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Pipeline Denials Protect Potomac River and “Speak for the Trees”

Potomac Riverkeeper

With hydraulic facturing revolutionizing the oil and gas industry, and the Trump Administration pushing an “energy dominance” doctrine, pipeline construction is booming across the U.S., with nearly 15,000 miles laid last year.  That was nearly double the amount the year before.

But two major gas pipeline projects in the Mid-Atlantic region recently slammed into unexpected roadblocks.

In December, a U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond denied permits for the proposed Atlantic Coast natural pipeline that would run 600 miles from West Virginia to North Carolina. The $7 billion project would have ripped through the George Washington and Monongahela national forests in Virginia, and crossed the scenic Appalachian Trail.

In a ruling that drew on language from Dr. Seuss’ classic book “The Lorax,” the three judge panel said that the Trump Administration’s U.S. Forest Service had betrayed its core mission of advocating for nature by rubber-stamping approvals for the pipeline.

“The court basically said ‘we have to speak for the trees,'” said Mike Tidwell, founder of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, which fought the pipeline. “Someone has to stand up and protect these trees, by law.  There are laws in place, passed by Congress, that say private companies can’t just come in – for private gain – and cut down publicly-owned trees and forests, and damage parkland.”

I reached out to the company leading the pipeline project, Dominion Energy, for a response. 

The company’s strategic advisor for communications, Aaron Ruby, replied to my email with a message meant for a colleague of his, but inadvertently sent my way.  It said: “Karl, please handle and try not to answer his specific questions.”

The company’s spokesman apologized, but never sent a response to my specific questions.

In Maryland, Governor Larry Hogan and the state Board of Public Works last week voted unanimously against granting permission for  another pipeline to cross under state land near Hancock in Western Maryland.

The TransCanada company’s “Potomac Pipeline” would have traveled three-and-a-half miles from Western Pennsylvania, underneath the Potomac River and the scenic Chesapeake and Ohio Trail National Historic Park, to provide natural gas for a proposed insulation factory in West Virginia.

Brent Walls, the Upper Potomac Riverkeeper, testified against the pipeline. He complained that it was being planned through fragile, unstable geology that could lead to breaks and spills that would pollute the river and local drinking water supplies.

“What we’re really worried about is a major blowout,” during construction, Walls said.  “There is a lot of opportunity for millions of gallons of muddy toxic water – drilling mud – that could pop and come to the surface and completely decimate the C & O Canal, and/or go into the Potomac River and flow downstream.”

State Delegate David Moon, a Democrat from Montgomery County, convinced 62 of his fellow lawmakers to sign a letter to the governor opposing the pipeline. Moon said he was impressed that Governor Hogan, a Republican who has supported a broad $100 million plan to expand natural gas pipelines across the state, said no to the Potomac Pipeline when he heard the local complaints.

“To me, this is a very encouraging sign that the governor is not just going to walk in lockstep with Donald Trump and the sort of negative actions we’ve been seeing out of the federal EPA,” Moon said. “So I’m very hopeful and optimistic that this means the governor is going to have a much more balanced approach to environmental issues.”

Whether these two pipeline decisions marked a true shift that would please the Lorax – or merely an exception that proves the rule of energy dominance—will be seen in the months ahead.

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.