Aug. 2—When Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., announced last week that he was backing a climate spending package sought for months by Democrats, he noted that Democrat leadership had agreed to advance pipeline permitting reform.
Now, Manchin's office has confirmed what many had already suspected — that the Mountain Valley Pipeline was part of the deal.
Manchin's office announced late Monday afternoon that completion of the 303-mile pipeline spanning 11 counties in West Virginia from the northwestern part of the state to Virginia is part of a permitting package that he said party leaders had committed to passing by the end of September.
The Mountain Valley Pipeline has been delayed for years by legal and regulatory challenges, driving up project costs and fueling doubts that it would ever be completed.
But the permitting provisions to come, Manchin's office said, would require relevant agencies to take all actions needed to permit the construction and operation of the 42-inch-diameter pipeline and give the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia circuit jurisdiction over any further litigation.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court has set back the project in key rulings siding with environmentalist opponents of the pipeline project.
In January, the 4th Circuit invalidated federal approval for the pipeline to cross the Jefferson National Forest. The following month, the court struck down a conclusion by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that constructing the pipeline is unlikely to jeopardize endangered species. That move prompted the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to commit to withholding a key water discharging permit until there is a valid conclusion on the project's effects on potentially threatened species.
The pipeline is slated to provide up to 2 billion cubic feet per day of natural gas from the Marcellus and Utica shale formations to markets in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeastern regions of the country. It would cross Wetzel, Harrison, Doddridge, Lewis, Braxton, Webster, Nicholas, Greenbrier, Fayette, Summers and Monroe counties in West Virginia.
Manchin's office said in a document it released Monday that the pipeline would lower energy prices at home and "backfill our allies around the world currently relying on Vladimir Putin and other dictators."
The senator's office cited a Mountain Valley Pipeline estimate that the project is 94% complete. Opponents of the pipeline have pointed out that the most recent estimates from Mountain Valley Pipeline LLC, the joint venture behind the project, that final restoration is only 56% complete.
Completion would allow a planned extension of the pipeline into North Carolina to proceed after Virginia environmental regulators denied an air quality permit for the extension.
The Virginia State Air Pollution Control Board, composed of governor-appointed citizens, said the proposed permit to build a compressor station in Pittsylvania County did not meet fair-treatment requirements of state environmental justice law.
In June, Mountain Valley asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for a four-year extension of time, until October 2026, to finish the project and place it into service. The request underscored just how difficult progress has been for the project.
Announced in 2014, the pipeline originally was scheduled for completion by the end of 2018 at a cost of $3.5 billion. Equitrans Midstream Corp., the project's Canonsburg, Pennsylvania-based lead developer, announced in May that the estimated cost had risen $400 million, to $6.6 billion. The company pushed back the targeted in-service date to the second half of 2023.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission granted the project a two-year extension in October 2020, when the commission's original 2017 order requiring the pipeline to be built and in service was to expire. That two-year extension runs out Oct. 13.
Mountain Valley asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to approve its requested extension by Aug. 8.
Environmentalists have decried the Mountain Valley Pipeline's effects on water and soil quality, as well as its potential greenhouse gas emissions.
Equitrans has estimated that total greenhouse gas emissions would amount to 48 million to 57 million metric tons per year, the equivalent of roughly 13 coal plants and 11 million passenger cars.
The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection released a consent order last year requiring Mountain Valley to pay a $303,000 fine for violating permits by failing to control erosion and sediment-laden water, mostly for violations documented in 2019. That penalty followed a $266,000 fine from the state in 2019 for similar erosion and water contamination issues.
The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality fined Mountain Valley $2.15 million in 2019, resolving a lawsuit the department and Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring had filed alleging the company violated a previously issued water quality certification by not controlling sediment and stormwater runoff.
"Here in Appalachia, we refuse to be sacrificed for political gain or used as concessions to the fossil fuel industry in this so-called deal," Grace Tuttle of the Protect Our Water, Heritage, Rights, an interstate coalition of people and groups from West Virginia and Virginia organized against the Mountain Valley Pipeline, said in a statement last week.
The lingering legal limbo has disheartened project proponents who have placed a greater premium on increasing Appalachia's gas outflow capacity.
Mountain Valley has said annual property taxes from the pipeline would exceed $16 million in West Virginia, representing up to 17% of the general fund revenue in the 11 West Virginia counties it would transport gas through.
Other permitting reforms proposed by Manchin include the president designating and prioritizing projects of strategic national importance and setting a maximum two-year timeline for reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act governing environmental examinations of proposed federal actions.
A proponent of an "all of the above" energy policy, Manchin also aims to require what his office called a "balanced list" of project types, including fossil fuels, carbon capture and storage, critical minerals, nuclear, hydrogen, electric transmission and renewables.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said the full Senate will consider the Inflation Reduction Act preceding permitting reform under his agreement with Manchin, President Joe Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., this week.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., an opponent of the Inflation Reduction Act, called on Democrats in a statement Monday evening to pass permitting reform first, dismissing the former as a "partisan exercise."
The budget reconciliation package contains $369 billion in climate and clean energy spending, would encourage more stringent Internal Revenue Service tax enforcement and cap Medicare patients' out-of-pocket costs at $2,000 a year.
Budget reconciliation packages are so named because they allow committees to change spending amounts in a fast-track process requiring only a simple majority to pass Congress.
Unlike the budget bill, the permitting reforms would require 60 votes in the Senate, including Republican support, to become law.
Manchin had long been a critical holdout vote in a Senate evenly divided between Democrat and Republican caucuses, given Republicans' united opposition to budget reconciliation proposals.
Mike Tony covers energy and the environment. He can be reached at 304-348-1236 or mtony@hdmediallc
.com. Follow @Mike__Tony on Twitter.
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