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U.S. Forest Service OKs Atlantic Coast Pipeline

Final approval of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) took one step closer to reality on Friday, after the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) gave its approval for the natural gas project, concluding that two national forests and other assets to be traversed by the pipeline would face minimal environmental impacts.

In a 63-page record of decision, USFS authorized a special use permit for ACP to build, operate and maintain the pipeline on land within the George Washington and Monongahela national forests. It also approved project-specific amendments to the forest plans for both areas.

"This decision supports federal policies emphasizing energy infrastructure, jobs, economic growth and our agency's efforts to provide for multiple use," USFS said. "By applying the required terms, conditions and mitigation measures outlined in the environmental impact statement, the ACP project will be implemented without impairing the long-term productivity of National Forest System lands."

USFS approval of the project comes exactly five weeks after FERC also issued a certificate approving the project, which would transport 1.5 Bcf/d from the Marcellus and Utica shales to markets in the Southeast.

Among the 41 terms and conditions attached to the approval, ACP is prohibited from any surface-disturbing activity as part of crossing under the Appalachian National Scenic Trail. ACP is also not allowed to begin any activity on forest land that may impact the habitat of the candy darter, a rare fish currently under review for listing on the Endangered Species Act, until the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service provides the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission with a non-jeopardy determination for the species.

According to USFS, once all approvals are in place construction could begin in April and be completed in late 2019. The project is scheduled to enter service in 2019. Timber removal would occur before installing the pipeline, but the agency said that work must be completed between November 15 and March 31 to avoid impacts to threatened and endangered bats.

The 600-mile ACP is a joint venture of Dominion Energy Inc., Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas and Southern Company Gas.

"We've always strived to balance the energy needs of consumers and the economy with responsible environmental stewardship," Dominion spokesman Aaron Ruby said Friday. "USFS's approval shows that through collaboration with agencies and the scientific community, we can responsibly develop infrastructure in a way that preserves the environment and protects our natural resources."

Environmental groups opposed to the pipeline accused USFS and FERC of kowtowing to the oil and gas industry. The Sierra Club said it would mount a legal challenge to the USFS decision. Last Monday, the Sierra Club and other groups filed a rehearing request with FERC over the project.

"National forests, like our communities, deserve protection, not a roughshod review and hasty approval to be cut down for an unnecessary fossil fuel project," said Sierra Club spokeswoman Kelly Martin. "The Forest Service and FERC have failed to show there is a need for a new right of way for this project -- or for this pipeline at all."

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