Statewide environmental news roundup – July 2023 (Part I)

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A contributed perspectives piece by the Climate Action Alliance of the Valley (CAAV)

Editor’s Note: This is the latest installment of a regular series of contributed news roundups about statewide environmental and energy news. This piece highlights, with links to further coverage in various media outlets, recent environmental news stories of significance to Virginia, with a focus on energy and the environment. This special edition provides updates to June’s top two stories: Mountain Valley Pipeline approval and Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) withdrawal. As the updates suggest, neither of these stories are over….

Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP)

The “Deal” and Initial Reaction

This pipeline was snarled in court. Then Congress stepped in.” The Chesapeake Climate Action Network’s Director declared President Biden’s signing of the debt ceiling bill “will forever stain his legacy on climate and environmental justice … [as] the president who built the Mountain Valley Pipeline [MVP]. The president who locked in new fossil fuel infrastructure for decades to come at the most pivotal point in our climate journey. The president who stomped on more than half a century of bedrock environmental protections as a political favor.”

Permits Issued, MVP Actions, and More Reactions

“A final permit issued [June 23] may be enough to get the … [MVP] across the remaining rivers, streams and wetlands that have long blocked the project’s path to completion. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers gave its approval for construction through hundreds of water bodies in Southwest Virginia and West Virginia, as it was required to do by a recently passed federal law that fast-tracks the controversial project.” In a press release, the non-profit Appalachian Voices decried the Corps action, describing the enabling legislation as “’unprecedented — and unconscionable — congressional interference [that] has placed Virginia and West Virginia communities and waterways at risk by forcing agencies to issue … [MVP’s] permits.’”

Questions linger over pipe integrity oversight as … [MVP] water crossing work nears.” Despite the pipe integrity concerns raised over pipe that has been “stored” outdoors for years, MVP “developers defend[ed] not remediating pipe offsite.” Construction resumed, and the company said, prior to issuance of two appeals court injunctions (see below), that the MVP “could carry natural gas as soon as this winter.”

A landowner, some of whose property was seized by MVP developers through eminent domain, and who achieved some fame as a protestor/tree sitter, is “despondent about the federal debt deal that cleared a path for the long-stalled pipeline project to be completed.” A Virginia energy blogger suggested that “stopping the MVP in court just got a heck of a lot harder….” She argued that the project never made economic sense and moving forward still doesn’t, adding: “Pulling the plug on MVP now would avoid not only the cost of completing the pipeline, but also the cost of fixing leaks, erosion damage and other problems critics believe are inevitable given the terrain and geology. That would be a much better result for everyone concerned than completing the pipeline to serve a market that doesn’t exist – a Pyrrhic victory if there ever was one.” FERC, however, ordered that the MVP can proceed with “all construction activities.” A West Virginia newspaper published a report on the “economic need for Mountain Valley Pipeline [continues to be] questioned”, noting that “although Congress may have taken care of the legality of the … [MVP], the economics of the project for years to come are out of its hands.”

More Lawsuits to Challenge the New Law

Recent filings by environmental groups argue that the law is unconstitutional, that Congress “overstepped its authority,” and that its action “violates the separation of powers between the legislative and judicial branches.” “Proving it, however, may be another matter,” wrote the Roanoke Times. Five Virginia Representatives filed an amicus brief in support of the lawsuit, arguing that “short-circuiting ongoing litigation to greenlight the MVP … is plainly contrary to the public interest.” A Federal appeals court panel stayed construction in the Jefferson National Forest “while it considers arguments that Congress violated the separation of powers doctrine” despite MVP calls for dismissal of the suit.

Numerous environmental groups continue to raise legal challenges “because it’s too dangerous not to.” The same appeals court panel “granted a [second] stay of construction activity on the Mountain Valley Pipeline, saying a dispute over the project’s impact on endangered species must be resolved before work can continue…. Environmental groups said they expect the order, issued by a three-judge panel of the Richmond-based 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, will halt all construction activity on the 303-mile, 42-inch-diameter natural gas pipeline through Virginia and West Virginia until their case against the pipeline is decided.”

Several lawmakers excoriated a federal appeals court ruling … granting a coalition of environmental groups’ request to block construction of” the MVP. A “West Virginia [legislator] … [called] for [the] pipeline developer to ‘ignore the 4th circuit and continue as scheduled’ constructing [the] pipeline.” The MVP developer “said the latest delay threatens its ability to complete construction by the end of this year [adding,] ‘We are evaluating all legal options, which include filing an emergency appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court …’.” The developer also “said it ‘will refrain from new forward-construction activities while resolving the legal challenges.’”

MVP Southgate Extension in North Carolina

In North Carolina, the “fate of [the] Mountain Valley Pipeline’s North Carolina extension [is] still unclear…. The Southgate project has drawn opposition from two local governments and numerous elected officials, many of them Republicans, who argue it interferes with private property rights and local tourism efforts. Slated to skirt the Haw River, cross the Dan River, and impact dozens of their tributaries, the pipeline extension has also been twice denied a necessary water quality permit from the state Department of Environmental Quality and has yet to reapply. Southgate also needs reapproval from [FERC]….” “The Mountain Valley Pipeline has requested an extension of its Certificate of Public Convenience of Necessity [that] is necessary for construction of the MVP Southgate pipelinefrom southern Virginia into northwestern North Carolina. Congresswoman Jennifer McClellan of Virginia’s District 4 sent a letter [June 29] to … [the] FERC … Chairman … urging the agency to lengthen the public comment period for the …MVP … requested extension.” Two North Carolina reporters provided historical details about the Southgate project and asked “Where do politicians stand?” regarding the extension request. “The deadline for public comment on the project is 5 p.m. on July 24.”

Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI)

Following the Virginia Air Pollution Control Board’s decision to approve the state’s withdrawal from RGGI, a northwest Virginia resident wrote that the Board should “respect air quality”, noting that “RGGI has been good for our budget, our air, and our health.” RGGI “generated over $650 million for the state, helping strapped Virginians make upgrades to their homes and allowing communities to gird their defenses against rising seas and flooding.”

The Governor finished his formal review of the final regulation to withdraw from RGGI; official confirmation is set for publication in the Federal Register on July 31, followed by a public comment period ending August 30. “The regulation calls for Virginia to leave the market Dec. 31, which is the end of the state’s current three-year contract to participate in it.… The publication of the regulation in the Virginia Register is when environmental groups like the Southern Environmental Law Center say a legal challenge of the withdrawal could be filed. A broad group of critics have said that withdrawing Virginia through regulatory changes is illegal and that legislation is needed.

Home weatherization experts, environmentalists and legal analysts say that a cutoff in funds could reverse progress across the Commonwealth.” A VCU researcher and “expert in sustainability-focused energy policy [said]: ‘We have lost one of the more important tools in our toolbox.’”

Home weatherization groups, including Community Housing Partners (CHP) are seeking alternative funding sources and reassessing its staffing levels, despite evidence of continuing need for its services, especially among disadvantaged Virginians. (CHP has a presence in Harrisonburg and is working to perform energy efficiency upgrades, such as those for the Mosby Heights neighborhood.)

An “independent environmental consultant who served on the Virginia Air Pollution Control Board 2014‑2018” described the “RGGI repeal effort [as] “shortsighted [and leaving] Virginians in harm’s way, “asserting that RGGI’s track record clearly demonstrates we need not choose between clean air, affordable electricity and a strong economy.”

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The Climate Action Alliance of the Valley (CAAV) is a non-profit, grassroots group in the Central Shenandoah Valley that educates legislators and the public about the implications of the Earth’s worsening climate crisis.

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