The Other Pipeline

Over a thousand miles from the Dakotas, another pipeline battle is brewing.

The fight over the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline (“ACP”) may become just as fierce as the opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline and it might be even more complicated.

The ACP is being proposed by Atlantic, an energy company that is comprised of four other energy companies Dominion, Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas, and Southern Company Gas. If completed, the pipeline will carry natural gas several hundred miles through West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina. The pipeline has been in development for several years and in December of last year the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) issued a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) and they’re accepting public comments on the proposal until April 6 of this year.

On March 3, three groups, Friends of Nelson, Wild Virginia, and Heartwood, which are opposed to the pipeline, mainly because of environmental concerns, filed a motion with FERC to have the DEIS “rescinded and revised,” which would, effectively, halt the project. The groups contend that the DEIS is lacking some crucial information, like impact on waterways, which the public and elected officials need in order to make an informed decision on the project. Wild Virginiais holding events later this month to encourage people to submit public comments to the FERC.

From an environmental standpoint, natural gas is the double-edged sword of fossil fuels. When burned, it releases a lot less greenhouse gasses and pollutants than coal or oil, so it’s less dirty (using the word “clean” in regards to any combustible is an oxymoron). Natural can also be a more-efficient fuel because it can be used directly to heat and cook. In the case of the natural gas being carried by the ACP, there is the added benefit that the it’s coming from West Virginia and will be used there and in nearby states, so not a lot of extra energy will be expended moving it around the country before it’s used or turned into energy.

However, there are some significant downsides to natural gas, too. One big problem is that natural gas is still a fossil fuel, which means it still releases carbon dioxide and pollutants into the air when burned for energy. Another drawback is that the process of getting natural gas, like other types of fossil fuel extraction, can cause earthquakes and can pollute water to the point that it becomes flammable. And, of course, with any fuel that has to be transported via pipeline, train, or truck, if something goes wrong, there is the possibility of leaks, spills, and explosions. These can be detrimental to the environment, and by extension to any humans or other species that use that environment for drinking water, habitat, recreation or anything else.

For pipelines, the negative environmental impacts of construction and the possible negative consequences of a spill are always a concern to those who would be impacted locally and groups who are opposed to pipelines, in general. But because of the location of the ACP, the risks to the local environment may end up drawing national attention. Its proposed path would take it across several National Forests, into close proximity of at least one National Wildlife Refuge, and across the iconic Appalachian Trail. For some, choosing not to build a pipeline that might threaten these environments may seem like a an easy call, but it’s important to keep in mind that if the ACP is not built, the natural gas will probably not stay in the ground. It will still be extracted; it will be moved by other means like trucks; and it will still be burned for fuel. So the environmental costs of getting and using it will still exist and the risks associated with transporting it will just be shifted to different locations.

The political conflicts of the ACP, specifically, and natural gas, in general, are no more cut-and-dried than the environmental pros and cons. Natural gas can often be a cheaper energy source than coal or oil or currently available renewable options. When it’s shipped via pipeline, the cost can go down even more. Higher energy prices disproportionately impact lower income consumers, so there is an argument to be made, and Atlantic is making it, that the ACP will be providing lower cost energy to people who need it. The pipeline would also create some jobs and generate tax revenue for the states it passes through. But some in those states are not happy about what will happen when the ACP is built in their state.

Because much of the land the pipeline would need to be under or near is privately owned, it requires Atlantic to have access to that land through easements and some have been negotiated already. But, if the pipeline is approved and Atlantic is not able to negotiate easements with the remaining landowners, the government will most likely use eminent domain to ensure that the company has access to the ACP, regardless of private landowner objections. The fact that the state government would supersede the private property rights of local landowners in favor of a corporation is one of the biggest sources of opposition to the project and is inspiring political action against the ACP.

So on one side of the ACP, there are the environmental hazards of natural gas and pipelines and the threat of government abuse of eminent domain and the trampling of citizens’ private property rights to enable a company to make money. And on the other side are the even greater environmental hazards of other fossil fuels and the potential economic benefits including more affordable energy. The debate over the ACP doesn’t break neatly along party lines, or along any lines, because there is no single ideology in questions here. How the question of the ACP is debated and decided will be a good indicator of how we make decisions about an energy future that is as contentious as ever and getting more complicated all the time.

Alexis Chapman is a Political Consultant and Writer specializing in policy analysis, from international law to local ordinances. She’s lived in Australia, Ghana, Vermont, Hawaii, and Texas and has worked for small and large NGOs, state legislature, industry associations, and a variety of publications. She is a regular contributor to Political Storm and you can find her on Twitter @AlexisAPChapman.