Council on Environmental Justice asks Northam to institute fossil fuel infrastructure ban

By: - April 16, 2021 12:02 am
Potomac River Generating Station/Mirant power plant

Coal stacks at the now-closed Potomac River Generating Station in Alexandria, Va. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

The Virginia Council on Environmental Justice is asking Gov. Ralph Northam to issue a moratorium on all new fossil fuel projects and permits in the state.

In an April 7 letter signed by 12 members of the 21-person advisory body, the council argues that a ban is necessary “to avoid future devastation” and calls on Northam “to fulfill your climate and environmental justice commitments.” 

“When we move rapidly and boldly from fossil fuels to clean affordable energy sources, we will transform our economy to be more just and sustainable,” council members wrote. “Widespread adoption of renewable energies will create new jobs, establish cleaner infrastructure, and ensure a healthier future for all.” 

Exactly whether Northam has the legal authority to issue such a moratorium is unclear. Michael Kelly, chief of staff for Attorney General Mark Herring, said in an email that “the specific question of authority is legal advice that we would only be able to provide to a state government client.”

However, he wrote, “Attorney General Herring is extremely skeptical of the environmental and economic wisdom of significant new fossil fuel infrastructure at a time when we need to be investing in cleaner energy to address climate change and create jobs.”

The council’s request comes as Mountain Valley Pipeline, the beleaguered 303-mile conduit intended to carry large quantities of natural gas from the Marcellus and Utica shale fields into Virginia and beyond, faces fresh challenges in obtaining necessary permits from Virginia. 

Because MVP currently lacks required stream-crossing and water protection permits, it would also be subject to the moratorium requested by the Virginia Council on Environmental Justice, said council member Tom Benevento. 

“The more of these fossil fuel infrastructures we put in, the more we’ll be dependent on them,” said Benevento, a social ecologist and community organizer with the New Community Project in Harrisonburg. “Because that’s a 40-year infrastructure system, and we need to shift quickly.” 

Northam’s office did not respond to requests for comment on the letter. 

The relationship between the administration and the council has often been marked by tensions, particularly surrounding Mountain Valley and the now-canceled Atlantic Coast Pipeline. 

In August 2018, the council — which was first created by then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe by executive order a year prior — sent a letter to Northam recommending the creation of an emergency task force to examine “evidence of disproportionate impacts for people of color and for low-income populations due to gas infrastructure expansion.” More immediately, the body asked that the state halt all further permits for the two pipelines. 

None of those recommendations were adopted by Northam’s administration. The administration subsequently reconstituted the council, a move it defended as legally required under state code but was criticized by some environmental justice advocates.

Since then, Dominion Energy and Duke Energy have canceled the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, citing ballooning costs and lengthening timelines. One of the largest hurdles that project faced was the loss of a Virginia air permit for a natural gas compressor station planned to be built in the Union Hill area of Buckingham County, which was founded by freedpeople in the wake of the Civil War and remains majority Black. 

In January 2020, the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the permit largely on the grounds that the state had failed to adequately consider environmental justice concerns in its decision-making. “Environmental justice is not merely a box to be checked,” the court admonished Virginia officials. 

Benevento drew a distinction between the 2018 letter and the request this month, noting that while the council’s earlier ask had focused largely on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Union Hill, “this one is a larger bird’s eye view.” 

Despite Virginia’s increasing emphasis on climate change and carbon reductions, however, Mountain Valley Pipeline has stubbornly remained alive, weathering intense public opposition in Virginia, numerous environmental violations leading to a $2.15 million fine by the state and the loss of multiple permits. 

But while the pipeline’s developers have said they still expect the project to enter service in late 2021, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality last month notified the Army Corps of Engineers that it would likely be unable to issue a required water protection permit until early 2022 and asked for an extension beyond the Corps’ July 4 deadline. 

At a State Water Control Board meeting Wednesday, DEQ Director David Paylor said the department would put “plenty of pressure” on the Army Corps to grant that extension.

“July 4th is a practical impossibility,” said Paylor.

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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.