Last week, the INDY published an in-depth look at the controversial Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a $5 billion infrastructure project by Duke Energy and Dominion Energy that would carry fracked gas through West Virginia, Virginia, and eight counties in eastern North Carolina. If approved and constructed, the pipeline would cross six hundred miles of the Southeast and transport about 1.5 billion cubic feet a day of natural gas to customers in North Carolina and Virginia.
Since the project’s introduction, it’s been controversial. In North Carolina alone, it would cross more than 320 waterways and directly pass through the properties of about a thousand landowners. Opponents say it will cause irreparable environmental damage and disproportionately affect poor and minority communities; supporters point to potential job gains and the return of infrastructure to economically distressed parts of the state.
On Friday, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission took a decisive step in moving the project forward by granting the necessary federal approval for the pipeline. The decision was widely expected by critics, who say the agency routinely gives its blessing to infrastructure projects.
“FERC continues to show itself to be nothing more than a rubber stamp for dirty and dangerous fossil fuel projects,” Kelly Martin, the dirty fuels campaign director for the Sierra Club, says in a statement. “Greenlighting the Atlantic Coast Pipeline doesn’t advance West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina communities—it threatens them by pumping fracked gas through them, releasing methane every step of the way.”
As the INDY reported last week, a recent investigation by the Center for Public Integrity found that FERC has rejected just two pipelines out of hundreds of proposals over the past three decades. “At best,” the researchers concluded, “FERC officials superficially probe projects’ ramifications for the changing climate, despite persistent calls by the U.S. Environmental Agency for deeper analyses.”
FERC’s approval came down in a 2–1 decision and over the objections of Cheryl A. LaFleur, the only non-Trump appointee on the commission, who highlighted the project’s potential environmental impacts.
“I recognize that the Commission’s actions today are the culmination of years of work in the pre-filing, application, and review processes, and I take seriously my decision to dissent,” she wrote in a statement. “I acknowledge that if the applicants were to adopt an alternative solution, it would require considerable additional work and time. However, the decision before the Commission is simply whether to approve or reject these projects, which will be in place for decades. Given the environmental impacts and possible superior alternatives, approving these two pipeline projects [the other, called Mountain Valley, would run through West Virginia] on this record is not a decision I can support.”
The commission’s other two members, Neil Chatterjee and Robert F. Powelson, were confirmed in August. Chatterjee was previously energy policy adviser for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and helped lead the campaign against the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan. Powelson, who served on the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, has criticized Maryland governor Larry Hogan for calling for a ban on fracking and argued that pipeline opponents are involved in a “jihad” against natural gas.
But FERC’s decision does not mean the pipeline is good to go. In order for developers to start building, the project needs to be approved the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality and its West Virginia and Virginia counterparts, which must issue water-quality permits stipulating that the pipeline is in compliance with the Clean Water Act. Earlier this month, the DEQ surprised opponents when it made public a late September letter to the pipeline developers denying the necessary water-quality permit and inviting them to resubmit their application with additional information on the project’s impacts on streams and waterways.
If the agency ultimately denies the permit, experts say the decision would deal a fatal blow to the project.