Yes to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, No to Eminent Domain

The dramatic transformation of America’s energy outlook brought about by the shale revolution was underscored Sept. 2 with the official unveiling of a plan to build a $5 billion, 550-mile gas pipeline through West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina.

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) lauded the project, saying “We’re talking jobs, economic development, and it’s good for the environment.” He added that the pipeline would give Virginians “direct access to the most affordable natural gas in the United States.” (Washington Post, Sept. 3)

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline, as the project is officially known, would originate in gas-rich Harrison County, West Virginia, run in a northwest to southeast direction to Greensville County, Virginia, and then south into eastern North Carolina. A lateral extension is planned from the Virginia-North Carolina border east to Hampton Roads, Va.

Richmond-based Dominion Resources is teaming up with three major U.S. energy companies – Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas, and AGL Resources – to form a joint venture to build and own the pipeline. The construction phase of the project is expected to create over 8,000 jobs, and about 217 jobs will be needed to maintain the pipeline. Preliminary survey work and route planning have been underway since May and could be completed by year end.

As expected, some environmental groups, including the Southern Environmental Law Center and the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club, oppose the pipeline as part of their larger campaign against the use of fossil fuels. Typical of such attitudes is a rant by Mile Tidwell, executive director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. “Instead of touting a massive investment in more communities destroyed by fracking wells, divided by pipelines, and wrecked by runaway climate change,” he told the Washington Post, “[Dominion chief executive] Tom Farrell and Governor McAuliffe should be announcing a full-scale investment in Virginia’s vast and barely tapped clean-energy resources.”

The Threat of Eminent Domain

While elitist greens’ objections to affordable energy are nothing new, one aspect of the project is troubling many otherwise energy-friendly landowners in its path. Dominion is looking at running a key segment of the pipeline through farmland in central Virginia. The energy giant has contacted landowners along a 400-foot-wide study corridor, where the 42-inch pipe — designed a carry 1.5 million cubic feet of liquefied natural gas per day — will be laid.

Laying the pipeline requires clear-cutting a 200-foot swath across someone’s land. Under a 2004 Virginia law, the Wagner Act, if Dominion cannot obtain the land with the consent of the owner, the company is entitled to take the land through eminent domain. Dominion says that nearly 70 percent of affected landowners have signed and returned the company’s certified letters requesting permission to survey their property. But the letter people are sent does not contain the option of denying permission, and many landowners, citing the Wagner Act, believe they have no choice but to sign and return it.

“Having 70 percent of the people return a permission slip for surveying if they feel it is inevitable is a far cry from granting approval for the line to run over their property,” says Travis Geary, whose Augusta County family would be directly affected by the project. Geary, who supports the pipeline but opposes eminent domain, says he knows of landowners “who are being harassed through repeated phone calls and threats to bring the county sheriff out when surveyors want to survey but do not yet have the landowner’s written permission.”

Farmers, fearful of losing the use of part of their land through eminent domain, also cite the area’s unique geology as posing a peril to their farms – and to the pipeline. “Augusta County is riddled with massive caverns and sinkholes that can occur without warning – a type of geological formation known as ‘karst,’” Geary told Watchdog.org (Sept. 9). Putting a pipeline through geologically unstable karst beneath farmland runs the risk of a rupture that could pollute nearby wells.

Alternate Routes

There is, however, a way to build the pipeline and protect the property rights of central Virginia landowners. Dominion could route the pipeline through pre-existing rights of way or easements and minimize the project’s impact on local landowners. For example:

  • The pipeline could be laid parallel to the Columbia Gas transmission line, which runs from northern West Virginia through Virginia and into North Carolina using the existing right of way.

  • The pipeline could follow the I-64 right of way through the mountains where it could connect with rail lines that lead east to Chesapeake, Va. This would require skirting Lynchburg which could be done by following a Columbia gas pipeline around the city.

  • The pipeline could run from Harrison County, West Virginia south, and then turn east into Giles County, Virginia, where, after skirting Roanoke, it could follow rail lines to Chesapeake.

In those cases where the pipeline would still need to cross private land, Dominion could enter into a consensual agreement with the affected property owners, offering them a royalty for the use of their land. While these options may add to the initial cost of the pipeline, that would be more than offset by avoiding the lawsuits eminent domain would inevitably produce.

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About the Author: Bonner Cohen, Ph. D.

Bonner Cohen, Ph. D.

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph. D., is a senior policy analyst with CFACT.

  • j.farmer

    Excellent read. the natural gas boom in the North East isn’t going anywhere, and we need to think harder about how to pursue energy independence while protecting private property. Just because we need the energy doesn’t legitimize the use of force to take from private citizens so the energy company’s bottom line isn’t as impacted.

  • JeffandLurlene Allen

    At first I was like no, don’t sign it but as with many other things there is a hidden truth under everything. Would it make natural gas prices go down and make jobs and get people who were in the coal industry back to work. YES!! That meets a need! Second, they should offer each property owner a royalty or stock that they could earn money off of, just like they do in Alaska. Let the people own part of it and you can bet you’ll have complete unity. Of course except for those who scream the message of climate change and if their dollars wont outspend the royalties. Its a win, win. Talk to people don’t send them letters when they are especially leery anyway.

    • marlene

      Glad you see the value of the pipeline. I originally voted for it. The problem is we won’t let the “pipeliners” use eminent domain to get it. Just the fact that they are even thinking about eminent domain makes me angry. Maybe we should wait until they come up with a better plan before supporting them. The gas will still be there. We’ll just have to wait for the right constitutional patriots to either build it or give it the go ahead.

      • RCQ_92130

        Good thing all those pesky roads. highways, phone and cable systems, water lines, sewage systems, and railways were eminent domain in before we discovered eminent domain is evil and should at all costs be stopped. Heck -0 far better we do without any electricity, transportation, communications or sewer treatment than put these foul systems in using eminent domain!

  • marlene

    The title says it all: Yes to pipeline – but ONLY if there’s no eminent domain. Otherwise, No to pipelines anywhere. Simple, clear and fair.

  • Nancy Sorrells

    Interesting discussion, but definitely a lot of misinformation. For instance, it is 1.5 BILLION cubic feet of natural gas (NOT LIQUEFIED). Ironically, that is exactly the amount that Dominion is bringing from another pipeline to its recently approved export facility in Cove Point, Md. Therefore, if built, the ACP would enable Dominion to export for profit NOT create energy independence for Virginians. Folks this is a transmission line, not a supply line: unless you have a couple of million sitting around, you will not be allowed to tap into this project. Other inaccuracies: the construction swath would be 125 feet, not 200. The permanently cleared easement upon which no trees can be planted or anything built would be 75 feet. Others commenting are right: eminent domain has its place when used by the government for public good, but not by a for-profit corporation operating under the guise of a public utility for corporate profits! Mr. Geary is right on when he talks about putting the pipeline on existing rights of ways and utility corridors. Currently more than 90% of this proposed route is on private property. The rest is on public lands like the national forest that protects the state’s drinking water.

  • Steve Perry

    Pipelines are much safer than rail, why don’t greenies understand this?

    more about this here: http://freedomnews.today/