More than two years into the arduous task of building a natural gas pipeline through West Virginia and Virginia, Mountain Valley Pipeline has won approval for an extension into North Carolina.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission authorized the company to build what it calls MVP Southgate, which would start at the 303-mile pipeline’s terminus in Pittsylvania County and run south for another 75 miles.
In an order posted to its website late Thursday, FERC dealt with some of the same issues — the project’s environmental impact and the question of whether there is a public need for more natural gas — that made the original pipeline so controversial when it was announced six years ago.
Several conservation groups were joined by the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality in arguing that Mountain Valley overstated the demand for the pipeline extension.
When existing pipelines, projects under construction, and those in the regulatory queue are considered as a whole, they said, there is actually a surplus of capacity in the part of North Carolina that Southgate will serve.
But in finding a “public convenience and necessity” for Southgate, FERC relied largely on a contract between Mountain Valley and Dominion Energy, which will receive about 80% of the pipeline’s gas for distribution to homes and businesses.
It is “well established” that such agreements are sufficient evidence of demand, FERC said in a 131-page decision.
“Given the substantial financial commitment required under these agreements by project shippers, we confirm that precedent agreements are the best evidence that the service to be provided by the project is needed in the markets to be served,” the document stated.
However, FERC ruled that work on Southgate cannot begin until Mountain Valley secures all of the permits it needs for its mainline system.
Construction of the 303-mile pipeline through West Virginia and Virginia is currently on hold while the permits, set aside by legal challenges from environmental groups, are reconsidered by federal agencies.
Before the project can be completed, Mountain Valley must regain authorizations to pass through the Jefferson National Forest, cross nearly 1,000 streams and wetlands, and build the pipeline in a way that does not harm endangered species.
Mountain Valley has said it hopes to begin work on the $468 million Southgate project this year.
The pipeline will create 1,700 jobs and more than $10 million in state and local tax revenue, Southgate spokesman Shawn Day said, while providing “the additional supply access needed to meet residential and business demand for affordable, clean-burning natural gas.”
Since construction began on Mountain Valley’s mainline in early 2018, there have been widespread environmental problems. Muddy runoff has clogged streams with harmful sediment, washed from cleared sites where the 42-inch diameter pipe has been buried in trenches along steep mountain slopes.
Recent reports from FERC have also documented numerous slips, in which unstable earth moves downhill, in West Virginia.
The Southgate extension will be smaller, with pipe diameters of 16 and 24 inches, and will traverse flatter terrain.
About half the project will be built along existing rights of way established for a different natural gas pipeline and a power transmission line.
Nonetheless, environmental concerns of a different type led one FERC commissioner to dissent in part from the approval.
Richard Glick wrote that more consideration should have been given to greenhouse gases caused by the burning of natural gas.
“The Commission once again refuses to consider the consequences its actions have for climate change,” Glick wrote.
“The refusal to assess the significance of the Project’s contribution to the harm caused by climate change is what allows the Commission to determine that the environmental impacts associated with the project are ‘acceptable,’ ” the dissent stated, “and, as a result, conclude the project is required by the public convenience and necessity.”
As part of the extension, Mountain Valley plans to build a compressor station near Chatham, which will be used to move gas at high pressure through the pipeline.
Opponents have expressed concerns about noise and air pollution from the unit. They also say that previous problems with construction of the mainline have not been addressed.
“FERC’s conclusion that approval of MVP Southgate would result in ‘less-than-significant’ adverse environmental impacts flies in the face of the reality of Mountain Valley’s performance to date,” Katie Whitehead of Pittsylvania County wrote in an email.