With President Joe Biden’s signature fresh on legislation that would expedite the completion of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, pipeline officials aim to have it up and running by year’s end, while the project’s opponents are considering their options.
The Fiscal Responsibility Act, which Biden signed Saturday, suspends the U.S. debt ceiling for nearly two years. It also includes a provision specific to the Mountain Valley Pipeline: It authorizes all remaining permits and other approvals necessary for the natural gas pipeline’s construction and operation, and it shields the project from further legal challenges by removing the jurisdiction of courts to review such approvals.
Initially planned for completion in 2018, construction on the 303-mile pipeline through Virginia and West Virginia has effectively been halted since 2021 by federal and state permitting delays and by legal battles brought by landowners, environmentalists and others who have challenged the pipeline’s acquisition of private property through eminent domain and its impact on forests, streams, wetlands and endangered species, among other legal grounds.
“The MVP project has gone through more environmental review and scrutiny than any natural gas pipeline project in U.S. history, having been issued the same state and federal authorizations two and three times, only to have those authorizations be routinely challenged and vacated in court,” Thomas Karam, chairman and CEO of Equitrans Midstream, the pipeline’s operator, said in a news release after Biden signed the bill.
The $6.6 billion, 42-inch pipeline is set to start in northwestern West Virginia and proceed into Virginia, where it will pass through Giles, Craig, Montgomery, Roanoke and Franklin counties before connecting to a compressor station in Pittsylvania County. Pipeline officials say the project is more than 90% complete, though opponents dispute that claim.
Pipeline supporters say the project is an important source of secure, domestic, lower-carbon energy that meets a demand for natural gas. U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, who was the primary driver of the pipeline provision’s inclusion in the debt-limit deal, called it a “critical energy security project” and said it “opens up markets for our natural resources, giving us untold new revenue sources and developing industries that our grandchildren and future generations will benefit from.”
Opponents say the project is unnecessary and harmful to the environment, both in terms of future greenhouse-gas emissions and the impact of its construction — and some say they aren’t ready to give up the fight.
“Even if some of these permits are issued and initially shielded from judicial review, that’s not necessarily the end of the line,” said Jason Rylander, senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, which advocates for species protection and other environmental causes. “The pipeline still has to cross some of the most difficult terrain along the route, through the Jefferson National Forest and other areas, and there will be opportunities to hold them accountable for the damage they are continuing to do.”
Beyond watching the pipeline’s progress to see what comes next, it’s unclear what specific further options might be available to pipeline opponents.
After Thursday’s Senate vote, the Protect Our Water, Heritage, Rights — or POWHR — coalition released a statement from Denali Nalamalapu, its communications director, saying, “Our global movement to stop the Mountain Valley Pipeline is stronger than ever.
“While we are outraged and devastated in this unprecedented moment, we will never stop fighting this unfinished, unnecessary, and unwanted project. Our hearts are broken but our bonds are strong,” the statement said.
Asked about specific next steps, Nalamalapu replied in an email: “We don’t have clear answers at the moment but we likely will in the coming days/weeks.
“Right now we are focusing on mobilizing in front of the White House on June 8th to respond to this unprecedented decision and hold Biden accountable to his broken climate promises,” Nalamalapu wrote, referring to a protest, sponsored by People vs. Fossil Fuels, scheduled in front of the White House from 2 to 4 p.m. Thursday.
Tom Cormons, executive director of the grassroots environmental protection group Appalachian Voices, said in a statement that “the fight is not over.”
“Defeating this unnecessary and ill-conceived project that has already degraded water quality across two states and would contribute significantly to the climate crisis if it is completed and brought into service is a top priority,” Cormons said.
Preserve Bent Mountain, which is a local chapter of the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League and part of the POWHR coalition, released a statement saying, “It is not yet clear whether the stench of the MVP/debt limit deal will surpass legal scrutiny.”
“While repulsed at this Dirty Deal, we will go forward — as we have since the inception of this destructive boondoggle, with all regulatory and legal challenges available. We will not be governed by the gas industry,” the group said in a statement sent by member Roberta Bondurant, a Roanoke County resident.
One possible path forward for opponents could be contesting the pipeline provision itself.
“Clearly the bill, or what will soon be the law, forecloses most court actions on the pipeline. But the one thing that is left is a possible challenge to the law itself, presumably on constitutional grounds,” said David Sligh, conservation director of Wild Virginia, an environmental advocacy nonprofit.
U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Virginia, suggested the same during a conference call with reporters last week ahead of the Senate’s vote on the bill. Senators also voted 30-69 to defeat an amendment brought by Kaine that would have removed the Mountain Valley Pipeline provision from the debt-limit legislation.
“I would think that frankly the only option under this bill is not to challenge any aspect of the pipeline but to challenge, did Congress have the legal ability to do what it just did?” Kaine said. “That would be the only remaining challenge.
“Now of course at the end of the day, once the pipeline’s underway, there may be provisions where people can say, ‘Wait a minute, you didn’t do the restoration on my land right,’” Kaine said. “We haven’t eliminated that down the road, if the pipeline violates state laws, because in both West Virginia and Virginia the construction of the pipeline has violated water quality standards and state agencies have been able to challenge them. They still have to comply with state laws.”
Kaine noted that the authors of the Mountain Valley Pipeline provision appear to have anticipated a potential legal challenge against the provision itself: The bill specifies that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit “shall have original and exclusive jurisdiction over any claim alleging the invalidity of this section or that an action is beyond the scope of authority conferred by this section.”
Sligh, of Wild Virginia, said environmental advocates will continue monitoring Mountain Valley Pipeline’s work on the ground, ensuring that any citizen complaints are funneled to the appropriate governmental agencies and following up to verify that regulatory rules are enforced.
“I have looked at thousands — thousands — of the inspection reports that the state of Virginia has done … and they have done a pretty good job of being out there and documenting some of the problems, a lot of the problems. But Virginia has not done what it needs to do to stop them once it finds them,” he said.
Beyond that monitoring work, Sligh said, “I think everybody is quickly trying to assess what else is possible.”