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SCC Order on “Header Injustice Project” Clearly Shows Why Virginia Needs a Moratorium on New Fossil Fuel Projects

"The General Assembly knows how to prohibit certain commercial activities when it wants to"

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by Jonathan Sokolow

On Friday, the State Corporation Commission issued a preliminary order on an application by Virginia Natural Gas to build six new natural gas facilities, which together are called the Header Improvement Project.  The HIP would support a gas fired power plant being developed in Charles City County by C4GT, LLC.

Opponents have aptly labeled it the “Header Injustice Project.”

The Header Injustice Project would include three pipelines and three compressor stations, spread out from Northern Virginia to the Richmond area to Charles City County, east of Richmond, and it would be heavily concentrated in areas with a high percentage of people of color.

The SCC refused to approve the project, instead ordering VNG to submit, by December, additional information on costs and the impact the project would have on environmental justice communities.  The order is a great victory for the communities that have been fighting this project.

But in delaying the project, the SCC included language that should concern those who hope to push Virginia to impose a moratorium on new fossil fuel projects.

In reviewing public comments filed in the proceeding, the SCC noted that “[m]any commenters assert that because this Project is for the transportation of natural gas, it is therefore foreclosed by or inconsistent with recent legislation passed by the General Assembly, such as the Virginia Clean Economy Act (“VCEA”).”  The SCC rejected that argument:

[T]he VCEA does not contain any provision that would prohibit the construction of this Project. The General Assembly knows how to prohibit certain commercial activities when it wants to, such as when it prohibited uranium mining, and if it chooses it could prohibit the construction of facilities for the transportation and distribution of natural gas, or the use of natural gas in electric generating plants, but it has not done so. In addition, the most recent amendments to the Virginia Energy Plan also do not prohibit this Project but, rather, conclude that ‘it shall be the policy of the Commonwealth to: … [e]nsure the adequate supply of natural gas necessary to ensure the reliability of the electricity supply and the needs of businesses during the transition to renewable energy.’ In short, no party cited any provision in current law, or in laws scheduled to go into effect on July 1, 2020, that categorically prohibit the construction of natural gas transportation facilities such as those in the current Project.”

During debate this past session over the VCEA, many hoped that certain provisions of the bill would force the SCC to reject future fossil fuel projects, resulting in a de facto moratorium.  Clearly, that option is foreclosed, at least as far as the SCC is concerned.

Which means Virginia needs to go further. 

Among the provisions the legislature should consider are revising the Virginia Energy Plan referenced by the SCC and enacting a comprehensive Climate Action Plan and more aggressive clean energy standards.  And, rather than seeking indirect ways of forcing SCC or agencies to reject future projects, the legislature should take control and simply block any permitting agency in Virginia from approving any new electric generating facility using fossil fuel energy.  It should also prohibit new or expanded fossil fuel import or export facilities, new fossil fuel pipelines or expansion of existing pipelines, new refineries and new fossil fuel exploration.

Equally important, new legislation should include protections for environmental justice communities, strong provisions to support workers in the fossil fuel and green energy sectors, massive new investments in green energy jobs and training programs to transition those workers.  As part of protecting and supporting workers, new legislation should also include strong labor protections like project labor agreements, prevailing wage guarantees, protections for the right to organize and, yes, repeal of Virginia’s Right to Work (for less) law.

Pandemic or no pandemic, the climate crisis is not going away.  We need solutions to the scale of the crises we face. 

And we need them now.