Natural gas stakeholders thought they had the new Mountain Valley Pipeline in the bag over the summer. Well, that was then. New federal legislation that would have cleared the way for Mountain Valley and other fossil energy projects has been stripped from a must-pass spending bill by its own sponsor, Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV). The move surprised nobody who has been paying attention, but it does send up plenty of red flags for fossil energy stakeholders.
The Mountain Valley Pipeline Grinds To A Halt, For Now
Like the notorious Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline, the Mountain Valley Pipeline has come to symbolize the fossil energy industry’s insistence on ambitious but badly outdated infrastructure projects.
“MVP is being recognized as a critical infrastructure project that is essential for our nation’s energy security, energy reliability, and ability to effectively transition to a lower-carbon future,” the pipeline developers state on their project website.
“…the project is strongly supported by a broad coalition of elected federal, state and local officials; state chambers of commerce and other business groups; landowners; public utilities; natural gas producers; and other non-governmental organizations,” they add.
That’s all well and good, but other broad coalitions disagreed. CleanTechnica has followed the goings-on since 2017, when the Sierra Club joined with grassroots groups and other organizations to stop the pipeline’s 300-mile route through West Virginia and on into southern Virginia.
The troubled history of another proposed natural gas pipeline in the nearby state of North Carolina, called the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, should have given MVP developers pause. However, they continued to plow forward.
Despite the developers’ attempts to push the project through, by 2021 the groundswell of opposition reached critical mass, with the pipeline’s route through Jefferson National Forest becoming a key issue. In January of this year, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals suspended MVP’s permit to cross the forest for the second time, having previously told it to go back to the drawing board in 2018.
Our friends over at The Roanoke Times have noted that “Mountain Valley also lacks a final permit to cross the remaining streams and wetlands in its path from northern West Virginia, through the New River and Roanoke valleys, to connect with an existing pipeline near the North Carolina line.”
Senator Manchin & The Mountain Valley Pipeline
Democratic Senator Joe Manchin has emerged as the face of support for MVP, though he is not alone. As recently as last July, West Virginia’s Republican Senator, Shelley Moore Capito, joined with Manchin and two other Republican members of the state’s congressional delegation to advocate for the pipeline in a letter addressed to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
FERC responded by providing MVP with yet another extension in order to obtain the necessary permits, as reported by Utility Dive on August 24.
In the meantime, Manchin attempted to keep the project afloat by lobbying for legislation to speed up the permitting process. He negotiated with his caucus to support the Inflation Reduction Act in exchange for attaching his legislation to an upcoming spending bill.
All seemed to be going according to plan until this week, when Manchin agreed to drop his legislation in order to ensure enough support to pass the spending bill.
As of this writing, the spending bill has passed the Senate without Manchin’s legislation and it is headed to the House, with passage expected in time to avoid a government shutdown this Friday.
“Manchin’s decision to drop the language now leaves in limbo Equitrans Midstream Corp.’s stalled $6.6 billion Mountain Valley pipeline in his home state,” Bloomberg reported on Tuesday, adding that “The decision spells the end for now for an effort by Manchin to convince his colleagues to support compromise energy permit changes that he argued were key to US energy independence and transition to renewable sources.”
Manchin Clings To Natural Gas, But The Writing Is On The Wall
Manchin sticks out from the Democratic crowd due to his staunch support for natural gas stakeholders, even as the rest of his party moves away from fossil fuels. He was instrumental in delaying and whittling down President Biden’s signature Build Back Better climate action bill last year, though it finally did get signed into law as the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022.
Manchin’s stubborn insistence on supporting MVP has remained a mystery to some, considering that the Senator’s family wealth derives from coal, not gas. However, the West Virginia electorate has been moving rightward, and answering to that electorate is a matter of political survival. The publication Grid News culled some insights to that effect in a recent interview with longtime West Virginia reporter Hoppy Kercheval, who has spoken with Manchin frequently over his 40-year career.
Regardless of Manchin’s affection for the natural gas industry or the rightward drift of voters in his home state, the Mountain Valley Pipeline faces an uncertain future. So does natural gas, for that matter. Although the industry seems firmly entrenched at present, stakeholders should take a lesson from the experience of the coal industry. Coal was king in West Virginia for generations, until natural gas knocked it off the top of the energy pile. Now natural gas is threatened by a host of newcomers, including West Virginia’s unique geothermal assets.
New legislation in West Virginia has also broken up a longstanding solar energy bottleneck. As of last year the state only hosted 18 megawatts in installed solar capacity. That will be eclipsed many times over by the new 250-megawatt SunPark array, which will sprawl over a former coal field.
In another interesting development, earlier this month West Virginia Governor Jim Justice — whose family fortune was also made on coal — collaborated with state lawmakers to bypass the state’s Public Service Commission, which has gained a notorious reputation for throwing up roadblocks to renewable energy development. The first project to benefit from the new legislation is a $500 million microgird for a new industrial park in Ravenswood powered by renewable energy, under the umbrella of the company Berkshire Hathaway Energy. The initial beneficiary will be BHE’s Precision Castparts Corp. subsidiary, which is tasked with developing a titanium melt facility for a variety of industries including the aerospace area.
That’s just for starters. Berkshire Hathaway has already established itself as a leader in the Midwestern wind energy industry, and apparently it is eyeballing West Virginia as a golden opportunity to replicate that success in Appalachia.
“The Ravenswood project will serve as the foundation for additional pivotal investments in West Virginia,” BHE stated in a press release dated September 13.
The press release also cited Governor Justice, who said, “The partnership we are forging with BHE Renewables and PCC is testament to West Virginia’s ability to compete on the world stage and recruit world-class companies like these to our state. I couldn’t be more proud of the fact that West Virginia will help lead the way into a new era of renewable energy microgrid-powered manufacturing.”
Wait — what??!?!?
Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.
Photo: US Capitol Building via US General Services Administration.
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