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Lessons Learned from the Atlantic Coast Pipeline

Photo credit: Friends of Nelson

Seems there’s always plenty of bad news to report, so this week we’ve decided to shine a light on a very happy development.

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline is dead! In early July, Dominion Energy and Duke Energy announced it was cancelling the 600-mile project, citing “ongoing delays and increasing cost uncertainty which threaten the economic viability of the project.”

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline was to be a new natural gas pipeline that conveyed natural gas from West Virginia to eastern North Carolina. Landowners, communities, and environmental groups had been battling the project for over six years—not quite as long as Jordan Cove, but plenty long enough.

The route crossed dozens of streams and steep, unstable forested terrain. Opponents charged the company and permitting agencies glossed over the pipeline’s potential impacts to wildlife, water quality, and the constitutional rights of landowners. The contentious project was fought mostly in the courts.

The ACP bears some striking parallels to the Pacific Connector Pipeline, and we hope its cancellation is a harbinger of things to come. Let’s take a look at some lessons learned from the ACP’s defeat.

Atlantic Coast Pipeline route

Lesson 1: A strong, broad coalition is key

Critics who bemoan the loss of the ACP have been quick to point the finger at the “well-funded, obstructionist environmental lobby” for killing the project. They demonize environmentalists to direct attention away from the truth: the coalition which opposed the ACP was deep and broad. It included environmental activists, but also people who cared about the Appalachian Trail, which the pipeline was slated to cross under, landowners defending their private property rights, and social justice advocates. The project would have disproportionately impacted Native Americans, and many were incensed that the company proposed locating a large compressor station in the largely African-American community of Union Hill.

Jordan Cove has long been opposed by a deep and broad coalition, consisting of crabbers, commercial fishermen, Tribes, environmental groups, youth concerned about climate change, and landowners. Over the course of 15 years, this coalition has only grown stronger.

It’s no wonder pro-industry folks want to paint the opposition as a homogeneous faction of well-funded “environmental radicals.” The safety of communities, economic impact on important industries, and use of eminent domain to seize land from rural property owners for an export project are issues that cut across political lines.

Lesson 2: The company’s behavior matters

In an opinion piece which appeared in news leader, Robert “Bobby” Whitescarver describes what motivated him to fight the ACP for so long:

“At first it was because the pipeline was going to harm our streams and take people’s property against their will for corporate profit,” he writes. “…but what galvanized my resolve to fight was how Dominion Energy, the builder of the pipeline, treated people—with disrespect, and bullying.”

He cites several examples: how a well-dressed Dominion rep would shuttle pipeline supporters off to a “special room” at public hearings; the environmental racism of locating the compressor station at Union Hill; and Dominion’s use of “quick take” to condemn private property without compensating landowners.

Most Americans hate injustice, and most people know when they’re being lied to. Oregonians saw through Pembina’s slick “Respect Oregon” ad campaign and realized the company was trying to buy favor with its grant program and glowing promises.

Actions speak louder than words. The company set up offices in Klamath Falls and Coos Bay and closed them as soon as their project won FERC approval. They funded a special division of the Coos County Sheriff’s Department then stiffed the county on the bill. Several landowners reported deceitful and bullying tactics on the part of land agents. And now Pembina is trying to undermine the authority of Oregon’s agencies.

There is also the growing sense that the FERC process isn’t really a process at all, but that the Commission, which has become increasingly politicized, is rubber-stamping projects and claiming a narrower and narrower scope of what it can consider.

Nobody likes a bully, which is why highlighting injustices and the violation of due process whenever possible is key to galvanizing people.

Residents of Union Hill and other concerned citizens attend a rally in 2019. Credit: App Voices

Lesson 3: Time is on our side

Many aspects of the ACP were challenged and wound up in the courts. These delays were expensive. Dominion Energy claimed anticipated cost of the project grew from an estimated $4.5 to 5 billion to $8 billion.

The extra time gave landowners and communities the chance to organize and to educate themselves and each other. As an ACP opponent pointed out in this story that appeared in the Virginia Mercury, the delays also gave opponents time to tell their stories “over and over again.”

Jordan Cove has been under consideration for over 15 years now, and though the protracted process has certainly taken its toll on landowners, they have become experts in the regulatory process. Multiple press releases, letters to the editor, and news stories keep Jordan Cove on the public’s radar. Over the years, journalists, activists, and others have taken up the cause, as expressed in art installations and projects like Hike the Pipe, 36 Inches, James Parker’s short film about Jordan Cove, and Barbara Bernstein’s radio documentary, Holding the Thin Green Line.

By the time Jordan Cove was under consideration for the third time, more citizens were engaged in the process, as was illustrated by the unprecedented number of comments received by Oregon’s agencies. The state took these concerns seriously, and referenced the “substantial comments” of several individuals and organizations in its own responses.

“We have learned, and opposition and engagement in the process has increased dramatically--all helping to elevate the conversation and scrutiny of our state agencies, helping to ensure they follow state law,” says landowner Deb Evans. “Ultimately, this is about whether companies and regulators are following the laws on the books and whether constitutional rights are being upheld.”

Lesson 4: Markets matter; so do policies

Energy infrastructure projects are a long-term investment. A company must (or should) ask itself if the project is not only necessary and viable now, but five, 10, and 20 years from now. In states and regions where renewable energy is mandated and economically competitive, it’s getting harder to justify long-term investments in oil and gas projects.

This was certainly the case for the ACP. Dominion and Duke used the promise of jobs and lowered gas to win people over. But as the years passed, people could see that the sky was not falling when it came to energy infrastructure, and that the ACP was not as necessary as the company claimed. At the same time, states like Virginia are committing to decarbonizing their electric grids, prompting utilities to turn to renewable energy.

Jordan Cove is different, of course, because the natural gas is not slated for regional U.S. customers, but for countries overseas. But the question of need and constitutional protections is still important, and one that FERC glossed over, as many intervenors have pointed out. In the time since Jordan Cove was first proposed as an export project, several LNG terminals have come online. The market is glutted; the COVID-19 pandemic has only made it worse.

Jordan Cove would also be the state’s largest source of carbon pollution, if built. And although Oregon has aspirational goals for reducing carbon emissions, if the state had stronger mandates, it would be harder to justify a project like Jordan Cove.

Construction of the ACP had already begun

Lesson 5: The Courts are where we’ll win

Nearly every aspect of the ACP faced legal challenges: the FERC Certificate, the Air Permit for the compressor station, the National Park Services permit, the Virginia Water Board’s 401 Water Quality Certification, to name just a few. And even though the company scored some big wins, including the recent Supreme Court Decision which upheld the company’s right to cross under the Appalachian Trail, it was ultimately the time and cost of these court battles which killed the project.

Similarly, Jordan Cove faces challenges on every level, starting with the FERC certificate itself. Most recently, Niskanen Center filed a motion on behalf of landowners asking the D.C. Circuit Court to vacate FERC’s order granting a Certificate of Convenience and Necessity for the Pacific Connector Pipeline. Alternatively, they are asking for a stay, or pause, while the Certificate is being reviewed. This will be the topic of an upcoming post.

In the meantime, stay safe, and congratulations to everyone who worked to defeat the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

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