Double down, add broadband to the gas pipeline

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Photo by Mark Rhodes

A bill authorizing construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline was narrowly defeated in the U.S. Senate last November.  It should have passed and likely will once the new Republican majority convenes this year.  Our country needs to improve its infrastructure.

In Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina, a joint venture led by Dominion Resources — with Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas and AGL Resources as partners — is seeking to build the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.  This, too, should be approved.

Tight public budgets are often the culprit when funding fails to materialize for infrastructure projects.  However, zoning and land use, along with environmental concerns, can be even greater barriers to growth.  In the case of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, it is solely these non-financial concerns that are under consideration, as the joint venture would bear all costs.

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline is a $4.5 billion to $5 billion project, starting in Harrison County, W.Va., and running southeast through Virginia to Chesapeake and then south through central North Carolina for a total of 550 miles. One analysis by Chmura Economics and Analytics puts the economic impact during the construction phase at $456.3 million, supporting 2,873 jobs across the three-state region. When the pipeline reaches full operation,   Chmura estimates, an annual impact in the three-state region of $69.2 million, supporting  271 jobs.

The pipeline would connect Virginia with abundant sources of natural gas in the Marcellus and Utica shale basins in West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio.
Natural gas is a lower cost and lower emission energy source, which reduces reliance on coal and other more carbon-intensive feedstock and delivers lower cost energy to households.

In order to move forward, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline needs approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).  The FERC review process involves input from numerous local, state and federal entities, as well as state residents.  Dominion submitted a request to begin the prefiling process in October.  Informational open houses with stakeholders along the proposed pipeline route begin this month.

Opposition has been swift.  Soon after the project was announced, blue placards reading “No Pipeline” began to appear up and down Interstate 81.

The Southern Environmental Law Center is concerned about 30 miles of the proposed route that would go through national forest land.  Landowners opposing the pipeline in Augusta, Nelson and other counties have sought to block project surveyors from access to their land.  The Sierra Club also opposes the pipeline.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe, however, supports it, citing job creation, lower energy costs and reduced carbon emissions as benefits to the commonwealth.  He’s also made the suggestion that broadband could be laid along the same path, doubling its economic development value.  Though Dominion’s joint venture may not currently be in the broadband business, this is well worth considering.

Much of Virginia, especially its rural areas, still lacks  high-speed connectivity.  Even in Roanoke, the commonwealth’s fourth-largest metro area, inadequate
or nonexistent broadband at many developable sites hampers the region’s competitiveness.

It’s ironic that the desire for greater broadband access seems to meet little opposition, yet energy projects are generally met with a firm “No thanks, not here, not now, not ever.”  Apparently connecting our home electronics, cable TVs, laptops, tablets and the Internet is of more value than the energy required to power all these devices, not to mention lighting and heating our homes.  When the day comes that we wake up in a cold brownout, who’ll be to blame?

Sure, there are big differences between Keystone XL, carrying crude oil, and the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which will carry natural gas.  Both have their hazards.  Still, in the case of oil, the alternative has been to use rail lines and outdated tanker cars as a less safe and less controlled alternative for moving product to market.  I’m sure the folks in Lynchburg don’t need to be reminded of the crude oil train derailment and tanker car fires in their community just last April.

Opponents to the gas pipeline cite a familiar set of arguments, trampled property rights, potential groundwater contamination, disruption of fragile ecosystems, effects on communities hundreds of miles downstream, and inadequate development of alternative and sustainable energy sources.  These objections have been raised with every energy project — coal, nuclear, gas, even wind and hydro-energy.

Pragmatists talk of an “all-of-the-above” energy strategy.  One of the great success stories of the United States’ recovering economy has been its movement away from dependence on imported energy.  Globally, this is an economic game changer.  Let’s not change this strategy to “none of the above.”

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