Federal agency halts Atlantic Coast Pipeline construction

By: - August 11, 2018 8:39 am

A sign outside of a Dominion Energy office building in downtown Richmond. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ordered a halt Friday night to Dominion Energy’s 600-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

The order came four days after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond vacated the pipeline’s authorization to drill under the Blue Ridge Parkway and gave a detailed explanation for its decision in May to strip a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service assessment of the project’s effect on threatened and endangered species.

The court found that the National Park Service failed to explain its decision to allow the pipeline to cross the parkway and how the project was not “inconsistent with and in derogation of the purposes of the parkway and the park system.”

The panel of judges ruled earlier that the “incidental take statement” that allowed the pipeline to kill or harm threatened and endangered species was too vague to be enforceable.

FERC issued a similar order on a Friday night a week ago after the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which will run from West Virginia into Pittsylvania County, lost authorization to cross U.S. Forest Service land, also at the hands of the 4th Circuit.

“There is no reason to believe that the NPS, as the land managing agency, will not be able to comply with the court’s instructions and to ultimately issue a new right-of-way grant that satisfies the court’s requirements, or that FWS will not be able to issue an incidental take statement that does likewise,” the FERC order says.  “However, commission staff cannot predict when NPS or FWS may act or whether NPS will ultimately approve the same route. Should NPS authorize an alternative crossing location, Atlantic may need to revise substantial portions of the ACP route across non-federal or federal lands, possibly requiring further authorizations and environmental review. Accordingly, allowing continued construction poses the risk of expending substantial resources and substantially disturbing the environment by constructing facilities that ultimately might have to be relocated or abandoned.”

Environmental groups who have fought the project tooth and nail, arguing that it’s really about the 14 percent rate of return FERC guarantees for Dominion and its partners in the more than $6 billion project than a genuine public need for new sources of natural gas, cheered the decision.

“FERC made the right decision to stop construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and protect public lands, rivers and streams, and private property from unnecessary harm,” said Southern Environmental Law Center attorney Greg Buppert. “With so many unknowns remaining about this project, now is the right time for the commission to grant rehearing and get to the bottom of Dominion’s over-blown and unsupported claims of public benefit.”

The environmental law group successfully argued two challenges to permits for the pipeline, which triggered the stop work order from FERC.

“Since this risky project was proposed in 2014, studies have revealed that natural gas demands in our region are nowhere near those claimed by Dominion and Duke and submitted to FERC as justification for the project,” the SELC said in a statement.

Dominion had argued in a letter to FERC that the National Park Service would “promptly reissue the permit.”

Company spokesman Aaron Ruby told the Richmond Times-Dispatch Friday that the company is “already working with the key agencies to resolve the issues in FERC’s order so we can resume construction as soon as possible.”

“We are confident these issues can be resolved quickly without causing unnecessary delay to the project,” he said.

The project has begun work already in West Virginia and North Carolina. It has cut trees along the proposed route in Virginia but has not received final authorization yet to begin construction here.

“I think Dominion, from the outset, has pursued this project arrogantly assuming it would get everything it wanted,” Buppert said in an interview this past week. “I think it put a lot of political pressure on these agencies to get these permits issued. … Dominion chose to put the ACP through one of the most undeveloped and rugged parts of Virginia and West Virginia, through two national forests and through a national park. And rushing those permits has had consequences and we’re seeing those consequences now come to light. We’re discovering now, that, not surprisingly, corners have been cut on these permits and they don’t meet the requirements at all.”

FERC’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline order

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Robert Zullo
Robert Zullo

Robert spent 13 years as a reporter and editor at weekly and daily newspapers and was previously editor of the Virginia Mercury. He was a staff writer and managing editor at Worrall Community Newspapers in Union, N.J., before spending five years in south Louisiana covering hurricanes, oil spills and Good Friday crawfish boils as a reporter and city editor for the The Courier and the Daily Comet newspapers in Houma and Thibodaux. He covered Richmond city hall for the Richmond Times-Dispatch from 2012 to 2013 and worked as a general assignment and city hall reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from 2013 to 2016. He returned to Richmond in 2016 to cover energy, environment and transportation for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Contact him at [email protected]