Commentary

A 303-mile hole in claim new gas pipelines are critical to energy security

June 22, 2021 12:01 am

Workers began laying portions of the Mountain Valley Pipeline in Roanoke County near the Blue Ridge Parkway. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury – July 26,2018)

After the recent cyberattack on the Colonial Pipeline, fossil fuel industry advocates have redoubled their efforts to frame the completion of other U.S. pipeline projects as a critical energy security issue.

However, there is a 42-inch wide, 303-mile long gaping hole in this line of argumentation: the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP).

Originally slated to be completed in 2018, the MVP is now $2.5 billion over budget and nearly four years behind schedule. New state and federal policies only undercut the project’s already nonexistent need.

While MVP has predictably blamed delays and ballooning costs on project opponents, the uncomfortable truth that MVP would rather avoid spotlighting is that the project’s ongoing collapse is entirely self-inflicted. 

Perhaps the largest thorn in MVP’s side at present is its inability to cross approximately half of the 1,000+ streams and wetlands along the pipeline’s route.

In October 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit suspended the Nationwide Permit (NWP) 12 issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which MVP was relying on to cross all waterbodies in its path.

After two long years, in September 2020, the Corps reissued NWP 12 to MVP. Yet almost immediately, the Fourth Circuit Court issued a stay of the permit pending further review.

The judge in the case highlighted a statement from the President and Chief Operating Officer of Equitrans Midstream that, upon reissuance of NWP 12, MVP would seek to cross waterbodies “as quickly as possible before anything is challenged”.

Had these eight words not been uttered during an otherwise routine quarterly earnings call, it is entirely possible MVP might have retained NWP 12 while the court reconsidered the permit.

However, MVP could have easily avoided this situation from the get-go if, as opponents have long suggested, it had originally sought individual stream crossing permits from regulators in Virginia and West Virginia. Indeed, MVP is now having to do just that.

Had MVP elected to pursue individual permits from state regulators back in 2017, it would have had the permits in hand the following year. Instead, MVP is now staring down another full year of delays, as regulators in Virginia recently stated they will likely be unable to complete review of MVP’s individual stream permit application until the spring of 2022.

In deciding to undertake pipeline construction in upland areas while it awaits the outcome of this new permit process, MVP has committed yet another unforced error. 

MVP previously disclosed that the project is incurring additional costs of $20 million per month in order to maintain temporary sediment and erosion control devices. Not only are these costs likely to increase given MVP’s recent decision to proceed with construction in the notoriously steep mountains of Southwest Virginia, but MVP will now be forking out even larger sums of money for an even longer period of time as it weathers new – albeit entirely predictable – permitting delays and construction challenges.

Had MVP chosen to forego construction until receiving all its permits – a long-standing policy the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission alarmingly declined to enforce – the company would easily have saved hundreds of millions of dollars. Perhaps even a cool $2.5 billion. 

These cost increases – likely to be revised upwards given MVP has blown through every single one of its estimated completion dates – call into serious question whether there will even be a market for the exceptionally expensive gas MVP would ship.

Furthermore, if the MVP is indeed “critical infrastructure,” why did the project developers route the pipeline across 70+ miles of steep slopes and 200+ miles of high landslide risk terrain, greatly increasing its odds of rupturing? Many other gas pipelines have already been built through the mountains of West Virginia and Virginia, and all found ways to cross far fewer high-risk areas than the MVP.

Because no other major gas pipeline has ever attempted to cross such unforgiving terrain, there is no assurance that the MVP will ever be able to deliver the gas that proponents of the project believe is so vital to U.S. energy security.

Ironically, if MVP had done just the bare minimum to placate project opponents, the pipeline would very likely have been completed years ago. Instead, a combination of hubris and contempt for any and all perceived opposition – including constructive criticism – has all but destroyed any chance of the project’s success.

Anyone who genuinely believes that the MVP is a piece of critical infrastructure needed to enhance U.S. energy security should be far more upset at MVP than even its staunchest opponents.

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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.

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