Commentary

Chickahominy Pipeline: Should we trust them? 

December 16, 2021 12:03 am

The planned site of the now-canceled Chickahominy Power Station, a proposed natural gas power plant, in Charles City County. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

By Karen Gill

The developers promoting Chickahominy Pipeline are asking central Virginians to allow them to build an 83-mile gas pipeline to feed a merchant gas plant, permitted for Charles City County.

As they work to convince landowners to allow initial surveying and eventual construction of a high pressure pipeline for transmission of natural gas, the company has unveiled a new website that touts Chickahominy Pipeline’s “integrity” and “responsibility,” and commits to “respecting the land and all persons.” Unfortunately, this developer has not demonstrated integrity or responsibility, and residents would be wise to post no trespassing signs and to refuse signing anything related to this pipeline without legal representation.

Chickahominy Pipeline is actively fueling fears about the use of eminent domain and threat to landowner rights. If the State Corporation Commission grants a petition requested by Chickahominy Pipeline, the company would not be able to access eminent domain powers.  In a PDF document they posted and then removed from their website, entitled “Landowner FAQ,” however, the company raised the specter of forcible “condemnation” as “a last resort.” That document added more confusion to an already confusing situation. Titled “Landowner FAQs for the Chickahominy Pipeline Project,” it referred throughout to Encompass Services without any explanation of how Encompass is affiliated with Chickahominy. Moreover, its discussion of eminent domain referenced the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which oversees interstate gas facilities. As an intrastate gas facility, FERC would not regulate the Chickahominy Pipeline project.

Either Chickahominy doesn’t understand the regulatory landscape or it does understand the landscape and continues to sow confusion nonetheless. Either way, the results are worrisome. Chickahominy has put pressure on landowners by showing up at their homes and businesses, requesting signatures.  They claim, in a letter to landowners, “We want you to want this project.” Why would anyone “want” a 24-inch high pressure gas pipeline to cut through their land?

Chickahominy Pipeline’s legitimacy is questionable.  In early October, the company embarrassed itself by forgetting to attend a scheduled Louisa Board of Supervisors meeting, and then sending a contractor who was unprepared for the rescheduled presentation. The poor preparation led Louisa Supervisor Duane Adams to remark, “I’ve sat on this board for four years and that is the worst presentation I’ve seen in my life.” The company did such a terrible job of communicating with county governments that county officials spoke openly with the press about their misgivings about this company, and company officials have acknowledged, in a letter to landowners, “We could have done a better job communicating with stakeholders ahead of launching our initiative.” If Chickahominy Pipeline botches simple PR matters, why should residents have confidence that they can handle construction, operation and maintenance of a high pressure gas pipeline, with its inherent safety and environmental issues?

The developer behind this project has not been transparent. Residents of Charles City County can attest that this developer used secrecy and division to push through an unpopular project. The Pipeline’s purpose would be to feed Chickahominy Power, an unpopular merchant gas plant permitted since June 2019. Despite being the largest proposed gas plant in the state of Virginia, developers managed to rush permits through the regulatory process without authentic community engagement. Residents have formed Concerned Citizens of Charles City County, a grassroots group that continues to oppose the company for dismissing citizen concerns. Chickahominy has applied for an unusual exemption to regular SCC oversight, petitioning to bypass the Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity. While the hearing examiner recommended that this petition be denied, the SCC still hasn’t made a final decision.

State should have oversight over proposed Chickahominy Pipeline, regulator says

The pipeline and the power plant are foolish investments. The developer argues that central Virginians need another power project to fuel Virginia’s growing economy, and it suggests that this facility would ultimately replace other, outdated fossil fuel facilities. Virginia, as part of the PJM power grid, has no need for more energy; instead, energy analysts describe a power glut. Virginia is moving away from gas power, in part because of climate concerns, but also because gas is increasingly expensive compared to cheaper renewables.

The Virginia Clean Economy Act requires Dominion Energy to switch away from fossil fuels altogether by 2045, and in an effort to suggest that this enormously expensive project would have a reasonable shelf life, developers claim the facility will rapidly transition from gas to hydrogen as a fuel source. That claim is essentially fantasy —at this point, the company is making promises that existing technology cannot deliver. Even if the technology to shift to hydrogen emerges, creating hydrogen for energy generation has been found to be just as environmentally harmful as natural gas.

And for central Virginians living next door to the pipeline or gas plant, the switch to a highly flammable and explosive fuel isn’t comforting, it’s terrifying. Chickahominy Power received a permit for a natural gas facility; presumably new permits would be required if they were to change something so fundamental as their fuel source. Now that Virginians have seen all the reasons to oppose this project, it’s unlikely to slip through the DEQ review with the bare whisper of comment it managed back in 2019.

In sum, Chickahominy Pipeline is a bad idea, and we can’t let it endanger residents of Henrico, Hanover, Charles City, New Kent, and Louisa. Central Virginians, we’ve got better, safer, and more reliable ways to fuel our economy. Let’s invest in energy projects that actually “respect the land and all persons.”

Karen Gill lives in Henrico. 

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Views of guest columnists are their own. To submit an op-ed for consideration, contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong at [email protected]

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