There are lots of reasons to be conflicted about natural gas — and the pipelines that make its use possible.
On the plus side: Natural gas burns off less carbon than coal, so it’s cleaner.
On the minus side: It’s still a fossil fuel putting out some dirty carbon — and methane, too.
On the plus side: It’s cheap, and we need more cheap energy. It’s also produced domestically, which means we don’t have to worry about some foreign dictator cutting off our supply.
On the minus side: Well, there are those pipelines. We don’t really notice the ones that are already here, but the new pipelines proposed to come through Virginia have sure upset some people.
Life is full of trade-offs and the current debate over natural gas pipelines is full of them. The reality is that every form of energy has some problem with it: Coal is dirty. Wind turbines are sometimes giant blenders for birds and bats. Utility-scale solar has been known to cook birds right out of the sky. Nuclear? Perfectly safe until something goes wrong — now there’s a whole city near Chernobyl that’s uninhabitable.
However, we’re not conflicted at all about government secrecy, so our eyes popped wide open last week when we read reporter Casey Fabris’ account of how representatives from Mountain Valley Pipeline held a series of meetings with Franklin County supervisors — one or two at a time, to get around the state’s Freedom of Information Act rules requiring public bodies to meet in, well, public.
County Administrator Brent Robertson sat in on all the meetings the company had with individual supervisors, and Fabris had this particularly notable passage:
When Mountain Valley was asked to hold the meetings in public, they “in effect declined to do that,” Robertson said. Mountain Valley representatives did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.
Mountain Valley Pipeline LLC is a private company, and they aren’t accustomed to doing their daily work in public, Robertson said.
Let’s review here, shall we?
Yes, Mountain Valley is a private company. However — and this is a very big however — it’s trying to build a public utility in the form of a natural gas pipeline.
Our state government, in all its wisdom (and probably some backroom dealing along with just general inattentiveness on the part of other legislators), has deemed that this is an undertaking of such importance to the public that it has granted a private corporation the right to condemn private property, a power so extreme that it is normally reserved only for the government itself.
So Mountain Valley Pipeline isn’t exactly a normal private company merrily going about its business that the public has no right to be interested in. While the pipeline executives may not be “accustomed to doing their daily work in public,” we suggest they start getting used to that, and fast.
Boone District Supervisor Ronnie Thompson, a pipeline opponent who met with the company, said he asked MVP officials what was being said that couldn’t be said in front of the public. Quoting our story last week: He was told nothing was being said that couldn’t be said in front of the public.
So why the secrecy then?
Mountain Valley’s handling of the pipeline has not exactly been one of the finer moments in community relations. This is a company that somehow neglected to notify Roanoke County officials when it decided to reroute the line through that county — something that would seem not just a common courtesy but also good politics and therefore good business. This is also a company that has repeatedly ticked off officials in the two most populous localities it intends to go through — Roanoke County and Montgomery County — by being vague or evasive about details.
“I am quite frankly shocked by the lack of transparency that MVP has displayed with mapping on this project with respect to this issue and in general.” That’s not coming from some wild-eyed environmentalist threatening to lay down in front of the bulldozers. That’s a normally mild-mannered assistant county administrator, Roanoke County’s Richard Caywood, who is his county’s official point person for pipeline developments.
We’re usually the ones complaining that governments aren’t being sufficiently transparent. When you have government officials complaining about lack of transparency, well, that should tell you something right there.
Here’s the real problem, though: Mountain Valley really has no incentive to be transparent, with the public, or public officials, or really anyone else. The pipeline is not up for a public vote. It really doesn’t even matter what local governments think — they can pass all the anti-pipeline resolutions they want.
In the end, the only vote that matters is the one by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and its record is clear: It approves pipeline projects. FERC’s not exactly warm-and-fuzzy toward public sentiment, either. Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine and Reps. Bob Goodlatte and Morgan Griffith have all asked FERC to hold more public meetings related to the various pipeline proposals through Virginia. FERC had the same answer to all of them: No.
Mountain Valley’s actions make it a hard company to love, even though there are some cold-eyed, objective reasons to think a pipeline might actually do some economic good in the region.
One of the revelations that came out of last month’s court case over the pipeline in West Virginia was that Mountain Valley already has an agreement with Roanoke Gas — so the argument that the pipeline would be an interstate energy highway with no exit ramps for us no longer holds. Roanoke Gas has long been eager to extend service to Franklin County — which in the past has lost economic development prospects due to the lack of natural gas service — so a case can be made the pipeline would be good for jobs in Franklin County.
Those who want to make that jobs argument would have an easier time, though, if Mountain Valley didn’t always act like it was so entitled and so untouchable that the public doesn’t matter.
If the pipeline’s built, let’s hope the company puts more care into its engineering than it has in its public relations.