By John McFerrin
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and Dominion Resources have proposed an accelerated schedule for approval of the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline. The Forest Service has pushed back against that proposal, suggesting a more thorough review.
Dominion’s proposed 600-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline would cross 21 miles of the George Washington and Monongahela National Forests. In order to build the pipeline, Dominion must have approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). It must also have the approval of the U.S. Forest Service.
The Forest Service approval would come in the form of a Special Use permit that would allow the construction of the pipeline on the National Forests.
To approve the pipeline, the Forest Service would also have to revise the Land and Resource Land and Resource Management Plans for both the Monongahela National Forest and the George Washington National Forest. Every ten to fifteen years, each National Forest does a Land and Resource Management Plan, setting out how the Forest Service plans to manage the Forest. The Monongahela National Forest did its Plan in 2006; the George Washington National Forests did its Plan in 2014. Neither Plan anticipated a big pipeline running through the Forest. Because of this, it would be illegal to allow a pipeline to cross the Forests unless those plans are changed.
As a matter of law, neither a change in the Land and Resource Management Plan nor issuance of a special use permit can come about before the Forest Service has all the relevant information and follows its procedures.
So far, the Forest Service has not shown any hostility to the proposed pipeline. Neither has it shown any great fondness. Instead, it has consistently shown its commitment to a careful and thorough analysis of the pipeline, requiring the applicant to provide complete and high quality information and making decisions based on its own timelines.
Now FERC and Dominion Resources want to change all that. FERC has proposed that it go ahead and make its decision on the pipeline, allow construction to begin, and then let the Forest Service make decisions on changing the Forest Plans and issuing special use permits.
This puts the Forest Service in an impossible position. To make decisions on the special use permit or amending the Land and Resource Management Plan, the Forest Service must review the impacts of the project according to the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act and its own procedures. Before the Forest Service can do this, there must be an Environmental Impact Statement.
For the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is in charge of preparing an Environmental Impact Statement. The Forest Service would then use the information gathered in preparing the Environmental Impact Statement to make its decision on amending the Land and Resource Management Plans and deciding on the Special Use permits.
On December 30, 2016 FERC published an incomplete and inaccurate Draft EIS that fails to address many of the concerns that the Forest Service and the public have expressed. In the Draft, FERC allows Dominion to defer submitting critical information until after a Certificate from FERC is issued or construction is underway. The Forest Service won’t have the information needed to make its decisions.
The Forest Service has expressed its opposition to this way of doing things. On December 13, 2016, it wrote to FERC describing its own procedural requirements for reviewing the ACP application, including a timeline that is longer than FERC’s schedule for project permitting. The Forest Service said that, prior to making decisions on the project, all requested and needed data and plans must have been submitted and disclosed to the public.
Some of these data and plans are yet to come from Dominion itself. For example, the Forest Service has asked for information on slope stabilization that Dominion hasn’t provided. It needs that information to determine if the pipeline can be safely built. Should the pipeline be built, the Forest Service would develop plans to avoid or minimize damage to National Forest lands. Dominion has not provided the information necessary to do that.
It is critical that the Forest Service stay committed to the process and professional standards it upholds as stewards of our public lands. The Forest Service must take the time that it needs and the law provides to meet these standards.
The West Virginia Highlands Conservancy has been critical of the proposed pipeline in the past. We especially opposed rushing the Forest Service, asking that it be allowed to follow its own legally required timetable in making decisions. We oppose forcing it to make a decision before it has the information it needs. We oppose placing it in position of having to make a decision on a pipeline which is already partially built, a result of FERC’s timetable and insistence on allowing construction before the Forest Service makes a decision.
Dominion has requested expedited review of the project. While it is understandable that it wants to go ahead as soon as possible, that is no reason to allow the pipeline to be approved before the Forest Service has finished evaluating it.
The West Virginia Highlands Conservancy has written a letter to the Forest Service, expressing our support for the U. S. Forest Service’s commitment to its requirements for a careful, thorough review of the pipeline application.
If you wish to send a statement of support, you may send it to Forest Service Chief, Thomas Tidwell, email@example.com, and Regional Foresters, Kathleen Atkinson, firstname.lastname@example.org, Tony Tooke, email@example.com, and Clyde Thompson firstname.lastname@example.org Copies should also be submitted to FERC (to be included in the administrative record). Submissions can be made through http://www.ferc.gov/. The docket number is CP15-554. Click on Documents and Filings and use the eComment feature. Or send by mail to: Nathaniel J. Davis, Sr., Deputy Secretary, FERC, 888 First Street NE, Room 1A, Washington, DC 20426.