Natural gas study stirs up controversy over Atlantic Coast Pipeline

Published: Sep. 12, 2016 at 1:16 PM EDT
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A new study of the Mid-Atlantic’s demand for natural gas is stirring up response from both sides of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline debate.

The Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), Appalachian Mountain Advocates, and the Allegheny-Blue Ridge Alliance say that a new study of the mid-Atlantic’s demand for natural gas reveals that two proposed and highly controversial interstate pipelines are not needed.


The study which the groups refer to is a report from Massachusetts-based Synapse Energy Economics, and it was released today in Nelson County, one of the areas the proposed pipeline would pass through.

SELC and Appalachian Mountain Advocates commissioned the study to "independently check utilities’ claims that these projects were needed to meet the region’s energy needs."

In response, Dominion points out that the study was paid for by two organizations which have been opposed to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline from the beginning.

Aaron Ruby, of Dominion, states that "They do not believe that natural gas has any role to play in generating electricity in our country. So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that they’ve paid for a report that says we don’t need new pipelines. Neither should it surprise anyone that they’ve use flawed assumptions and misleading data to reach their predetermined conclusion."


One of the primary conclusions the study reached is that existing pipelines can supply more than enough fuel to power the region through 2030.

The report’s authors studied the capacity of the existing network of pipelines and the region’s projected demand for energy. They concluded that, with some pipeline upgrades, “the supply capacity of the Virginia-Carolinas region’s existing natural gas infrastructure is more than sufficient to meet expected future peak demand.”

In the study, the researchers wrote: “Additional interstate natural gas pipelines, like the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley projects, are not needed to keep the lights on, homes and businesses heated, and existing and new industrial facilities in production.”

However, Dominion says this conclusion is "based on flawed assumptions, misleading data and a fundamental misunderstanding of how the natural gas pipeline system works."

"The fact is, demand for natural gas in Virginia and North Carolina is growing significantly – by 165 percent over the next 20 years," said Ruby. "Existing pipelines in the region are constrained and operating at full capacity. They are not capable of meeting that huge growth in demand. In Hampton Roads, Virginia, for example, natural gas service is already being curtailed for large industrial customers during high-demand periods because existing pipelines are so constrained. Utilities have looked at expanding that infrastructure for years, and it just isn’t feasible. That’s why we urgently need new infrastructure like the Atlantic Coast Pipeline."


According to Aaron Ruby, of Dominion, the "authors of the report use misleading information to falsely claim that there is available capacity on existing pipelines."

This is due to a statistical difference between average annual usage pf pipelines and peak usage. You can look at the numbers used by Synapse Energy Economics in the full study attached to this story.

"Pipelines aren’t designed to meet average annual demand; they’re designed to meet peak demand on the hottest summer days and coldest winter days," continued Ruby. "By analogy, highways aren’t designed to meet average annual usage; they’re designed to handle peak rush-hour traffic. So just because a pipeline or a highway have unused space averaged out over an entire year, doesn’t mean they’re not congested during peak use times – cold winter days for pipelines, or rush hour traffic for highways."


The Appalachian Mountain Advocates, however, argue that, based on this recent study, the pipeline project would unnecessarily allow companies to take private property for their own use.

“The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission cannot approve any pipeline project unless it is absolutely necessary,” said Joe Lovett, executive director of Appalachian Mountain Advocates. “And in cases like this, where the government allows for-profit companies to take private property -- family farms, people’s homes -- that protection is especially crucial. This report shows the pipelines are not needed, so there should be no eminent domain for private gain. To do so would violate the law and the private property traditions of Virginia."

The study concludes that the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the Mountain Valley Pipeline – projects opposed by many businesses and neighbors throughout our area – would be financially beneficial to utility companies and investors while burdening customers with higher bills to cover the cost of the unnecessary construction.

“The dilemma for communities up until now has been figuring out where these pipelines would be built,” said Greg Buppert, an SELC staff attorney. “But today we know they don’t need to be built at all. Despite what we have heard from the utilities, we will have plenty of power and heat without them.”

Dominion says these statements have "absolutely no credibility."

In North Carolina, there is currently only one pipeline serving the entire state, and it predominantly serves the western North Carolina.," said Ruby. "That leaves entire communities in eastern North Carolina with limited or no access to natural gas. Upgrading the existing system or using available capacity, as the authors of this report propose, won’t do anything to expand service in eastern North Carolina. That’s why you need the Atlantic Coast Pipeline – it will actually be located in eastern North Carolina where these communities are located."

"The reality is, the existing pipelines in our region are constrained and operating at full capacity during those peak demand periods. We need new infrastructure to alleviate those constraints," said Ruby. "That’s why we’re proposing the Atlantic Coast Pipeline."


The pipelines, if approved, would provide the mid-Atlantic with natural gas for 80 years, the lifetime of the pipelines. The SELC argues that that would lock the region in to dependence on natural gas.

“An investment of billions of dollars in natural gas will further discourage these utilities from moving towards renewable energy, like solar and wind power that could save their customers more money,” Buppert said.

The two proposed pipelines would transport fracked natural gas from wells in West Virginia to customers in Virginia and the Carolinas. The pipelines would transect natural and recreation areas, along with cities, towns and farms. A number of citizen groups and businesses in several states have formed to oppose the pipelines.


The report also raises the possibility of another utility-driven incentive to push for these projects:

"Because the supply of natural gas is abundant, utilities are exploring options to export the fuel overseas. That would require more capacity to move natural gas to the mid-Atlantic’s coastal ports. Therefore, 'pipeline developers … have an additional motivation to expand their ownership interests in natural gas supply infrastructure,' the researchers said."

The SELC believes that would ultimately only result in benefits for the utilities and investors, with just disruptions and loss of land use to those living along the construction route of the pipeline.

“To safeguard public interests, a determination of need for new pipeline infrastructure requires a detailed, integrated analysis of natural gas capacity and demand for the region as a whole,” the researchers wrote.


The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is evaluating the proposals.

Dominion maintains that the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is absolutely necessary to meet the growing demand for natural gas in Virginia and North Carolina.

The report, in full, can be found linked in the Related Links section of this page.