CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Mountain Valley Pipeline, one of the major construction projects crossing West Virginia, has extended the timetable and price for its expected completion.
The pipeline’s developers announced last week that construction now isn’t expected to concluded until late next year at a cost of $5.3 to $5.5 billion because key aspects of the giant project have been challenged by federal regulators and in the court system.
The original cost estimate when work began in February 2018 was $3.7 billion.
The original estimated completion date was the fourth quarter of 2019 — now.
The pipeline’s developers say it is 90 percent complete but has work ahead in sensitive areas and, significantly, a halt ordered by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission following a series of court challenges.
Diana Charletta, president and chief operating officer of EQM Midstream Partners, the operator of MVP, acknowledged schedule delays and cost overruns.
“We have encountered unforeseen development challenges; however, we continue to make progress towards ultimate completion,” Charletta stated last week in a project update.
Mountain Valley is one of two major pipeline projects under construction through West Virginia. The other is the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which has also experienced significant delays and cost increases.
MVP would extend 42-inch diameter natural gas pipeline over 303 miles to transport West Virginia natural gas into southern Virginia.
The pipeline would go through Wetzel, Harrison, Doddridge, Lewis, Braxton, Webster, Nicholas, Greenbrier, Fayette, Summers, and Monroe counties in West Virginia.
The project has been delayed repeatedly by challenges through the federal court system.
On Oct. 15, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ordered a halt to most construction activity on the pipeline in response to a ruling by the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.
The appeals court had granted a stay on a key permit by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, particularly how work would affect four endangered or threatened species: two freshwater fish known as the candy darter and Roanoke logperch, the Indiana bat and the northern long-eared bat.
MVP says it was already preparing to wind down construction for the winter. So any construction work in the immediate future would be the reforestation and stabilization necessary to prevent damage during the winter months.
The pipeline’s update that was released last week included a detailed set of cautionary statements that suggested any predictions about the completion date or cost still could be subject to varying factors such as continued litigation, regulatory questions, costs or the weather.
“It presents an uncertain picture when you read the cautionary statements,” said Angie Rosser, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition.
The rivers coalition has been particularly attuned to how the pipeline projects have dealt with stream crossings, particularly on the Gauley and Greenbrier rivers.
Stream crossings along the many miles of pipeline construction are among the most sensitive aspects of the projects and have been the focus of court challenges.
Rosser said groups that have been concerned about the projects wondered early on if they were being fast-tracked through regulatory system.
“It’s dizzying, and I would say where things stand today it’s because courts agreed that things left doubt or were left unaddressed or were not properly addressed. It is coming back to haunt the project,” she said.
If she were a developer, Rosser said, “I’d want to know all my permits were locked in before I moved things along.”
She expressed hope that while the Mountain Valley Pipeline project is delayed, all sides will be more attentive to environmental care.
“Even though you don’t want to see all this stop and go because you get a lot of exposed soil that can make it worse, can we stop and take a breath and make sure the company doubles down on environmental efforts?” Rosser asked.
Even with the delays, the project has been an economic generator for West Virginia.
Last year, when construction was at its peak on several pipeline projects in West Virginia, 4,000 equipment operators were working along with 4,500 laborers, according to the West Virginia Affiliated Construction Trades. Hundreds more workers were truck drivers and pipeline welders. More than half of those workers were local, the union said.
Even more construction workers have been on the job on projects related to pipelines, such as the compressor stations that pressurize gas and allow it to continue traveling along the route.
But the delays have been difficult for workers, said Steve White, director of ACT.
“I’d just say the reality is the people who get hurt the most is the folks who were lined up to do that work,” White said. “We just wish these things could be resolved in an expedited way so we know what we have and don’t have.”
Work on Mountain Valley has tended to be more stable than the stop-and-go progress on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, White said.
The two proposed pipelines originally lined up to be progressing at about the same pace. But Atlantic Coast Pipeline has fallen even farther behind.
Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s cost has boomed up to $7.75 billion, up an extra $3 billion from original estimate. And construction of Atlantic Coast is about two years behind schedule, with completion not expected until late 2021.
With the pipeline work less consistent than it once seemed, construction workers have focused on West Virginia highways projects or on other natural gas development work, White said.
“What we really would have liked is to blend these projects in to each other so we could have a number of years of employment. Some people are fortunately able to work on the road projects, some are able to go work on the gas projects,” he said.
“That Mountain Valley was a great shot in the arm; just a huge amount of people worked really hard for it.”
EQM Midstream Partners has the majority interest in the joint venture with four additional companies developing the Mountain Valley Pipeline and will be its operator.
Work will continue once winter has concluded and the complications have been worked out, said Charletta, the president of EQM Midstream.
“We are pleased with our progress during the past 10 months and, despite the few remaining permitting issues, we remain confident in the regulatory process and look forward to the successful inservice of this important infrastructure project,” Charletta said.