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Failure of Our Regulatory, Political and Legal Systems on Stark Display with Mountain Valley Pipeline Debacle in Virginia’s Blue Ridge

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by Cynthia Munley, Preserve Salem organizer

The failure of our regulatory, political and legal systems is on spectacular display in Virginia’s Blue Ridge, with the destructive, fracked-gas Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) now forced onto its landscape.  This environmental calamity called MVP is a 100-mile destruction zone, whose completion is mightily challenged not only by steep mountains, dogged opposition and several endangered species, but also by the U.S. natural gas glut created by the industry itself, as pipelines race to convey fracked gas to coastal LNG markets. That race is creating an oversupply. Now, low natural gas prices, paired with a historically-expensive/way-over-budget MVP, spells unmarketability for its gas.

Yet construction accelerates trying to outpace justice. The devastating result of Virginia corruption’s baby, MVP, is now on display from the air, mountaintops, valleys, local roads, I-81, rural homes, communities, farms, streams and rivers and the imminent danger of spectacular gas explosions escorts all those places.

MVP set itself the absurd task of transporting Marcellus basin fracked gas across the Virginias’ rugged slopes to coastal export markets, using a greedy 42”-diameter-sized pipe with a most incompetent contractor, Precision Pipeline.  No export license yet?—that’s for later.

What is the gas for? Not for local use, except for a few spots easily served by existing pipelines, but enlisted to provide legal cover for FERC’s permitting process.  You don’t use MVP-sized pipes for local connections and EQT’s Toby Rice says it outright. The short of it: no local “benefit.” Even Virginia’s SCC says “no local need.”  Because FERC permitting requires local need and benefit, that adds up to a fraudulent MVP permit.  FERC’s own rules also require that all additional permits be in order to retain the FERC permit. But with two revoked permits, FERC refused to stop work on MVP, making a mockery of its own rules.

Equitrans Midstream (EQM) (split from EQT as the supposed profit-making side of EQT’s money-losing fracking operation), faced with a plummeting stock price, is incapable of reading the gas-glut tea leaves stubbornly burning through its credit, even after reaching a 52-week stock market low.

Imagine EQM’s gas-conveying pipe dream succeeds, despite daunting odds, and that MVP miraculously overcomes its diverse obstacles–missed permits, blocked AT crossing, endangered species harms, continued violations, landowner and other lawsuits, etc!  Then what?  With mounting costs (destined to be far more expensive than the copious Permian Basin shale gas), who would buy MVP’s gas?  To reach LNG markets, add the costs of transport to South Carolina, liquefaction, distribution and tariffs. MVP’s LNG gas reaches $11.29-$13.29/dekatherm (compared to $2.50 locally) — non-competitive with European prices — especially as Nordstream-2 comes online. As European supplies increase and Europe seeks to reduce reliance on U.S. gas, MVP’s gas might not have a market anywhere, according to energy expert/CEO Thomas Hadwin.

MVP bulldozed its way through the permitting process with one rubber stamp after another.  Equipped with the unjust “quick-take” (thanks Judge Dillon!), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) speedily permitted MVP without quantifying its effects on endangered species. So MVP continued its year-and-a-half-long rampage before our horrified eyes, creating billions of dollars worth of damage to Virginia’s Blue Ridge, in order to build what is becoming a 300-mile superfund site.  (Virginia ceded its 401 permit to the Army Corps’ boilerplate Nationwide 12, so are Virginia taxpayers responsible for restoration costs, AG Mark Herring?)

Three days after an environmental-coalition lawsuit challenging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife was declared, MVP announced its own “stop-work” to manipulate its own “compliance” with protecting habitats of the Roanoke logperch and Indiana and northern long-eared bats. But the South Fork of the Roanoke River and tributaries–critical habitat for the endangered Roanoke Logperch (MVP’s recent upland attack) — were conveniently omitted from MVP’s stop work.

By remaining passive and shirking their constitutional duty, Virginia’s top leaders, DEQ and the State Water Control Board have colluded to give MVP wide berth for soil and water violations during the entire process, starting with Governor McAuliffe’s secret deals and carried forth by Governor Northam’s betrayal of his site-specific permitting promise.  The result is destroyed water throughout the vast watershed and now multiple landslides as the “mountains cannot stay on the mountains” with vegetation bulldozed for the 125-foot-wide corridor. Neither have workers been protected.

Concerned citizens are an organically mobilized opposition—acting on all levels to preserve our valuable resources and prevent outlaw MVP from completing and embedding a linear bomb underneath our terrain.  Because citizens monitor, document, and communicate violations with DEQ as volunteers through Mountain Valley Watch, they are doing the real job of the paid personnel of DEQ, who rarely show up and who permitted an optional/private project that was first unfeasible, but that they were not equipped to oversee.  Citizens also demonstrate, pray, obstruct, challenge, write Letters to the Editor, hold press conferences, wage lawsuits and much more.

MVP, even with all its unjust privileges and major variances, will likely fail. EQT’s CEO Toby Rice should examine his nonsensical response to opponents and face reality.  Toby: You bought a lemon—a rattletrap boondoggle to convey harmful, outdated and overpriced energy!  What are you going to do about that?  Hint: stop throwing good money after bad and get out!

The unconstitutional laws that endow the gas industry with staggering advantages, particularly eminent domain for private gain, must be addressed. MVP is a poster child of injustice and environmental degradation.  Shall U.S. corporations now be the ones to monitor themselves with no fair oversight and be allowed to continue a project that is violating U.S. laws? The extent of “facts on the ground” should not influence the answer.  MVP’s own inaccurate completion estimates are stated advantageously to retain investors–-grounds for stockholder fraud. MVP is far behind its projections and is leaving the steepest slopes, inaccessible areas and water crossings for last. Another concern is FERC’s collusion in granting innumerable major stream crossing variances—mainly for boring under streams without the due process of public and expert comments despite lethal sediment harms to endangered species.  I wonder if FERC denied even one MVP variance request.

FERC stopped work in August 2018 for a month, citing “the risk of expending substantial resources and substantially disturbing the environment by constructing facilities that ultimately might have to be relocated or abandoned.” Those uncertainties never changed, but FERC ignored its own stated rationale for its August 2018 stop-work order and proceeded to allow limitless environmental devastation for a corrupt MVP boondoggle, despite Commissioner Cheryl LaFleur’s clairvoyant dissent and warnings. Federal agencies failed to follow their missions and enforce U.S. laws.

Is America still a nation of laws?  If so, laws and due process must apply to pipelines which are overrunning America against our will, installing explosive corridors and locking the world into an outdated, killer form of energy.  How much longer will MVP be allowed in our Blue Ridge Mountains, watershed and communities compounding environmental damage with each pipe it lays? There is no way, in civilized society based on the rule of law, that the harms MVP inflicts on Appalachia’s environment and people can be justified.  Appalachia is awaiting justice.