MVP-Owned Natural Gas Leak Causes Concern
A recent leak at a Pennsylvania natural gas storage facility, operated by the same company leading construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, was reportedly caused by corrosion of a well joint.
In the company’s news release, Equitrans Midstream Corp. detailed its investigation of the incident that occurred in November 2022 at the Rager Mountain storage facility, which spewed about 1 billion cubic feet of a greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, in a report to federal safety regulators.
MVP Project Background
First approved in 2017, the Mountain Valley Pipeline project has been delayed by opposition, lawsuits and violations on construction sites over environmental regulations.
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.
The 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.
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.
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 December 2021, 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.
Then in April 2022, the FERC 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.
The order was unanimously approved on April 8 by the FERC, according to the 72-page order.
Construction Stoppage, Restart
In July, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court ordered construction to halt again on the MVP project, as it reviewed recent challenges to the project posed by environmental groups. The order to stop construction came only shortly after approval for project completion was granted on June 28.
According to reports, the lawsuit was filed by The Wilderness Society, a Washington, D.C.-based land conservation group, arguing that Congress had violated the separation of powers doctrine by passing a law to expedite the project in May.
Challenges from The Wilderness Society and other environmental groups had reportedly caused a pause in construction as the 4th Circuit Court reviewed the issue. If approved, the challenges would reportedly have affected a much larger portion of the approximately 300-mile pipeline. The three-judge panel had reportedly previously rejected permits for the project.
Additionally, a coalition of environmental groups had reportedly contested the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s finding that endangered species would not be harmed by the new pipeline. The groups, led by Appalachian Voices and including the Sierra Club and Wild Virginia, are reportedly also disputing the federal opinion that the pipeline would not harm protected endangered species in the area.
The issues at hand reportedly revolved around a part of the Fiscal Responsibility Act that ordered federal authorities to approve all remaining permits for the pipeline. This provision had also reportedly protected the pipeline from further legal challenges by removing judicial review of permits, something that environmental groups are saying amounts to an unconstitutional violation of the separation of powers.
In a statement released by Equitrans Midstream, the company expressed their disappointment with the court’s decision to halt construction, which was reportedly around 90% complete.
Then, last month, the U.S. Supreme Court reportedly began paving the way for construction to resume on the MVP project, granting a request to lift lower court orders that had recently halted the project and delayed its completion.
According to the report, the brief order vacated stays that were issued by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit for the cases brought by environmental organizations opposed to the pipeline. Additionally, it was reported that there were no noted dissents to the order.
After agreeing to review the various agency stations, the 4th Circuit reportedly heard arguments for the cases on July 27.
The pipeline had reportedly filed an emergency application with the Supreme Court, seeking to resume the project and arguing that the 4th Circuit did not have the ability to grant relief since it “lacked jurisdiction” over the environmental groups’ permitting challenges.
The MVP partners also reportedly stated that the provision of the debt ceiling package rendered the case moot, since Congress ratified the relevant agency actions in the legal battles. MVP warned that leaving the 4th Circuit’s pause in place would delay its completion before spring 2024 and lead to increased demand for gas in regions served by the pipeline.
According to the report, the Biden Administration, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin and the GOP-led House sided with MVP in the dispute and urged the Supreme Court to lift the lower court orders.
Lawyers for the Wilderness Society also reportedly urged the Supreme Court to allow the lower court order to remain untouched, accusing Congress of enacting a provision that violates the Constitution and “crosses the line between legislating and judging."
The group also reportedly argued that the provision is “independently unconstitutional” since it strips jurisdiction to guarantee the government and MVP would win in the pending litigation over approvals.
The lead plaintiff in the second case, Appalachian Voices, as well as the nine environmental groups reportedly separately accused MVP of appealing to Congress to protect the project after suffering earlier court losses.
With construction of the MVP beginning again, there had reportedly been concerns that sections of pipe stored above the ground for years had been over-exposed to sunlight, which can break down a protective coating meant to guard against corrosion.
A report from the Roanoke Times on the Rager Mountain gas leak stated that water and oxygen weakened the well’s underground top joint, causing more damage than what testing in 2016 had revealed. When the data was reprocessed using updated technology, it was reportedly determined that the earlier tests were inaccurate.
“We are distressed to hear confirmation of Equitrans’ failing pipes in Pennsylvania as we fear similar disasters will occur along the MVP route,” said Denali Nalamalapu of Protect Our Water, Heritage, Rights, an anti-pipeline coalition.
“Many of us can’t fall asleep at night for fear of MVP pipes exploding and killing our loved ones,” Nalamalapu said in a statement issued by POWHR Friday. “MVP is an unnecessary, beleaguered project that must be stopped immediately.”
Natalie Cox, a spokeswoman for both Mountain Valley and Equitrans, said it was “no surprise” that pipeline opponents are attempting to link the incident in Pennsylvania to pipeline construction.
“Vertical storage wells are vastly different from natural gas transmission lines, including in construction, operations and materials, such as coatings,” Cox wrote in an email.
“Mountain Valley has worked with federal and state regulators for years to ensure the construction and integrity management practices of the project and will continue to do so.”
The U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration has also reportedly called for additional inspections of the steel pipe before it is buried; however, there has not been any final action on a proposed safety order issued on Aug. 11.
Degraded coating and other conditions could possibly pose a pipeline integrity risk to “public safety, property or the environment,” the agency stated in its proposed order, which also reportedly includes explosions of other pipelines in mountainous terrain that can be susceptible to landslides.
The report adds that Mountain Valley has requested an informal consultation with PHMSA, stating that it welcomes oversight from state and federal agencies.
However, some reportedly worry that while negotiations continue, sections of the 42-inch diameter pipe—which may have been compromised by exposure to the elements since 2017—are being placed in the ground as the company rushes to complete construction by the end of the year.
Additionally, the PHMSA has reportedly proposed an independent, third-party review of a process to inspect the steel pipes and, where needed, reapply a fusion-bonded epoxy coating before they are buried.
Even though its safety order has not been implemented, PHMSA stated that it has been inspecting the pipeline since work began to ensure that Mountain Valley is following all safety regulations.
Mountain Valley states that it already has a program to examine the pipes and reinforce them when needed along the pipeline’s 303-mile route from northern West Virginia, though Southwest Virginia, to connect with an existing pipeline near the North Carolina line.
Over 270 miles of pipe have already reportedly been buried, and the coating met specifications at the time.
According to Cox, the notice of a proposed safety order was not an effort by PHMSA to stop construction; instead, “it was intended to instill public confidence in the responsible construction and safe operation of the pipeline, and we agree with PHMSA that transparently outlining the steps being taken by the MVP project team to safely complete construction of the pipeline is of utmost importance to the public.”
Equitrans operates the Rager Mountain storage facility, where natural gas waiting to be shipped is reportedly kept in wells that have been drilled dry by hydraulic fracking of the Marcellus Shale formation. The Rager facility has 10 storage wells with a capacity of about 9 billion cubic feet of gas.
After the well joint on one of the wells failed, it reportedly took Equitrans around two weeks to stop the leak. In addition to the natural gas that was vented into the atmosphere, a smaller amount was contained within the earth at depths of 1,800 to 3,000 feet, the company stated.
Extensive testing found that none of the gas migrated to nearby residential areas, the company added.
“Equitrans has worked diligently with all regulatory agencies and various independent experts to identify the cause of the incident and to strengthen its existing storage well integrity program,” said Cox.
Meanwhile, construction of the MVP—including sections in the Bent Mountain community of Roanoke County, Franklin County and the Jefferson National Forest in Giles and Montgomery counties—is reportedly starting back up.
Eight stream and wetland crossings have reportedly been completed in recent weeks, according to Matt Stafford, manager of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality’s office of water compliance.
About 600 such crossings in West Virginia and Virginia remain, in addition to major projects that involve boring under Interstate 81 and the Appalachian Trail in the national forest.
In a presentation to the State Water Control Board, Stafford said there have been no documented violations of erosion and sediment control regulations since work restarted.