By Frank Bass
A trio of utility giants building a natural gas pipeline that would cut across the Appalachian Trail has spent more than $109 million lobbying federal lawmakers and officials since the $7.8 billion project was unveiled five years ago, according to a MapLight analysis.
The Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a 600-mile-long project that has been compared to the Dakota Access Pipeline because of its stiff opposition from Native and local communities, would bisect the fabled trail, as well as the Blue Ridge Parkway and a pair of national forests.
Appeals courts have thrown out seven separate permits for the project, with sentiment running so high that one judge wrote an opinion using a quote from The Lorax to blast the U.S. Forest Service for its failure “to speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.” Despite the setbacks, the utilities have continued to press their case, hoping the rulings can be overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court or Congress. The companies ― Dominion Energy, Duke Energy, and Southern Co. ― have described the Atlantic Coast Pipeline as “a critical infrastructure project that will strengthen the economic vitality, environmental health, and energy security of the Mid-Atlantic region.” The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which separately has spent almost $361 million lobbying since the project was announced, estimates economic losses of $91.9 billion and 730,000 lost jobs if the pipeline isn’t built.
The battle over the pipeline highlights the shifting landscape for power companies, which have been presenting natural gas as an energy source that can serve as a bridge fuel during the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources, even while the effects of climate change become more apparent. The Atlantic Coast Pipeline would transfer as much as 1.5 billion cubic feet of gas daily from West Virginia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania shale fields to facilities in Virginia and North Carolina.
Opponents, however, warn that a pipeline leak or rupture would present potentially calamitous risks for large parts of Appalachia and add the pollution equivalent of 14 million additional cars. The project also has drawn criticism for its use of eminent domain to acquire land for the pipeline and its route, which would include a terminus in Robeson County, N.C., home to the largest Native tribe east of the Mississippi River.
“This isn’t just a bad idea,” Jonathan Jarvis, former National Park Service director, wrote in a Politico opinion piece last month. “It’s an unprecedented one.”
The consortium attempting to build the pipeline includes three of the most politically potent utilities in the nation; all are part of the Fortune 500. Dominion, which has a 48 percent stake in the project, is a Richmond, Va.-based monopoly that exerts legendary control over Virginia politics. The company is the largest corporate campaign donor in the state and gave at least $10 million to Virginia political campaigns between 1998 and 2018, according to a Food & Water Watch study. Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, took office in 2018 while holding as much as $50,000 of the company’s stock. A 2018 Virginia Senate bill that would have prevented public service companies from making campaign contributions was soundly defeated in committee.
Since the project’s inception in 2014, Dominion has spent more than $11.8 million lobbying federal lawmakers and agencies. Company lobbyists reported at least 86 instances of attempts to influence pipeline policy. More than two dozen lobbying reports included specific references to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline project.
The company has sought bipartisan support in the nation’s capital. Attorney General William Barr served on Dominion’s board for a decade and owned $2.8 million of its stock in December 201. Earlier this summer, Solicitor General Noel Francisco ― the fourth-highest ranking person in the U.S. Justice Department ― asked the Supreme Court for extra time to prepare a Trump administration appeal on behalf of the pipeline owners. The company also spent more than $2.7 million for services from SKDKnickerbocker, a consulting and public relations firm whose managing director, Anita Dunn, is a top adviser for the Democratic presidential campaign of former Vice President Joe Biden.
Duke, which has a 47 percent stake in the project, has spent more than $31 million lobbying since mid-2014. The Charlotte, N.C.-based monopoly is almost as politically powerful in its home state as Dominion is in Virginia. Former Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican, worked for Duke for 28 years before winning his first statewide race in 2012. Between 2014 and 2018, the company gave more than $3.9 million to the Republican Governors Association; NC WARN, a 30-year-old nonprofit that describes its mission as “watch-dogging Duke Energy practices and building people power for a swift North Carolina transition to clean, renewable, and affordable power generation,” estimates the company spends roughly $80 million annually to shape public opinion. The nonprofit teamed up with Friends of the Earth in November to petition the North Carolina Utilities Commission to prevent Duke from using customer revenues for “pervasive influence spending.”
Southern Co., which owns 5 percent of the project, has been tied closely to the Trump administration. The Atlanta-based utility, whose chief executive has cast doubt on the role people play in climate change, gave $100,000 to the president’s inaugural fund and $1 million to America First Policies, a pro-Trump “dark money” nonprofit criticized for racist, sexist, homophobic, and anti-Muslim views expressed by its staff.
The company has spent more than $66 million on lobbying since mid-2014.
Although the three companies have touted a poll claiming public support for the project, a wide range of people and organizations have united to stop the pipeline. The Lewisburg, W.Va.-based Appalachian Mountains Advocates, a nonprofit, argued that the pipeline would “provide economic incentive to increase destructive fracking throughout Appalachia.”
The pipeline also has drawn opposition in Virginia. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which is responsible for regulating pipelines, received almost 6,000 public comments when it solicited input on the project in 2015. More than one-third of the comments originated from Nelson County, a suburb of Charlottesville, Va., and 99 percent of the comments expressed concerns about the pipeline’s impact on health, water, and forests.
A 2017 study partially funded by Friends of Nelson, a local nonprofit that opposes the project, raised the specter of landslides posing hazards to people, property, and waterways. The construction would require a 125-foot-wide strip of land across roughly 2,700 private parcels of land, much of it running through steep, mountainous terrain.
Buckingham County, Va., where a massive compressor station would release toxic compounds into the air near a plantation-era community that was settled by freed blacks after the Civil War, also has emerged as a high-profile battleground. A University of Virginia study found 85 percent of residents living within a 1.1-mile radius of the compressor station are black. The Virginia Advisory Council on Environmental Justice called for a moratorium on the pipeline work in August 2018 until the social ramifications of the project could be investigated.
A spokeswoman for the governor said earlier this year that Northam hopes the pipeline owners will “listen and respond to the concerns of this important historic community and act as a good neighbor.” “The legacy of placing toxic facilities in places where they disproportionately affect poor communities of color is unjust and unacceptable and needs acute examination,” Friends of Buckingham, a community organization opposing the pipeline, wrote in a December 2018 petition to the State Air Pollution Control Board. “It is not right to look the other way while this continues.”
Former Vice President Al Gore was blunter, calling the location “a reckless, racist ripoff.”
Racial issues have emerged in North Carolina, as well. Members of the Lumbee Tribe, the largest non-reservation tribe in the nation, argued they weren’t consulted about potential environmental impacts of the pipeline, such as its potential routing over unmarked ancestral graves. The National Congress of American Indians, which said as many as two dozen tribes could be affected by the pipeline, passed a resolution in June 2018 citing “gross neglect of the trust relationship by the responsible federal agency” and called for a re-examination of the pipeline’s impact on historic sites.
The pipeline’s impact on current businesses also has drawn criticism. The consortium attempted to claim part of a 50-acre distillery owned by Rep. Denver Riggleman, a Virginia Republican. While few landowners have the clout of a federal lawmaker, pipeline opponents have cobbled together a coalition of 51 organizations known as the Allegheny-Blue Ridge Alliance “to work to limit the inevitable environmental damage.” “It is a David and Goliath story,” one landowner told Energy News, “and David is getting some good shots in here.”