State Corporation Commission Judge Mark Christie. (Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Despite complaints from citizens and some local and state leaders that constraints imposed by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic will chill public participation, the State Corporation Commission ruled Tuesday that it will go ahead with a webcast of a hearing scheduled for May 12 on a proposed expansion of Virginia Natural Gas’s pipeline infrastructure.

The decision strikes down a request by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Sierra Club and Chesapeake Climate Action Network to suspend the case’s procedural schedule. The SCC previously extended the public comment period two weeks, also until May 12.

“The commission has implemented reasonable and widely followed procedural accommodations in order to fulfill its statutory obligations in a manner consistent with the commonwealth’s existing social distancing protocols for the protection of the public and that are designed to protect the health of those who wish to offer public testimony,” Tuesday’s order says.

However, the ruling added, “if necessary, the commission will by subsequent order provide for additional public testimony after the conclusion of the evidentiary hearing.”

According to Ken Schrad, director of the SCC’s Division of Information Resources, the May 12 hearing will be webcast, with parties participating through a Skype meeting setup that can be watched and heard by the public in real time. Public witnesses who wish to make comments will be able to call a telephone number to provide their testimony. 

The case, which is known as the Header Improvement Project, has attracted wide public interest, much of it due to its connection to a proposal by private investors to build a large natural gas plant in Charles City County, known as C4GT, that will be supplied by the new infrastructure.

More than 700 comments on the case have been filed, both in favor of and in opposition to the project.

About 100 of the supportive comments come from employees of Kimley-Horn, an engineering and architecture firm retained by Virginia Natural Gas for the project’s siting and design work. Others, from local and regional chambers of commerce and similar groups, urge approval on economic development grounds.

“This additional capability will provide existing customers the confidence needed to continue to operate and expand in the commonwealth,” said one comment from the Peninsula Chamber of Commerce.

Opposition has centered on air quality concerns, the perceived incompatibility of the plan with the state’s policy shift away from fossil fuel energy sources to renewables and fears that residents of more rural areas such as Charles City County will be unable to fully participate in the May 12 hearing because of a lack of reliable Internet connection.

“Life is no longer functioning according to plan, and most days are primarily focused on safety and survival,” wrote state Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) and Del. Delores McQuinn (D-Richmond) in a letter asking regulators to suspend the procedural schedule until after Gov. Ralph Northam’s state emergency declaration expires June 10.

“Although virtual efforts to engage communities have been considered, we are concerned that our constituents, who do not have broadband access, will be unable to view a web broadcast or submit online comments,” they continued.

Virginia Natural Gas in a May 1 filing described itself as “sympathetic to the present circumstances created by the spread of” COVID-19 but argued the virtual accommodations proposed by the commission were “reasonable” and consistent with a recent proposal approved by the General Assembly that lets public bodies hold meetings electronically during a public emergency.

“Moreover, the commission has successfully availed itself of virtual hearing capabilities in multiple other proceedings with evidentiary hearings scheduled during the stay-at-home directive,” the utility wrote.

While the SCC sided with Virginia Natural Gas on scheduling, its brief order also highlighted a point of contention likely to be raised during evidentiary hearings: the purpose of the pipeline expansion project. 

Prior filings by VNG indicated that the primary impetus behind the expansion was the proposed development of C4GT. Later, however, in a filing that noted a “slight delay” requested by C4GT, Virginia Natural Gas argued that keeping to the original schedule was necessary to ensure “supply diversity” and fulfill commitments to other customers, among them Columbia Gas of Virginia and a natural gas subsidiary of Dominion Energy.

State Corporation Commission staff balked at the new testimony, which on April 28 they said “seems to imply that C4GT is no longer driving the need for the project.”

“It seems that depending on both the ultimate actions of C4GT and VNG’s chosen path forward, an entirely new application may be before the commission,” staff concluded in a filing quoted by the commission in its decision Tuesday.

Virginia Natural Gas has disputed that account, claiming “nothing has changed that would impact when the project needs to go into service.”