Controversial New Pipelines May Slice Through the Southeast

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline—and the Mountain Valley Pipeline, with a similar path—could tear up land and negatively impact people throughout Virginia, West Virginia, and North Carolina.
Protesters against the Mountain Valley and Atlantic Coast Pipelines at the Virginia Capitol Square in Richmond

Daniel Sangjib Min/Richmond Times-Dispatch/AP Images

Like the Keystone XL and Dakota Access before it, a disputed pipeline recently got the green light. Approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which controls the nation’s energy markets, the $5 billion, 594-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) will carve a jagged line from the bedrock of West Virginia to Virginia and into North Carolina if it is built. Unlike Keystone XL and Dakota Access, this new pipeline is slated to transport natural gas instead of oil. But it still presents the potential for devastation to local land—and people.

The pipeline’s proponents tout benefits that are mainly economic. The 1.5 billion cubic feet of natural gas it could transport per day would fuel electrical generation, create jobs, and increase tax revenue for local municipalities, according to the companies behind the ACP. But Amy Mall, senior policy analyst for NRDC’s Land & Wildlife program, doesn’t buy it. “We share the goal of good jobs and strong economies for local communities, but these pipeline companies are overstating the jobs they will create, and most new jobs exist only during the construction phase. We’re advocating that more jobs and a cleaner future would be created if the same amount of money were spent on energy efficiency and renewable energy.”

Then there’s the issue of necessity. Greg Buppert, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center (which recently requested that FERC withdraw its approval of the ACP), believes the pipeline’s central mission of increasing the supply of natural gas is misguided. “This pipeline is intended to run power plants, but the demand for new power plants in West Virginia and North Carolina isn’t growing, and at the same time, renewable energy is coming on strong,” says Buppert. “This is a long commitment to natural gas, maybe as long as 80 years.” And with that questionable commitment come hazards.

Construction Destruction

The geography of the route of the planned pipeline is troubling. The main company behind the plan, Dominion Energy, has proposed building its pipeline through one of the most intact conservation landscapes in the Southeast, which includes large swaths of forest in Virginia and West Virginia. “It will cross the heart of the remaining wild landscape in the eastern United States,” says Rick Webb, program coordinator for the Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition, a Virginia-based group of environmental scientists, nonprofits, and volunteers. “Pipeline construction on this scale across this type of steep, well-watered, forested mountain landscape is unprecedented. The damage will be extreme and long-lasting.”

A forest in West Virginia

Lawrence Sawyer/iStock Photo

The most significant impacts will be fragmenting large, unbroken tracts of forestland, such as in the Monongahela and George Washington National Forests, and sullying rivers and streams with construction on some of the steepest terrain in the United States. Building a pipeline involves clearing, grading, and digging using heavy machinery and dynamite blasting. On a large scale, that means national forests, streams, rivers, and mountain ridges will be damaged. Construction could contaminate waterways and thereby threaten surface water or groundwater, both of which supply drinking water to this region. Additionally, construction could trigger erosion and set off landslides on the region’s steep limestone slopes. Also at risk are fragile species peppered along the route, including endangered Indiana and northern long-eared bats, Madison cave isopod crustaceans, clubshell mussels, running buffalo clover plants, and other species across the three states where construction would occur.

In fact, one FERC commissioner rejected the approval because of environmental concerns. (She was outvoted by the FERC’s other two members at the time.) That same commissioner, Cheryl LaFleur, also opposed approving the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which has been making its way through the regulatory system in tandem with the ACP (it also recently received FERC approval). That there is a second such pipeline is controversial in and of itself; the two would travel along almost parallel tracks, though they would end up in different places with different customers. Similar to the ACP, the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP), also a joint venture of companies, with EQT Midstream Partners at the helm, would transport natural gas from Marcellus and Utica shale wells 300 miles from West Virginia to Virginia.

“There is no documented need for either of these pipelines,” says Mall. “FERC doesn’t analyze whether a region needs more energy and whether natural gas is the way to feed any demand.” In most cases, the companies that invest in a pipeline sell the fuel to a corporate affiliate, utilities in this case. The “need” is not actual market demand, but simply corporate desire for profit.

Environmental Injustice

The land isn’t the only thing at risk. ACP’s proposed path wends through some of the region’s lowest-income communities, primarily comprising African-Americans and indigenous groups. It would travel through eight counties in eastern North Carolina, seven of which have higher poverty levels than the state average. And the overwhelming presence of four indigenous tribes along the route—the Lumbee, Haliwa-Saponi, Meherrin, and Coharie tribes—means they will be disproportionately affected. Approximately 30,000 indigenous people will be negatively impacted by the project, according to Ryan Emanuel, an associate professor at North Carolina State University and member of the Lumbee tribe.

Lumbee tribe in North Carolina

JeffG/Alamy Stock Photo

Emanuel points to data in the project’s draft environmental impact statement (EIS) showing that 25 percent of all indigenous people in North Carolina live within one mile of the proposed pipeline. Despite this proximity, the EIS concludes that the “environmental justice populations would not be disproportionately affected by the projects.” Emanuel scoffs at this notion—especially in light of the sacred burial grounds in the region. It was only within the past 100 years that the Lumbee began burying their relatives in cemeteries; ancestors of many of the area’s tribes are scattered across their land. And he wonders how the pipeline’s excavation crews will handle any remains that are uncovered.

“One of the tragic things about native peoples in the United States is that this continues to happen over and over again—that we are invisible and ignored when it comes to making important decisions about our ability to persist into the future as distinct native peoples,” says Emanuel. “Today it’s about the environment; prior to this it was about racism and education. Change the topic, but the theme of being ignored about important decisions persists.”

FERC’s recent approval of the ACP pipeline means that the developers have the authority to build through native soil as well as public and national lands. Developers can even claim private property via eminent domain where necessary. Construction of the ACP and MVP are slated to begin by the end of 2018, if all necessary permits in Virginia and North Carolina are granted.

The pipeline developers maintain that the ACP and MVP are absolutely necessary. But Mall disagrees: “There’s no documented demand for more natural gas. Any of the states where this gas is destined, including Dominion customers in Virginia, can meet demand with energy efficiency and renewable energy.”

Once again, we need to decide on the type of future we’re forging. Perhaps it’s time to choose the one that’s best for people and nature—particularly those most vulnerable.

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