Regulators release environmental assessment of pipeline

Published: Jul. 21, 2017 at 11:11 AM EDT
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The Atlantic Coast Pipeline intended to carry natural gas across West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina would have some adverse environmental effects, including impacts on water resources, forest and other habitats, but most could be reduced to insignificant levels, an assessment by federal regulators found.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which oversees interstate natural gas pipelines, released its final environmental impact statement Friday for the proposed 600-mile (965-kilometer) pipeline, which has broad support from political and business leaders but is staunchly opposed by environmentalists and many affected landowners.

The assessment found that the pipeline would also impact some endangered species in its path. But it concluded that if developers use proper construction and mitigation techniques, most of environmental impacts could be reduced to "less-than-significant" levels.

The leading company behind the $5 billion project called the assessment "favorable" and said it paved the way for final approval later this year.

"While some impacts on the environment and landowners are unavoidable with any infrastructure project, the report demonstrates that we've taken all necessary steps to minimize those impacts and balance them with the urgent public need for the project," Leslie Hartz, Dominion Energy's vice president for engineering and construction, said in a statement.

Environmental groups have argued that FERC's process for approving pipelines is broken and doesn't adequately evaluate the true need for additional infrastructure.

"FERC still hasn't addressed the most basic question hanging over this project: Is it even needed?" Southern Environmental Law Center Senior Attorney Greg Buppert said in a statement. "It's FERCs responsibility to determine if this pipeline is a public necessity before it allows developers to take private property, clear forests, and carve up mountainsides. Mounting evidence shows that it is not."

The agency's commissioners will weigh the environmental impact statement as well as whether the project meets a public need and whether its proposed gas rates are just and reasonable in making that decision, according to FERC spokeswoman Tamara Young-Allen.

Ordinarily, a final decision can come any time after a pipeline's final environmental impact statement is complete, but the five-member panel currently lacks a quorum, with only one commissioner currently serving.

President Donald Trump has announced four nominees, who still must be approved by the Senate.

Initially proposed in 2014, the underground pipeline would originate in north-central West Virginia, cross Virginia's Shenandoah Valley and run south of the Virginia capital of Richmond to a compressor station near the North Carolina border. An extension would run to the Hampton Roads area along the coast while the main pipeline would continue into North Carolina, ending near the South Carolina line.

Pipeline proponents — including union leaders, economic development officials and top lawmakers of both parties in all three states — have said it would deliver cheap and abundant energy that is cleaner than coal.

Developers also promised construction alone would create will create 17,000 new jobs and $2.7 billion in economic activity across the region, and once the pipeline is operational, they say the reliable supply of natural gas will attract heavy manufacturers that have previously passed over Virginia and North Carolina.

Opponents, however, said the pipeline would infringe on landowners' property rights, damage pristine areas and commit the region to a fossil fuel just when global warming makes it essential to invest in renewable energy instead. They also argue the demand for gas has been overstated and the capacity of existing infrastructure has been underestimated.

The pipeline is being developed by four energy companies: Richmond-based Dominion Energy, Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas, and Southern Company Gas.

Dominion's statement on the Final Environmental Statement for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline
“The favorable environmental report released today provides a clear path for final approval of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline this fall. The report concludes that the project can be built safely and with minimal long-term impacts to the environment. The report also reinforces previous findings by the FERC and decades of research demonstrating that natural gas pipelines do not adversely impact tourist economies or residential property values. With this report, the region moves one step closer toward a stronger economy, a more secure energy supply and a cleaner environment. This report is the culmination of one of the most thorough and exhaustive environmental reviews that has ever been performed for a project of this scope. The report is based on nearly three years of painstaking study by more than a dozen federal agencies, as well as extensive engagement with communities along the proposed route. Drawing on more than 150,000 pages of regulatory filings and more than 75,000 public comments, FERC’s report comprehensively addresses all of the environmental and safety issues that have been raised. By any measure, this has been a rigorous and transparent process. It has provided extensive opportunities for public review and participation, and it has left no stone unturned. As the report demonstrates, over the last three years we’ve taken unprecedented steps to protect environmental resources and minimize impacts on landowners. We’ve made more than 300 route adjustments to avoid environmentally sensitive areas and protect important features of individual properties. We’ve adjusted the route to avoid wetlands, public and private drinking water sources, wildlife habitats, sensitive karst terrain, and many other environmental resources. In many areas of the project, we’ve adopted some of the most protective construction methods that have ever been used by the industry. While some impacts on the environment and landowners are unavoidable with any infrastructure project, the report demonstrates that we’ve taken all necessary steps to minimize those impacts and balance them with the urgent public need for the project. The Atlantic Coast Pipeline is essential to the economic vitality, environmental health and energy security of our region. It will result in more economic opportunity, a cleaner environment, and lower energy bills for consumers and businesses. The project is urgently needed by public utilities in Virginia and North Carolina to generate cleaner electricity, heat homes and power local businesses. Public utilities in our region are depending on this project to meet the growing energy needs of the millions of customers they serve. With today’s favorable report, we are confident we will receive final approval this fall and bring these important economic and environmental benefits to our region.”