BLACKSBURG — The sounds of skepticism punctuated the public grilling in Blacksburg on Wednesday night of four men representing Mountain Valley Pipeline LLC.
The pipeline representatives’ replies to several of a host of questions raised or read by the Montgomery County Board of Supervisors stirred a large crowd dominated by pipeline opponents to respond with derisive laughter or applause with an edge and even an exclamation or two of “bull----!”
Yet, when pressed, the men representing Mountain Valley Pipeline copped to several hard truths. For example, local and state governments have little power to influence or regulate an interstate natural gas transmission pipeline. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission can pre-empt local and state regulations deemed unreasonable, said Christopher Sherman, director of regulatory and legislative affairs for NextEra Energy, one of two companies backing Mountain Valley Pipeline.
Bill Brown, chairman of the board of supervisors, asked whether property owners whose land abuts a neighbor whose property ends up hosting the pipeline would be compensated for the diminished value of their property. Sherman replied that it would be an unusual circumstance to compensate an owner for diminished property value if their property does not feature a pipeline-related easement.
Would the company agree to shift the pipeline route so that it would bypass the Preston Forest neighborhood in Montgomery County? Sherman said he is aware that the neighborhood has raised concerns about the pipeline but said it would be disingenuous for him to promise the route would move.
Mountain Valley Pipeline LLC, a joint venture of EQT Corp. and NextEra Energy, wants to build a 300-mile, 42-inch diameter high-pressure transmission pipeline to transport natural gas from West Virginia through five Virginia counties — Giles, Montgomery, Roanoke, Franklin and Pittsylvania — to a delivery point in Pittsylvania County.
The pipeline would be buried and covered by at least 3 feet of soil; project costs likely would be between $3 billion to $3.5 billion, according to Mountain Valley.
Several hundred people gathered Wednesday in the auditorium of Blacksburg High School to hear a presentation by the pipeline company. The crowd was asked to submit questions on index cards to the board of supervisors, who ended up reading the queries to the pipeline representatives.
Pipeline officials at the meeting included Sherman, Maurice Royster, manager of government relations for EQT, and two others.
Kirsti Kaldro, her husband, Ed Bridge, and their three children live in the Preston Forest neighborhood. Kaldro said the family received a survey request letter from Coates Field Service, a right-of-way acquisition contractor working for Mountain Valley Pipeline, in the mail Oct. 24.
“Our property is right along the proposed route of the pipeline and this would be devastating for us,” Kaldro said before the meeting.
“We have not granted permission for [Coates] to survey and do not plan to,” she said.
Virginia law allows natural gas companies to access private property without permission if they follow specific notification guidelines. Sherman said Mountain Valley will pursue that course if necessary.
More than one question cited concerns that the karst geology in many areas of the county could create problems for a pipeline. Karst geology is characterized by sinkholes and caves, and its associated aquifers can be vulnerable to contamination.
Sherman said the pipeline route will seek to avoid areas with inadequate subsurface conditions.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission must issue a “certificate of public convenience and necessity” before pipeline construction can begin. In essence, FERC must determine that an interstate pipeline is in the public interest and that, overall, the project’s benefits outweigh its adverse impacts.
Many speakers Wednesday suggested the Mountain Valley Pipeline will not meet those criteria. The company has said the pipeline will serve growing demand in the mid-Atlantic and southeastern U.S. for natural gas. It has not denied that some of the gas might be exported.
Sherman began Wednesday’s presentation by emphasizing the role that abundant and comparatively clean-burning natural gas is playing to support the American economy. He said many manufacturers are returning to the U.S. and that cheap natural gas is among the lures bringing them back. He described a societal and economic mandate to expand the supply and use of natural gas.
If FERC green-lights the Mountain Valley Pipeline the company will have access to eminent domain to acquire rights-of-way across private property if negotiations with landowners fail to yield an agreeable purchase price.
FERC has assigned a docket number to the Mountain Valley project — PF15-3. The project has received numerous comments from residents of Montgomery County opposing the pipeline.
Yet in a comment filed Wednesday, John Seiler, a professor in Virginia Tech’s department of forest resources and environmental conservation, wrote, “I am strongly in favor of the pipeline.”
He wrote that he was “frustrated by a small, very vocal minority stopping projects that make sense for our economic development, national security and environment.”
Seiler said Wednesday that he wrote the comments as a citizen and not as a faculty member. He emphasized that he was not an expert about pipelines and had sympathy for people whose properties might be directly affected.
“But I think there are a lot of people whose voices you don’t hear,” he said.
Natalie Cox, a spokeswoman for EQT Corp., said Wednesday that 132 landowners in Montgomery County had been contacted as of Oct. 31 to request permission to access their property for study and surveying.
She said that the pipeline’s current route would pass through “slightly more than 15 miles” of Montgomery County.
Two other transmission pipelines that would route through Virginia are in the early stages of seeking FERC approval. They are the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, proposed by Dominion and others, and the Appalachian Connector Pipeline (previously known as the Western Marcellus Pipeline), proposed by Williams.
Sherman said Mountain Valley intends to hold “open houses” in December to share more information about the proposed pipeline.