This is the second in a three-part series examining the impact of climate change on the Commonwealth. See the first part here.
The roadblocks preventing the construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) include 300-plus safety violations, protesters in trees, opposition from Democratic lawmakers, and a slew of lawsuits. Why is there so much opposition to the pipeline? To answer that, we first have to answer another question: What is the pipeline and why is it being built?
The MVP is a proposed 303 mile natural gas pipeline system that stretches from West Virginia, through the rugged mountains of Virginia, to the border of North Carolina. The pipeline being built by a group of companies, led by EQT Midstream Partners of Pittsburgh, and will be regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).
The project would transport an enormous amount of inexpensive natural gas from the Marcellus and Utica shale formations of West Virginia into the Commonwealth and around other markets on the East Coast. As heating and power utilities continue to move from coal to gas, the demand for gas will grow, opening a huge market for projects like the MVP.
The $4.6 billion pipeline is currently 70% complete, according to Mountain Valley. The company intends to have the pipeline operational by the fourth quarter of 2019, with the Southgate extension into North Carolina shortly after that.
The pipeline’s opponents have other plans, though.
Opposition to the pipeline
The Mountain Valley Pipeline has faced opposition ever since its initial application was filed with FERC in October of 2015 and hasn’t stopped since construction began.
Opponents of the pipeline have many concerns, including water contamination, fragmentation of forests, nature and endangered species protection, and greenhouse gas emissions.
Environmentalists worry the pipeline will prolong the area’s dependence on fossil fuels at a time when climate scientists have warned that the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions is crucial to stave off the most severe consequences of climate change.
There are a litany of other issues as well. The pipeline’s construction has been plagued by problems with erosion control and maintenance measures as well as mudslides. There have also been numerous instances of sediment-laden water flowing from construction zones into nearby streams or adjacent properties.
Despite these issues, FERC, has not issued a single “serious violation” notice, nor has the agency fined Mountain Valley.
Pipeline opponents say FERC’s lack of action and stonewalling of their concerns highlights a broken system that needs reform. FERC contracts out compliance inspections to Cardno Inc., a private company, and while Cardno’s monitors say they review construction and document compliance with the FERC Certificate, Mountain Valley pays for the program.
This conflict of interest is not lost on opponents, whose complaints about the issue have fallen on deaf ears.
FERC is not the only agency involved, however.
Over the first year of construction, Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality, along with its counterpart in West Virginia, have issued over 300 notices of violation, one for each time that the project’s developers failed to curb muddy runoff.
And yet construction of the pipeline has continued.
The DEQ, Virginia’s State Water Control Board, and Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring filed a lawsuit against Mountain Valley last December, arguing that the projected violated regulations “requiring the protection of streams and steep mountain terrain.” The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages and court-ordered compliance.
The DEQ’s lawsuit came after a collection of environmental groups, including Appalachian Voices and the Sierra Club, filed a lawsuit against FERC in January 2018, challenging the certificate of public convenience and necessity that FERC granted the project.
The D.C. Circuit Court ruled against these groups in February 2019, affirming FERC’s decision to grant a certificate of public convenience and necessity to the project.
The court ruled that it was reasonable for FERC to decide the pipeline was necessary because 100% of the natural gas it would supply had already been contracted out long-term. The court also ruled against the petitioners argument that FERC violated the National Environmental Policy Act by not adequately considering the climate change consequences of greenhouse gas emissions generated by the project.
Other attempts to stop construction
Environmental advocates and some Virginia legislators have also asked FERC and the DEQ to issue orders stopping construction, based on environmental damage being done to the six Southwest Virginia counties through which the pipeline passes: Giles, Craig, Montgomery, Roanoke, Franklin and Pittsylvania.
FERC did issue a stop-work order last summer over concerns that the pipeline’s route through the Jefferson National Forest could cause environmental damage, but lifted the order after a month, saying that leaving the pipeline partially complete would be even more destructive to the environment.
The DEQ also issued two short-term work stoppages last summer, though they were voluntary agreements with Mountain Valley to fix runoff problems.
On March 1, Virginia’s State Water Control Board voted against revoking permits for construction of the pipeline, after previously voting in December to begin the revocation process following the 300-plus violations by Mountain Valley.
Soon after, on March 18, Del. Chris Hurst (D-Blacksburg), wrote a letter to DEQ Director David Paylor requesting a stop-work order. Paylor responded a week later saying they couldn’t meet Hurst’s request.
DEQ officials say Mountain Valley has resolved the issues listed in the lawsuit and that even if problems existed, a stop-work order would be limited to where the problem occurred and not the entire pipeline.
While the pipeline has its fair share of opponents, it also has supporters, who are quick to highlight the 2,500 jobs that the pipeline provided last summer, and would likely provide again this summer once full-scale construction resumes. They also say that once the pipeline is up and running, it will attract new industries to the region.
Before the project can resume full-scale construction, Mountain Valley must once again obtain two permits struck down by the 4th Circuit last year, but the company expects to have both permits restored in time to complete the project by the end of 2019.
Opponents have not given up, however. The DEQ’s lawsuit is still pending and groups like the Sierra Club of Virginia and Virginia League of Conservation Voters continue to speak out against the pipeline.
Following the Water Control Board’s vote in March, Lee Francis, deputy director of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters, released a statement.
“The evidence is overwhelming that Mountain Valley Pipeline is a bad actor, that construction of this pipeline has hurt local waterways and our environment.”