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More Details Emerge on Dominion’s $6.5 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline 

click to enlarge Protesters rallied at the Water Is Life demonstration at the Virginia Capitol in December.

Scott Elmquist

Protesters rallied at the Water Is Life demonstration at the Virginia Capitol in December.

Not far from the peaceful retreat of Satchidananda Ashram-Yogaville in Buckingham County, men in bright yellow coveralls go to work. Revving up their loud chain saws, they cut down trees along the rights of way for the controversial, 600-mile-long Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

The workmen keep to areas already leased out by landowners for the natural gas project, whose lead partner is Richmond-based Dominion Energy, according to Heidi Berthoud of the activist group Friends of Buckingham.

"Of course we are resisting the ACP," she says.

After several years, the start of construction seems imminent although last year's start date came and went because of widespread lawsuits and regulatory hurdles. Even the tree cutting must end in late March to accommodate native bats and birds emerging from hibernation, Berthoud says.

Here's the latest on where things stand with the project, whose partners include utilities Duke Energy and the Southern Co., and that starts in northern West Virginia and is set, at least for now, to terminate near the North and South Carolina border:

Legal Trench Warfare

Although it has approval from the all-important Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the pipeline still faces a slew of legal and regulatory hurdles and lacks a Virginia sediment plan. The Southern Environmental Law Center is challenging water permits and has filed a challenge with the National Forest Service because the pipeline cuts through federal mountain woodlands in West Virginia and Virginia.

Private landowners still oppose the project's backers, who are trying to use eminent domain under a public-purpose claim to take their land. Aaron F. Ruby, Dominion's pipeline spokesman, says that the project has most of the permits it needs and expects full construction to begin this spring and finish late next year.

Is the Project Needed by Dominion Customers?

When the ACP was being hatched several years ago, Dominion said that the gas from the Marcellus Shale Field in West Virginia was badly needed by its residential and commercial users in Virginia to wean them away from dirty coal. But, according to retired utility executive Thomas Hadwin, Dominion and pipeline partner Duke have cut their long-term plans to build new natural gas plants in half. Dominion's updated plans now include more renewables and the development of a more sophisticated electrical grid.

Spokesman Ruby notes that 90 percent of the pipeline's capacity is subscribed to public utilities including Dominion, Duke, Columbia Gas of Virginia and Piedmont Natural Gas and Public Service Co. of North Carolina.

What's Doing in South Carolina?

After abandoning its $25 billion Virgil C. Summer nuclear power plant and facing bankruptcy, Scana, a South Carolina electric utility, put itself up for sale. The major suitor is Dominion Energy, which would inherit a large network of pipelines. Dominion Chief Executive Tom Farrell says that the ACP "is a natural fit" to bring gas into the South Carolina market.

Gregg Buppert, a senior lawyer in the Virginia office of the Southern Environmental Law Center, says that he doesn't think the public has been given a clear answer about why Dominion owns so much redundant pipeline capacity on the project.

"One view of Dominion's plan to expand into South Carolina is that the company wants to capitalize on its ownership of all this space on the pipeline it is building," he says by email.

Little, if any, mention of this was made until recently. Pipeline opponents note that a liquefied natural gas plant is being modernized at Elba Island, Georgia, which is near the South Carolina border. Dominion has not mentioned the plant, which is on a gas pipeline network that could be easily linked to an expanded ACP. Ruby says that the project "has never asked for nor have we received" federal approval to export gas. In an unrelated case, Dominion started exporting gas March 2 from a liquid gas plant at Cove Point, Maryland.

At the end of the day, building the pipeline will be a very profitable enterprise for Dominion, says Buppert, even though market support for the project is weak.

"Projects like this go forward on the backs of utility customers, who end up paying billions for unneeded infrastructure," he adds.   

ACP Goes Up in Size and Price

After Dominion made its play for Scana, an official of Duke Energy, a 47 percent partner in the ACP, said during a conference call with analysts Feb. 22 that the project will go up in price by $1 billion to $1.5 billion, making it cost about $6.5 billion when finished in 2019. Because of route changes, the project goes from 500 miles to 600 miles in length. Ruby says the changes are needed to conform with the rigorous environmental review and to accommodate hundreds of route changes negotiated with landowners.

Will Virginia Ratepayers Get Stuck with the Pipeline Bill?

The ACP has been dogged for several years with questions about whether its Virginia ratepayers will pay for some of the pipeline construction. Ratepayers are expected to pay for power projects that serve them. But the State Corporation Commission, which oversees rate setting, hasn't made a clear ruling yet. There would be questions if the pipeline serves primarily non-Virginia customers. Ruby says "the cost of all infrastructure is ultimately paid by the consumers who use it." He adds that state utility commissioners must review and approve such costs.

In South Carolina, Dominion's Farrell has told the state legislature that Scana's ratepayers would have to fund part of the cost of the failed Summer nuclear plant or Dominion would reconsider its offer of buying it.

Meanwhile, back in Yogaville, people are forlorn about the pipeline. "We've heard about the pipeline for over four years," says Joseph Jeeva Abbate, director of Yogaville Environmental Solutions. "Over that time, we've learned that it is not going to serve our communities and will have a negative impact." S

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