The federal agency reviewing the controversial Mountain Valley Pipeline announced Friday that it plans to release the final environmental impact statement for the project in June.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission set the release for June 23, which would trigger a 90-day deadline for a decision by the commission about whether to authorize the $3.5 billion pipeline project. The deadline date specified by FERC is Sept. 21.
The release of the final environmental impact statement will represent a major step forward toward the possible approval of the 42-inch-diameter buried natural gas pipeline. FERC currently lacks a quorum to make pipeline decisions but that could change by September, as President Donald Trump could nominate as many as three new commissioners.
The 303-mile route of the Mountain Valley Pipeline would take it through 11 counties in West Virginia and six in Virginia: Giles, Montgomery, Craig, Roanoke, Franklin and Pittsylvania.
The proposed pipeline has received support from Gov. Terry McAuliffe and others who suggest it would boost economic development. But there also has been fierce resistance along the route of the pipeline. Opponents cite a host of concerns, ranging from the project’s inevitable environmental effects to fears about pipeline ruptures and anger that Mountain Valley Pipeline LLC would have access to federal eminent domain to acquire easements across private property.
FERC initially scheduled release of the final environmental impact statement for March 10, a target date the commission acknowledged in late January that it would miss.
A draft environmental statement was released Sept. 16. FERC reported Friday that comments about the draft led staff to seek additional information from Mountain Valley in January and March.
FERC’s announcement reported that its staff “only recently received information necessary for us to complete our environmental review.”
Mary O’Driscoll, a spokeswoman for FERC, said the commission considers “everything before it” before reaching a decision about whether to authorize a pipeline. That means people can submit comments to FERC about the final environmental impact statement after its release, she said.
Natalie Cox, a spokeswoman for Mountain Valley, said Friday that even though the release of the final statement was delayed, the company anticipates it could still bring the pipeline online by late 2018.
Meanwhile, pipeline opponents described the delayed release as a potentially positive development.
Laurie Ardison resides in Monroe County, West Virginia, one of the counties that would be on the pipeline route. She is active in Protect Our Water, Heritage, Rights, an anti-pipeline coalition.
Ardison said the delay is both appropriate and necessary because FERC has failed to adequately review the information that has been submitted by Mountain Valley Pipeline and others.
“What scientific research and reports have made clear is that MVP is attempting to construct a pipeline for which no need exists, through multiple areas of unbuildable terrain,” Ardison said.
There have been property owners along the pipeline route who have resisted, or attempted to resist, company demands for access to survey their property. Many have also declined to talk to Mountain Valley land agents, representatives who have been attempting to buy easements.
“Perhaps with this delay, landowners who continue to be ill-treated by MVP surveyors and landsmen will get the support and legal advice they seek and investors will recognize that this project is fatally flawed and profoundly opposed by thousands of citizens,” Ardison said.
Carolyn Reilly is a resident of Franklin County whose family farm is on a pipeline route. She is also an anti-pipeline organizer for Bold Alliance.
“Personally, as a landowner, I feel relieved to know that we don’t have to worry about Mountain Valley Pipeline bulldozing through our property this farming season,” Reilly said.
“Now is the time to strengthen and expand the mighty network of landowners to stop eminent domain for private gain and cultivate a rural political movement that honors the land we live on, protects our waters and promotes clean energy,” Reilly said in an email.
Roberta Bondurant, a resident of Roanoke County who has helped organize resistance to the project, said opponents should remain active.
“We encourage the public to continue to provide federal and state agencies, as well as FERC and our elected officials, with the factual and scientific data they may use to support FERC’s denial of [a certificate] on this project,” Bondurant said in an email.
Former FERC Chairman Norman Bay resigned from the commission earlier this year after Trump appointed fellow Commissioner Cheryl LaFleur to be chairwoman. Bay surprised some FERC observers with a parting statement that expressed support for the commission taking a comprehensive look at the need for the many pipeline projects slated to transport natural gas from the Marcellus and Utica shale formations in the Appalachian Basin — a big-picture view many pipeline opponents have advocated.
Bondurant encouraged FERC to heed Bay’s recommendations to conduct a programmatic environmental impact statement and to also assess the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the pipeline, the hydraulic fracturing extraction it might encourage and the consumption of natural gas.
“As former Chairman Bay stated, the public interest and good government require at least that much,” Bondurant said.