A string of recent court decisions has left the future uncertain for a sprawling natural gas pipeline project cutting its way across some Chesapeake Bay states.
Judges have reversed three federal permits that would have allowed the Atlantic Coast Pipeline to cross national parks and trails or to impact endangered species, halting construction while Dominion Energy, the project’s backer, regroups to appeal.
Despite strong local opposition along the project’s 600-mile path — which winds its way from West Virginia through Virginia to North Carolina — the Atlantic Coast Pipeline had been gathering steam over the last three years while garnering the federal and state permits necessary to begin construction in Virginia.
Dominion officials contend that the pipeline is essential to meet growing energy demands along the East Coast and to replace coal-fueled power generation with natural gas.
The project is one of several pipelines planned or under construction to carry natural gas across portions of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The gas is extracted from underground shale formations using a controversial technique called hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” and pipeline construction often entails disrupting wetlands, crossing streams, removing trees and exposing bare soil, sometimes on steep slopes.
Environmental groups say the $7 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline, the largest project of its kind in the region, poses an unnecessary threat to natural resources and cost to ratepayers. They also argue that the hurried permit process that preceded it cannot now stand up in court.
“The big picture here is that the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is in trouble,” said Greg Buppert, a lawyer with the Southern Environmental Law Center representing environmental organizations in several of the lawsuits. Now, the company “doesn’t have multiple required permits to proceed with this project.”
This spring, SELC attorneys and others will go for the project’s metaphorical jugular by challenging its baseline permit from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which set it into motion four years ago. They will argue that FERC’s singular requirement — that the project must have a signed contract with future natural gas recipients — does not go far enough. That’s because, in this case, subsidiaries of Dominion Energy are both building the pipeline and claiming demand for it as future customers. Because FERC has guaranteed a 15-percent return on investment for building the pipeline project, advocates say the company makes a profit from the process regardless of whether the infrastructure is actually needed.
Will Cleveland, another SELC attorney, said that Dominion has justified the need to supply East Coast customers by “wildly overpredicting demand.”