Atlantic Coast Pipeline: A Boon or Bust?

Duke Energy believes that North Carolina needs the Atlantic Coast Pipeline to save money and meet growing energy needs. Opponents believe that we can meet growing demands with renewable energy, and this pipeline will not save anyone any money.

What’s the story? Dominion and Duke Energy are behind the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a 600 mile, $5.5 billion pipeline that would service 4.5 million homes through West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina. Duke Energy and Dominion customers would foot a big chunk of the bill for building the pipeline. Opponents say it will destroy pristine wildlife habitats and is an environmental justice issue - running through predominantly African-American and Native American communities.

To pipeline or not to pipeline? Utility companies say we need the pipeline, opponents say we don’t need that much, and what we do need can be met with renewables.

Pipelines must prove there is enough demand for the pretty obvious reason that utility companies could overbuild and then force customers to pay for energy they don’t need (See “monopoly”). The pipeline says they’ve got the numbers to prove it: increased population growth, increased energy demand, and contracts with subsidiaries. However, environmental groups say “not so fast” - those subsidiary contracts are with Duke Energy...the same company that is building the pipeline. Furthermore, Duke Energy recently released energy outlooks, saying “huh, guess people aren’t using as much energy as we thought they would.” NCWARN and Sierra Club both estimate that North Carolina could meet their growing energy using current infrastructure and investing in solar energy, energy saving programs and wind

How many jobs will it create? A lot according to the pipeline, not that many according to opponents.

FERC estimates that 20 permanent full-time jobs will be created in North Carolina to support the pipeline. Dominion Energy believes that the pipeline would generate $377 million in energy cost savings for consumers, 2,200 jobs, and $30 million in state income per year. But opponents believe those estimates are, again, pretty optimistic because the jobs are not actually for the pipeline. The jobs would be a result of businesses saving money on energy and then spending all of this newly-saved money on hiring people. Opponents are suspicious because it’s reasonable to think that businesses will spend money on things like buying stuff, purchasing upgrades or improvements, or distributing money to shareholders or investors - meaning that jobs number wouldn’t materialize. Opponents are also suspicious that these customers will save money in the first place: the cost-saving estimates by Dominion Energy rely heavily on gas prices diverging in the future, and their analysis may not even include the cost of building the pipeline. It’s impossible to recreate the numbers that Dominion came up with, though, because the data they used is not publicly available. Eastern North Carolina residents say they desperately need the economic boost. Sadly, the state legislature banned wind energy projects in June after two were planning on moving to Eastern North Carolina. Opponents also say it will cost tourism jobs in Virginia, cost property value losses of up to $80 million for houses around the pipeline, could leak into rivers that it passes underneath, and will destroy pristine wildlife habitat in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Monangahela National Forest, and the George Washington National Forest.

Why don’t they just build clean energy projects instead of pipeline projects? There’s a strong incentive to build expensive projects.

The North Carolina Utilities Commission guarantees Duke Energy a return on the investment spent on infrastructure, but not on other business expenses like salaries, and not on the energy produced. Duke Energy is asking for a 14 percent rate of return from captive ratepayers (keyword captive). Opponents estimate that customers of Dominion Energy will likely have to pay around $2 billion to cover the pipeline’s construction.

What can people do to stop the pipeline? The horse might have already left the barn.

If you’re anti-pipeline, it’s not looking good. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and the U.S. Forest Service issued two key permits that the pipeline needs to move forward, but they have to pick up more before they can start construction, including permits from the Virginia, West Virginia, and North Carolina Departments of Environmental Quality. Virginia said if the Army Corps of Engineers is ok with it, they are ok with it. West Virginia said they aren’t even bothering with permits for the Mountain Valley Pipeline, so it’s possible they’ll say the same about the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. North Carolina might be the only one holding up the show, but Dominion feels confident they will have all three permits by mid-December. Meanwhile, FERC’s permit can be challenged in a Federal Court of Appeals, but FERC has to actually give the green light in order for the challenge to even go to court. The Sierra Club claims that FERC has been intentionally slow-walking their responses to these challenges, and then allowing the pipeline companies to start construction before any appeal is heard (if it ever is). Energy lobbyists were “giddy” following Trump’s two FERC picks, so it’s unlikely FERC would grant any favors to environmentalists or property rights advocates. Nonetheless, a coalition is suing FERC, claiming that they granted a permit to the pipeline without sufficient demand. Don’t forget that the heads of most federal agencies are either appointed directly by the president, or by an appointee of the president.