Atlantic Coast Pipeline in the Rearview Mirror

By Lewis Freeman, Executive Director, Allegheny-Blue Ridge Alliance

Dominion Energy and Duke Energy, partners in the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) project, announced on July 5 that they had decided not to proceed with the project.  In a joint statement, the companies said: “This was a necessary decision given the legal uncertainties facing the project, and we deeply regret that we were unable to complete this project.” 

The timing of the announcement was a shock to most, particularly since the owners of the project had won an important Supreme Court decision 3 weeks before that. But, the Dominion/Duke announcement was not a complete surprise.  In March 2019 Duke CEO Lynn Good conceded in an interview with Bloomberg Television there was a possibly that the project might not be completed and that if that were the case Duke would need a “Plan B.”  According to a recent post-mortem article in the Charlotte (NC) Business Journal about the ACP cancellation, consideration about abandoning the project began as long ago as late last year. 

Construction status of the ACP at the time of cancellation

Construction on the ACP had been suspended in December 2018 due the project losing its permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Biological Opinion and Incidental Take Statement, as required by the Endangered Species Act).  At the time of the ACP cancellation announcement, only 72 miles (less than 12%) of the 600-mile route had been under construction), half of it in West Virginia and half in North Carolina.  No construction was ever initiated in Virginia.  In addition to the 72 miles of construction activity, trees had been felled along an additional 169 miles of the route.

Reasons behind the decision to cancel the ACP

There were many factors that contributed to the companies’ decision to pull the plug on the ACP.  Among them were: 

  • Delays and cost overruns – The ACP was significantly behind schedule and projected costs were twice what had originally been announced. When initially proposed in May 2014 by Dominion as the Southeast Reliability Project (it was renamed the ACP in September 2014 when Duke Energy became a partner), the pipeline was to have cost $4 billion and been completed by the end of 2018.
  • Changed market conditions – The original cited need for the ACP was to provide natural gas for new power plants.  80% of the gas that would have been carried by the ACP was earmarked for such plants. Since 2014, market conditions for natural gas have dramatically changed and numerous new plants that were planned were cancelled.  Further, the overall demand for natural gas diminished considerably in the intervening years, creating a supply glut.
  • The loss of 8 key permits – In addition to losing its permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the ACP had lost court challenges that vacated permits from the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Park Service, four districts of the Army Corps of Engineers and the air permit for a compressor station in Buckingham County, VA.  As the Dominion/Duke joint statement noted, there was ongoing uncertainty as to when and if all the necessary permits would be restored.  This is despite the companies’ successful appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court on one issue involving the Forest Service permit: the ability to cross the Appalachian Trail.

Contributions of ABRA and its members to the cancellation of the ACP

The circumstances that contributed to the cancellation decision for the ACP didn’t occur in a vacuum.   The efforts over the last six years of ABRA and its member organizations, including West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, and many allied groups helped shape circumstance.

  • The numerous successful legal challenges that delayed the project were brought by two law firms that are ABRA members – Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) and Appalachian Mountain Advocates (Appalmad) – on behalf of client groups that were primarily member organizations of ABRA and in conjunction with several allied organizations, in particular the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. The Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council, both ABRA members, provided important legal assistance. 
  • ABRA’s Compliance Surveillance Initiative (CSI), created in early 2018 as a program to monitor construction activity on the ACP provided valuable research and intelligence that helped SELC and Appalmad in the legal cases they filed. West Virginia Highlands Conservancy has been among those groups providing strong financial support for the CSI program.  
  • The thousands of impacted landowners and volunteers in Virginia and West Virginia who were recruited and organized by ABRA and its member organizations applied critical commentary and public pressure to responsible regulatory agencies, legislators and the media.  These combined, coordinated efforts were critical to influencing Dominion and Duke’s decision to abandon the ACP project.