by James A. Bacon
How do citizens know whom to believe in the debate over the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP), a proposed 550-mile natural gas pipeline between West Virginia gas fields and markets in Virginia and North Carolina?
Dominion, managing partner of ACP, has commissioned studies from Fairfax-based ICF International, a technology and management consulting firm, and Chmura Economics & Analytics, a Richmond econometrics firm, to analyze the pipeline’s economic impact. Both reports buttressed the utility’s case that the project would be overwhelmingly beneficial.
In “The Economic Impact of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline,” ICF concluded that over the next 20 years Virginia and North Carolina could expect to gain $377 million a year in energy cost savings, 2,200 permanent full-time jobs, $131 million in annual labor income, and $218 million in annual gross state product. Likewise, in “The Economic Impact of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline in West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina,” Chmura said the project would inject $456 million annually into the three-state economy between 2014 and 2019 and support 2,873 jobs.
Yesterday the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) and the Allegheny-Blue Ridge, which oppose the pipeline, released its own report. That document, “Atlantic Coast Pipeline Benefits Review,” prepared by Synapse Energy Economics Inc., out of Cambridge, Mass., contends that the alleged pipeline benefits are “overstated, lack sufficient supporting data, and fail to account for environmental and societal costs.”
The Synapse report doesn’t make any economic forecasts of its own; rather, the authors point out limitations and weaknesses in the Dominion-sponsored reports and enumerates negative impacts that those reports did not take into consideration. Among the criticisms:
- Assumed differential in gas prices. ICF argues that gas from Marcellus shale in West Virginia and neighboring states, to be transported by the ACP, will be cheaper than so-called Henry Hub gas from the Gulf Coast, which Virginia and North Carolina consume now. But Synapse questions whether that price differential will last.
- Assumed savings to electric customers. ICF assumes that cheaper natural gas prices will be passed to Virginia consumers as lower electricity prices. But due to the nature of inter-regional power sharing, Synapse says is it unclear whether those savings would be passed on to Virginia consumers or shared regionally.
- Assumed job creation. ICF assumes that Virginia consumers will spend that energy savings, stimulating local economic activity. But “the study did not provide any underlying data to support this claim,” says Synapse. “Critical inputs and assumptions — such as the assumed direct energy savings by sector — are necessary to satisfactorily review this finding.”
- Are permanent jobs really permanent? The ICF study estimates that 2,225 jobs will be supported over 20 years (for 44,600 total job years). But the study doesn’t break down the impact year by year, so it is impossible to know if the jobs are sustained over time or if they start strong and dribble out over time.
Synapse also argued that ICF and Chmura failed to take into account negatives such as the pipeline impact on property values, damage to wildlife habitat and clean water, and the risk of accidents.
The SELC report holds ICF and Chmura to a high standard — it insists that consultants provide sufficient detail in their data and assumptions to allow third-party review and verification, and that studies be more transparent with their numbers. “In an economic jobs and benefits analysis,” Symapse says, “a complete set of modeling assumptions, inputs, and outputs” typically would be included.
ICF stated that it based its analysis upon years of experience in North American natural gas and “proprietary software tools and databases,” including its Gas Market Model and Integrated Planning Model to model the North American gas and electric markets with and without ACP.
Dominion stands by the ICF and Chmura numbers. Unlike Synapse or SELC,the company has skin in the game. It seeks the best forecasts it can find because it bases business decisions on the data. The utility uses ICF’s commodity price forecast for the Dominion Virginia Power Integrated Resource Plan and other regulatory filings. The company also uses ICF for its own internal business deliberations, says Jim Norvelle, director-media relations for Dominion. “It is safe to say there are significant business decisions made using the ICF International forecast.”
“ICF International and Chmura are internationally known and respected firms,” says Norvelle. “Their findings quantify what is obvious and undeniable: the Atlantic Coast Pipeline will bring significant financial and other benefits to the residents and businesses of Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina. It is Economics 101. More natural gas supplies mean lower prices, more money available for investment, better reliability and cleaner air. Just plain common sense.”
Bacon’s bottom line: Synapse makes a good point: Consultant studies should be fully transparent, providing sufficient data and articulating their assumptions for third parties to critique them. But what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. When SELC and pipeline opponents make assertions about the pipeline’s economic and environmental effects, they need to abide by the same standards they demand of Dominion. They, too, need to lay out their facts and assumptions for public scrutiny.