Demand for Power
An elderly couple steps up to defend their farm and neighbors when pipeline developers won’t back down from a risky, environmentally damaging project that after – years of delay – is now obsolete.
The Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a proposed “energy superhighway,” would transport natural gas across rural Appalachia and bring profit for huge fossil fuel companies like Dominion and Duke Energy. But it would also exact a human and environmental toll across hundreds of miles of pristine farmland and forest, impacting people like Ruby and John Laury in Buckingham County, Virginia.
BROKEN GROUND SEASON #1 EPISODE #3
“DEMAND FOR POWER”
By Nina Earnest
HOST: John and Ruby Laury live on a 98-acre farm in Buckingham County, Virginia. There, the retired couple watches over nine cows, nine newborn calves, three dogs and a donkey. On this sunny afternoon, the donkey looks like he needs a little touch-up on his hooves.
JOHN LAURY: You need a new pair of shoes? No? Stop acting like you don’t care.
HOST: John and his wife Ruby walk me through their pasture. He points out a couple of chores he needs to tackle: cleaning out stumps, feeding the cattle. And despite his age, 74, he makes it clear he’s not planning to quit farming anytime soon.
JOHN LAURY: Oh, I’m young now. By the grace of God, I’d like to do it for another, what, 20 years?
RUBY LAURY: We’re retired, remember. We’re supposed to be living out our golden years.
HOST: Their plan is to live out those golden years right here in their small community of Union Hill.
RUBY LAURY: It’s so green here, it’s beautiful. So that’s the way I would like to keep it. Well, as you may know, we are having some problems with that right now.
HOST: The Laurys and their land are in the path of the controversial Atlantic Coast Pipeline, It’s known as the ACP around here.
NEWS CLIP #1: The Atlantic Coast Pipeline would wind 600 miles underground, carrying natural gas from West Virginia to Virginia and North Carolina.
NEWS CLIP #2: This pipeline, which is one of the largest that has ever been built in decades, will provide Virginia with an energy superhighway.
NEWS CLIP #3: Critics say this may be less about providing gas and more about profit.
HOST: Pipeline developers first announced the ACP in 2014 and expected it would be in use by now. But construction on the pipeline has barely begun. And the Laurys – swept up in a conflict they never expected to face – are fighting to keep it that way.
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HOST: This is Broken Ground, a podcast about environmental stories in the South and the people at the heart of them. I’m Claudine Ebeid McElwain. In our last episode, we took you to North Carolina to meet two women who – after learning their water was contaminated – took up the fight against coal ash.
DEBORAH GRAHAM: I didn’t even know these pits even leaked.
AMY BROWN: There’s no one who will protect your children the way you will.
HOST: Amy Brown and Deborah Graham and other advocates are still fighting for Duke Energy to clean up the coal ash pits across the state of North Carolina. If you didn’t catch that episode, we hope you’ll go back and listen.
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HOST: In this episode, we tackle the fight against the multibillion dollar Atlantic Coast Pipeline. In the first half of the program, we’ll give you a glimpse into how the Laurys are fighting the threat of pipeline pollution in their hometown, and examine how marginalized communities are most affected by environmental policies.
What makes this situation even worse is that the Southern Environmental Law Center has uncovered evidence to show that there isn’t even a need for this pipeline. We’ll get to that in the second half of the episode.
John Laury grew up in Union Hill. The predominantly African-American township was established by former slaves in the 1870s. Today, its population is about 200 people. John’s family history stretches back generations. As a young man, John left Virginia when he joined the Air Force and lived most of his adult life in California. But in 2003, he and Ruby came back to his first home. He bought some property not far from his family’s land just down the street from Laury Lane.
CLAUDINE: What made you want to move back here?
JOHN LAURY: Rolling hills. The beauty, the natural beauty, the quietness. It’s what I’m accustomed to, I’m just used to it.
RUBY LAURY: And after being here for a while, I came to see why he wanted to come back.
HOST: The Laurys lived an unassuming life on their Buckingham property, and they spent most of their days caring for their land and animals. But then in 2014, A concerned neighbor knocked on their door.
RUBY: She asked me had I heard about the natural gas that they wanted to put it in this area. And I said, no. Uh, but what’s wrong with natural gas?
HOST: Ruby would soon learn just what that natural gas was going to mean for her and her husband. Their neighbor was referring to the ACP, a pipeline project backed by three powerful energy conglomerates: Dominion, Duke, and Southern Company. The Richmond, Virginia based Dominion is the largest owner, with 48 percent of the ownership interest.
The 42-inch wide pipeline is designed to carry 1.5 billion cubic feet a day of natural gas from the Marcellus Shale Formation — a massive layer of rock running under several states, including New York, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, which is where the pipeline would begin.
But to carry the natural gas from West Virginia along the pipeline’s 600 mile route, it needs to pass through some of the steepest mountain slopes in Virginia, cross the Appalachian Trail, trench through thousands of streams and finally…requires something called compressor stations — and that’s where John and Ruby’s story fits in.
NEWS CLIP #1: Union Hill is a community in Buckingham County that could be directly impacted by the construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.
NEWS CLIP #2: An air compressor station is planned for Buckingham County, which would maintain the pressure and flow of natural gas.
NEWS CLIP #3: Opponents have several issues with the compressor station, including pollution and safety.
HOST: The Union Hill compressor station passing through John and Ruby’s neighborhood is one of three along the ACP. It would be a large & noisy industrial facility, with four gas-fired turbines running at all hours of the day.
What concerns John and Ruby most, however, are the possible health effects of living near one of these stations. They worry about explosions, leaks, and accidents. And then there’s the air pollution. Many of their neighbors are elderly, and compressor stations release toxins that have been linked to an increase in asthma and cancer rates.
JOHN: We have not been told all of the facts. How many tons of poison do we have to breathe on a daily basis, a monthly basis, or a yearly basis?
HOST: The day their neighbor knocked on their door, the Laurys’ lives went in a new and unexpected direction. Over the past five years, John and Ruby have become fixtures at protests and government meetings fighting federal state and local approvals of the compressor station.
RUBY: One day somebody said that I was an activist, really? So I told my granddaughter, I said, they said I was an activist. She says, Gam, you are an activist. I said, okay. I had never been involved with anything. I didn’t know anything about environmental justice or anything like that. I learned all that stuff later on.
JOHN: They look for certain areas to build these structures in. Usually they’ll find an area with people of color, poor people. They really don’t expect them to have the resources to fight back. If they have money, more likely they have political clout. You have politicians to fight on your behalf. So you choose these areas, and you have less resistance.
KENDYL CRAWFORD: Normally when we’re talking about environmental justice we really are focusing on environmental injustice.
HOST: This is Kendyl Crawford, the Director of Interfaith Power and Light. The organization’s mission is to craft a religious response to global warming. One of the things that Kendyl thinks about in her work is how to address irresponsible environmental practices that disproportionately affect marginalized communities.
KENDYL: The ideal is for everyone to have clean air, clean water, clean land, clean food and of course a safe and stable climate, so it should be a fundamental human right just to allow everyone to be able to thrive.
CLAUDINE: How does environmental justice apply to the Union Hill stories as you see it?
KENDYL: So essentially you have an African American community, fairly low income community and you know out of all the sites throughout Virginia Dominion could have picked they chose Union Hill and Buckingham County that decision was strategic on their part you know corporations you know when you think about it form their angle they want to find places where you know they think there’ll be the least resistants to their efforts where they’ll be able to kind of easily implement their agendas so they can start making their money you know making their profits for their shareholders. One fact that really blew me away during my first trip down to Buckingham County was that essentially the descendants of the plantation owners variety shades they actually, they sold the property to dominion to locate their proposed compressive station and so of course when you think about it the descendants of the enslaved still are living there so here we have another harm occurring to people that were once enslaved by you know another set of people.
CLAUDINE: It’s like history repeating itself . . .
CLAUDINE: … In a different and new setting.
KENDYL: And going on that point you know the issue of environmental justice is not something new it’s kind of just the same oppression, just a different face of it.
HOST: While critics like Kendyl Crawford say Dominion chose the compressor station location because they expected to meet little resistance. Dominion for its part denies this. But the criticism may have been on the mind of Dominion executives when as you can hear in this news coverage they came to the people of Union Hill with a proposal in November 2018.
NEWS CLIP #1: In advance of the controversial Buckingham compressor station, there’s potential for peace. It comes in the form of a $5.1 million dollar investment proposed by Dominion Energy to go towards building a new community center and amping up an emergency response team.
RUBY: And that was just a slap in the face. And $5 million is nothing. It’s just a drop in the bucket. What can you do with $5 million for our community? Nothing. And they certainly can’t. I don’t want it because it’s blood money.
HOST: Union Hill has become a rallying cry for activists across the region, who see the elderly African-American community as a microcosm of the environmental problems faced by marginalized people across the United States.
The cause has attracted big names like Co-Chair of the Poor People’s Campaign Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II and former Vice President Al Gore.
VICE PRESIDENT AL GORE: The church we were in at Union Grove had a banner above the pulpit behind it that said, stand for what’s right even if you’re standing alone. We’re here to say, you’re not standing alone. We are standing with you, and we will stand with you.
HOST: In May 2019, John, Ruby, and nearly 100 protesters took their message to Richmond, Virginia, marching across the Robert E. Lee Bridge singing and chanting their support for the people of Buckingham.
MARCHERS: We are one. We are Union Hill. We are one. We are Union Hill.
RUBY: I never, ever dreamed I’d be in a march like this. And like I said, sometimes the Lord, he takes you out of your comfort zone so you can do something beneficial not only for yourself but for other people also.
RICHARD WALKER: I am a fifth generation of my great great grandfather Taylor Harper who was a freed slave and purchased our land for 15 dollars back in 1885. That land has been in our family for over 100 years. The folk that I know that grew up with me are in their 60s, 70s, and my eldest cousin in the Harper Family who is 82 years old. So yes, and she has respiratory issues now, so if that compressor station were to come, it would almost as much as kill her. You know, so that’s my fight for my family.
JOHN LAURY: This stuff cannot be done in darkness or behind closed doors. Let the world know what is happening.
HOST: Those are the voices of Richard Walker and John Laury. Our producer Nina Earnest caught up with them at the rally, but before she left she also talked to Virginia Delegate Sam Rasoul.
DELEGATE SAM RASOUL: The pipelines have one purpose. To put a whole lot of money in the hands of a few rich people. That’s it. We don’t need it. Virginia has an opportunity to stop this thing and we should do everything possible.
HOST: What does that even mean – we don’t need it? We’ll talk about that next.
Since I started working at the Southern Environmental Law Center, I’ve spent a lot of time learning about the ACP. I can tell you that I’ve seen Dominion and Duke encounter a lot of pushback against this pipeline – and not just by environmental justice advocates. Conservationists worry about the heavy toll construction will take on the land, water and its animals. Hikers are concerned that the pipeline’s route runs underneath the famed Appalachian Trail and private landowners are upset that their land is being seized by eminent domain.
But what really got my attention about this project, what really stuck out to me was what attorneys here kept saying about it not being needed, that we the public don’t need the natural gas from this pipeline. I’ve mentioned in other episodes that before working for SELC I spent many years working in a newsroom. That might help you understand why – when attorneys told me they had lots of evidence to support this – in fact loads of files worth and it was all public information, the first thing I said was, ‘Give it to me, show me the evidence.’ And my next question for the attorneys was, ‘How can a project that is going to disrupt so many lives and put so much land at risk be ok’d if no one needs it?’
To clue you in on what I was learning about, I asked my colleague Grep Buppert, the lead attorney on the Southern Environmental Law Center’s cases against the pipeline to come join us in the studio.
CLAUDINE: What do we mean by saying we don’t need the Atlantic Coast Pipeline?
GREG BUPPERT: Well you’ve really gotten to the heart of the issue with this project. Dominion has said from the beginning that about 80% of the capacity of this pipeline will be used to run power plants in Virginia and power plants in North Carolina. So the first question we asked ourselves was: is there a need to run power plants in the states?
HOST: The short answer is no. Analysts have stated that existing pipelines would be enough to fuel existing power plants. In 2015, when Dominion applied for the pipeline, it said it needed the gas to fuel its power plants sense then it has started retiring gas fired power plants and it has cut its predicted energy demands by 3,000 megawatts the equivalent of two large gas fired power plants. SELC attorneys found this out by digging in to what Dominion has been telling Virginia regulators:
GREG: The Virginia State Corporation Commission is responsible for oversight of the Dominion Utility. And what we’ve learned there is Dominion has been grossly inflating the demand for power in Virginia for the last 10 years. That’s not just our opinion. The regulators agreed and sent Dominion back to the drawing board on its, on its predictions of energy demand for Virginia. So the reason that matters is without that demand for power. The need for this project really starts to fall away. If you don’t need it to run power plants, then, you don’t need it.
HOST: Not to mention, states in the southeast, like North Carolina are now home to a booming solar industry – a source of jobs and cheaper power.
GREG: I think we’re looking at a future in Virginia that’s headed towards renewable energy, which makes an investment in a piece of infrastructure like the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which will be in the ground, for decades influencing our energy decisions, really a bad idea.
CLAUDINE: It sounds like the project might be obsolete before it’s even built.
GREG: That is certainly a concern.
CLAUDINE: Then what’s the advantage for Dominion to build this pipeline? Why are they going ahead with this project?
GREG: Getting the infrastructure in the ground is a guaranteed revenue stream for decades for the company
HOST: I want to let that sink in for a moment. That a pipeline builder makes money just for building the pipe, regardless of how much it is used. Building the pipeline – not necessarily transporting the gas – will make Dominion and Duke and their investors money, a lot of money.
To understand how that works, we need to talk about something called FERC, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. This is the agency that gives the go-ahead for inter-state pipelines and there is really only one question it’s historically ever had to answer to give a pipeline the nod – does the public need the project? By all accounts FERC has rarely met a pipeline it didn’t think we needed and, true to form, the ACP got the ok from FERC. And that go-ahead comes with a crucial guarantee from the federal government.
GREG: FERC has allowed the pipeline builder to charge its customers a fee that allows the builder to collect a 15 percent profit every year. It’s supposed to provide a hedge against risk for building pipelines.
HOST: So, building energy infrastructure in America comes with a guaranteed 15% rate of return to pipeline developers and their shareholders. To put that figure in perspective, the suggested rate of return on a good retirement account is 6 to 7 percent.
A little more on how this works. Dominion, a majority owner of the pipeline, is able to charge its customers for the cost of building the pipeline – at this point it’s almost $8 billion – and on top of that it also gets to charge its customers for 15% of the value of the pipeline for every year until it fully depreciates. So, they’ll get back the money they spent to build the pipeline and then some – and we, the customers, pay for that.
GREG: And this is something I think Dominion’s never really been honest about, which is we’re all going to pay, Dominion’s customers are going to pay for this project.
HOST: Since 2014 there have been nearly 40 interstate pipelines proposed and approved in the Marcellus Shale Region. And I have to wonder if a company can guarantee its investors a 15% rate of return for building something – regardless of how they use it – why not build it? That’s just easy money.
When a pipeline builder like Dominion goes to FERC and asks to build a pipeline it has to provide contracts to prove someone is going to buy the gas from that pipeline. In the case of the ACP – Dominion is building the pipeline and because it’s a utility it’s also buying the gas. Here’s Greg again.
GREG: And we had gone to FERC and said FERC there are a lot of unanswered questions and the only fair way to get to the bottom of those is to hold a evidentiary hearing, a trial then we’d really get to the truth about what’s driving this project and whether there’s a demand for it. And FERC turned us down on that.
HOST: But something unusual happened when FERC said ‘no thanks.’
ELIZABETH OUTZS: Even some of the members of the commission they started to question the need in a way that they haven’t before
HOST: This is North Carolina-based energy reporter, Elizabeth Outzs. What she’s talking about is FERC commissioner Cheryl LaFleur dissenting. In LaFleur’s opinion she said she doubted the public need for this pipeline.
ELIZABETH: In part because the ACP was being proposed at the same time as another pipeline that, you know, at times would run right next to the ACP. She was really clear in questioning whether both projects are needed, saying both projects appear to be receiving gas from the same location and both deliver gas that can reach some common destination markets. And then she later said, I’m not persuaded that both of these projects as proposed are in the public interest.
HOST: Pipeline developers must be itching to get the ACP in the ground. And in their hurry, they’ve pushed federal and state agencies, with the backing of the Trump administration, to rush permits and have run afoul of environmental and public land use laws.
GREG: Based on our best estimates, only about 8 percent of this project is actually in the ground. Dominion has lost 7 permits required for construction so construction’s not going forward right now. It doesn’t have a permit to cross 2 national forests the George Washington in Virginia and the Monongahela in West Virginia, it doesn’t have a permit to cross the Blue Ridge Parkway, it can’t cross the Appalachian Trail, most importantly the for circuits said the US forest service didn’t even have authority to let the pipeline cross the trail. That issue is unresolved. Dominion has said publicly that it’s taking that case to the Supreme Court which I think is a steep uphill climb for the company, so the bottom line is this project doesn’t have a path forward.
HOST: Remember the pipeline is supposed to be done and operational by now. Given the legal hurdles still ahead of this pipeline I asked Outzs the billion dollar question:
CLAUDINE: After all this time, do you think this pipeline’s going to be built?
ELIZABETH: When I first started covering it, it seemed like a really uphill battle. And it still is. It’s certainly some scrappy activists versus a very powerful corporation. But … but yeah I think the chances seemed very, very low when I first started reporting that they’d be able to stop it or slow it in any way. And yet here we are. I’m also looking at the numbers for how much the pipeline is going to cost and wondering okay, how many more billions of dollars are the pipeline developers going to commit to this project before shareholders get nervous?
HOST: Bloomberg reporter Alex Steel recently had the chance to ask Duke Energy CEO Lynn Good a similar question.
BLOOMBERG REPORTER ALEX STEEL: Is there a timeframe or cost you say, I’m out? Nine billion? An extra year delay? You have to have those kind of risk models.
DUKE CEO LYNN GOOD: You know, Alex, at this point, I don’t have a specific thing I would share with you. Our commitment is to work through these challenges because we have such confidence. That’s where our mind is and our heart is right now is to continue pushing forward with this pipeline.
HOST: Dominion and Duke, for now, are not backing down. But remember the scrappy activists John and Ruby from earlier in the episode? They and their allies aren’t planning to back down either. In fact, a group the Laurys belong to, the Friends of Buckingham, are in court suing the state agencies that permitted the compressor station for violating clean air laws and ignoring environmental justice.
JOHN: When we first started, they’d call us crazy, dumb and a few other of them old country names. Do you know or realize who you’re going up against?
HOST: As I said goodbye to the Laurys and their farm, John brought up a parable from the Bible.
JOHN: In the Bible, David, a little shepherd boy, went up against Goliath. Goliath was nine feet tall.
RUBY: Yeah, Dominion, they thought we were going to roll over and they could walk all over us. But they saw something different. Not just because we did it, but because of all the help that we had. As long as I have breath in my body, I’m going to keep fighting.
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HOST: Next time on the podcast, we talk about the future of energy in the Southeast as it transitions off of fossil fuels. Why regulations make solar in schools easy for some but not for all.
CLAUDINE: What are they called again?
KIDS: Solar panels! Get solar panels so then you can save your money! Yup! Save your electricity bill, people.
HOST: Broken Ground is a podcast by the Southern Environmental Law Center. It’s put together by Nina Earnest, Emily-Richardson Lorente and Jennie Daley. I’m your host Claudine Ebeid McElwain. Our theme music is by Eric Knutson. The archival interview clips you heard in this episode were found on WCAV, WRIC, Bloomberg and NPR.
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