Conserving Wildlife on Pipeline Infrastructure

By Jocelyn J. Phares, Environmental Resources Analyst West Virginia Division of Natural Resources

The West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (WVDNR) actively works to conserve wildlife habitat on oil and natural gas infrastructure. This article and its accompanying presentation demonstrate two ways the WVDNR accomplishes wildlife habitat conservation. 

First, for the project’s impacts to wildlife the WVDNR and Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) reached a voluntary compensation agreement to replace fragmented upland forest habitat. Second, the WVDNR is working towards making pipeline Right-of-Ways (ROWs), the surface area and buffer zone directly above the buried pipe, pollinator friendly spaces. By negotiating with industry stakeholders and advocating for habitat integrity, the WVDNR is conserving West Virginia’ wildlife for future generations to enjoy. The WVDNR, Wildlife Resources Section (WRS) would like to thank the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy for the opportunity to share with its community some of the exciting work the state is doing on oil and natural gas infrastructure. 

The Oil and Natural Gas Industry’s Voluntary Mitigation for Impacts to West Virginia’s Wildlife Resources 

While the WVDNR does not have regulatory authority to approve or deny oil and gas infrastructure projects, the WVDNR does coordinate with permitting agencies and industry developers to ensure a project’s adverse impacts are as minimal as practical. It is important to recognize that all large linear transportation projects will likely have impacts that cannot be reasonably avoided, and that a mitigation process is in place to reduce the severity of those impacts. Specifically, West Virginia requires mitigation for all projects significantly impacting aquatic resources and follows the 2008 Mitigation Rule to guide its mitigation process. On oil and natural gas pipeline projects, the state may recommend specific conditions to protect wildlife outside of what is required by federal law. While projects like Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) are required to mitigate for significant losses of aquatic resources, project proponents may also voluntarily provide mitigation for terrestrial impacts as well. 

In the case of Mountain Valley Pipeline, the Wildlife Resources Section and MVP worked together to include mitigation outside of what is required by either federal or state law. Specifically, the project provided the State of West Virginia voluntary compensatory mitigation for impacts associated with upland forest habitat fragmentation. This voluntary compensatory mitigation sum was determined using National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association’s Habitat Equivalency Analysis (HEA) tool. The HEA tool determines the monetary value of habitat based on current and projected land values as well as species-specific metrics. The Cerulean Warbler and its habitat were utilized in the Habitat EDquivalency Analysis, due to adverse impacts to migratory bird and bat habitat. The Cerulean Warbler is a migratory songbird with a third of its breeding population residing in West Virginia. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s red list, lack of habitat connectivity has contributed to a 62% decline in population size since 1966. Cerulean Warblers require thick forests with gapped canopies to thrive. The voluntary compensatory mitigation provided by MVP will be used to purchase and protect large tracts of upland forests. The Cerulean Warbler and a host of species that require larger tracts of upland forest will benefit from this mitigation. MVP agreed to voluntary compensatory mitigation totaling approximately 20 million dollars. Half of this sum was given to the state up front; the other half is to be deposited once the pipeline goes into service. 

Pollinators and Pipelines: Habitat Recovery on Right-of-Ways 

There are currently sixty million acres of utility transmission lines in the United States, a land area on par with the National Parks System. As our land management practices become more integrated with the surrounding ecosystem there is an opportunity to turn impacted land areas into thriving habitats for species that are in need of conservation. The Wildlife Resources Section recently partnered with Integrated Vegetation Management (IVM) Partners, to begin replacing poor quality habitat on oil and natural gas Rights of Way with pollinator habitat.

For oil and natural gas Rights of Way in North Central West Virginia, slope stability is a major challenge for project proponents to overcome. Due to the urgent nature of slope stability, most oil and natural gas ROWs are seeded with fast growing, deep rooting sedges and grasses. 

The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection’s National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits require specific sediment and erosion controls which often necessitate these deep rooting species. However, often these seed mixes are not native to the state and spread quickly, taking over native species in the process. IVM developed a process which removes non-native species and replaces them with native pollinator species. A restoration project using this technique was completed in the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge along a natural gas ROW in 2017 with a great deal of success. 

While that project was successful there are significant differences between ROWs depending on the underlying geology, construction requirements and slopes involved. Currently, the WRS is working with TransCanada energy and IVM Partners to restore a natural gas pipeline ROW with pollinator habitat in the Lewis Wetzel Wildlife Management Area. The TransCanada ROW restoration project is exciting, because it is being tested on some of West Virginia’s steepest terrain. If successful, combining pollinator habitat creation with sediment and erosion control could become the model for the state’s ROW planting recommendations on a high percentage of oil and natural gas and other linear projects. 

The WVDNR advocates for wildlife on oil and natural gas infrastructure to help ensure the state remains wild and wonderful for many future generations. By negotiating with industry stakeholders, the Wildlife Resources Section reached an unprecedented agreement benefitting the state outside of what is required by state and federal law. Additionally, the WRS is working to ROWs into valuable pollinator habitat. While some adverse impacts from large energy transmission projects are unavoidable, the state continues to attempt to minimize those impacts to the greatest extent practical and restore wildlife habitat in the process.