What sank the Atlantic Coast Pipeline? It wasn’t just environmentalism.

By: - July 8, 2020 2:42 pm

Protesters wave signs opposing pipeline construction at a rally earlier this year in support of a Green New Deal for Virginia. (Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

The news seemed to come out of nowhere.

On a hot Sunday afternoon, Union Hill pastor Paul M. Wilson was sitting on his porch eating seafood when he got a call that the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, the 600-mile natural gas conduit that he and thousands of others in Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina had been fighting for six years, was dead.

At first he couldn’t believe it. And he wasn’t alone in his skepticism — when Dave Sligh, a pipeline opponent in Charlottesville and conservation director of Wild Virginia, saw a Facebook post with the announcement, his first thought was, “That’s not fair, he shouldn’t be making jokes like this.”

But the calls kept coming.

“Within 15 minutes I got four or five other calls. Some people out of state called me,” said Wilson. “Then I knew it was real.”

It was, he said, “the best news I’ve heard in 47 years” — since his wife had agreed to marry him. 

In a year of turmoil, the news that Dominion Energy and Duke Energy had decided to pull the plug on the pipeline still managed to be a bombshell. The companies had poured billions into the effort, which was only about 6 percent complete. They had just won a victory at the U.S. Supreme Court, which had declared the pipeline could pass beneath the Appalachian Trail. And Dominion CEO, president and chairman Tom Farrell had been adamant over the prior months that the project not only was still viable, but would be done by 2022. 

So what happened?

Dominion attributed the pipeline’s demise to “ongoing delays and increasing cost uncertainty which threaten the economic viability of the project.” In particular, the utility pointed a finger at a string of legal challenges to federal and state permits the pipeline had received and then subsequently saw yanked. The delays had been extremely costly: since the initial $4.5 to $5 billion estimate, the price tag had risen to $8 billion. 

“To state the obvious, permitting for investment in gas transmission and storage has become increasingly litigious, uncertain and costly,” Farrell told investors on a Monday call. “This trend, though deeply concerning for our country’s economic growth and energy security, is a new reality.”

Dominion Energy CEO Tom Farrell at Richmond City Hall in 2019 for an announcement about the city’s plans to build a new coliseum, which he spearheaded. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

President Donald Trump’s administration, which had argued on behalf of Dominion before the Supreme Court in February, blamed what U.S. Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette on Sunday called “the well-funded, obstructionist environmental lobby,” an accusation picked up by industry groups like the U.S. Energy Association, which called out “environmental lobbyists with a myopic view and an ideology-driven agenda.”   

“Unfortunately, the economic promise of this project is no longer a reality for thousands of Americans in this region,” said Brouillette in a statement posted to Twitter. “Instead, Duke and Dominion have had to make the difficult decision to end this project because it is no longer economically viable due to the costly legal battles they would continue to face.”

Federal court rulings Monday that halted the Dakota Access pipeline’s operations and upheld a freeze on a key permit for the Keystone XL pipeline seemed to reinforce the view that Atlantic Coast’s demise was just one casualty of a nationwide assault on pipelines. In their wake, many analysts wondered whether natural gas pipelines can still be built in the U.S. at all. 

But seeing the ACP’s defeat merely as proof that natural gas pipeline projects are increasingly litigious and difficult to build “really ignores the fact that the problems with this project were self-inflicted,” said Southern Environmental Law Center attorney Greg Buppert, who has represented project opponents in numerous cases, including the Cowpasture case that went to the Supreme Court.

“There were always different choices that the company could have made. … Those are decisions that have consequences,” he said.

Greg Buppert of the Southern Environmental Law Center offers comments about a hearing on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. Feb. 24, 2020. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

What undid the pipeline in the final accounting may take years to untangle. But interviews with a dozen Virginia opponents of the project pointed to three main drivers of their victory and the developers’ defeat: a growing lack of faith in both Dominion and state government, an increasing recognition of environmental injustice and a legislative shift toward renewable energy that will allow Dominion to replace lucrative capital investments in natural gas with investments in wind, solar and storage. 

Together, the first two factors led to the forging of an unusually large and persistent grassroots movement that drew from not only different parts of the state, but different causes: clean energy, social and racial justice and property rights. Challenges to the pipeline would come from all three areas, ensnaring the project in the courts as the costs mounted. 

“Death by a thousand cuts — that’s what I think about it,” said Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, a pipeline opponent who has been the state’s strongest legislative advocate for a Virginia version of the Green New Deal. “There really wasn’t one finger on the scale that was heavier than the rest.” 

Delaying the pipeline until it became uneconomic wasn’t explicitly a strategy, said Lewis Freeman, a Highland County resident who became leader of an anti-ACP coalition called the Allegheny Blue-Ridge Alliance. 

“I would have objected had anyone suggested” writing it down, he said. But “at the same time, we were aware that slowing the process down slows the projects down.”

And the delays, said Wild Virginia’s Sligh, allowed opponents to better present the facts of the case as they saw them to the public. Others saw the years ticking by without energy disruptions as evidence that undermined the Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s contention that gas was urgently needed in the region. 

“It wasn’t just delay for delay’s sake. It was delay because it allowed the story to be told over and over and over,” Sligh said.

A loss of institutional faith

Love it or hate it, few would deny that the coalition of groups that fought the pipeline was a remarkable example of grassroots organizing. Over time, big-tent movements tend to splinter because of the differences among their members. And in many ways, the groups that joined together to fight the Atlantic Coast Pipeline were unusually diverse: from mountainous areas, cities and rolling farmland, Black and White, affluent and poor and across the political spectrum.

“You could ride through the countryside in some of these communities and see the ‘No Pipeline’ signs right next to Confederate flags sometimes, or sometimes next to a Trump sign, because the principles that were involved were across the map,” said Sligh. 

But the coalition didn’t disintegrate over the years. And the reason why, as conversations with opposition members revealed, was that many saw grassroots action as the course of last resort when institutions had failed them.

The Atlantic Coast proposal “was a flawed plan that really highlighted the inequities in a flawed regulatory system,” said Harrison Wallace, Virginia director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. 

From the beginning, there was widespread distrust of both Dominion’s plans and of the legitimacy of state and federal permitting reviews. The question of need was an early point of skepticism: the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission that certificates interstate pipelines requires only agreements with gas offtakers as proof of need — even if, as was the case with the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, those agreements are with affiliates of the same companies developing the project. 

And even if opponents accepted the utilities’ contention that the ACP was urgently needed infrastructure in a region of constrained supply, there were a range of other claims they didn’t trust: That the pipeline could be safely built along steep karst terrain and disturbed mountain ridges could be restored. That air quality would not be significantly affected by the construction of a compressor station in the overwhelmingly African American community of Union Hill in Buckingham County. That erosion and sedimentation wouldn’t damage water quality along the roughly 300 miles of Virginia and hundreds of waterways the pipeline would cross. 

A sign on State Route 663 near Union Hill Baptist Church in Buckingham , one of several in the area opposed to Dominion Energy’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline. (Robert Zullo/ Virginia Mercury).

State and federal agencies’ assurances that impacts would be minimal did nothing to diminish the opposition. On the contrary, they fueled many opponents’ belief that regulators were rubber-stamping a done deal, a view many traced back to the 2014 press conference announcing the project that saw then-Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe, appearing alongside Farrell, enthusiastically endorse the ACP.

“It was very hard for the public to see the state as a neutral arbiter,” said Buppert. “Gov. McAuliffe made the decision that the state was in favor of this project. And I think the public was rightfully skeptical of what that meant for agency reviews.”

So egregious did many opponents find agency action that public meetings themselves became a tool for winning Virginians to their cause. Wallace said that if his group wanted to increase people’s commitment to the pipeline fight, they took them to state Air Pollution Control and Water Control Board meetings. 

“Those are what agitated our campaign the most,” he said.

The State Air Pollution Control Board approved a contentious permit for a Dominion Energy compressor station, part of the company’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline in January 2019 over the objections of anti-pipeline demonstrators. (Mechelle Hankerson/ Virginia Mercury)

Sligh, a former Virginia environmental regulator, attributed some of the backlash to what he perceived as the Department of Environmental Quality’s “timidity.”

“Essentially their posture has been in so many circumstances, ‘Unless you can force us by going to court and beating us, then we’re not going to do it,’” he said. “They could have gone so much further in protecting water quality in these 401 (certification) cases than they did, and they just would not take the most protective stance that they have the power and the duty to do.”

As protests became legal challenges, with the opposition largely represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center and the Sierra Club, a series of judicial rulings seemed to bolster the anti-ACP coalition’s claims that the state and federal agencies had rushed to sign off on the project as judges repeatedly found that reviews had been inadequate and incomplete. At the time Dominion and Duke canceled the pipeline, eight necessary state and federal permits had been withdrawn. 

“If those permits had actually been issued in a way that met the law, the courts never would have overturned them,” said Tom Hadwin, a retired utility executive who fought the pipeline as part of ABRA.

Over time, said some opponents, cracks even began to appear among Dominion employees and contractors. In Buckingham, Wilson said some utility representatives privately told him they didn’t think the project was solid — conversations Freeman said he’d also heard from others had occurred elsewhere. 

“A lot of the people who were selling the project for Dominion, they weren’t on board,” said Wilson. “They knew.”

Pastor Paul Wilson, of Union Hill and Union Grove Baptist churches in Buckingham County, was among the most outspoken opponents of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which was proposing to build a compressor station in the county. ( 2018 file photo by Robert Zullo / Virginia Mercury).

Union Hill: an increasing recognition of environmental injustice

Nowhere along the pipeline’s proposed line became as big a flashpoint as Union Hill, the predominantly African American community in Buckingham County founded by freedpeople after the Civil War. There, Dominion proposed — and the state approved — the construction of a roughly 54,000-horsepower compressor station. 

“I think Union Hill is really the linchpin that did it,” said Karen Campblin, who as environmental and climate justice chair of the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP was extensively involved in Atlantic Coast opposition. “It was such a blatant environmental justice issue on every level: local, state and federal government, and it was alarming how we had all these government regulations and processes in place, and those even failed.”

Union Hill, to many opponents, became the latest example in a long history of siting polluting infrastructure in minority and economically disadvantaged communities, a trend that has been extensively documented across the U.S. 

If built, the Union Hill compressor station would have been one of three along the 600-mile line and the only one in the commonwealth. A demographic survey found the population living within 1.1 miles of the chosen site was 84 percent non-White, far above the roughly 31 percent of the statewide population minorities comprise. 

Opponents of a proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline compressor station in Buckingham County protested outside the General Assembly Building ahead of a State Air Pollution Control Board meeting. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury – Dec. 19, 2018)

Yet Dominion, and Virginia DEQ, refused even to recognize Union Hill as an environmental justice community until January 2020, when during oral arguments before the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond an attorney conceded the validity of the demographic survey’s results. 

The failure ultimately was one of the major factors that caused the 4th Circuit to yank the compressor station’s permit, sternly admonishing DEQ and the Air Pollution Control Board that “environmental justice is not merely a box to be checked” and calling their analysis “flawed.”

The conviction that, as Union Hill resident and pipeline opponent Ruby Laury put it, developers “were taking advantage of us as people of color,” brought allies flocking to the movement, particularly after civil rights leader Rev. William Barber and former U.S. vice president Al Gore took up the cause in winter 2019

Residents from the historically Black Union Hill community in Buckingham County were given front-row seats to see Rev. Dr. William Barber II and Al Gore speak at a rally against the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. (Mechelle Hankerson/ Virginia Mercury)

“You have like-minded folk who are willing to cross lines, so to speak, with other like-minded folk,” said Rev. Wilson of Buckingham. “I’m a traditional missionary Baptist preacher, pastor. Under normal circumstances, I would not have reached out to form a bond with the fine folk of Yogaville. … And not only Yogaville, but there were other alliances that we made, and we followed through.”

The Union Hill struggle also hit at a time when the public was becoming more attuned to and receptive of the idea that minority and poor communities have for years been disproportionately burdened by pollution. At the same time, high-profile police shootings of Black men across the U.S. were increasing racial tensions and heightening public awareness of systemic inequities — currents that have crested this summer following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. 

“America as a whole is actually waking up and coming out of a state of denial to see that there is a huge inequity toward the Black and Brown communities,” said Campblin. And Union Hill, she said, “was part of this whole systemic and discriminatory system that prevented the right education, the right information to be disseminated into these communities, but also to prevent representation at the table where these decisions are being made.”

In looking at the failure of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, Del. Rasoul warned against seeing the story merely as “a win for environmentalists or a win for the liberal left.”

“There is a collective that is frustrated and it is manifesting itself in different ways — protests in the street, grassroots coalitions rising up against these projects,” he said. “I think people are finding ways of voicing their frustration. And during this perfect storm of the Black Lives Matter movement and the failure of our response to the COVID crisis, people have had it with certain systems that are not being responsive to their needs.”

Renewables: A new pathway to profit

Even many opponents celebrating their victory in the wake of the pipeline cancellation were quick to note, however, that grassroots opposition was only part of the story. Corporate bottom lines were another. 

“The reality is that Dominion made a calculation that, especially with the passage of the Clean Economy Act, they could replace many of their profits from natural gas now with $12.5 billion in profits from the Clean Economy Act,” said Rasoul. 

The Democrat-driven Virginia Clean Economy Act that cleared the General Assembly this winter not only commits the state to transitioning its electric grid to 100 percent carbon free by 2050 but gives broad mandates to utilities, and particularly Dominion, to build out the enormous wind, solar and storage infrastructure that will be needed to meet that goal. 

A map of Dominion Energy’s Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind test project. (Dominion Energy)

That directive, said Hadwin, offered a way out for Dominion as it moved to divest itself of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline as well as most of its natural gas assets, which it announced it would sell to Berkshire Hathaway in a nearly $10 billion deal Sunday. 

“Without that guaranteed income stream, it would have been really hard for them to let go of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline,” said Hadwin. 

Talking to analysts on an investor call Monday morning, Dominion head Farrell made clear the promise the utility sees for shareholder profits in renewables. In response to a question about how the company plans to offset its lost capital spending opportunities — which come with lucrative returns — with its move away from natural gas, Farrell described renewables and grid protections as “a very large opportunity” for the company’s utilities in not only Virginia but North Carolina, South Carolina and other states. 

“That’s where we will be concentrating our capital investments over the next at least decade,” he said. “It’s tens and tens and tens and tens of billions of dollars over the next decade.” 

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists.