The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has prepared the final Environmental Impact Statement for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the related Supply Header Project. While this is not the final approval of the project, it is a big step forward toward final approval.
The Environmental Impact Statement was prepared to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The National Environmental Policy Act requires that any federal agency consider the environmental consequences before taking any major action.
In its final Environmental Impact Statement, FERC concluded that, while the pipeline would inflict environmental damage, its developers could avoid the worst of that damage if it took the proper precautions. In its press release announcing the final Environmental Impact Statement it said:
The FERC staff concludes that construction and operation of ACP and SHP would result in some adverse effects, such as impacts on steep slopes and adjacent waterbodies and associated aquatic resources; forested vegetation; Endangered Species Act (ESA)-listed Indiana bat, northern long-eared bat, Roanoke logperch, Madison cave isopod, clubshell mussel, small whorled pogonia, and running buffalo clover; and karst, cave, subterranean habitat and the species associated with these habitats. Implementation of Atlantic and DETI’s respective impact avoidance, minimization, and mitigation measures, as well as their adherence to staff’s recommendations in the EIS would further avoid, minimize, and mitigate these impacts. Most, but not all of these impacts, would be reduced to less-than-significant levels. These determinations are based on a review of the information provided by Atlantic and DETI in their applications to the FERC and supplemental filings in response to staff’s environmental information requests; field investigations; scoping; literature research; alternatives analyses; and consultations with federal, state, and local agencies, and other stakeholders.
While the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission may think that the pipeline would have minor environmental impacts which can, with proper care, be avoided, the Allegheny Blue Ridge Alliance would beg to differ. In a response to the FERC decision, the Allegheny Blue Ridge Alliance said:
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission relies solely on the project developer’s claims of need for the 600-mile, $5.2 billion pipeline, which would yield substantial profit for Dominion Energy and the other private companies behind the project, while the public would be saddled with the financial, environmental and health risks.
“FERC’s action is an affront to American democracy, ignoring the thousands of citizens who participated in the public comment process and handing over the private property rights of hundreds of families to corporate interests. As landowners and business leaders, as ratepayers and conservationists, as parents and grandparents, we insist that the state agencies serve the public trust and rigorously examine the impacts of this pipeline in full view of the public,” says Lew Freeman, a Highland County resident and executive director of the Allegheny-Blue Ridge Alliance. The coalition comprises 52 local community groups and other organizations in Virginia and West Virginia.
FERC has authority to grant the power of eminent domain for interstate projects, but by law must first determine that the projects serve the public interest. The agency’s Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline fails to do so, says the alliance, whose member groups represent thousands of citizens, including hundreds of families along the pipeline route who are facing the taking of their land against their will.
The alliance points to numerous studies in recent years showing that the gas and utility sector is overbuilding natural gas infrastructure and that electricity demand is projected to grow much less than the pipeline developer’s inflated projections. These analyses are ignored in the impact statement.
The coalition also condemns the agency for glossing over the profound and permanent harm to water resources and drinking water supplies, forest ecosystems, wildlife and endangered species habitat, historic sites, agricultural resources, public lands including the Appalachian Trail and Blue Ridge Parkway, and local economies. The pipeline would also significantly worsen climate change impacts in the region due to the greenhouse gas emissions of drilling, producing, transporting and burning natural gas.
A significant red flag for the coalition is FERC’s reliance on Dominion’s pledges to mitigate harm to water resources rather than requiring the company to provide upfront detailed plans to be shared with the public prior to granting federal certification and the power of eminent domain. The coalition has repeatedly expressed concerns that the standard control measures are insufficient to protect water resources given the scale of the pipeline proposal and the steep and highly erodible mountainsides that must be excavated during construction.
The Allegheny Blue Ridge Alliance also pointed to these key points from the Final Environmental Impact Statement:
- Need: FERC fails to make an independent assessment of the need for the ACP, instead relying on the developer’s claims that the project should be built. In doing so, it short circuits any meaningful consideration of the alternatives that could avoid or minimize the harm caused by this project.
- Public lands. The ACP would cross 21 miles of national forest, destroying 430 acres and threatening the survival of seven federally listed species and native brook trout. The project would be a disaster for the mountain and forest headwaters of the Potomac and James rivers.
- Public process. The FEIS fails to correct or address the numerous, substantial defects in the draft EIS that government agencies and citizens alike pointed out during the public comment period. In addition, the final document fails to incorporate significant new information that has come to light since the end of the public comment period on April 6, including more than 400 pages submitted in May.
- Climate: The FEIS continues to ignore the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions of the project. It entirely fails to consider emissions from fracking that this massive pipeline would trigger and seriously discounts the emissions from burning the natural gas.
- Environmental justice: The FEIS notes that the Buckingham Compressor Station #2 could have serious health and safety impacts on three census tracts within one mile with predominantly low-income, minority populations, yet claims the impacts would be
temporary or mitigated without adequately detailing the mitigation plans or considering any impact to safety or property values in those communities.
- Forests: Operation of the ACP (and the companion “Supply Header Project”) would have long-term or permanent effects on about 3,456 acres, including about 2,744 acres of upland forest (deciduous, coniferous and mixed). The recovery time for a closed canopy of mature forest and wildlife habitat could take up to a century or more.
- Mountain slopes: The project would cross more than 100 miles of slopes greater than 20 percent. Constructing the pipeline and access roads in steep terrain or areas prone to landslide increases the potential for landslides to occur.
- Ridgetop removal: The FEIS does not require Dominion to make any changes to minimize ridgetop removal, which would impact approximately 38 miles of ridgetop and result in 247,000 trips by large dump trucks to remove the overburden.
- Alternatives: The FEIS completely fails to even consider renewable energy as an alternative to this project.
What comes next
With the issuance of this final Environmental Impact Statement, FERC’s decision on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is largely over. This should be no surprise since FERC almost never refuses an application for its approval.
This does not mean that everything is settled and the Atlantic Coast Pipeline will certainly go ahead. If constructed, the pipeline would cross many waterways. These crossings require permits from the United States Army Corps of Engineers. Instead of evaluating each crossing individually, the Corps of Engineers intends to approve all crossings through what is called a General Permit. This is what the Corps uses when there are multiple, relatively minor actions which are similar and which result in only minor disturbance.
While the Corps will approve the pipeline under a General Permit, states still have a role. Before the pipeline may go ahead each state must issue a certificate finding that the project will not cause a violation of water quality standards. Proceedings to determine whether states will issue such certificates are ongoing in the states which the pipeline will potentially pass through.
The West Virginia Highlands Conservancy is a member of the Allegheny Blue Ridge Alliance.