Northam’s new ‘Conservation Cabinet’ aims to coordinate environmental protection across state agencies but probably won’t tackle pipelines

By: - October 5, 2018 6:01 am

Workers had begun laying portions of the Mountain Valley Pipeline in Roanoke County near the Blue Ridge Parkway. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury – July 26,2018)

Gov. Ralph Northam announced the creation of a “Governor’s Conservation Cabinet” Thursday intended to better protect the state’s natural resources and improve environmental quality.

But there’s one thing that the group likely won’t deal with: the two major pipeline projects that have become the most contentious environmental issues in Virginia.

“I think that we have a process in place already to deal with the pipeline(s),” Secretary of Natural Resources Matthew Strickler said in an interview. He’ll chair the new cabinet.

“I don’t foresee that being a topic of conversation, but if folks bring it up, they bring it up.”

The cabinet hasn’t met yet so it’s not clear what the exact scope of its work will be, Strickler said. The group does plan to meet before the end of the year.

Several state secretaries will serve on the new board, which will meet quarterly. In addition to Strickler, Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry Bettina Ring will be a member, along with Secretary of Commerce and Trade Brian Ball; Secretary of Finance Aubrey Layne and Secretary of Transportation Shannon Valentine.

“Building conservation goals and strong environmental protections into economic development, transportation and other government initiatives will help us create a stronger and more sustainable economy and improve our quality of life,” Strickler said in a news release issued by the governor’s office.

The team will coordinate across departments to make sure state-sponsored or permitted activities don’t harm the environment, Northam said in a statement. They’ll also evaluate how development, energy use, infrastructure and transportation systems affect the land, air and water.

“Protecting and conserving our commonwealth’s natural heritage is a key component for economic growth and making Virginia a better place to live, work, and visit,” Northam wrote.

Virginia’s secretaries of education and health and human resources will serve as ex-officio members of the Cabinet, Northam’s office said.

They’ll weigh in on issues like environmental justice, adverse effects of climate change, environmental science education opportunities and making sure Virginia’s students have “meaningful outdoor experiences,” the executive order establishing the cabinet said.

“Working in partnership across secretariats will further our efforts to preserve our natural resources and uphold the highest environmental standards that will continue to make the commonwealth a great place to live and do business,” Ball said.

Pipeline opponents have urged Northam’s administration, thus far unsuccessfully, to take a firmer hand on state permitting for the projects, which is nearly finished.

Court decisions have vacated key federal approvals for both EQT’s Mountain Valley Pipeline, which runs from West Virginia into southern Virginia and Dominion Energy’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which carves through the center of Virginia on its way from West Virginia to North Carolina.

So far though, the state’s water quality certifications for the projects, which have come under fire by environmental groups and landowners, have held up in court and survived an effort by some State Water Control Board members to revoke them.

The Mountain Valley Pipeline has begun construction in Virginia, already triggering violation notices from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, while the Atlantic Coast Pipeline still lacks some state approvals, including an air permit for a massive compressor station it wants to build in an African-American enclave in rural Buckingham County.

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Mechelle Hankerson
Mechelle Hankerson

Mechelle, born and raised in Virginia Beach, is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in mass communications and a concentration in print journalism. She covered the General Assembly for the university’s Capital News Service and was among 12 student journalists in swing states selected by the Washington Post to cover the 2012 presidential election. For the past five years, she has covered local government, crime, housing, infrastructure and other issues at the Raleigh News & Observer and The Virginian-Pilot, where she most recently covered the state’s biggest city, Virginia Beach. Mechelle was with the Virginia Mercury until January 3rd, 2019.