News flash: A partner in the Mountain Valley Pipeline says some of the natural gas transported through the proposed line could be exported to India.
Question: Does this matter?
Some opponents say it does, at least incrementally, because it’s further evidence that the pipeline is simply a money-making venture and not something that will benefit this part of Virginia.
Observation: Umm, the pipeline company is not a charity. It’s a business. Of course it’s trying to make a profit. The question is: Does it matter where the profit is being made, whether it’s the sale of natural gas in the American Southeast or in South Asia?
Let’s explore, shall we? There’s a lot here to unpack.
First, let’s start with the obvious. Some people object to the pipeline no matter where the gas is going.
For some, it’s a property rights issue — they don’t think a private company should have the right to condemn land, especially their land. That’s hard to argue with since it’s true; the counter-argument is simply one of what is the greater good here? Governments routinely condemn private property for highways and schools and other public purposes. Unlike some countries that have nationalized their energy grid, we let private companies run ours, so we grant those utilities the same right of eminent domain that government has. Whether we should or not is a separate question there’s rarely been any debate over.
For others, opposition to the pipeline is an environmental issue — they object to natural gas because it’s a carbon-producing fossil fuel and/or because they fear the hydraulic fracturing that brings it out of the ground risks contaminating the groundwater with chemicals and the air with methane.
That’s a trickier argument because the demand for natural gas is growing partly in reaction to environmental regulations cracking down on coal. You don’t want coal’s dirty emissions? Then this is part of the trade-off.
Earlier this spring, natural gas overtook coal for the first time as the main source of generating electricity in the United States. Some — such as President Obama — see natural gas as the natural “bridge” fuel to help the nation transition from dirty coal to the clean power of renewables, such as wind and solar. Others say we should be skipping natural gas and trying to ramp up renewables right now. Given how hard it is to get permission to build a wind farm or a solar farm, that seems rather optimistic, shall we say? (And, of course, some people say renewables are unreliable and not commercially viable; that we should just stick to mining more coal and to heck with the carbon emissions.)
In any case, there is that flat-out opposition to natural gas in some quarters, but let’s move on to more nuanced opposition.
The Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Mountain Valley Pipeline would both start in roughly the same place in West Virginia but have different markets.
The former would serve Dominion customers in Hampton Roads — one reason that Gov. Terry McAuliffe has called it a “game-changer” for the state’s economy.
It’s interesting: Those arguing against the Atlantic Coast Pipeline in the Shenandoah Valley and the Piedmont are essentially arguing against economic growth in Hampton Roads, or, at least gas-fired economic growth. Conversely, we suppose, those in favor of economic growth in the state’s second biggest metro area are — in effect — saying it’s OK to get that growth by trampling property rights in the western part of the state.
By contrast, the Mountain Valley would pump gas into a national pipeline grid at Chatham and, as we’ve just heard, some of that gas might wind up being exported, so it seems less of an economic game-changer for the state. That gas is mostly just passing through.
Would it matter, though, if some of that gas was going to wind up around here? Conceivably, some of it could. The pipeline builders say it will be an “open access” line, meaning anyone can hook up — for the right price. Keep in mind that MVP would own the pipe, not the gas itself. It’s already contracted with gas shippers — we’re told the line is “100 percent subscribed” — but those shippers are mostly doing that on speculation. They’re now looking for actual end-user customers.
Most of the interest in this part of the state has centered on Franklin County, said to be the only Virginia locality along the Mountain Valley route that doesn’t already have a natural gas line, and where county officials say they’ve lost economic development prospects because there is no natural gas. Will someone connect to MVP in Franklin County? No one has signed a contract yet, because no one knows yet where the line will actually be. The cost of a one-mile connector is obviously different from a 10-mile connector — so we may not know whether there are local customers until after a route is settled on.
If you’re for the pipeline on the grounds that it would benefit the local economy, would that support change if it turns out the line is the energy equivalent of an interstate with no exit ramps?
Conversely . . . for argument’s sake, let’s say there is a connection in Franklin County. Would pipeline opponents in Giles, Montgomery, Craig and Roanoke counties feel differently if they knew the line would help create jobs for their neighbors?
If no, at least their opposition is pure and absolutist. If yes, that raises an interesting moral question: Why should we feel differently if the pipeline benefits someone here in the western part of Virginia, as opposed to someone somewhere else?
It’s obviously harder to look a neighbor in the face and say, “Sorry, my back yard is more important than you being able to find a job.” Yet if we’re willing to concede the pipeline might be OK if it benefits someone here, why shouldn’t we also concede that it’s OK as long as it benefits someone elsewhere? Why are people farther away less important? And if that support is grudgingly conditional — that maybe the pipeline is OK as long as it makes it easier to create jobs in this part of the state — does it matter if some of the gas also winds up on the other side of the world? Why are people in India whose standard of living might be improved by natural gas less important than Americans who need only give up part of their property?
All good things to think about. Let us know what you think at email@example.com.