Even after an endorsement by Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe and a green light from the relevant federal regulatory agency, the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline is still meeting stiff resistance from environmental activists and the Not in My Back Yard (NIMBY) crowd.
Concerns about the pipeline’s environmental impact are certainly warranted, and it’s understandable that most people do not want a pipeline anywhere near their property. But to meet the power needs of a modern state economy like Virginia’s, energy infrastructure has to go somewhere.
If approved, the 600-mile underground pipeline would deliver up to 1.5 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day from the Marcellus Shale deposit in West Virginia to serve the growing need for electricity in Virginia and North Carolina.
Richmond-based Dominion Energy, the project’s lead developer, Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas, and Southern Company Gas have made more than 300 route adjustments to minimize the $1.5 billion project’s environmental impact – including changing the route to protect endangered salamanders in the George Washington and Monongahela National Forests.
On July 21, after a three-year period culminating in 150,000 pages of regulatory findings and more than 75,000 public comments, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) released its Final Environmental Statement on the pipeline.
FERC stated that although construction and operation of the pipeline will undoubtedly have “some adverse effects” on the flora, fauna and topography of the proposed route, “most project effects would be reduced to less-than-significant levels” due to mitigation strategies.
Although the Atlantic Coast Pipeline cleared this significant hurdle, it still needs a number of state and local permits before construction can begin. The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality is expected to issue its recommendation in December. Another proposed natural gas project, the Mountain Valley Pipeline that would pass through Virginia near Roanoke, also faces opposition.
Here’s the problem: Virginia consumes roughly two and a half times the energy it generates, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. And because Virginia has less than 1 percent of the nation’s natural gas reserves, it has to be delivered via pipeline from either the Gulf Coast or Appalachia.
In 2016, natural gas fueled 44 percent of all the electricity generated in the commonwealth for the second year in a row, followed by nuclear and coal, with renewables a distant fourth, according to EIA. But Virginia’s aging coal-powered power plants are being shut down and plans for a new reactor have been shelved even as demand for electric power continues to increase.
To prevent blackouts in Virginia this summer, Energy Secretary Rick Perry had to give Dominion Energy permission to reopen two shuttered coal-burning plants (Yorktown 1 and 2) in response to a request by PJM Interconnections, which manages the electric grid in 13 states. That’s how close the East Coast is to a real power crisis.
Using clean-burning natural gas to produce electricity has obvious environmental benefits over using coal or nuclear energy. It is also necessary as a back-up for renewable sources of power to keep Virginia residents’ lights, computers, coffee makers, air conditioners, and furnaces running, since demand for electricity does not stop at times when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine.
Natural gas is currently the best feasible alternative to coal and nuclear power. But natural gas consumption in Virginia increased eight-fold between 2003 and 2016, according to EIA, without a corresponding increase in delivery capacity.
Demand for electricity will continue to rise even as the commonwealth’s dependence on coal and nuclear power diminishes. That’s why new natural gas pipelines are needed now to keep power flowing in the future.