Tag Archives: Atlantic Coast Pipeline

Water Board Gives Atlantic Coast Pipeline Conditional Approval

In a 4 to 3 vote, the State Water Control Board gave a provisional water-quality certification for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline today, but added a big condition reports WHSV television: The permit won’t take effect until several additional studies are reviewed and approved by the Department of Environmental Quality.

Dominion Energy, managing partner of the ACP, is evaluating the additional conditions and will issue a response later today.

In the meantime, environmental groups were cautiously approving of the decision.

Said Peter Anderson, Virginia Program Manager of Appalachian Voices: “We are somewhat encouraged by the depth and scope of the board’s discussion about several critical issues today and their apparent recognition of the thousands of citizen voices they’ve heard from over the years, but we are disappointed they did not deny this deficient certification and remand it back to the Department of Environmental Quality for a thorough analysis.”

“We particularly commend members Roberta Kellam, Nissa Dean and Robert Wayland who cast the three dissenting votes,” he added.

Said Mike Tidwell, Executive Director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network: 

In a setback for notorious polluter Dominion Energy, the Virginia State Water Control Board today sided with landowners and environmentalists in calling for more rigorous and comprehensive review of the controversial Atlantic Coast Pipeline. After being ignored for years by Governor Terry McAuliffe and Dominion, the voices of everyday Virginians were finally heard and we will work tirelessly to make sure all the facts can come to the table. CCAN and our allies have argued all along that any science-based and transparent review of all the harmful impacts of the ACP can only result in official and final denial of Dominion’s radical pipeline for fracked gas.

And Chesapeake Bay Foundation Assistant Director Peggy Sanner:

We are pleased that the Water Control Board refused to allow the pipeline project to proceed until threats from pollution are more thoroughly examined. This was the right decision. Thanks to the Board for its careful consideration of this vital matter. Building the pipeline without this information would disturb waterways across Virginia and increase pollution to local rivers, streams, and the Chesapeake Bay. We will continue working to make sure the pipeline is held to the strictest environmental standards possible.

Update: Dominion spokesman Aaron Ruby said the following:

Today the Virginia State Water Control Board approved the state water quality certification for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a very significant milestone for the project and another major step toward final approval.

The Board reached its decision after the most thorough environmental review of any infrastructure project in Virginia history. After more than three years of exhaustive study by state agencies and extensive public input, the Board concluded that the project will preserve Virginia’s water quality under stringent state standards.

The Board approved several conditions to strengthen water quality protections and require other state approvals before the certification takes effect. We will work closely with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality to complete all remaining approvals in a timely manner and ensure we meet all conditions of the certification.

At every stage of the project we’ve taken great care to meet the highest standards for the protection of water quality. In many cases, we’ve gone above and beyond regulatory requirements and adopted some of the most protective measures ever used by the industry. State and federal inspectors will carefully monitor our work throughout construction to ensure strict compliance with the law. The protective measures we’ve put in place and the regulatory oversight we’re receiving should assure all Virginians that the pipeline will be built safely and in a way that preserves the state’s water quality.

We commend the Board members and DEQ staff for the years of hard work and careful study they’ve dedicated to reviewing the project. We also appreciate the thoughtful and constructive input provided by members of the public. This has been a rigorous and transparent process, and everyone’s voice has been heard. The process has resulted in more environmental protection and higher water quality standards than any other project of this kind.

ACP Foes, Supporters Contend in ACP Environmental Hearing

After issuing a water-quality certification for the Mountain Valley Pipeline last week, the State Water Control Board held a public hearing today to consider a comparable certification for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP). Public comment this morning tended to focus on the question of whether new Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) rules designed to cover pipeline construction in mountainous “uplands” are up to the task of protecting water quality.

Two hundred or more pipeline foes packed the Trinity Family Life Center in Henrico County to voice their support of speakers critical of the proposed 605-mile natural gas pipeline, mainly on the grounds that it will threaten water quality in mountainous western Virginia communities. But many of the speakers, including state legislators, retired employees of Dominion Energy (managing partner of the pipeline), and others expressed support for the project which they said will promote economic development in eastern Virginia.

Even with speakers limited to three minutes at the podium, the hearing was expected to last into the evening, and the water board was not expected to vote until tomorrow.

Opponents hammered home the argument that DEQ’s regulations were inadequate to protect water quality in steep mountainous terrain with landslide-prone slopes and complex karst geology with sinkholes and underground rivers. In particular, they charged, the Board relied upon ACP erosion-control plans that have not been seen yet to prevent sediment from fouling streams and underground drinking water.

A major sub-theme of those hostile to the pipeline was distrust of the regulatory process, which, given the approval of the MVP project last week, showed every sign of going against the pipeline foes. Typical was Cabell Smith, a Nelson County resident, who said that the regulations provided “no assurance” that water quality standards will be maintained under a “corrupt corporate and political system.”

Some insisted that democracy itself was under assault. Richard Averett, a landowner in the path of the ACP, called the pipeline an “unprecedented threat to eminent domain” and a “threat to democracy.” The pipeline, he said, will scuttle his plans to build a five-star boutique resort in the Rockfish Valley. In an impassioned speech that brought pipeline foes to their feet, he faulted “a corrupt governor more interested in mining the pockets of his pals and future donors than protecting the rights of citizens.”

DEQ devised the certification for upland water quality out of a concern that the existing regulatory framework did not address the unique problems encountered along the proposed pipeline route, said Melanie Davenport, DEQ’s water permitting division director. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers regulates wetlands and streams, while a different set of regulations governs erosion & sediment controls. The 401 water quality certification, she said, fills the gaps.

DEQ acknowledges that the digging of trenches and laying of pipeline on steep, erosion-prone slopes can create problems that pipeline construction does not pose in flatland and hill country. Sediment-generating erosion is particularly problematic in karst terrain when underground water flows are out-of-sight and difficult to track. Therefore, said Davenport, the commonwealth decided to add an additional certification.

According to Davenport, conditions attached to the ACP water-quality certificate provide, among other features:

  • A prohibition against the removal of riparian buffers within 50 feet of surface waters.
  • A narrower construction right of way, 75 feet instead of 125 feet, as pipeline construction nears water and stream crossings.
  • Additional protections to accommodate karst terrain, including the use of dye-tracing studies to update karst maps.
  • Tougher conditions on the withdrawal of surface waters.
  • Tougher conditions on the release of water used in hydrostatic tests (conducted to measure the integrity of pipeline joints and seams).
  • Implementation of water quality monitoring plans to track erosion during and after construction.
  • Spill-prevention plans

A point made repeatedly by pro-pipeline speakers is that the DEQ regulations provide “added layers of protection” to water quality.

Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, Del. Roxanne Robinson, R-Chesterfield, and Del. Buddy Fowler, R-Ashland, all spoke in favor of certifying the pipeline. Wagner said that added gas-transportation capacity is especially critical for economic growth in Hampton Roads, where some 100 large customers were called upon to curtail their natural gas consumption during the intense cold of the polar vortex a few years ago. The tight gas supply will make it difficult to recruit any energy-intensive industry to the region, he said.

“There is not enough upstream capacity today to serve existing customers and new customers,” confirmed Jim Kibler, president of Virginia Natural Gas, which serves Hampton Roads. Other than the ACP, he said, “We’re out of options for South Hampton Roads.”

“Our city and region need the supply of natural gas from the pipeline,” said Edwin C. Daly, assistant city manager of the city of Emporia in Southside.

Technology has advanced to the point where the ACP will be “the safest pipeline ever built,” said Paul McCormick with the International Union of Operating Engineers.

While a handful of critics disputed the positive economic impact of the pipeline, most pipeline foes focused on the negative impact on water quality.

Tina Smusz, representing the Virginia chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility, called DEQ’s regulatory approach a “flawed framework” that ignores the impact of water-born toxins that could pose “grave health threats.” Toxins buried in sediments along stream banks could be exposed by erosion and make their way into local water supplies, she said. DEQ should get predictive data on toxin release before granting certification, she said. While DEQ proposes to monitor water quality and execute contingency plans should problems arise, that’s an inadequate after-the-fact solution, she added. Continue reading

Follow the Dark Money

Yes, it’s a legitimate story when Dominion spend big bucks supporting grassroots groups that favor the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Why isn’t it also a story when out-of-state billionaires underwrite pipeline foes?

We learn from the Washington Post today how Dominion Energy, its partners in the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, and the American Gas Association poured resources into groups called EnergySure and Your Energy Virginia to “whip up” a grassroots campaign in support of the project.

Quoting from a presentation made by Dominion executive Bruce McKay to an industry conference in Arizona last month, the Post described the scope of the effort:

As of early October, Dominion had compiled a “supporter database” of more than 23,000 names, generated 150 letters to the editor, sent more than 9,000 cards and letters to federal regulators and local elected officials, and directed more than 11,000 calls to outgoing Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Virginia’s U.S. senators.

Pipeline foes criticize Dominion for its outsized influence in Virginia state politics, characterizing the pipeline conflict as a David vs. Goliath contest. “Dominion is by far more well-resourced,” the Post quotes Denise Robbins of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network as saying. “What we have is public support and the will of the people who don’t want these pipelines in their communities.” Continues the article:

The protesters also have criticized Northam for failing to disclose that several members of his 85-person transition advisory team have ties to Dominion – a company that has given extensively to Virginia politicians of both parties, and in which Northam owns stock. Dominion and its executives gave Northam’s campaign more than $87,000 this year, according to the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project.

Bacon’s bottom line: The Post article highlights a legitimate story. Dominion is a dominant player in Virginia’s political process, and the public has a right to know how it conducts business. If Dominion, a regulated utility whose fortunes depend upon achieving favorable political outcomes, pours money into campaign contributions, lobbying and grassroots activities, that’s a fair topic of inquiry by the press.

What bothers me is that the Washington Post and other media show no comparable curiosity about Dominion’s opponents. What do we know about the groups contesting the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines? What do we know about the resources poured into the campaign to halt the pipelines? Where do these groups raise money for economic studies, cable television ads, and the organizing of protest marches?

To take a concrete example, what do we know about the Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN), the environmental justice-oriented group quoted by the Post, which has organized many of the anti-pipeline protests in Richmond?

Well, we know that the group is based in Takoma, Md., and maintains offices in Richmond and Norfolk. In fiscal 2015 it listed 22 employees. According to its latest 990 form and a 2016 audited report posted on its website, the group raised $263,000 in 2016 through contributions, another $1,043,000 through grants (including the release of previously restricted grants), and a nominal sum from other sources. While we know how much money it brought in, we don’t know where that money came from. Nowhere on its website, in its audited report, or its 990 form does CCAN reveal how many donors contributed, or who they were. Restricted grants (presumably from foundations) account for 80% of its revenue. Who is CCAN beholden to? The public doesn’t know. The Washington Post is happy to quote CCAN in its article but displays no curiosity about whose interests it serves.

Contrast CCAN to a true grassroots environmental organization like the Piedmont Environmental Council. The 2016 PEC annual report lists every donor — literally hundreds of them — who contributed $100 or more. The PEC makes no secret of the fact that its biggest backers of $100,000 or more include the Aqua Fund, the William M. Backer Foundation, the Loudoun Soil and Conservation District, Jacqueline B. Mars, Jean Perin, the Prince Charitable Trusts, and the Wrinkle in Time Foundation. It’s all there for the public to see and evaluate.

A look at the CCAN’s board of directors suggests that the group’s support comes mainly from Maryland and Washington, D.C., not Virginia. Only two of the 13 board members have identifiable Virginia connections: April Moore, vice-president of Friends of the North Fork of the Shenandoah River, and Tony Noerpel, founder of Sustainable Loudoun. Another board member has West Virginia ties, and the rest hail from the Baltimore-Washington area. CCAN lays claim to “public support and the will of the people who don’t want these pipelines” in Virginia. But how do we know that it reflects the will of “the people” any more than does Dominion, which cites the support of construction unions, chambers of commerce, and economic developers?

We know where Dominion’s money comes from — from Dominion rate payers and shareholders. It’s pretty straightforward. We don’t know where CCAN’s money comes from. Could some or most of it come from out-of-state millionaires and billionaires who could care a fig about Virginia’s economic development?

A 2014 minority staff report of the U.S. Senate Committee on Environmental and Public Works, “The Chain of Environmental Command: How a Club of Billionaires and Their Foundations Control the Environmental Movement and Obama’s EPA,” reached the following conclusions:

  • The “Billionaire’s Club,” an exclusive group of wealthy individuals, directs the far-left environmental movement. The members of this elite liberal club funnel their fortunes through private foundations to execute their personal political agenda, which is centered around restricting the use of fossil fuels in the United States.
  • Public charity activist groups propagate the false notion that they are independent, citizen-funded groups working altruistically. In reality, they work in tandem with wealthy donors to maximize the value of the donors’ tax deductible donations and leverage their combined resources to influence elections and policy outcomes.
  • Far-left environmental activists, while benefiting from nonprofit status, essentially sell a product to wealthy foundations who are seeking to drive policy and political outcomes.
  • The Billionaire’s Club knowingly collaborates with questionable offshore funders to maximize support for the far-left environmental movement.

The “offshore funders” are associated with Russian energy interests who share the environmentalists’ goal of curtailing U.S. fracking of natural gas.

In their coverage of President Trump, Post reporters frequently allude to findings of the U.S. Intelligence community, in particular the report, “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections,” which argued that Vladimir Putin-directed initiatives aimed at discrediting Hillary Clinton and helping Donald Trump win the 2016 presidential election. But I have yet to see the Post cite the passage that says RT (formerly Russia Today) ran anti-fracking programming highlighting environmental issues and the impact on public health. The anti-fracking stance, states the report, “is likely reflective of the Russian Government’s concern about the impact of fracking and US natural gas production on the global energy market and the potential challenges to Gazprom’s profitability.”

Ken Stiles, a Virginia Tech geography instructor who used to work for the Central Intelligence Agency, has traced the flow of dollars from Russian energy interests through the Bermuda-based Klein Fund to the California-based Sea Change Foundation, and then from Sea Change to the Charlottesville-based social/environmental activist group Virginia Organizing. Virginia Organizing provides administrative support for anti-pipeline groups such as Preserve Montgomery County and the Friends of Nelson County. (This article in the Daily Signal provides the details.)

Virginia Organizing, which describes itself as “a statewide grassroots organization dedicated to challenging injustice by empowering people in local communities,” had a 2015 budget of $4.5 million. The group did not acknowledge the fact that it was a recipient of Sea Change Foundation money in either its website or its 990 form.

Stiles approached Bacon’s Rebellion before he contacted the Daily Signal. While I was intrigued by his findings, I thought it was a stretch to link Russian anti-fracking money with what appeared to me to be genuine, NIMBY-inspired grassroots groups like Preserve Montgomery County and the Friends of Nelson County. There was no way to know where the Russian money went once it reached the Sea Change Foundation. In all likelihood, I felt, the Russian money was so co-mingled with the contributions of rich American donors that it was meaningless to trace a trail from Russian oligarchs to an organization like Virginia Organizing, much less to groups one step removed from Virginia Organizing. I think Stiles got impatient with my journalistic standards of proof, so he went to the conservative Daily Signal instead.

Still, I believe that Stiles raised an important pointMuch of the anti-pipeline money in Virginia comes from wealthy out-of-state environmentalists (with a few rubles mixed in). These big donors have funded an archipelago of grassroots groups dedicated to fighting fracking and natural gas pipelines across the country.

When Dominion spends money supporting grassroots movements to influence public policy, yes, that is a news story. When out-of-state billionaires spend money, an unknown fraction of which came from Russian energy interests, to support grassroots movements to shut down fracking and pipelines, that is a news story, too — just not one that the Washington Post is interested in telling.

Virginians have a right to know who is influencing the public policy process in their state, and how much these shadowy interests are spending. It’s easy to follow the dollars going to campaign finances because campaigns are obligated by law to report them. Thus, we know that California billionaire and global warming activist Tom Steyer funneled almost $1 million through his organization NextGen Climate Action into Governor-elect Ralph Northam’s gubernatorial campaign this year, and $1.6 million into Governor Terry McAuliffe’s campaign four years before that. But there are millions of dollars of dark money sloshing around Virginia through social-justice and environmental foundations and activist groups which go mostly unreported. The public has a right to know where all the money is coming from and which groups are beholden to that money.

Real Racism and Fake Racism

Real racism: The Short Pump Middle School has shut down its football team after circulation of a Snapchat video showing white players pinning down black players and simulating anal rape while making racist slurs. The only saving grace to this reprehensible episode is that members of the school community are universally disgusted by the boys’ behavior. Henrico County Public Schools convened a meeting last night, attended by 400 people, to discuss how the community should respond. (The Richmond Times-Dispatch has the story here.)

Fake racism: Democratic candidate for governor Ralph Northam stands by his characterization of Republican rival Ed Gillespie as in league with white supremacists. As the Times-Dispatch describes the slander, Northam issued a mail piece that “superimposes images of Trump and Gillespie over a photo of torch-wielding white nationalists marching in Charlottesville in August. The message says Virginia voters have a chance to ‘stand up to hate’ in the Nov. 7 election.” On the back of the mailer, another message urges voters to “stand up to Trump, Gillespie and hate.”

While Northam did not explicitly call Gillespie a racist or white supremacist, the message was clear. But in actuality, Gillespie had denounced the white supremacist rally, even before it turned violent. “Having a right to spew vile hate does not make it right,” said Gillespie at the time. “These displays have no place in our commonwealth, and the mentality on display is rejected by the decent, thoughtful and compassionate fellow Virginians I see every day.”

(It’s only fair to point out that Gillespie is not an innocent when it comes to slanderous campaign ads. His ads have depicted Northam as a sympathizer of the violent Salvadoran street gang MS-13.)

Sadly, when given a chance to distance himself from the Northam campaign’s slander, Governor Terry McAuliffe responded, in effect, that one vile mischaracterization deserves another: “I think the hatred and bigotry that we saw — and I personally saw firsthand — of the hatred, the white supremacists, the KKK, the ‘alt-right,’ is the same divisive Trump politics that Ed Gillespie is doing in his ads today. There is no difference. They are bringing hatred, fear, bigotry to our state.”

Both candidates need to apologize to the other. The fact that neither is willing to do so is what turns people off to politics today. (I would note that one candidate, Libertarian Cliff Hyra, has taken the high road by refraining from such inflamed rhetoric.)

More fake racism: A self-described “peoples tribunal” will assemble this weekend in Charlottesville to address “environmental racism impacts of fracked-gas pipelines.” A panel of three human rights and environmental pollution experts will preside as judges at a daylong tribunal examining the multiple social and racial injustices afflicted by the Mountain Valley and Atlantic Coast pipelines.

The proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline route will traverse through varied populations: mostly white but also African-American and Native American. Focusing on the impact of African-American and Native American communities, pipeline foes have leveled charges of environmental racism.

According to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) environmental impact statement, minority communities will be exposed to temporary increases in construction dust and longer-term exposure to combustion emissions from compressor stations, though within permissable air-quality limits. States the EIS: “No disproportionately high and adverse impacts on environmental justice populations as a result of other resources impacts would be expected.”

It’s hard to show that the ACP route as a whole disproportionately impacts one group over another. The trick is to adjust the frame of reference as needed. Thus, critics argue that about 30,000, or 13 percent, of the people who live within one mile of the proposed route of the pipeline in North Carolina are Native American, even though Native Americans represent only 1.2 percent of the state’s total population. In this case, critics have narrowed the frame of reference to the section of the pipeline in North Carolina. In Virginia pipeline foes have narrowed the frame of reference to African-Americans living near a compressor station in Buckingham County.

If living within a mile of construction noise and dust is sufficient to characterize a project as environmentally racist in the case of a pipeline, then every construction project near a minority population is racist because any project that requires clearing land and digging will generate dust. This logic is a recipe for shutting down all construction near minority populations, effectively creating economic no-go zones… which sounds pretty racist itself.

Of course, pipeline critics have no desire to shut down all construction everywhere. They just want to shut down the pipeline. Now, there are respectable reasons for wanting to block the pipeline — you can read them in this blog. But tarring the project as environmentally racist is not a respectable reason.

Bacon’s bottom line: As the Short Pump Middle School episode shows, racist words and behavior are not the exclusive domain of torch-bearing white supremacists. What happened at Short Pump was shocking and the community needs to express its outrage, as in fact it appears to be doing. But communities’ efforts to enforce acceptable codes of behavior is undermined when anyone and everyone is being called a “racist” or a “hater” these days. Ralph Northam loses all moral authority to talk about racism when he ties Ed Gillespie to white supremacists. Social Justice Warriors lose all moral authority to talk about environmental racism when they cherry pick their data to heap onus upon a pipeline project they don’t like.

The public discourse has so debased the meaning of the word “racist” that many people distrust the dominant narrative. I would bet that some Henrico citizens, like the villagers who ignored the boy who cried wolf, don’t trust the media and county authorities to provide a fair and accurate account of what happened at Short Pump. And that’s not a result that any thinking or caring person should desire.

Pipelines Clear Another Regulatory Hurdle

Another regulatory barrier to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Mountain Valley Pipeline has fallen. The board of trustees of the Virginia Outdoors Foundation unanimously approved Monday applications for “conversion of open space” by the two natural gas pipeline developers that propose to cross 11 VOF conservation easements.

From the outset, VOF informed the pipeline companies that their incursions would be incompatible with the conservation values of the easements, therefore triggering a process in state law known as “conversion” of open space. (See the VOF announcement here.)

The two resolutions included several conditions, including restrictions on the footprint of the pipelines and access roads, the conveyance to VOF of more than 1,100 acres of substitute land in Highland, Nelson, and Roanoke counties, and the transfer of $4.075 million in stewardship funding for the properties’ long-term care and maintenance.

The VOF easements will remain in place on the properties with overlaying permanent rights-of-way for the pipeline developers.

Last week the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) granted the ACP and MVP certifications of public convenience and necessity. The VOF vote eliminated one of the few remaining regulatory obstacles to the project. The pipelines still face one significant hurdle, however: meeting state regulatory standards for erosion and sediment control.

FERC Approves Atlantic Coast, Mountain Valley Pipelines

map credit: Marcellusdrilling.com

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) approved the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) and Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) in rulings issued Friday.

The three-person commission was divided on the issue of granting the pipelines a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity, with two commission members appointed by President Trump ruling in favor while an Obama administration holdover issued a dissenting opinion.

While FERC approval was required for the two natural gas pipeline projects to advance, the battle is not over. Environmentalists and landowners remain adamantly opposed to the projects, and they have vowed to continue resisting. Major sticking points are reviews by West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina environmental agencies of pipeline impacts on water quality.

Naturally, Dominion Energy, which is the managing partner of the ACP, is delighted at news. Said Leslie Hartz, Dominion vice president of engineering & construction:

We are very pleased to receive FERC approval for this vitally important project. This is the most significant milestone yet for a project that will bring jobs, economic growth and cleaner energy to our region. In the coming days we will fully review the Certificate and finalize our plans for complying with its conditions. We will also continue working with the other state and federal agencies to complete the environmental review process and make this critically important project a reality.

All three commissioners acknowledge the need for more natural gas infrastructure to serve consumers in Virginia and North Carolina. In her dissent, Commissioner LaFleur noted that more than 90 percent of the ACP’s capacity is subscribed by public utility customers in the two states. The end use of this gas is well established on the public record and is a matter of urgent public necessity.

The FERC ruling also garnered kudos from Dominion’s business allies. This joint statement comes from Barry Duval, president of the Virginia Chamber of Commerce, and Matt Yonka, president of the Virginia Building & Construction Trades Council:

This is great news for our economy, our working men and women and energy consumers all across our region. This project will serve as a catalyst for economic growth, job creation and greater energy security in our region for years to come. The hardworking men and women who built our nation are ready to get to work rebuilding our region’s infrastructure. We’re eager to see the thousands of new jobs and billions of dollars in new income this project will bring to the region.

By lowering energy costs in Virginia and North Carolina by more than $370 million a year, this pipeline will allow businesses to grow and families to save. The pipeline will also mean lower emissions and cleaner air in all of our communities as electric utilities continue making the transition from coal to cleaner-burning natural gas.

Equally predictably, pipeline foes were appalled by the ruling. This from the Allegheny-Blue Ridge Alliance, a coalition of 52 organizations in Virginia and West Virginia:

The Commission’s judgment has been made in advance of necessary and required decisions by the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers and the state environmental authorities in the affected states of Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina on critical environmental issues. We concur with the thoughtful dissent of Commissioner LeFleur’s, who has served on the Commission for 7 years, raising serious questions about the basis of need for both the ACP and the Mountain Valley Pipeline and expressing concerns about environmental impacts that both projects present. The majority decision does not reflect an understanding of the issues at hand and is clearly not in the public interest. It calls into serious question the agency’s regulatory credibility.

Greg Buppert, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said this: Continue reading

Pipelines and “Environmental Justice”

“Environmental Justice” has been a much bigger rallying cry in the pipeline controversies out west than here in Virginia.

As I was perusing the federal court ruling on the Sierra Club vs. FERC lawsuit (see previous post), I encountered a realm of administrative law with which I was entirely unfamiliar: environmental justice. I’d heard of the concept, of course; I just didn’t realize that it had insinuated itself into environmental impact statements (EISs) for pipelines, transmission lines, and the like.

The majority opinion explained the relevance of the concept this way: “The principle of environmental justice encourages agencies to consider whether the projects they sanction will have a ‘disproportionately high and adverse’ impact on low-income and predominantly minority communities.”

In this particular instance, involving the EIS for the Southeast Markets Pipeline Project, the Sierra Club argued that FERC had failed to adequately take the principle into account. According to the EIS, 83.7% of the pipeline complex’s proposed routes would cross through, or within one mile of, environmental-justice communities.

However, an adverse impact on a minority/low-income community is not necessarily a deal killer. FERC, the court opined, simply must “take a hard look” at the effect on minority/low income areas when drafting an environmental impact statement, and disclose relevant information to the public. And that the commission did. FERC concluded that feasible alternative routes would affect a comparable percentage of environmental-justice populations, the court said. “FERC’s decision to directly compare the proposed alternatives to one another, rather than to some broader population, was reasonable under the circumstances.”

“Environmental justice” has been a rallying cry out west, most prominently in the Dakota Access Pipeline controversy. We don’t hear much of it in Virginia, but I was curious: How does the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline rate according to environmental justice criteria?

Here are the numbers, as extracted from the ACP environmental impact statement: In Virginia the percentage of minorities census tracts within one mile of the ACP pipeline and related facilities varies from 0.2% to 100%. In ten of the 63 census tracts, the percentage of minority population is meaningfully greater than that of the county in which it is located. But in 53 tracts, it is not. In other words, it appears that minorities are less impacted than whites.

Likewise, 11.5% of all Virginians live below the poverty line. Thirty-four of 63 census tracts in Virginia within a one-mile radius of ACP facilities have a higher percentage of persons living below the poverty line. In other words, despite the fact that pipelines don’t run through urban areas and suburbs where incomes tend to be highest, but through rural areas where incomes are lower, only 54% of the census tracts affected by the pipeline have a higher poverty rate.

The primary adverse impacts on environmental-justice communities would be temporary increases in dust, noise and traffic from construction work. But, according to the ACP environmental impact statement, “these impacts would occur along the entire pipeline route and in areas with a variety of socio-economic backgrounds.”

These numbers undoubtedly explain why pipeline opponents have not made environmental justice an issue here in Virginia.

It’s not as if the engineers working for Dominion Energy, the managing partner of the pipeline, were especially socially conscious. Rather, in selecting a route, they were threading the needle between national parks, the Appalachian Trail, conservation easements, and other environmental, historical and cultural assets, any one of which could have spiked the project. That the pipeline had so little impact on minorities and low-income Virginians was the luck of the draw.

Sometimes infrastructure projects like highways, natural gas pipelines and electric transmission lines will disproportionately affect minorities and the poor, as it happened with the Southeast Markets Pipeline Project, and sometimes they won’t. Route selection is driven mainly by geography, terrain, market considerations, and economics; the socioeconomic impact is incidental and random.

For all practical purposes, the closest thing to a social-justice issue in Virginia is landowner rights — justice for the propertied class. Are landowners getting fair compensation for the loss of value to their land? That’s a fair question, but if it doesn’t affect the poor and minorities disproportionately, it’s not a matter of “social justice.”

Federal Pipeline Ruling a Big Deal… Or Maybe Not

Construction of the Sabal Trail Pipeline, part of the Southeast Markets Pipeline Project, in Florida. Photo credit: Orlando Sentinel.

Environmentalists notched a win yesterday when the U.S. Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia issued a ruling finding that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) had failed to properly take into account the impact of greenhouse gas emissions on climate change when approving the Southeast Markets Pipeline Project more than a year ago.

“Today, the D.C. Circuit rejected FERC’s excuses for refusing to fully consider the effects of this dirty and dangerous pipeline,” said Staff Attorney Elly Benson with the Sierra Club, the plaintiff, in a prepared statement. “Even though this pipeline is intended to deliver fracked gas to Florida power plants, FERC maintained that it could ignore the greenhouse gas pollution from burning the gas. … Today’s decision requires FERC to fulfill its duties to the public, rather than merely serve as a rubber stamp for corporate polluters’ attempts to construct dangerous and unnecessary fracked gas pipelines.”

Could this spell Doomsville for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Mountain Valley Pipeline here in Virginia?

Probably not. I asked for a response from Kate Addleson, director of the Sierra Club Virginia Chapter. She was tied up in meetings today so she couldn’t talk, but she forwarded me the national Sierra Club press release. That document did not speculate whether the D.C. federal court ruling would apply to other pipeline projects.

Also, Dominion Energy, managing partner of the ACP, has reviewed the ruling and concluded that it does not apply. “We … don’t believe it will have any impact on the ACP,” said spokesman Aaron Ruby. When reviewing the Southeast Markets Pipeline Project, FERC did not ask what the pipeline complex meant for greenhouse gas emissions. But in the 18 months since approving that project, federal regulators have become more attuned to climate-change impact, and FERC did examine the issue in the environmental impact statement it wrote for the ACP.

“Based on its analysis, FERC concluded that the ACP would not significantly contribute to climate change and could potentially offset some regional greenhouse gas emissions since much of the gas will be used to replace higher-emitting coal plants,” Ruby said.

While acknowledging that gas-fired plants generate less carbon dioxide per unit of energy than coal, environmentalists contend that gas-fired plants provide no net improvement when one considers the full life-cycle of gas production. Life-cycle analysis counts natural gas leaks from the production, collection and transportation of gas burned in the gas-fired power plants. Methane, a main component of natural gas, has a far greater greenhouse effect than carbon dioxide.

However, FERC rejected life-cycle analysis. Federal law, said the ACP environmental impact statement, “does not .. require us to engage in speculative analyses or provide information that will not meaningful inform the decision-making process. Even if we were to find a sufficient connected relationship between the proposed project and upstream development or downstream end-use, it would still be difficult to meaningfully consider these impacts, primarily because emission estimates would be largely influenced by assumptions rather than direct parameters about the project.”

Federal rule-making moves much slower than environmentalist thinking. When the Obama administration acted to decarbonize the U.S. economy in order to ward off climate change, official government policy allowed a large role for both natural gas and nuclear power. Many environmental organizations now disapprove of both energy sources, preferring renewable power like wind and solar instead. In the past half year, the Trump administration has positioned itself as a champion of fossil fuels. The D.C. Court of Appeals ruling may represent the legal high water mark for environmentalists for the foreseeable future.

Pipeline Passes FERC Environmental Review

While the proposed 605-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) would have temporary adverse impacts on people and the environment, the impact can be reduced to “less-than-significant levels,” if the project is constructed and operated in compliance with federal standards, declared the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in a final Environmental Impact Statement issued today. Read the EIS here.

The finding is a critical step toward ultimate approval or denial by the commission. Backers of the project lauded the FERC finding, while pipeline foes criticized it. Here follows a sample of the immediate reaction.

Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Leslie Hartz, vice president-engineering and construction for Dominion Energy, the ACP’s managing partner: “The favorable environmental report released today provides a clear path for final approval of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline this fall. The report concludes that the project can be built safely and with minimal long-term impacts to the environment. The report also reinforces previous findings by the FERC and decades of research demonstrating that natural gas pipelines do not adversely impact tourist economies or residential property values. With this report, the region moves one step closer toward a stronger economy, a more secure energy supply and a cleaner environment.”

Allegheny-Blue Ridge Alliance. Executive Director Lew Freeman: “The Trump administration’s final environmental report issued today for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which would carry fracked-gas through West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina, utterly fails to independently assess whether the project is even needed. This is the core issue upon which all other considerations of the controversial project are based, says a coalition of community groups and legal and technical experts.”

Energy Sure. Samantha Quig with the Virginia Chamber of Commerce and Rich Greer with the Laborer’s International Union of North America: “After almost three years of extensive study by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and other agencies, we are encouraged by the favorable conclusions of the final environmental report released today. Never before has an infrastructure project in our region received so much scrutiny by so many agencies and offered so many opportunities for public input. We have total confidence in the process, and we are convinced the project will be built with all necessary protections for the environment and public safety.”

House Republicans (no link): Virginia House of Delegates Speaker William J. Howell and Speaker-designee M. Kirkland Cox: “We are heartened by today’s positive news from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission regarding the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Construction of this project is crucial to ensuring Virginia’s economy continues to grow in the years ahead, and that our families and businesses will continue to have access to affordable and reliable domestic energy. As Governor Terry McAuliffe has noted, the ACP is really a ‘jobs pipeline’, and it is desperately needed in our Commonwealth. We know that we can grow Virginia’s economy, and create thousands of good paying jobs for our people, while also preserving the environmental treasures we all cherish and love. Today’s report proves this.”

Southern Environmental Law Center. Staff attorney Greg Buppert: “FERC still hasn’t addressed the most basic question hanging over this project: Is it even needed? It’s FERC’s responsibility to determine if this pipeline is a public necessity before it allows developers to take private property, clear forests, and carve up mountainsides. Mounting evidence shows that it is not.”

Bold Alliance. Richard Averitt, affected landowner and entrepreneur: ““The FEIS is based on incomplete information, false narratives, and superficial statements of need that are based on corrupt self-dealing. It makes a mockery of the approval process. It’s clear that FERC exists to do the bidding of the industry that pays its salaries and feels no responsibility to the public or to the truth.”

I’ll add more responses as I get them.

The Nightmarish Complexity of Environmental Regs

As far as I’m concerned, the environmental regulatory process governing the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Mountain Valley Pipeline is incomprehensible. And that’s a bad thing. If only a handful of regulators, industry players and environmentalist activists can navigate the layers of bureaucracy and thicket of rules, the public is the loser.

In the latest hoo-ha, the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has back-tracked on public statements regarding how it will regulate erosion and sediment control of pipeline construction crossing steep mountain slopes.

On April 6, DEQ issued a press release stating that “in addition to utilizing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers nationwide permit 12 for wetland and stream crossings, DEQ will be requiring individual 401 water quality certifications for each project.” The next day, DEQ issued another press release stating that the department “has provided water quality certification for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers 2017 Nationwide Permits.”

Got that? Me neither.

Needless to say, that bureaucratese is unintelligible to the normal human being, and even to spokesmen and reporters whose job it is to translate the gobbledygook. In response to inevitable media inquiries asking what the April 16 press release meant, DEQ spokesman Bill Hayden said that DEQ would require certifications for each individual pipeline segment that crossed or affected any waterway. That meant hundreds of certifications. That is what the Richmond Times-Dispatch understood, what the Roanoke Times understood, and what I understood.

But DEQ Director of Operations James Golden is now saying that Hayden had spoken before he had been briefed by “technical” staff members at DEQ. (So explains the Times-Dispatch today.) DEQ will rely upon a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers national permit. Rather than duplicate the Army Corps’ work, Golden told the T-D, the state’s individual certifications will focus on “upland areas” outside the Army Corps’ jurisdiction.

Asked why DEQ took nearly seven weeks before correcting the widely published remarks, Golden conceded that “in hindsight, DEQ should have tried to provide additional clarity.”

DEQ’s statements never added up to environmental groups, and they made an issue of the seeming discrepancy between the April 16 and April 17 press releases. After endeavoring to understand what it all meant, I headlined the resulting post, “A Brain-Frying Foray into the Regulatory Maze.” In what was surely one of the least-read articles in the history of Bacon’s Rebellion, I tried to sort through the difference between 401 certifications and Permit 12, general permits, individual permits, blanket permits and more. (I never got around to explaining 404 permits, which are relevant somehow.)

Despite the fact that I tediously double-checked information in the article before publishing, I still got stuff wrong — or so says David Sligh with the Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition, a former regulator himself. But I found his correction so incomprehensible that I just appended it whole to the post, and let readers figure out what it meant.

Bottom line: I don’t think harshly of Hayden for disseminating inaccurate information. He was probably as confused as I was. (Well, not that confused. But pretty confused.) Where DEQ fell down was in not correcting the inaccuracies when they began circulating in the media. Frankly, the fact that they didn’t do so makes me wonder if DEQ officials above Hayden knew exactly what was going on.

One conclusion seems unavoidable: When the regulatory system is so full of jargon, is so complex and has so many interlocking pieces that career administrators of DEQ can’t communicate the story accurately to the public, something is wrong with the system.