Virginia senators again push for pipeline review reforms

Cows graze along the path of the Mountain Valley Pipeline in near the Blue Ridge Parkway in Roanoke County. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury - July 26,2018)

Virginia’s Democratic Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine are again proposing reforms to the federal pipeline review process in response to public complaints surrounding the now-cancelled Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the still active Mountain Valley Pipeline through Virginia. 

Legislation put forward by the senators intends “to strengthen the public’s ability to evaluate the impacts of natural gas pipelines being considered by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission” and “make it easier for the public to offer input and clarify the circumstances under which eminent domain should and should not be used,” a joint statement from Warner and Kaine said. 

Several of the suggestions — such as requiring an overall environmental impact evaluation to be done if two pipelines are proposed to be built within a year and 100 miles of each other and mandating that public comment meetings be held in every locality through which a pipeline crosses — also appeared in an earlier version of the legislation that was put forward in 2017 by Warner and Kaine in the Senate and Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, in the House. That legislation was never voted on. 

Griffith subsequently introduced another version of the law in January 2019. 

The legislation put forward Thursday may have a smoother road even in the GOP-controlled Senate, however, given changing attitudes toward natural gas pipelines. A Kaine spokesperson told the Mercury the senators believe “the added provisions in response to recent developments over pipeline litigation will make the bill even more attractive to other members.”

Among the new provisions are those preventing pipelines from exercising eminent domain until the project has received all needed permits and FERC has issued rulings on landowner challenges. 

The latter follows a request in July by Republican FERC Commissioner Neil Chatterjee, who was mulling a run for Virginia governor this spring, and Democratic Commissioner Richard Glick for Congress to pass legislation on FERC rehearing procedures.

“We believe that any such legislation should make clear that, while rehearing requests are pending, the commission should be prohibited from issuing a notice to proceed with construction and no entity should be able to begin eminent domain proceedings involving the projects,” the commissioners wrote

Prior to the federal appeals court ruling that sparked the commissioners’ request, FERC had regularly issued “tolling orders” allowing pipeline construction to proceed before landowner challenges had been resolved.