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Trump appointees approve two major pipelines to transport fracked gas

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Federal regulators approved two major natural gas pipelines that would transport fracked gas through Virginia, although one of the agency’s commissioners issued a surprise vote against construction of both pipelines.

President Donald Trump’s two appointees to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) voted late Friday to approve both the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the Mountain Valley Pipeline. The lone Democrat on the commission, Cheryl LaFleur, issued a written dissent, saying she could not support the projects “given the environmental impacts and possible superior alternatives.”

The federal agency’s approval of the pipeline projects was expected all along the review process. FERC has rejected only a tiny number of natural gas infrastructure applications over the past few decades.

Earlier this year, FERC issued favorable environmental reviews for both pipelines. Commission Chairman Neil Chatterjee and Commissioner Robert Powelson — Republican nominees confirmed to FERC this past summer — agreed with those reviews in voting to approve the two pipeline projects.

Chatterjee is the former energy adviser to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell; Powelson is a former commissioner on the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission who has accused natural gas pipeline opponents of waging a “jihad” against the agency.

LaFleur, who temporarily served as agency chairman earlier this year, disagreed with her Republican colleagues. “The record demonstrates that these two large projects will have similar, and significant, environmental impacts on the region. Both the ACP and MVP cross hundreds of miles of karst terrain, thousands of waterbodies, and many agricultural, residential, and commercial areas. … and thus I respectfully dissent,” LaFleur explained in her written dissent.

“I believe that careful consideration of a fuller record could help the Commission better balance environmental issues, including downstream impacts, with the project need and its benefits,” wrote LaFleur, who had never dissented in any previous pipeline application. “I fully realize that a broader consideration of need would be a change in our existing practice, and I would support a generic proceeding to get input from the regulated community, and those impacted by pipelines, on how the Commission evaluates need.”

Despite the addition of two new commissioners, FERC continues to show itself “to be nothing more than a rubber stamp for dirty and dangerous fossil fuel projects,” Kelly Martin, director of the Sierra Club’s Dirty Fuels campaign, said in a statement. “Greenlighting the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines doesn’t advance West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina communities — it threatens them by pumping fracked gas through them, releasing methane every step of the way.”

Martin applauded LaFleur “for recognizing what West Virginians, Virginians and North Carolinians already know — these fracked gas pipelines are not in the public interest.”

Both pipelines would transport natural gas from West Virginia to southern Virginia, cutting through the the Blue Ridge Mountains and national forests. The Atlantic Coast Pipeline would continue into eastern North Carolina, crossing more than 1,000 waterways.

The path of Mountain Valley’s proposed 42-inch-diameter natural gas pipeline will extend from Summers County, West Virginia to Franklin County, Virginia. LaFleur emphasized in her dissent that the developers of the Mountain Valley Pipeline have entered into precedent agreements with two end users for only 13 percent of the pipeline’s capacity, although the commissioner said the developers provided evidence to FERC that the pipeline will eventually have commitments from power plants and other users of natural gas to all of its capacity.

The 600-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline would transport fracked gas from West Virginia into Virginia and North Carolina. The pipeline’s developers, including lead developer Dominion Energy, estimate that 79.2 percent of the gas will be transported to supply natural gas-fired power plants, 9.1 percent will serve residential purposes, 8.9 percent will serve industrial purposes, and 2.8 percent will serve other purposes such as vehicle fuel.

Additional federal and state permits are required before construction can begin. North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia are each considering water quality impacts of the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline and must grant water quality certification under section 401 of the federal Clean Water Act before construction may proceed. North Carolina has delayed its water quality decision on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and asked the pipeline developer for more information on how it will affect certain water crossings. Virginia has yet to issue a water quality permit for the Mountain Valley Pipeline.

West Virginia state environmental regulators approved a water quality certification for the Mountain Valley Pipeline, but then pulled back the approval when confronted with a legal challenge. A Sierra Club lawsuit against West Virginia resulted in the state asking the courts to allow it to reconsider its certificate for the Mountain Valley Pipeline. Several other reviews are still required, including a separate Endangered Species Act analysis, air permits, and local land use approvals for gas compressor stations and other facilities along the route.

Lorne Stockman, a senior analyst with Oil Change International, a nonprofit energy research and advocacy organization, agreed with LaFleur that there is no public necessity associated with either pipeline project. “The only people they serve is shareholders,” Stockman said in a statement Friday. “No assessment of actual need has been conducted for either of them, as noted by Commissioner Cheryl LaFleur in her rarely seen dissent opposing [Friday’s] approvals. Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley will cause irreparable harm to our climate, and to the communities and environment along their routes.”

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