The U.S. Forest Service has approved the Mountain Valley Pipeline’s route through the Jefferson National Forest for the second time since 2017, prompting yet another legal challenge from conservationists.
The approval follows an environmental impact statement from the Forest Service last month that supported plans for construction, operation and maintenance of the 42-inch pipeline across 3.5 miles of the Jefferson National Forest in Monroe County in West Virginia and Giles and Montgomery counties in Virginia.
The decision from James Hubbard, undersecretary of natural resources and the environment for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, changes standards in the land and resource management plan for the national forest to accommodate construction of the pipeline.
The Forest Service first approved the pipeline’s pathway through the Jefferson National Forest in 2017, but the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2018 vacated the Bureau of Land Management’s decision to grant a right of way and the Forest Service’s decision to permit a right of way and construction through the forest after conservationists challenged both.
Mountain Valley must obtain and comply with a right-of-way grant and temporary use permits from the Bureau.
In a statement, Natalie Cox, spokeswoman for Canonsburg, Pennsylvania-based Equitrans Midstream Corporation, developer of the pipeline, noted that the timeline for the Bureau and Federal Energy Regulatory Commission review of Hubbard’s decision is uncertain.
“Upon approval, and before construction would begin in the Jefferson National Forest, we will also need to consider other relevant factors, such as weather and availability of government oversight,” Cox said.
Mountain Valley cannot begin construction on national forest lands until the company has obtained all federal and state authorizations needed for the entire project.
Conservation groups including the Sierra Club, Wild Virginia, Appalachian Voices, The Wilderness Society, Save Monroe, Preserve Craig, the Indian Creek Watershed Association and the Monacan Indian Nation sued just hours after the Forest Service decision was released Monday to reverse the Forest Service decision.
“This decision is a total abdication of the mission of the Forest Service — including its responsibility to local communities that rely on the water resources that will be harmed by MVP’s private plunder of our public lands,” Howdy Henritz, president of the Indian Creek Watershed Association, said in a statement. “We have seen firsthand MVP’s repeated failures to control their mud from desecrating our pure mountain waters, and we are more than disappointed with the Forest Service.”
Hugh Irwin, landscape conservation planner for The Wilderness Society, argued in a statement that the Forest Service’s decision unlawfully rubber-stamped the pipeline through the forest at the behest of the oil and gas industry.
“The Mountain Valley Pipeline is emblematic of the Trump administration’s four-year desecration of our public lands,” Irwin said. “Americans put their trust in the U.S. Forest Service to safeguard the splendor of Jefferson National Forest for future generations … We’ve stopped the pipeline before, and we won’t stop fighting until this ill-conceived project is gone for good.”
Cox was dismissive of conservationists’ latest effort to challenge the project.
“We are not surprised at the timeliness of the petition that was recently filed in opposition to the USFS decision as the petitioners have made it clear that they will contest any approval of the project regardless of the substantive merits of their challenge,” Cox said.
Environmentalist organizations aren’t the only ones still voicing objections to the pipeline project, which Mountain Valley applied to the FERC to approve, construct and own back in October 2015. Individuals from West Virginia are speaking out against the pipeline, too.
In a hand-written comment made last month and filed with the FERC Monday, Elaine J. Wine of Braxton County wrote that Mountain Valley Pipeline construction there has already caused hillsides to slide into streams, harming many species.
“It is due time that agencies such as FERC base decisions on ethical, responsible facts rather than pressure from an industry that has proven over [and] over to be careless when it comes to environmental safety,” Wine wrote.
The FERC’s oversight of pipeline projects was heavily scrutinized at a U.S. House subcommittee on civil rights and civil liberties hearing last month, 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.
FERC witnesses defended the commission during the hearing, saying it takes all written comments from parties in the cases it considers seriously and that it typically only considers viable projects.
Construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline would use about 83 acres of the Jefferson National Forest, and pipeline operation would occupy about 42 acres of the forest, according to the Forest Service. The forest consists of 18,526 acres in West Virginia and 690,106 acres in Virginia, per the Forest Service.
Cox said the Mountain Valley team remains confident that the pipeline, which is slated to provide up to 2 billion cubic feet per day of natural gas from the Marcellus and Utica shale formations to East Coast markets, will meet its targeted full in-service date of late this year.
But Height Capital Markets, a Washington, D.C.-based broker dealer, predicted this week that the pipeline won’t begin service until 2022 due to expectations that the 4th Circuit Court will vacate the pipeline’s “one size fits all” water permit authorization under Nationwide Permit 12 and the incoming Biden administration will force Mountain Valley to apply for individual permits.
Equitrans originally estimated that the pipeline would be complete by the end of 2018, but legal and regulatory challenges have repeatedly set the project back and helped raise the project price tag to at least $5.8 billion, over 50% more than its original cost estimate.
The pipeline has been designed 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.