WASHINGTON (CN) – Federal regulators gave their stamp of environmental approval for the construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a $3.5 billion conduit that will pump fracked natural gas through West Virginia and Virginia for 303 miles.
According to its final environmental impact statement released on June 23, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission determined that “construction and operation of the projects would result in limited adverse environmental impacts, with the exception of impacts on forest.”
Regulators came to this conclusion after their reviewing of the total acreage of affected forests, surrounding wildlife habitats and the length of time it will take for the cleared areas to restore themselves.
The 930-page report also delved into the pipeline’s impact on soil, water, recreational areas and other factors including impact on socio-economic issues. In addition to the Mountain Valley Pipeline, regulators also weighed the impact of the neighboring 8-mile long Equitrans Expansion Project pipeline.
Mountain Valley will carry gas from the Marcellus and Utica shale deposits. Unsurprisingly, developers have lauded the build, saying that the low cost, abundant natural gas supply will infuse the economy with billions of dollars.
But the possibility of lucrative future profits holds little allure for conservationists, environmentalists and some landowners. Each have been highly critical of the commission’s most recent conclusion: the pipeline could encroach on land rights, damage pristine areas of the countryside and essentially force the region to depend on fossil fuels instead of renewable, cleaner energy instead.
The pipeline could directly damage the water quality at Smith Mountain Lake, a community caught between the lake and the pipeline’s route across the Roanoke River. Loose soil and other contaminants could be washed downstream from the pipeline during heavy rains and that sort of erosion and sedimentation can wreak havoc on fish populations that struggle to survive in oxygen-depleted muddy waters.
Ernie Reed, the president of the nonprofit natural preservation organization, Wild Virginia, was disheartened by the news.
“Some wounds on our forests can never be healed once they are inflicted, including forest fragmentation, loss of valuable core forest areas, and loss of watershed integrity,” Reed said in a statement last week. “Damage to the Jefferson National Forest and the Appalachian Trail will sacrifice the public’s ability to use these national treasures in the interest of profit-making corporations and no one else.”
Tamara Young Allen, a spokesperson for the Federal Energy Regulation Commission, said that the next step will come after the Senate confirms President Donald Trump’s picks for the agency. Once those commissioners are appointed, then the full body can issue final approval. Their decision will be based on the environmental impact study and whether or not the proposed gas rates inside the study are valid.
But the commission’s study doesn’t do enough to consider the cumulative effect of this pipeline with another: the Atlantic Coast pipeline. The Atlantic Coast pipeline would cut across West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina.
“They make a pass at mentioning this in relation to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, but it’s a pretty poor attempt,” said David Sligh, Wild Virginia’s conservation director.
In 2015, a coalition of pipeline opponents asked for a comprehensive review, but FERC denied that request. The commission plans to release a separate final environmental impact statement for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline next month.
A more comprehensive environmental review by federal regulators was requested in 2015 by a collection of pipeline opponents but at that time, requests were denied.
Regulators have since agreed to provide a separate final environmental impact statement for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. It will be published in July.
Though critics have said the actual need for the 42-inch wide pipeline is highly questionable – often arguing that land developers are projecting overly rosy estimations for natural gas demand in Virginia – the commission contends that with the current demand, existing infrastructure simply can’t handle the load of natural gas that needs to come through.
For now, the pipeline will run south from northern West Virginia, cut across the center of the state, move into Virginia, just west of Roanoke and then cut southeast to an area just north of Danville.
Natalie Cox, a spokesperson for the Mountain Valley Pipeline, said alternative routes were painstakingly considered and that the sensitivity of surrounding natural habitats was also weighed carefully.
Detractors of the construction would do well to read through the report first, Cox hinted.
“It is unfortunate, although not surprising, that steadfast opponents of the Mountain Valley Pipeline project would reflexively dismiss findings that do not align with their view,” she said.
Other state and federal permits for construction are still pending.