A 303-mile pipeline that would carry fracked natural gas across West Virginia and Virginia would have "significant" impacts on forests but other adverse effects would be limited, federal regulators said Friday.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission's final environmental impact statement is largely favorable for developers of the $3.5 billion Mountain Valley Pipeline, which is strenuously opposed by environmental groups and many landowners along its path.
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Like the similar Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which has been proposed by different developers, it would carry gas from the Marcellus and Utica shale deposits to U.S. markets. The companies involved say the pipelines will deliver cheap and abundant energy that is cleaner than coal, and they've promised billions of dollars in economic benefits.
But opponents say the projects will infringe on landowners' property rights, damage pristine areas and commit the region to fossil fuels just when global warming makes it essential to invest in renewable energy instead.
Once the U.S. Senate confirms President Donald Trump's nominees and the commission reaches a quorum, the commissioners will make FERC's final decision on whether the project can proceed, agency spokeswoman Tamara Young-Allen said. That will be based on the impact statement as well as determinations of whether the project meets a public need and whether its proposed gas rates are just and reasonable.
The impact statement, a 930-page document supplemented with dozens of appendices, includes sections on soil, water, forest, wildlife, recreational areas, socio-economic issues and other aspects of life that could be affected by the Mountain Valley Pipeline and its related Equitrans Expansion Project, about 8 miles of pipelines in six segments connecting to other systems.
Overall, FERC staff "determined that construction and operation of the projects would result in limited adverse environmental impacts, with the exception of impacts on forest." That determination took into account the total acres of forest affected, the quality and use of forest for wildlife habitat, and the amount of time it takes to restore forest that would be disrupted, the statement said.
That conclusion is not scientifically credible and defies common sense, one environmental group said Friday.
"Some wounds on our forests can never be healed once they are inflicted, including forest fragmentation, loss of valuable core forest areas, and loss of watershed integrity," Wild Virginia President Ernie Reed said in a statement. "Damage to the Jefferson National Forest and the Appalachian Trail will sacrifice the public's ability to use these national treasures in the interest of profit-making corporations and no one else."
Environmental groups also contend the analysis does not look closely enough at the cumulative impacts of the Mountain Valley Pipeline and Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which would cross West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina.
"They make a pass at mentioning this in relation to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, but it's a pretty poor attempt," said David Sligh with Wild Virginia.
In 2015, a coalition of pipeline opponents asked for a comprehensive review, but FERC denied that request. The commission plans to release a separate final environmental impact statement for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline next month.
The staff did evaluate the impact of merging the two proposed pipelines, but found it "would not be technically feasible or practical." It also considered other route options, including one that would largely run side by side with an electric transmission line, but said none offered a significant environmental advantage.
The document partly addresses a key sticking point for environmentalists — whether there's a true public need for the pipeline — saying that question will be more fully explained by the commissioners. Opponents have challenged the "need" argument, saying developers are overestimating the demand for natural gas and underestimating the capacity of existing infrastructure to get profitable projects approved.
The impact statement said the existing infrastructure lacks the capacity to handle the additional volumes of gas that would be shipped along the full length of the 42-inch-wide pipeline, which would run south from northern West Virginia through the center of the state, cross into Virginia west of Roanoke, and then cut southeast to a point north of Danville.
Pipeline spokeswoman Natalie Cox said the development team has revised the route hundreds of times over the last three years to avoid sensitive areas and has worked with residents and landowners to make sure the project is constructed in ways that minimize impacts on their land and daily lives.
"It is unfortunate, although not surprising, that steadfast opponents of the MVP project would reflexively dismiss findings that do not align with their view," Cox said.
She said the project team was "pleased with the thorough evaluation and review" by FERC.
Now that the environmental impact statement has been released, a final decision from FERC can come at any time after a quorum is reached, Young-Allen said. Other state and federal permits are also still pending.