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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