Can an unusual coalition budge Congress on pipeline reforms? 

By: - March 17, 2020 12:01 am

Opponents of the Mountain Valley Pipeline project led a tour of the denuded, muddy construction site in June 2019 at Four Corners Farm in Franklin County. (Mason Adams/ For the Virginia Mercury)

WASHINGTON — Property rights advocates and environmentalists are often foes when it comes to federal regulations.

But they’ve found some common ground in their shared desire to prod Congress and the courts to overhaul the federal permitting process for natural gas pipelines.

Property rights advocates contend that the current system enables industry to unfairly seize land for energy infrastructure projects, which have been criticized as speculative ventures increasingly connected to a need for new gas. Environmentalists are wary of the climate change implications of burning the natural gas slated to be carried through new pipelines.

“You’ve got new coalitions and you have really well-funded coalitions,” said Alexandra Klass, a University of Minnesota law professor who teaches about environmental and property law. She pointed to environmental organizations joining forces with libertarian groups to push for pipeline reforms.

The unusual coalition is eyeing reforms to the Natural Gas Act — a 1938 law that regulates interstate natural gas pipelines. The law — and criticisms about its implementation — have come under increased scrutiny amid the shale gas boom in the United States.

And Virginia, which is home to some of the most contentious pipeline plans, is at the center of the political and legal skirmishes.

The embattled Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley natural gas pipelines — massive projects slated to run through Virginia — have ignited a fierce national debate about whether the rapid expansion of pipelines will benefit or harm the public. And Virginia lawmakers, including Republicans concerned about threats to property rights, have signaled more willingness than many other GOP politicians to overhaul a permitting process that many say favors the natural gas industry.

Last month, House Democrats convened a hearing to investigate the state of the Natural Gas Act. Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) called the hearing “long overdue,” and suggested it was time for Congress to analyze everything from how pipelines are permitted to how much consumers are required to pay for natural gas.

“Of course,” Pallone added, “it is impossible to ignore the issue of pipelines, their placement and impact on climate change and landowners.”

Some Republicans on the panel touted the benefits of natural gas to the U.S. economy and warned that imposing further regulatory hurdles could threaten consumers’ access to natural gas and lead to more greenhouse gas emissions in states forced to rely on heating oil.

“As the United States continues to emerge as the world’s global energy superpower, we must also modernize our infrastructure – especially the vast network of pipelines that we rely on to move energy from where it is produced, to where it is consumed,” Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) said at the hearing.

But Virginia Republican Rep. Morgan Griffith, who represents Southwest Virginia’s 9th District, made it clear he’s interested in changing the process. He cited concerns from Irene Leech, an Elliston, Va., resident, who has warned that her family’s farm would be impacted by the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

“Reforms do need to happen,” Griffith said, criticizing the current process for failing to give property owners’ sufficient recourse. “Landowners’ rights have to be respected.”

Griffith introduced legislation that would require public meetings to be held in any county where a project would be located and would stress that eminent domain should only be used to take private property in cases where it would benefit the public — and would not merely advance private interests. Rep. Ben Cline (R-Botetourt) is his only co-sponsor.

Virginia Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine introduced similar legislation in the Senate last Congress with the backing of his fellow Virginia Democrat, Mark Warner. Kaine is expecting to reintroduce his version this Congress, said his spokeswoman, Katie Stuntz.

“Whenever you can bring Tim Kaine from his side of the political spectrum and Morgan Griffith from my side of the political spectrum together, you’ve done something,” Griffith joked at the hearing.

Rep. Denver Riggleman (R-Nelson) has also expressed interest in overhauling the Natural Gas Act to bolster property owners’ rights. He sent a letter to a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee last month ahead of its hearing on the Natural Gas Act encouraging his colleagues to find ways to reform the current permitting process.

He noted that the current process for notifying landowners about pipeline projects fails to “provide sufficient notice to landowners” and they often lose the right to intervene in the process, he said.

During his 2017 gubernatorial bid, Riggleman criticized Dominion over its proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline that would have crossed his 50-acre distillery property in Nelson County, then part of the route.

David Bookbinder, chief counsel for the libertarian think tank Niskanen Center, has been at the center of court fights to overhaul the Natural Gas Act.

He sees Griffith and Riggleman as important players in the congressional debate over reforms to the permitting process.

“We think that Congressmen Griffith and Riggleman are very interested in these issues, and Riggleman has had personal experience with the threat of a pipeline coming through his property,” Bookbinder said.

Virginia Democrats are interested in the issues too, Bookbinder said. In order to make legislative progress, he said, it’s “important that the traditional property rights advocates in the Republican Party step up and take the lead on this.”

But sweeping legislative compromise is hard to come by on Capitol Hill these days amid deep partisan divides. And finding common ground on contentious energy issues is no different.

Vermont Law School professor Pat Parenteau said that even narrow alignment on property rights won’t dramatically change the policies surrounding natural gas pipelines.

“You’ve got to make progress wherever you can,” he said. “But no, that isn’t going to result in some major realignment and some major new politics.”

He added, “I don’t see Congress moving in any positive way on much of anything.”

For the time being, Parenteau expects that the future of pipelines will be determined largely in the courts, which are taking a “whack-a-mole” approach to dealing with conflicts as they arise.

“Congress should be addressing not just the Natural Gas Act,” but “the whole energy policy frankly,” Parenteau said.

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Robin Bravender
Robin Bravender

Robin Bravender was the States Newsroom Washington Bureau Chief from January 2019 until June 2020. She coordinated the network’s national coverage and reported on states’ congressional delegations, federal agencies, the White House and the federal courts. Prior to that, Robin was an editor and reporter at E&E News, a reporter at Politico, and a freelance producer for Reuters TV.