The Atlantic Coast Pipeline cleared another hurdle last week when the U.S. Supreme Court decided the pipeline could indeed cross the Appalachian Trail.
The decision removes an obstacle for moving natural gas from wells in West Virginia to potential markets in Virginia and North Carolina.
The pipeline project begins in north-central West Virginia and travels southeast through West Virginia and Virginia until it reaches the North Carolina border. From there, a branch heads over to Norfolk, Virginia, while the main pipeline heads southwest through North Carolina to a point near the South Carolina state line.
All together, it’s a 600-mile project that would deliver natural gas to utilities in Virginia and North Carolina. The underground pipeline is a joint project of Dominion Energy and Duke Energy. Its total estimated cost is $8 billion.
The project has faced opposition from several groups for many reasons. The case decided by the Supreme Court on Monday had to do with whether the U.S. Forest Service had the authority to permit contractors to run the pipe under the Appalachian Trail.
Judges from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit voided a Forest Service permit in December 2018, saying federal law prohibits any agency from approving a pipeline on “lands in the National Park System.” That includes the trail. Hearing the appeal, the Supreme Court disagreed.
This is not the final victory for the pipeline, which was announced in 2014. Other challenges remain in other courts, and they touch on many different issues.
The Marcellus Shale revolution has been good for northern West Virginia’s economy. The combination of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing has unlocked vast gas reserves in the northern part of the state in the past 10 years. In the southern counties, the onset of shale drilling contributed to an economic calamity. The abundance of gas from shale wells in West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania led to sharp decreases in gas prices, which encouraged utilities and other electric power producers to switch much of their generating capacity from coal to gas.
Coal was having its own problems before the shale gas industry boomed. Shale gas hastened coal’s decline.
With drilling comes the necessary infrastructure to process the gas and prepare it for shipping. Doddridge County in particular has benefited from that growth. And there is pipeline capacity. There have been other pipeline projects that have been developed to move shale gas, including one here in the Tri-State. The Atlantic Coast Pipeline is one of the largest, most visible and most opposed.
The pipeline has been described as a means of taking dirty coal out of the power generation industry and replacing it with cleaner-burning natural gas. That’s already happening, given the number of gas-fired power plants that have been built in recent years within a 150-mile radius of Huntington and the number of coal-fired generating units that have been retired.
But in the six years since the Atlantic Coast Pipeline project was announced, several states have developed plans to move past gas and to rely more on renewable power sources. Several engineering obstacles remain for those plans, but that doesn’t mean they are not feasible.
The fight over the future of power generation is not over. Assuming the Atlantic Coast Pipeline can survive the challenges that remain in a wide variety of venues, it might not be as necessary as it was thought to be six years ago. But natural gas will remain an important source for many industries in the years to come, so ensuring it can get to market in a manner that is both economically and environmentally sound is a challenge that must be met and overcome.