PW exclusive: The death of a pipeline

By: - July 6, 2020 3:06 pm

Pipeline waiting to be installed along the ACP route in Northampton County. (File photo: Lisa Sorg)

After years of effort, opponents of the cancelled Atlantic Coast Pipeline celebrate, reflect and look to the future

Belinda Joyner had returned from Sunday church and was settling in for the afternoon when she heard the news.

“Is this real?” Joyner asked her friend, who sent an email with the official announcement.

“Yes,” her friend replied.

Even 18 hours later, Joyner could hardly believe the Atlantic Coast Pipeline was dead. “I’m still absorbing it right now, whew,” she said, her voice cracking. “It’s like David and Goliath, and the pipeline is like Goliath, something huge.”

On Independence Day weekend, when most people weren’t tuned in to the news, Duke Energy and Dominion Energy jointly announced that they were cancelling the ACP. Since 2014, the utilities had been pursuing the pipeline, which would have started at a fracked gas operation in West Virginia, routed through Virginia and traversed 160 miles in eight counties in eastern North Carolina. Here, in its path were communities of color, tribal lands and low-income neighborhoods.

Questions linger about how a project of this magnitude — $8 billion and 600 miles long — will be undone. But pipeline opponents view the utilities’ decision as an acknowledgment that sometimes regular, working-class people can prevail.

Belinda Joyner (Photo courtesy of Clean Water for North Carolina)

“People have to realize no matter how big the fight is you can still win,” said Joyner, Northeastern organizer for Clean Water for North Carolina.

Joyner and hundreds of environmental advocates, many of whom are from communities of color with little political capital, have fought the ACP for more than four years. They have argued that eastern North Carolina wants clean energy and related jobs, not fossil fuels, which require infrastructure that harms the environment and produce emissions that exacerbate climate change. 

Aided by attorneys, they scored several legal wins, but also sustained many losses, and not just in the courts: of land seized by eminent domain; of acres of trees clear-cut along the route; of time and money and energy spent petitioning any government official, from county commissioner, to the governor to state and federal regulators, to stop the natural gas project; of their peace of mind.

U.S. Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette issued a statement claiming the project — which upon his election, President Trump immediately placed on his priorities list — was killed by the “well-funded, obstructionist environmental lobby.”

“The Trump Administration wants to bring the benefits of reliable and affordable energy of all kinds to all Americans,” Brouillette said. “Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the activists who killed this project.”

Activists did uncover the myriad ways utilities were skirting environmental permitting rules and then challenged them in court. But a confluence of events contributed to the project’s demise — events that weakened even the expanded power the Trump administration had recently handed the industry. The EPA rolled back provisions of the Clean Water Act, explicitly to fast-track pipeline and other energy projects.

First, the utilities cited a “series of permitting delays and legal challenges” that “resulted in spiraling costs and pushed back the project’s in-service date.” Those delays would have further upped the cost of the pipeline, which has already increased from $4.5 billion to $8 billion — nearly 100%. 

(The utilities had planned to pass much of those costs to ratepayers, although in North Carolina the increases would have needed approval from the state Utilities Commission.)

And even though the U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled 7-2 in favor of the ACP owners, allowing them to install the pipeline beneath a part of the Appalachian Trail in Virginia, the utilities still had to secure eight more permits. 

Duke and Dominion also cited new court rulings — in particular the Nationwide Permit 12 decision in Montana — as a reason for the ACP’s cancellation. On April 15, the federal District Court for Montana vacated the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ nationwide permit; although that permit related to the Keystone XL pipeline, the court’s decision had implications for pipeline projects throughout the U.S., including the ACP. 

The permit would have allowed utility pipelines, cables and wires  to cross jurisdictional waters, as long as the environmental effects were “minimal.” But the court found the Corps’ permit violated the Endangered Species Act, and directed the Corps to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service.

The Corps asked the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals for an emergency stay, which was rejected.

This legal wrangling would have further delayed the ACP’s operation date until at least 2022 — three years behind schedule. In June, Duke and Dominion had petitioned the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to allow it to postpone the start date. Hundreds of people, including several North Carolina environmental groups, sent public comments to FERC asking it to deny the utilities’ request. 

As of Sunday, FERC had not yet ruled on the extension.

Another factor in the ACP’s demise: capitalism. Shortly after Sunday’s ACP announcement, Dominion alerted the media and investors that it had sold its interstate gas infrastructure business, which is core to the ACP, to Berkshire Hathaway Energy, which is owned by billionaire Warren Buffett. 

The nearly $10 billion deal, which considering its complexity, must have been in the works for some time, includes more than 7,700 miles of natural gas pipelines and about 900 billion cubic feet of gas storage, according to Dominion. The utility will retain its pipeline and assets within North Carolina.

The sale, Dominion said, “reduced our confidence that the project can be completed on schedule and on budget.”

Valerie Williams of Concerned Stewards of Halifax County, whose land was affected by the project: “It’s been a long and winding road to this victory, but when you have a determined people—with legacy, memory and heritage—we must be committed to never give up. I want to especially reinforce how important it is to all landowners that private property is still private property And now we can breathe fresh air and drink clean water.” (File photo: Lisa Sorg)

The ghosts of the ACP malinger in eastern North Carolina. Sections of pipe hundreds of feet long languish near the road in Northampton and Cumberland counties. Acres of trees have been felled. In Nash County, ACP contractors already burrowed beneath the Tar River using a technique called horizontal drilling, and installed pipe there.

Duke said it will seek approval from FERC and other agencies “to complete restoration” for areas that have been disturbed. Pipe that has been installed will be left in place, a common practice, because “there would be more environmental disturbance if we were to remove the pipe.” 

“If it causes environmental harm to dig them up, how about when they put them in?” Belinda Joyner said.

The utilities had also constructed an office building in the woods in Northampton County, near Pleasant Hill, where there was to be a compressor station. It’s unclear how that building will be used.

North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality spokeswoman Laura Leonard said the ACP would have to submit any requests to close the project in writing to the appropriate regional office. It would also be required “to establish ground cover on any disturbed areas, continue to maintain erosion control measures, and conduct inspections weekly or after rainfall events of one-inch or greater until the site is completely stabilized.” DEQ staff, Leonard said, will “monitor the stabilization of the areas to ensure adequate vegetation has been established to permanently stabilize disturbed areas before it closes the project.”

Many landowners’ property also had been seized by the utilities to make way for the project, aided in part by the North Carolina legislature. In 2017, lawmakers passed (and overrode the governor’s veto of) a bill that included a provision allowing out-of-state companies to condemn land for pipelines. While Dominion has customers in North Carolina, it’s based in Virginia.

In some cases, the utilities paid property owners for the easements through eminent domain, although the amounts varied, often dependent on the owners’ negotiating skills. Duke said property owners would be allowed to keep that money. “In the coming months we’ll be evaluating the best path forward for resolving existing easement agreements with ACP landowners.”

Therese Vick, research director for the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, said her group will monitor how the utilities treat the landowners and how any property damage is resolved. “There are folks who had judgments against them,” Vick said. “They’re low-wealth and didn’t have a lawyer.”

Marvin Winstead of Nash County is one of the holdouts. He forbade the utilities from coming on his land. He was still battling the utilities in federal court when the announcement came down. A hearing had been scheduled for this Friday, its disposition as yet unclear.

“There are still some question marks,” Winstead said. “It’s still sinking in.”

Robie Goins, a Lumbee Indian, owns land adjacent to a proposed metering and regulation station for the pipeline and was “in the blast zone,” he said, referring to the area that is at risk in case of a pipeline explosion. Goins filed a complaint against the Robeson County Commissioners for approving a conditional use permit for the station, but he lost in Superior Court. 

He said that before the courts issued a stop-work order in 2018, some trees had been cut along other parts of the route and remain on the ground. He said a woman he knows now has flooding issues after the clear-cutting. “They cut down a lot of trees for nothing.”

The next fight, opponents say, is to ensure ratepayers don’t have to cover the cost of the scuttled project.

The Digital Journal reported that Duke and Dominion had spent at least $400 million each on pipeline costs. In a Q&A released as part of the announcement, Duke Energy said none of its electric or natural gas customers will be responsible for any of the project costs. Dominion will absorb about 53% of the $3.4 billion already invested in the pipeline, the Digital Journal reported.

Dominion and Duke both are emphasizing their switch to a focus on renewable energy, which according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, will overtake natural gas in electricity generation by 2050. 

Virginia and North Carolina have both enacted renewable energy plans. Virginia’s plan is stronger because it has legislative backing and sets a goal of 100% by 2050. In North Carolina, Gov. Roy Cooper signed Executive Order 80, which calls for a reduction of statewide greenhouse gas emissions to 40% below 2005 levels.

However, Donna Chavis, a Lumbee Indian and member of Friends of the Earth, said renewable energy projects need monitoring.

“When they talked about renewable energy, that disturbed me,” Chavis said. A proposed biogas project, between Align RNG, in Duplin County, Dominion and Smithfield Foods is undergoing a permitting process. And under Senate Bill 3, the state’s Renewable Energy Portfolio passed in 2007, those projects, even if they do little to address the pollution associated with industrialized hog operations, are classified as “renewable.”

But for now, on the day after, pipeline opponents are relieved. “Sometimes we think things are unconquerable,” Joyner said. “But with God and people working together, faithfulness will prevail.”

Reactions from pipeline opponents:

Hope Taylor, executive director of Clean Water for North Carolina:

The cancelling the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is a victory for justice of many kinds. Environmental Justice, because the African American and Indigenous communities along the pipeline route can breathe easier that this massive project that will not victimize them yet again by disproportionately harming their health, safety, economics and access to their lands. Climate justice, as the routine emissions of methane from the ACP and the fracked gas it supplied were estimated in our 2019 study to increase climate impacts by as much as 13% over EPA’s estimate of current national methane releases. Economic Justice, as ratepayers of the mega-utilities Duke and Dominion building the pipeline will not face the substantial rate hikes that the unneeded pipeline would have brought.

Landowners along the pipeline, many of very modest means, had faced losing control of their lands or long court battles, and can now settle with the rapacious pipeline builders and move on with their lives. Our only disappointment is that our NC Department of Environmental Quality accepted the grossly inadequate Environmental Impact Statement that Dominion and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission foisted on them in 2017, and then granted air and water permits for the ACP that could not protect Environmental Justice for communities,  or the state’s waters and air quality.  We hope that DEQ’s leadership will realize how much of the state agency’s time and resources have been wasted on considering this misguided project,  and that they will become closer partners with Environmental Justice communities and well-informed, scientific and public-spirited non-profits to protect NC communities and the public’s resources for all of us,  even challenging federal “regulators” when they act as industry cheerleaders.

We celebrate with the many thousands of impacted residents, and deeply committed activists, organizations, public interest law groups and coalitions that worked relentlessly to defeat this dangerous, costly and unnecessary pipeline.”

Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune:

If anyone still had questions about whether or not the era of fracked gas was over, this should answer them. Today is a historic victory for clean water, the climate, public health, and our communities. Duke and Dominion did not decide to cancel the Atlantic Coast Pipeline — the people and frontline organizations that led this fight for years forced them into walking away. Today’s victory reinforces that united communities are more powerful than the polluting corporations that put profits over our health and future.

Stopping the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is a historic victory for the health and well-being of communities along the route of the project, and adds to the mountain of evidence that we do not require fracked gas to meet our energy needs. Now, rather than investing in the further destruction of our clean water and communities, we can continue to grow the booming clean energy economy creating jobs and protecting public health.”

Tom Cormons, Appalachian Voices executive director: 

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline was never needed, and the facts have never been more clear: fracked gas has no role in our energy future. From Robeson County, N.C., to Harrison County W.Va., in statehouses and courthouses, communities have stood shoulder to shoulder to protect their land, their water and their communities. Today’s announcement marks a historic victory for environmental justice. The Atlantic Coast Pipeline was a climate catastrophe and economic boondoggle from the start. The smart investment today is in the people of Central and Southern Appalachia. Not in the resources that might be extracted and exported, but in projects that generate local wealth, healthy communities and clean, sustainable energy. We are hopeful that this momentous victory is merely a tipping point as our society pivots towards a clean energy economy that works for all people.”

NC Warn Director Jim Warren:

We hope the cancellation of the ACP will soon be followed by a move by both of these corporations to stop building gas-fired generation, and to begin replacing all existing coal and gas-fired power with the cheaper, more reliable approach: renewables matched with storage and energy-saving and balancing programs.”

Rev. Mac Legerton, Interim Director, NC Climate Solutions Coalition and Co-Director, Robeson County Cooperative for Sustainable Development: 

We assume that Dominion and Duke Energy did not want to take the risk of their request being denied by FERC for a two-year extension for the ACP, and that’s why they made the decision to withdraw the ACP at this time.  Environmental organizations are not to blame for the failure of the ACP project. The ACP was an unnecessary and irresponsible, economic and environmental boondoggle from the very beginning. Dominion and Duke Energy misinformed and misrepresented the full scope, scale, and impact of the pipeline to federal and state regulators and elected officials, including plans to take the pipeline to South Carolina and potentially export its gas as Senator Burr so aptly described in 2015. For this reason alone, it needed to be halted.  The economic vitality and future job growth of North Carolina is in renewable energy, not un-naturally fracked, carbon-based, methane gas that is the #1 cause of global warming and climate disruption.”

Southern Environmental Law Center:

This is a victory for all the communities that were in the path of this risky and unnecessary project. The Atlantic Coast Pipeline was wrong from the start. After years of opposition, legal defeats and threats to the environment, SELC is relieved to see Duke and Dominion make the right decision to walk away from it.”

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Lisa Sorg
Lisa Sorg

Assistant Editor and Environmental Reporter Lisa Sorg helps manage newsroom operations while covering the environment, climate change, agriculture and energy.