BIG ISAAC, W.Va. — The muddy water that ruined 5 acres of hay on family land farmed by Justin McClain came from mountainsides cleared for a 36-inch-wide intrastate natural gas pipeline — the Stonewall Gas Gathering Project — being built through Doddridge County on its way to an existing interstate pipeline three counties away.
Another 36-inch pipeline formally proposed Friday by Dominion Resources Inc., a Richmond-based energy company, would cross the mountain ridge behind the McClains’ property to supply the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which would begin a few miles away in Harrison County, cut through the heart of Virginia and end after 564 miles in southeastern North Carolina.
The Mountain Valley Pipeline, proposed by EQT Corp. and NextEra Energy Inc., would cross a mountain ridge across from the McClains’ land and another ridge beside them on a 286-mile route from Wetzel County, near the Ohio River, to an existing natural gas pipeline in Virginia’s Pittsylvania County.
“We’re right in the cross hairs of all of them,” said Robert McClain, Justin’s father, a 68-year-old schoolteacher who was born in a white frame house on the property along Meathouse Fork.
Doddridge this year became the top-producing county in West Virginia for natural gas extracted from the Marcellus Basin, a deep formation of shale that has turned the energy industry upside down and begun to reverse the traditional flow of natural gas from the Gulf Coast to the Northeast.
The gas-rich Marcellus is the impetus for Dominion’s 42-inch Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a massive $5.1 billion investment for the Richmond-based utility and partners whose long path through Virginia’s mountains and Piedmont has stirred environmentalists to battle.
Beneath the Marcellus lies the Utica, another gas-rich shale formation that producers want to mine and market.
“Since the Marcellus has come on, all of a sudden the supply is here,” said Jody Derrickson, director of gas control for Dominion Transmission Inc., based in Clarksburg, W.Va.
The three pipelines would cross Meathouse Fork and its tributaries within a 2-mile stretch dubbed “Stream Zero” by pipeline opponents. They are just a few of the dozens of projects under consideration to push natural gas out of the Marcellus Basin in West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania to reach markets across the country at prices below the benchmark industry hub on the Gulf Coast of Louisiana.
Another 42-inch pipeline called the Appalachian Connector is being considered across western Virginia by Williams Transco, owner of the largest interstate gas pipeline on the East Coast, from the Marcellus region to the company’s pipeline hub in Pittsylvania at Chatham, where the Mountain Valley Pipeline also would end.
“We’re still gauging market interest and talking with potential shippers,” Williams spokesman Christopher Stockton said last week. “If there is sufficient market interest, we’ll go forward, but we haven’t filed anything.”
The Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a limited liability company led by Dominion, filed its formal application Friday at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The company filed a preliminary application a year ago and has been developing plans for the project in the face of intensifying opposition in some of the 10 Virginia counties that would be crossed by the pipeline, especially Nelson, Augusta and Buckingham.
The developers of the Mountain Valley Pipeline also filed a preliminary application with FERC last year for a project that would cross five Virginia counties, including Roanoke and Montgomery, and the company expects to file a formal application next month.
A third pre-filed project, the WB XPress Project, would upgrade and expand existing Columbia Gas transmission facilities in Northern Virginia, the Shenandoah Valley and West Virginia.
The federal government already has begun an environmental impact review of the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley projects, but opponents say the FERC review should encompass the cumulative effects of all of the projects, including the Appalachian Connector, on Virginia’s natural resources and communities in the pipelines’ paths.
The Southern Environmental Law Center called for a regional environmental impact statement in a letter Thursday on behalf of 28 organizations to the U.S. Forest Service, which has raised significant concerns about the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. The project would cross about 30 miles of the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia and the George Washington National Forest in Virginia, including the habitats of two rare native salamanders.
“This pipeline is proposed through some of the best remaining forest habitat in the eastern United States — what the Forest Service called ‘the wildlife core of the central Appalachians’ — and a rigorous (federal environmental review) process is critical to ensure a careful and deliberate decision that is protective of these special lands,” states the letter from attorneys Gregory Buppert and Kathryn Boudouris.
“This would be a regionwide study of pipeline capacity, the need for new pipelines, and their impacts,” the letter states.
At the same time, however, the U.S. House of Representatives is considering legislation — the National Energy Security Corridors Act — that would allow the secretary of the interior to negotiate rights of way for natural gas pipelines across National Park System lands and require the designation of at least 10 such corridors within two years. The legislation was adopted in June by the House Committee on Natural Resources.
Rick Webb, a Highland County resident and retired environmental scientist at the University of Virginia, said any discussion of national energy policy has to be comprehensive, not piecemeal.
“We’re talking about national energy policy, but we’re doing it in the most helter-skelter fashion,” said Webb, a leader of the Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition.
Guy W. Chapman works at Dominion’s headquarters on the James River in Richmond, but he’s got his eye on the Marcellus/Utica region for natural gas to supply Dominion Virginia Power plants with a fuel that burns more cleanly than coal.
Dominion Virginia Power is building a 1,300-megawatt gas-fired power plant in Brunswick County that will be supplied by a 100-mile pipeline just completed by Transco across Southside Virginia from its main East Coast pipeline in Pittsylvania. The utility also has proposed a 1,600-megawatt gas-fired plant in adjacent Greensville County.
But Chapman, director of gas purchasing for Virginia Power Energy Marketing Inc., wants the option of buying gas carried by the Atlantic Coast Pipeline from the Marcellus/Utica because the gas is cheap and the pipeline would increase his bargaining power, as well as the system’s reliability.
“It’s kind of difficult to negotiate with a pipeline when you only have one choice,” he said.
The Atlantic Coast Pipeline proposal is driven by demand from Virginia and North Carolina power producers and gas distributors in Hampton Roads and North Carolina, but the Mountain Valley Pipeline and, if proposed, the Appalachian Connector have a simpler purpose: moving gas out of the Marcellus/Utica to market.
“I call them ‘get me out’ projects,” Chapman said.
RBN Energy, an industry analysis firm in Houston, estimated that more than 50 projects are under consideration in the Marcellus/Utica region, almost all of them with the purpose of getting what has become the lowest-priced gas in the country out to markets in five directions, including the Southeast coast. It says the proposed pipelines are essential to break a transmission bottleneck that makes it hard to get the gas to market.
“This has been building for a while,” said RBN energy analyst Sheetal Nasta. “There’s a disconnect in price at the supply areas and at the demand areas. Producers are all angling to get there first and get there fastest.”
“The gas will go where it needs to go and where price dictates it to go,” Nasta said.
Natalie Cox, a spokeswoman for EQT Corp., said the Mountain Valley Pipeline would serve growing demand among power producers and other users in the Mid-Atlantic, Southeast and Appalachian regions. Gas from Marcellus/Utica also is likely to replace natural gas supplies that traditionally have flowed north from the Gulf of Mexico.
“Gulf Coast gas would likely stay in that region and not be delivered to the Northeast because of growing natural gas demand in that region from the petrochemical industry,” Cox said.
From its control room in Clarksburg, W.Va., Dominion Transmission manages a gas pipeline network that extends through West Virginia, Ohio, western Pennsylvania, upper New York state and the Albany area, and into eastern Virginia and the Washington region. The company interconnects with a Virginia Natural Gas transmission line in Quantico to supply the Hampton Roads and Peninsula areas.
One of its pipelines connects to Dominion’s Cove Point terminal on the Chesapeake Bay that currently imports liquefied natural gas and is adding facilities to export it to customers in Japan and India.
Gas that once flowed north from the Gulf Coast and east from the Rocky Mountains has begun to move in the opposite direction, as production in the Marcellus has soared from 2 billion cubic feet a day in 2008 to more than 18 billion cubic feet a day at the end of last year, according to RBN.
But existing pipeline networks to ship the gas do not have the capacity to keep up with production, Derrickson said. “All of the easy fixes are done.”
The push for new interstate pipelines also is clear from an increase in applications for regulatory approval by FERC — from 53 projects with 2,766 miles of pipeline on July 31, compared with 31 projects spanning 1,000 miles of pipeline a year earlier. And this year’s count does not include pre-filed applications, such as the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines.
“We have seen a surge,” confirmed Ann Miles, director of the commission’s Office of Energy Projects.
Two native brook trout hover in the shade of a small bridge over the Jackson River, just downstream from where cold water from Mackey Spring flows into the Jackson, one of the headwaters of the James River in Highland County.
Mackey Spring is part of a groundwater recharge area near Monterey that environmental advocates fear could be damaged by the proposed route of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline as it crosses into Virginia on its way to the coast.
Their fear is based on the possible flow of sediment-laden water from steep mountainsides disturbed by construction of the pipeline in a 10-foot-deep trench on a cleared 125-foot-wide right of way. Water from the mountains disappears into porous underground karst formations — primarily limestone — that are critical to springs and wells in Highland and adjacent Augusta County.
“Those sediments can plug the conduits that carry the spring water,” warned Rick Lambert, an ardent cave enthusiast who is president of the Virginia Speleological Survey in Monterey.
Lambert and Rick Webb, who spent his career as a stream ecologist at U.Va., say their fears are reinforced by what they see in West Virginia, where pipeline construction has been accelerating with natural gas production in the Marcellus/Utica region.
They want Virginia environmental regulators to require individual rather than general construction permits and submission of detailed erosion and sediment control plans now that would ensure more rigorous state oversight of pipeline construction.
“We’re letting the biggest project to come along since the interstate highways off the hook?” Webb asked.
Dominion spokesman Jim Norvelle said FERC would require the company “to prepare detailed, site-specific erosion and sediment control plans for individual permits; review and approve the plans; and have representatives monitor construction to ensure they are followed.”
“There will be multiple levels of inspectors involved in the construction of the ACP — inspectors from the FERC, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, independent inspectors that the ACP will hire, and our trained employees as well,” Norvelle said.
Bill Hayden, spokesman for the Department of Environmental Quality, said the state has not made any decisions about how it would permit and regulate stormwater and sediment control during construction of the pipelines if they are approved.
“We will be looking at the situations as they evolve,” Hayden said. “FERC has not acted on any of them yet. The routes have not been definitively set. We haven’t had the opportunity to get into any of the details of these things.”
Two years ago, West Virginia established its own permit program for regulating stormwater and sediment runoff during pipeline construction, which otherwise would have been exempt from federal discharge permit requirements.
The level of gas-related land disturbance for construction is “extreme” in the Marcellus/Utica region, said Scott Mandirola, director of the West Virginia Division of Water and Waste Management. “There’s a tremendous amount of activities outside of the wellhead, and we needed to control them.”
The state has issued more than 400 permits under the program, primarily for intrastate pipeline projects such as Stonewall, and added staff to beef up enforcement. “It’s a challenge in the enforcement world,” Mandirola said.
The department issued 12 notices of violations against the Stonewall project in July, including a warning about sediment-laden water leaving the construction site on Big Isaac Creek and Laurel Run, which feed into Meathouse Fork in front of the McClains’ property.
An inspector said in early July he observed sediment-laden water “intentionally being discharged” into an adjacent wetland without proper treatment.
Regulators say all of the violations have been corrected, but they will continue to monitor the sites to ensure the required pollution control measures are in place and that the erosion and sediment control plans are followed and are working to control runoff.
Dave Mashek, a spokesman for M3Momentum, which is developing the 67-mile project, denied any intentional discharge, but he acknowledged that “inadvertent problems do arise,” especially during spring and summer rains that the company said were 30 percent higher than average.
“Building a major pipeline in this terrain during one of the wettest summers on record has been a challenge,” he said.
Heavy rains on Sept. 9 resulted in additional notices of violation against the project, “in certain cases even where our crews were working proactively during the rain,” Mashek said. “As always, we immediately worked to address the areas of concern and report our response to state regulators.”
The gas-production boom began in Doddridge in late 2012, said Gregory L. Robinson, president of the Doddridge County Commission.
The boom has provided major financial benefits to a county of just 8,200 people and an annual budget of $7 million, said Robinson, who prepares tax returns. The county received $2 million last year in royalties from six gas wells drilled on property it owns, as well as about $1 million in severance taxes.
Residents also benefit from mineral rights royalties and lease payments, as well as higher wages from the jobs created by the fast-growing industry. “When you look at it in perspective, it’s a good deal for Doddridge County,” Robinson said.
But the boom also has industrialized what had been quiet, rural areas in the region, said Dave McMahon, a lawyer for the West Virginia Surface Owners Rights Organization in Charleston, W.Va.
“The roads no longer handle the traffic,” McMahon said. “There are well pads everywhere. There are compressor stations everywhere. There are pipelines everywhere. It’s changed people’s lives.”
The financial benefits also are less for people, such as the McClains, who do not own the rights to gas and minerals under their property.
“We own the surface, but we don’t own the minerals,” said Justin McClain, 36. “Somebody in Florida gets the money, and we get the mud and water.”