Dignitaries who broke ground in April on an Atlantic Coast Pipeline compressor station in Northampton County wore ceremonial hard hats, fitting for the headache-ridden natural-gas line that will span 195 miles of the state. After a flurry of legal challenges, a completion date for the pipeline is now uncertain.
A federal appeals court suspended work on the project twice in December, citing potential harm to endangered and threatened species in West Virginia and Virginia and faulting the U.S. Forest Service for what it called abdicating its responsibility to protect national forests.
The decisions left the pipeline, being built by a consortium of Duke Energy, Virginia-based Dominion Energy and Atlanta-based Southern Company Gas, dangling. Duke spokeswoman Tammie McGee previously said the $6.5 billion project would be finished in North Carolina in 2019 and a year later over its entire three-state, 600-mile length.
The project plans to pump natural gas from fracking fields in West Virginia to Robeson County in a likely boost for eastern North Carolina’s economy.
The group, operating as Atlantic Coast Pipeline, or ACP, temporarily stopped work on the entire project in December and immediately appealed both rulings, says Dominion spokesman Aaron Ruby. “We think the ruling was unwarranted and overly broad, but out of an abundance of caution, we halted all work,” Ruby said of the initial decision that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service acted hastily in issuing permits and might have failed to protect wildlife.
The second ruling faulted the government agency for not protecting the Appalachian Trail, which is part of the National Park System, and several national forests in Virginia and West Virginia.
The latest snags come after more than 300 route changes and lawsuits from property owners, environmentalists and others, plus a dispute between N.C. lawmakers and Gov. Roy Cooper over use of funds received from project backers.
Charlottesville, Va.-based Southern Environmental Law Center and partners such as the Sierra Club have challenged permits in court, arguing that ACP inflates benefits and minimizes environmental consequences. The lawsuits mainly target five regulatory agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service and Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, rather than the utilities.
The first ruling has two parts. One covers all 600 miles, while the other covers only 100 miles in Virginia and West Virginia. ACP immediately asked the court to clarify if that slams the door on the entire project; the issue was pending in mid-December.
“We don’t think there’s any reason to impose a stay on all 600 miles when only about 100 miles are affected,” Ruby says.
ACP argues that it has already gone the extra mile. In November, expecting additional challenges to a federal permit allowing the pipeline to cross waterways, McGee says the consortium volunteered to temporarily delay construction of stream crossings. “We want to make sure the final permit is as strong as it can possibly be,” she says. The line will cross 320 North Carolina streams.
In the meantime, Duke and ACP say pipeline construction, which began in the state in early 2018, will pump $700 million into the Tar Heel economy and create 4,000 jobs. The work involves clearing right of way, then trenching and laying pipe. A metering facility in Johnston County is completed, while the Northampton compressor station is in progress.
Separately, political jabbing over the project is intensifying. Cooper, a Democrat elected in 2016, negotiated a $57.8 million fund from ACP, earmarking it for economic-development projects and environmental remediation. West Virginia and Virginia cut similar deals. But N.C. Republican legislators want the money to be used for public schools in the region. They accuse Cooper of creating a personal slush fund — he, not the legislature, would vet projects — by extorting ACP in exchange for permits.
In December, lawmakers hired Eagle Intel Services, a Wilmington-based company that specializes in political corruption, to probe Cooper’s actions. Ford Porter, the governor’s spokesman, says the state approved permits on merit, based on the pipeline’s potential $1.2 billion impact on eastern North Carolina in its first decade.
“Unfortunately, legislators chose to raid the fund before it was established and directed the ACP to send funds to other areas,” Porter says. The move puts politics before “good jobs for eastern North Carolina,” he says.
Where’s the money? ACP isn’t taking sides in the dispute. For now, Duke’s McGee says, “It’s our intention to honor that commitment” to the fund.