Developers of the Mountain Valley Pipeline Southgate extension are planning significant changes to the project intended to bring fracked gas from Virginia to North Carolina.
According to a Dec. 29 letter from Mountain Valley Pipeline LLC to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), the pipeline developers intend to cut the length of MVP Southgate in half, have “substantially fewer water crossings” and eliminate the need for a new compressor station in Virginia. However, the project would also be physically bigger and carry more gas.
The letter describing these changes came 10 days after FERC issued a three-year extension of the project’s federal certification. The pipeline’s initial approval included a construction deadline of June 2023, but due to delays, construction on MVP Southgate has yet to begin.
Opponents have argued the new proposal is so different from the original plans that the initial certification should no longer apply.
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“It seems as if they think people are going to be OK with the project, just because they made some changes,” said Aminah Ghaffar, policy director for 7 Directions of Service, an Indigenous coalition based in Haw River, North Carolina, that is fighting the pipeline.
In a statement, a spokesperson for MVP Southgate said the company is committed to the pipeline, and “intends to pursue all necessary permits and authorizations to complete the construction of this important energy infrastructure project.”
An Entirely New Pipeline
MVP Southgate was originally intended to run 75 miles from Pittsylvania County, Virginia, into Alamance County, North Carolina, as an extension of the controversial Mountain Valley Pipeline project. According to developers, MVP Southgate would meet the supply required for the Public Service Company of North Carolina (PSNC), the North Carolina subsidiary of Dominion Energy.
Under the proposed changes, MVP Southgate would now stretch 31 miles, ending in Rockingham County, North Carolina. The diameter of the pipe itself would also increase, from 16 and 24 inches to 30 inches, allowing the amended project to carry more gas than the previous design. The proposal also increases the daily capacity commitments.
“This is looking like a different project,” said Greg Buppert, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center and regional lead for the organization’s work on natural gas. Not only will the increased capacity lead to more emissions, he said, but there is also a new, unnamed buyer that was not part of the original project, referred to in the documents only as an investment grade utility. The initial proposal only included PSNC.
To Buppert, the combination of increased capacity and a new buyer indicate that the purpose of the pipeline has also changed. Based on additional filings in North Carolina, he suspects it may help support a newly proposed gas-fired power plant in the state. “The pipeline is larger, its impacts are different, and it’s serving a different need,” than when it was certified, he said, so that certification should no longer stand.
When asked about the unnamed utility in the new plans, and if the project will be used to fuel a new power plant, MVP Southgate spokesperson Shawn Day repeated his earlier statement that “at the appropriate time, the MVP Southgate team intends to pursue all necessary permits and authorizations” to complete the project. MVP Southgate did not respond to a request for further clarification about the new utility or the purpose of the pipeline.
Coalitions of advocates in both Virginia and North Carolina have actively opposed both MVP Southgate and the mainline project for years, trying to prevent their construction.
“I understand we need our own energy resources, but at the same time we don’t need to sell out impacted communities to achieve that goal, and we need to be switching to renewables,” said Ghaffar, criticizing the Biden administration for approving projects like MVP mainline.
So far that opposition has succeeded, contributing to multiple regulatory delays since 2018 in both states and leaving MVP Southgate unable to meet its original federal deadlines. In Virginia, MVP Southgate initially required a compressor station, planned for construction in Chatham.
The state’s air pollution control board rejected a crucial air permit for that project on environmental justice grounds, and the new plans for the pipeline eliminate the compressor station entirely.
In North Carolina, the state’s Department of Environmental Quality twice rejected a water permit for MVP Southgate, saying that the extension could lead to “unnecessary water quality impacts and disturbance of the environment” due to the uncertainty about whether the mainline project would be completed. Developers also struggled to secure land for the project through eminent domain, eventually dismissing those proceedings in 2022.
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“Mountain Valley Pipeline and its Southgate extension have been poorly conceived from the beginning,” said Jessica Sims, Virginia field coordinator for Appalachian Voices, a nonprofit environmental organization, in a statement. “We know these changes [to the project] resulted from sustained opposition to this unnecessary methane gas pipeline and its Southgate extension, and our opposition continues.”
Elected officials in both states have also called for the pipeline to be canceled. In a letter to FERC last summer, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper asked regulators to deny the certification extension, saying arguments that the pipeline is necessary are “misguided,” especially as North Carolina has a law mandating electric utilities reach net-zero by 2050.
Virginia law also mandates a renewable energy portfolio standard and requires the decarbonization of the state’s grid by 2050. State lawmakers in both Virginia and North Carolina, as well as Congressional representatives, also wrote to FERC in opposition to the extension.
But in North Carolina, the certification extension has received high profile support from 28 state senators and the state’s lieutenant governor.
It’s unclear exactly what comes next for the pipeline. According to MVP Southgate’s filings, the new plans are still being finalized, and there is a bidding period for other potential customers of the gas.
Despite criticism from opponents of the project, Mary O’Driscoll, a spokesperson for FERC, said the certificate for MVP Southgate is currently valid, and the commission will address any changes “if and when MVP provides a formal proposal.”
The local political context has also shifted, with some institutions friendlier to fossil fuel interests than they were the first time the project sought permits. In Virginia, after the initial permit for the now-canceled compressor station was denied, lawmakers removed the decision-making authority from the state’s citizen-led control boards, leaving it entirely with the state’s Department of Environmental Quality. Virginia has also seen the election of Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who is a supporter of natural gas and the Mountain Valley Pipeline mainline project, including both in his 2022 energy plan. Meanwhile, North Carolina lawmakers recently overturned a gubernatorial veto of a bill that will streamline the review process for energy transmission projects constructed in the state, reducing the amount of time to complete that review, and limiting what impacts will be taken into consideration.
Regardless of FERC’s decision, grassroots advocates remain committed to preventing the pipeline’s construction. Whether Southgate is proposed to be “1 mile, 31 miles, or 75 miles,” said Crystal Cavalier-Keck, co-founder of 7 Directions of Service, they will not stop working until the pipelines are canceled and steps are taken to phase out fossil fuels.