FERC Approves Mountain Valley Pipeline Changes
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission recently issued an order approving changes proposed for the Mountain Valley Pipeline Project, including how the pipeline will cross 183 waterbodies and wetlands.
The application was filed by Mountain Valley Pipeline LLC in February last year to amend the original 2017 certificate for the pipeline. The order allows the developer to bore under the bodies of water instead of using the originally approved open-cut method.
“Mountain Valley’s usage of trenchless waterbody crossings will result in fewer environmental impacts than the crossing method that the Commission approved under the original certificate, meaning that today’s order amending Mountain Valley’s certificate will almost certainly represent an improvement over the status quo,” FERC Chair Richard Glick said in a statement with Commissioner Allison Clements.
Mountain Valley Pipeline History
The pipeline is owned and being constructed by Mountain Valley Pipeline LLC—a joint venture between EQT Midstream Partners LP, NextEra US Gas Assets LLC, Con Edison Transmission Inc., WGL Midstream and RGC Midstream LLC. Once complete, the pipeline is slated to be operated by EQT Midstream Partners.
Federal regulators have granted permission for the Mountain Valley Pipeline to tunnel beneath more than 180 waterways and wetlands. https://t.co/i2mYqXpC4N— WDBJ7 (@WDBJ7) April 12, 2022
The Mountain Valley Pipeline is expected to run from northwestern West Virginia to southern Virginia, cutting through the Jefferson National Forest. The project is the smaller of two currently underway in the state of Virginia; the other is the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which is twice as long and passes through the center of the state but does not cut through Jefferson National Forest.
On July 27, 2018, an order from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit turned over prior decisions made by the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service authorizing construction of the 303-mile pipeline. In early August of that year, the U.S. Federal Regulatory Commission ordered work on the pipeline to cease, alleging that two U.S. agencies had not fully examined the projects.
A few months later, in October, the project was blocked yet again, but this time by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, suspending a permit that would allow the pipeline to cross more than 500 streams and wetlands in southwest Virginia. The following month, MVP filed an application with FERC for a 73-mile Southgate permit pipeline extension.
In mid-July 2019, FERC released a request for “toxicological, environmental and health information” from the Mountain Valley Pipeline’s corporate attorney regarding the coatings used on the project’s 42-inch diameter steel pipe. In August, project developers told federal regulators that the coating in question, specifically on stretches in Virginia and West Virginia, does not pose a threat of harm. Also, in August, the developers voluntarily suspended construction on stretches of the pipeline in light of a recent lawsuit that sought to address concerns about the project’s impact on local endangered species.
By October, work on the project ceased once again as the pipeline developer was ordered to pay $2.15 million to resolve a lawsuit brought on by Virginia regulators. In the lawsuit, the accusing party cited repeated violations of environmental standards. The agreement also required that the company submit court-ordered compliance to curb erosion and sedimentation.
A lawsuit cited the project developer for the violation of stormwater control measures more than 300 times. Those flaws have reportedly been corrected and the company has agreed to certain conditions including independent inspections, but those carrying out the investigations must be monitors approved by the DEQ.
In light of the loss of so many permits, Del. Chris Hurst, D-Blacksburg, called for the stop-work order from FERC. Mountain Valley’s assistant general counsel, Matthew Eggerding, noted in a letter to FERC that pipeline installation had been completed in nearly all accessible areas, though this does not include the areas at issue. Otherwise, the company was still on schedule to complete stabilization and restoration work.
At the beginning of 2020, FERC released an environmental impact statement concluding that while an 75-mile-long extension into North Carolina—also known as the MVP Southgate Project—could cause some environmental damage, they were favorable of the project moving forward.
The Commission also noted that the potential environmental damages could be reduced to less-than-significant levels through avoidance, minimization and mitigation proposed by the developer and staff.
At the time of the announcement, MVP Southgate spokesperson Shawn Day reported that the $468 million project was expected to break ground sometime this year with completion slated for 2021.
Project officials also added that since the expansion was announced, the MVP team had made more than 1,200 adjustments to its route, mostly based on landowner requests, engineering considerations and efforts to avoid sensitive resources. The team says it remains committed to collaborating with a variety of stakeholders, including landowners, federal and state agencies, local governments, tribes, community groups and non-governmental organizations.
In September 2020, on behalf of Mountain Valley Pipeline LLC, representing attorney Matthew Eggerding filed a letter with FERC in requesting that a stop-work order be lifted.
In the letter, Eggerding requested that FERC grant permission to resume all construction activities permitted by law of the over $5 billion pipeline by Sept. 25. The letter followed a reissued permit by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service earlier this month, stating that construction would not likely jeopardize protected species in the area.
However, according to The Roanoke Times, the joint venture still needed two key permits that were set aside after a federal appeals court sided with conservation groups. Following Eggerding’s request, the Sierra Club also issued a letter to FERC, writing that construction couldn’t commence until all federal authorizations were obtained. The letter—which included a notice of intent to sue the Army Corps—was written by senior attorney Elly Benson and was co-signed by other environmental groups.
In December last year, two water permits were approved for the pipeline, raising concerns over its impacts on the environment and sparking lawsuits including a Virginia State Water Control Board permit for the pipeline to cross about 150 streams and wetlands in Southwest Virginia and a West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection water quality permit.
Prior to having the Nationwide Permit 12 from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers invalidated, more than half of the almost 1,000 stream and wetland crossings in the two states were completed. MVP sought an individual permit from the Army Corps, which could only be provided after state approval.
At the time, the MVP had 236 remaining stream crossings. The stream and river crossings approved by the board will be temporarily dammed and a trench will be dug for the buried 42-inch pipeline along the bottom, referred to as the open-cut method.
Following the approval, opposition groups, including the Sierra Club and Appalachian Voices, filed a petition with the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, citing that the pipeline should not be permitted to continue based on past violations. Mountain Valley officials responded saying the problems were largely caused by heavy rain in 2018 and have been corrected.
A few days later, the WVDEP approved the water quality permit for the pipeline. This permit was the final one needed before the Army Corps could move forward with dredge-and-fill permits in the states.
A similar lawsuit to the Virginia petition was filed at the beginning of the month over the West Virginia permit. The environmental and community groups argued that WVDEP violated the Clean Water Act by granting the permit.
The current open-cut process, which involved digging a trench along the bottom of the waterbodies to by a 42-inch diameter pipe, will now be replaced with a tunneling method for the approved bodies of water.
The order was unanimously approved on April 8 by the FERC. According to the 72-page order, the amended application includes the following changes:
“This is another important step forward in MVP’s project completion and, as a critical infrastructure project, is essential for our nation’s energy security, reliability, and ability to transition to a lower-carbon future,” Natalie Cox, a spokeswoman for the joint venture, wrote in an email.
However, FERC said the decision does not change the commission’s prior findings on the need for the pipeline. The order notes that “any notice to proceed with construction” on the amended project “will only be issued upon Mountain Valley’s receipt of its outstanding federal authorizations.”
Multiple federal permits have reportedly been denied in recent months, and earlier this month FERC was pressed by judges about the agency’s decision in 2020 to give the developers two years to finish the project. A judge said it was “troubling” that FERC had not responded to a pending stop work order requested by environmental groups earlier this year.
“We continue to evaluate the best path forward for completing the MVP project and expect to provide updated project guidance once the full evaluation is complete,” said Cox in an email.
Late last month, Glick and Clements issued a joint statement dissenting the recommencement of the pipeline’s construction due to several outstanding federal authorizations.
“At this point, MVP lacks the federal authorizations required to cross over 700 waterbodies and wetlands along the project route,” wrote Glick and Clements. “Under these circumstances, allowing piecemeal construction of a project that is still awaiting critical federal authorizations is inconsistent with any reasonable reading of the purposes behind Environmental Condition 9 in MVP’s certificate, not to mention our responsibilities to the landowners, communities, and others who have interests at stake in this proceeding.”
While the Commission argued that the MVP project is “not a blank slate” and construction should continue rather than waiting for authorization, the Chair and Commissioner stated that the argument assumes those authorizations will be reissued and on the same terms and conditions as the now-vacated authorizations.
They noted that the new order’s approval is beneficial for three reasons: reduced environmental damage, no additional land would have to be taken by eminent domain for the “almost entirely constructed” pipeline and to satisfy a 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals permit remand. The permit was denied to pass through the national forest, partly due to the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management considering FERC’s environmental analy