If the Mountain Valley Pipeline never gets built, it won’t be because of some protesters sitting in trees to block construction crews.
It will be because of people like Jean Ann Salisbury, an analyst for a New York investment management company you’ve probably never heard of. But it controls $538 billion worth of assets —or a bigger pile of money than the gross domestic product of Belgium, Norway and most of the other countries in Europe.
The tree-sitters are colorful but, ultimately, inconsequential. A Wall Street analyst who specializes in natural gas pipelines is not necessarily the former, but is potentially the latter.
Environmentalists who see the pipeline as an unnecessary polluter that will only heat up the earth even faster may not think of Wall Street money-managers as natural allies, but in this case they might be.
In January, analysts with Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. LLC briefed their clients — and in the process issued some warnings about the two pipelines being routed through Virginia. Let’s quote what S&P Global Market Intelligence had to say about the briefing:
Even with 10 Bcf/d of new pipeline capacity added in the past 15 months, Appalachia’s pipeline buildout may be finished, putting the completion of late comers such as the EQM Midstream Partners LP-led Mountain Valley Pipeline LLC project and the Dominion Energy Inc.-led Atlantic Coast Pipeline LLC project in doubt, analysts at the investment management company Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. LLC told clients Jan. 24.
”We had anticipated that building through [North Carolina and Virginia] would be difficult,” Bernstein’s midstream analyst Jean Ann Salisbury said in a research note. “The perfect combo of no major recent new pipelines and no state upstream benefit usually leads to problems — just ask [Williams Cos. Inc.’s Constitution Pipeline Co. LLC].”
The costs of the 2-Bcf/d Mountain Valley pipeline and the 1.5-Bcf/d Atlantic Coast pipeline have grown to $4.6 billion and $7 billion, respectively, Bernstein said. These increases may force the operators to charge too high a tariff and make them uncompetitive, according to the firm.
For those not up on their natural gas lingo, Bcf/d stands for ‘billion cubic feet per day.” But that’s not really what’s important here. What’s important is that a top industry analyst just said the two pipelines may be getting too expensive to complete. Now, all this is just one analyst’s opinion — although presumably investors pay good money for her expertise — and the key word here is “may.” Nonetheless, Salisbury went on to talk about how the rising cost of the two pipelines will make their gas less competitive compared to gas from other basins: “To us this suggests that we are nearing the end of the buildout period, and even that possibly only one of these projects will ultimately get done.”
If you’re against the pipelines, these words are ones you have longed to hear. Well, sort of. Pipeline opponents would like to see both pipelines stopped, not just one. Still, this is a telling signal of how pipeline opponents might prevail — by dragging things out so long through the courts and regulatory bureaucracy that the project is no longer feasible.
Is this possible? Here we have at least one Wall Street analyst who thinks so. Keep in mind that in this situation, Wall Street might be the most neutral source available. An investment company in New York probably doesn’t care about whether our mountains get bulldozed for pipelines or whether Franklin County is able to offer natural gas to economic development prospects. Bernstein & Co. is only concerned about one thing — making sure its clients make money. This briefing was not exactly a call for investors to double down on Appalachian pipelines.
All that brings us to this: On Friday, the State Water Control Board will hold a hearing on whether to rescind the water quality certification it had issued earlier for the Mountain Valley Pipeline. For pipeline opponents, this is an opportunity. For pipeline supporters, it’s a hazard.
To fully understand this, let’s back up to December. You’ll recall that Gov. Ralph Northam appointed two new members of the State Air Pollution Control Board — the previous members’ terms had expired but, by Virginia tradition, had stayed on. Pipeline opponents saw a conspiracy, because the two members the governor replaced had raised critical questions about the location of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline compressor station in Buckingham County. To some, it looked like Northam was trying to silence two critics of Dominion Energy. Those concerns were not abated when Northam’s two appointees sat out the vote, although it wouldn’t have matter since the board voted 4-0 to approve the controversial location in Union Hill. It could also be that Northam simply had bad timing for two routine appointments but the conspiracy theory was more popular.
What got less attention is that as the air pollution board appointments were made, Northam also replaced two members of the State Water Control Board. In that case he replaced one board member who had voted for the MVP water certification and one who had voted against it — and in December both of his new appointees voted to reconsider the pipeline’s paperwork. If Northam’s going to get the blame for his air board appointees, he ought to get credit for his water board appointees. Note this: His changes on the air board didn’t make any difference in the outcome of the Union Hill vote but they did make a difference on the MVP. At least potentially.
The water board voted Dec. 13. It’s taken until March 1 to hold a special meeting — not on whether to revoke the paperwork, but on when and how to hold a hearing on whether to revoke it. To some, this is just the routine slow-footedness of government and the difficulty of lining up the schedules of seven busy citizens who sit on the water board. To others, it smells of intentional foot-dragging on the part of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, which pipeline opponents think is entirely too cozy with the utilities it’s supposed to regulate. If so, what we have here are both sides using different types of stalling tactics. We know pipeline opponents are trying to tie things up long enough to drive up the costs. Are state regulators going slow to give MVP more time to complete as much pipeline as possible and render any revocation moot? Here’s one way we’ll find out the answer: How quickly does the water board schedule an actual hearing? Ideally, we’ll find out the answer to that Friday.