U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reapproves Mountain Valley Pipeline

23 March 2023

Climate activists rally at the U.S. Capitol against the Mountain Valley Pipeline and call on Congresspeople to help stop it on September 27th, 2022. (Photo: Reuters.)

Like a poster child for permitting reform, the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) continues to slog through regulatory hurdles and litigation. The pipeline received a win earlier this year when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service once again issued an opinion saying that it does not believe the completion of the project will jeopardize endangered species.

This marks the third time the Fish and Wildlife Service has addressed the issue. The U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals has twice shot down the agency’s earlier biological opinions, which pretty much reached the same conclusions.

At issue are the presence of two species of bats, two species of fish and a species of plant.

The Fish and Wildlife Service wrote a 483-page document on the matter for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). In the case of each species, the service said it believed “that authorization to construct and operate the pipeline, as proposed, including the activities that have already been completed, is not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of the (species).”

More likely than not, the opinion of the Fish and Wildlife Services will be contested in court by pipeline opponents, again.

Equitrans Midstream is aiming to complete the 303-mile natural gas pipeline this year and expects that other permits will likely be approved this spring or summer.

The MVP, which is designed to carry up to 2 billion cubic feet per day of natural gas, winds through West Virginia and Virginia. The pipeline is expected to provide natural gas from the Marcellus and Utica shale formations to markets in the Mid- and South-Atlantic regions. Originally planned to be completed in 2018 at a cost of US$3.5 billion, the project’s price tag has ballooned to an estimated US$6.6 billion price tag due to delays.

Over the years, the project has experienced a series of regulatory and court-related setbacks.

In a press release, the Sierra Club noted: “Most recently, just last year, the court found that the agency failed to adequately analyze the project’s environmental context when assessing the detrimental impacts to the Roanoke logperch and the candy darter, a species on the brink of extinction.”

Sierra Club Beyond Dirty Fuels Campaign Director Patrick Grenter said: “It has been clear from the outset that the proposal to construct this pipeline across the steep slopes and sensitive streams of Appalachia will harm imperiled species and their habitats. In their decision process, the (Fish and Wildlife Service) was hasty to put out a new opinion that didn’t consider comments from the public. As for where the project stands now – since other agencies will need to assess the (biological opinion), and MVP still lacks several federal authorizations, by no means should FERC allow MVP to begin construction along any portion of the route.”

Rulings in multiple existing court cases tied to the MVP have yet to come down. Equitrans Midstream said it expects the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to issue water crossing permits for the pipeline in April, but during the company’s fourth-quarter earnings conference call, Chief Executive Officer Tom Karam commented, “However, as we all know, we expect project opponents to yet again challenge these duly-issued permits.”

Karam continued, “Projects like the MVP that comply with every process and receive every approval should prevail, which is why we remain committed to the regular permitting path. That said, we also believe that our country desperately needs federal permitting reform.”

On the broader permitting reform front, White House Energy Advisor John Podesta told the CERAWeek energy conference in March that such reform was high on the Biden administration’s agenda, but questions remained whether his comments were in relation only to renewable energy projects, according to Reuters.

Some industry observers noted President Joe Biden did not mention permitting reform during his 2023 State of the Union Address in February.

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