Like most contentious energy infrastructure, descriptions of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline change depending on who's speaking.
Dominion Energy is developing the project to meet increasing gas demand from several sectors, including industry, home heating and power generation. The need for the pipeline is "urgent," said Dominion Energy spokesperson Aaron Ruby.
Not so, says Lewis Freeman, chair and executive director of the Allegheny-Blue Ridge Alliance, an environmental group.
"Bottom line, this pipeline is not needed in the long-term," he said.
And then there is the pipeline's 600-mile route, stretching from North Carolina into West Virginia, along with three planned compressor stations — one at the beginning of the pipeline in West Virginia's Lewis County, one in central Virginia and one near the state line in North Carolina's Northampton County.
Dominion has filed more than 100,000 pages of evidence in the environmental review process, and the pipeline will cross roughly 2,900 private properties as well as the Monogahala National Forest in West Virginia, and the George Washington National Forest in Virginia. Last year, Dominion adopted an alternative route, reducing national forest miles by a third.
The company has reached mutual lease agreements with more than 65% of landowners and "we expect this to accelerate," said Ruby.
"The mainstream media is going to focus on opposition and won't give the same level of coverage to support," he said. "The general population has been overwhelmingly supportive."
Again, not so, said Freeman. "Our analysis is that these adjustments don't address the problem," he said, "and in some cases made it worse."
Opponents of the project say some of the pipeline route changes now send the pipeline across mountaintops that will require significant work. Here again, descriptions differ.
Chesapeake Climate Action Network and other groups say a close analysis of Dominion's plans show it will need to "decapitate" 38 miles of mountain ridges — also known as "mountaintop removal." In particular, they focus on a passage in Dominon's filings that says "narrow ridgetops [will] require widening and flattening in order to provide workspace in the temporary right-of-way."
Dominion counters that those claims are exaggerated, and that FERC has "thoroughly evaluated" its plans.
"We will not be removing mountain tops, period," Ruby told WTEP when the story surfaced.
The differing interpretations of Dominion's plans should surprise no one who watches infrastructure proposals wind their way through state and federal permitting processes. But if there is one area where the two sides find common ground, it's this: Both expect the project will ultimately be approved.
The ACP is about two and a half years into a three-year regulatory process, and in December 2016 developers received a favorable draft environmental assessment. FERC is targeting July 21 for a final report, the next milestone in the process.
"We expect to receive final approval this fall, and begin construction in the fall," said Ruby.
"Most projects on which a decision is made before FERC do get approved," acknowledged Freeman. But he added, "we believe there are serious grounds on which the legitimacy of this project can be should be challenged."
Does the region need more natural gas?
Central to the debate over the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is whether or not the region needs more natural gas. Importantly, the pipeline is not fully subscribed.
Dominion Energy, Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas and Southern Company Gas, will develop and operate the line. The project will be capable of moving 1.5 billion cubic feet per day of natural gas, and 20-year agreements with five utilities have secured more than 92% of the capacity.
"The remaining capacity we are very actively marketing to other public utilities and industrial customers," said Ruby.
Dominion Energy will own 48% of the project; Duke and Piedmont own 47%; and Southern owns 5%.
In Virginia, Dominion will use the gas to fuel power plants, while Virginia Natural Gas, one of the largest local gas utilities with 300,000 customers, would use the gas to provide home heating, and for commercial and industrial operations.
In North Carolina, Duke Energy will use the gas to generate electricity, while Piedmont Natural Gas will provide for heating and industrial operations. The fifth customer is Public Service Company of North Carolina, owned by SCANA Corp.
"There is growing demand for gas to generate clean electricity, heat home and support new industries," said Ruby.
Dominion has projected demand for natural gas in Virginia and North Carolina will grow by 165% over the next two decades. Some of that is driven by population growth, at the same time Duke and Dominion are retiring coal plants and replacing them with a new fleet of gas-fired plants, "largely because we need to comply with federal regulations," said Ruby.
In the Hampton Roads area of southeastern Virginia, Ruby said county and local government development officials are trying to diversify the region's economy.
"They've lost a lot of defense spending and production," he said. The region is "actively trying to recruit manufacturers and create economic growth, but they don't have the pipeline infrastructure in place to support that."
"Existing pipelines are fully tapped," said Ruby.
But the Southern Environmental Law Center says Dominion's projections for power demand are higher than recent estimates from regional grid operator PJM, making the project seem more necessary than it may be. The grid operator's forecasts for peak power demand in 2027, for instance, are more than 3.5 GW lower than the estimates used by Dominion.
"There have been differing opinions about how much natural gas will be needed to serve electric utility facilities in coming years," said Freeman. "But our experts say even if you accept the level of gas Duke and Dominion say they need, you can do that through existing pipelines."
Constructing the pipeline will mean dealing with more than 30 miles of karst formation — landscapes created by the dissolution of carbonate bedrock. In this region, those are largely characterized by sinkholes, creating more challenges for pipeline developers.
"Constructing and operating ACP in West Virginia and Virginia could induce sinkhole development, alter spring characteristics, and impact local groundwater flow and quality," FERC warned in its draft assessment. However, Dominion conducted "an extensive analysis of geologic conditions in the project area, consulted with the applicable state agencies and local water management districts, and prepared plans to avoid, minimize, and mitigate project-related impacts on these resources," the agency concluded.
Because the project is an interstate gas pipeline, FERC has sole jurisdiction over its siting. A consortium of developers, Spring Ridge Construction, has been selected to manage the project and Dominion expects a two-year construction process to conclude in 2019.
Despite route changes, there are 20 miles of pipe that go through two national forests. Dominion will need a permit from the U.S. Forest Service, and in the summer or fall the company will also seek a water quality permit from the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers.
While opponents of the project don't think they can stop the pipeline at FERC, they are looking at these permits and certifications as alternate routes to challenge Dominion.
"Right now we're focusing our attention on dealing with the various states," said Freeman. The project will need certification under the Clean Water Act, and Allegheny-Blue Ridge Alliance will participate in those hearings.
More than two dozen towns along the proposed route have publicly supported the pipeline, and the entire Hampton Roads Delegation, including 13 Democrats and 20 Republicans.
"That kind of bipartisan support of a project like this is really impressive," said Ruby.
Dominion has estimated the cost to construct the pipeline at up to $5 billion.
SELC Senior Attorey Greg Buppert believes large investments in fossil fuel infrastructure "will further discourage these utilities from moving towards renewable energy, like solar and wind power that could save their customers more money."
But Dominion says the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is a necessary piece of the renewables equation.
"Natural gas is a critical component of our company's comprehensive strategy to lower emissions across our fleet and to reduce our environmental footprint," said Ruby. Replacing coal with natural gas cuts carbon emissions in half, while a combination of resources are needed to "build a bridge to a cleaner energy mix."
"You can't have that massive growth in solar without reliable backup power from natural gas," said Ruby.