By Bobby Bordelon
Reporting by Peggy Mackenzie
Duke Energy and Dominion Energy have officially canceled the 600-mile, $8 billion fracked gas Atlantic Coast Pipeline project.
The protest group Appalachians against Pipelines celebrated the decision and vowed to continue the fight against the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which passes through six counties in Southwestern Virginia, including Montgomery. A statement from the group, which has successfully halted construction by sitting in trees, called MVP “a menacing threat to the hills and hollers along its route.”
The decision to shut down the project was made despite a June Supreme Court decision that found in Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s favor and made its construction possible
Landowners along a 400-foot wide corridor along the proposed ACP route were first notified of the project in 2014. Beginning in Harrison County, W.Va., and continuing through Virginia to Robeson County, N.C., the now-dead pipeline would have carried 1.5 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day.
“We regret that we will be unable to complete the Atlantic Coast Pipeline,” said Thomas F. Farrell, II, Dominion Energy chairman. “For almost six years we have worked diligently and invested billions of dollars to complete the project and deliver the much-needed infrastructure to our customers and communities. Throughout, we have engaged extensively with and incorporated feedback from local communities, labor and industrial leaders, government and permitting agencies, environmental interests and social justice organizations.
“We express sincere appreciation for the tireless efforts and important contributions made by all who were involved in this essential project,” Farrell said. “This announcement reflects the increasing legal uncertainty that overhangs large-scale energy and industrial infrastructure development in the United States. Until these issues are resolved, the ability to satisfy the country’s energy needs will be significantly challenged.”
The end of the project was celebrated by environmental groups and protesters, many of which called for a new investment in clean energy.
“If anyone still had questions about whether or not the era of fracked gas was over, this should answer them,” said Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune. “Today is a historic victory for clean water, the climate, public health, and our communities. Duke and Dominion did not decide to cancel the Atlantic Coast Pipeline — the people and frontline organizations that led this fight for years forced them into walking away.
“Today’s victory reinforces that united communities are more powerful than the polluting corporations that put profits over our health and future,” said Brune. “Stopping the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is a historic victory for the health and well-being of communities along the route of the project, and adds to the mountain of evidence that we do not require fracked gas to meet our energy needs. Now, rather than investing in the further destruction of our clean water and communities, we can continue to grow the booming clean energy economy creating jobs and protecting public health.”
Although the cancellation will bring new construction to an end, some groups in opposition to the project pointed out that this only prevents new environmental damage, that it does not restore the local ecosystem, both natural and human, where construction had already begun.
“In the case of both pipelines, a lot of damage has already been done. Ecosystems have been destroyed and communities uprooted along hundreds of miles of easement,” said protest group Appalachians against Pipeline in a social media post.
State officials in West Virginia, including both Governor Jim Justice and Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, lamented the loss of the pipeline. Morrisey was part of an 18-state coalition that argued before the Supreme Court on behalf of the pipeline. The cases, including Atlantic Coast Pipeline LLC v. Cowpasture River Preservation Association, asked “whether the Mineral Leasing Act and National Trails System Act give the U.S. Forest Service authority to grant rights-of-way through national forest lands traversed by the Appalachian National Scenic Trail.”
On June 15, the Supreme Court decided in favor of the pipeline in a 7-2 decision, explaining that “because the Department of the Interior’s decision to assign responsibility over the Appalachian Trail to the National Park Service did not transform the land over which the Trail passes into land within the National Park System, the Forest Service had the authority to issue the special use permit.”
Morrisey celebrated the case’s victory, pointing to the loss of temporary construction jobs in West Virginia and ongoing property taxes that would have been paid to the state. He said the “halting of pipeline construction cost the state at least 1,500 well-paying jobs and lost revenue from income and property taxes. The jobs in question paid laborers between $25 to $40 per hour plus per diem.”
Justice also voiced support for the project and Morrisey’s efforts.
“We thank Attorney General Morrisey for all of his great work and I again thank the Supreme Court for doing the right thing,” said Justice. “At the end of the day, this decision is going to result in all kinds of goodness, not only for West Virginia, but also for Virginia and North Carolina and people in lots of different places all across our country.”
The United States Environmental Protection Agency also joined West Virginia officials in mourning for the project on Twitter.
“While Duke Energy’s permit delays were not associated with EPA permits, the agency has made significant progress under the Trump administration clearing inherited backlogs and streamlining processes to ensure more certainty for American companies seeking to develop energy projects,” the EPA said on Twitter. “It’s a shame litigation will force Americans to rely more on dirtier imported energy at the expense of U.S. jobs.”
Although he has made no public statement since the pipeline’s cancellation, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam had previously expressed support for the project in a gubernatorial debate in 2017, saying he was “for responsible placement of the pipeline in our natural environment, if they deemed safe and environmentally responsible.” He noted that “at the end of the day, this is a federal project. It comes from West Virginia, goes through Virginia, into North Carolina so we can do everything that we can in Virginia to make it safe and transparent, but at the end of the day, the energy review commission will make that final decision, and so I support all of that process.”
With the recent victory at the Supreme Court, the decision to cancel the pipeline was perplexing in some quarters. In a press release, Duke Energy explained that “despite last month’s overwhelming 7-2 victory at the United States Supreme Court, which vindicated the project and decisions made by permitting agencies, recent developments have created an unacceptable layer of uncertainty and anticipated delays for ACP.”
The statement went on to say, “Specifically, the decision of the United States District Court for the District of Montana overturning longstanding federal permit authority for waterbody and wetland crossings (Nationwide Permit 12), followed by a Ninth Circuit ruling on May 28 indicating an appeal is not likely to be successful, are new and serious challenges. The potential for a Supreme Court stay of the district court’s injunction would not ultimately change the judicial venue for appeal nor decrease the uncertainty associated with an eventual ruling.”
The press release further said. “This new information and litigation risk, among other continuing execution risks, make the project too uncertain to justify investing more shareholder capital. For example, a productive tree felling season this winter is a key milestone to maintaining the project’s cost and schedule. Unfortunately, the inability to predict with confidence the outcome of the project’s permits and the potential for additional incremental delays associated with continued legal challenge, mean that committing millions of dollars of additional investment for tree-felling and subsequent ramp-up for full construction is no longer a prudent use of shareholder capital.”
Although the cancellation of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is considered a major victory for Appalachians against Pipelines, with many group members holding work-halting protests and being arrested for doing so, the group considers another pipeline project going across the Virginias to resume work shortly as a result of the recent Supreme Court decision.
“Despite the recent (tentatively) good news about the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the Dakota Access Pipeline being canceled and the Supreme Court upholding a ruling that blocks a key permit for the Keystone XL Pipeline, the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) remains a menacing threat to the hills and hollers along its route,” the group posted to social media. “In June, the Supreme Court issued a ruling allowing the ACP to cross the Appalachian Trail. While this now feels irrelevant for the ACP, it will likely result in the Forest Service reissuing MVP’s permits in the Jefferson National Forest. We also expect MVP to file for a permit extension any day now, as the original permit expires in October. While we cautiously celebrate the cancellation of the ACP and DAPL, we will continue fighting against the MVP.”
This idea was also acknowledged by Morrisey. A press release concerning the Atlantic Coast Pipeline explained how the decision could apply to MVP where it crosses the Appalachian Trail, a site held up by protesters in trees for months.
“In June, the attorney general successfully argued before the U.S. Supreme Court that a 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ ruling would have transformed 1,000 miles of the Appalachian Trail into a near-impenetrable barrier to energy development – all to avoid a one-tenth mile crossing deep beneath the surface on a 600-mile pipeline,” the press release said. “The attorney general successfully contended that, if applied nationwide, the 4th Circuit decision would have sealed off more than 11,000 miles of federal trails from development and potentially disrupted the national power grid because of the chilling effect it could have had on infrastructure investment.”
According to a press release from Mountain Valley Pipeline on June 11, approximately 92 percent of the 303-mile natural gas transmission line has been completed and the line is expected to begin full service in early 2021. The project has also seen an estimated 5 percent increase in cost above the initial $5.4 billion estimate due to “complex judicial decisions and regulatory changes.
“For the last several months, Mountain Valley’s primary focus has been continued environmental stabilization and restoration work, and maintenance of existing erosion and sediment controls along the right-of-way,” the MVP press release said. “Forward construction is anticipated to resume when MVP receives its Biological Opinion and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission lifts the project’s Stop Work Order.”