By John McFerrin
In July, 2021, the developers of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline announced that they were cancelling the project. Depending on one’s point of view, there was joy, jubilation, weeping, wailing, gnashing of teeth, or some combination.
While there was shouting, it’s not all over. There remain the questions of what happens to the parts that had been built and what happens to the rights of way that the Dominion had acquired but now will not use. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has now provided a tentative answer to one of those questions while leaving the other alone.
Although it is only a small fraction of the proposed line, Dominion had already installed about 31 miles of pipe at the time it abandoned the project. In addition, it had cleared and graded about 108 miles of right of way. Now it proposes removing a portion of the previously felled trees that were not cleared (approximately 83.2 miles of the 108.4 miles felled in total), and restoring lands that were cleared and graded (approximately 82.7 miles). For the remaining approximately 25.2 miles of previously felled trees, Atlantic proposes to leave these in place. Restoration activities at Atlantic Coast Pipeline aboveground facilities (3 compressor stations, 9 meter and regulating stations, 30 monopoles and 11 towers) would range from backfilling of all open excavations to general site cleanup, stabilization, and reclamation/seeding.
Dominion has proposed to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) that it leave the pipe in the ground. It also proposed that it leave in place the trees it had cut but not removed.
Its justification for both of these is largely the same. With the pipe, it would be more environmentally destructive to dig the pipe up than it would be to leave it in the ground. With the downed trees, Dominion says that they were downed several years ago. Other vegetation has started to grow up around the downed trees and wildlife has begun to recolonize the area. Dominion says that the least destructive thing to do would be to leave things alone.
Now the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has issued a Draft Environmental Impact Statement in which it largely agrees with Dominion. It considered the alternatives and concluded that the least destructive thing to do would be to leave the pipe in the ground and the trees where they fell.
FERC did recognize that in some locations the downed trees would be an inconvenience to the landowner. It said that if any landowner wanted the trees cleared then Dominion should clear them.
This is nominally a preliminary decision. FERC will now offer interested persons the opportunity to comment before issuing a final Environmental Impact Statement. After that, it will make a formal decision based upon the Environmental Impact Statement.
In reality, the handwriting is on the wall in big letters. Dominion wants to leave the pipe in the ground and the trees where they fell. FERC thinks that is the best alternative. When it comes time to make a final decision, that will be the final decision.
The more controversial decision was a non-decision: FERC ignored the question of what is to happen to the 2600 easements covering 4290 acres that were acquired for the pipeline but now will not be used. Many had hoped that FERC would require that the rights of way be released.
Dominion has said that it has released 95% of the easements voluntarily. It plans to retain the remaining easements at least as long as it still has restoration or monitoring obligations. After that, it will negotiate with affected landowners on a case by case basis.