The Atlantic Coast Pipeline is a proposed, 600 mile infrastructure project that, if completed, will transport natural gas from West Virginia shale fields through Virginia and into North Carolina. The pipeline’s final 200 miles go through eastern North Carolina – from Halifax to Robeson Counties.
It’s been in the works for thee years and is primarily a partnership between Virginia Based Dominion Energy, Southern Company Gas of Atlanta, and Duke Energy, headquartered in Charlotte.
The pipeline’s supporters say it will provide jobs, put a dent in the nation’s $1 trillion infrastructure “to-do” list, and bring jobs to an economically depressed region. Its critics say it will put residents and the environment in peril. Chris Thomas has more.
On May 21, 2014 –Marvin Winstead got something that changed his life.
“I’m sitting here minding my own business when one day a letter shows up from a company, telling me that my property is identified as being in the corridor of a proposed, natural gas pipeline.”
He did not receive the news well.
“It was infuriating. It’s saying, in their letter, what a big company they have. They were saying, as far as I was concerned, they were trying to intimidate me. ‘We’re a great, big company. We got the biggest this and the biggest that and so many billions. You know, we’re the big corporate bully and you’re the little guy we’re going to push around. That’s how it made me feel.”
Winstead is a farmer and Nash County Native. With the pipeline tunneling his property, he’s concerned about the impact it will have on his crops and the general safety of his community.
“If there is ever a leakage problem with that pipeline, if there’s ever an explosion, those people will be, you know, the potential is their home will be blown away and if they’re home, they’ll be blown away with it.”
Winstead helped organize a three county walk in November to oppose the project that included about 40 people.
Now he and an estimate 50-60 people are about to embark on a longer trek – 200 miles along the entire length of the pipeline in North Carolina. Organized by Walk to Protect Our People and the Places We Live (or APPL). The journey begin Saturday, March 4.
“It will originate at the state line, as the pipeline crosses from Virginia into North Carolina…and over the course of two weeks, they will literally be walking in very close proximity – it’s not always possible to walk right on top of where the pipeline would go – but where roads are parallel with…the proposed pipeline, they will be walking those roads from the beginning point at the Virginia Line to the termination line at Pembroke.”
The Atlantic Coast Pipeline has garnered a great deal of economic and political support – from The White House and Capitol Hill. It’s among President Trump’s highest infrastructure priorities and a letter of support for the pipeline was signed by North Carolina’s two Senators and four Congressional Representatives.
There’s also the prospect of developing a stronger, economic infrastructure through the pipeline’s presence. Several economic development organizations have thrown their support behind the project for that reason, including North Carolina Southeast led by its President Steve Yost.
“Energy is one of the largest cost components of business development and job creation and right now, the cost of energy is a competitive advantage for the United States and thus it’s a competitive advantage for us.”
He said the region has missed out on opportunities to host factories with skilled labor jobs at higher wages because the only pipeline in the state is more than a hundred miles away, west of Charlotte. He cited a particular instance about a year-and-a-half ago – though he said he couldn’t disclose the name of the other parties involved.
“Had they come here, had they been able to get that level of gas service, they would have invested several hundred million dollars and would have created, probably, an excess of 200 jobs.”
Those prospects took another step toward realization on Dec. 30, 2016, when it hit a major milestone by getting the green light from the Federal Energy Regulatory Committee (or FERC).
“We got the Draft Environmental Impact Statement from the government.”
Tammie McGee is a spokesperson for Duke Energy.
“And just recently over the past couple of weeks, the Federal (Energy) Regulatory Agency out of D.C. came and held public comment sessions in several counties along the pipeline’s route. So the public could come in and give their comment and respond to the environmental draft.”
McGee says environmental studies were exhaustive, citing thousands of pages worth of study reviewed by government officials. Like many pipeline advocates, she says it’s the best way to transport the company’s product since they are more direct.
“Pipelines are safer than highway rails or waterborne transport for natural gas.”
Pipeline opponents like Steve Norris remain unmoved.
“I think it is a catastrophe. It’s a proposed catastrophe. Of course, they haven’t built it and if we have our way, it’s never going to get built.”
Norris lives in Asheville but is a member of APPL and has been working with local organizers like Winstead in putting the walk together. He said his main motivator in opposing the pipeline is the long term impact it could have on the environment.
In their synopsis of the report, FERC mentioned there would be “temporary and permanent impacts on the environment, and would also result in some adverse effects” – singling out wetlands and other bodies of water.
If the pipeline is built, the natural gas will be extracted from West Virginia shale in a process called “fracking” – a controversial method that releases methane into the atmosphere through extraction and use. Methane is the second most common greenhouse gas emitted into the atmosphere, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“If the accumulation of greenhouse gases keeps continuing at the pace it’s going right now and if we don’t do something about that, then the frequency of storms like Hurricane Matthew, of wildfires – like those that burned 70,000 acres of in Western North Carolina and East Tennessee in the fall – you know, the frequency of those fires is going to increase.”
Norris said he’s skeptical about the project’s economic prospects as well. The $5 billion pipeline is expected to directly create less than 60, permanent jobs. He’s also wondering where the estimated 1.5 billion cubic feet of natural gas will ultimately end up if the pipeline is completed – especially since natural gas prices dropped 20 percent in two weeks last autumn.
“Right now, gas is actually so cheap that it is, for the most part, not profitable. And therefore, the thing that the gas companies…what they’re going to do is export this stuff.”
But pipeline advocates say that doesn’t account for the economic ripple effect it stands to create. A fact sheet from the pipeline’s website states if the project does go through, it will benefit the Tar Heel State to the tune of $69 million and 5,351 new jobs.
“And then there’s those who are going to be subcontractors and vendors. There are going to be a lot of laborers who are going to be working in North Carolina, so you’ll see also a trickle-down effect in restaurants and hotels and gas stations and other retail stores and businesses.”
If the pipeline becomes reality, the main benefit would be its impact on one of the state’s most economically depressed areas.
The eight counties directly impacted by the pipeline – Cumberland, Halifax, Johnston, Nash, Northampton, Robeson (Rob-eh-son), Sampson, Wilson – have a combined unemployment rate 1-and-a-half percent above the statewide average. Steve Yost said the pipeline could help send more eastern North Carolinians to work.
“You know, if we can help and create the quality, skilled level jobs that pay good wages then that’s going to help spur the growth of other types of jobs or the growth of small business or entrepreneurs and all of that and that’s typically and that’s typically what a manufacturing operation will do.”
Opponents say that might not be good enough – considering the ecological and social prospects of the pipeline. In February, the left leaning NC Policy Watch released a report, highlighting the demographics of the counties impacted by the pipeline. All of them have racial minority populations above and/or average salaries below the state average.
Winstead and Norris also contend the pipeline was originally going to run farther west, along whiter and more affluent counties in the Triangle. Its path is similar to what happened with the Dakota Access Pipeline during its planning stages. Norris sent us a map showing that dated May 2015.
“That pipeline was originally going to run through Bismarck, ND and the first thing the city of Bismarck said is ‘oh, no, that might endanger our water supply. So what do they do? They move down river a little bit where the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation is and they’re going to endanger their water so they left a large populated area and moved to where there’s a large, minority group of people and bully them around.”
When asked about the path, McGee said she couldn’t confirm or deny that was ever part of the Pipeline’s plan. She said modifications have been made throughout the process – a normal aspect of most infrastructure projects.
Construction is set to begin later this year – pending final permit approval from the government – with completion in 2019.
I’m Chris Thomas.