Despite rosy projections, all is not well with the Mountain Valley Pipeline

September 2, 2020 12:01 am

A portion of the Mountain Valley Pipeline construction site in Franklin County in 2018 (Roberta Kellam)

Following the cancellation of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, the developers of the Mountain Valley Pipeline have not been shy about talking up their own project in the Appalachian region. However, behind the rosy pronouncements of late, all is far from well with the MVP.

In early August, Reuters reported that MVP “still expects to complete the $5.4 billion Mountain Valley natural gas pipeline…in early 2021.” Taken at face value, it might appear the project is on track, but in an article from June 2018 The Roanoke Times noted that MVP is “still aiming to have the $3.7 billion project in operation by the end of the year.”

Now, MVP has requested the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission grant an extension of its construction timeline until Oct. 13, 2022.

The reality is that MVP is over two years behind schedule and $2 billion over budget. Given federal permit suspensions, a nearly year-long — and counting — project-wide Stop Work order, ongoing legal challenges and ballooning financial woes, MVP cannot forecast when, or if, the project will be finished.

This uncertainty is reinforced by recent developments in the MVP Southgate project, which would extend the MVP from Virginia into North Carolina. 

On Aug. 11, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality denied the project’s 401 Water Quality Certification application, partly due to “uncertainty surrounding the completion of the MVP Mainline project.” This evaluation of the MVP stands in stark contrast to the developers’ insistence that they remain “confident in the ultimate completion of this important infrastructure project.” 

In an attempt to will the pipeline into existence, MVP for months has been repeating the misleading claim that the stalled project is “roughly 92% complete.”

In reality, only 236 miles of pipe – 78 percent of the pipeline’s total length – have been welded and buried. After including restoration of the pipeline right-of-way, only 51 percent of the pipeline’s total length is fully “complete.” Furthermore, the remaining construction is also some of the most technically challenging: under and across hundreds of streams, and up and down the notoriously steep slopes of Southwest Virginia.

If MVP was hoping its generous project completion estimate would lend the pipeline an air of inevitability, it has not convinced those contracted to build the pipeline. One construction company recently sued MVP for $103.8 million, due to withheld payments and related hardships. The real kicker, however, is that the same company is demanding MVP sell the pipeline at auction to raise money to settle its debts.

In spite of numerous problems — or perhaps because of them — the pipeline developers insist they “look forward to MVP’s safe, successful start-up.” Safe and successful are bold claims for a project facing unprecedented levels of operational risks.

Based on a comprehensive review of gas transmission pipelines approved by FERC from 1997 to present, it is obvious the 42-inch diameter, 303-mile long MVP is a radically different breed of pipeline. Examination of the environmental impact statements for large-diameter gas pipelines over 100 miles long reveals that no other 42-inch diameter gas pipeline has ever been approved across more miles of steep slopes and high landslide risk areas; disturbingly, neither has a 36-inch, nor a 30-inch, nor even a 24-inch diameter gas pipeline. 

Shockingly, MVP routed the pipeline across 75 miles of steep slopes (i.e., slopes over 30 percent grade) and 203 miles of high landslide susceptibility and incidence areas, far surpassing even the now-cancelled ACP, which was twice as long as the MVP.

These risks are not speculative; the MVP has been plagued by soil erosion and landslides during construction. 

On Aug. 8, 2019, MVP made an emergency request to FERC to address a landslide that “progressed to the point where a residence directly downslope is unsafe to be occupied.” Even more troubling, in April of this year environmental inspectors observed that “slips” had resulted in a situation where “the installed pipe shifted due to the movement of the slips in at least three locations.” Since 2018, landslides have caused at least five gas pipeline explosions in central Appalachia.

While MVP is eager to spin the cancellation of the ACP into a self-serving selling point, its public statements must be taken with a $5.4 billion mountain of salt. Regulatory agencies and private contractors are unconvinced of the project’s viability, and MVP’s own communications with FERC belie a project that is sliding farther off the rails. Financial analysts now give the project a negative outlook, and one of MVP’s own investors may withdraw.

MVP’s completion is more uncertain than ever.

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Jacob Hileman
Jacob Hileman

Jacob Hileman is an environmental hydrologist with a doctorate from the University of California, Davis. He was raised in the Catawba Valley of Virginia, and is presently a researcher with the Centre of Natural Hazards and Disaster Science at Uppsala University.