Not enough attention is being paid to two wholly unnecessary, risky and costly proposed natural gas pipelines that could impact the environment and quality of life in Virginia, North Carolina, and West Virginia for decades to come. But there’s plenty of time to stop them from being constructed, and opportunities for citizens to engage in protecting their future.
Last week, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), gave approval to the Mountain Valley (MVP) and Atlantic Coast (ACP) pipelines. There are currently three FERC commissioners, with two seats empty, and two of the three voted to issue something called a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity (CPCN) to each pipeline. The CPCN is, in essence, approval from FERC to construct and operate a pipeline (although it is not the only government approval needed before construction can begin). The thing is, these pipelines are neither convenient or necessary. At the same time, they present serious risks to clean air, clean water, public lands, and local communities. For these reasons, the third commissioner voted against issuing the certificates.
In a statement explaining her dissent, Commissioner Cheryl LaFleur expressed her concerns about the pipelines’ environmental impacts, including those to waterbodies, farms, landowners, and the Appalachian National Scenic Trail. Commissioner LaFleur stated: “I am particularly troubled by the approval of these projects because I believe that the records demonstrate that there may be alternative approaches that could provide significant environmental advantages over their construction as proposed.” The National Environmental Policy Act requires that agencies undertake a robust analysis of reasonable alternatives before making a decision about a proposed project. In the case of these two pipelines, it’s been clear since the beginning that there are cleaner, safer, less destructive, and less expensive alternatives available.
Our list of concerns about these two pipelines is long, but here is an overview of the top ten, with more details to come in future blog posts:
- Corporate self-dealing: Both MVP and ACP involve what is known as corporate “self-dealing” – where companies that invest in pipelines sell the pipeline’s natural gas to corporate “sisters” (or affiliates), at a price they decide. In this case, the affiliates are utilities that will pass on costs to their customers. The pipeline investors have told FERC that these pipelines are necessary because their corporate affiliates need the gas. In other words, there is no third-party, independent verification that any of the gas that MVP and ACP would carry is needed.
- No documented need for either pipeline: ACP would deliver natural gas to Virginia and North Carolina, and probably to South Carolina. Yet Dominion Energy and Duke Energy, the two utilities in those states that said they would buy natural gas from ACP, have not needed any new gas in recent years, and have lowered their demand estimates. If you’re wondering why a company would invest billions of dollars in a pipeline that no one needs, the answer is probably that the companies will be guaranteed a hefty 14% rate of return by FERC. Additionally, there is also a lack of documented need for MVP.
- Consumers will pay for these pipelines: In Virginia, Dominion customers would pay an additional $1.6-2.3 billion in electricity bills to pay for ACP—customers that already pay some of the highest electric bills in the nation. And in New York, NRDC has filed comments requesting the Public Service Commission take a closer look at Con Ed’s plans to invest in the MVP and recover costs and a healthy profit from its customers. That due diligence on the part of regulators is needed to ensure any projects are in the ratepayers’ interest.
- No analysis of reasonable alternatives: When considering these two pipelines, FERC never did an analysis of clean energy alternatives, such as energy efficiency or renewable energy. It only considered dirty energy options. FERC also did not consider how billions of dollars locked into dirty energy infrastructure for decades to come would affect the economic competitiveness of clean energy companies.
- No consideration of existing excess pipeline capacity: Existing pipelines have a lot of excess capacity. A 2015 report published by the U.S. Department of Energy found that the national average pipeline capacity utilization between 1998 and 2013 was 54%. In 2016 alone, FERC approved 38 new major gas pipeline projects.
- There will be severe risks to clean water: Wetlands, rivers, streams, reservoirs, groundwater, and creeks will be threatened by these two pipelines. Some quick examples: In Pennsylvania, recent pipeline construction led to contamination of drinking water for 15 families. In West Virginia, Dominion has been cited for work on three different pipelines that contaminated a dozen streams.
- There are serious threats to air quality: Each pipeline requires compressor stations along their routes to compress natural gas so that the gas can move farther along the pipeline. Compressor stations are known to emit toxic air pollutants. For example, one recent study of compressor stations in New York State found that the largest emissions include NO2, CO, VOCs, formaldehyde, and particulate matter. Exposure to these chemicals can cause respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, neurological and developmental diseases and cancer.
- Countless dangers for forests, endangered species, fish nurseries, and public lands that are used for recreation and other purposes: Both pipelines would cross beloved national forests. Three national forests would be impacted. Forests would be clearcut and wildlife habitat destroyed to make way for the two unnecessary pipelines. Mountain ridges would be razed. Particularly threatening would be construction on steep slopes—some of the steepest in the eastern United States, where landslides and slope failures can be potentially catastrophic to human life as well as forest ecosystems and waterways.
- Environmental justice is at risk: Pipeline construction and operation will degrade the environment for some of the most vulnerable populations in the area, including Native Americans, low-income communities, and communities of color. For example, in North Carolina, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline would go through Robeson County, where over half of the census tracts impacted by the pipeline have populations over 50 percent Native American—some over 80 percent. There are also concerns about impacts to the Lumbee Tribe’s cultural and historic sites. In Virginia, a compressor station in Buckingham County would be built in the historic, predominantly African-American community of Union Hill. Union Hill is being considered for Historic District status by the Department of Historic Resources of the Commonwealth of Virginia and was listed by Preservation Virginia as a “Most Endangered Historic Place” in 2016.
- Farmers and other landowners will lose their land: “Eminent domain” is a process by which governments can take property from a private landowner and give it to a pipeline company. The government agency is supposed to do this only when there is an important “public use,” and landowners receive payment for their land—although it may not reflect the true value. In some cases, for example when a farm has been in a family for generations, the land may be priceless. There are also significant safety threats associated with having a pipeline close to homes or businesses.
The bottom line is that there is no “public use” for either of these pipelines. They’re not needed, they’re destructive, and all the dirty and dangerous risks will be paid for by consumers while corporations make a huge profit.