Construction on the Mountain Valley Pipeline may start up again, federal regulators decided Wednesday.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ordered a halt to construction on the 300-mile-long project earlier this month after the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service had sidestepped environmental rules in green-lighting the project.
In the Aug. 3 Stop Work Order, FERC said there was no reason to believe the Forest Service and BLM would ultimately comply with the court’s ruling and issue new rights-of-way. If those agencies designed different routes, that would require more authorizations and reviews. So, until those decisions were made, construction had to stop, FERC said. Continuing work “poses the risk of expending substantial resources and substantially disturbing the environment.”
Environmental and citizen groups called it a victory.
But days later, MVP asked for and received permission from FERC to continue work on the first 77 miles in Northern West Virginia, except for a 7-mile stretch near the Weston Gauley Bridge Turnpike Trail.
And, on Wednesday, FERC granted MVP permission to work on the rest of the pipeline, too, except for the crossing of the Weston and Gauley Bridge Turnpike in Braxton County, and in the Jefferson National Forest in Monroe County, West Virginia, and Giles County, Virginia.
“Maintaining the status quo across non-federal lands” while federal agencies address the 4th Circuit order “would likely pose threats to plant and wildlife habitat and adjacent waterbodies,” FERC’s director of energy projects wrote in a letter to MVP’s lawyer Wednesday.
The letter was filed in FERC’s docket Wednesday. The filing includes analysis from the BLM, filed with FERC on Friday, that says using already-existing rights-of-way across federal land would be “impractical.”
The analysis isn’t a record of decision or right-of-way grant.
“This conclusion resolves the basis of the Stop Work Order issued on August 3, 2018, and also confirms that MVP’s existing route minimizes impacts to sensitive species and environmental, cultural, and historic resources in the Forest,” Natalie Cox, spokeswoman for the project, said in an email.
In a joint statement, though, two FERC commissioners said they had “significant concerns” about letting construction resume.
“Today’s action also highlights a broader concern regarding the Commission’s response to federal court actions that remand or vacate a federal authorization that is among the necessary pre-conditions for commencing construction in the first place,” Commissioners Cheryl LaFleur and Richard Glick, appointed by Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump, respectively, wrote.
Other challenges to MVP’s permits are pending in federal court, including a broad challenge to the project’s FERC certificate.
FERC has repeatedly cleared roadblocks for MVP, including extending the construction delay and allowing logging to continue past a deadline normally imposed to protect threatened and endangered bats.
“FERC’s authorization does nothing to protect the environment as directed by the Fourth Circuit in its decision to vacate and remand the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management permits,” Roberta Bondurant, co-chair of the POWHR Coalition, a citizen group, said in a statement.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the BLM and the Forest Service did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday.
Since the project’s been delayed, developers have pushed its completion goal into the fourth quarter of 2019. In a news release earlier this month, MVP said it had “released as much as 50 percent of its construction workforce.”
Cox said MVP would now bring back a “significant amount of workers who were temporarily suspended from their duties on the project,” but did not respond to questions about how many workers would be employed again.
FERC similarly ordered a halt to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a 600-mile-long natural gas pipeline that also will run through West Virginia, earlier this month. In that Stop Work Order, FERC cited another 4th Circuit ruling that said the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had sidestepped environmental rules in approving the project.