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FERC Approves Atlantic Coast, Mountain Valley Pipelines in Rare Split Decision

In a pair of orders handed down late Friday, FERC approved the Appalachian-to-Southeast Atlantic Coast (ACP) and Mountain Valley pipelines (MVP) in a rare split decision.

With the lone sitting Democrat, Commissioner Cheryl LaFleur dissenting, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issued certificates authorizing the 600-mile, 1.5 Bcf/d ACP and the 303-mile, 2 million Dth/d MVP to move forward, the culmination of multi-year review process that officially kicked off when both projects applied at FERC in fall 2015.

Both MVP and ACP are designed to deliver Marcellus and Utica shale gas into Southeast markets. Each greenfield pipeline is to  start in West Virginia before crossing into Virginia to interconnect with the Transcontinental Gas Pipe Line (Transco). ACP would also extend south into North Carolina.

The developers behind ACP and MVP, which have been looking to move forward with construction this fall in order to stay on schedule, praised FERC's decision. ACP is a joint venture of Dominion Energy Inc., Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas and Southern Company Gas. The project is scheduled to enter service in 2019.

MVP is a joint venture between EQT Midstream Partners LP, NextEra US Gas Assets LLC, Con Edison Transmission Inc., WGL Midstream and RGC Midstream LLC. That project is targeting a 4Q2018 in-service date.

"This is the most significant milestone yet for a project that will bring jobs, economic growth and cleaner energy to our region,” said Dominion Vice President Leslie Hartz, who handles engineering and construction. “In the coming days we will fully review the certificate and finalize our plans for complying with its conditions. We will also continue working with the other state and federal agencies to complete the environmental review process and make this critically important project a reality."

Said MVP spokeswoman Natalie Cox, "The FERC engaged in a comprehensive review of the project and we are, of course, pleased with their decision to issue the certificate. Importantly, the MVP project team looks forward to continued cooperation with federal, state and local agencies as we work toward satisfying all permitting requirements."

Friday’s orders also approved the related Equitrans Expansion and Supply Header projects, designed to coincide with MVP and ACP, respectively.

LaFleur Dissents

In Friday's orders, Chairman Neil Chatterjee and Commissioner Robert Powelson addressed the myriad arguments that have been commonly brought against MVP and ACP since the projects were announced three years ago, including assertions that the pipelines are not needed or that FERC should conduct a programmatic regional environmental review.

The orders also shot down the idea of colocating the similarly routed projects, with FERC concluding that "when environmental factors, technical feasibility and ability to meet the purpose and need of the projects are cumulatively considered, the collocation alternative does not offer a significant advantage."

And a proposal to merge the two pipes into one 3.44 Bcf/d project "may hold an environmental advantage" but would "negatively impact shippers by reduced operational flexibility and future expansibility" and thus "is not preferable," the commissioners found.

LaFleur, in her dissenting opinion, argued that merging the two pipelines makes the most sense given the potential impacts the two pipelines would have on the Appalachian region.

FERC must carefully balance "the need for the project and its environmental impacts," she wrote. "In the case of the ACP and MVP projects, my balancing determination was heavily influenced by similarities in their respective routes, impact and timing."

The projects would receive supply from the same area and target similar downstream markets. They would be near one another and both impact cultural resources such as the Appalachian National Scenic Trail and Blue Ridge Parkway, LaFleur noted.

"Given these similarities and overlapping issues, I believe it is appropriate to balance the collective environmental impacts of these projects on the Appalachian region against the economic need for the projects," LaFleur said. "In so doing, I am not persuaded that both of these projects as proposed are in the public interest.

"I am particularly troubled by the approval of these projects because I believe that the records demonstrate that there may be alternative approaches that could provide significant environmental advantages over their construction as proposed," she said, noting the alternative of merging the two projects.

While a merged system may not meet all of the current stated goals of the individual projects, "I believe these alternatives demonstrate that the regional needs that these pipelines address may be met through alternative approaches that have significantly fewer environmental impacts," LaFleur said.

Echoing comments made by former Chairman Norman Bay before his departure earlier this year, LaFleur said she also has concerns about FERC's reliance on precedent agreements to determine project need.

"I believe that evidence of the specific end use of the delivered gas within the context of regional needs is relevant evidence that should be considered as part of our overall needs determination," La Fleur wrote. "...I believe that careful consideration of a fuller record could help the Commission better balance environmental issues, including downstream impacts, with the project need and its benefits. I fully realize that a broader consideration of need would be a change in our existing practice, and I would support a generic proceeding to get input from the regulated community, and those impacted by pipelines, on how the Commission evaluates need."

Acknowledging the time and effort FERC spent reviewing both ACP and MVP, "I take seriously my dissent," LaFleur wrote. "I acknowledge that if the applicants were to adopt an alternative solution, it would require considerable additional work and time. However, the decision before the Commission is simply whether to approve or reject these projects, which will be in place for decades. Given the environmental impacts and possible superior alternatives, approving these two pipeline projects on this record is not a decision I can support."

With MVP and ACP each planning to cross sensitive, largely undeveloped terrain along the Virginia/West Virginia border, the projects are likely to continue to receive pushback from environmental groups and landowners.

Lorne Stockman, senior analyst with opposition group Oil Change International, criticized FERC’s decision and said the pipelines would have to contend with "massive" local opposition. "In spite of FERC's irresponsible action, these fracked gas pipelines still face massive opposition in West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina. FERC cannot sneak these mega-projects past the hundreds of communities in their path in the dead of night," Stockman said.

"Oil Change International and the many groups fighting these pipelines have documented the extensive damage these projects will do. Both projects are bad deals for ratepayers, and huge threats to our mountains, rivers, farms and local economies. They threaten our climate and disproportionately impact our low-income and minority communities. FERC has ignored all the evidence and certified these destructive projects as 'convenient and necessary' -- when in fact they are neither."

The Sierra Club's Dirty Fuels campaign Director Kelly Martin said, "Despite new commissioners, FERC continues to show itself to be nothing more than a rubber stamp for dirty and dangerous fossil fuel projects. Greenlighting the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines doesn't advance West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina communities -- it threatens them by pumping fracked gas through them, releasing methane every step of the way."

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