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Opinion/Editorial: Pipeline bows to opponents, changes

Opinion/Editorial: Pipeline bows to opponents, changes

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It was the death of a thousand cuts.

Bleeding revenue and losing time, Dominion Energy in Virginia and its partner, Duke Energy in North Carolina, decided to abandon their six-year effort to build the Atlantic Coast Pipeline to move natural gas from the shale fields to the coast.

We have long been concerned about the environmental damage linked to the pipeline, which started early in the project’s construction phase.

In 2018, the ACP was cited by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality for wrongly felling trees in what were supposed to be water-protection buffer zones at 15 sites along the route.

The buffer zones were established by state permit to prevent harm to even more ecologically fragile streams and wetlands.

The company itself discovered the mistake and stopped work for a time to discover why it occurred. But, as the saying goes, by then the damage was done.

In the meantime, opponents of the pipeline were filing numerous lawsuits — most of them based on environmental concerns — challenging the permitting process that was allowing the pipeline to be constructed.

Tangled up in that bureaucratic maze were not only state permits but, more prominently, permits and approvals from several federal agencies, including the U.S Fish & Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Here’s just one sample of that complexity:

Recently, the ACP won a victory when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a lower court decision, in effect upholding the pipeline’s permit from the U.S. Forest Service to cross the Appalachian Trail in Nelson County.

But another case had gone against the pipeline. In December 2018, the 4th Circuit issued a stay on a permit from the Fish & Wildlife Service because of concerns about endangered and threatened species.

As a result, work on the project had been halted.

The ACP now needed a new opinion from the Fish & Wildlife Service regarding endangered and threatened species, and it also needed a new permit from the Forest Service to cross the George Washington and Monongahela forests.

And environmental concerns were not the only basis for objections — although, since pipeline construction already had caused environmental damage, they seemed to be the most urgent.

The project still had to obtain a revised state water-quality permit to build a compressor station in Buckingham County. Opponents argued that the siting of the facility would impose unwarranted harm on a historic African American community there. Such concerns were raised originally but now have the potential of gaining even greater attention in today’s intensified national push for racial equity.

Most recently, a court in Montana rejected a nationwide federal water-quality permit that directly affected the ACP’s ability to build.

It was the final cut. Dominion and Duke decided to abandon the pipeline, and made their announcement earlier this month.

What’s more, Dominion will get out of the natural gas business altogether.

It was a stunning turnaround.

To put that into perspective, consider that just a few years ago, natural gas was considered to be the clean energy of the future. It was highly touted not only by industry officials, but by many environmentalists as well, as a welcome alternative to coal.

As a result, production ramped up to meet new demand and anticipated growth. The issue then became how to best move natural gas from the wells to the refineries to the consumers.

More and bigger pipelines seemed to fill that need.

The bigger the pipeline, the more efficient it can be — but also the more permits it must obtain, especially for a multi-state project such as the ACP.

Although it works imperfectly, the permitting process is intended to balance public and private interests and to prevent unnecessary harm. But that process is lengthy and complicated — so much so that by the time the ACP, announced in 2014, arrived at 2020, conditions had changed.

Natural gas no longer was viewed as the premier clean-energy product. Public opinion, once warm toward reliable natural gas, had cooled.

And the ACP was three years behind schedule and more than $3 billion over budget.

No wonder Dominion and Duke cut their losses. Dominion says it now will focus more on renewable energy.

That’s a positive outcome (although even renewable projects such as wind farms and solar arrays have their environmental problems). But it came at a tremendous cost of time and treasure.

And the pipeline leaves in its wake damage to the environment and heartache for many of the humans along the route of construction.

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