Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines gain federal approval

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Federal regulators have approved two major natural gas pipelines that would start in West Virginia and supply the eastern seaboard.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission granted certificates to both the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the Mountain Valley Pipeline on Friday evening. The pipelines would transport gas from the Utica and Marcellus shale deposits.

One of the commissioners dissented, calling the public interest of the projects into question.

Additional necessary permits are pending at the state level in both West Virginia and Virginia.

The $5.1 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline would span 600 miles from Harrison County and across Lewis, Upshur, Randolph and Pocahontas counties in West Virginia through Virginia and into North Carolina. It’s a project by Dominion Energy, Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas and Southern Company Gas.

The $3.5 billion Mountain Valley Pipeline would go 303 miles through Wetzel, Harrison, Doddridge, Lewis, Braxton, Webster, Nicholas, Greenbrier, Fayette, Summers, and Monroe counties to transport West Virginia natural gas into southern Virginia.

The MVP will be constructed and owned by Mountain Valley Pipeline, LLC (Mountain Valley), which is a joint venture between EQT Midstream Partners, LP; NextEra US Gas Assets, LLC; Con Edison Transmission, Inc.; WGL Midstream; and RGC Midstream, LLC.

MORE: Read FERC’s order on the Mountain Valley Pipeline.

MORE: Read FERC’s order on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

Advocates of the pipeline projects have cited economic development benefits, such as the ability to move West Virginia’s ample supply of natural gas to markets where greater market prices might be achieved.

Critics have concerns about the pipelines’ paths through historic and fragile terrain, including potential effects on wildlife, forests and karst landforms.

Appalachian Trail Conservancy, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation of the Appalachian Trail, issued a statement critical of the federal certification of the Mountain Valley Pipeline.

“This poorly-planned pipeline will hurt the local economy, pollute West Virginia’s clean drinking water supply and scar the Appalachian National Scenic Trail. West Virginia does not need another pipeline to fulfill America’s energy needs, particularly one that violates local environmental laws and is strongly opposed by local elected officials and citizen groups,” stated Ron Tipton, president and CEO of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.

FERC’s certificates also grant both pipelines the authority to invoke eminent domain to acquire easements across private properties. The projects’ effects on private property have been consistent controversies along the pipelines’ routes.

The most recent version of the West Virginia Economic Outlook said the state’s natural gas supply could contribute a greater impact with increased means to get supply to more markets. In recent months, natural gas prices in West Virginia have been suppressed by a glut.

“Prices also faced pressure from insufficient pipeline infrastructure, which created bottlenecks that left natural gas supplies stranded rather than delivered to high demand areas, such as New England, and allowing prices between the areas to remain closer to parity for extended periods of time,” according to the report by West Virginia University’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research.

That could change with increased means to get the supply to market, the report concluded.

“Financial reports by drilling companies indicated they have been awaiting the installation of additional pipeline capacity to ease constraints on selling gas to markets in the Northeast US that are aggressively adding natural gas-fired generation capacity,” according to the economic outlook report.

The report also concluded that pipeline construction would be among the factors contributing to an uptick in construction employment in coming years.

“Construction activity is expected to grow at its fastest pace between 2017 and 2020,” according to the report. “The energy industry will drive a large portion of this growth, as several natural gas pipeline projects and at least one natural gas-fired power plant are slated to begin or wrap up within the next couple of years.”

One member of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Cheryl LaFleur, dissented, writing that she couldn’t conclude either project was in the public interest.

“Deciding whether a project is in the public interest requires a careful balancing of the need for the project and its environmental impacts,” LaFleur wrote in her dissent. “In the case of the ACP and MVP projects, my balancing determination was heavily influenced by similarities in their respective routes, impact, and timing.”

She added, “The record demonstrates that these two large projects will have similar, and significant, environmental impacts on the region. Both the ACP and MVP cross hundreds of miles of karst terrain, thousands of waterbodies, and many agricultural, residential, and commercial areas.”

What’s more, she wrote, the development timelines, destination markets and environmental impacts all have significant crossover.

“Given these similarities and overlapping issues,” LaFleur wrote, “I believe it is appropriate to balance the collective environmental impacts of these projects on the Appalachian region against the economic need for the projects. In so doing, I am not persuaded that both of these projects as proposed are in the public interest.”

She concluded there could be other approaches, such as a merged systems alternative to serve the capacity of both projects. That approach would deliver the capacity of both ACP and MVP in a single large diameter pipeline. That approach was viewed as taking longer to complete, though.

“While my dissents rest on my concerns regarding the aggregate environmental impacts of the proposed projects, particularly given the potential availability of environmentally-superior alternatives,” LaFleur wrote, “I believe that the needs determinations for these projects highlight another issue worthy of further discussion.”

There was a long delay in acting on federal pipeline regulatory approval as the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission went months without a quorum. The U.S. Senate on Aug. 3 confirmed Neil Chatterjee and Robert Powelson as members of FERC, restoring a quorum to the agency.

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