The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has given the Mountain Valley Pipeline a boost toward one end of the project while it considers another request to accommodate further pipeline construction at the other.
The FERC last week approved the company’s request to resume construction along a 17-mile stretch around the Jefferson National Forest. It is now considering a request from the company to finish construction at its northern end in West Virginia.
In 2018, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals vacated authorizations issued by the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service for the pipeline to cross 3.5 miles of the Jefferson National Forest in West Virginia and Virginia. The FERC subsequently issued a stop-work order barring construction in a 25-mile exclusion zone between two watersheds to protect the forest’s waterbodies.
But the FERC ruled in a 2-1 vote among its three commissioners on Dec. 17 that construction along a 17-mile segment of that zone through Giles and Craig counties in Virginia, just outside of West Virginia, would not contribute sediment to any part of the forest or any waterbody that flows into it.
The decision follows the Forest Service’s issuance earlier this month of an environmental impact statement that supports plans for the pipeline to pass through the Jefferson National Forest.
Construction crews will resume activities within the constraints of winter weather conditions and in compliance with all environmental regulations and guidelines, according to Natalie Cox, spokeswoman for Equitrans Midstream Corp., the Canonsburg, Pennsylvania-based developer of the pipeline.
In a scathing dissent, FERC Commissioner Richard Glick called the commission’s order “a serious mistake,” noting that federal courts have repeatedly invalidated various federal permits that Mountain Valley Pipeline needs to finish construction and opining that the FERC has failed to take seriously, in this and past rulings, an environmental condition that requires the pipeline to secure all federal permits before it can take any action to construct the pipeline.
“The Commission’s ... contention that the condition is relevant only when a pipeline first commences construction, makes the condition look like an excuse for justifying the Commission’s practice of granting conditional certificates and not a serious attempt to protect the environment or the public interest,” Glick wrote.
The FERC’s oversight of pipeline projects was heavily scrutinized at a U.S. House subcommittee on civil rights and civil liberties hearing on Dec. 9, during which Chairman Jamie Raskin, D-Md., highlighted subcommittee findings that the FERC has approved 99% of applications for natural gas projects in the past 20 years and, over the past 12 years, approved 89 of 92 requests to extend the time frame for construction projects behind schedule while not approving any landowner appeals.
“A system where corporations win nearly 100% of the time and people win 0% of the time is inherently suspect and reeks of injustice,” Raskin said.
FERC witnesses David Morenoff, acting general counsel, and Terry Turpin, director of the Office of Energy Projects, defended the commission during the hearing, saying it takes all written comments from parties in the cases it considers seriously and that all parties have equal opportunity to raise issues. Only viable projects typically garner FERC consideration, Turpin added.
The Mountain Valley Pipeline is designed to be a 303-mile natural gas pipeline system traveling from Northwestern West Virginia to Southern Virginia, It will cross Wetzel, Harrison, Doddridge, Lewis, Braxton, Webster, Nicholas, Greenbrier, Fayette, Summers and Monroe counties in the Mountain State. 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.
Equitrans is targeting full in-service for the second half of 2021, having pushed that target date roughly three years because of legal and regulatory setbacks. Equitrans has said since at least June that 92% of the project is complete, an estimate that environmentalists have argued is too high.
Mountain Valley requested approval from the FERC last month to use conventional bores along segments not yet constructed between mileposts 0 and 77 in Northern West Virginia to cross waterbodies and wetlands that the commission originally authorized to be crossed using an open-cut method, something that the company says wouldn’t impact any additional landowners.
Mountain Valley Pipeline cited “continuing uncertainty regarding the options that will ultimately be available ... to complete the waterbody and wetland crossings” due to the 4th Circuit Court’s stay last month of permitting for such crossings as the reason for its request, which it asked the FERC to issue an order on by Dec. 31.
“Approval of the amendment will allow MVP to complete construction and final restoration work, which is best for both the environment, as well as the landowners who have experienced an extended period of disruption to their properties due to unnecessary project delays,” Cox wrote in an email.
Nearly 1,000 people submitted signatures for a comment that Appalachian Voices filed Monday opposing Mountain Valley Pipeline’s request, arguing that it appears to be an attempt to circumvent restrictions resulting from the loss of water crossing permits.
“Without proper analysis, the public cannot know the severity of impacts to soil, steep slopes, streams and wetlands that dozens of conventional borings would bring,” reads the comment submitted on behalf of 977 signatories by Jessica Sims, Virginia field coordinator for Appalachian Voices.