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Dominion official causes stir among pipeline opponents with talk of extension into South Carolina

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Opposition to the massive Atlantic Coast Pipeline is intensifying after an executive with Dominion Energy, the primary developer of the project, told an industry audience that the pipeline will likely be extended into South Carolina — a statement that came as a total surprise to people who have long questioned whether there’s a need for the pipeline in the first place. A conference attendee leaked the audio of the executive’s comments to a news organization.

Over the past two years, residents in Virginia and North Carolina have fought the proposed pipeline, expressing concerns about its climate impacts, its cost, and its effects on communities along its 550-mile route. They have also argued that the existing natural gas pipeline network in Virginia and North Carolina would be able to handle any increase in demand for the fuel.

Now opponents are learning that North Carolina may not be the end of the line for the pipeline. At last week’s South Carolina Clean Energy Summit in Columbia, South Carolina, Dan Weekly, Dominion Energy’s vice president and general manager of Southern pipeline operations, said “everybody knows” the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is not going to stop in North Carolina.

“Even though it dead-ends at Lumberton [North Carolina] — of course, 12 miles to the border — everybody knows it’s not going to end in Lumberton,” Weekley said, according to an audio recording obtained by the Associated Press. “We could bring in almost a billion cubic feet a day into South Carolina.”

Neither federal nor state regulators has studied whether genuine market demand exists for this $5 billion pipeline, even as evidence shows it will raise costs for Virginia customers, according to opponents.

If it turns out that Dominion Virginia Power, a subsidiary of Dominion Energy, plans on giving up some of the pipeline capacity to which it committed so that South Carolina customers can use the unused capacity to receive natural gas, “then it confirms what we’ve said along that Dominion didn’t need it in the first place,” Will Cleveland, a staff attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, told ThinkProgress.

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline is owned by three holding companies: Dominion Energy (48 percent), Duke Energy (47 percent), and Southern Company (5 percent). Dominion Energy will be the pipeline developer and operator. The pipeline’s total capacity would be 1.5 Bcf/day. Any plan to transport 1 Bcf/d into South Carolina would represent two-thirds of the pipeline’s currently proposed capacity.

Pipeline developers tell fellow energy industry officials one thing and the public another, said Kelly Martin, director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Dirty Fuels campaign, in response to the release of the leaked audio. “If we can’t trust Dominion and Duke Energy to be honest about something as simple as the route of a fracked gas project — not to mention the threats it poses to our water and communities — what can we trust them to be honest about?” she said.

But Dominion contends that from the very beginning of the project, the company stated that the infrastructure could be expanded in the future, while continuing to meet the needs already identified in Virginia and North Carolina.

“Dan Weekley’s remarks were made in response to a comment from the panel moderator, noting that South Carolina also desperately needs more natural gas and natural gas infrastructure,” Dominion spokesperson Jen Kostyniuk said in a statement. “He was asked, ‘What are your long-term plans?’ Weekley responded that the focus is on completing the project as proposed, but it could be expanded in the future.”

Dominion has not made a decision about a potential expansion beyond what has been filed with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). If the pipeline were expanded at some point in the future to reach new markets, “that would have absolutely no impact on our public utility customers in Virginia and North Carolina,” Kostyniuk said. “We have 20-year contracts with those utilities, and those contracts are binding,”

Agreements have been signed for 96 percent of the pipeline capacity for a period of 20 years. However, Duke Energy subsidiaries have reserved over 59 percent of the total capacity, while a Dominion subsidiary has booked 20 percent and a subsidiary of Southern Company has booked a further 10.3 percent. Over 89 percent of the total pipeline capacity has been reserved by affiliated companies, or 93 percent of the reserved capacity.

“Dominion has been misleading the public from day one about the purported ‘need’ for its pipeline, and this latest revelation fits that pattern,” Oil Change International researcher Kelly Trout said in a statement. “Dominion, Duke, and Southern Company have manufactured demand for this project by sewing up contracts with their own utility affiliates in pursuit of the lavish returns FERC authorizes for new pipelines.”

“FERC needs to hit the pause button on its reckless permitting process, scrutinize the claims of companies like Dominion, and start actually protecting the interests of U.S. consumers and our climate,” she said.

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