A company planning to bring one of two natural gas-fired power plants to Charles City County, VA, said this summer it is abandoning the projects. It’s a partial victory for residents who have been opposing the C4GT power plants and other new natural gas infrastructure in the rural county for years.
But a larger power plant, the Chickahominy Power Station, also fueled by natural gas, is still in the works for the county. Developers of that power plant, which has already garnered key permits from the state, say the county along the James River southeast of Richmond is ideally located between growing Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, two corners of the state where “electricity demand is expected to increase with the many data centers planned and under construction in the region.”
But the county’s 7,000 residents — 46% of whom are Black and 7% Native American — have largely opposed the pair of projects, along with the expansion of a landfill, citing environmental justice concerns.
“These power plants and industries are not going to help anyone in our majority-minority rural area,” said Wanda Roberts, co-director of the group Concerned Citizens of Charles City County, or C5. “The character of our rural county is up for grabs right now.”
Advocates for clean water have increasingly been fighting new natural gas infrastructure (not just the pipelines, but also compressor stations, which repressurize the gas to keep it moving) in communities they say are already overburdened with environmental impacts. Though the sprawling Atlantic Coast Pipeline — opposed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court — was canceled last year, the Mountain Valley Pipeline is still under way in Virginia and seeking permits for additional infrastructure.
A new air pollution permit application for the Lambert compressor station in Pittsylvania County, intended to pump gas for the Mountain Valley Pipeline, is seen as a test of the state’s commitment to environmental justice because of its potential to impact local air quality.
Before the Atlantic Coast Pipeline was canceled, a federal judge had ruled in early 2020 that the Virginia Air Pollution Control Board failed to properly weigh environmental justice concerns in issuing an air permit for one of its compressor stations in Buckingham County. The board is now being asked to decide on a similar permit for the Pittsylvania compressor station, slated for review in September.
“It’s an interesting place to be in,” said Taylor Lilley, environmental justice staff attorney for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “At the same time the Virginia [general] assembly has put out the Clean Economy Act and the Environmental Justice Act, we are seeing an increase in these projects and an increase in discourse about the role of these projects in Virginia’s energy portfolio and the way the state should address these projects as a whole.”
Virginia’s Clean Economy Act, passed in 2020, requires energy companies to produce electricity entirely from nuclear and renewable sources by 2050. Companies will have to retire electric generating units that emit carbon, such as those fueled by burning natural gas.
Still, that gives new natural gas infrastructure, which emits less carbon than coal-fired power plants, a few decades to run. But there is debate over whether there is currently enough demand to justify what are often privately funded natural gas projects.
The C4GT’s downfall
The C4GT power plant had been on shaky regulatory and financial ground for months leading up to NOVI Energy’s decision in July to cancel the project. The State Corporation Commission in December rejected a proposal by Virginia Natural Gas to expand its pipeline infrastructure largely to supply the new power plant, questioning the demand for the project.
Opponents celebrated the SCC’s decision as a major setback for the company just as its construction permit was set to expire. But, on the day it would have elapsed, NOVI Energy poured concrete and set up fencing to meet their permit’s requirements that would allow construction to begin. But that work slowed and stopped in the early months of 2021. In March, Virginia Natural Gas sued NOVI Energy for breaking the terms of a financial agreement between the two companies. The Charles City County Board of Supervisors voted in April to essentially take back the 88 acres of land that had been given to C4GT for the plant.
“Everyone was holding their breath and realizing how poorly managed this project was and how detrimental this project would be for the county,” Lilley said.
A reporter for the Richmond Times-Dispatch was the first to hear that NOVI Energy was pulling the plug on the power station, and he relayed the news to the members of C5.
“We are thrilled that the C4GT power plant will not be built here,” Roberts said a few weeks later. “We feel like our community won.”
Around the same time, though, some residents received notice that the Chickahominy Power Station was taking another step forward. A company called Chickahominy Pipeline sent letters to property owners saying it plans to build a gas pipeline through Charles City and surrounding counties. Though pipeline details and the identity of its backers are still unclear, residents have begun their research, buoyed by the recent victory.
Lawyers from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and Southern Environmental Law Center have asked the air board to reopen its decision to grant a permit to the 1,650-megawatt Chickahominy Power Station. They argued in a March letter that the state’s environmental justice analysis for the power station found many of the same defects as the Buckingham permit that was overturned by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Still, Lilley said, having the C4GT project canceled “shows that tireless public engagement works.”
“But when you’re dealing with a community that’s continuously selected for these projects,” she said, “you don’t get much of a rest.”