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Mountain Valley Pipeline limits work in wildlife areas to counter lawsuit

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Mountain Valley Pipeline limits work in wildlife areas to counter lawsuit

Mountain Valley Pipeline LLC voluntarily suspended tree clearing and other construction work on its 2-Bcf/d natural gas pipeline project in places where such activities could harm federally protected wildlife or degrade wildlife habitat, after environmental groups sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over authorizations for the project.

Mountain Valley said it took the action after discussions with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the Fish and Wildlife Service over the last few months. The voluntary suspension will cover all remaining project activities that could "take," meaning harm or kill, animals on federal lists of threatened and endangered species. These activities include practices being evaluated by the Fish and Wildlife Service for potential effects. Mountain Valley, which has cleared most of the pipeline right of way, said it would not restart these activities until the federal agencies are satisfied.

"This conservative approach ensures that Mountain Valley's activities pose no risk to listed species or proposed critical habitat," the pipeline developer said in an Aug. 15 letter to FERC.

Mountain Valley told FERC it has already adopted some measures and designed the comprehensive protective plan it will now put in place, but that it submitted the final version to the agencies after an Aug. 12 letter from the Sierra Club to the Fish and Wildlife Service that had requested a stay of documents that had permitted pipeline construction. The company said the Sierra Club letter contained "a number of factual inaccuracies, which suggests Sierra Club has incomplete information." Mountain Valley copied Sierra Club on its letter to FERC and invited the group to talks about wildlife issues "outside of the judicial process."

Katie Bays, co-founder of the research firm Sandhill Strategy LLC, said the proposed construction measures would likely not cause serious delays for the pipeline. In a note to clients, she called the voluntary suspension a "clever move."

"The voluntary suspension has a very specific benefit for MVP — it eliminates the 'irreparable harm' argument which the Sierra Club must make in the [U.S. Appeals Court for the] Fourth Circuit in order to halt construction," Bays said. "The Fourth Circuit is a friendly court for environmental groups, and the scope of a preliminary injunction could have been broad but pre-empting the court with the voluntary halt to construction, we believe, allows MVP to minimize the impact of the [Sierra Club] lawsuit."

On Aug. 12, the Sierra Club and other environmental groups sued the Fish and Wildlife Service over a biological opinion and incidental take statement that allowed Mountain Valley to proceed with the pipeline project. The Mountain Valley pipeline, which would move gas from Appalachia to East Coast markets and pipeline connections, is a joint venture of EQM Midstream Partners LP, NextEra Energy Inc., Consolidated Edison Inc., AltaGas Ltd. and RGC Resources Inc.

In its Aug. 15 letter, Mountain Valley told FERC it has cleared, graded and trenched a majority of the 303-mile pipeline right of way. Tree felling has been completed except for a 500-foot section of the project. About 280 miles of the right of way have been mechanically processed, and about 272 miles have been graded. Mountain Valley said it has completed pipe welding across 256 miles and has trenched 249 miles.

In the new plan, Mountain Valley said it would not clear vegetation that could be habitat for the Indiana bat or the northern long-eared bat. (FERC docket CP16-10)