Commentary

Now isn’t the time to reduce environmental review of energy permits

September 9, 2022 12:02 am

A coal chute in Wise County, Va. (Sarah Vogelsong / Virginia Mercury)

By Chelsea Barnes

On August 22, Virginia Sen. Mark Warner (D) made a trip to Twin Valley High School in Whitewood, Virginia, where just weeks prior, the community was ravaged by flooding, with more than 100 homes destroyed.

During the meeting, residents described ruined homes and several areas still cut off from vehicle traffic because bridges and roads were wiped out. The damage is so extensive that it could be months before people in places such as Jewell Valley can be confident that an ambulance or fire truck will be able to reach them in an emergency.

People told the senator that the flooding did more damage because oil and gas companies built roads near their homes, throwing trees and vegetation into the surrounding creek beds that created impoundments. When the heavy rain came, flooding washed out these impoundments and picked up heavy amounts of debris, creating a torrent that smashed into homes and bridges, exacerbating the destruction.

Residents of this community — which has for so long been economically dependent on extractive industries such as oil, gas, coal and timber — talked to Warner and his staff about how the industries have completely changed the landscape, worsening the impacts of heavy rain and flooding. Oil and gas companies aren’t regulated enough, they said. Something needs to change.

I watched as Warner attempted to comfort these residents and discussed possible solutions. Perhaps oil and gas companies need more regulation regarding how the roads are constructed, or perhaps they need to pay a higher fee to pay into a disaster relief fund. The senator assured the community members that he would work to reduce the industries’ impacts to minimize the damage from flooding in the future. 

However, at the same time Warner is making these promises to communities, the U.S. Senate is considering a bill to change how energy companies are regulated — including what environmental review processes are necessary and how impacted communities can provide input. 

The exact text hasn’t been released, but the proposal by West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III (D) goes in the wrong direction — it reduces environmental oversight and community input. Warner must oppose the so-called “permitting reform” bill if he intends to keep his promise to those who are so badly affected by flooding. Now is not the time to attempt to green-light energy projects that will contribute to more flooding and more erosion — not when scientists tell us such flooding events will become more and more common. We must retain our environmental protection laws. 

This isn’t the only part of Southwest Virginia dealing with the negative impacts of a poorly regulated gas industry. The Mountain Valley Pipeline is a massive project, spanning 303 miles and cutting across steep slopes and fragile karst terrain. The pipeline developers are already responsible for more than 300 water quality violations in Virginia. The pipeline has hit roadblocks in court and is years behind schedule because it is a deeply flawed project that cannot meet existing environmental standards. 

These standards aren’t senseless bureaucratic hurdles that legislators can manipulate without real-world impact — these regulations are the best protection for nearby residents and our vital water resources, and Virginians are counting on Congress to keep these protections intact. Any bill that attempts to pave the way for the destructive MVP and weaken bedrock environmental protections is an insult to all Virginians. 

Some argue that we need permitting reform to speed up clean energy projects. While we must advance clean energy to tackle climate change and do our part to avert more record-breaking floods, a bill that decimates the Clean Water Act and National Environmental Policy Act is not the way to do it. A bill to truly expedite clean energy should be written explicitly for that goal, and passed on its own merits, not as part of a political ploy tied to other must-pass legislation. If he wants to keep his promises to residents, Warner must oppose Manchin’s “permitting reform” bill.

Chelsea Barnes is legislative director for nonprofit Appalachian Voices.

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