State Corporation Commission should pause process on natural gas project

April 24, 2020 1:45 pm
The State Corporation Commission

The State Corporation Commission regulates Virginia electric utilities. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

By the Stop the Abuse of Virginian Energy Coalition

The State Corporation Commission did the right thing when, weeks ago, it chose to officially suspend the disconnection of utility services in light of the pandemic. Now, it should do the next right thing by suspending the consideration of new fossil fuel infrastructure permits, at least until Virginians have a chance to address the immediate medical and economic crisis we face from COVID-19. 

Virginians should be particularly concerned about whether proposals like the massive $346 million Header Improvement Project (HIP) might be allowed to slip through Virginia’s already lenient regulatory process while we are coping with a pandemic. If the HIP is approved, Virginia Natural Gas ratepayers could potentially be on the hook for millions of dollars in infrastructure costs that primarily benefit investors in private merchant gas plants and lock in lasting damage to our environment. The SCC should pause the public process until Virginians have a handle on the burgeoning medical crisis.

In Virginia, ongoing public outrage has rightly been directed at the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley Pipelines. But the HIP project has gone largely under the radar — even though hundreds of thousands of Virginians in the central and Tidewater portions of the state would be affected by the pipeline and compressor station expansion project.

Even without a pandemic, the timeline for the SCC process was already shockingly fast: the project was submitted to the SCC in December, affected landowners were notified in February, public comment wraps up by April 28, and the public hearing remains scheduled for May 12 — despite citizen requests for delay. The project, proposed by Southern Company, which owns Virginia Natural Gas, has received limited attention from the press, despite its enormous impact. 

Opponents worry pandemic will have ‘chilling effect’ on participation in gas expansion hearings

If approved by the SCC, as appears likely, this pipeline expansion comes with three compressor stations and over 24 new miles of pipeline carrying combustible gas. The consequences would be felt from Prince William County in Northern Virginia through central Virginia and as far south as the City of Chesapeake, where the expansion of the Gidley Compressor Station would endanger a low-income, majority minority neighborhood with particulate emissions.

The HIP would supply gas to the unpopular C4GT merchant plant proposed for operation by the end of 2022. Notably, this merchant plant would be about a mile from another gas-fired merchant power plant that will be the largest in the state of Virginia, the Chickahominy Power Station. Together, these two plants, if built, will contribute over ten million tons of carbon emissions annually.

The Virginia SCC, which has rightly limited on-site staffing and shifted business online as much as possible in the face of the pandemic, should officially delay the timeline on the HIP in the face of this pandemic.

Residents in environmental frontline communities like Chesapeake and the Counties of Charles City, Prince William, New Kent, Hanover, Henrico and Caroline are trapped in their homes and worried about their food supply, income and basic health and safety in the face of this pandemic. Residents in the path of this project shouldn’t also have to fear the prospect of dangerous new pipelines, gas-fueled power plants, and compressor stations in their backyards at a time when they are already facing COVID-19. Certainly, they cannot safely attend the public hearing in May, or attend community events to learn about the project.

With an economy in chaos, this isn’t the time for the SCC to evaluate the public necessity of risky new projects intended to benefit private investors. Incredibly, in its April 14 SCC filing, Virginia Natural Gas reveals that the C4GT plant now requires a “slight” delay (details about what this means were redacted) “due to uncertainty in the gas supply and financial markets caused by the spread of the novel coronavirus.” Yet VNG suggests that the basics of the HIP project — presumably the aggressive SCC timetable as well — should mostly continue on as planned, unabated. 

An enormous fossil fuel infrastructure project like the HIP, which would have tragic, expensive and lasting public impact, deserves the full attention of Virginians, and that is not something anyone can give it right now.

Construction of C4GT, unsurprisingly delayed given the overall loss of market appeal for fracked gas and fossil fuels, was the primary justification for the HIP project and its aggressive timetable. Clearly, there is no urgency for the SCC to consider or approve the HIP.  Or to expect public comment on the case by April 28 or to hold a public hearing on May 12. Virginia elected officials and fellow citizens, please demand an immediate delay on SCC case PUR-2019-00207, the HIP.

It is regrettable that we even have to ask. 

Stop the Abuse of Virginian Energy Coalition is a newly formed statewide coalition of organizations and individuals fighting the Header Improvement Project. It includes Concerned Citizens of Charles City County (C5), Citizens Against Chickahominy River Pipeline, Virginia Pipeline Resisters, ARTivism Virginia, Friends of Buckingham, Chesapeake Pipeline Resistance, Chesapeake Climate Action Network, Virginia’s Poor People’s Campaign and Richmond Interfaith Climate Justice. 

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