Issues Crystallize in Gas Pipeline Debate

pipelineby James A. Bacon

The battle over the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is intensifying. Foes of the project, residing mainly in picturesque Augusta and Nelson counties, have raised about $500,000, halfway to a $1 million goal, to rouse opposition to the planned 550-mile natural gas pipeline, reports the McClatchy News Service.

The “All Pain No Gain” group has set up a website with splashy graphics, videos, a blog — even an original country & western-style song. The website provides sympathetic profiles of affected landowners and advances economic and environmental arguments against the pipeline. It’s an impressive showing for “rural” Virginia, but perhaps not so surprising given the popularity of the area as a resort or retirement destination, especially around the Wintergreen resort, among high-powered professionals.

Backers include Phil Anderson, president of the Washington, D.C., lobbying firm Navigators Global, whose family has long owned a farm in the area, and Tom Harvey, a former national security official whose nonprofit group works with corporations on global environmental initiatives. Co-chair Charlotte Rea is a retired Air Force Colonel with considerable management experience, while co-chair Nancy Sorrells served two terms on the Augusta County board of supervisors.

The website raises a number of substantive issues:

  • Loss of property values. Construction of the pipeline would require cutting a 125-foot swath (the width of an Interstate highway) along the length of the pipeline. Trees cannot be planted within the easement, which means even a grassed-over pipeline route would be highly visible. Although landowners are compensated for land taken, they receive no loss for the damage to their viewshed. Dominion, the managing partner of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, encountered similar objections when it proposed building a high-voltage transmission line through Virginia’s northern Piedmont several years ago. There are legitimate questions as to whether Virginia’s eminent domain law provides landowners adequate compensation for lost value. It’s a legal and philosophical question worth exploring.
  • Safety. By comparison to other transportation modes, pipelines are a safe way to transport natural gas, but they are not risk free. The website cites four gas pipeline accidents across the country since 2005, including a 2008 incident in which a Williams Transco pipeline exploded in Appomattox, Va., destroying two homes and injuring five people. That pipeline was fined $1 million for failing to address the dangerous corrosion that caused the accident. Could such an incident occur with the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, or have regulations, technology and/or business practices rendered it unlikely?
  • Water contamination.  Blasting from pipeline construction could contaminate water quality, while excavation around streams, wetlands and riparian groundwater could disturb groundwater flow and damage springs. Moreover, asserts All Pain No Gain, Dominion pipeline construction in West Virginia in 2012 caused sediment pollution to several adjacent waterways. What’s not clear from the website is how lasting and significant any damage would be, or the likelihood of it occurring at all.
  • Impact on local craft agriculture. Craft agriculture is becoming a pillar of the Shenandoah Valley economy, with companies like Blue Mountain Brewery and Miller’s Bake Shop supporting local jobs. “Any contamination to the local water supply as a result of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline could cripple a business that is quickly becoming an institution in the Shenandoah Valley,” asserts the website. How realistic is that fear? Have other pipeline construction projects contaminated water supplies severely enough to impact jobs?
  • Future of energy prices. All Pain No Gain disputes Dominion’s argument that the pipeline will mean lower electric utility costs. The price of natural gas is likely to rise as the U.S. begins exporting gas overseas. Virginia could do better, the group contends, by shifting instead to renewable energy sources and emphasizing energy efficiency. This is the same argument made by Virginia environmental groups, but it is disputed by Dominion and the State Corporation Commission. Definitive answers are not easy to come by.
  • Job creation. More than 800 construction jobs will be created, but they will be temporary and many of the jobs will be filled by out-of-state workers, and there will be only 39 full-time permanent jobs when the pipeline is in operation.  Those job gains could be negated by the adverse impact on agriculture, tourism and other industries, the website says. On the other hand, All Pain No Gain does not consider the economic-development benefits to other regions of the state, particularly the southern Piedmont and Hampton Roads, which would be better positioned to compete for industry that uses natural gas as a fuel or feedstock.

So far, media attention has focused mainly on the complex of issues surrounding property rights and eminent domain. They’re important but, as can be seen by All Pain No Gain’s website, there are many others. Time permitting, I will look into all of them.

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  1. Yes- these are issues worth exploring, but I don’t believe the affected landowners care to debate the monetary or ecological consequences of this pipeline. They just want Dominion to go away- next door, across the street, down the road- just not on their land. So they told the pipeline surveyor to take a hike, just as you or I would tell an unwanted solicitor on our own doorstep.

    Now these folks, asserting their right to property, are being slapped with lawsuits by the energy company under the auspices of a perverse state law allowing said company to survey their property without their permission, nor their intention to enter into any negotiation whatsoever. Even the most strained definition of this confiscation law fails, as the landowners will not benefit directly from the pipeline or be served by it in the form of a public utility.

    All of this unfolding deep in the land of Jefferson, who is surely rumbling beneath his Monticello gravestone.

  2. larryg Avatar

    I have purposely waited to comment after, once again, being chastised for commenting… “too much”…

    I think JohnS got it right. This is not about a pipeline as much as it is about a company that does things in ways that make people mad – including getting the GA to pass legislation that gives them the right to go on property without permission and to take people to court and essentially divest them of their property rights.

    Let’s be honest. Some Eminent Domain is necessary – most roads provide real benefit to even property owners who are impacted though some have been abused by some practices that border on predatory even by VDOT.

    and there is a phrase known as Public Convenience and Necessity for commerce – to include where we put electric lines, phone lines, water/sewer, and pipelines.

    all of these are for facilities to directly serve consumers.

    IF you live in a house with electric and phone, internet – natural gas – you are getting those things conveyed to you over land that used to belong to a private property owner that was taken so you could have service.

    The problem with the pipeline is that Dominion has not made the case for it in the eyes of those who are sympathetic to the property owners and they consider Dominion’s behavior as akin to robber barons.

    Either Dominion is blind to this perception or they don’t care – either way – they’re as much responsible for this controversy as anyone is.

    You do not go into someone’s living room and tell them you’re going to go on their property and they’re going to use the laws of Virginia to do it – even if you do have that right – it’s not something you do – before you’ve worked hard to justify the need to do that.

    What that means is that you propose to citizens, let them give feedback, actually consider the feedback and basically work collaboratively with citizens as partners to achieve a “good”.

    What people are upset with – is the way that Dominion is “perceived” conducting itself.

    and let me end by pointing out all this talk lately of evil and incompetent govt, crony capitalism, and rent-seeking – has had an effect on our politics in perhaps not a good way.

    1. mindful Avatar

      You might be surprised to know that I have a lot of reservations about this pipeline.. but mine are mostly aesthetic.

      Having moved to Central Va from a much more urbanized area north of the Mason-Dixon line, I hate to see this beautiful land disfigured.

      Beware the arguments about offsets from energy efficiency and renewables though. The people making those arguments generally don’t have numbers that work — which may be what the SCC is so concerned about.

  3. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    They are clever to focus on those issues, but wrap it any way you want: It is NIMBY. It is BANANA (build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything). Great care should be taken to find a route with the fewest problems, and where existing rights of way are logical, use them. People who are hurt should be paid (hey, folks, I’d demand stock if you can get it.) But build it.

    Nothing was more disruptive to that region 75 years ago than the construction of that highway along the top of the ridge line. The Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline Drive destroyed hundreds of farms and shops and took land from thousands of families, who received far less fair compensation that these landowners will. What a terrible scar it cut in the scenery! Uh, anybody want to give that road back? No. Didn’t think so.

    I don’t live directly on the route. But I live within a few miles of the likely route. I am 100 percent confident that once it is built, and the disruptions fade, people will forget it is there and will use the open space as a nice hike.

  4. larryg Avatar

    well , I don’t think I’d compare Skyline Drive or the Appalachian Trail to a pipeline or powerline right-of-way, sorry.

    but I do not find those rights-of-ways such a terrible blight either.

    If you walk the AT or drive the Blue Ridge Parkway any significant distance – you’ll see that neither is “pristine”… have multiple “cuts” for roads, powerlines, and pipelines as well as communication towers and now wind turbines.

  5. John B Avatar

    Jim, you could do us all a favor by penning one of your excellent essays on the overall subject of eminent domain. We keep dancing around this issue repeatedly.

    We in The Beach were treated(?) subjected(?) recently to a frightening case of VDOT’s virtually confiscatory proclivities in a case involving land for a new exit off the VA Beach/Norfolk Freeway (I264). Unfortunately there was a jurist who could certainly be suspected as being biased in VDOT’s favor by not allowing introduction of previous property valuation numbers into the transcript. At least the VA Supremes looked at the case.

    What is the history? What do our federal and state Constitutions really say?

    Do you remember the Connecticut case some years ago where private waterfront property was taken ostensibly for “public purpose” and subsequently given to a private developer? In my memory this was a watershed case.

    I’m just waiting for the outcry to arise when VEPCO starts pipeline activity down our way. A 125′ right-of-way in our more densely developed urban area in some cases will be very interesting.

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