Will FERC Protect Us From the Atlantic Coast Pipeline?

By John McFerrin

Ever since proposals for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the Mountain Valley Pipeline became public, we have heard much about the environmental effects of the pipelines.  People talked about threatened species.  They asked (without receiving satisfactory answers) just how Dominion planned to cross those mountain ridges without making a terrible mess.  People asked about how it could cross through karst geology and highly erodible rock and what that would do to fish populations without getting very good answers.

The major regulator in all this has been the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).  It is the one preparing the Environmental Impact Statement.  It is orchestrating all the studies, telling Dominion what it has to provide, etc.

Yet the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has nothing to do with environmental protection.  Its mission is to “Assist consumers in obtaining reliable, efficient, and sustainable energy services at a reasonable cost through appropriate regulatory and market means.”

FERC got dragged into the environmental protection business by the National Environmental Policy Act.  That Act requires that the agency understand the environmental consequences of any action it takes.

The National Environmental Policy Act started with the cheery assumption that we would only damage the environment out of ignorance. It assumed that if we knew the environmental consequences of an action we would just not do it.  The Act itself doesn’t say anything about what an agency has to do to protect the environment.  It just has to make sure it understands the environmental consequences before it takes action.

That’s why the Act is all about process.  Agencies that are considering an action such as building or, more commonly, approving something have procedures they have to follow.  There is often litigation about the process.  Lawyers argue about whether the agency followed all its rules.  They argue about whether there has been enough study, whether there is more data that should have been gathered.

They don’t argue about whether the project would be environmentally sound.  It is all about whether the proper procedure was followed and everything was thoroughly studied.

The Pittsburgh Pirates once had a player who, before each at bat, would reach around and tug on his uniform shirt, right at the back of the neck.  There was no apparent connection to hitting.  He just did it. (He hit .276 lifetime with over 200 major league home runs.  Not Hall of Fame material but not too shabby either.  Tugging must have worked).

In our political discussion, the NEPA process has become a similar ritual.  Everybody recognizes that we have to do the studies.  After the studies have been going on for what feels like long enough, politicians and editorial writers start saying “we’ve studied this thing to death; time to move dirt.”  You can almost hear the “hard headed realists” saying, “OK, we’ve put up with the birds and bunnies crowd long enough.  Time to move dirt.”  Eventually, the agencies come to agree.

What our political culture has not yet accepted is that the Environmental Impact Statement is supposed to guide decisions.  People accept that we have to do studies; they just haven’t accepted that those studies should guide our decisions.  They haven’t accepted that if the studies say the environmental impact of something would be terrible, we shouldn’t do it.

We could be headed that way with the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the Mountain Valley Pipeline.  The Highlands Voice has been reporting on the proposed pipelines for a little over three years.  There are still well founded criticisms of the quality of the data available and the studies done.  If, as it appears, Dominion plans to shave off the top of some ridges, it has never explained what it will do with the dirt.  Fill some streams, perhaps?  Maybe it has a sound and sensible plan but is just not saying what it is.

Yet we are approach the point when the old “studied to death” line will be rearing its ugly head.  If it is not here yet, it will be here soon.

I hate to be so cynical about the process but history is history.  Most of the environmental impact statements that come out of the NEPA process have a “no build” option that was at least nominally considered.  It just never gets picked.  When we had the Environmental Impact Study of mountaintop removal mining at the turn of the last century the final report had some harsh things to say about mountaintop removal mining.  Yet it didn’t recommend that we not do it.  It just recommended that the agencies which had a role work together more closely together in reviewing and approving permits.

FERC is the type of agency which would be particularly susceptible to this.  The United States Forest Service, which has a role in approving the pipeline, has as its mission protecting the Monongahela and George Washington National Forests.  It is taking its mission seriously, sounding as if it really will stand up for the Forests.  FERC, on the other hand, has no institutional interest in protecting the Forests, endangered species, or anything else.  It is charged with protecting consumers.

That is why the financial questions being raised are so important.  It is the consumers who are going to have to pay for these pipelines.  If FERC is going to meet its mandate, it is going to have consider those.

The mother of all consumer issues is the need for two pipelines—the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the Mountain Valley Pipeline—that start in pretty much the same place and end up in pretty much the same place.    There is a reasonable argument to be made that we don’t need even one of the proposed pipelines.  There is an even more compelling argument that we don’t need two (or four, if we count the WB Xpress Pipeline and the Appalachian Connector Pipeline).

So far FERC has rejected any suggestion that it study the proposed pipelines comprehensively.  See The Highlands Voice, January, 2016.

Even if we consider only the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, the need for the pipeline is questionable.  Dominion says that it has customers for almost all of the gas that would flow through the pipeline.  It points to contracts that it has with several public utilities.

The difficulty is that the pipeline developers are selling the gas to themselves.  The Atlantic Coast Pipeline is a joint venture of Dominion Resources, Duke Energy, and Southern Company.  These three companies own 100% of Atlantic Coast Pipeline, LLC, which is the project developer. Each is also the parent company of one or more of the pipeline’s customers (shippers) that are either regulated utilities or, in the case of Dominion Resources’ subsidiary Virginia Power Services, provide natural gas to a regulated utility.

Since the companies involved are selling gas to themselves, they will habitually prefer buying from themselves, buying gas shipped in the Atlantic Coast Pipeline rather than from existing pipelines.

Even if the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is not the cheapest and most efficient way for the utilities to serve their customers, it works for the pipeline developers because of the way the retail price of gas is set.  The retailers of natural gas are regulated monopolies.  The price they charge for gas is approved by regulatory bodies; the West Virginia Public Service Commission is an example although it would not approve the sale price of any Atlantic Coast Pipeline gas.  Those bodies consider the company’s costs and then approve a high enough sale price that the company can make a reasonable profit.  Even if the company makes an unnecessary expense (such as building the Atlantic Coast Pipeline) it can still benefit because the system ends up making the customers pay for that unnecessary expense.

Of course, if we really do need another pipeline to provide the gas that Virginia and North Carolina need, then an additional gas transmission line is a necessary expense that the customers should expect to pay for.  Whether we need another pipeline depends both on the demand for gas and what other pipelines are available to get it to where it is needed.

Much of the gas that would be transmitted by the Atlantic Coast Pipeline would go to plants that would burn it to make electricity.  PJM is the regional transmission organization that manages the electrical transmission grid in all or parts of thirteen states, including Virginia and North Carolina, and the District of Columbia. Its projections for electricity demand in the part of Virginia that would be served by the Atlantic Coast Pipeline are going down, it now thinks that the demand for electricity in the future will be less than it once believed.

There is also the rise in such technologies such as wind and solar.  They are expanding, replacing such technologies as the burning of coal or natural gas.  As this trend continues, or accelerates, there will be less and less need for another pipeline to deliver that gas.

In determining need for a new pipeline, we also have to consider the existing pipelines.  There is already a pipeline—called Transco—that goes through the region and can meet much of the need.  There are also improvements currently underway on the WB Xpress project, an expansion of the existing Columbia Gas Pipeline serving West Virginia and Virginia and connecting to Transco. Requiring just 3 miles of new pipeline, an additional compressor station and other modifications, this limited construction will add capacity nearly equal to the ACP.  There are also plans in the works to reverse the direction of Transco’s flow of gas, making it able to supply more gas to the region that would be served by the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

The result of all this is that the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline may be nothing more than a five billion dollar boondoggle which the consumers will have to pay for without getting any benefit.  FERC may not be an environmental protection agency and may have no institutional interest in protecting the environment from the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.  If, however, it takes seriously its role as a protector of the consumer it should be all over this one.

Thorough and Comprehensive Comments

In April, 2017, Appalachian Mountain Advocates filed comments on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement which the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) prepared for the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline.  It filed these on behalf of a number of groups, including the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy.

The comments addressed fourteen different topics:

·      Missing Incomplete Information

·      Public Necessity Market Demand

·      Forest Service Special Use Permit and Plan Amendments

·      Forest Fragmentation

·      Endangered Threatened Species

·      Waters and Wetlands

·      Horizontal and Directional Drilling

·      Conservation Easements

·      Trout Waters

·      Cumulative Effects

·      Environmental Justice

·      Indirect effects

·      Karst impacts

·      Socioeconomics Property Value

Collectively, they contain a huge amount of information.  Much of the material in the accompanying article came from the section on Public Necessity and Market Demand.  Anyone who wishes to read any or all of the comments may contact me at johnmcferrin@aol.com.

Public Necessity and Market Demand would seem out of place in a list of environmental topics to study.  Yet it goes to the heart of the matter.  The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process is about counting the costs of a proposed project.  If we really don’t need a new pipeline, is any cost to build it—no matter how trivial—worth it?

Making it through all these comments is quite a task.  Here is how they compare with well-known literary works:

War and Peace                           587,287 words

The Grapes of Wrath                  169,481 words

A Tale of Two Cities                   135,420 words

The Adventures of Huck Finn   109,571 words

To Kill a Mockingbird                   99,121 words

Nineteen Eighty Four                   88,942 words

ACP Comments                            76,068 words

The Catcher in the Rye                73,404 words

The Sun Also Rises                      67,707 words

The Scarlet Letter                         63,604 words

As I Lay Dying                               56,695 words