Forest Service decision on Atlantic Coast Pipeline puts National Forests at risk

Questions about how the Atlantic Coast Pipeline would cross steep slopes like those in the George Washington National Forest remain unanswered as the Forest Service signs off on the project. (© Jim Waite)

SELC strongly opposes the U.S. Forest Service decision today to approve the Atlantic Coast Pipeline project, a natural gas pipeline slated to cut through 600-miles of West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina, including lands in the Appalachian Mountains and the George Washington and Monongahela National Forests.

“For the last two years, the Forest Service has been clear that ACP developers did not provide the agency with enough information to make a decision on this project. Serious questions remain about whether or not the pipeline can be built safely through the steep, unforgiving terrain of the Appalachians, but the agency abruptly changed course and approved the project,” said Senior Attorney Greg Buppert. “The Forest Service now joins the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in approving a project that isn’t needed and that is designed to enrich developers at the expense of landowners, utility customers, and natural resources. The Atlantic Coast Pipeline will strip people of their private property, raise their energy bills, and put thousands of waterways and forests in harm’s way – for the sole benefit of utility companies.”

After the U.S. Forest Service repeatedly requested additional information on the project from the developers and stated it did not have enough information to make a decision on this project, the agency approved it, despite its many unanswered requests.

This decision is another step in the federal approval process, but states must still give their approval before this project can move forward. In addition to federal approval, developers Dominion Energy and Duke Energy must secure project approval from state regulators, as well as condemn hundreds of parcels of private property to construct the pipeline. Landowners have reported aggressive pressure from Dominion to agree to easements before their property is seized through eminent domain, even as they raise concerns about the risks, like pipeline explosions, to their families and land.

The Allegheny-Blue Ridge Alliance, of which SELC is a founding member, has helped lead the charge for greater scrutiny of the pipeline proposal since it was first announced in 2014. SELC and others continue to raise questions about the stated demand driving the project, as studies from the federal government and local electric grid monitoring groups show flat or decreasing demand for electricity.

In addition to challenging the Forest Service permit approval, SELC is also challenging FERC’s approval of the project. SELC maintains that the FERC approval process is flawed and does not consider important factors like developers’ inflated projections for natural gas or the actual market demand for new pipelines. In an uncommon move, one of the three FERC commissioners issued a dissenting opinion on the decision, citing that it is within FERC’s purview to look beyond agreements put forth by the developers involved in this project to establish proof of need for the pipeline. 

Under the current pipeline approval process, the developers are guaranteed an unusually high 15 percent rate of return on the project, making the Atlantic Coast Pipeline lucrative for shareholders, regardless of whether the public benefits materialize. Recent testimony at the Virginia State Corporation Commission confirmed that $1.6 billion to $2.3 billion in costs will be passed on to Dominion utility customers, whether or not the pipeline is used to run power plants.

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