The U.S. Forest Service has approved Mountain Valley Pipeline’s passage through the Jefferson National Forest through West Virginia and into Virginia.
The federal agency issued a record of decision on Monday, approving amendments to its Land and Resource Management Plan to do so. The pipeline project still faces additional regulatory and legal hurdles.
“The agency’s decision is a notable step forward in completing this critical infrastructure project, and we expect the Bureau of Land Management to soon issue the project’s right-of-way permit to cross the Jefferson National Forest,” stated Natalie Cox, vice president for communications at Equitrans Midstream Corp., the pipeline’s developer.
The decision pleased pipeline project supporters like Senator Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and received criticism from environmental groups.
“The Mountain Valley Pipeline is a crucial piece of energy infrastructure that will help balance global supply and demand while strengthening our energy and national security,” stated Manchin, chairman of the Senate Energy Committee.
“The Forest Service has now reviewed and signed-off on this project three separate times, which should provide confidence for everyone, including the courts, that the review has been exceptionally thorough. While I’m pleased with the announcement from the Forest Service, the job isn’t done yet, and I will keep pushing the Administration and all involved to finally complete the last 20 miles of this vital pipeline.”
The $6.6 billion pipeline project first got authorization from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in 2017, but its completion has been delayed by regulatory hurdles and court challenges.
The Mountain Valley Pipeline is a proposed 303.5-mile interstate natural gas pipeline that would cross nine West Virginia counties to transport natural gas to East Coast markets. The pipeline’s developers have said they intend to bring the pipeline into service in the second half of 2023.
The developers have said the pipeline’s construction is near completion, but it has faced multiple legal challenges to its permits, such as authorization to construct in the Jefferson National Forest.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has twice knocked down earlier Forest Service approvals for the pipeline, in 2018 and then again last year.
Additional authorizations still need to come from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection.
The Forest Service decision includes a condition prohibiting pipeline construction activity in the Jefferson National Forest until the company “has obtained all Federal and State authorization outstanding for the entire project.” So, pipeline construction in the forest cannot immediately resume.
The U.S. Forest Service has regulatory say-so on a portion of the project that would cross about three and a half miles of the Jefferson National Forest in Monroe County, West Virginia, into Giles and Montgomery counties in Virginia.
The pipeline route crosses the Appalachian National Scenic Trail and the Brush Mountain Inventoried Roadless Area. As proposed, the construction phase of the pipeline will require using about 54 acres of the Jefferson National Forest and the operational phase will occupy about 22 acres of the national forest.
The latest decision by the U.S. Forest Service includes an updated environmental impact statement that includes newly listed protected species and other matters that were cited by appeals judges when the second permit was struck down last year.
The Natural Resources Defense Council called this week’s federal decision “an egregious example of handing over public lands for the private profit of a wealthy few.”
“This would allow construction on very steep slopes through a pristine forest, creating significant safety risks, not to mention the sedimentation, hydrology and wildlife impacts it is sure to bring,” stated Amy Mall, senior advocate with the nature program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.”
Appalachian Voices regional advocacy organization said the decision will result in harm to biodiversity and lands held in the public trust.
“The Forest Service’s preferred alternative to allow MVP to rip through the Jefferson National Forest grossly underestimates the lasting environmental harms from the project, ignores the overwhelming public opposition to sacrificing this treasured land and shirks the agency’s responsibility to steward forests,” stated Jessica Sims, Virginia field coordinator for Appalachian Voices.
“We maintain that the Mountain Valley Pipeline cannot be built through the Jefferson National Forest without lasting damage to sensitive forests, habitats and waters.”