The furor over construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) and the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) continues unabated this week. News reports have highlighted legislators in Richmond joining pipeline protesters outside the state Capitol and, more colorfully, the antics of a dissident known as “Red” who has ensconced herself in a tree to block clearance of the pipeline route. But the combatants and the media are overlooking the biggest story of all — how the pipelines fit into Virginia’s energy future defined by electric grid modernization and carbon cap-and-trade.
The immediate issue revolves around state regulation of pipeline crossings over mountain streams in the pipeline paths. Foes worry that construction on steep, erosion-prone mountain slopes in karst terrain marked by sinkholes and underground streams will cause sediment runoff to harm wells and other water supplies. State Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, expressed the apocalyptic views of many when he said that the proposed 303-mile Mountain Valley Pipeline “could ruin our way of life.”
ACP spokesman Aaron Ruby reiterated the pipeline’s assertion that the 600-mile pipeline had received “the most thorough regulatory review of any infrastructure project in Virginia history.” In its 25-year history as an agency, confirmed a Department of Environmental Quality spokesperson earlier this month, DEQ has never conducted a project review on the scale of either pipeline.
But pipeline foes say that the regulatory views still aren’t rigorous enough and that DEQ should issue permits for hundreds of individual stream crossings to address the unique conditions at each site.
That line of argumentation led to what may be the best rhetorical flourish of the entire controversy (sympathize with him or not) by Dennis Martire, mid-Atlantic vice president of the Laborers International Union of North America. Martire termed the call for more intensive review of water crossings an attempt to “distort and politicize” the regulatory process. “No doubt,” he said, “the next thing they’ll demand is a pebble-by-pebble analysis.”
The battle over the pipelines has become a stand-in for the larger fight over national energy policy, sucking in the emotional energy of the global warming controversy. Foes say that there is no public necessity for either pipeline. Instead of building infrastructure that transgresses landowner rights and cuts ugly swaths through pristine mountain vistas, Virginia should be pushing measures to improve energy efficiency and install more wind and solar.
Proponents stand by their assertion that natural gas, while not a zero-carbon source of electricity, is a low-carbon source of electricity, a complement to wind and solar power, and a necessary part of Virginia’s energy future. Opposition to the ACP pipeline, says spokesman Ruby, “will slow down our region’s transition from coal to cleaner energy sources, delaying improvements to our environment.”
The ACP and MVP were launched in 2014 under very different political, regulatory, and market conditions than today. The Obama administration, which took global warming very seriously, looked favorably upon natural gas as a lower-carbon alternative to coal and upon nuclear power as a zero-carbon energy source. At the time, it seemed eminently reasonable for electric utilities to plan to further shift their generating portfolios from coal to gas and to increase pipeline capacity to serve their service territories.
But the environmental movement leapfrogged ahead of the Obama administration. The leading edge of the green movement ceased regarding natural gas as a benign fuel, arguing that if one included methane leakage from gas wells and pipelines, not just the combustion of gas in power plants, the fuel contributed as much to global warming as coal. They contended that Virginia lagged other states in embracing energy-efficiency and that the potential existed to bend the demand curve much lower, obviating the need to add new gas-fired generating capacity. Some environmental groups, but not all, went so far as to advocate that Virginia phase out its nuclear units as well.
The ideas expounded by green progressives, which once seemed radical in the Old Dominion, have gone mainstream. Virginia is in the process now of adopting carbon cap-and-trade regulations designed to reduce utility CO2 emissions 30% by 2030. Meanwhile, the Grid Transformation and Security Act enacted this year has declared it to be in the public interest for Dominion Energy Virginia to build 5,200 megawatts of solar energy, or roughly one quarter of its electricity generating capacity, and to invest heavily in energy efficiency. These regulatory developments have been amplified by the increasingly competitive economics of wind and solar.
Both the ACP and the MVP have gone so far down the regulatory path that there’s almost no chance that the projects won’t be built, so the point may be moot now. But I think it would be a useful exercise to take a fresh look at the pipelines in the light of current regulatory realities to see how they might contribute to the optimal balance of cost to rate payers, environmental sustainability, and electric grid reliability.
The least discussed of this triad is reliability. But reliability, arguably, is the most important — cost and environmental considerations fast become secondary when the lights go out. The East Coast successfully rode out an extreme cold weather event this January, but the so-called bomb cyclone did put enormous stress upon PJM electric transmission system of which Virginia is a part. PJM handled the challenge just fine, but only by calling heavily upon the surge capacity of fossil fuels such as coal and gas, while continuing to rely on the steady input of nuclear. The problem in the future is that coal and nuclear plants in many parts of the country are shutting down.
I have seen no analysis that tells us what reliability looks like under Virginia’s new regulatory regime of 25% or more of intermittent wind and solar, 30% fewer carbon emissions and a commensurate reduction in coal and/or gas, bigger investments in energy efficiency with a resulting bending of the demand curve, and a possible phase-out, desired by some, of nuclear power. Will Virginia burn more natural gas or less in its energy future? And looking back in that light, will Virginians be happy or unhappy that the MVP and ACP were built?