Dominion Resources, Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas, and AGL Resources announced on Tuesday the formation of a joint venture that plans to move forward with a 550-mile natural gas pipeline across Virginia and parts of two national forests.
Governor Terry McAuliffe called the Atlantic Coast Pipeline project “a game changer for Virginia’s economy” at a news conference announcing the joint venture. McAuliffe touted the “thousands of jobs and billions in economic activity that the construction of this project will create,” and said that the project will lower energy costs and help reduce the state’s carbon emissions.
But the pipeline is opposed by a coalition of citizen and conservation groups because the pipeline route goes through parts of the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia and George Washington National Forest in Virginia, while also crossing the Blue Ridge Mountains, which they say raises concerns about drinking water sources for Shenandoah Valley communities, pipeline safety, and the ecological integrity of the forests.
Greg Buppert, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, the pipeline would cut a 300-foot swath across numerous ridgelines including some of Virginia’s most rugged landscapes, “raising serious questions about whether it can be built without significant damage to pristine forests and rivers.”
Misty Boos, managing director for Wild Virginia, said that the Shenandoah Mountain area of the George Washington National Forest, through which the pipeline would cross, is “the largest reserve of unfragmented forest on the East Coast.”
The fragmentation of large forest tracts allow exotic insects, plants, and disease to invade, degrading habitats for wildlife, including pollinators. Forest ecosystem biodiversity is also affected by disturbances as pipelines and other infrastructure is constructed.
The new Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement encourages the protection of forests, which are considered vital to healthy waterways. It also calls for protecting existing state-identified healthy watersheds. The proposed pipeline would bisect the Shenandoah Mountain region and other healthy watersheds identified by Virginia.
McAuliffe has opposed natural gas exploration and development that uses “fracking” in George Washington National Forest, and in January he honored a campaign pledge by writing Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to oppose “horizontal drilling on future federal oil and gas leases” in the national forest. The U.S. Forest Service, a part of the Agriculture Department, is overdue in releasing an updated draft of its George Washington Forest Management Plan, which is expected to address natural gas exploration.
Critics say the pipeline project may open the door to industrial development in national forests in the state. "The governor's support of this pipeline runs contrary to his previous support of a ban on hydraulic fracturing [fracking] in the George Washington National Forest," Boos said. "It represents a huge increase in gas infrastructure that will, in the long term, increase pressure to begin fracking in the George Washington National Forest."
At the same time, job creation, industrial expansion, and boosting annual tax revenues are components of McAuliffe’s plans to address an anticipated $2.4 billion dollar shortfall in the state’s 2015 budget.
"This project brings American, abundant, and affordable natural gas to the US460 corridor and Hampton Roads, and will serve as a backbone for economic expansion,” said Hank Linginfelter, AGL Resources and Chairman of Virginia Natural Gas, who joined the governor at the press conference.
Securing a path for the pipeline will require Dominion (which would build the pipeline on behalf of the joint venture) to obtain permission — or to invoke the right of eminent domain – across hundreds of properties owned by private citizens. Groups in Nelson and Augusta counties have been organizing against the pipeline project since the spring, hosting local and regional meetings to address concerns about Dominion’s right to enter private property without landowner permission to survey the proposed pipeline route.
“It’s a really important time for us to stand together and look at what’s really happening to our lands – to look at the big picture – how are these business interests have impacts on our national forest as well as private land in our communities,” Boos said.
Virginia law allows private utility companies to purchase private property under eminent domain, but Augusta County officials have petitioned Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring to review this legislation.
Dominion Resources, which will build the pipeline on behalf of the joint venture, has given official notice of intent to prefile an application with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the first step in the process, which the company says would have gas flowing from Clarksburg, West Virginia, to Robeson County in southern North Carolina by 2018.
The proposed pipeline includes a spur connecting it to Chesapeake, Virginia, near the Port of Virginia.