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Editorial: Two questions about the pending pipeline decision

Editorial: Two questions about the pending pipeline decision

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The federal agency that governs interstate natural gas pipelines is scheduled to release its final environmental impact statement on the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline on Friday.

No one should be surprised by what it has to say.

Friday’s document will set the clock ticking for a 90-day period, during which other federal agencies are supposed to decide whether to issue permits. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission will surely give the go-ahead. We can be certain of this because FERC has rarely turned down pipeline projects — and that’s when it was dominated by Democratic appointees.

The commission currently lacks a quorum, but the Senate is expected to confirm President Trump’s nominees before it recesses for the July 4th holiday. Given Trump’s views on fossil fuels, there is no reason to believe that FERC will come to any different conclusion. Agencies such as the Forest Service could complicate things. However, does anyone really expect a federal agency under the Trump administration to block a pipeline?

Likewise, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality must issue certain permits. However, DEQ has opted against performing a stringent review, leaving that to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Some see the dark hand of Dominion Energy at work because Dominion also needs permits for the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline, and Gov. Terry McAuliffe has enthusiastically supported both pipelines.

Pipeline opponents had hoped that Democrats would nominate Tom Perriello for governor, and that he would go on to be elected. Perriello had run as a strident opponent of both pipelines. Instead, Perriello lost to Ralph Northam. Even if Perriello had won, though, the permits likely will have been issued before he would have even taken office.

This is the essential frustration for pipeline opponents: The whole system for pipelines is basically rigged against them. That system is so impervious to political pressure that none of our federal officeholders — neither Democrats nor Republicans — could persuade FERC to do something so simple as hold more public hearings.

On the one hand, it’s good that what is supposed to be a technical decision won’t be politicized. That was always the problem with Perriello’s position; he essentially said he was willing to politicize DEQ’s decision-making. On the other hand, maybe it is already, if you believe the conspiracy theories about McAuliffe and Dominion.

The position that Northam has taken on pipelines is technically correct: Let DEQ do its work without gubernatorial interference, but this is mostly a federal decision, so what’s the point of declaring support or opposition? He just didn’t get any credit for that with either side.

In any case, it’s still worth asking two big questions:

  • Why does FERC so adamantly refuse to look at the broader context of pipelines? Pipeline companies get to decide their own routes. FERC does not look at their desirability. Here — with the Mountain Valley and Atlantic Coast lines — we have a curious situation. Both start in essentially the same place, in northwest West Virginia, and travel in basically the same direction, east. The Mountain Valley line would end near Chatham in Pittsylvania County. The Atlantic Coast line continues on to Hampton Roads and into North Carolina. The point is, they could take the same route. They don’t. Pipeline opponents don’t want either line; they object to both the ugly scar across the landscape and the fact that the pipelines will lock in fossil fuels for decades. However, if we’re going to have both lines, do we need both routes? Could these two pipelines not share the same route?

FERC looked at this in the draft environmental studies for both projects. The commission found a single route had fewer environmental impacts, but then dismissed the idea as unworkable. The reasons it gave deserve more inquiry. First, the commission cited some topographical problems in certain parts of West Virginia where “there is insufficient space” to locate two pipelines side-by-side, regardless of whether the MVP route or Atlantic Coast route were used. It’s hard to argue against topography. It’s also hard to believe there couldn’t be a way to work around those problematic ridgelines. If there were a single route, maybe there could still be a few places where the two pipelines diverge?

However, FERC went on to say “the implementation of this alternative would require significant planning and design, which would significantly delay the delivery of gas to Atlantic’s customers.” Since FERC doesn’t say more, it’s hard to know more. How “significant” would the additional planning and design for a single route be? And how “significantly” would the delay be for customers?

A big-picture question here: We’re talking about a generational decision here. How long would any delay be in the context of a project that would cut across the landscape for decades? What are a few years compared to 40 or more? You don’t have to be a pipeline opponent to want to be sure this is a decision we won’t regret for years to come. Did FERC too hastily dismiss a question that deserves more conversation?

  • Why isn’t the coal industry joining with environmentalists to oppose natural gas pipelines? It’s not federal regulations that are putting coal miners out of work. It’s the free market. It’s natural gas. Natural gas is a lot cheaper and, thanks to the exploitation of the Marcellus and Utica shale formations, quite plentiful. That’s why utilities such as Dominion are retiring coal plants, and switching to natural gas (and renewables). It’s why Celanese in Giles County retired its coal-fired boilers and switched to natural gas instead. It’s why lots of others are doing the same. Coal is never coming back, but its decline wouldn’t be as steep if natural gas cost more or if it were harder to obtain.

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice recently asked the new president of Appalachian to build new coal plants. Appalachian said no — it intends to burn less coal, not more. Why isn’t Justice leading the charge against natural gas? He’s trying to have it both ways, by supporting both fossil fuel industries. In reality, though, the natural gas being piped out of the ground in northern West Virginia is putting coal miners in southern West Virginia (and lots of other places) out of business.

We don’t know how pipeline opponents can stop these pipelines. But if coal companies told President Trump that to really bring back coal, he needs to put a halt to natural gas pipelines. That would sure be interesting.

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