Federal climate deal could force completion of Mountain Valley Pipeline

Most work remaining on controversial project is in Southwest Virginia

By: - August 2, 2022 6:48 pm

A coalition of Virginia environmental groups, led by Green New Deal Virginia, call for a declaration of climate emergency and protest the Mountain Valley Pipeline in Richmond Aug. 2, 2022. (Sarah Vogelsong / Virginia Mercury)

A deal between Democratic congressional leadership and West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III over sweeping federal climate legislation could force the completion of Mountain Valley Pipeline, according to a one-page summary of the agreement’s provisions obtained by The Washington Post. 

The final item on the summary reads: “Complete the Mountain Valley Pipeline.”

Since the surprise 11th-hour deal between Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and the Democratic Manchin resurrected President Joe Biden’s climate change agenda last week, Virginia environmental groups and many landowners in the state’s southwestern region have been waiting uneasily to learn the agreement’s terms. 

Numerous national news outlets reported that Manchin’s support was linked to promises by Democratic leaders to pass separate legislation smoothing the fraught federal permitting process for fossil fuel pipelines such as Mountain Valley, a 303-mile-long conduit planned to carry gas from the Marcellus shale fields of West Virginia into Virginia. 

Mountain Valley Pipeline’s planned path.

The summary released Monday, which a Manchin spokesperson confirmed Tuesday reflects the provisions the senator is seeking, offers the clearest look yet at what those promises are. 

For Mountain Valley, the asks are twofold: First, require federal agencies “to take all necessary actions to permit the construction and operation” of the pipeline. Second, transfer jurisdiction over legal cases concerning the pipeline from the Richmond-based 4th Circuit Court of Appeals to the D.C. Circuit. 

Lee Williams, director of Green New Deal Virginia and advocacy chair of the Richmond-area Falls of the James chapter of the Sierra Club, reacted to the proposal with dismay. 

Environmental groups “want everything” that’s in the federal climate bill known as the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, she said. “We’ve been asking for it for the last decade. Unfortunately, to get Sen. Manchin to vote for it, they literally threw Southwest Virginia under the bus.” 

Exactly what Democratic leaders promised Manchin, however, remains unclear. Despite the one-page summary that has been released, Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine (D) said during a Tuesday teleconference that “there is no connection between voting on the Inflation Reduction Act and then having to vote for the Mountain Valley Pipeline or a permitting bill.” 

“The deal was (that) in exchange for getting an agreement on the Inflation Reduction Act, we will have the opportunity to debate and vote on permitting improvements, but no one’s made commitments about how they’re going to vote, and I’m certainly not going to make a commitment until I see what that bill is,” he said. 

Valeria Rivadeneira, a spokesperson for Virginia Sen. Mark Warner (D), said the senator would review the proposal “once the full legislative text is made available.” 

Originally expected to be completed by 2018, Mountain Valley Pipeline has been hampered by staunch opposition in both Virginia and West Virginia, hundreds of environmental violations and a string of successful legal challenges in the 4th Circuit that have repeatedly stripped the project of necessary federal permits. Construction has proved especially halting along a Southwest Virginia corridor that crosses through part of the Jefferson National Forest in Giles, Craig and Montgomery counties. 

This summer, with few immediate breakthroughs evident, the developers sought permission from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which has authority over pipeline construction, to extend its deadline another four years

With delays and costs mounting, investors have become increasingly skeptical that the pipeline will ever be completed. In a February filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, project investor NextEra Energy wrote that “continued legal and regulatory challenges have resulted in a very low probability of pipeline completion.” 

The deal with Manchin could change all that. 

Amid news of the agreement, shares in lead pipeline developer Equitrans Midstream soared to a three-month high Tuesday. 

“MVP is being recognized as a critical infrastructure project that is essential for our nation’s energy security, energy reliability, and ability to effectively transition to a lower-carbon future,” Equitrans spokesperson Natalie Cox wrote in an email. 

More than 300,000 miles of natural gas pipelines exist in the U.S., she noted in a lengthy statement. “None of these existing pipelines have undergone the extensive level of environmental research, analysis and review that has been performed on the MVP project.” 

The reforms to the federal energy permitting process outlined in the summary document, which would include timelines for permitting reviews and a statute of limitations for court challenges, leave Virginia environmental groups in a tight spot. Organizations that last week hailed the sudden reappearance of federal climate action are now left scrambling to decide whether they can swallow a deal that includes Mountain Valley Pipeline, a project many have spent years opposing. 

“We’re not going to sit by and roll over and let Southwest Virginia be a sacrifice zone,” Williams told the Mercury Tuesday after leading a demonstration in downtown Richmond calling on Biden to declare a climate emergency, one of many organized by activists nationwide. “But we don’t want to blow up the deal. It’s a fine line.” 

We don't want to blow up the deal. It's a fine line.

– Lee Williams

Some groups have already come out in opposition. 

We firmly oppose any approach by Congress that sacrifices frontline communities as part of a political bargain,” said Jessica Sims, Virginia field coordinator for environmental and economic development nonprofit Appalachian Voices, in a statement. The group’s North Carolina field coordinator, Ridge Graham, called any legislation requiring completion of Mountain Valley “unacceptable.” 

But others were reluctant to speak on the record, indicating they are still sorting out their stances in a rapidly evolving situation. 

Regardless of the Manchin deal, Kaine on Tuesday emphasized the need for reforms to federal pipeline permitting, saying he thought FERC’s initial review of Mountain Valley had been “shoddy.” 

“I view many of the controversies that are connected with the Mountain Valley Pipeline as having been sort of stoked by an inadequate federal permitting process through FERC,” he said, citing “in particular the unwillingness or inability of FERC to get information out to the public and appropriately take public comment and then take that into account in terms of deciding (a) whether a pipeline was necessary and (b) whether the proposed route was the right route.” 

A Kaine spokesperson later said the senator believes improving permitting “is preferable to having members of Congress decide outcomes on individual energy infrastructure projects.” 

Both Kaine and Warner, as well as Virginia Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, have previously proposed federal legislation to change the federal review process for proposals and clarify when eminent domain can be exercised. Those bills were crafted in response to not only Mountain Valley Pipeline but the Dominion Energy and Duke Energy-backed Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which would have stretched from West Virginia to North Carolina via Virginia but was canceled in July 2020.

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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. She is a graduate of the College of William and Mary. Contact her at [email protected]

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