March 2020 News

March 2020

3-29-20 Bacon’s Rebellion. Is It the Death Knell For Dominion’s Pipeline? “But now there’s clear evidence that the fracking boom is over, and that has huge implications for the ACL project. The reason? Oil and gas prices have dropped thanks to a perfect storm of issues. There’s the coronavirus pandemic tanking the U.S. economy, bitter energy wars between Russia and Saudi Arabia, and the fact that fracking gas and oil rigs are enormously expensive and wells can produce for only a short period. The Hill reported last week: ‘Oil sank to $23 (a barrel) from a high of $53 in mid-February, far below the break even point that producers need to drill new wells to maintain supply, and with volumes rapidly diminishing at existing wells.’ …. The situation has clear implications for the ACL project which was conceived at the height of the Marcellus boom.”

3-28-10 Roanoke Times. Federal reviews delay Mountain Valley Pipeline yet again. “A winter hiatus in construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline will last well into the spring. The latest delay came this week, with word that two federal agencies will take another month to review one of several approvals — set aside by legal challenges from environmental groups — that must be restored before work can ramp up on the highly disputed natural gas pipeline.

3-27-20 The American Prospect. The Constitutional Option to Fight the Climate Crisis. “Ubiquitous pipelines crisscrossing America and worries over climate change raise the question: Does transporting oil and gas serve the public interest?” [Detailed discussion of eminent domain case over Louisiana pipeline]

3-27-20 Virginia Mercury. Virginia made big commitments to renewables. What does the economic slump mean for them? “Three weeks ago, Virginia’s Democrat-led General Assembly passed the most ambitious plan for transitioning off of fossil fuels and onto renewable energy sources to come out of the South yet. It was a banner moment for environmentalists. Among the promises they secured were state commitments to build out 24 gigawatts of solar, wind and energy storage by 2035 — almost 40 percent more than the existing capacity of the fossil fuel units owned by the state’s largest utility, Dominion Energy — and annual targets that would bind the utilities to progressively including more and more renewables in their energy portfolios. Then the new coronavirus hit, and the financial markets tanked. …. What that will mean for Virginia’s planned buildout is not yet clear.”

3-27-20 Inside Climate News. Trump’s Move to Suspend Enforcement of Environmental Laws is a Lifeline to the Oil Industry. “The American Petroleum Institute sought the EPA’s help for companies hurt by COVID-19. One former EPA official called the suspension ‘an open license to pollute.’ The Trump administration’s unprecedented decision to suspend enforcement of U.S. environmental laws amid the COVID-19 crisis throws a lifeline to the oil industry as it copes with the greatest threat to its business in a generation.”

3-26-20 E&E Energywire. Is pipeline construction ‘essential’ in a pandemic?   “In Virginia and West Virginia, construction is suspended on the Mountain Valley pipeline (MVP) due to legal challenges by environmental groups (Energywire, Oct. 17, 2019). But the developer, a joint venture led by EQT Corp., says shutdown orders allow work to continue, and it is focusing on maintaining erosion and sediment control measures. That angers Elizabeth Struthers Malbon of Blacksburg, Va., who complained to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission that the developer is continuing to bring in temporary workers. ‘MVP and FERC have no right to ignore the public danger to citizens who live in the vicinity’ of the pipeline, she said in a comment posted on the FERC docket this week. A spokeswoman for the pipeline did not respond to a request for comment.”

3-26-20 Roanoke Times.  Economic slowdown not affecting many outdoor construction projects. “While business closures and work-from-home orders have altered the employment scene for many Southwest Virginians, most outdoor construction projects are moving forward. Workers on highway improvements, home and commercial construction and other projects generally have more room for the social distancing that is being called for in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19. …. Work on the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which has been largely stalled in recent months by the suspension of permits for environmental reasons, is not expected to be further slowed, according to company spokeswoman Natalie Cox.”

3-25-20 Roanoke Times. Bowers, Christopulos and Smusz: COVID-19 and an army of pipeline workers don’t mix. “We all have grave concerns about COVID-19. Restaurants, public facilities and churches have closed. Everyone is asked to stay home and gather in groups smaller than ten. But out-of-state natural gas corporations either don’t pay attention to current news, or maybe they just don’t care about the consequences of their actions. Mountain Valley Pipeline’s owners are preparing to unleash thousands of pipeline workers in six Virginia counties (Giles, Craig, Montgomery, Roanoke, Franklin and Pittsylvania), most of them non-local. Each of these workers is a potential virus carrier. …. This is not the time to bring in an army of out-of-state workers with the threat of COVID-19 contamination to local residents, requiring food and health care that are already in short supply. MVP construction should be suspended indefinitely.”

3-25-20 Why a SCOTUS Case Over the Atlantic Pipeline Project Could Have Big Implications. “While the case currently before the Supreme Court is a multifaceted dispute, it primarily centers on the intersection of two federal statutes: the Mineral Leasing Act and the National Trails System Act. The Mineral Leasing Act gives the Forest Service, a unit of the Department of Agriculture, authority to grant rights-of-way for natural gas pipelines through all federal lands, ‘except lands in the National Park System.’ That language is pretty clear. The debate before the court, however, hinges on the Supreme Court’s interpretation of whether or not the Appalachian Trail is considered a unit of the National Park System in the context of the Mineral Leasing Act. The National Trails System Act gives the National Park Service authority to administer the Appalachian Trail; and the National Park Service Organic Act was amended in 1970 to incorporate ‘any area of land and water administered by’ the National Park Service into the National Park System. So, is the Appalachian Trail part of the National Park System?”

3-25-20 Blue Virginia. Why on Earth Is Mountain Valley Pipeline Construction Considered “Essential Infrastructure” During COVID-19 Crisis? “[I]t’s really galling, given that so many other businesses – including ones that are net positives to society – have had to shut down, while a business focused on building more of what we know is harming the environment, contributing to pollution and the climate crisis, etc., gets an exemption because it’s supposedly ‘essential.’ Other than there being a lot of money tied up in the Mountain Valley Pipeline project, what on earth is ‘essential’ about building more dirty, destructive, likely-to-be-economically-‘stranded’-in-a-few-years, fracked-gas distribution capacity?” See also the petition to governors of Virginia and West Virginia asking them to add transient pipeline construction workers from across the country to the non-essential stay-at-home list, until after the Covid-19 crisis has passed.

3-25-20 Earth Justice. Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Prevails as Federal Judge Strikes Down DAPL Permits. “A federal court today granted a request by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe to strike down federal permits for the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline. The Court found the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers violated the National Environmental Policy Act when it affirmed federal permits for the pipeline originally issued in 2016. Specifically, the Court found significant unresolved concerns about the potential impacts of oil spills and the likelihood that one could take place.”

3-23-20 Bloomberg Environment. Virus Leads Pipeline Agency to Ease Job Qualification Rules. “A federal safety agency is helping hazardous material transporters and pipeline operators prepare for the spread of Covid-19 by easing staff training and qualifications requirements. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration issued a stay on enforcement March 20, applicable only to requirements for pipeline operator employee qualifications and training. …. The pipeline industry is preparing to operate with a workforce potentially reduced by illness or quarantines, said Bryn Karaus, who focuses on pipeline regulation in her position of counsel for Van Ness Feldman LLP in Washington. Qualified employees are required to conduct specific tasks, like inspecting pipelines for corrosion or leaks. During the pandemic, if training isn’t available, pipeline operators may have to substitute other employees, Karaus said.”

3-23-20 Utility Dive. Utilities beginning to see the load impacts of COVID-19 as economic shutdown widens. “It has been less than a week since states and major cities began instituting quarantines along with stay-home and shelter-in-place directives to reduce the spread of COVID-19. The full impacts on electricity usage are not yet known, but grid operators say demand is both shifting and falling. Data from overseas may give an indication of just how steep the declines could become. Italy instituted lockdowns and closed essential businesses earlier this month, in response to a spike in novel coronavirus infections. According to the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), the country has since witnessed a significant decline in electricity demand. …. In the United States, grid operators say it is too soon to get a firm handle on the impacts of coronavirus shutdowns, but some are already seeing usage declines.”

3-19-20 Energy News Network. Q&A: NRDC attorney on the legal issues behind Atlantic Coast Pipeline challenge. “A self-described “FERC nerd,” Gillian Giannetti explains what Supreme Court justices are now considering.”

3-19-20 The Recorder. FERC urged to stop major projects due to virus spread [letter to FERC ACP docket]. “FERC must halt all large-scale construction on projects that are not critically important. These pipeline construction projects bring in transient workers into very vulnerable rural communities and place not only workers, but those communities at great risk.”

3-17-20 Virginia Mercury. Can an unusual coalition budge Congress on pipeline reforms? “Property rights advocates and environmentalists are often foes when it comes to federal regulations. But they’ve found some common ground in their shared desire to prod Congress and the courts to overhaul the federal permitting process for natural gas pipelines. Property rights advocates contend that the current system enables industry to unfairly seize land for energy infrastructure projects, which have been criticized as speculative ventures increasingly connected to a need for new gas. Environmentalists are wary of the climate change implications of burning the natural gas slated to be carried through new pipelines.”

3-16-20 pv magazine. Traditionally non-partisan FERC is politicized with 3-1 Republican majority. “Despite violating, in the words of Senator Joe Manchin, ‘proper decorum’ and ‘simple civility,’ the Senate confirmed James Danly as the third Republican on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Danly’s first nomination had been rejected earlier this year. The Commission has traditionally been non-partisan, and traditionally, the party of the nominees are alternated — ‘pairing’ the nominations. Legally, no more than three chairs can be held by one party. Richard Glick is the one Democrat on the Commission. The FERC Chair is Neil Chatterjee, a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The other Republican, Bernard McNamee, was deputy general counsel for energy policy at the Department of Energy.”

3-16-20 Seeking Alpha. Dominion Remains Overvalued Even After The Sell-Off. “The market plunge has created value opportunities, but I do not believe Dominion Energy is one of these. The firm’s lower recent net income figures and high-debt load will affect growth in the near term. In the sharp market downturn that occurred on 03/12/2020, several value opportunities have emerged. However, Richmond, Virginia-based electric and gas utility Dominion Energy (D) is not one of these, I contend, and still has further to fall before it can be considered fairly valued.”

3-16-20 Charlotte Observer. As the cost of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline soars, renewable energy is the better option for NC. “The Atlantic Coast Pipeline is a long way from being constructed, but it’s already proving a leaky conduit for cash. The cost keeps rising for the proposed 600-mile natural gas pipeline from West Virginia, through Virginia and down to the southern border of North Carolina in Robeson County. Estimated in November 2018 to cost $5.1 billion, the project jointly owned by Dominion Energy and Duke Energy, is now expected to cost approximately $8 billion, a 60 percent jump in a year and a half. …. Last week, a collection of more than 70 social justice, clean energy and faith groups called on Gov. Roy Cooper to declare a climate emergency and block further construction or expansion of natural gas-fired power plants and pipelines. In a letter to the governor, the groups said, ‘We contend that ’coping’ with this ongoing emergency includes the authority to help prevent it from growing worse indefinitely.’”

3-14-20 Salon. Energy companies get a free hand as FERC ties homeowners in legal knots. “Trump energy regulators are using an obscure bureaucratic maneuver to allow pipeline companies to legally seize land and start construction while pipeline opponents are in legal limbo. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has used this ploy, upheld in a 1969 case, to stall opposition for decades. The commission’s general counsel is James Danly, a relatively inexperienced attorney Trump nominated for a commission seat. Danly has stalled every timely request for a rehearing in the past two years. That means pipeline challengers can’t go to court until the commission decides to stop stalling them.”

3-13-20 Mountain Xpress [Asheville NC]  Local groups join call for state climate emergency declaration. “More than 70 youth, social justice, clean energy and faith groups, among others, today called on North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper to join more than 1,400 local and national governments by formally declaring a climate emergency. The top target of their letter and a statewide campaign escalation is a giant expansion of fracked natural gas projects that Duke Energy is building or planning, and which leading climate experts are urging Cooper to cancel. At a press conference today in Raleigh, speakers from youth groups and communities hit by repeated hurricanes and targeted by Duke’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) urged the Governor to use his Emergency Management Act authority to help prevent continuing pain – by halting the expansion of gas, a leading cause of accelerating climate chaos – rather than just responding to ongoing disasters.”

3-12-20 Nelson County Times. Letter: ACP: a pipeline to nowhere. “May 2020 will mark six years since more than 200 Nelson County landowners received the first letters from the Southern Reliability Project, since renamed the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. …. During this six-year period, natural gas prices have plummeted, and a glut remains. More than 200 oil and gas companies have filed for bankruptcy involving $127 billion in debt since 2015. Chesapeake Energy, the grandfather of natural gas fracking, is currently trading at 22 cents per share. And, West Virginia natural gas drillers are selling off leases or filing for bankruptcy at an alarming rate. Pipeline construction nationwide is being put on hold or canceled. …. If industry giants like Kinder Morgan and Williams are making adjustments, and West Virginia’s drilling rig counts are continuing to drop (down 31 percent from last year) where the ACP originates, why is Dominion continuing to fight to save this pipeline?”

3-10-20 Courthouse News Service. Judge Rules Against Virginia County in Challenge to Pipeline Project. “A federal judge has sided with a pipeline company in a dispute over the permitting powers of local governments, a win for the beleaguered natural gas producer after several setbacks in court. …. Senior U.S. District Judge Norman Moon, a Bill Clinton appointee, sided with Atlantic Coast Pipeline LLC in a ruling issued Monday, finding federal law superseded the county’s effort to block the project.”

3-10-20 Roanoke Times. DEQ notes problems with erosion control during lull in work on Mountain Valley Pipeline. “At a time when building the Mountain Valley Pipeline was focused almost entirely on controlling erosion, muddy runoff continued to flow from dormant construction sites. In a letter last month to a conservation group that first raised the issue, Virginia Department of Environmental Quality Director David Paylor said the infractions would be forwarded to the state attorney general’s office, which has the authority to seek tough financial penalties. …. But no demand had apparently been made by Tuesday [March 10, 2020]. DEQ spokeswoman Ann Regn said the agency is ‘compiling noncompliance information monthly’ and will notify Mountain Valley, in conjunction with the attorney general, of any violations or penalties.”

3-10-20 Roanoke Times. Editorial: What the Constitution Pipeline says about Virginia’s pipelines. “Both the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines were proposed in 2014, one year after the Constitution. Today the MVP is about 90% complete while no pipe has been laid for the ACP — although trees have been cut in some places. Both projects are now halted by those same ‘legal challenges’ that frustrated the Constitution, just not ones filed by Virginia state government. If either McAuliffe or Northam had opposed pipelines the way Cuomo does, might both be getting cancelled today the way the Constitution has been? This is one of those great ‘what ifs’?”

3-10-20 Utility Dive. Duke, Dominion, Southern won’t hit clean energy targets at current pace: Report. “Duke Energy, Dominion Energy and Southern Company are not making investments consistent with their clean energy goals, according to a report released Monday from Synapse Energy Economics. …. ‘[C]ontrary to what Southern Company, Dominion Energy, and Duke Energy say on their websites, in television ads, and in shareholder reports and pamphlets, the three companies are thus far taking minimal actions to decarbonize their electricity systems,’ according to the report. ‘[N]one of the three companies examined in this report will meet their 2050 greenhouse gas reduction goals under their current resource plans.’”

3-7-20 Cleveland19. Dominion Energy Ohio may face $2.5 million fine for Pepper Pike [OH] gas line explosion. “A new report filed by the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) recommends Dominion Energy Ohio should forfeit $2.5 million for failure to comply with Pipeline Safety Regulations requirements that caused or contributed to this incident for the gas line explosion that happened last year.”

3-6-20 Utility Dive. Virginia passes bill to bring scrutiny to coal plant closures, despite Dominion opposition.  “The Virginia Senate passed a bipartisan House bill 35-5 on Thursday, giving state regulators control of cost recovery over power plant retirements, despite opposition from Dominion Energy. The bill would require the Virginia State Corporation Commission to determine the length of time that a utility can recover “any appropriate costs” from retiring coal and gas generation early. The measure undoes a former provision that gave Dominion the flexibility to skirt refunds on coal and natural gas plants retired early. The bill is seen as a key example of the Democrat-led legislature standing up to Dominion, despite nearly a decade of successful lobbying from the utility. However, Dominion saw many wins as the legislative session winds down, including the advancement of bills that would guarantee utility cost recovery of offshore wind development.”

3-5-20 News5Cleveland. Report recommends Dominion Energy Ohio forfeit $2.5 million for last year’s Pepper Pike gas explosion. “An initial report released by the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) has recommended that Dominion Energy Ohio forfeit $2.5 million for a gas pipeline explosion that happened last year in Pepper Pike. According to an investigation report released last month by PUCO, ‘evidence shows that a failure to follow established welding procedures, insufficient inspection and oversight at the construction site, and lack of procedures and training regarding auger boring, which led to the pipeline being subject to excessive strain, all played a role in the failure of the pipeline.’”

3-5-20 WDBJ7. Franklin County collects nearly $1M in unpaid taxes from MVP contractors. “For Franklin County Commissioner of the Revenue Margaret Torrence, this story begins in 2018. Riding around the county, she noticed Mountain Valley Pipeline contractors had dozens of pieces of equipment lying around. All of it was taxable property. But those taxes weren’t getting paid. ‘It’s been worth the time that it took to pursue it,’ said Torrence. Torrence identified at least 24 MVP contractors and subcontractors who owed the county unpaid personal property taxes. She began working to collect the money last fall. Now, after months of letters, emails and research, she says those companies are finally paying up. ‘We were able to bill, and collect, to date, $876,621.18. So that’s a significant amount of revenue,’ said Torrence. …. In Franklin County, MVP contractors and subcontractors still owe tens of thousands of dollars. The two companies with delinquent accounts owe about $62,000. Others owe thousands more. Torrence says she’ll continue pursing all of these companies until they’ve paid their bills.”

3-5-20 Bloomberg Environment. Insight: Fourth Circuit Rules ‘Environmental Justice Is Not Merely a Box to Be Checked’  “The Fourth Circuit’s decision indicates that thorough consideration of a planned project’s potential impact on environmental justice communities is a concrete compliance requirement. Concerns around environmental justice have previously played a critical role in delaying energy projects. …. Given what appears to be an emerging trend requiring compliance, the regulated community should carefully consider environmental justice laws and their import when planning and seeking approval of major, capital-intensive projects.”

3-4-20 Letter: Market reasons not to build Atlantic Coast Pipeline. “There were good reasons to build the Atlantic Coast Pipeline in 2013, reasons that were articulated in your March 1 editorial [‘Atlantic Coast Pipeline even more needed now’]. But today we have reached the end of the ‘natural gas bridge’ to clean energy. The heat-trapping CO2 in our atmosphere is the highest it has been in 3 million years, and we now know that methane emissions from natural gas are 85 times worse than CO2 while they are in the atmosphere. Here are some market reasons not to build the ACP….”

3-4-20 Forbes. Utility Investors Risk Billions In Rush To Natural Gas: Is It A Bridge To Climate Breakdown? “The U.S. power sector’s rush to build out natural gas capacity risks far more than locking in emissions that would bust the Paris climate targets – it also poses tens of billions in financial risk to utility investors. Once commonly considered a ‘bridge fuel,’ electric utilities now must face the mathematical reality that fast-falling clean energy costs mean the bridge only leads to climate breakdown and the destruction of shareholder value. A new report from Energy Innovation and shareholder advocacy group As You Sow outlines these evolving risks for shareholders, strategies for investors to accelerate decarbonization, and policies for utilities to cut financial risk from over-reliance on natural gas through new clean energy investment.”

3-4-20 Virginia Mercury. Governor signs bill making Virginia Council on Environmental Justice permanent. “After almost two years of operating on a temporary basis, the Virginia Council on Environmental Justice became permanent Wednesday when Gov. Ralph Northam signed a bill establishing it as an advisory body to the executive branch. ‘It’s past time we created a permanent council on environmental justice,’ said Northam in a statement. ‘This bill will help to ensure communities are directly involved in the decisions that affect them most, and will help prevent vulnerable Virginians from being disproportionately impacted by pollution, climate change and environmental hazards.’”

3-4-20 Roanoke Times. Letter: Pipeline bust or BOOM? “One critical part has been left out of most pipeline conversations. We know that, despite stealing land via eminent domain and destroying environmentally sensitive areas, MVP can indeed build a pipeline. But can they actually operate it safely?

3-4-20 Utility Dive. Manchin pledges to hold out for Democratic FERC pairing post-McNamee as Dems decry Danly nomination. “Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., attempted to assuage the concerns of his Democratic colleagues Tuesday, pledging to refuse a vote next time there’s a vacancy on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, unless the White House gives them a Democratic nominee. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee voted 12-8 to confirm James Danly to FERC, giving the now-four person commission a 3-1 Republican majority. Commissioner Bernard McNamee announced in January he would not be seeking a second term on commission, meaning a new spot could be open as soon as June. Manchin, who serves as ENR Ranking Member, voted in favor of the nomination, but said he would not do so if the situation arose again. ‘I made a commitment to Danly before because I thought he was well-qualified,’ he told Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, who expressed his frustrations immediately after the vote. ‘But I will make this commitment to you. If we do not get a pairing when McNamee comes off … I’ll make my statement known: If we don’t get a pairing we’re not voting.’”

3-3-20 Politico. This Pipeline Case Could Gut 100 Years of Safeguards for Federal Parks. “Environmental groups fear that a ruling in favor of the energy companies behind the project could ultimately open up millions of acres of federal land—national monuments and historic places, wild and scenic rivers and other wilderness areas—to uses ranging from energy exploration and timber harvesting to highway construction and mining. Doing so, they say, would upend over a century of what was once considered inviolable protection.”

3-2-20 Washington Post. Va. Senate committee kills Dominion rate review bill. “Dominion Energy won a major victory Monday when a Virginia Senate committee killed a bipartisan bill that would have subjected the state’s biggest utility to a review of whether its electricity rates are too high.”

3-2-20 NC Policy Watch. Monday numbers: A closer look at the Mountain Valley Pipeline (and the doublespeak regulators employ to describe its environmental impacts). “The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has rarely met a pipeline it didn’t like, and the MVP Southgate project is no exception. In its 500-plus-page Final Environmental Impact Statement the commission determined that the 70-mile project — 48 miles of which will run through Rockingham and Alamance counties — won’t significantly impact the environment, as long as contractors properly mitigate the damage. And there would be damage. In fact, the language of the FEIS details, albeit often in bureaucratic/Orwellian terms, the long-term effects on wildlife, forests, habitats and drinking water supplies.” [Article considers excerpts from the report along with their translations into everyday English.]

3-2-20 National Parks Traveler. Groups Concerned Over How Supreme Court Will Rule On Appalachian Trail Pipeline Case. “‘Dominion Energy’s proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline cannot circumvent the law, which clearly states that federal agencies do not have the authority to grant pipeline rights-of-way across lands within the National Park System—of which the Appalachian Trail is unequivocally a part. Only Congress has this authority, should it choose to exercise it,’ said Pierno. ‘Dominion’s legal argument hinges on the notion that the Appalachian Trail is somehow not land—a ludicrous, nonsensical position, and one that we hope the Court rejects.’”

3-1-20 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. How a dirt path is challenging a 600-mile pipeline. “Ultimately, the collision between supporters of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and those who want to protect the Appalachian Trail is a clash between two visions for our country: a fossil-fueled future, or a more sustainable economy based on renewables. For more than a century, fossil fuel industries have won these battles, especially in places like Appalachia. Now, as the Supreme Court case suggests, a beloved dirt path can have powerful political and economic muscle. Outdoor recreation contributed $412 billion, or 2%, to the nation’s gross domestic product in 2016, more than oil and gas extraction, according to the federal government’s Bureau of Economic Analysis. The number of jobs tied to outdoor recreation vastly outstrips those in coal, oil and natural gas combined.”