By: Michael Campbell, News Editor
Appeared In: August 23, 2017 edition
ALBERTA, Va. – A short drive due east of the community of Alberta, plans for a 600-underground natural gas pipeline continues to move forward and, as part of that process, a public hearing last week at Southside Virginia Community College drew people from across the Commonwealth to state their position on the project.
The meeting, which was previously scheduled to be hosted at Dinwiddie High School, was part of the process for the pipeline’s operators to receive additional certification conditions for “construction-related activities in upland areas that are located near state waters and that may indirectly affect state waters” along the ACP’s 300-plus mile route through Virginia.
While the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality has preliminarily decided to recommend issuing the Section 401 Certification with specific conditions tacked on, a trio of public meetings and a public comment period was opened to garner thoughts from the community ahead of the State Water Control Board’s meeting in November where a final decision will be made.
Last Monday’s stop in Alberta was the last of three public hearing before comments ended on August 22 following stops at James Madison and Longwood universities.
Inside SVCC’s gymnasium, representatives from Virginia DEQ took detailed notes of what the dozens of speakers who gave three-minute or under remarks on both sides of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline discussion had to say while others submitted written comments that will be combined and provided to state officials ahead of their decision on the permit issuance.
Some of those who spoke listed off their own knowledge of the proposed pipeline’s design and construction through research or their own involvement in the process and tried to ease the concerns of those who stand opposed to the multi-billion dollars pipeline’s impact on the environment.
“A job well done begins at the planning process,” one individual remarked. “Regulatory reviews and subsequent additions made to the original plan have fortified the design of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Through my research, I believe that these requirements not only meet the requirements but exceed them in ensuring environmental protection.”
For Charlottesville’s Dan Blume, who works for a company that has been hired to construct the pipeline and has worked in the pipeline construction industry for three decades, he said he has seen a noticeable shift in priorities during the planning and construction process for this kind of pipeline.
“I have seen a vast change in construction and it’s steeped in environmental protection,” he said in his statement. “Our focus now is two parts: safety and protection of the environment. We all go through rigorous training and we instruct workers involved to report issues when they see them,” adding that once work on such a pipeline is finished, crews work to restore the land back to its previous condition, such as restoring vegetation and stabilizing the route area.
In July, the ACP project received a positive nod from federal regulators who concluded that the pipeline could “be built safely and with minimal long-term impacts to the environment.”
In a statement, Dominion Energy’s Vice President of Engineering and Construction Leslie Hartz went on to say that officials with the pipeline have “taken unprecedented steps to protect environmental resources and minimize impacts on landowners,” touting the “more than 300” route adjustments to “avoid environmentally sensitive areas and protect important features of individual properties,”
Even as some wore stickers on their clothing that read “No Pipeline” almost as a loophole to the prohibition of signs inside the venue, others spoke to the pipeline’s impact on economic development and jobs in the Commonwealth in and around the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.
“I strongly support projects like the Atlantic Coast Pipeline,” Jarratt’s Alexis Jones told Virginia DEQ representatives last Tuesday. “I work with these regulations closely and there have been over 100,000 pages of information created on this project. This is critical to the growth of Virginia.”
That was a perspective shared by Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe several years ago as the Atlantic Coast Pipeline was still in its development phase, with McAuliffe telling the state’s joint money committees that this project was an important aspect of diversifying Virginia’s economic interests through his “New Virginia Economy” initiative.
“If we are going to build the new Virginia economy, we must invest in our workforce, in savvy economic development strategies, in education, and in infrastructure — including broadband, renewables, energy networks like the Atlantic Coast natural gas pipeline, and a diversified transportation grid,” he remarked.
Those comments in favor of the pipeline were echoed by the Crater Planning District Commission and their executive director Dennis Morris who opened up about the important role the natural gas pipeline would have on the region that includes Dinwiddie, Prince George, Chesterfield, Charles City, the Tri-Cities, Sussex, Surry, Greensville, and Emporia.
“The Atlantic Coast Pipeline will provide a much needed dependable supply of natural gas for electric utilities in our region that are looking to use natural gas as a cleaner option to generate electricity and meet the ever increasing energy demands,” Morris said in prepared remarked to Virginia DEQ representatives.
Outside the meeting, Morris opened up about the conversation the Crater Planning District Commission has had with businesses regarding the proposed pipeline and their thoughts on it moving through the western reaches of the district.
“And we know throughout the Crater District, there are many businesses, corporations, and manufacturers who are really looking forward to having natural gas available in the quantities that they need it,” he said. “We also feel, in working with the ACP team, that they have taken mitigation measure to realign the pipeline based on comments that local landowners and others have made.”
Moore added that the conversation at the table with Crater Planning’s member localities have been generally positive and the commission’s interactions with Dominion Energy, one of the four stakeholders in the planning, construction, and operation of the pipeline have been helpful and informative.
“They echo to us at the commission that the policy leaders in those jurisdictions and elected officials that are around the table with Crater feel very confident that it is going to be a big plus in all the community,” he continued. “Dominion [Energy] was very accommodating. They have answered all of our questions. When we have asked for information, they have provided that. Within the Crater District, they have been upfront, above board, and answered any questions we had going forward.”
While there was a mix of support and opposition inside the gymnasium, outside, a number of groups set up shop to make their position against the Atlantic Coast Pipeline known with buttons, stickers, and posters artfully displaying their opposition to the estimated $5.1 billion pipeline.
Representatives from the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club were joined by the Friends of Nelson County and Wild Virginia at last week’s public hearing, each with their own position on why the Atlantic Coast Pipeline isn’t an advantageous solution to the Mid-Atlantic’s energy needs.
Speaking on behalf of the Sierra Club, Conservation Program Manager Zachary Jarjoura broke down the many aspects of the environmental organization’s opposition to the ACP.
“There are issues of landowner and property rights as significant amounts of the pipeline will go on people’s property through eminent domain so that is one issue,” he said, adding that “a lot of the gas that will travel through the line is fracked gas, which is an extremely energy intensive but also environmentally damaging practice for extracting fossil fuels.”
According to Dominion Energy, “Most of the natural gas produced in the United States for the last several decades has been produced [through] hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
“Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” has been reviewed by county, state, and federal regulatory agencies and is a regulated activity,” the company said in a frequently asked question document, adding that the previous presidential administration and the Environmental Protection Agency “[believes] that modern drilling techniques have provided new sources of energy that will result in cleaner air” and reduce America’s dependence on foreign energy sources.
Jarjoura said the construction of the pipeline will only further extend the nation’s reliance on fossils fuels for decades to come.
“Building fossil fuel infrastructure like fracked gas pipelines locks us into using fossil fuels for 20, 30, 40 years and we know we have got to transition away from fossil fuels,” he said. “Not snapping our fingers and stopping tomorrow, but building energy-efficient infrastructure that needs to be clean, not things like pipelines.”
Many supporters of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, including those in attendance for Monday’s public hearing, pointed to the economic benefit touted in the project’s literature regarding jobs. According to Dominion Energy, the ACP will “support 17,240 jobs during construction” of the 600-mile pipeline through West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina, and provide “2,200 operation jobs.”
“There is a tremendous public need in this area and this project will bring jobs to the Brunswick area and help attract industry to our area,” Brunswick Chamber of Commerce President Linda Branson told Virginia DEQ representatives in their group’s public support of the project.
When asked about those estimated job numbers, Jarjoura and the Sierra Club do not believe the project will produce the job influx being suggested by the energy company.
“Supporters of the pipeline say that is this line is going to create jobs, that has been proven to not be true,” he said. “The number of jobs that this is going to create is not in the thousands or the hundreds, but in the double digits. This is truly a for-profit pipeline,” Jarjoura added, referring to the four companies involved in the pipeline’s construction and operations, Dominion Energy, Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas, and Southern Company Gas, and those companies already having energy subsidiaries in the states where this pipeline is proposed to be built.
According to Dominion, the pipeline will be developed, built, and operated by Atlantic, a company formed by the four regionally based energy companies.
Additionally, the Sierra Club is skeptical of Dominion’s assertions and a recent report from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC that construction and operation of the pipeline would have “minimal long-term impacts” to the environment.
“The analysis is faulty,” Jarjoura said. “There is a revolving door between the fossil fuels industry and the commissioners at FERC and they are basically a rubber stamp for pipelines.”
He added that FERC has approved all but one interstate pipeline that has come through the commission over the past 30 years, a comment corroborated by a 2016 lawsuit filed against FERC in 2016 that alleges the commission “has approved 100 percent of the pipeline projects that it has voted on,” with the lawsuit going on to say that the approvals “demonstrate actual bias.”
According to a report from The Oregonian, later that same year, FERC denied plans to build a natural gas export terminal and a feeder pipeline in the state, with the newspaper reporting that regulators stand by their decision and said there are no plans to reconsider the denial.
That project estimated to cost approximately $7.6 billion, according to The Oregonian.
Jarjoura believes there just isn’t enough information for FERC or Virginia DEQ to make a fair analysis of the pipeline.
“We don’t have enough information to make a real determination that the environmental impacts are going to be minimal,” he said. “That is also the standard company line, that the impacts will be minimal and just trust us.”
In a statement following FERC’s report, Dominion Energy’s Hartz said while “some impacts on the environment and landowners are unavoidable with any infrastructure project,” she and Dominion believes that the commission’s report, “demonstrates that we’ve taken all necessary steps to minimize those impacts and balance them with the urgent public need for the project.”
As the project continues through a slew of regulatory checkpoints on both a state and federal level, Sierra Club and others who are opposed to the pipeline’s construction said they are not going to go silent should the ACP be formally approved.
“We will continue to put pressure on our elected officials to do the right thing,” Jarjoura said. “There are legal strategies that organizations like the Sierra Club will likely employ and there are other groups who have plans for civil disobedience and actually try to physically stop these pipelines from being built.”
If approved by regulators, officials expect the pipeline to begin serving customers in early 2019.