Delays, legal challenges allowed the curtain to be pulled back on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline

July 6, 2020 12:59 am

Richard Walker and other opponents of a proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline compressor station in Buckingham County protested at a State Air Pollution Control Board meeting in December, 2018, by standing and turning their backs during a Department of Environmental Quality presentation. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury – Dec. 19, 2018)

They might as well have said “Ding-dong, the witch is dead!”

The news releases, statements and tweets were coming in hot and heavy Sunday afternoon after Dominion Energy and its partner, Duke Energy, announced that the 600-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline was toast, undone by a string of successful legal challenges that stripped it of permits, spiraling costs from years of delays and, as result of those lags, scarce evidence that anyone actually needed the gas the project was supposed to deliver.

That last point, which was to be the subject of a federal court case that had resumed after the U.S. Supreme Court handed the pipeline a win last month, was one that was apt to get lost in the debates about affordable electricity, climate change, hydraulic fracturing, eminent domain and environmental degradation that raged around the project since it was unveiled in 2014.

Yet, even within hours of its demise, no less a personage than the United States secretary of energy was already writing the martyred pipeline’s hagiography, blaming activists for killing a project that would have “lowered energy costs for consumers in North Carolina and Virginia.”

This is, of course, as I’ve written before and as all the available evidence suggests, pretty much the exact opposite of what would have happened for those consumers in North Carolina and Virginia if this pipeline had actually been built. The project always appears to have been really about saddling captive ratepayers with gas capacity they didn’t need to benefit utility shareholders.

However, when I first started covering the pipeline project four years ago, more or less by newsroom accident at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, I was actually skeptical of many of the arguments against the project.

I knew next to nothing about the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, utility regulation or the handsome rate of return such pipeline projects were guaranteed to deliver to investors. I assumed it would be difficult for a consortium of energy companies to use the extraordinary power of eminent domain to grab land from people absent a compelling public need argument.

Or, as I may have actually said at one point back then: “They wouldn’t be building a pipeline if no one actually needed the gas, right?”

I had a lot to learn.

I had yet to delve into Dominion’s arguments about “supply diversity” and polar vortexes. I had yet to talk to scientists like David Sligh and Rick Webb and walk the steep, karst terrain and mountain streams the pipeline contended it could cross without ruining them or risking rupture.

I had yet to meet people like Pastor Paul Wilson and John and Ruby Laury, who didn’t want to live with the massive compressor station Dominion planed to erect in the middle of their historic, bucolic and rural community of Union Hill, where the project became divisive  as the influential energy giant dangled millions of dollars in community enhancements in exchange for tacit support.

I had yet to talk to people like Bill Limpert, whose ancient trees in the retirement home he and his wife had built in Bath County would have been torn down and who, like Irene Leech in Buckingham County, worried about living in the “blast zone” of infrastructure that can fail catastrophically.

I had yet to watch Dominion, with the assistance of the Northam administration, bend the state’s air and water boards, regulatory bodies with authority over the pipeline, to its will.

Over the past four years, I’ve spent many hours talking to lots of people and written thousands of words about the pipeline. No one, in my opinion, distilled the grift at the core of the project as well as Theresa “Red” Terry, known for her weeks-long tree-sit on her own land to protest the separate Mountain Valley Pipeline.

“Dominion is buying their own gas so they can have permission to rape our property,” she told the State Water Control Board. “I would love to look at anyone else and say ‘I would love to make money. I’m taking it from you.'”

Not unlike the great and powerful Oz, when the curtain surrounding the project was finally pulled away, there wasn’t much to see behind it except a hustle.

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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]