Concerned citizen group in Highland seeks to inform locals about their rights
Greg Buppert, a lawyer with the Sounthern Environmental Law Center said the proposed Dominion Resources natural gas pipeline became his number one focus about a month and a half ago. That’s around the time that a press release from Dominion showed the path of a possible natural gas pipeline running from the productive Marcellus shale fields in the northern West Virginia down through Virginia and into North Carolina. He spoke with Highland county property owners at a meeting sponsored by Highlanders for Responsible development on August 19th.
Buppert spoke primarily on the process that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission [FERC]will use to evaluate the pipeline proposal. He said it starts with a law passed in 1938, the Natural Gas Act, whose primary objectives are to encourage the orderly development of plentiful supplies of natural gas at reasonable prices, and to protect consumers against exploitation at the hands of natural gas companies. In order for Dominion to proceed with the pipeline project, they must first submit an application to FERC for a certificate of convenience and necessity. FERC then does an analysis to weigh the public benefits of the project against the adverse impacts. Approval of the project is given when that analysis shows that the public good outweighs the potential adverse impacts.
The public benefits considered are meeting unserved demand, eliminating bottlenecks, access to new supplies, lowers costs to consumers, improving the energy grid, providing competitive alternatives, increasing reliability and advancing clean air objectives. Those are weighed against possible adverse impacts on landowners and the surrounding community such as the use of eminent domain, impacts on agriculture and property values, damage to roads, and the risk to water supplies. Buppert said FERC’s usual viewpoint for this evaluation is economic.
“As the local community is considering what message it wants to take to FERC,” said Buppert, “it’s important to try to couch or describe that message or impacts in economic terms. Describing it in economic terms fits very nicely into the analysis that FERC is undertaking,”
Environmentally, Buppert said FERC is required by the National Environmental Policy Act, passed in the 70’s, to take a very hard look at the environmental impacts of the project. That includes considering alternatives to the project, including taking no action on the application. But if alternatives are presented for consideration, the act doesn’t require FERC to choose the least damaging alternative.
Buppert said the FERC analysis begins with the request from Dominion for the use of the FERC Enviromental Impact Statement Pre-Filing Environmental Review Process. This process creates 2 opportunities for individuals, local governments and citizen groups to offer public input on the proposed project. The first are the open house meetings that are scheduled in all the affected communities. Once Dominion files a formal application with FERC, the agency will prepare a draft environmental impact statement on the project. The public will then have a second opportunity to comment on the project during an open comment period and public meetings held by FERC. Buppert said it’s essential for the public to take advantage of these opportunities if they want their input to be considered by FERC in the final analysis.
Buppert said Dominion can acquire land for the pipeline in one of two ways – either through negotiation with the landowner, or once has the certificate of public convenience and necessity is granted, Dominion will have the power to claim the use of eminent domain. This means they can go to a federal district court and force a landowner to grant a right of way, with the landowner bearing the burden of determining a fair value for the land in question. He emphasized it’s critical that landowners in the path of the proposed pipeline take a proactive role in being part of the FERC analysis for the project.