LUMBERTON — What began as a bad week for supporters of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, ended on a bright note with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s release Friday of the Final Environmental Statement for the project that is being called “favorable.”
The commission, which oversees interstate pipelines, stated that some endangered species that are found in the pipeline’s path will be affected. It also stated, however, that the impact to endangered species and other adverse environmental effects — including impacts on water resources, forest and other habitats — can be reduced to “less-than-significant” levels if developers use proper construction and mitigation techniques.
The proposed 600-mile interstate natural gas pipeline running from Harrison County, West Virginia, and ending just outside of Pembroke, is being developed by four companies: Richmond-based Dominion Energy, Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas, and Southern Company Gas. Its construction has strong support from political and business leaders but is adamantly opposed by environmentalists and some property owners.
Dominion Energy, based in Richmond, Va., is the lead company behind development of the $5 billion project.
“The favorable environmental report released today provides a clear path for final approval of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline this fall. The report concludes that the project can be built safely and with minimal long-term impacts to the environment,” Leslie Hartz, Dominion Energy’s vice president for engineering and construction, said in a statement. “The report also reinforces previous findings by the FERC and decades of research demonstrating that natural gas pipelines do not adversely impact tourist economies or residential property values. With this report, the region moves one step closer toward a stronger economy, a more secure energy supply and a cleaner environment.”
The report has taken about three years to prepare, and draws information from more than 150,000 pages of regulatory filings and more than 75,000 public comments.
Environmental groups have argued that the commission’s process for approving pipelines is broken and doesn’t adequately evaluate the true need for additional infrastructure.
“FERC still hasn’t addressed the most basic question hanging over this project: Is it even needed?” Greg Buppert, senior attorney for Southern Environmental Law Center, said in a statement. “It’s FERCs responsibility to determine if this pipeline is a public necessity before it allows developers to take private property, clear forests, and carve up mountainsides. Mounting evidence shows that it is not.”
The agency’s commissioners will weigh the environmental impact statement as well as whether the project meets a public need and whether its proposed gas rates are just and reasonable in making that decision, according to commission spokeswoman Tamara Young-Allen.
A final decision can come any time after a pipeline’s final environmental impact statement is complete, but the five-member panel currently lacks a quorum, with only one commissioner currently serving.
President Donald Trump has announced four nominees, who still must be approved by the Senate.
Although the underground pipeline has been in the planning stages since 2014, local opponents of the pipeline contend that there have not been any public forums held in the county to educate the public about the project.
On Monday, the Robeson County Board of Commissioners, after hearing from opponents, delayed a decision on a conditional-use permit that would have helped move the project forward. The commissioners, some municipalities and other business friendly groups had passed resolutions earlier endorsing the pipeline.
The conditional-use permit is needed so that a monitoring station and a 350-foot tall microwave cell tower can be placed on a 2.6 acres that Piedmont Natural Gas Company Inc. owns beside N.C. 710 just outside of Pembroke. At the site, the pipeline would inter connect with the existing Piedmont Natural gas line for further distribution of the natural gas.
The commissioners on Tuesday were quick to say that they will review the application again at their August meeting and believe the conditional-use permit will be approved.
In a letter to The Robesonian published Friday, Tom Taylor, chairman of the Board of Commissioners, wrote that natural gas is a necessity if the county is to continue to develop and thrive economically.
“The natural gas industry is a critical tool for the stability and growth of our county’s economic development,” said Taylor.
The letter said natural gas availability has helped the county land more than 40 industries and more than $700 million in investment.
Proponents of the pipeline say more jobs will locate nearby, and the owners would pay Robeson County about $700,000 a year in property taxes.
The Rev. Mac Legerton, a strong opponent of the pipeline, said that the environmental impact statement is worse than opponents of the project imagined.
“There are thousands of pages of recommendations and changes to the draft environmental impact statement but only a few of them made it into the final report,” Legerton said. “This report is almost the same as the draft, lacking in almost every aspect. I’m sure there are going to be many legal challenges.”
Legerton said that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is not an unbiased government body “as many people imagine it should be to represent people as a public entity.”
“The commission is controlled by utility interests,” he said. “In the history of the commission, that goes back to when Jimmy Carter was president, the commission has only denied two permits.”
Legerton spoke to the commissioners on Monday, and said that he is still going to seek a public hearing in Robeson County so that people can learn about what the project means.
“The reason pipelines are placed in rural areas is because many officials do not question and study what is being proposed,” he said.
The Final Environmental Impact Statement is available for download on the FERC website.
Bob Shiles can be reached at 910-416-5165. The Associated Press contributed to this report.