The last slide in Nancy Sorrells’ presentation about the Atlantic Coast Pipeline shows Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” split from top to bottom by a jagged tear — a graphic challenge to assertions by pipeline builder Dominion Transmission, Inc. that the pipeline will be “invisible once in place.”
Sorrells is one of the outspoken opponents of the $5 billion, 550-mile, 42-inch diameter pipeline for transporting natural gas from West Virginia. Though the pipeline would be trenched in and covered over, the project would leave visible a 100-foot cleared right-of-way cutting through forests, and public and private lands.
The pipeline’s route cuts a swath through dozens of Chesapeake headwater streams, two national forests and across the Appalachian Trail. It runs from West Virginia to southeastern North Carolina, with a spur leading east toward Norfolk.
Opposition has brought together landowners, environmentalists and local governments who are concerned that the project will harm natural resources and local economies, as well as endanger water supplies. Others oppose the pipeline because they want to limit investments in natural gas infrastructure to make way for renewable energy.
The pipeline is a joint venture between Dominion Resources, Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas and AGL Resources. Virginia Gov. Terry A. McAuliffe, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory and business leaders support it.
“Natural gas-fired generation is becoming increasingly important because of the closure of coal-fired power stations resulting from federal environmental regulations,” explained Frank Mack, spokesperson for Dominion Transmission.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is reviewing the project and expects to complete an environmental impact study in 2016. If approved, pipeline construction would begin in late 2016.
Opposition to the pipeline is stiffest from residents and county officials in Virginia’s Highland, Augusta, Nelson and Buckingham counties. Much of this area is underlain by karst: limestone geology in which erosion has produced fissures, sinkholes, underground streams and caverns.
“There’s no precedent for a pipeline of this size crossing this kind of terrain,” Sorrells said.
But, Mack said, “Dominion Transmission has successfully built hundreds of miles of interstate natural gas pipelines in karst geology, and is well accustomed to building and operating in rugged terrain.”
The Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition is monitoring water quality on streams along the pipeline route to compare with post-construction water quality should the project get the green light.
“It is nearly impossible to do something of this scale on this kind of terrain without impacting downstream water resources,” said Rick Webb, environmental scientist with the University of Virginia and the coalition’s coordinator.
Some wonder whether the pipeline is necessary. “We need to know whether the demand for natural gas justifies new pipeline infrastructure in our state,” said Greg Bupert, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “And, if a new pipeline is needed, we need to identify a route that is the most protective of private property, local communities and the environment of the entire region.”
Three other natural gas pipeline projects are being planned to tap into Pennsylvania and West Virginia reserves and would create more pipeline corridors through forests and fields in Virginia. The EPA has called for FERC to assess the cumulative effects of other “proposed and reasonably foreseeable projects” in the state when it reviews the project.
According to the Department of Energy’s 2015 Quadrennial Energy Review, 46 percent of gas pipeline capacity in the United States is unused, and improving the flexibility and capabilities of current infrastructure is a better investment in many parts of the country.
Dominion’s Mack said that 92 percent of gas delivered from the project has been committed to customers who have signed 20-year contracts.
These long-term contracts — needed to justify billion-dollar infrastructure projects — may effectively lock out competition from the renewable energy development, according to Kirk Bowers, Virginia Sierra Club pipeline program manager. “We’re locking ourselves into a gas-dependent economy,” he said.
Meanwhile, Congress is considering legislation that would establish energy corridors in the Eastern United States for pipeline projects, and eliminate current restrictions on putting pipelines through National Parks.