnerable to a legal challenge,” he said. “Of course we’ll be monitoring the docket to see what goes on and responding when it’s necessary or appropriate to address issues. We’re definitely not going to take our eye off the ball.”

Resort Tort

Dominion’s proposed route for the pipeline will cross less than 100 feet from the entrance to Wintergreen Resort, a four-season mountain resort and the single largest employer in Nelson County. Friends of Wintergreen was established about 18 months ago in response to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline proposal.

“We’re all quite alarmed on a number of levels,” says Friends of Wintergreen chairman Jon Ansell. “It would completely violate what Wintergreen is all about.”

That alarm is rooted in three primary damaging aspects that the organization believes the pipeline will have on the Wintergreen area: economic, safety and environmental.

The development of a 150-room hotel and conference center at Wintergreen and another hotel in nearby Nellysford have been “delayed indefinitely because it’s just not viable given the impact of the pipeline.” Ansell said the two projects combined would have brought $75 million in new investment to Nelson County, plus 250 permanent jobs. In contrast, the pipeline is projected to create 39 permanent jobs in Virginia, none of which would be in Nelson County.

“We’ve already commissioned a study and seen that property values in the area have gone down by 10 percent since the pipeline was announced,” said Ansell, adding that that amounts to about $10 million in property taxes. “Now translate that to tax revenues in Nelson County and it’s anywhere from $250,000 to a million in lost tax revenue every year because of this pipeline.”

In terms of safety, Ansell said the proximity of the pipeline to the resort’s entrance is a “huge concern.” With upwards of 2,000 people on the property at any given time and only one way back down the mountain, he said, a 42-inch pipeline with a blast radius of one-fifth of a mile would be nothing short of disastrous in case of an explosion.

On the environmental side, Ansell said the biggest concerns are landslide risk and erosion. Much of the land the pipeline would cross is composed of karsts, formations with extensive underground drainage systems, caves and cavern systems. This type of geological landscape is inherently unstable, according to Friends of Wintergreen, thus making it prone to landslides and sinkholes, even without the addition of an underground pipeline. Even without the karsts, they say pipeline construction on mountain slopes as steep as those in the Blue Ridge is precarious at best.

The organization also cites potential damage to nearby surface water and underground aquifers, forestland, wildlife habitat and recreational areas as environmental concerns.

“All of these point to the fact that this is really not a good place to put it,” Ansell said, noting that most of the organization’s proposed routes, which consist mostly of colocation, would add between three and seven miles to the pipeline. “We just think these choices are much better, especially when a for-profit company is going to make profits at the expense of the livelihood of others in Nelson County.”

If you ask Dominion, though, the proposed 600-mile route has already addressed all the pertinent environmental issues.

“Before choosing that route we evaluated more than 6,000 miles of potential routes and a lot of those were excluded very early on because of unacceptable levels of environmental impacts, unacceptable impacts to historic and cultural resources, unsuitable terrain for construction and a variety of other constraints,” Ruby said.

Even after narrowing it down to a 550-mile route, Ruby said Dominion made adjustments totaling 250 miles over the course of two years to avoid environmentally sensitive areas, incorporate agency feedback, and address individual landowner concerns.

“By any measure it has been a thorough and exhaustive process,” Ruby said. “We’ve left no stone unturned and we’ve addressed all the important environmental and safety measures that have been raised.”

Ways to Stop the Pipeline

Attack FERC

FERC has a priority conflict. It regulates the same industry that reimburses its operating costs through annual charges and fees, and because it’s mandated to ensure the lights stay on, it’s a partner to the industry it regulates. FERC has authorized the arrest of uncooperative landowners, the taking of property to facilitate exports, and the permitting of pipelines through permanently protected conservation areas and near schools and across state and national park lands. The Delaware Riverkeeper Network is leading a collaboration to take legal action against FERC. “Fracked gas pipelines are soon to be obsolete,” says the Delaware Riverkeeper Network’s Maya van Rossum. “Investing in their construction and allowing all the devastation that they require is a bad decision.”

Read on to find out what you can do to stop the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

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Defend NEPA

Every agency in the executive branch of the federal government must follow the provisions of NEPA. It requires environmental reviews, disclosure of environmental impacts to the public, and public involvement in all decisions, especially involving federal lands. The act recognizes “the critical importance of restoring and maintaining environmental quality to the overall welfare and development of man.” It makes for informed decision-making, transparency, and accountability. Still, campaigns against NEPA are relentless and increasing. Although recision has failed, opponents have introduced 60 bills attacking NEPA in the past four years and are still trying to narrow its scope. They want time limits, removal of greenhouse gas considerations, fewer alternative options, and less environmental review and public input.

Make it personal

Divest from fossil fuels. Make sure your investments aren’t exploiting the planet and its people. Join organizations across the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic in opposing the 50 pipelines planned for the region, including Wild Virginia, Sierra Club, Frack Free NC, Appalachian Voices, APPPL, NC Warn, Friends of Nelson County, and Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition. They are scheduling rallies, protests, and pipeline hikes across the region.

Support legal action Organizations like Southern Environmental Law Center and Delaware Riverkeeper Network are spearheading legal challenges to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. The courts may be the last and best chance to stop the pipeline.

—Ruth Heil

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