When Gov. Terry McAuliffe was in town recently, he tried to brush aside questions about one of the big topics in this part of the state — the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline.
“I just want to be clear,” the governor said. “This is a federal issue. This is not a state issue. The governor has no say in this pipeline.”
All that is true.
The fate of the pipeline rests solely with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which has a history of doing one thing and one thing only: It approves pipelines. Even environmental groups can think of only one pipeline it’s rejected, and that was an odd project to begin with because it wasn’t being pushed by an energy company, so even other energy interests opposed it.
We’ve looked before at why this is: FERC is stacked with commissioners who favor natural gas. The Republican appointees are predisposed toward fossil fuels to begin with, and even the green-friendly Obama administration has embraced natural gas as the quickest way to reduce reliance on dirty coal (which, by the way, is working). There is simply no one on the commission who is inclined to listen to the environmental arguments against yet another natural gas pipeline snaking out of the booming gas fields of the Marcellus Shale formation.
So the reality is, we’re very likely to get the pipeline, whether we want it or not. You can call that fatalistic, or you can call that realistic. Either way, FERC’s record is pretty clear. The best hope opponents have of defeating the pipeline is to fight on the only turf FERC cares about: Is there an economic need for this pipeline? Since the pipeline company says the line is already “100 percent subscribed”— meaning gas shippers have already signed contracts to use it once it’s built — that might be a tough argument to make.
Nonetheless, McAuliffe’s brush-off seemed an odd profession of weakness, because the governor does possess one thing no one else in the state does — the bully pulpit of the governorship.
True, the governor has endorsed the pipeline — along with the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline that would cut through the Shenandoah Valley on its way to Portsmouth — on the grounds that both are good for the economy. More natural gas equals more opportunities to lure manufacturers to the state with the prospect of cheap energy, he says. So don’t look for the governor to use that bully pulpit to oppose something he supports.
There is, however, a way that the governor could use that bully pulpit on the pipeline in a way that that supporters shouldn’t object to and that at least some opponents might grudgingly like: He could use it to try to influence the route.
Here’s how: Back in April, Roanoke Commonwealth’s Attorney Don Caldwell wrote a commentary piece in this newspaper in which he asked: Why not route the pipeline along highways? Take the state’s land, not somebody else’s. He even outlined the logical routes: “Why not merge the MVP with the Appalachian Connector and run both from West Virginia to I-81 within the highway easements of Route 460, improving and upgrading those roads as necessary? The MVP could then turn north along I-81 to I-581 in Roanoke, and provide an opportunity to three-lane this major connecting link between Montgomery County and the Roanoke Valley. The MVP could then follow Route 220 south to Rocky Mount, turning east on US 40 to Gretna and south on US 29 to connect with the other pipe in Chatham.
“The Atlantic Coast Pipeline could be run from West Virginia along Route 250 to Staunton and then straight down I-64 to its terminus in Tidewater. Such a strategy could bring a positive economic impact to all the communities along these corridors while negatively impacting no one’s back yard.”
Caldwell, of course, is now running as an independent for the state Senate against Democratic incumbent John Edwards and Republican challenger Nancy Dye.
Because of that, McAuliffe probably doesn’t want to do anything to give credence to Caldwell and his proposal.
Still, the question begs to be asked: Why isn’t this a good idea?
We’ll ask two more: Why shouldn’t the governor look into this? Why couldn’t the governor simply declare it his own idea and put together a task force to come up with a recommendation?
Granted, it would have no force of law, but governors do lots of things that are meant to mold opinions, not mandate outcomes. If the governor showed up at FERC with such a plan in hand, and made a case for it, why wouldn’t that get the commissioners’ attention? This governor fancies himself a dealmaker — what a deal that would be! Gas gets to market! No property gets taken! Why isn’t that a classic win-win?
True, those who oppose the pipelines outright wouldn’t like it, so it’s not much of a deal to them.
Pipeline opponents, though, come in several flavors. Some are opposed to natural gas, period, because it’s a fossil fuel, or because they object to the hydraulic fracturing that pulls the gas out of the ground. No alternate route can ever get around those objections. They don’t want to reroute the pipeline; they want to stop it completely. For them, it’s pipeline roulette; an all-or-nothing proposition.
Other pipeline opponents, though, are more concerned about property rights than the environment — and it’s those opponents who ought to be asking the governor for help. Why can’t he appoint a panel to come up with a proposed route that uses existing rights-of-way?
Whether pipeline opponents should get involved in trying to propose an alternate route is a controversial question, of course. Earlier this summer, Montgomery County Supervisor Chris Tuck — a pipeline opponent — proposed that his fellow supervisors come up with an alternate route if outright opposition fails. That got voted down.
So right now, there is absolutely zero pressure on the governor to do anything.
Are pipeline opponents, though, missing an opportunity to create some pressure on McAuliffe — and at least try to get a better route than any now being proposed?
So we ask again: In light of FERC’s record on approving pipelines, why isn’t this a good idea?