E&E News: May 7, 2020

Ads and petitions target Dominion's Atlantic Coast project

By Arianna Skibell, E&E News

A large coalition of Virginia residents and national advocacy groups sent a message yesterday to Dominion Energy Inc.: Abandon the Atlantic Coast pipeline.

The pushback follows Dominion CEO Thomas Farrell saying he expects the project, owned by units of Dominion and Duke Energy Corp., to be ready for business in early 2022.

“We can maintain the existing schedule and cost estimates, so long as we can take advantage of the November 2020 through March 2021 tree-felling season,” he told analysts after Dominion released its first-quarter earnings this week.

Ahead of the energy giant’s annual shareholder meeting, nearly 80 organizations launched an ad campaign and thousands of individuals signed on to two petitions urging the company to cancel the $8 billion pipeline, the nation’s most expensive.

“Dominion Energy’s stubborn push to continue building the Atlantic Coast Pipeline despite ballooning costs, legal and permitting challenges, and a seismic shift in Virginia’s energy landscape betrays its duty to shareholders,” Brennan Gilmore, executive director of the nonprofit Clean Virginia, said in a statement. “The responsible thing — for Virginians and shareholders alike — is for Dominion to shutter the project before another tree is felled.”

The pipeline has been held up for years by state, environmental and regulatory hurdles, which Farrell said he expects the pipeline to soon clear. But as a growing number of states and territories pursue aggressive clean energy goals to curb the impacts of climate change, the embattled Atlantic Coast pipeline is emblematic of a larger national question about whether investment in new natural gas infrastructure still makes sense.

In a full-page ad in the Richmond Times-Dispatch and a half-page ad in The Washington Post, the coalition says the pipeline still faces a battle, including getting eight additional permits. Its primary permit is under review by U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, the ad states.

“New legislation and legal challenges have rendered the completion of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline unrealistic,” the ad says. “It’s time Dominion Energy walks away from the project for good.”

The coalition includes the Alliance for Affordable Energy, the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, the Hip Hop Caucus, the Indigenous Environmental Network, the Virginia League of Conservation Voters, 350.org and others.

Separately, 2,200 Virginia residents urged Farrell in a petition to walk away from the pipeline for the financial health of his company. Another petition, which received 1,800 signatures, targeted Dominion shareholders and argued that the pipeline “no longer makes economic sense, even based on Dominion Energy’s own logic” and that “continuing to pursue this project is fiscally irresponsible.”

Dominion spokeswoman Ann Nallo said the company disagrees with the coalition’s message, “as do tens of thousands of others across the region.”

“As Dominion Energy and Duke Energy have made clear in recent days, natural gas will continue to play a critical role in our company plans for reaching net zero in the coming decades. One of the main purposes of the ACP is to move our region from coal to cleaner natural gas and renewables,” she said in an email. “The project will bring many environmental and economic benefits to the region and we are completely committed to its completion.”

Atlantic Coast, which is slated to run from West Virginia east through Virginia and into North Carolina, was announced in the fall of 2014, with an estimated price tag of $4.5 billion.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approved the project in 2017, and in the ensuing years the cost has ballooned to $8 billion. The cost increase — in combination with other holdups like complicated lawsuits and construction delays — has led financial analysts to downgrade the pipeline as an investment.

In March, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) enacted the sweeping Clean Economy Act, Virginia’s landmark clean energy law, which would require Dominion to reach net-zero emissions by 2045, further casting doubt on the necessity of the proposed 600-mile-long gas line.

Additionally, the Virginia General Assembly pushed through a measure that requires a utility to prove new infrastructure is necessary for reliability and is the least-cost way to meet electricity demands before it can recoup the costs from its captive ratepayers. With the state headed toward renewable integration, the law could spell additional trouble for the project (Energywire, April 24).

In Dominion’s recent blueprint for its energy future, the company made no mention of the pipeline. A spokesperson said the pipeline will be addressed in the utility’s upcoming fuel cost review (Energywire, May 5).