With Central Virginia poised to become a gas pipeline cut-through, conservationists urge caution

The conversion of coal-fired power plants to natural gas—like Dominion’s Bremo Power 
Station in Fluvanna—is part of what’s fueling the push to expand gas transmission lines into the southeast. File photo The conversion of coal-fired power plants to natural gas—like Dominion’s Bremo Power Station in Fluvanna—is part of what’s fueling the push to expand gas transmission lines into the southeast. File photo

In the span of three months, a trio of pipeline proposals through Virginia has turned the Commonwealth into a key player in the country’s rapidly expanding natural gas industry. The projects, two of which follow preliminary paths that come close to Albemarle County, aren’t exactly unexpected. Still, they have some nearby landowners worried, and conservationists say there’s reason to be concerned about Virginia’s new status as a gas corridor.

April saw the first hints of Dominion Resources’ Southeast Reliability Project, a proposed $2 billion, 450-mile pipeline that would cross into the Commonwealth from West Virginia in Highland County, cutting through Nelson County on its way to Lumberton, North Carolina.

Then came news that Houston-based Spectra Energy is planning a $4 billion, 427-mile line originating in Pennsylvania and traveling through Culpeper, Orange, Louisa, and Madison counties before terminating somewhere in North Carolina.

And earlier this month came the announcement of a third possible project. Pittsburgh-based EQT Corporation says it will partner with Juno Beach, Florida’s NextEra Energy Inc. to build the Mountain Valley Pipeline, running 330 miles through southwestern Virginia to the Carolina border in Pittsylvania County.

Below are company-provided maps for both Dominion’s and Spectra’s proposed pipelines, both of which are routed through Central Virginia (click to see them larger). Both companies stressed that the routes of their “study corridors” are still preliminary.

The proposed route of Dominion Resources' Southern Reliability Project, a 450-mile natural gas pipeline.

Spectra Energy's proposed natural gas pipeline. Image courtesy Spectra Energy

The companies have yet to seek approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), a step that will subject them to scrutiny from a five-member panel that will examine environmental impacts and alternatives. But they’re moving fast: After a round of letters to landowners, Dominion and Spectra have begun making house calls to survey possible routes within their respective 400’ to 600’ “study corridors.” All say they plan to have the projects online by the end of 2018.

Why Virginia, and why now? It comes down to geology and demand, say industry officials and conservationists.

“We’ve fracked our way to cheap gas,” said Dan Holmes, director of state policy for the Piedmont Environmental Council, which holds easements on some of the land that could be affected by the Spectra project. The Marcellus shale deposit, a vast gas field that stretches across parts of Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia and was untapped in 2008, now produces up to 16 billion cubic feet of natural gas a day. But it’s a trapped resource, said Holmes. “What are you going to do when you’ve got a supply and you’ve got to get it to market? That’s what these proposals are doing.”

At the other end of the line are southeast power companies and communities hungry for shale gas as an alternative to dirtier coal. It’s looking even more appealing in light of a new mandate from the Environmental Protection Agency to drastically reduce carbon emissions by 2030.

“You have these large industries and electric utilities looking to generate [power] with natural gas rather than coal, and you have local distribution companies looking to supply it,” said Dominion spokesman Jim Norvelle. Virginia is, quite literally, in the middle. “If you look at a map of the natural gas transmission pipelines in this section of the country, you’ll notice there are few,” he said.

The dominoes were set, and an announcement from Duke Energy was the finger that flicked the first one. The Charlotte-based electric company—which is the largest in the U.S., and has recently built or is planning half a dozen new gas-fired power plants—said on April 1 it was partnering with a gas supplier to request proposals for pipeline projects into North Carolina “to meet growing demand.”

Already, landowners and conservation groups are raising concerns. Only rough maps of the project paths have been released, but it appears Dominion’s cuts through 26 miles of the George Washington National Forest and many properties with conservation easements that restrict development. That has the attention of Charlottesville’s Southern Environmental Law Center. 

SELC senior attorney Cale Jaffe recently met with Nelson County landowners whose properties lie in the path of Dominion’s proposed pipeline, some of whom have formed an anti-pipeline community group. He said there are a lot of questions left to answer: Federal law says gas companies can use eminent domain to seize land from unwilling owners for infrastructure projects, but what happens when that land is in conservation? And could a pipeline through the GW encourage gas drilling there, something the SELC has fought for years to prevent?

“We are committed to digging a little deeper to try to understand what the threats to some of Virginia’s natural areas are,” Jaffe said.

The Spectra path, which could come close to Albemarle’s border with Orange and Louisa counties, is also under scrutiny. Holmes pointed out that the proposed line marches through many agricultural areas, and if the company buries a pipe on their land, farmers will have to negotiate the careful treatment of soils.

And, like the Dominion project, it would bisect a lot of land that’s held in conservation. Some of the easements on land in its path are held by the Department of the Interior, Holmes said, which would exempt them from eminent domain law. Also in the way, he said: Montpelier, the plantation estate of James Madison.

“These are resources I would not expect any company that had done its homework to hit,” said Holmes.

Dominion and Spectra representatives have stressed that the projects are still in early stages, and said they’re now meeting with landowners who may be affected and talking with local, state, and federal officials ahead of what will be a careful evaluation by the FERC. Holmes pointed out that even if all three pipeline proposals currently charting courses through the Commonwealth pass muster, there’s no guaranteeing that they’ll all get built. That’s partly up to whomever steps up to finance the projects.

But Virginians should be looking critically at any plan to turn their state into a gas crossroads, Holmes said. First, there’s the very real potential of leaks and accidents.

“To suggest that these things are placed and you never have problems is, I think, naive,” said Holmes.

And he and Jaffe agree that there are bigger energy issues at play. Jaffe said many in Nelson are unhappy about the fact that the gas that could be piped through their backyards would be generated by fracking, a controversial drilling process that many oppose on environmental grounds. And Holmes pointed out that natural gas is still a fossil fuel, and some studies show that the heavy environmental impact of drilling, transporting, and burning it may mean it doesn’t have a big edge over dirtier energy sources. 

Those who may be playing host to pipes should have a role in those debates, said Holmes.

“There are some larger policy questions that should be considered from the state level, as well as questions that should be considered by each of these affected communities,” he said.

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