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Green groups seek to head off legislation to advance Atlantic Coast pipeline

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Green groups seek to head off legislation to advance Atlantic Coast pipeline

A group of 52 environmental organizations is working to head off the possibility of federal legislation that could help Dominion Energy Inc. free the Atlantic Coast pipeline from some of the legal tangles that have blocked construction.

The 600-mile, 1.5 Bcf/d natural gas pipeline project, intended to move Appalachian gas to mid-Atlantic markets, has been stalled by a series of legal setbacks, including a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit that struck down federal authorizations allowing the pipeline to cross the Appalachian Trail and national forests.

Dominion, the lead developer, has emphasized its plans to appeal that decision to the U.S. Supreme Court before the end of the second quarter and has warned that the 4th Circuit finding could present "an impregnable barrier" for pipeline construction from Maine to Georgia. It has expressed confidence that the U.S. solicitor general would join in that challenge.

But the company also has indicated it was weighing legislative and administrative steps to get the project back on track.

"We understand that Dominion Energy is pressuring some members of Congress to consider legislation that would make it easier to build the [pipeline] along the developers' preferred route," the environmental groups wrote in a May 16 letter to U.S. Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, both Virginia Democrats.

"Such legislation would be inappropriate given the ongoing review of the project in agencies and the courts," they said, noting that federal courts or agencies have vacated, suspended or stayed seven required federal permits, and that a challenge is pending to the certificate authorization granted by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

"A bill like this could circumvent the normal regulatory process that determines where pipelines should be located and set the troubling precedent that developers can call on Congress to fix permitting problems for controversial projects that run afoul of the law," they added.

They argued that until questions about the need for the project are resolved, Congress should not jeopardize "sensitive, scenic and treasured natural resources, such as the Appalachian Trail and the Blue Ridge Parkway."

Dominion declined to comment on the letter or potential legislation. "I cannot provide any information," spokesman Karl Neddenien said May 20 in an email.

Environmental advocates said they had heard about efforts in the context of large appropriations measures at the end of 2018 and early 2019 to attach a measure that would allow the pipeline to cross the Appalachian Trail and the Blue Ridge Parkway.

In addition to the holdup over the Appalachian Trail crossing, the Atlantic Coast project is awaiting a 4th Circuit decision in a key case involving authorizations related to sensitive species. Oral argument in that case was held May 9, and a stay is in place affecting much of the route pending that litigation.

Further, the Trump administration is working to restore a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nationwide Permit 12 allowing for water crossings, following adverse court actions. West Virginia regulators April 24 updated conditions for federal water crossing permits, in a move that could bolster prospects for those sidelined permits for the Mountain Valley and Atlantic Coast pipelines. But getting to final Army Corps permits for the two projects could still entail a lengthy process involving signoff by the Army Corps and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. And further challenges on that issue are possible in the 4th Circuit.

In February, Dominion pushed back its partial in-service target for Atlantic Coast to late 2020 and full in-service to early 2021. The project, which will be operated by Dominion, is a joint venture of Dominion, Duke Energy Corp., Southern Co. and Duke's Piedmont Natural Gas Co. Inc.