What's Next for the Problematic Mountain Valley Pipeline?

The Appalachian fracked natural gas pipeline has been delayed more than 3 years.

McAfee Knob on Appalachian Trail in Virginia
View from McAfee Knob on the Appalachian Trail, near Roanoke, Virginia. The Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club oppose the natural gas pipeline. Joel Carillet / Getty Images

In July of 2020, the owners of the controversial Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) announced that they were canceling the project. The pipeline, which would have carried fracked natural gas through West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina, gave up the ghost because of delays and uncertainty following years of legal challenges. 

The announcement raised questions for other pipelines in the works. Was it a sign that the fossil-fuel era is on its way out or merely a localized blip? In this context, the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) emerges as a test case. The MVP is another Appalachian fracked natural gas pipeline that has been delayed more than three years following legal hurdles, including a criminal investigation. Its owners argue that the failure of the ACP means it is more needed than ever, while opponents contend it is an unnecessarily disruptive relic.

“At a time when renewable energy sources are affordable and abundant, it makes no sense to lock ourselves into decades of dependence on dirty, dangerous fracked gas,” Doug Jackson, Senior Press Secretary for the Sierra Club's Beyond Dirty Fuels Campaign, told Treehugger in an email. “Not only is clean energy better for the health of our people, water, climate, and communities, but it's a smarter investment, too. When the ACP was cancelled, we said the era of fracked gas is over, and the news has only gotten worse for fracked gas pipelines since then.”

To make this case, the Sierra Club has joined with other MVP opponents like Oil Change International and the Chesapeake Climate Action Network to launch a new movement aimed at the pipeline’s investors, warning them that the project is both an environmental and financial risk. The DivestMVP coalition, which represents more than 7.6 million members and supporters, launched its campaign on Feb. 22

“The project is over three years behind schedule, has nearly doubled its original budget, and is bogged down in a self-inflicted permitting quagmire with no end in sight,” Jackson said. ”The polluting corporations digging the trench for this pipeline might as well be throwing their investors’ money into a 300-mile long hole.”

What's at Risk

The coalition argues that the pipeline presents both local and global dangers. The process of construction puts endangered species, protected landscapes, local water supplies, and the communities along its route at risk. The purpose of its use – to pump fracked natural gas through 303 miles of Virginia and West Virginia – would pump 37 coal plants worth of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. But the campaign, which targets JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Scotiabank, TD Bank, Deutsche Bank, MUFG Banks, PNC, Citigroup, and Bank of America, also argues that the pipeline is a straight-up bad investment. 

“We also wanted to highlight the climate, financial, and reputational risks associated with this dirty, dangerous project,” Jackson told Treehugger. “It's important that we show how MVP is misleading investors and the public by claiming the project is 92% complete, when MVP’s own documentation shows only about half of the pipeline is complete to final restoration.”

The Mountain Valley Pipeline first began construction in 2018. Since then, it has faced both legal and grassroots opposition. On the ground, tree-sitters have been blocking the pipeline’s route off Yellow Finch Lane in Montgomery County, Virginia. As of Monday, they were on day 916 of their blockade, according to the protest’s Facebook page

Legally, the project remains in limbo. It was first granted approval by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) in 2017, The Roanoke Times reported. However, three of the permits originally issued were tossed out by the courts. Two of those permits have since been reissued, but the pipeline still lacks a permit to cross the nearly 500 streams and wetlands along its route, The Appalachian Voice pointed out. On Jan. 26, it said it would apply for individual permits for every water crossing. 

As it waits for these permits, the project faces two other legal challenges brought by Appalachian Voices, the Sierra Club, and other groups: 

  • A bid to suspend an October 2020 FERC recertification and two-year extension for the project.
  • A bid to rescind a U.S. Forest Service permit to allow the pipeline to build through the Jefferson National Forest, granted in the last days of the Trump administration.

The project has recently won one legal reprieve, however. The Friday before the DivestMVP coalition announced its formation, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia said that construction could restart on the project while the broader challenges work their way through the courts. The court did not state the reason for its decision; however, The Roanoke Times pointed out that in order to obtain a stay on construction, pipeline opponents would have had to demonstrate that their challenge was likely to succeed.

Jackson said that the launch of the DivestMVP coalition was not linked to this legal setback, and he remained confident that the overall legal challenges to the pipeline were strong. Pipeline co-owners Equitrans Midstream Corporation, however, argue that the project has been unfairly targeted and maligned by the numerous lawsuits brought against it. 

“The investment argument by opponents is a repurpose of the same coalition that continues to pursue unproductive litigation with questionable results,” Equitrans spokesperson Natalie Cox said in an email to Treehugger. “These groups do not represent the majority, in fact, they represent a very vocal few, and their litigation tactics are being used to place their policy beliefs over that of environmental protection and the energy needs of our nation.” 

Fossil Fuel on its Way Out?

Partly in dispute between Equitrans and the environmental groups is what those energy needs actually are. In court filings reported by The Roanoke Times, pipeline opponents argued that the original FERC approval was based on a need for natural gas that no longer exists. Equitrans, meanwhile, argues that the demise of the ACP makes its services more important than ever. 

“MVP retains strong support from shippers whose need has grown since cancellation of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline last summer,” Cox said in an email.

Cox argued that the pipeline’s progress has been hampered by “numerous legal challenges against every aspect of the project.” But pipeline opponents argue that the company’s legal woes have been largely self-inflicted by an attempt to rush the permitting process. In launching the DivestMVP coalition, they noted that the project had racked up millions of dollars in penalties for violating more than 350 environmental and water regulations. Further, they noted that the project is subject to a criminal investigation over violations of the Clean Water Act, as the Virginia Mercury reported in 2019.

Cox said she could not comment on ongoing investigations, except to say that the company was cooperating and was “confident that no wrongdoing occurred.” However, ultimately the dispute comes down to whether or not fossil fuels should play a role in the nation’s near-term energy future. Cox argued that it was too soon to jettison natural gas, while the DivestMVP coalition disagreed. 

“The tide is turning both here in Virginia, nationally, and globally – fossil fuels, and especially new fossil fuel infrastructure projects, are on the way out,” Elle De La Cancela of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network said in the launch announcement. “Continuing to fund a project that will inevitably be cancelled, like the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Keystone XL, is a waste of resources and time. The damage already done cannot truly be made whole, but we must do something now to stop future injustices. Divest from MVP, and instead invest to build a liveable, thriving, clean energy future.”