Home Climate change Joe Manchin’s Pyrrhic victory

Joe Manchin’s Pyrrhic victory

The folly of building the Mountain Valley Pipeline should be obvious to anyone who hasn’t already committed billions of dollars to the project.

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by Ivy Main, cross-posted from Power for the People VA

This spring’s passage of federal legislation raising the debt ceiling came with one provision that clean energy advocates had fought hard against: it sweeps away several legal challenges to the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) that have stalled completion for more than four years. The pipeline is supposed to carry methane gas from the fracking fields of West Virginia into Virginia to connect to an existing interstate pipeline here, and getting it built has long been a priority of West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin.

Manchin surely believes he notched a victory with the inclusion of this provision in must-pass legislation. And in one respect, he’s right. Pipeline opponents aren’t conceding defeat, but stopping the MVP in court just got a heck of a lot harder.

Whether the pipeline’s developers should be celebrating is another matter. The wisdom of building a new methane gas pipeline was questionable nine years ago when the MVP was conceived. Today, with the U.S. transitioning away from fossil fuels, the folly of building new gas infrastructure should be obvious to anyone who hasn’t already committed billions of dollars to the project.

Dominion Energy figured this out three years ago when it dropped plans to develop the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Dominion is a big energy conglomerate and had other projects to pursue. Canceling the Atlantic Coast Pipeline saved it billions of dollars that it is now investing in offshore wind and other renewable energy assets.

MVP’s two largest minority partners are also diversified companies with other options. NextEra Energy, which owns a 31% share in the partnership through its subsidiary Next Energy Resources, wrote off the value of its investment in MVP in 2021 and 2022, saying it planned to “reevaluate its investment in the Mountain Valley Pipeline.”

A NextEra spokesperson did not answer my question about what the company plans to do about MVP now.  But if a picture is worth a thousand words, take a look at NextEra Energy Resources’ homepage. MVP isn’t mentioned anywhere on the website, which is largely a celebration of the company’s renewable energy assets.

The third-largest stakeholder in the MVP is Consolidated Edison, with an initial 12.5% stake. In 2019 it exercised an option to cap its investment in MVP, and in 2020 it wrote down the value of its investment by almost half. ConEd CEO John McAvoy told investors that year the company would no longer invest in gas transmission projects and “certainly would” consider selling its stake in MVP.

“We made those investments five to seven years ago,” he said, “and at that time we — and frankly many others — viewed natural gas as having a fairly large role in the transition to the clean energy economy. That view has largely changed, and natural gas, while it can provide emissions reductions, is no longer … part of the longer-term view.”

Unfortunately, these views aren’t shared by MVP’s majority owner and operator. Equitrans Midstream is solely a pipeline and gas storage company, having been spun off from a larger corporation, EQT, in 2018. MVP is its key to growth. The exit door may be wide open, but Equitrans doesn’t want to leave because it has nowhere to go.

That doesn’t mean it makes sense to stay, either. Many a gambler has learned the hard way that continuing to feed coins into a slot machine does not make it more likely to disgorge the jackpot.

And really, if there ever was a jackpot for MVP, it is gone by now. In 2015, EQT saw an opportunity to undercut the price charged by existing pipelines to ship gas to an energy-hungry Southeast. Today, though, demand for methane gas has cooled in the face of cheap wind and solar, while MVP’s costs have ballooned to $6.6 billion from the initial projection of $3.25 billion. Analysts say MVP’s competitive advantage has evaporated, and its prospects for profitability look grim.

Equitrans maintains that there is still a pressing need for its pipeline, but demand has always been hypothetical. From the very beginning, the partnership seemingly indulged in “build it and they will come” magical thinking.

Getting a permit to build from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission requires that pipeline developers have their customers lined up ahead of time in order to demonstrate a “need” for the project. Even in 2015 there were not enough customers clamoring for MVP’s services, so the partners named themselves as the buyers for more than half of the pipeline’s capacity. FERC’s approach to permitting allows this self-dealing, though the commission has been heavily criticized for it.

Obviously, Equitrans was never going to be a customer; it isn’t in the business of generating power or selling gas at retail. Its field of dreams assumed demand for gas would grow, customers would be clamoring for pipeline capacity, and Equitrans would be able sell its share of the capacity and just reap the profits from owning the pipeline.

It’s hard to imagine that happening now. Economics had already started to favor wind and solar over fossil fuels when the MVP broke ground. Total natural gas consumption has been mostly flat nationwide since 2018, and the Energy Information Agency (EIA) projects it will decline steadily for the next decade. EIA also projects that more than half of all new electric generating capacity this year will be solar, with natural gas additions down to a mere 14%. Here in Virginia, methane gas burned by electric utilities has declined from a high in 2020.

The future will only get brighter for renewables and dimmer for gas. In 2020, Virginia committed to a zero-carbon energy future, and in 2022 Congress passed the strongest set of clean energy incentives in history. Betting on fossil fuels in today’s environment makes no sense.

Sure, Governor Youngkin is doing his level best to throw a wrench in the works, and Dominion Energy Virginia just proposed building a 1,000-megawatt gas combustion turbine, citing growing demand from data centers and electric vehicles. Misguided as that proposal is, it doesn’t signal good times ahead for the gas industry. Combustion turbines are not baseload plants; they run only when demand exceeds other sources of supply. Dominion has no plans to build new baseload gas plants.

MVP knows finding customers in Virginia will be hard. Before litigation and permit denials put construction on hold in 2018, the partnership had proposed an extension of the pipeline into North Carolina, perhaps hoping for better pickings in Duke Energy territory. Now that MVP has the congressional seal of approval, it is seeking to revive the proposed Southgate Extension, to the dismay of North Carolina activists. Yet economics don’t favor gas over solar there, either.

The liquefied natural gas export market has also been floated as a potential source of growth, but critics say the lack of liquefied natural gas terminal capacity prevents that from happening.

It’s time to stop this travesty. Equitrans claims MVP is 94% complete, but opponents say the true figure is more like 56%, with many of the most difficult segments (like stream crossings) still to be tackled. Those are also the most environmentally sensitive parts of the line. Pulling the plug on MVP now would avoid not only the cost of completing the pipeline, but also the cost of fixing leaks, erosion damage and other problems critics believe are inevitable given the terrain and geology.

That would be a much better result for everyone concerned than completing the pipeline to serve a market that doesn’t exist – a Pyrrhic victory if there ever was one.

This article was originally published in the Virginia Mercury on June 28, 2023.

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