Battle heats up over controversial Atlantic Coast Pipeline

As the developer of a pipeline to bring fracked natural gas to North Carolina sues landowners for refusing to cooperate, a politically influential collection of opponents is trying to raise $1 million to torpedo plans to route the project through Virginia farms and properties, saying the Atlantic Coast Pipeline would be a scar on Appalachia.

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline is becoming the East Coast’s most controversial pipeline project, with constant protests by Virginians along the potential path and plans for a media blitz aimed at convincing state and national lawmakers to object.

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline would ship natural gas 554 miles from West Virginia, through rural Virginia to eastern North Carolina. The project has the support of the governors of North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia, and praise from officials of economically struggling North Carolina counties who hope the natural gas will help them lure manufacturing businesses.

Greg Cummings, the economic development director for North Carolina’s Robeson County, which has an unemployment rate of about 8 percent, said it might mean a “major boost economically” if there are connecting pipelines from the Atlantic Coast Pipeline to local industrial parks.

He said manufacturing companies demand access to natural gas, and he doesn’t want opposition in Virginia to thwart a pipeline that could help his community. Opposition to the project has been muted in North Carolina, while the resistance is centered in rural Virginia, where locals say they’d bear the risk of the pipeline without seeing a benefit.

The “All Pain No Gain” group raising money to fight the project includes Republican heavy hitters with southwest Virginia land near the potential route. One is Phil Anderson, president of the Washington, D.C.,-mega lobbying firm Navigators Global, whose family has long owned a farm in the area, and the other is Tom Harvey, a former national security official who runs a nonprofit group that works with corporations on global environmental initiatives.

Neither would agree to an interview, but Charlotte Rea, a local landowner who is working with them in the anti-pipeline group, said their backgrounds have helped with fund-raising as the group launched radio and television ads in Richmond, Va., with hopes of expanding closer to the nation’s capital.

“We’re looking now at potentially moving into larger markets in northern Virginia or the District of Columbia,” Rea said.

Rea said the goal is to convince lawmakers to pressure the pipeline developers to “find a responsible route that doesn’t unfairly burden private property owners.”

Rea, a retired Air Force officer, is among dozens of Virginia landowners refusing to allow access to surveyors from Dominion Resources, which is developing the project along with Duke Energy and Piedmont Natural Gas. Rea has filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the Virginia law that forces property owners to let natural gas utilities survey on their land.

Dominion filed its own lawsuits against 27 of the landowners. Dominion spokesman Frank Mack said that’s just the beginning, and the company “expects to file legal action against more than 100 landowners who have steadfastly refused to give permission to survey along the proposed route.”

The natural gas from the Marcellus shale fields would go to Duke Energy power plants and Piedmont Natural Gas residential and business customers in North Carolina, with a spur to the Hampton Roads area of Virginia. Charlotte, N.C.,-based Duke Energy is banking on the pipeline as it increasingly turns to natural gas and shutters coal-burning power plants. Duke Energy spokesman Tom Williams said there are already customers signed up for 92 percent of the gas.

“It’s a large capital project but it’s certainly one that has a tremendous amount of support in the state,” he said. He referred questions on the lawsuits against landowners to Dominion, which is handling the construction.

Dominion spokesman Mack said that in spite of the opposition, the project is on schedule to file its construction application this summer with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

“These days, any company involved in new infrastructure projects – whether an interstate highway, natural gas pipeline, electric transmission line, road, etc. – should expect some opposition, so we are not surprised,” Mack said.

The Consumer Energy Alliance, an advocacy group whose members include Dominion as well as oil and gas companies such as Exxon Mobil, Shell and Conoco Phillips, distributed a poll last week touting majority support for the pipeline in Virginia and North Carolina, although four out of every 10 people hadn’t heard of it

The anti-pipeline “All Pain No Gain” group announced on Facebook that it’s halfway to its $1 million goal, and is urging people to express their opposition by contacting Virginia’s U.S. senators, Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, neither of whom has taken a stand on the project.

Southwest Virginia landowners recently met with Kaine and found him open to their fears and frustrations with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Rea said. Virginia’s senators asked FERC to hold more public hearings on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, but were denied.

Kaine staffers said in an emailed response to questions that the senator believes the concerns about the pipeline “are worthy of careful consideration,” and that he and Warner will stay involved.

“Both senators plan to follow up with FERC in the coming weeks to give voice to a number of the key issues raised with them and their staffs by Virginians with concerns about this project,” Kaine’s office said.