Attendees at a rally in Richmond Thursday against including completion of the Mountain Valley Pipeline in a federal debt deal. (Charlie Paullin/Virginia Mercury)
The controversial 303-mile Mountain Valley Pipeline, which would carry natural gas from shale fields in West Virginia to southern Virginia, received federal support for completion Thursday after the U.S. Senate approved a debt ceiling deal that includes a provision requiring fast-tracked approvals for the project, despite opposition from some members of Virginia’s congressional delegation.
Both the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate sent the Fiscal Responsibility Act, which prevents the country from defaulting on its debt, to Democratic President Joe Biden with a measure attached to it that creates a 21-day deadline for the government to approve permits for the project.
The provision also states that “no court shall have jurisdiction to review any action” taken by various federal actors to provide approvals for the pipeline and mandates that any challenges to the legislation be heard in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, which is generally seen as more favorable to the project than the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, where most legal challenges have been heard.
The move was hotly opposed by Virginia’s Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine, who this week sought an amendment to the bill to strip out the pipeline provision. Democratic Sen. Mark Warner also opposed inclusion of the provision. The amendment failed Thursday.
“My Virginians just want to be sure that if this pipeline is built, it has met the requisite standards of review agencies, both state and federal, and it has withstood any court challenges,” said Kaine in a floor speech Thursday. “Most people would be embarrassed to ask for that. ‘I lost, I’m unhappy, why don’t I get Congress to rewrite the rules of federal jurisdiction and take this case away from the court that’s maybe unhappy and put it in another court.’”
What’s in the bill
The natural gas pipeline received its initial approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in 2017 to supply gas from the Marcellus and Utica shale fields to southern Virginia.
Initially expected to be finished in 2018, completion of the project has been delayed due to numerous legal challenges over environmental impacts, including sediment and erosion issues. In 2019, the pipeline agreed to pay Virginia $2.15 million to resolve litigation over what former Attorney General Mark Herring had claimed were some 300 environmental violations in the commonwealth.
Most recently, the pipeline sought and received a four-year extension of its approval from FERC to continue construction.
An earlier attempt to force completion of Mountain Valley through a deal between the White House, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, related to the Inflation Reduction Act failed this fall. In a sharply critical floor speech in September, Kaine said the proposal would set “a very, very dangerous precedent.”
Environmental groups in Virginia took to the streets in Richmond, Roanoke, Norfolk and Vienna on Thursday to rally in opposition to the bill. Virginia Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, participated in the Roanoke gathering. Chesapeake Climate Action Network and Appalachian Voices rallied in Richmond outside of Warner’s office.
“We do not want this project built, and we will not stop until that project is stopped,” said Jessica Sims, a field coordinator with Appalachian Voices.
The project is estimated to be 94% complete, according to the company, although environmental groups dispute the calculation.
“We look forward to completing this important infrastructure project by the end of 2023 and flowing domestic natural gas for the benefits of reliability and affordability in the form of lower natural gas prices for consumers,” wrote Mountain Valley Pipeline spokesperson Natalie Cox in an email. “To date, Mountain Valley has successfully acquired 100 percent of right-of-way in West Virginia and more than 99 percent of right-of-way in Virginia, providing landowners with more than $125 million in compensation across the 303-mile route.”
In October, the company withdrew its legal challenges seeking eminent domain for an extension project into North Carolina.
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