A lingering regulatory setback has prompted Mountain Valley Pipeline developers to move away from seeking a blanket permit for construction across hundreds of streams and wetlands and instead ask for individual permitting.
Mountain Valley Pipeline LLC said in a filing with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on Tuesday that it intends to request individual water crossing permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The developer is doing so because of what a spokeswoman called “the uncertainty of waiting” for litigation to be resolved over a Corps-issued blanket water crossing permit that a federal appellate court stayed in November.
The move calls into question Mountain Valley’s goal of getting the pipeline in service by the end of 2021, a target date that already has been pushed back three years amid legal and regulatory challenges that have helped drive up the project’s estimated cost to at least $5.8 billion, over 50% more than its original price tag.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals granted the stay of the Corps’ September reissuance of Nationwide Permit 12 approval, which the court also vacated in 2018 after the Huntington District of the Corps had issued it the previous year.
Roughly 430 crossings remain, including many that cover multiple waterbodies or wetlands, according to Natalie Cox, spokeswoman for Equitrans Midstream Corp., the Canonsburg, Pennsylvania-based developer of the 303-mile pipeline slated to travel from Northwestern West Virginia to Southern Virginia, crossing Wetzel, Harrison, Doddridge, Lewis, Braxton, Webster, Nicholas, Greenbrier, Fayette, Summers and Monroe counties in the Mountain State.
Those crossings make up less than 10 miles of pipeline and comprise less than 3% of the project’s total miles of pipeline, Cox said.
But the regulatory hurdle they present remains high, and Mountain Valley’s latest move requires several steps to clear it.
Mountain Valley intends to submit a joint application package to the Corps’ Huntington, Pittsburgh and Norfolk districts. It will request individual waterbody permitting and will submit a new certificate amendment application to the FERC that encompasses all crossings for the full project route not included in the individual permit application. It also will seek approval to change the crossing method for certain waterbodies from previously approved open-cut techniques to trenchless methods.
Mountain Valley withdrew its pending application to bore all streams along the northernmost 77 miles of the pipeline route in West Virginia and said it will submit water quality certification requests to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality within 30 days.
“With MVP’s total project work roughly 92% complete, we believe that this prudent change in course is the most efficient regulatory path to completing the remaining components of this important natural gas infrastructure project and keeping within our current budget and schedule,” Cox said.
The company’s moves come a week after a split vote among the FERC’s commissioners stopped approval for Mountain Valley’s request to bore under 69 waterbodies and wetlands along the northernmost 77 miles of the pipeline.
Pipeline opponents, who have blasted Mountain Valley for pushing ahead with construction while still lacking key permits, condemned the project again Tuesday.
“Too many streams and wetlands have already had to pay the price for MVP’s investor-driven, one-size-fits-all ‘stream-roller’ approach,” said Howdy Henritz of the Indian Creek Watershed Association, an organization focused on water protection in Monroe County.
Henritz thinks no pipeline as big as Mountain Valley’s should have ever been attempted through the landslide-prone mountain terrain of West Virginia and Virginia.
“We have seen firsthand that our clear-running streams become muddied and scoured by the tons of soil loss that runs off the deforested ridges and slopes,” Henritz said.
“It’s good to see that MVP’s waterbody crossings will finally get the appropriate scrutiny through an individual review,” West Virginia Rivers Coalition Executive Director Angie Rosser said in a statement released by the Sierra Club.
Referencing the long history of DEP violations issued against the pipeline, Rosser said the department “surely now must recognize the importance of conducting a thorough analysis to ensure that our waters will not be further degraded.”
Penalties against the Mountain Valley Pipeline have included a $266,000 fine levied by the DEP in April 2019 for more than two-dozen notices of environmental violations stemming from erosion and water contamination issued to the pipeline and a $2.15 million civil penalty handed down by Virginia state officials in October 2019 for water quality violations.
An investor in the Mountain Valley Pipeline said Tuesday that the pipeline’s legal and regulatory roadblocks have made the project a financial liability.
Rebecca Kujawa, executive vice president and chief financial officer of the Florida-based energy company NextEra Energy, said in a fourth-quarter and full-year 2020 earnings call that the carrying value for NextEra’s investment in the pipeline now exceeds its fair market value, causing a $1.2 billion impairment charge.
“While we are disappointed with the extended development and construction timeline due to the legal challenges that the project has faced, we intend to continue pursuing completing the project with our partners,” Kujawa said.
“With investors like NextEra Energy Inc. posting massive losses from this project, I can’t help but wonder when MVP’s backers will quit throwing good money after bad and walk away from this risky bet once and for all,” said Joan Walker, Sierra Club senior campaign representative for the club’s Beyond Dirty Fuels campaign.
Mountain Valley has projected that the 42-inch-diameter pipeline would provide up to 2 billion cubic feet per day of natural gas from the Marcellus and Utica shale formations to markets in the mid-Atlantic and southeastern regions of the United States.