Adventure on and off the job

Leopold oversees major natural gas projects and still has energy for rappelling

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Diane Leopold Photo by Jay Paul

Diane Leopold says she landed her first job in the energy industry as a power plant engineer “because of my willingness to climb the stacks.” A petite woman who barely tops five feet, Leopold had no problem scrambling up 500-foot-tall smokestacks during plant inspections.  

Heights apparently didn’t bother Leopold, an avid skydiver at the time. Much scarier to her was crawling into tunnels to check water intake into a power station.

Leopold got her start 25 years ago as the first female power plant engineer at Potomac Electric Power Co. (PEPCO), just outside Washington, D.C. Today, she’s president of Dominion Energy for Dominion Resources Inc., one of the country’s largest energy producers.

Leopold oversees Dominion’s natural-gas transmission, storage and liquefaction operations. “The easy way to think about it is everything that’s natural-gas infrastructure,” she explains.

Described by some of her colleagues as “a rising star,” she’s the executive quoted on Dominion deals like a recent $400 million contract with a Pennsylvania mill to produce pipe for a possible 550-mile natural gas pipeline.  Like other energy companies, Dominion is making large investments in natural gas. It’s taking advantage of new supplies to generate electricity that will replace energy from coal-fired power stations that are being shuttered in response to more stringent federal clean air rules.

Leopold also took charge of Dominion’s successful application to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to build the East Coast’s first natural-gas liquefaction plant at its Cove Point facility in Calvert County, Md. The $3.8 billion project, which would allow Dominion to export liquefied natural gas, drew strong opposition from environmentalists much like a new project Dominion and other companies are proposing for Virginia: the $5 billion, 554-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

While the pipeline enjoys support from politicians and economic development groups, Leopold has been getting an earful at town meetings across the state. Some property owners have filed suit to keep pipeline surveyors off their land.  To gain access, Dominion officials expect to file lawsuits against 240 Virginians, because state law allows natural gas utilities to survey without landowner permission.

Meanwhile, environmental groups have raised a host of issues from concern about local water supplies to the marring of Virginia’s highest ridges and forests. They are especially worried about an increase in hydraulic fracturing, a process that involves drilling and injecting water and other fluids underground at high pressure to release oil and natural gas from rock formations. 

Based on citizen feedback and field tests so far, Leopold says, Dominion has rerouted some of the pipeline. “We’re part of the community, so, of course, we care and wish we could make everybody happy,” she says.

Yet, she sees many benefits. “This pipeline is coming to serve very critical needs of the customers — the customers being the local gas distribution companies and the electric utilities of Virginia and North Carolina. The natural gas that is so plentiful right now in the regions around Southwest Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio is needed for reliability, stability and economic development of the regions of Virginia and Carolina. And there isn’t a way of having it magically appear without a pipeline to get there.” 

Shepherding along controversial projects is a high-pressure job. Recently remarried, Leopold is the mother of a blended family with five children ages 10 to 20.

So how does she relax and juggle all her responsibilities? 

“I go to the gym nearly every day,” says Leopold. She’s also been known to occasionally rappel off office buildings to help raise funds for worthy causes. Last May, while wearing a harness, she rappelled down 20 stories of the Eighth and

Main building in downtown Richmond, where she works on the 19th floor, to raise money for the United Way.

Her other hobby is adventure travel. “I’ve rappelled down waterfalls, down cliffs.  I love being out in nature. … That’s what really keeps my stress levels in check.” One of her all-time favorite adventure vacations was climbing Africa’s Mount Kilimanjaro, one of the world’s tallest mountains at 19,341 feet. That was in 1993, “before kids,” she says.

Leopold has taken her two teenage children on adventure trips, and now has more partners for outdoor fun. “Last summer we went to Utah. I took the three stepkids on their first adventure trip. My kids were used to it.”

Leopold earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical and electrical engineering from the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom. She received a master’s degree in electrical engineering (energy conversion, power and transmission) from George Washington University and an MBA from Virginia Commonwealth University.

Virginia Business interviewed Leopold at her office. An edited transcript of the interview follows:

Virginia Business: You have an engineering background. What led you to the energy industry?
Leopold: I started in high school.  I wanted to be a recording engineer, music engineer. I actually started in that, and I very quickly realized that my talents were not in music, but I loved the engineering.  So I started as an engineering major. My undergraduate work was in England at the University of Sussex.

VB: Why did you go there?
Leopold: I went as an exchange student over a summer between 10th and 11th grade, and I just fell in love with it. I came home saying, “Mom, Dad, I want to move to England.” They said, “You set up an education, raise the money and you can go.” In my junior year, I held three jobs in high school and raised enough for a year’s worth of tuition to bridge me until getting into college and went over there in my senior year in high school. I came back for one year, and then I transferred over and went through my college years there … I couldn’t decide between electrical and mechanical engineering, and so I double majored in the two. You had a choice of being electrically biased or mechanically bent … you had to choose a focus between the two. So I chose to be mechanically bent, and that’s how I ended up in energy.

VB: Tell us about your key responsibilities as president of Dominion Energy for Dominion Resources.
Leopold: There are three major parts of it. There are distribution assets, which are the natural-gas customers, and that’s in Ohio and West Virginia. We have our natural-gas transmission business, Dominion Transmission, which owns all of our large, interstate pipelines; our natural-gas storage facilities … Our Atlantic Coast Pipeline asset will be a transmission asset. And then our third business is our Midstream business … That’s natural gas processing and gathering as a service for producers that … goes into the interstate pipeline system.

VB: I understand you are the executive overseeing Dominion’s proposed $5 billion, 550-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline. The project is proving to be controversial in some areas of  Virginia. What is the greatest challenge for Dominion and its partners in moving forward?
Leopold: We’re very excited about this project … We have an enormous amount of support. There is some opposition in certain areas, and our focus is to be very transparent and open and follow the process. We’ll continue to do so throughout our permitting and construction and continue to talk with the communities to let everybody know all of the facts behind the project as we proceed.

VB: Some property owners are suing. They are challenging the state law that allows natural-gas companies to come on their private property to survey for potential pipeline routes without landowner permission. Do you expect the lawsuits to delay the timetable for the project?
Leopold: No, we do not expect a delay. It is our obligation as part of the project to determine and prove to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission [FERC] that we have assessed the route with the least impacts as a totality.  And so we are in that process now and looking at all of the environmental issues, the cultural and historical issues across every piece of land that we may cross. We continue to listen to landowners, to do our survey work and to look at all of the potential options. We have performed a significant amount of rerouting based on the information that we learned through this surveying process where we investigate the land.

VB: So Dominion has proposed some changes based on the feedback you’ve gotten so far?
Leopold: Based on the feedback, but the feedback being going on the ground and actually doing the surveys, and doing the environmental studies and doing the cultural and archaeological resource reports. All that information is filed publicly as part of the resource reports in the FERC process. This is just the pre-filing process for FERC … We will file this summer for an actual application certificate … but as part of that we put forward draft resource reports of our initial studies and conclusions behind it.  And then we continuously work to refine those over time.  [Based on those reports, Dominion reported nine major route alternatives, 12 route variations and 21 route adjustments as of early January.]

VB: Overall, how many Virginia property owners have allowed Dominion to come on their land to survey for the pipeline?
Leopold: Sixty-five percent or so have granted us permission to survey the property.

VB: Opposition has been particularly fierce in Nelson County where the proposed route covers about 35 miles. Has there been any rerouting there?
Leopold: Not a lot, because only about 30 percent of the landowners have allowed us to come on their property to survey. [Since the interview, Dominion dropped lawsuits against 14 Nelson County landowners, out of a total of 59, whose property was on the original pipeline route but was later removed.]

VB: Taking landowners to court. Do you feel this is harming the image of Dominion or the project?
Leopold: We care very much about the communities that we serve.  We’ve been here for over 100 years.  We intend to be here for another 100. We live here. We work here.  And it matters. We’ve been around other companies who, they build something, and then they leave.  That’s not Dominion … We are going to continue to work with all of the landowners. And we will build it with the utmost focus on safety, reliability, environmental excellence to protect the land and the people that is our region. But we are intending to provide a very needed service that also has wonderful benefits. The economic development, the environmental benefits of what this can bring to Virginia and North Carolina are just phenomenal.

VB: So, economic and environmental benefits because natural gas is not as polluting as coal?
Leopold: Exactly. Natural gas is roughly 50 percent of the greenhouse gas and lower in nitrous oxide, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter …  But also to provide electric reliability, fuel diversity, supply diversity of natural gas … If you think about just last year with the polar vortex, having so much electric power being dependent upon single sources of supply or single pipelines for the power grid — being able to have that diversity of infrastructure and diversity of supply is important for reliability. And the economic development that is along the entire pipeline route for being able to attract other businesses to come into that area where there just hasn’t been natural gas.

VB: If the court rules in Dominion’s favor, then the company would use eminent domain?
Leopold: No. That gives us the right to do the survey, to be able to assess the resources, the environmental implications of each property … Then you come up with your recommended route that you have to put in your application to FERC. Once you finalize that route, you work with the landowners to try to have the easements granted.  It [eminent domain] is only a very last resort … Typically, in over 95 percent or so of the cases, you will get some agreement with the landowner to be able to have the easement granted. [Dominion would only have eminent domain authority if FERC approves the project.]

VB: So you don’t buy the property.  You just buy easement rights? I read that about 75-feet of right of way is needed to maintain the pipeline?
Leopold: That’s right.

VB: Does Dominion have a set amount of revenue put aside for the payment of easements?  And how much would that be?
:  We have projected costs for all different aspects of the project — for the pipe, for the land. We don’t typically break it down …

VB: Would easement costs be one of your larger costs, smaller costs? 
It’s a significant cost. It’s a large project, and there is a lot of land. [In Virginia, there are about 3,400 parcels of land along the route owned by nearly 3,000 landowners.]

VB: Environment groups are concerned about the project going through some of the state’s highlands and mountain forests. Any response you’d like to make to these concerns?
As I said before, we care very much about protecting the land ourselves.  There are many pipelines that cross these mountains today. And the natural-gas pipelines, because they’re buried, people don’t realize how many of them there are that operate very safely and without environmental impacts throughout the country.  I think there are 2½ times the number of natural gas pipelines in Virginia as interstate highways. We work with the fish and wildlife agencies.  We work with the EPA and the state environmental authorities in all of the states … An entire environmental impact study is filed as part of the FERC application process.

VB: Doesn’t FERC also come out with its own environmental impact statement?

VB: What is the timetable for FERC’s environmental study?
We submit our application this summer. As part of getting a FERC certificate, it typically takes in the 9- to 12-month time-frame. After you submit that an environmental impact statement is issued by FERC. If they believe there is a significant environmental impact; then they would not issue a certificate.  It would be our obligation to mitigate whatever environmental impacts that would be part of it … Whether it’s water, or air, or habitat — if there are issues raised, then we have to mitigate or we won’t get a certificate. That’s part of the process, and we take it very seriously.

VB: Is Dominion looking at the possibility of using public rights of way or its own transmission easements to lessen the need for using private property for easements? 
Yes. In fact, part of the FERC process is you would always want to use existing corridors wherever possible … This is a new corridor we’re trying to bring the natural gas from and so it’s fairly limited. Where there are rights of way that could be the same, we look into it to the highest extent possible.  It is unfortunately quite small in this case. 

VB: You say quite small. How many miles?
About 20 miles so far [based on current research.]

VB: The new pipeline would allow 1.5 billion cubic feet of natural gas to pass through Virginia every day. Would all of that gas be used in Virginia?  Would some be sold to clients in other states? 
Right now the project is over 90 percent subscribed, and we’re in negotiations for the remainder of it. All of our customers are customers of Virginia or North Carolina.  They are the electric and gas utilities of both states … Dominion [and its partners] build the natural-gas pipeline.  We don’t buy the natural gas. The customers are Virginia Natural Gas, Virginia Electric and Power Co., Public Service of North Carolina, Duke and Piedmont Natural Gas. They are buying capacity on the pipeline, and then they are going back and purchasing the gas so that they can deliver it for their needs.

VB: So the argument that the project isn’t really going to help Virginia or North Carolina isn’t correct?
This pipeline is solely for Virginia/North Carolina. 

VB: People relate to power on a personal basis every day. Power has become such a necessity of life.
It is, and Virginia has low-price power. Compared to a lot of other parts of the country, if you go up to New England, out in California, you find a much higher cost of power.

VB: And the pipeline will help keep prices low in Virginia?
Very much so because right now, the difference between the natural-gas price in the West Virginia, Southwest Virginia, Ohio, Southwest Pennsylvania area — that’s what you saw last year during the polar vortices — it was $2 and $3 there while it was $20, $50 over on the East Coast. Today in the U.S., the lowest-priced natural gas is in that region where Atlantic Coast Pipeline is taking the natural gas from … So the coupling of the low-cost electric prices through the diversity and infrastructure Virginia already has, coupled with the low-price natural gases, is a winning combination.

VB: When you have a project, do you go out to the site?  Do you like that part of your job?
I love that part of the job.

VB: Tell me about that. Are people surprised when a petite, 5’1” woman comes out?  What kind of reaction do you get?
Every facility has its own culture, so when you show up at Virginia City (in Wise County), it might be a little bit different than showing up at one of our sites up in New England, or one of our sites in West Virginia. You just get to know everybody on their own terms.

VB: So no one has ever challenged your credibility or your authority?
Oh, they have.  Down in South America I was at a power station and they said, “We just don’t think you should be here.”

VB: What did you say?
“I hear your opinion, but I’m here and hopefully I can show you that I’ll be able to add value.” In each situation, it’s just a little bit different … I certainly don’t get angry at it myself.  I take it as an opportunity to be able to show them that they can respect me.  And I want to earn their respect.

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